Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Every week in the New York Times, Dave Kehr has been quietly crafting tiny jewels of cinephiliac writing in his "Critic's Choice" column. He pulls off the impressive feat of taking limited newspaper space and using it to shine a light on historically important and offbeat/obscure DVD releases; in doing so he also offers a model of how to weave together history, personal remembrance and brilliant formal analysis in a concise and accessible way.

This week, he highlights what sounds like an especially exciting new box set: "Classic British Thrillers," from MPI Video. All of the films sound good, but I was most excited to find out it included two early films from Michael Powell. There are few directors whose work I love more than Powell's, so I can't wait to check out Red Ensign and The Phantom Light. Head over to the Times to read Kehr's thoughts, and luxuriate in his essential critical voice.

Tuesday Music Flashback: Whispers Might Prove It All

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Punch That Isn't Thrown

It's like that line from They Might Be Giants: "If it wasn't for disappointment/I wouldn't have any appointments."

The Queen of Hearts is back today with another predictably obtuse column on the Friday debates. As if the top part of her column doesn't know what the bottom part is doing, she opens with a long list of all of the stupid things John McCain and his party have done this week: the Sarah Palin-Katie Couric interview; the botching of the bailout plan; the faux campaign suspension. She notes Bush's lack of credibility, the long litany of mistakes over the last eight years.

And then she finds a way to turn all of this against Barack Obama.

Never mind that nearly every poll suggests Obama won big; never mind that both McCain's and Palin's numbers have been in free-fall for two weeks; never mind that a larger narrative is hardening about the craven condescension and lying of the McCain campaign. Never mind, never mind, never mind-- and off with their heads! The Queen of Hearts has a narrative to construct, and she'd never let something like data get in her way.

Reading her 'column,' I thought of this piece at firedoglake. I don't think Maureen Dowd is racist (although her columns this year have certainly drawn on racist imagery in their attempts to emasculate Obama); I do know that Dowd's ongoing mythologizing seems to fit with the historical narrative that Smith is tracing. For me, Smith's larger and more interesting point is not about race, but about how stories in general get codified, and how conventional wisdom hardens. And that applies very much to Dowd. Here's a key passage:

Nobody in the mainstream press calls Obama cowardly or devious, exactly. But many pundits and analysts seem always to believe Obama under-performs and misses opportunities. Back in the early 20th Century, overtly racist white Americans expected Jack Johnson to perform like a subhuman brute in the ring. By showing finesse and intelligence, Johnson was getting above his raisin'. Well, actually, the bigots believed he was getting above his species...

...But when a journalist like
Politico's Roger Simon can watch the first debate and then write, "The Mac is Back," something besides simple debate analysis is going on. I don't know Simon, but I know he has an outstanding reputation among his peers, probably due as much to his affable, Wally Cox-like demeanor as to his reporting skills. I've singled him out because his analysis is baffling, but also just because the media elite seem to like him so much, and I want them to think deeply about why they are writing what they're writing. I'm certain Simon's no throwback racist, and I make no such accusation. He probably just wants McCain to win.

I am, however, saying this: Over the last 10 days Obama has begun to pull away from McCain in the polls. The margin is significant. Also, the snap polls after the debate showed the public giving the Democratic nominee a significant win. Had this situation been reversed, had McCain been pulling ahead in the polls substantially and won a clear victory in the debate, Simon and his colleagues would be writing Obama's obituary. They would not be writing, "Barack is Back." No one can honestly doubt that.

And I believe that this has something to do with Americans' racial attitudes. A different standard is applied to Obama, as it was to Jack Johnson. He's achieved something no one thought a black American would achieve in this era. That's a sobering enough thought, but it's true. His victory in the Democratic primary surprised all the pundits. And they're still surprised. And most of them believe that the racist vote in America will probably be sufficient to defeat him. They just don't say it so bluntly.

That's the filter that this passage from the Queen of Hearts comes through:

Given the past week, the debate should have been a cinch for Obama. But, just as in the primaries, he willfully refuses to accept what debates are about. It’s not a lecture hall; it’s a joust. It’s not how cerebral you are. It’s how visceral you are. You need memorable, sharp, forceful and witty lines.

Even when McCain sneered, “I don’t need any on-the-job training, I’m ready to go at it right now,” Obama didn’t directly respond, but veered off into a story about his father being from Kenya and how he got his name. (Thanks, Barack, we got that from your book. It’s great for a memoir, but not a debate.)

McCain kept painting Obama as naïve, and dangerous, insisting that he “doesn’t quite understand or doesn’t get it.”

Obama should have responded “Senator, I understand perfectly, I’m just saying you’re wrong.”

On the surge, he could have said that McCain was the arsonist who wanted to be praised for the great job he’s doing putting out the fire he started.

When Obama took quiet umbrage at McCain’s attack about troop-funding, he could have pounded the lectern and said with real anger: “John, I am sick and tired of you suggesting that I would take funds away from our brave soldiers. I no more voted for that than you did when you voted against our funding proposals that would have imposed a timetable. And unlike you, I did not vote against funding increases for the troops that have come home with devastating physical and mental injuries.”

And who cares what Henry Kissinger thinks? He was wrong 35 years ago, and it’s only gotten worse since then.

Obama did a poor job of getting under McCain’s skin. Or maybe McCain did an exceptional job of not letting Obama get under his skin. McCain nattered about earmarks and Obama ran out of gas.

We’re left waiting for a knockout debate.

In fairness to Dowd, this desire for a more pitched and violent debate isn't limited to conservatives or their media allies; it can also be seen in the militarist spaces of Daily Kos and even on a site like Digby. I love Digby, but her addiction to the Eoyre position-- the nervous suspicion that she and many of her fellow posters have that doom and death is around the corner unless we hit now--suggests that what's important is not just winning, but winning in a certain way, one which protects the conception (privileged on the right and left) of politics as warfare. This addiction to conventional narratives can even be seen in a liberal hero like Jon Stewart, whose recent interview with Entertainment Weekly was, with the exception of the quote I posted a few days ago, a crushing disappointment. Reading Stewart's surprisingly bitter comments about the state of the campaign, I thought of Garry Trudeau's critique of Saturday Night Live 25 or 30 years ago: he said the show was a lost opportunity, because its addiction to what he called "kamikaze" comedy-- strafe bombing everyone without any sense of perspective-- meant that it reduced satire to a bland mediocrity. There was no edge because there was no real commitment to anything but a hipster nihilism.

Maybe making fun of American politics for nine years-- a very long time to stare into the void, after all-- has left Stewart something of a husk of his former self. But there was a striking contrast between his answers and Stephen Colbert's-- the latter's were specifically targeted and self-effacing; Stewart's read like he was auditioning to play Howard Beale in a dinner theater production of Network. And the saddest thing was not the bitterness, but the blandness: there was very little specific to this year's campaign, but instead a series of predictable talking points about campaign-speak, corrupt candidates, and the failure of media filters. It's not that he was wrong so much as he wasn't saying anything at all: he was simply recycling a worn-out critique that could've been made in 1960, 1980, 1992...and indeed, was made in those years. The effect, ironically, was to make Stewart look like the campaign managers he supposedly despises-- like them, he's guarding a turf, fiercely defending a schtick that has served him very well.

I don't think anyone would deny that Obama is facing off against some very bad people, and I'm not suggesting a Pollyanna naivete as a strategy (or is a tactic, Sen. McCain?). But I do think one of the truly striking things about Obama's campaign is not just the racial or generational shifts it represents, but its desire to craft a different kind of narrative, one which seems to thwart the more standardized desires of both opponents and supporters. Obama and his people are smart enough to know that sometimes the most graceful move is the punch you don't throw, especially when your opponent keeps hitting himself in the face. Or, to put it more succinctly, it's best summed up by this fantastic graphic my girlfriend sent a few weeks ago (which she found on the blog Cajun Boy In The City):

How Many Ways Do I Love Tina Fey?

The woman is a genius. As with the actual Palin interview, you'll find yourself laughing through tears (although for different reasons).

Sunday Music Flashback: Ghastly Mellow Saxophones All Over The Floor

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Newman's Own


2. Robert Redford, on his great friend:

"Here's old Paul," he said. "He looks great, feels great, has lots of money, gives to great causes, he's in love with his wife, he races cars when he wants to, makes a movie when he wants to, he's incredibly happy and still has that face that looks the way it did when he was 20. God, by the time we got home, I wanted to shoot myself."

3. Paul Newman on himself (from the 2003 Our Town program, in which he's listed alphabetically):

PAUL NEWMAN (Stage Manager) is probably best known for his spectacularly successful food conglomerate. In addition to giving the profits to charity, he also ran Frank Sinatra out of the spaghetti sauce business. On the downside, the spaghetti sauce is outgrossing his films. He did graduate from Kenyon College magna cum lager and in the process begat a laundry business which was the only student-run enterprise on Main Street. Yale University later awarded him an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters for unknown reasons. He has won four Sports Car Club of America National Championships and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest driver (70) to win a professionally sanctioned race (24 hours of Daytona, 1995). He is married to the best actress on the planet, was number 19 on Nixon's enemy list, and purely by accident has done 51 films and four Broadway plays. He is generally considered by professionals to be the worst fisherman on the East Coast.


5. Paul Newman began his film career as a centurion named Basil, in The Silver Chalice (1954). He would quickly move from that forgettable role into films like Somebody Up There Likes Me and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, which better exploited his earthy sensuality, that thin line he so often walked on screen between charm and brutality. Despite this early success, Newman bristled at the easy comparisons critics made to Brando and James Dean (a connection enhanced by Newman's training at the Method breeding ground of the Actors' Studio, of which he would later be president). He icily confronted a journalist from Rolling Stone in 1973 who raised the comparison, saying that every actor had a key attribute; his, he claimed, was not a Brandoesque, wounded masculinity, but rather a "patrician quality." Perhaps, then, his key early role in not in a Tennessee Williams adaptation, but in The Young Philadelphians (1958), where he plays precisely this kind of patrician striver, a morally conflicted, ambitious lawyer who might be the younger version of the man he plays in 1982's The Verdict.


7. I grew up on Paul Newman because of Robert Redford: my mother was and is Redford's biggest fan, and Butch Cassidy and The Sting were often playing on our family's television. In these films, Newman was the world's coolest older brother: tough, funny, always watching Redford's back. Writing of The Way We Were, Pauline Kael snarked that "it's nice to see Redford with a woman again on the screen, after all that horsing around with Paul Newman." Indeed, their chemistry was such that Butch Cassidy virtually redefined "the buddy movie," taking the structure of the Hope-Crosby Road movies and making it feel hip again: its homosocial masculinity and easy banter can be seen in such descendants as the Lethal Weapon films and the Clooney Ocean's pictures. Is there a better expression of cynical, masculine affection than Redford and Newman's exchange towards the beginning of the movie:

I remember my mom saying that was the moment she fell in love with the movie, which she saw in a Cleveland Heights cinema with my father shortly after they were married. That theater would've been just up the road from the Shaker Heights neighborhood in which Newman was born and raised, the one where my mother worked as a librarian, the one that's only an hour or so away from where I now teach in Oberlin.


9. At the same time, underneath that charming big brother exterior lay a different man: there's an element of danger, a core of selfishness to Newman's characters in Cassidy and The Sting: indeed, early on in the latter film, his relationship with Redford is contentious, almost as if he's as much a threat to Redford's character as Robert Shaw is (that air of danger and uncertainty makes the final twist in the film that much more effective). Newman's willingness to be unlovable was developed early on in films like The Hustler and Cool Hand Luke, stories of anti-heroes where Newman's dedication to conveying his characters' self-destructive egos meant that the films denied the sentimental mythologizing of the martyr that one might have expected.

This embrace of flawed protagonists found its ultimate outlet in three films. In Absence of Malice, Newman's pared-down cool and controlled physicality became the ironic vessels for a story of a man destroyed, not by a media story, but by the guilt and rage the story releases in him. In The Verdict--a film that George Clooney rightly cited as a big influence on MIchael Clayton-- Newman turns the cliches of the "little guy against the system" courtroom drama inside out: Frank Galvin's antagonist is not James Mason's smooth corporate lawyer, but Galvin's own alcoholism and addiction to doing the wrong thing. As Roger Ebert beautifully put it in his review, ""The Verdict" has a lot of truth in it, right down to a great final scene in which Newman, still drinking, finds that if you wash it down with booze, victory tastes just like defeat."

Twelve years later, Newman would make a film that acted as a grace note to those earlier dramas. In Nobody's Fool, he plays Sully Sullivan, whose childishly alliterative name keys you in to his basic charms: he's funny, smart, self-absorbed and-- for all the ways he must help and/or bamboozle his fellow townspeople-- has never quite grown up. This was the first of two adaptations of Richard Russo novels in which Newman would star (I have not seen Empire Falls, which he did for HBO), and it's less a narrative than a set of character studies, vignettes and setpieces which illuminate the life of a small New England town. It would be easy to say "nothing happens," in the conventional sense of a movie story; but to say that would be to deny the movie's relaxed pleasures, its fascination with ritual and minutiae, and how that ends up re-orienting our perspective: every moment in the movie seems to be saying, "What's your hurry?" In that sense, the style perfectly matches the story, about people who are so sly and quick and scheming that they often fail to notice the life passing right in front of them.

None of this would work without Newman, who, as Sully, gives what might be his best performance: this deceptively simple, stripped-down tale lets him thread together all the moments of his career: early sex symbol, brooding method player, charming anti-hero, aging character actor. There's a lot going on in Sully's life, but Newman's turn is completely effortless, and he conveys complexities with a mere grimace, smile, hunched-over-at-the-bar gesture or piercing glance.This was the performance he should've won an Oscar for, and his talent elevates everyone's game: Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith have never been better, and you catch their excitement at working opposite the screen legend.


11. Not every Newman movie was a classic-- I've never understood the cult around Slapshot, a mediocre sports movie in search of a third act; Buffalo Bill and the Indians and The Secret War of Harry Frigg are conceptually flawed and manically performed, 'comedies' whose laugh lines echo around a silent theater; and he's completely wrong for Torn Curtain, maybe the worst movie Alfred Hitchcock ever made.

Then there's Cars. I'm not a fan of the film, whose reactionary nostalgia strikes me as both misguided and not more than a little hypocritical, given the state-of-the-art technology that produced it. But as Doc Hudson, the aging race car that runs the local garage, Newman is astonishingly forceful. He has nothing but his voice, the animated form robbing him of the power of those dancing blue eyes, but his voice is all he needs: it's wry, raw, commanding. He takes a silly role in a silly film and through sheer force of talent and will, makes you think he's performing in Shakespeare; whenever his character's on the screen, there are suddenly shadings and colors to the simplistic narrative, and he really makes Hudson a tragic figure. That I am saying all this of Pixar's worst movie surprises even me, but there's a startling force to Newman, and the film acts as a master class in how a dedicated actor can raise a lousy text to something almost resembling art.


13. More than anything, what I'll think about when I think of Paul Newman are his reactions. For all the good one-liners he had in his career, for all the brooding and occasionally raging physicality of his characters, the quintessential framing of a Newman character is the reaction shot: he listened better than any actor of his generation, and the electricity of those bright blue eyes played brilliantly against the still repose of the rest of his face, as if he was a jungle cat who didn't want you to guess the hunger and danger that lay beneath his calm exterior. Perhaps that quality explains why he often spoke of his pride at playing the Stage Manager in Our Town: that haunting memory play is all about watching, and the danger of watching too much without acting. In his work and his life, that was a problem Newman rarely faced. He observed, he took in, he absorbed: and when all that reserve was finally let loose, he astonished. R.I.P., Paul Newman.

Saturday Music Flashback: I Heard Your Voice Coming From Somewhere

Friday, September 26, 2008

Ironic McCain Line Of The Night

Critiquing Obama:

"We need more flexibility in a President's judgment than that."

...There are no words. Truly.

Also, John McCain? On Veterans' benefits? Frack you. Your POW pass has expired.

One More Thing...Or Maybe Two...

Aside from the risible final question about "another 9/11 happening on American soil," Jim Lehrer has done a very good job tonight. He's asked good questions, he's been forceful and focused in follow-ups, and he's created a debate space where genuine debate can occur, and the personalities of the candidates can shine through. I was suspicious of how well Lehrer would do after his meh performance in 2004, but this has been a good night for him, and much more like the smart program that he hosts every evening.

By the way, John McCain? On torture? Frack you. You had your chance in 2006, and you caved and helped push Bush's torture bill through. Stop saying you didn't, and stop using it as a 24-style emotional wedge issue. You have as much standing on this issue as Sarah Palin does on, well, anything.

Also, the answer to every single question cannot be "Ronald Reagan." McCain repeats the name as if he thinks Reagan will suddenly appear, like Candyman, on the debate stage.

Match Point

There are about 20 minutes left in the debate, and I suppose Obama could pull a major gaffe and say that Poland isn't part of the Eastern Bloc, but since that seems unlikely...

All Obama had to do tonight was hold-- he leads in the polls, and McCain has been in a panicky three-week free-fall. I believe he did that, and a bit more-- he appeared smart, knowledgeable, and mature. He was forceful, but reasoned. McCain is counting on obfuscations, jokes, and just started yelling a snide, sarcastic riff about Obama's supposed misrepresentation of one of Henry Kissinger's positions. Perhaps this eighth-grade tough guy approach will play with McCain's base (i.e., theocrats and Chris Matthews). But I suspect that to the moderates and swing voters both candidates need, it will come off as childish, and fit into the narrative of craven desperation that has rightly formed around McCain in the last week. The itchier and dodgier he appears, the better Obama looks. I am, obviously, biased. But I would be amazed if an undecided voter looked at these two men, and thought McCain looked more presidential. McCain is talking as if he's running for President in 1984; Obama is talking as if he's running for President in 2008.

This game and set-- and maybe the whole match?-- to Obama.

(Coda: Oh dear, McCain just made a KGB reference...)

Freedom Fried

A question from tonight's Presidential debate: "It was once asked what lessons we'd learned from Vietnam. What are the lessons you've learned from Iraq?"

Short version of John McCain's answer:

John McCain is still fighting Vietnam.

Immediate thoughts on the ongoing debate:

It's amazing that foreign policy is supposedly John McCain's strong suit: he seems allergic to diplomacy, and unable to move beyond a rigid set of neocon talking points. It's no different than McCain's approach to domestic issues: lie, obsfuscate, condescend, repeat smears; lie, obfuscate, condescend, repeat smears. So far, he's lied about his opposition to earmarks, lied about his opposition to the Bush torture policy, lied about his position on deregulation and the growth of the federal government. He falls back a lot on emotional appeal and catch phrases ("I'm a maverick"). He's just played the POW issue. I don't know how the anecdotes will play-- there's an emotional appeal to them that's hard to resist. But their power, to me anyway, is diffused by his scattered, smug responses-- he doesn't seem all there. McCain is counting on sneers (literally-- look at his face when Obama talks) and emotions to carry the day; Obama is banking that his calm, reasoned persona, loads of intellectual detail and weave of larger arguments about goals and values will be persuasive. Obama answers questions, and McCain seems to dodge them-- he talks a lot in response in order to change the question, then uses the question to raise innuendoes about Obama. Obama just p'wned him on the issue of veterans' bracelets by pointing out that military families can honorably disagree about foreign policy without being "unpatriotic." The major lesson of tonight is that John McCain doesn't know how to campaign without suggesting his opponents are "unpatriotic."

As John McCain exaggerates about Iran, mispronounces Middle Eastern leaders' names and postures about Hugo Chavez, let me close with this question:

McCain obsesses a lot about his personal honor. How many more people have to die in Iraq before "victory with honor" is acheived? Isn't that the central lesson of Vietnam?

John McCain Plays Chicken with Your Future, Loses

E.J. Dionne has the ugly details here (h/t to Steve Benen for the link).

Evolution Of A Dance

Evidence of Things Not Seen

I watched Fracture in a state of half-distraction over a two-week period, alternating between intense focus on a given a scene and catching glimpses of it out of the corner of my eye while doing other work. To admit this is, I know, to violate a cetain cinephiliac code that demands complete immersion in a film (preferably in a dark living room or large theater). And yet how many of the films we blog about were watched in a similar state? There's something to be said for what Walter Benjamin called the distracted view; in "The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction", noting cinema's similarity to architecture, he wrote

Architecture has never been idle. Its history is more ancient than that of any other art, and its claim to being a living force has significance in every attempt to comprehend the relationship of the masses to art. Buildings are appropriated in a twofold manner: by use and by perception-- or rather, by touch and sight. Such appropriation cannot be understood in terms of the attentive concentration of a tourist before a famous building. On the tactile side there is no counterpart to contemplation on the optical side. Tactile appropriation is accomplished not so much by attention as by habit. As regards architecture, habit determines to a large extent even optical reception. The latter, too, occurs much less through rapt attention than by noticing the object in incidental fashion....

The distracted person, too, can form habits. More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction as provided by art presents a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. Since, moreover, individuals are tempted to avoid such tasks, art will tackle the most difficult and most important ones where it is able to mobilize the masses. Today it does so in the film. Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasing noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise.

This viewing state seems especially appropriate for Fracture, a film which builds distraction and architecture into its very methodology. Watching the film, I was reminded of this clip from Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Anderson's essay-film about Hollywood, filmmaking and architectural space:

As much as the slippery lawyer played by Ryan Gosling or Anthony Hopkins' ambiguous murder suspect, the architecture of Los Angeles is a strong character in Fracture. It frames the characters in precise horizontals and verticals, or is bent through wide-angle lenses to literally wrap around the action (as in a spectacularly eerie party scene set on a rooftop, where the towers and skyscrapers seem to be shot through a glass bottle). From the moment that the murder occurs in a tasteful modernist mansion in the hills, we are keyed in that the mise-en-scene provided by architecture will be a key element, both exposing and hiding the clues we need to understand the narrative, and offering reflective spaces that alternate between the revelatory and the opaque.

And the figures move through this warped, claustrophobic space in a constant state of distraction. Gosling's character-- a public defender hoping to move to a swanky private firm-- never seems all there even in the courtroom, which is what allows Hopkins' accused engineer to trip up his cross-examination. Gosling looks like Eminem with his shaved head, while he channels the oily charm and quiet intensity of Sean Penn: his darting eyes and constantly cocked head signal a man whose brain is working out three things at once, while not noticing the important fourth thing happening right in front of him. Hopkins is still, almost catatonic in some scenes, but his character never quite seems fully involved in his own trial, doodling in the courtroom and only coming alive in that wicked cross. In a sense, the very stillness of Hopkins is less a means of focusing than another spur to distraction-- it calls so directly on his Hannibal Lecter persona, with its looming forehead over bloodshot eyes, that its visual shorthand means we feel less invested in the how and why of the character, because we think we know him; instead, we're free to notice Hopkins' playful modulation of his Welsh brogue, the way a side-lit shadow dances across his face, what kind of designer sunglasses he has on.

Similarly, the standard operating procedure of the narrative means we're less concerned with the whodunnit than the why. Director Gregory Hoblit doesn't get a lot of critical attention, but he's quietly become a reliable director of solid, character-driven thrillers. From his years as a producer-director on Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, he became fluent in law-speak, the everyday rhythms of a police station or a DA's office. He's comfortable in these narrative spaces, and he makes them feel authentically lived-in. There's very little sense of exposition in Fracture, and what we receive seems tossed off, so deeply embedded is it in character motivations or vendettas (watch the scene towards the beginning between Gosling and the boss played by David Straithairn-- Gosling is all bravado, Straithairn all coiled power, and their dialogue exists not as a narrative tool, but an excuse for them to face off like cobras).

Hoblit also does a good job of linking the character's moral quandries to the space of the city in which the story is set, whether it's the Chicago of Primal Fear, the New York of Fallen and Frequency, or the L.A. of Fracture: he chooses offbeat locations, and his films feel like casual tours of the city as much as anything. This concentration on visual detail means a flattening of narrative and a reliance on stock twists. There's nothing tremendously unpredictable about Fracture: of all Hoblit's films, it's the least reliant on the surprise ending. But knowing what's going to happen means we can luxuriate in its stylish craft and smoke-and-neon images.

In the end, we care less about the individual crimes or surprise revelations in something like Fracture than we do about the choices the characters make in response; Hoblit has always gotten superb performances from his casts, and his tight framings help us to feel trapped in their often bad decisions, as the city closes in around them, and they stuggle futilely to escape.

Friday Music Flashback: I Want You To Love Me

Thursday, September 25, 2008

John McCain Arrives In Washington To Save The Economy

Quote Of The Day

Jon Stewart, in a new interview with EW, on Sarah Palin:

I keep hearing that she's ''like us.'' There's this idea that people who hunt and have ''good'' values are somehow this mythological American; I don't know who ''this'' person is, I've never met them. She is no more typical ''us'' than I am, than Obama is, than McCain is, than Mr. T is. If there is something quintessentially or authentically American about her, I sort of feel like, you know what? You ''good values people'' have had the country for eight years, and done an unbelievably s---ty job. Let's find some bad values people and give them a shot, maybe they'll have a better take on it.


Josh Marshall has been all over the fakery of McCain's 'suspended' campaign (I linked to his most recent post on the subject, but there are others all over the site), and I was also struck by this post by Steve Benen about McCain's gambler persona (really, if you're not reading Benen this political season, you're denying yourself some of the best commentary on the web, as well as exhaustive links to other news). Taken together, the blatant lying and the needless, reckless risk-taking more fully explain (for me, anyway), why Bill Clinton would be out on morning talk shows today defending McCain's call for canceling the debates (h/t to Andrew Sullivan for the link).

It's not just that McCain spoke at his Global Initiative this week (where Bill gave him another needless tongue bath); it's not just that Obama defeated HIllary Clinton in the primaries (although I suspect that's a big part of it); it's not just that Bill Clinton, for all his staggering gifts, is an insecure narcissist who bristles at the notion of a younger, charismatic candidate taking his place as party leader; it's not just that Clinton may feel lingering bitterness on being called on the kinds of racially-tinged crap he and Hillary Clinton tried to pull on Obama in the primaries (ironically, the same kinds of racially-tinged attacks that were used on him for years in Arkansas and Washington, as documented-- again, note the irony-- by Cilnton campaign staffer Sidney Blumenthal in his book The Clinton Wars).

It's that Bill Clinton probably sees in John McCain the same kind of egocentric, self-destructive, self-righteous gambler, willing (no, needing) to continually raise the stakes in order to come out looking even more heroic (Marshall's TPM staffers describe it as McCain riding into Washington on a white horse to save the day). Party be damned: this is a kindred soul, and Bill can't help but reach out to him. At least when he was President, Clinton could channel those gambling instincts into policy maneuvers that benefitted his constituents (as when he made Newt Gingrich blink in '95 over the government shutdown). Now that he's out of the White House, he still hasn't figured out how to control his impulses, which makes him a dangerous surrogate to have out there.

Then again, if he is, as Sullivan put it, "openly spinning for McCain," perhaps that explains Obama's widening lead in various state and national polls?


Let the countdown clock to the Bill Cowher era begin.

On a day when John McCain suspended his Presidential campaign, it seems appropriate that a more local exercise in futility would also give up. Romeo Crennel is a good man who has done a lot to rebuild the Cleveland Browns (along with GM Phil Savage) in the last four years. But staying with Derek Anderson under these circumstances--while also dilly-dallying about whether or not Quinn is "ready" to play-- means he's signaling that his own stubbornness and stay-the-course nature (even if that course is one that leads to a losing season) is more important than trying something new and admitting he might have been wrong. As Plain Dealer columnist Terry Pluto puts it, it's the worst of all possible worlds: it maintains a deflating status quo, while also keeping both quarterbacks on edge and underconfident. It's the act of a man who doesn't seem to know what to do in the face of trouble, and that's not the quality you want in a head coach.

Here are the important paragraphs from that first linked article:

The Browns (0-3) are last in scoring, last in total offense and last in passing. Anderson is next-to-last in passer rating (43.5) and tied for last in interceptions (five).

One of the truest statistics by which quarterbacks are measured is average gain per pass attempt. That figure this year for Anderson is 4.35 yards -- next-to-last among all quarterbacks. He was 12th a year ago at 7.19.

Not all of that is Anderson's fault. The Browns have been beset with injuries; they've been working new free agents into the system; they have a much tougher schedule than they did last year, when soft opponents allowed Anderson's cannon arm to hide his inability to properly read defenses (a flaw which became apparent in that final, interception-laden Bengals game, and continued into the Pro Bowl and into the pre-season). When they faced a tough Dallas squad in Week One, Anderson-- who'd missed much of the preseason due to a concussion-- seemed shaky and uncertain.

But the team knew the schedule would be difficult when it was announced in the spring. They chose to bring in Stallworth and Rodgers and the other new free agents. And while the injuries suck, the major problem is not lack of players, but lack of any spark in their play. The lighter preseason practices bred a complacency in the team that's been hard to shake, and now that they are losing (and stories of Browns fighting in locker room are making the local sports news rounds), it becomes that much more difficult to turn things around. And it's not injuries that have led to static game plans, and too-cautious in-game decisions. That falls on Crennel and his staff as much as it does the players.

Maybe it's something in the Ohio air: down the road in Columbus, Jim Tressel seems to have some of the same problems with OSU that Crennel does with the Browns: while suffering from injuries, his major problem is one of leadership and changing on the fly. Like Crennel, if Tressel can't establish a major lead early, he seems befuddled: both coaches seem to just stand there as more imaginative teams run all over them. It's ok to break from the game plan, guys! It really is! It's called-- what's the word?-- coaching.

It's precisely this inability to do so that is leading to the Anderson start this week. This is the perfect game for Brady Quinn's first regular-season start: the Bengals are perhaps the worst team in the NFL, and one a second-year, virtually rookie player could do well against; the team is 0-3 and not expected to do much, so there's not a lot of pressure on Quinn to be the savior; and the fans are looking for something, anything to make the season exciting. If Quinn controls the ball, moves the team downfield and makes one or two spectacular plays, he's in like, well, Quinn. And even if this year is lost, at least the Browns know what they have for the future.

Of course, I said much the same thing last year, and was proven wrong. I'd love to be proven wrong this year, to see Anderson rebound and lead the team to the playoffs, but I think that was a one-year miracle that's not going to be repeated anytime soon. And the real frustration is not losing, as bad as that is, but the fact that I could have just recycled last year's blog post with a few name changes, and it still would have been relevant. Nothing changes. When even the Lions know that a change is necessary, it throws the Browns' unearned certainty into even starker relief. A cycle of Charlie Brown-like futility continues because when they face a hard moment, the (Charlie) Browns keep running at the ball in the same way, convinced that this time, there's no way Lucy is gonna pull it away.

"AAUGGH!," indeed.

Thursday Music Flashback: Still Holding A Pose

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Polling (Updated)

Nine points. That's Obama's current lead among likely voters, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll.

Gosh, that recent bit of brilliance from the Spitting Image puppet rightly described by George Galloway as a "drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay" is just looking funnier and funnier, isn't it?

UPDATE (9/25): McCain blinks, Obama leads, and Letterman mocks the Republican nominee. And 86% of America, according to one poll, thinks the debates should go on.

Wednesday Music Flashback: Don't Call It A Comeback

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Storming The Village

This has been making the rounds all day, so you've probably seen it by now. Still, it brings together my love of Chris Rock and my frustration with the Clintons so perfectly that I have to post it.

What's notable to me is not just Rock's riff, which is typically hilarious, but the explosion of laughter and applause when Rock dares to mention the elephant in the room. A politician as immensely gifted as Bill Clinton should really take note, and Hillary Clinton-- brilliant on policy, but not nearly as talented a pol as her husband--should make notice, too, especially as she and her husband seem eager to plan for 2012. It's not just lefty blogs and Obama supporters who are frustrated with their passive-aggressive 'support,' but millions of voters and scared citizens who are desperate for change, and rightly terrified of the war-hungry theocracy that a McCain-Palin administration would bring. I think Paul Slansky mostly has it right here: to give anything but full-throated support to their party's candidate would only confirm that, per Hillary's convention speech, it really wasn't about the ideas of her campaign-- it was just about them.

Dreamscapes: Imagined Films

An early-morning dream, just before I wake:

I'm reading Albert Brooks' autobiography. I have no idea if Brooks has actually written one in real life (although he should, don't you think?), but in the version in my dream, he tells a long anecdote about working with Steven Spielberg on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Apparently, Spielberg was unhappy with the screenplay, so as a favor to his great friend, Brooks ghost-wrote seven key scenes for the films (the book never tells what the scenes were about). As I'm reading, the text becomes blurry, but focuses again at a point where Brooks follows up on his screenwriting adventures with this bombshell: he thinks Spielberg wants to cast him in the lead.

Brooks is, as you would imagine, flabbergasted, but not for the reason you'd imagine. He tells Spielberg, "Steven, you know I'd love to work with you on this, but I can't play Indiana Jones! I have this new television series I'm filming!" At this point in the dream, the pages of the book flip forward, and I lose track of my place in the narrative. It takes several minutes of dream-time until I find it again, and a chagrined Brooks understands that he misunderstood Spielberg's request: Steven doesn't want him to play the lead, but instead a "key role" of a government agent (in the dream, I imagine that scene towards the beginning of the film when the two FBI guys come and ask Indy to go after the ark, and assume Brooks would've played one of those parts). According to this mythical dream book, Spielberg really sold the part to Brooks: "It's a key role where you'd own the screen for ten minutes, and really make Hollywood understand what kind of an underrated genius you are. People will walk out of the movie remembering this scene."

I wake up before I can find out if Brooks ever took the part. But as I wake, I'm struck by two things: 1) How, in my dream, Brooks' concern about playing Indy was one of time, not utter inappropriateness for the part: his clueless bravado actually seems like something one of the characters in his films would possess; 2)How cool would it be to see Indiana Jones as played by Albert Brooks?

Chance Meetings

Sonic serendipity: exactly a minute after I send an email to a student, answering a question about an assignment structured around the movie The Limey, the restaurant's Sirius radio starts playing The Who's "The Seeker," the song that opens that Steven Soderbergh movie.

Tuesday Music Flashback: I've Never Been Too Good With Names

Monday, September 22, 2008

Notes on Blogging Aesthetics XVI

We might think about the avant-garde practice that I have proposed as a means of redeploying the three rhetorical principles of organization: narration, exposition and poetics. The traditional allocation, of course, assigns narration to the novel, exposition to the essay, and poetics to the poem, an arrangement ensuring that each of the traditional forms will be structured around a dominant mode. The avant-garde, on the other hand, demonstrates that an author producing a text always finds himself, like someone playing a video game, provided with three knobs, labeled narrative, expository, poetic. At any point during the text's creation, he can adjust the balance (as one would adjust a television's colors), thereby increasing (or reducing) the level of any of the three.
-- Robert Ray
, The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy

Monday Music Flashback: You Know That I've Been Drunk A Thousand Times...

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Emmy Live Blog VII: Wrapping Up

Final thoughts on (what I hope is) the final 30 minutes or so (starting at 10:28 p.m.) of the show:

-- Good for Alec Baldwin, a very funny man who finally got the Emmy he deserved. And wonderfully gracious link in his speech between Tina Fey and Elaine May.

-- Man, after the microphones worked all night for Howie and Heidi, they cut out when the genuinely interesting America Ferrera and Vanessa Williams show up to give an award? There is no justice.

-- Very nice eulogy clip moment, and good for the audience for not clapping during, allowing every death equal weight instead of just clapping for famous people (like the Oscar audiences often do) (OK, they just slipped for Bernie Mac and Sydney Pollack). And good for the Academy for remembering Cyd Charisse and Alice Ghostley, and Harvey Korman. That said, "Whiter Shade of Pale"? Does that lyric have something to do with death that I don't know about? And did they just show George Carlin twice, at the beginning and end? Well, if you're going to show someone twice, Carlin is a good choice, not least of all because he had a kind of bifurcated career, and each clip showed one-half of it.

-- No more Grey's Anatomy, please. These ads make it look like a CW show. No, wait, worse than a CW show, most of which are at least aware of their own silly qualities. I think Grey's is deluded enough to believe it's a Serious Drama. No wonder Conan O'Brien cracked a Katharine Heigl joke in his Emmy bit.

--"We are running out of time, and I'd rather leave this time for the winner"-- in graciously introducing the Lead Actor nominees, did Kiefer Sutherland just diss the self-involved reality hosts? Yes-- yes, I think he did. Thank you, Kiefer.

--Wow. Bryan Cranston just beat Jon Hamm and Hugh Laurie. That's unexpected. Loved him on Malcolm In The Middle, haven't seen him on Breaking Bad. It looks like Mad Men faces the same challenge The Sopranos did in '99-- Academy voters don't know what to do with challenging material, especially on a network (AMC in Mad Men's case, HBO in the case of The Sopranos) that they aren't used to rewarding. It'll take Mad Men a couple of years, I suspect.

--Good for Tina Fey. One can never give too many awards to Tina Fey.

--Did I say "Symphony of Suck" earlier? That's only because I didn't know they were saving Jimmy Kimmel for later. He's giving out the reality host award (I think that's called Finding Your Level), and he's called out the nominees, who are also our pseudo-hosts for the evening. He calls them out, they stand in a line, and I can only hope that a firing squad will follow.
A commercial break? Really? Stretching this award when they've already admitted they're behind, when they are cutting the bits of genuinely funny people? When they've cut off acceptance speeches of people we actually like and care about? Really? Lame. I did like Kimmel's description of them as "sufficient," though.

--The winners have been fine (if frustratingly conventional), but this is quite possibly the worst Emmys show ever. Painful, dull, self-involved. Only my masochistic curiosity and my love for you all keeps me watching. Maybe Jimmy Kimmel will give me an Emmy for it.

--And here comes Mary Tyler Moore to redeem it. Moore rocks, but she's not Superwoman. Betty White's great, too, but she's also struggling with the lame format and limited time. I liked it when White caressed the microphone stand, though.

--30 Rock. Again.

--Tom Selleck to hand out the drama award? That's surprising. I've always kind of liked him, though. No Boston Legal this year, ok?

--And the winner for drama is...Mad Men. OK, so I was wrong about them having to wait a year or two, but I am happily so. I can't figure out how they could overlook directing and cast but reward the show, but it's fantastic TV, and I'm so glad they didn't make it wait.

Speaking of waiting, my bed calls, so I will do what Howie Mandel refuses to do, and get off the stage.

Emmy Live Blog VI: Manning Up

Gut check time, Academy! Mad Men has been shut out so far. Will they win a writing award? Will BSG or The Wire, also nominated? This must freak out the voters, as it's a plethora of quality and daring, with nary a cliche to be found. There's no David E. Kelly or Michael Chiklis to hide behind here, Emmy voters! What will it be? Or will you find a way to somehow reward a Picket Fences script?

...And the award goes to Matthew Weiner for Mad Men. Good for him.

Emmy Live Blog V: Anti-Humor

Coming in to make the reality hosts look better are Kathy Griffin and Don Rickles, who will be playing at a dinner theater near you soon in Griffin and Rickles: A Symphony of Suck. I did appreciate Griffin's geeky enthusiasm about being on-stage with an idol (she's normally so self-involved that it was neat to see her break out of her smug shell) but man, if I were to put together a tag team of the unfunny, I could not do better than the Academy just did.

On the other hand, Neil Patrick Harris and Kristin Chenoweth are delightful, especially since the utterly deadpan Mr. Harris just took down Howie Mandel with the quickness of a ninja. How about making Dr. Horrible next year's host?

Emmy Live Blog IV: Superstar

OK, first-- the whole "John McCain-as-the-nation's-prune" riff from Colbert was pretty funny. Not to the heights of previous Stewart/Colbert Emmy face-offs, but funny nonetheless.

Second-- Meet The Parents director Jay Roach (who just won for directing Recount) is married to The Bangles' Susanna Hoffs?? Dude!

Third-- Recount's probably gonna clean up-- it's the Emmys' way of talking about politics without really talking about politics-- but it was predictable that screenwriter Danny Strong would lose out to Kirk Ellis (adapter of John Adams) in the miniseries writing award. I mean, c'mon! Did you really think Jonathan would win an Emmy?? Planets would misalign, and collide! It's just not happening!

(I kid-- I love Mr. Strong, who was fantastic on both Buffy and Gilmore Girls. But really-- the loss has hilarious poetic resonance for me).

Mr. Ellis is this year's Sally Field. His speech went into a harmless riff on how we miss the days "when Presidents spoke in complete sentences"-- and Emmy cut him off, cutting to commercial. I'm sorry, but what a bunch of wimps. How many jokes have been made by both conservatives and liberals about Bush's incoherence in the last eight years? To cut him off that way-- especially after giving him an award for writing about the same ideas, especially when you come back from said commercials with a tribute to M*A*S*H, which embodies the very values of which Mr. Ellis was speaking-- is the height of childish disingenuousness.

Emmy Live Blog III: Grace Note

As long as Mandel roams the stage, nothing can really redeem this broadcast, but a clip from The West Wing and an appearance from Martin Sheen comes awfully close. Watching Thomas Schlamme's textured visuals shape Aaron Sorkin's pitch-perfect dialogue reminds me how much I miss that show (and really makes me want to bust out the DVD boxes again). Sheen's speech was funny ("The West Wing won Emmys for virtually everyone involved...except me.") and on-point-- there's no one better than Mr. Sheen to remind us of voting and civic duty, and I give the Academy a smidgen of credit for breaking away from their self-congratulation for literally two minutes, to talk about this unrelated but utterly relevant topic.

Oh, and good for the Recount producers for mentioning the late Sydney Pollack.

Emmy Live Blog II: Stiff Upper Lips

Well, I thought about live-blogging this shindig, but-- aside from questions of time-- the whole thing's just...painful. I like Josh Groban, but don't need to see him play the poor man's Bobby McFerrin by trying to sing a theme song medley (McFerrin could've rocked that puppy with sound effects and voices, but Groban just seemed manic, like he was on a bewildering mix of uppers). Laugh-In is legendary, but watching the cast try to recreate 40-year old magic is just painful and mean, especially with all the lines they're flubbing. The comics are sublime, but they only get to pop up between reality host 'humor.' So, good for long-suffering Stephen Colbert, and perennial winners The Daily Show and Laura Linney, and best of luck to Hugh Laurie and Tina Fey and Mad Men, but I'm not your man here. Instead, I'll turn you over to those master masochists at EW, who live-blog this much more thoroughly than I'd ever want to.

Of course, as I write these words, those wicked Emmyers seduce me with the charming, low-key cool of presenter David Boreanaz. Damn you, Emmy!

Emmy Live Blog: Just An Observation

The picks thus far have been predictable (Jeremy Piven? Yeah, that was cool-- three years ago), but one thing is certain-- reality TV is dead.

Oh, it will continue to exist, haunting us forever with biddying nannies, conniving island-dwellers and undereducated parents and their overly bright children (or whatever the hell Jeff Foxworthy is hosting these days). But what little credibility it had is shot, blown away by Jeff Probst, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel, Ryan Seacrest, and that Dancing With The Stars guy: the reality hosts the Television Academy chose (in a moment of drunk dialing, no doubt) to host this evening's festivities. It was meant to be their moment of triumph, their coming out party as legitimate parts of the television landscape, but their utter lack of grace, humor or charm-- and their completely narcissistic, aren't-we-being-funny smugness-- only exposed them as eternal, D-list also-rans. Their clumsiness has been thrown into relief by the string of genuinely cool, funny people-- Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, RIcky Gervais, Conan O'Brien, and the sublime Steve Martin-- that have MC'ed individual moments during the show. Why were none of these people chosen, since all of them are more talented-- and arguably "hotter" in terms of popularity-- than any of the reality folks?

Emmy Madness!

It's Emmy time!

*Crickets, crickets*

Unlike the Oscars (our awards show Super Bowl) or the Tonys (that classy uncle we really know nothing about, but who seems quite witty) or the Grammys (the most laughable of all awards-- I mean, Christopher Cross has one), no one seems to care that much about the Emmys. They so oddly balance excellence and mediocrity, predictability and surprise, old-school and new school, that any obsessive anger and/or excitement seems to be canceled out by a general shrug of "Oh, that's on? Huh."

Which is funny, because I'd argue Americans obsess over television more than any other pop cultural medium (and yes, I love comics and movies and pop music even more, but TV has an immediacy and reach that those other media can't beat). We watch, argue, spoil each other, post on truly evil message boards, write fanfics about our favorite characters, and have made television shows the most purchased genre of DVD. In turn, the rise of DVD (which allows for constant re-watching) and all these other paratextual outlets has shaped the richer mythologies and ambiguous character arcs of recent programs like Lost, Mad Men, Alias, Heroes, The Wire, The Sopranos, and all of Joss Whedon's work. These are programs that assume viewers will take the time to not only watch but immerse themselves in a vast fictional universe: fan investment and writerly creativity have connected and looped through each other in very exciting ways. Even sitcoms like The Office aren't immune to the mental and emotional fan-mapping that we might generally associate more with dramas.

Maybe that's why the Emmys don't resonate as much as other awards shows: as with sports teams, viewers feel a certain ownership of a program, and don't need the stamp of approval from an Academy (compare that to the general critical rapture that occurred when No Country For Old Men won big at the Oscars this year-- many a film blogger geeked out as if the Pope himself had finally blessed their love of the Coen Brothers). It might also be because many a great show or performance has been overlooked by the Television Academy in their rush to bean David E. Kelly with yet another undeserved golden trinket. The Wire, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, My So-Called Life, Angel, Battlestar Galactica (current version). Sports Night, and Gilmore Girls-- all recent, critically acclaimed shows-- were never nominated in their respective categories of comedy or drama; Hugh Laurie, Jennifer Garner, Michael Hall, Victor Garber and Martin Sheen were all nominated in recent years, but never won; and the tendency, as the excellent television critic Robert Bianco put it in a recent column, to "nominate movie stars for 15-second TV appearances" only reinforces the notion that the Emmy folks feel insecure about their own medium, and don't understand just how rich, complex and enjoyable it so often is.

All that said, I'll watch tonight, because I love the cheesy pomp of an awards program, and I'm pulling for a Mad Men sweep; honestly is there a more enjoyable or interesting show on TV right now, or another that so sensuously evokes a time or mood? It meanders, lingers on offbeat details, lets the landscape of an opaque face or the brush-by of a skirt carry the meaning that dialogue can't express; it cares less about plot than character, less about theme than tone, less about the arc of a drama than the sound of an ice cube in a scotch glass; and it knows in its bones that all of this is only possible on television, where the story can be stretched, the investment enriched, the payoff delayed (or redefined, because in TV the payoff isn't the endpoint but the journey across multiple episodes), in a way that movies don't allow. That Emmy might shower this smartly decadent delight with awards makes me think that there's hope for the Television Academy yet.

Sunday Music Flashback: I'm Waiting To Behold Your Many Charms

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Obama is up by four in a Quinnipac poll, up by five in the CBS News/NY Times poll, and up by six (!) in Gallup tracking-- but apparently, someone forgot to tell Mark Halperin. According to Crooks and Liars, Halperin has declared the Republican candidate the "Winner of the Week" in his Time Magazine "Campaign Scorecard."

(Just out of curiosity, I wonder what it's like in the Time offices now, as Halperin and Joe Klein pass each other in the hall, each eyeing the other warily....Do you think Halperin sees Klein as a traitor for daring to criticize Saint McCain?).

It's schadenfreudenly funny watching Beltway hacks adjust to the constantly shifting realities of this year's campaign trail. Seeing Halperin and Dowd and the others desperately trying to shape the narratives, as they have in past election cycles, is kind of like watching Kyle in the "Chinpokomon" episode of South Park, feverishly trying on one fad after another in order to stay "cool": Obama is a celebrity! McCain is a Maverick! Palin is the Savior! Palin is a Hack!

No links to the Halperin piece (don't feel like giving him hits he doesn't deserve, thanks), but here's the hilariously backwards money quote from his 'analysis,' under the heading "Image" :

McCain's self-engineered and Palin-fueled metamorphosis from experienced veteran to reformer-with-results-maverick has proved effective, if risky. Obama has yet to cement his political persona-- even as the electorate is readying its final judgment.

Remember, stepping into what Digby calls The Village is like entering Alice In Wonderland-- up is down, left is right, and the rules constantly change, based on what the Red Queen desires. Out in the world of the actual electorate, I suspect the final judgment was rendered this week, and proved to be the opposite of Halperin's Tinker Bell-like wishing: Palin's approval ratings now stand at a mind-numbing -4 (how does one get negative points in a poll, anyway? Do dead people hate her, too?), and McCain's gaffes on Spain, on the SEC, and on health care-- and his flip-flopping on regulation and deregulation-- have only reinforced his image as a craven, pandering, mercenary old man who literally won't define "honor".

The media are struggling with what Josh Marshall has dubbed the "Riding The Tire Swing" question-- do they call McCain on his unending stream of cynical bullshit, or remain on the bus and feed him donuts? Halperin's "Scorecard" is one example of this crisis of pseudo-conscience, but it looks more and more of them are coming around to the idea of McCain as "Two-Face," as laid out by the excellent Black Snob:

John McCain has gone from being America's Dark Knight to Two-Face, and not Aaron Eckhart's brilliant "Two-Face" Harvey Dent in "The Dark Knight," but Tommy Lee Jones' shitty "Two-Face" Harvey Dent in "Batman Forever."

And for those still on the Swing, let Stephen Colbert gently help you off:

Saturday Music Flashback: I Don't Know How To Write A Big Hit Song

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Quote of the Day

From conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan, on Sarah Palin:

Increasingly, she seems like a character in a Ricky Gervais comedy: caught in endless confabulations and not skilled enough to get away with them.

Thursday Music Flashback: Girls Doing Double Dutch

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Delayed Desires

Meme time! I've been tagged by film blogger and Facebook friend Dennis Cozzalio, who, building on a tag from Joseph B. (who was tagged by Adam at DVD Panache), asks the following:

What are 12 Movies I’ve Never Seen and Desperately Want to See?

This is a question about shame and confession, desire and obligation. When I was in grad school, a friend wanted to start what she dubbed "The Moby Dick Book Club," where we'd gather to read and discuss those books we were ashamed to admit we hadn't read. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago noted the academic habit of speaking about books you were "re-reading," fearful to admit that you hadn't read such-and-such famous text in the first place.

Movies are the same way, and twelve isn't nearly big enough a number. I was tempted just to place a link to my Netflix queue, except then you'd see that it includes things like Honey West and Jumper and Liza With A "Z", and there are some confessions I'm just not willing to make. I could also just say, "Everything by Renoir and Hitchcock, and Hawks and Ophuls, and Minnelli and Truffaut, and Altman and Michael Powell, and Keaton and Chaplin that I haven't seen yet," but that's too vague, and too easy. And of course, the minute I name twelve, I'll think of twelve others I want to see just as much.

With all those caveats out of the way, here are twelve movies on my must-see list, listed alphabetically.

Also, Dennis, about Ben-Hur-- don't do it, my friend! It's just not worth it, despite some great moments.

1.Aguirre, The Wrath of God: I knew a lot more about Werner Herzog's contemporary Wim Wenders when I first started taking film classes in college, but I find myself more and more interested in Herzog, particularly after watching him go mad in Les Blank's Burden of Dreams. But I've never seen this, perhaps his most famous film. I remember I first read about it in one of Roger Ebert's Filmgoing Companions when I was about thirteen, and Ebert's evocative descriptions made it sound like a journey into a physical and psychological landscape different than any I'd seen before; I almost felt like I was seeing it unfold in my head as I read his review: I could feel the dirt and sweat on my skin. It's always been on my list of movies to see, but I've never quite gotten around to it.

2.Alice in Wonderland (1933 version): Cary Grant playing Mock Turtle? 'Nuff said. As far as I know, it's unavailable. As far as I know, there's good reason for that. But the perversity of casting the greatest movie actor of all time in a misbegotten children's film, and then covering his head with a turtle costume is a remarkably awful idea; it's on a par with casting Fred Astaire in On The Beach and then enclosing him in race car, a decision that, as David Thomson rightly notes, only confirms the cinematic illiteracy of Stanley Kramer. And yet, I long to see Alice unfold, like a car crash, on my TV.

3.At Long Last Love: When Larry held his Burt Reynolds Blog-a-thon last spring, he and I emailed about this movie. I asked him if he was going to write about it, and he said he'd love to, except it was not available.

And that's a shame. Most of the movies on this list, famous or not, would probably be acknowledged as "good" according to various criteria of taste, technical achievement, innovation, historical importance, etc. This is the one movie that probably would be read as "bad," because of some combination of technical ineptitude, dislike of musicals, dislike of director Peter Bogdanovich (Peter Biskind has a field day mocking the movie in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, although I always sensed that was because Bogdanovich didn't fit into the mold of Drug-Addled Macho Genius that Biskind was so sweaty to valorize, as much as it was anything to do with the film itself), and its complete commercial failure.

But if Heaven's Gate can get a critical re-evaluation, why not show this some Love? Although he doesn't produce as much these days, Bogdanovich's run from Targets through They All Laughed has aged extremely well, and whether it's good or bad, I'd love to see how this movie-- with Burt and Cybill singing Cole Porter-- fits into his body of work.

4.Blondie of the Follies: Billie Dove is a figure that appears and re-appears in the first chapter of my dissertation, and this was one of her final films. She was a paramour of Howard Hughes, a well-known Follies girl, an aviatrix, and one of the silent era's best-loved starlets. She starred in this movie with Marion Davies, but when William Randolph Hearst saw a rough cut, he thought Dove was stealing the picture from Davies, and had it re-edited to make Dove look like a villain. Disgusted, Dove threw up her hands, married a wealthy real-estate mogul, and dropped out of the movie business. Not even David O. Selznick (who wanted to cast Davies as Belle Watling in Gone With The Wind) could get her to change her mind.

Is this movie any good? I have no idea, but I do like musicals, and I want to see it simply to see what all the fuss was about. It played on TCM once, several years ago, and I kicked myself that I forgot to set a tape. Its fascination is as much pedagogical, then, as cinematic, but I also love the idea of it as a genuine source of mystery, and as the answer to the question-- what did a lost silent film star look like?

(Fellow film blogger Jonathan has also expressed an interest in this film).

5.Children of Paradise: I have absolutely no idea why I haven't seen this film. I love the school of French Poetic Realism into which it's often placed. It offers the mixture of heady fantasy, historical realism, melodramatic romance and cinephiliac glamour that is my mother's milk. It's influenced generations of directors I admire. Everyone I know seems to mention this film, and love it.

Most embarrassing of all? I own this film. I bought it four years ago, and have always meant to watch it. But...but...but....I never have.

I suspect it's the length-- at 190 minutes, and coming in two parts, I've never found the energy to sit down and watch the whole thing (although, somehow, I found four hours to watch Ben-Hur-- oh, the pitfalls of wasted youth!). It's not just the length, though. Ben-Hur was part of my goal, over the course of one year, to watch every Best Picture winner I'd missed (only the somnambulant Around The World In 80 Days thwarted me)-- it was part of a large process, and as such, I didn't really care what kind of mood I was in when I saw it. I so want to love Children of Paradise, though, that I want to find exactly the right time and place and mood to see it in, and that's just never happened. Of all the films on this list, though, it's the one that holds the most fascination for me.

6.Darling: Julie Christie, Laurence Harvey, mod fashion, Swingin' London: Darling contains some of my favorite pop cultural signifiers, but I've just never gotten around to it, perhaps because I was suspicious that John Schlesinger (auteur behind the heartbreaking Midnight Cowboy and the utterly unsubtle Marathon Man) was the right man to capture the period. I'm wary of heavy-handed allegories about the corrupting powers of bourgeois pop, but all that stuff I mentioned above might make it a fair trade-off.

7.The Earrings of Madame de...: This actually just came yesterday from Amazon, in a spanking new transfer from the Criterion Collection, and I can't wait to tear it open and toss it in the player (we'll see how nice my cinephiliac desire plays with my guilt about actually getting work done this week). I fell in love with Max Ophuls three years ago, when I saw Letter From An Unknown Woman and Lola Montes back-to-back on a hot summer night. Teaching Montes a couple of years later in a cinephilia class only increased my admiration. Everything I've read about Ophuls mentions Earrings, and my heart skipped a beat when I read that it was finally being released on American DVD. The challenge I now face with it is to see whether or not it lives up to my hopes: it's one thing to be surprised by a movie, but to be disappointed after such a long waiting period? That's far more crushing.

8.Last Year At Marienbad: It's only recently that I've come to appreciate Alain Resnais's work.

I blame Pauline Kael's hilarious takedown of his films in "Predilections of the Art House Audience"-- I can't agree with her reading of Hiroshima Mon Amour now that I've seen it, but the essay spoke to me in its dissection of pompous art-house denizens, and I still think of it when I hear people praising There Will Be Blood. For years, this meant I glanced warily at Marienbad across the room, and hoped it didn't come over and talk to me.

Having seen Mon Amour, I'm now very curious to see this later masterwork, not least of all because it inspired the pre-credits sequence of From Russia With Love.

9. Lubitsch Musicals: This is actually a four-disc box set released through Criterion's Eclipse label, which includes the following films: The Love Parade, Monte Carlo, The Smiling Lieutenant, and One Hour With You. Having read about them in Rick Altman's essential The American Film Musical, I know the films, especially 1929's The Love Parade, hold historical importance as some of the earliest and most sexually sophisticated of all Hollywood musicals; they also offer the underrated charms of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, whose pleasures I'm re-engaging with this week as I teach their best pairing, Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight.

But mostly, I'm hoping this box offers prime Lubitsch, as there are few pre-Code pleasures more sensuous or engaging than an Ernst Lubitsch movie. I suspect none of these films can match Trouble In Paradise in the sheer bliss department, but I'm thinking there's still a lot of bliss to be had here.

10/11. A Star Is Born/The Magnificent Ambersons (original versions): In the comments section of an earlier post, good friend Dave mentioned the allure of the lost movie-- the one that, due to the ravages of time, the pique of its makers or the cultural blindness of its financiers, no longer exists in its original form, or even at all. These are two of the most famous examples of heavily edited films from the Classical period of Hollywood, and what I'm longing for here is the impossible-- to take a time machine back to 1954 and 1942, respectively, and see them in their original cuts.

Yes, I know there was a restored version of Star released in 1983, and it's a wonderful treasure and I own it. But-- with all due respect those who worked on the fantastic restoration--and as great as it is to have the restored soundtracks on lost scenes, to bring back cut numbers and to cleverly match them with still images-- none of that can ever match what it must have been like to see it all unfold as a single piece. It's arguably Judy Garland's best performance (certainly her saddest), and certainly James Mason's (as sublime as he is in North By Northwest), and George Cukor's mise-en-scene is so perfectly proportioned, so artfully balanced between melodrama and underplaying. Chopping it up seems like a crime.

I can't add anything to what 66 years of mournful cinephiles have said about Ambersons. But man, it's such an exquisite corpse, even in its butchered form, that I can only imagine how great the lengthier version was. Perhaps neither of these movies could ever live up to the myths in our heads-- maybe, like the lost past of the Ambersons, with that onomatopoetic last name, their imagined lost greatness is more attractive than the reality. But that's a gamble I'd love to take.

12.Such A Gorgeous Kid Like Me: If I were to make a list of my favorite directors, Francois Truffaut would be right near the top, with only Renoir and Howard Hawks ranking higher. This is the only feature of his I've never seen, and as far as I know, it's never been available on video in the U.S. Truffaut admitted that it was slight piece, done mostly as a favor to the star, Bernadette Lafont. But the definitive Truffaut biography by Antoine de Baecque and Serge Toubiana, while not really praising the film, suggests that it's at least trying to be a madcap farce, and the idea of one of my favorite filmmakers tackling a screwball structure is just too good to resist.

Honorable mention:

Chimes At Midnight
Elena and Her Men
Forbidden Games
Juliet of the Spirits
The Leopard
Pepe Le Moko
Tales of Hoffmann
Waltzes From Vienna

I'll tag Bob, Brendan, and Girish. And if anyone else wants to play, feel free to pick this up as a meme on your blog (but please cite the chain of links I noted up top), or to list in the comments section.