Monday, December 31, 2007

Book: Who Are the Violets Now?, by Auberon Waugh

Auberon is no Evelyn, but their differences are less than their similarities, and perhaps it is too cruel to begin to write about a writer by comparing him with his more famous father. And yet, tropes and structure and witticisms are the same, including the envelope-pushing racist and classist cracks that one can never be sure are strictly sarcastic.

This story is of one Arthur Friendship, a thirty-something single man, a Romantic and Idealist who, at the novels opening, lives in a boarding house, writes pseudonymic cant for a women's magazine for his living, and works for a peace organization in pursuit of his higher ideals. He fancies the exquisite Elizabeth Pedal, idolizes the pro-peace activist Mr. Besant, and suffers the existence of a variety of more crude men (Mr. Carpenter, his editor at the magazine; Ferdie Jacques, a younger member of the peace organization and a callous womanizer to boot; and Thomas (Toe-mass) Gray, an African-American poet who takes the liberty of a mile whence given an inch). Because of his sublimated baser feelings for Miss Pedal, when she takes up sexually with the black poet Gray, he becomes a hater of blacks (his hate further motivated by fear), and when fleeing his own boarding house (where Gray knows he lives, and may come to kill him), insists on moving into another boarding house where blacks simply won't be allowed (not that they had been allowed, in fact, in his previous home). After quite a bit of romping intrigue, when Gray has left and Miss Pedal is instead shacking with Ferdie, Friendship suffers hideous burns when his new boarding house is burnt by an arsonist (perhaps Gray, perhaps Jacques, perhaps both in cahoots against racist boarding houses), and while he is in hospital, Ferdie Jacques takes the last thing that Friendship imagined belonged to him, that being a post as Mr. Besant's personal secretary. Mr. Besant, we discover, believes in the kind of "tangible" peace that can only be brought about by the complete annihilation of the human race (though he had his start working for the Nazis and exterminating Jews, Gypsies, and other "non-contributors"), and while he is extradited by a group of Israelis to face trial, Friendship, on his way to visit the polite Elizabeth Pedal, is hit by a car and sent to his death. The book ends there, as easily as Evelyn's almost always do, with a big, red, shiny, sorrowful bow.

Auberon's prose is a bit thicker, if less snarky, than his father's, and he has a way of choosing character names that obliquely recall other literary and historical figures for the amusement of his readership in a way that feels more intellectual. Indeed, Who Are the Violets Now? is a much more demanding read than The Loved One or A Handful of Dust, though it remains no Brideshead Revisited. The irony of the Waughs, though, remains for me somewhat tenuous; as much as we are made to laugh at their heroes' small minds, we cannot but wonder at the writers' deep empathy with these heroes, and witness a kind of intellectual nostalgia for that closure. Considering, too, the Waugh readership (sure, myself included), one has ones suspicions.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Movies: Persepolis

I had been quite excited about this animated feature when I saw the trailer, but alas, it seems the trailer is all one needed to see. The film itself turned out to be just as choppy and episodic, only longer, with the highlights all dispersed between the feminine emotional drudgery I so loathe (which loathing has led me to consider myself one of the first female misogynists out there).

The story is the autobiographical one of artist and writer (oh, pardon, graphic novelist) Marjane Satrapi, who grew up in Tehran and witnessed, as a precocious child, the fall of the Shah's regime, and the replacement of it by the more militant religionists we see there today. Satrapi's family, though connected by blood to the Shah, was rather leftist, and her film shows her relatives and friends being taken as political prisoners, jailed and sometimes executed. For her own safety, her parents sent her to Europe as an adolescent, and she grew up basically on her own in Germany and France.

The beginning half of the film, which describes Satrapi's childhood in Tehran, is rather lovely--poignant and witty--but just as teenagers are generally less pleasant than kindergartners, the remainder of the film, during which our heroine suffers from the depression brought on by a number of failed love affairs, drags quite a bit. Satrapi introduces color in the scenes that take place in the "present," where she sits in a French airport, recollecting her past, which we see in black and white flashback. The memories are strung together like the (for me, terribly unfulfilling) pages of a comic book (excuse me, graphic novel), which, by their textual limitations, can only delve so deep.

Most confusing, for me, is Satrapi's choice to film the dialogue in French, rather than Farsi. She did attend a French academy growing up, and perhaps her family spoke French in the home (they certainly do in the movie, but then again, so does everyone else), but in showing a French-speaking household, in a film in which all the characters are homogeneous shadow drawings, to an extent ethnicity-free, Satrapi misleads her audience, which might wonder whether her family were expatriates, working for some reason in Iran (which would be a fair explanation for their unusually progressive values). This is clarified later, when her grandmother describes their blood connection to the Shah, but for a time, I found myself rather uncertain.

Ultimately, I cannot say that this film sheds any new or different light on the current Western perspective on Iran or its Muslim regime; a short sequence in which Satrapi's father explains to the child Marjane England's role in the Shah's rise to power, and later the West's further role in feeding arms to both sides in the civil war, in very clear and simple terms clarified some recent history about which I was previously a bit cloudy (having been an even younger child when all of this was happening, with parents equally progressive, but far less politically inclined), and for that I am grateful. But the sweetness of seeing the adolescent Marjane rocking out to a bootleg cassette of Iron Maiden, or changing, in 20/20 hindsight, her rendering of a lover who jilted her, come from feeling a bond of sameness with Satrapi, rather than an introduction to something different. I've gained no real insight into anything other than (blech) femininity by watching this film, whereas I expected to come away with a deeper understanding of something more foreign.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Books: Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov

Surprisingly, unfortunately, this was not such a good book. Maybe it shouldn't have been so surprising; Lolita is, for the first half or two-thirds, utterly brilliant, and Pale Fire, though difficult as all hell to fight through, is conceptually astounding. But Speak, Memory is like a bog with no water, and there's only so much steam one can get out of the same character (and I will hereby accuse Nabokov of constantly reusing the same character). This time, the man's name is Pnin, and he's (surprise surprise!) a older, socially-awkward, Russian emigre professor at a small American university. He struggles with memories of the past, and the drafts of the present in each of the rooming houses he attempts to comfortably inhabit (a grave problem, too, are the "sonic disturbances.")

As always with Nabokov, the phrase is better than the sentence, which is better than the paragraph, which is better than the chapter, which is better than the novel. There is one utterly brilliant passage toward the beginning when Pnin, after having all of his teeth pulled and replaced by dentures, recalls in poetic detail the unconscious joys his tongue had found passing across and against those teeth all his life, and recoils at the personified grin in a glass that mocks him from the bathroom sink. Passage aside (which can be read all on its own), there's really no need to read the rest of the darned thing, unless you really have absolutely nothing else to do.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Movies: There Will Be Blood

I loved loved loved this movie, and yet I'm more than a bit surprised that it's received any critical acclaim, and that anyone else likes it at all. I imagine that everyone else must find it terribly boring for the first two hours, and then terribly absurd for the last half hour. There's no love story, no adventure sequences (chases, battles, brawls), no sex, no dancing, and a weirdly brilliant semi-avant-garde soundtrack from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. Really, there's nothing here to latch onto besides Daniel Day-Lewis' filthy mustache. . . and yet, I was immobilized (as in riveted) until the film's explosive ending, when I exploded with glee, and the man sitting next to me asked, "Excuse me, but did you actually enjoy that film?"

Day-Lewis is Daniel Plainview, a self-made man, an oil prospector cut from classic capitalist cloth, with worse than Machiavellian ethics. In the pit of his psyche is a disrespect-turned-loathing for other people, and he uses them not if he can, but if he must. These are ugly insides, but they resonate with me. He has no truck with religion, but neither is he a principled atheist; he willingly submits to public confession followed by baptism once he sees that it's the only way to get a key tract of land leased for his pipeline. He seems at first a doting single father, but when his son loses hearing in an explosion, and can no longer fuel his father's pride, Plainview nearly disowns him, and actually does disown him near the film's very end, when the now-grown and married young man, speaking in sign language through an interpreter, asks his for his father's blessing to begin his own business, drilling in Mexico. A stranger coming through town, claiming to be Plainview's "brother. . . by another mother" (the only flaw in this film, as far as I'm concerned, is this line) quickly becomes Plainview's new business partner and "friend" (whatever such a term could mean to a Daniel Plainview) , and just as soon becomes his victim, shot in the head and buried in the oil-seething dirt when Plainview discovers he is an impostor of that half-brother, now dead. We might wonder whether this violence is so much a punishment for deception, or actually Plainview's id, lashing out to protect itself; we've just heard him have the most emotive conversation he's had thus far, and seen him swimming half-naked in the ocean, unprotected, bare, stripped.

In the final scenes, the setting shifts from the fiery, sooty, sandy derricks to the interior of a high-ceilinged mansion, where, surrounded by opulence, Plainview shoots his rifle indoors, signs checks, and still sleeps unshaven on the floor, dirt under his fingernails. Here, the young preacher who once did his utmost to humiliate Plainview (after, mind you, Plainview had already humiliated him), comes for a "friendly visit" (to ask for money) and finds himself first humiliated (forced to shout, with conviction, "I am a false prophet; God is a superstition!") and then bludgeoned to death with a bowling pin. At this point, my breath swelled to a delighted pant (is there something wrong with me that I take such pleasure in the destruction of religious hypocrisy?) With a pool of blood emanating from the preacher's head, Plainview looks up at his frowzy old butler, coming down the stairs at the sound of shouting, and says simply, "I'm finished now;" here the movie ends, and the audience walks away, confused, disappointed, annoyed, or, in my case, strangely elated.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Movies: Control

Though a little longer than it needs to be, this Ian Curtis biopic, in stunning, full grain black and white, proves that still photographers have plenty of business in movie making. Though the plot extends a bit into the domestic melodrama a more savvy director might mock, and the trope of the troubled rock star is bought into wholeheartedly rather than challenged in any way, Sam Riley and Alexandra Maria Lara give such luscious performances so beautifully photographed that the audience barely notices.

Samantha Morton, as Deborah Curtis (who produced the film, and wrote the autobiography on which the screenplay is based), ever ballooning with pregnancy and then depression, and dressed in the most distressing post-psychedelic mumus you've ever encountered, is thoroughly annoying, but one cannot hold her role against her, only express surprise that Ms. Curtis would be willing to portray herself thus. While it's not hard to understand why Ian Curtis would stray from her for the willowy, European Annik Honoré, it is hard to understand why he chose to marry her so young (barely out of high school), and have a baby. Based on Corbijn's early shots of Curtis—alone in his bedroom, chain smoking, listening to David Bowie records, or out with his mate scoring prescription drugs from an old lady's bathroom, then tripping in the grass—it's never clear why he would want a family of his own; he appears malsocialized, and best when alone, writing poems, smoking, dreaming. It's no surprise when he cracks under the pressure of performances, two women's sucking affection, and the countless ineffective pills necessary to stave off the epileptic fits that come over him anyway (Riley, by the way, falls to a seething, quaking, drooling fit brilliantly). I had thought that Curtis had died from one of these fits (I knew that he had died disturbingly young), so was horribly surprised when, at the film's end, he hangs himself in his estranged wife's kitchen. After the movie, I went home and listened to all of my Joy Division records; I've always liked the band, but the music had seemed more hollowly foreboding before. Now, the dread is pregnant, thick, hot.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Movies: Sweeney Todd

In my tweens and teens, I adored musicals. My mom took me to New York every year to visit grampa, and the first time I was old enough, asked me whether I wanted to see something called Cats or something called The Joffrey Ballet. I must have been nine or ten, and I chose the ballet (I took ballet classes at the time, and the concept of a bunch of people dressed up as tap-dancing cats frightened me). A few days before, I changed my mind and told my mom that I wanted to see Cats, but it was too late; she had already bought the tickets. I fell asleep at the ballet (which, incidentally, was Sleeping Beauty) and I think my mom did too. The next year, we saw Cats. And again the next year, and the next year again. I probably saw it five times total; I had the soundtrack and the book and memorized all of the songs; it was my favorite musical. Meanwhile, we had gone to see others; the next trip we saw two, then three. At the height of my obsession we probably saw four musicals and a play all in one week. I didn't like a lot of them (Tommy, The Phantom of the Opera, Miss Saigon, Showboat, The Goodbye Girl—the list goes on), but I kept my Playbills and ticket stubs faithfully stacked, and when I started high school, I sang all eight semesters in the chorus and tried out for every spring musical (and was cast in none). After chorus rehearsals, my friends and I would sit around outside of the theatre, chatting, listening to music, singing, snacking, and waiting for 5:30 (that's when my mom picked me up, because that's when my friends had their bus back home to a farther county). The theater entrance had been painted with a mural of old posters for musicals I'd never seen or heard of (Equus, A Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd) and my friend Niky, who even in high school had no concept of self-consciousness or shame, would act out the posters and add a bit of Mystery Science Theater-like commentary, like, "George! I have no eyes!" which indeed, the woman walking across the landscaped poster for A Sunday lacked. My point is twofold; one, my introduction to Sweeney Todd was there, where Niky summarized the plot for me (it's about a pie shop, but the pies are made from dead people), and two, though I once liked musicals, I've since ceased to be moved by their melodramatic majesty, which seems to work best on children, tourists, gays, and old people.

Movie musicals, in general, are travesties (or witness the here unreviewed Everyone Says I Love You. As I've explained before, it's a bad idea to mix singing and dancing with walking and talking, particularly when the music consists of stop-start pop songs. The makers of Sweeney Todd seem to have had the sense to realize this, and therefore made their movie musical like a regular stage set musical, except tailored to the screen (much better tailored, mind you, than those stage-set Shakespearean videos you had to watch in school). The blood is copious, fire engine red, and absurdly squirtiful. There are no group numbers. The music never really stops. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are perfectly matched and delightfully dreadful; their songs together, particularly My Friends, are brilliant. The only truly dreadful dreck is the constantly-reprising Johanna song, crooned by the besotted Anthony at Sweeney Todd's lovely young daughter, imprisoned in a window by the evil Judge Turpin. In all honesty, I had expected a bit more from the art direction (something in the way of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events), but any lacking was made up for by Sweeney Todd's thrilling barber chair, which he sets up to hinge backward at the turn of a crank, depositing each dead body onto the basement floor through a flap in the floor. Mrs. Lovett's meat grinder is also rather thrilling.

I never stopped to wonder whether there might be something wrong with me that I responded to this gruesome, goresome tale with the kind of delight usually shown by three year olds for lollipops until I sat down to write this, but I'll blame all that delight on Sondheim's light touch and quick wit (cf. the lyrics for A Little Priest, probably the film's best number).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Books: Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell

Sometimes, I really enjoy things, but I don't want to write about them. Then I wonder whether I am just being a big ol' lazy twat. Then I decide that it's not a complete unwillingness to write, but merely an unwillingness to pick at something that is perfectly pristine, small, incisive despite itself, something that is like an unmucked rain puddle on a clear winter morning, reflecting all the world around it.

Black Swan Green begins at the site of such a wintry puddle, but it's a pond, and it's frozen over. Here we meet our narrator who, over the course of the novel, one year, twelve discrete chapters, like monthly episodes sharing keynotes but rising and falling like separate waves, will battle, mostly silently, with his coming of age; there are bullies, parents who don't love each other any more, a speech impediment, a secret society, a curious old lady, another curious old lady, a frozen kitten, a severed mouse head, a county fair, an attractive tomboy, a wallet stuffed with money that must be returned, a kiss, a dance, an older sister with a boyfriend with a sports car. There is a precocious inner life kept secret, revealed to us in the reading, and we fall head past heels in love with it. That's all I want to say; read it yourself if you want to know more.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Movies: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

From its opening shot, in which Phillip Seymour Hoffman, channeling a sun-bleached beached whale, belly quivering, thumps a scrawny, bottle-tanned whore (oh wait—that's Marisa Tomei) from the back, surrounded by opulent silk sheets and mirrors (in case seeing it from one side isn't good enough for you), I could tell that this movie was going to be dreadful. I should have realized that it was also going to be painfully contrived, but for some reason, that took me a bit more time. Marisa Tomei (looking rather hot for her age, I must say) plays Phil Hoffman's wife, and yeah, she's quite the whore, because she's fucking her husband's brother, too (that would be Ethan Hawke). All of these characters have names, but the film is so transparent that it would be pointless to use them; it would also be pointless because none of these actors ever do much acting; Phil Hoffman is always a pompous asshole, Ethan Hawke is always a sweet and likable fuck-up, and Marisa Tomei is always hot; if only the story ended there and we all went home.

Instead, we have to watch Sydney Lumet go through the dramatic motions of making a movie. I am a big fan of craft, but craft can't rescue an idiotic plot, and indeed then only becomes a distraction. The idiotic plot is as follows: Ethan Hawke is a sweet and likable fuck-up (what a surprise) and can't pay his child support, so when his brother Phil Hoffman asks him to join in on the perfect robbery, he plays sucker and agrees. It's only then that he finds out that he's to rob his own parents' jewelry store, and Phil, being a pompous asshole, isn't going to come along. Hawke gets nervous and decides to bring along a loser friend to do the job; his loser friend, being a loser, brings a gun and, when things go unaccording to plan, shoots the old lady in the store, and gets shot dead by her as well. She goes into a coma. Mind you, she's the mom of Phil Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. She doesn't come out of the coma. Dad starts going crazy. Meanwhile, we find out that the reason Phil needs the money (he never told his brother or his wife or anyone) is because of his very expensive drug habit—coke and heroin (the latter which he procures from the only likable character in the whole movie: a surly homosexual pretty boy with an ultralush loft in Chelsea Heights who always answers the door wearing a kimono and holding a gun).

Now, Ethan's dead buddy's wife's thuggish brother is out to bleed him for the dough he doesn't have, he still hasn't paid his alimony, and everyone around him is losing it. We, in the audience, wish everyone would die so that the movie will end. After about fifty-seven plot twists, there are another twenty-three plot twists (mind you the film doesn't progress in linear order, and we see numerous scenes two or three times from different perspectives) and the movie does end, but not until Phil Hoffman's dad finds out that it was his own evil son who's to blame for mom's death (oh yeah, they finally took her off the life support). Dad goes to the hospital where Phil Hoffman is on same support after being shot by the dead buddy's wife after shooting her thuggish brother (Hawke gets away with the gym bag of drugs and money stolen from the pretty boy dealer whom Hoff also shot) and smothers his son with a pillow. At long last, the bloody thing is over and we get to go home.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Dance: December Dance Creations at Juilliard

Rarely do I start this way, but ugh, this was just no good. The program started weakly, and while I preserved hope that it would improve, it only got worse. These were the performances of the sophomore, junior, and senior classes of the Juilliard Dance program, and while I know that the dancers themselves are quite proficient, the choreography and staging, not to mention the music, left everything to be desired.

The show came with a lengthy introduction from conductor James Conlon, who lectured on the musical compositions that were chosen to accompany the dancers—each a suppressed work of a composer thumbed under by the Nazi regime, these pieces of music had not been performed live since that time, and never before in the U.S. This all seemed interesting enough (indeed, I would like it if every show I went to see came with such an informative introductory lecture; oh, how I miss school) until I actually heard the soporific music. It wasn't completely dreadful; there was one bit of Schulhoff's Ogelala during which the orchestra ceased playing and the stringy strains of a banjo were wound around by the lilting wails of a soprano, and these sounds wafted into the theatre through an open door high above us and to far stage right, the entrance to a box seat, perhaps. This was a truly avant-garde and beautiful moment (and it is rare that these two things, like banjo and soprano, come together), but it soon ceased, and the orchestra again picked up its traditional brass and melodramatic strings.

The dancing is, I'm sorry to say, even less worthy of discussion. The first piece, performed by the sophomores, was called Prelude to a Drama; swathed in steam, the girls wore lengthy gowns and the men went topless in tights, and everyone flitted about in a manner designed to offend absolutely no one except me, much like elevator music, chicken noodle soup, and Monet's Waterlilies. The second piece, performed by the juniors, was called Proximity Effect, and abided by an opposing aesthetic, something of Tamara de Lempicka, Ayn Rand, and the 1980s, but all desexed. Costumes again were dreadful, but the stage was undressed beautifully, revealing all of the black-painted guts of lights and cables and conduit. I preferred to watch it to the dancing. The last piece, and the worst, and the favorite of my theater-going companion, was performed by the seniors and called No Longer Silent. It was hyper-theatrical, more movement-thought than dance, more concept than art, and it was also brutally ugly. It was not without any take-away for the budding choreographer (the dancers, for example, were often divided into three groups, and would dance within their groups, in formation, in a way that would be appealing had the choreography been more interesting), but for the stranded audience, a breath of soprano-wound banjoy was the only respite in a parade of hideous, meaningless drama.

I won't go on to comment on the hollow mockeries of titles given to these three pieces; I will only point out that my companion quite enjoyed two-thirds of the show, and that all, therefore, was not lost. All the same, I will not be going back, and I will also warn choreographers against ever putting so many bodies on the stage at one time.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Books: The Cement Garden, by Ian McEwan

This is the first Ian McEwan I've read, and I read it not because his "Now a Major Motion Picture!" Atonement was waitlisted at the library (which I imagine it is), but because I am a massive fan of Todd McEwen, who is in no way related to Ian McEwan, except in people's confused minds (mine included, at first). I needed to be able to differentiate between the two, and while I was accustomed to saying that Todd McX was the superior man, I had to acknowledge that until I read something from this other famed McHominym, I was talking out of my ass. And The Cement Garden, while nothing like McEwen's gut-busting intellectual romps, quite delighted me anyway.

The writing is limpid and nostalgic and sensual rather than frenetic and intellectual and multivalent. In describing the plot to a friend, I was interrupted by his brilliant synopsis: "So, it's a cross between Lolita and Lord of the Flies?" Indeed. Focalized through an adolescent male narrator with social troubles enough between acne, masturbation, and the the haughty thumb of his teenage sister, the story slips from inviting to disturbing to (delightfully) horrifying. The reader, however, swept along in the natural stream of narration, finds nothing unnatural in the behavior of these four siblings, whose actions make perfect sense, given their options upon the domino death of their parents. (After their father dies, the four children, ranging from six to sixteen, two girls and two boys, learn to take well enough care of themselves when their mother falls ill and takes permanently to her bed. When she dies, rather than tell anyone and risk being split into different adoptive homes, they drag her body into the basement and bury it in a chest of wet cement, hoping to lock away the secret forever).

Despite the filth that accumulates in the kitchen (no parents, no chores) and the general aimlessness of the siblings (it's summer vacation, and no one plans on going back to school in the fall), things go fairly well. The youngest boy, who has trouble with bullies and seems somehow malsocialized, requests to become a girl, and his sisters, sewing some old dresses to his size, appease him, wig and all. The oldest sister, playing at being grown up, finds herself a boyfriend—at first a mystery provider of expensive new boots and clothing, but soon a regular visitor to the house who wants to be let in on its secret. A sweet, sick smell emanates from the basement; the gasses of the decomposing body under pressure have cracked the cement, and, told that the encased corpse is that of a dead dog, the boyfriend willingly (and knowingly) patches the crack. His frustration at not being trusted with the secret's truth begins to mount as intensely as the smell, and he bursts into the house one evening only to see his rage became truly explosive: our narrator and his older sister, whom he has so loved and hated and desired, lie together on their mother's bed, taking each other's virginity, while the youngest, playing at being a baby, lies aside them, watching. Sick, twisted, lovely, and punctuated by the sound of sirens (while his girlfriend copulates with her brother, the boyfriend's jealousy manifests itself in a call to the police), the novel ends there.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Movies: Juno

Notes on Preggy Chic and the pro-life media machine:

1. It's been near impossible these past few years to walk past a newsstand without seeing a magazine headline dishing on so-and-so's new "bump;" words can be noxious enough, but a picture's worth a thousand. This month, I'm haunted by this:

Sure, there was this before it:

and this long before that:

but I would argue that frequency and intensity are increasing. There is now such a thing as the "Celebrity Bump Watch," and googling those terms will lead you to loads of slideshows thanks to the patrolers at People, CBS, Us Weekly, The Sun, iVillage, and—roll this one in your mouth for awhile— It's clear that, as stated on iVillage, "The hottest trend this. . . season has been the baby bump."

2. Knocked Up is thinly veiled propaganda, and much more horrifying than it is funny. What's even more horrifying is that audiences did indeed laugh.

3. Critics are saying that Juno is either more realistic or more fair or more feminist-approved. Though it's clearly a better movie, it's still propaganda. If you were an intelligent sixteen year old girl with a future, would the concept of tiny fingernails inspire even a slight hesitation on your way to abortion? Didn't think so.

4. The Center for Disease Control (yes, I did say disease control, does that strike you as odd?) has reported that based on data gathered through 2006, the teen birth rate has risen for the first time in 14 years. Additionally, the non-marital birth rate has reached an all-time high, up 16% from 2002. Finally, and most importantly, the total fertility rate reached the highest it's been since 1971.

I'm actually using the term "propaganda" somewhat playfully; while I don't consider this. . . trend. . . (pun, for once, intended) quite a laughing matter, I'm no conspiracy theorist. I am not proposing that there are or were any top-secret meetings at which George W sat at the head of a board table, flanked by the minister of the female interior, a demographer, Judd Apatow, reps from the major Hollywood studios, and a sales exec from Bugaboo (purveyors of fine baby carriages ($759.99 for the "frog" model), whose website rivals that of BMW, purveyors of fine automobiles), to decide that abstinence-only sex education, when combined with a pro-repro media barrage, was the only way to reinvigorate the country's waning reproduction rate, thereby ensuring the production of future waves of consumers. I'm certain that the films are far more symptomatic of said "trend" than instigatory, although they are guaranteed to be entrenchatory. But here is a question for you: why aren't any of these besmitten, besotted, beset females on the pill? And even if they weren't, what stopped them from inhaling the now-available-directly-from-your-pharmacist Plan B ("morning after") tablets? Narrative devices, of course; no pregnancy means, in the case of Knocked Up, no love story, and in Juno, no single-mom adoption story (oops, spoiler; sorry. . . well, not really).

So what's my problem? The entrenchatory powers of film, of course. It's bad enough for the individual who spends his or her life wondering why love isn't what it ought to be (i.e., the way we see it portrayed again and again on screen); having false expectations for oneself generally leads only to disappointment, self-loathing, depression, and anxiety, and the pharmaceutical industry has got us covered on that front. I'm far more concerned about all the impressionable young women across the country, coveting Hollywood's bumps. It's one thing to covet JLo's six-carat, pink diamond ring; you're probably not going to ever get one, but you can buy an imitation on the internet for $24.99 without much affecting anyone. A bump, on the other hand, is totally procurable, and to get it only requires engaging in a fun and healthy activity you'd probably be engaging in anyway. The only difference is the consequence's duration. When the pink diamond becomes déclassé, you can toss it in the closet or trash or street and forget it ever happened. Doing this with a child is less highly recommended, and has been proven to lead to imprisonment for the parent, followed by imprisonment of the child, once it grows up into a young thug, as unwanted children tend to do (don't believe me? See Freakonomics.

So, is Juno a cute, generally well-written movie featuring the next best thing in female talent (under the name Ellen Page; I give her two years or less to blow up into the thing, just hopefully not naked, preggers, and on the cover of some pseudo-fashion rag)? Sure. But should she have stayed put once she got to that abortion clinic? Hell yeah.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Books: Miss Lonelyhearts/Day of the Locust, by Nathanael West

Not knowing anything about West, and retrospectively appreciative of the biographical synopses we were assigned as high school and then undergraduate students (oh, Norton anthologies, let me thumb your fragile pages) I poked about his wikipedia entry after reading this brilliant, heartrending twofer—a veritable exposition on the concept of "poignancy"—in one 24-hour period (really, it's far too good to put down). I found out that he was Jewish, Lithuanian, and a inhabitant of New York's Upper West Side; he and I are a match on all three accounts (though he grew up in New York and moved to California, whereas I did quite the opposite), but I've never trusted superficialities like that to bind readers to writers.

The magic is, as usual, in his delivery (despair's deadpan: think Godot); the best prose beats the pants off poetry with the poet's own tools—rhythm, diction, imagery—and West has it all up his sleeve. Miss Lonelyhearts is an alcoholic young man shuddering under the weight of the world's sorrows, which pour into his heart through his mind from the stacks of mail he reads at work, paragons of poor grammar and poor spirit. West provides us with a sampling of these missives, and we empathize. Miss Lonelyhearts has pryed a collapsing Christ off his crucifix and nailed the sculpted body directly onto his bedroom wall, but it hasn't helped. Eventually, he meets a married woman whose copious flesh feels all-encompassing. He has sex. He dies with an errant gunshot. The story is over. It's the best story you've read in a long time. Day of the Locust isn't as good (and there's no locust, just a lizard that an isolated man watches day after day, until a beautiful young starlet moves herself into his house, and her cowboy admirer, her Mexican lover, and their cock-fighting chickens into his garage), but it still is good—higher in drama if lower in pathos. Life, it seems, is a beautiful, miserable thing.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Dance: Juilliard's Composers and Choeographers Plus

You probably don't know about this ill-publicized free event; I wouldn't have known about it either, if Juilliard hadn't sent me a letter about tickets to another event, and mentioned this one. Apparently, at the end of term, the dance division, which offers a choreography/composition course pairing third year dance students with master's and doctoral musicians, puts on a show at the not-to-be-sneezed-at Peter Jay Sharpe Theater, where the students showcase their work: created by students, and performed by students (read: live music, not just live dancing). This is such an awesome thing. As a whole, the work is far more creative, innovative, interesting, and new than what you'll see at, say, Juilliard's December Dance Creations (review to soon follow), or at a lot of professional dance venues. But, the execution is a lot more precise and professional than what you'll see from younger, edgier choreographers, who probably have trouble finding and funding their dancers. And, since the showcase included six short pieces before the intermission, and eight shorter pieces afterward (the second half of the show comes strictly from choreography classes, with recorded music instead of live, new compositions), there is enough variety that, should you not like one piece, you won't be bogged in it for long.

The drawback, of course, when showing fourteen pieces in one evening, is that the audience won't remember them all. I took some notes, but I will only touch on the ones that made the strongest impressions. Nada, from choreographer Yara Travieso, threatened to frustrate me via whimsy (it did make the audience laugh, and I positively loathe dance that makes the audience laugh) and a gimmick: half of the dancers were dressed in scuba suits, including flippers, masks, and snorkels. The other half of the dancers wore business suits (a trend I've noticed of late, which I don't love) with fire-engine red socks. All of this was a set-up for something dreadful, but the choreography turned out to be actually quite good, and the piece would have been equally as interesting if the dancers had all been wearing unitards. Me m ry, choreographed by Charlotte Byrdwell, was a beautiful and poignant dance, for its cloying title. Four spotlights marked "beds" on the floor, each in which a couple, dressed in white gowns and drawers, writhed and curled and twisted and embraced on the ground, occasionally switching to another bed, so that at one moment there may be three to one bed and one person left alone. The music, from Edward Aaron Goldman, was a bit on the cloying side as well (three sopranos screeching to an accompanying pianist), but suited the piece fairly, I suppose. Clearing, choreographed by Evan Teitelbaum and composed by Cristina Spinei, was clearly the crown jewel of the evening, with an all-percussion accompaniment to a group of primitivist dancers wearing perfect costumes and dancing their guts out. Juilliard could use a little more of this.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Books: Franny and Zooey, by JD Salinger

Franny, the youngest of a mess of now-grown, pseudo-mal-socialized precocious siblings, suffers a kind of existential breakdown over lunch with her boyfriend before the big Yale game. Over two martinis, countless cigarettes, and an untouched chicken sandwich, she trash-talks her professors and classmates, loathes herself for doing it, becomes frustrated with her boyfriend’s inanity, cries in the bathroom, and faints. Ladies, we have all had these moments.

Zooey, the second youngest of the same mess of now-grown, pseudo-mal-socialized precocious siblings, lies in the bath, smoking countless cigarettes and reading the manuscript of a play. After some time, his mother barges in on him and makes a variety of demands; he blithely insults her and insists that she leave him alone; she does not. Mother insists that Zooey speak with Franny. Zooey insists on continuing his toilet indefinitely.

Along the way, we come to the understanding that Franny has been zealously reading a book found in her older (and now deceased) brother’s room, the story of a Russian pilgrim with a withered arm who found his vocation through constant repetition of “the Jesus prayer,” the phrase “Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” until said prayer becomes engrained in his being. We also come to understand that Franny and Zooey, being the youngest of a mess of precocious siblings, were raised by way of a sort of educational experiment administered by their oldest brothers, in which religious education preceded cultural. We also come to understand that Franny and Zooey and all of their older precocious siblings were featured on a radio program entitled “It’s a Wise Child,” in which they would be asked questions, and given an opportunity to spout their wisdom.

Zooey does try to talk with Franny, who’s lying on the living room couch under an afghan while painters work on other rooms in the tired but grand Upper West Side apartment. The room contains multiple pianos. The siblings get into a spat and Zooey leaves her, goes into his older brothers’ (untouched) room, and calls her on the phone, pretending to be their brother; after a while she identifies him as himself. Ironically, it’s then that they are finally able to connect, as they begin reminiscing about their older brother’s demands about “It’s a Wise Child.” He would insist that Zooey shine his shoes (although it was a radio show, and no one would see), and he would insist that Franny try to be funny. He told them to do it “for the fat lady.” Each had their own vision of the fat lady, but in each vision, that fat lady had cancer. Zooey then remarks to Franny, doesn’t she know, by now, who the fat lady is? The fat lady is Jesus Christ.

This gentle slap in the face, I suppose, is Zooey’s way of telling Franny that she has no business lying on the couch in existential crisis, loathing everyone for being dreadful, when each and every one of those dreadful people is, er, her brother or sister in Christ (oh, it sounds so cheesy; Salinger is intelligent enough to leave it at the connection between the fat lady and Christ, and end the book there, and that’s what makes him different than the writer of the Pilgrim book). Anyway, it’s quite the read, and was insidious enough to throw me into a sort of Franny spell for a whole weekend (although one would hope, if it really did its job, it would snap one out of a Franny spell as well. . .) Having attended Catholic high school, I’m rather surprised that for our Salinger dose, we read Catcher in the Rye instead of Franny and Zooey, which seems much more relevant. As a side note, fans of Wes Andersen who have long heard that he stole everything he does from Salinger anyway may be dismayed to see that the brilliant Gwyneth Paltrow in the bathtub scene from The Royal Tennenbaums was lifted from Zooey’s time in the tub.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Movies: No Country For Old Men

No Country For Old Men is no movie for young girls, one of which I continue to consider myself. I've not yet read the book, and so cannot judge the film by its compliance, instead, only by the dread tedium with which it filled me as I sat in the near-empty movie-palace late late on a weeknight, expecting to be blown away, and instead wishing I could blow all the wooden characters away (they are thick enough that it would take a gunshot rather than a breath, but thick is not deep, contrary to popular misconceptions).

I would like to argue that the film is simply objectively dreadful, but I've found that a number of my male friends (and even one of my lady friends) thought it was the best movie of the year (and it wasn't just a really bad year), so I will have to accept that there is something about this movie, which is chock-full of random, non-campy violence, cold, stiff characters with no penetrable motivation, and big, empty landscapes to please my philosophically- and artistically-inclined friends. I don't know what it is, because I found the film to be irrational and aesthetically uninteresting, but these are people whose opinions I tend to value.

The plot is as as follows: somewhere in rural-ish Texas, a guy out hunting comes upon a scene: two bullet-riddled trucks, a number of dead Mexicans, a dead dog, and a truckload of narcotics. He collects all the weapons and keeps them, and trudges off to find another dead body resting in the shade of the plain's only tree, and there finds a case of money (which turns out to be $2 million). This scene is well-crafted, and the artistic mind will appreciate the way his scavenging mirrors the scavenging of the hyena that had, minutes earlier, eaten up the deer the hunter had shot and wounded. From that point on, though, I had a similar response to Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) that I had to Bigger Thompson in Native Son: he makes wrong decision after wrong decision, for the sole purpose of furthering the plot. A writer who treats his characters like pawns in the game of pushing his agenda—whether it be philosophical or political—is a hack, and having read Blood Meridian, I'm hesitant to label McCarthy by that epithet, and more inclined to pin the blame on the Coens.

But back to the plot. Llewelyn decides to go back to the "scene of the crime" (mistake number one, which no man of his mettle would, in real life, do) in the middle of the night with a can of kerosene. Before he can torch the tableaux, another truck pulls up to his, slashes his tires, and starts to shoot and chase him. Llewelyn runs. He outruns the truck. This, dear readers, is ludicrous; men simply cannot outrun trucks. The truck drivers send a nasty, muscled dog after him when Llewelyn tries to escape by jumping into a river. This, dear readers, is again unlikley; a man probably cannot outrun and swim a dog of such breed. When the dog does catch up, Llewelyn shoots it dead. This moment is nicely done, although it requires a grand suspension of disbelief to get to that point.

Llewelyn knows that shit is going down, so he sends his hemmy-hawy wife to her mother's house and prepares for combat by abandoning his trailer and moving into a motel. Meanwhile, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), looking for the money, begins to hunt him, first going to his trailer, then his motel. Also on the trail is the sheriff (Tommy Lee Jones, who else?!) who is as disinterested and detached from his case as I am about this film; he goes through the motions up to a point, and then throws in the proverbial towel and wonders why he ever bothered in the first place. Before that, though, Llewelyn and Anton circle each other, predator and poisonous prey. In and out of a variety of motels and stolen vehicles, they shoot at each other and service their own wounds in the same "manly" way Mark Wahlberg's character does in Shooter (for some reason, we are supposed to take the hulking, animal-like Bardem much more seriously). Once it's too late, Llewelyn realizes that Anton has been tracking him thanks to a blinking device lodged in the suitcase of bills; rather than ditching the tracker, jumping out the window, and getting the hell out of the motel room (movie-goers, suspend your disbelief), he waits behind the door for Anton, prepared to shoot upon the beast's entrance. He eventually does leap out the window, jumping into a stolen car, but sustains wounds thanks to his delay.

Eventually, Llewelyn wises up (after a drunken, bloodied night in Mexico followed up by a conversation with bounty hunter Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) (who, not surprisingly, will also end up dead at Anton's gunpoint)) and instructs his wife to load herself and her mother into a cab to a motel in the nearest city with an international airport. While they're on their way, though, Llewelyn arrives at the motel and joins a woman lounging poolside for a beer in her room. Needless to say, when wifey arrives, close on the heels of the sheriff, it's already a crime scene; Llewelyn is shot dead (we don't see the shot or body, as if anything could be to graphic after all the killing we've witnessed along the way) and Anton is long gone with his money. Afterward, there is no need for the audience to wonder what the poor young widow will do; Anton arrives in her house and engages her in a succinct cat-and-mouse conversation before, presumably, shooting her dead. Again, one wonders why the Coens chose to add the seed of non-ambiguous ambiguity by protecting the audience from witnessing the actual shooting.

Once Llewelyn is dead, of course, the audience loses whatever vestigial interest in the film it might have had, even though the Coens go on to show the sheriff have two impenetrable "deep" conversations, one with a wheelchair-bound ex-colleague, who serves four-day-old coffee, and one with his wife over breakfast, while he tries to decide how to spend his day now that he's retired, and recounts the bad dream he had the night before. And, with this unpleasant mouth of spit-up to be swallowed, the film ends.

Reviews have had their socks knocked left and right over Bardem's "chilling" performance as either an amoral or weirdly ethical killer, but I found Anton's character to be the biggest intellectual turn-off of the whole hollow mess. The king of empty, he's so methodical that he performs most of his executions with an air gun, a kind of heavy gas-tank that he carries around that has a tube attached to the top; he uses it to blow locks out of doors and to blow holes in people's foreheads with equal perfunction. He toys with a few of his victims, threatening to use a coin toss to determine their fate (a gas-station owner doesn't understand what's happening, but Llewelyn's widow does), and this is being considered by some as ascribing to his character a philosophical bent. To me, though, Anton functions completely outside of philosophy, and in fact outside of humanity (I have wondered, after watching this film, whether there are people like him, and I have decided there are not—not that there are not serial killers, mob-men, and murderers of every kind, that kill for work or play. But Anton doesn't kill for work or for play or for revenge or for attention (those seem to be the the newest killers lighting up the front page); he's just a killing machine. He kills because that's what he does. He came into the world the age that he is, shooting; he had no childhood, no family, no lover. His character is a character that kills, and his violence is clean and dispassionate, often an afterthought (at one moment, while driving, he pauses to shoot dead a bird standing on a bridge's safety rail). This is lazy characterization, and as I said at the outset, I don't know whether to blame McCarthy or the Coens. But someone should be shot.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Books: The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow

Unlike Bellow's other novels I've read (Mr. Sammler's Planet; Herzog), this book took me more than a month to get through, for reasons other than its relative length. Rather than tackling a late-middle-aged protagonist, barging in on his life as a third person omniscient narrator, Bellow here takes on the meandering voice of memoir, writing in first person, and beginning at childhood.

Augie grows up in relative poverty with an older brother (a go-getter), a younger brother (a retard), a meek single mother, and a domineering older female boarder they call grandma. The era is that of the depression, and since money is tight, Augie and his older brother are constantly working odd jobs while going to school, and collecting charity as well. As he gets older, Augie continually finds himself in the service of other people—first employers, then lovers—who, taking advantage of his relative aimlessness, try to make him into what they want him to be; he works for an old wealthy cripple, Einhorn, an aged childless couple, the Renlings (who want to adopt him), and tries to work for his brother, who has married into business and big money. None of these yokes fit for long, and Augie throws them all off, eventually running to Mexico for a proto-beat adventure with Thea, a beautiful devil-may-care debutante-type, who wants to make documentary films about an eagle they purchase and train to catch giant lizards. This doesn't work either, though; the eagle, not raised in the wild, refuses to fight the lizards, fleeing in fear as soon as they bite him, and Augie, seeing his own failure to be what Thea wants mirrored in the eagle's failure, lets his (emotional) wounds fester after he takes a fall from his horse. While Thea continues with her western fantasy, absent for days at a time hunting snakes in the mountains, Augie hangs around town and collects stacks of foreign currency playing poker. Eventually, he decides to go back to his hometown of Chicago, after giving most of his money to a beautiful girl named Stella to help her escape her crazed husband and thereby formally ending his broken relationship with Thea. During this time, he has had an opportunity to travel in the revenue of Trotsky, who is hiding in Mexico from people who want to kill him; he has mixed feelings about the opportunity and is ultimately relieved when it is withdrawn. Augie returns to Chicago and knocks about for awhile, then moves to New York, reconnects with Stella, and decides to join the Army (WWII is exploding all over the news). Because of deficiencies in his fitness, even after an operation, Augie is still ineligible for the Army, so he joins the Merchant Marines and, a few days after his wedding, ships out. Not long into the journey, the ship is attacked, and Augie finds himself alone in a lifeboat with Bateshaw, a mono-maniac who doesn't want to be rescued, and instead wants to find solace on an island where he can conduct his scientific experiments in bioengineering with Augie as his assistant. By a combination of wits and brawn, he manages to tie up Bateshaw (after Bateshaw has tied him up), light a flare, and get them both rescued. Eventually, Augie gets back to New York and Stella, who now has a promising career as an actress. They move to Paris, where the novel at long last finally ends. Somewhere along the way, Augie also works as a union organizer and has an affair with a Greek hotel maid, and is also a college student who steals books for a living and who helps his female flatmate through a botched abortion (the child isn't his), but, considering all that happened, you will hopefully forgive me for not being certain where those parts quite fit, as well as any other parts that I might have left out.

My honest impression, at the risk of sounding philistine, is that Bellow might have left out quite a bit of this. The childhood memories, valid as they are, drag without a stronger plot arc, and the reader has no impetus to turn the page until past the half-way point in the novel, when Augie goes to Mexico with Thea. This section in and of itself would have made a good short novel, not that enough good short novels haven't been written about Americans going to Mexico in the first half of last century. The end, what with New York and the Marines and shipwreck and Paris, rings false and tacked-on after the lengthy Mexico portion, as if Bellow were scraping together scraps of other books he had read.

All of that aside, the girl sitting next to me is on the phone, and she just said the following: "I hope you do win the lottery, but in the mean time, you need to get a coat." It's good advice, even if completely unrelated to this book I would have preferred not to have read. I do want to add that Augie March is a distinctly likable character, one in fact with whom I empathize a great deal, being relatively aimless myself (we two being the kinds of aimless people who are a bit interested in everything, rather than interested in nothing); that said, I wonder why I haven't had any Adventures yet, though I have certainly had employers who tried to mold me as more than mere assistant (from that yoke I have finally broken, finding freedom within the confines of the corporate structure). Additionally, I can't help but read Augie as a writer, a writer-in-the-making, who doesn't write anything, or that is, hasn't written anything yet (and again, thereby, I connect with him); his passivity is that of an observer's (he does quite a bit of reading throughout the novel)—he is spongy, allowing himself to be swept into other people's currents in order to collect the flotsam that will eventually comprise his story—and if he lived in isolation, his story would be a mere page long, since all of his storytelling consists of other people's stories. It's something of a warning signal to me, so whether I wish I hadn't spent an entire month reading this book or not, it isn't bad medicine.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Movies: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

You've never before seen a film like this, that draws you into its horror by its beauty, its frustration through its wonder, and its hackneyed inspirational message by its aesthetic freshness. The plot itself (a true story, by the way) is a recipe for cloying disaster: wealthy playboy (and semi-estranged father of three small children) Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of Elle magazine, wakes up one day in a hospital bed, horrified to realize that no one can hear him speaking, and that his body will not move. He has suffered a stroke and a resulting full-body paralysis called "locked-in" syndrome; his mind works perfectly, but because of his immobility, it is near-impossible for him to communicate. The only thing that Bauby can move is a single eyeball and lid. The hospital provides a speech therapist who devises an inelegant but functional way for Bauby to spell out his thoughts to her by blinking his eye when she hits upon the correct letter, an effortful, painstaking way to construct words, instilling them, thereby, with much more value. His first sentence is a request for death, but he soon dredges up a will to live, and has his editor send a correspondent to the hospital every day, who, after learning the system of dictation, takes down his memoir. The book, upon which the film is based, was published, and a few days after, Bauby died. I plan to eventually read it.

As I said, this plot has all of the pretenses of an "inspirational" (i.e. "gag me with a spoon") tale (think The Peaceful Warrior, which, luckily, I did not see), just in time for the holidays. It also has all the makings of one of those movies designed particularly to make you cry (think The Pursuit of Happyness, which I fortunately did not see either; partially). And while I did shed the errant tear, more often, my jaw was stretched to its very maximum in horror and frustration and fear and anxiety—the precise emotions, I imagine, that rushed through Bauby when he discovered (as we simultaneously discover) that no one could hear him speaking (and then shouting, as they sew shut his incapacitated eye against his uninterpretable will). Bauby's emotions hit the audience so immediately because director Julian Schnabel chose to place the cyclopic camera in Bauby's one working eye (both eyes, at the very beginning, when we see our own view of the doctor being stitched away from us, a black needle and thread winding expertly through the center of the screen.) From that point on, we see four different kinds of shots: more hyper-lit, hyper-color, often blurry, blinking views of the world through Bauby's singular working eye; crisp, full-cover scenes from Bauby's memory, in which we see the the man in his prime; fantasy sequences in which Bauby pictures himself suspended in murky waters wearing antique deep sea diving gear and as a buzzing insect flying amidst giant grasses and bobbing flower heads, as a championship skier, a surfer, and as Marlon Brando; and finally scenes in which we see Bauby as his visiting friends and family see him (and how he sees himself for the first time in a mirror): frozen, bloated, his lower lip pulled to the side in a hopelessly ugly gesture, spotted with drool.

The visual experience itself makes this film worth watching, but the sharp, witty, and never-patronizing (to Bauby or to the audience) dialogue deepens the audience's connection with Bauby. His ability to maintain wit within the confines of his frustration lure us into connection with his psyche; those stilted cues that put us in a critical, outsider position, so often found in more trite films on the topic of healing, are not to be found, and so all barriers to our unmediated experience are removed. Schnabel has thus outstripped both himself and his peers with this film, which is on my required viewing list for anyone who has any interest in any kind of art at all.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Art: The New New Museum

The new New Museum opened last weekend with 30 consecutive hours open free to the public (supposedly thanks to Target, which has been hip-ifiying itself by sponsoring all kinds of contemporary art nonsense (e.g. MoMA Free Friday Nights), who took over the New Museum's top floor and filled it with shittily inoffensive techno-cheer and assorted red and white candies). Obliged to go (disclosure: I have a friend who works at the New Museum, and additionally applied for an editing position there, for which I was clearly not hired and, furthermore, not even called for an interview, which turns out to be just as well given what is here forthcoming), a friend (a different friend than the friend who works there, but who is also friends with the friend who works there) and I got tickets for half-past midnight, and decided we would meet there (she had the tickets). I didn't know the address, and when text messaging Google was given the address of the old New Museum. At somewhat of a loss, I decided to wander around a bit (I knew the general location, or so I thought) until I found it; afterall, I was early, and there were flocks of people pouring in and out of all the Lower East Side bars.

My friend finally called and said that she was on her way, and gave me the address; I had been a whole neighborhood off (it's in SoHo, not the LES), and had to walk (did I mention it was below freezing that night?) ever farther back than where I had come from. When I finally got indoors, all of my skin was burning and tingling from the temperature change. Now I know how a snow cone feels when its subjected to the inside of your hot, wet mouth. That was probably the most edifying experience of the evening. To be fair, the new building is gorgeous, particularly from the outside; it looks like a stack of effervescent white boxes, each precariously settled onto a larger one beneath it. Inside, the effect is less dramatic; the galleries number only one per floor: white cubes broken by the off-center stairwell and elevator bank. It looks like this:

This leaves ample room for sculptural/installation art in a main gallery space, and some narrow corridors where other, quieter pieces can be snuck in. The ceilings are exceptionally high and airy, and lined with strips of skylights (which, I've heard, produce a beautiful colored affect during the daytime). An over-touted narrow stairwell links the third and fourth floors; I haven't anything against it, but it isn't what they say it is. The floors, poured concrete, don't touch the walls; there is an half-inch gap between the two, a tender minimalist touch that makes the space much more interesting than the art it houses, at least right now.

And so, onto the art. The current show is called Unmonumental, and oh, boy, is it. I suppose the curators were quite clever in mounting a show that aims to be forgettable, because then, when the show is panned, they can defend themselves by reminding their critics that they've achieved exactly their intention. I won't go so far as to say that it was all "trash" (which I've seen it called on various other blogs), but I will say that the general youth of the artists is apparent, as well as a curatorial distrust of what might traditionally be considered "aesthetically pleasing" (although, considering the altered aesthetic preferences brought about by the last 100 years of art, many connossieurs might find this work quite aesthetically pleasing). As I rack my brain trying to remember a piece that I like, I recall there was something of a riff off of Duchamp's Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even), from Nate Lowman but, like many (but not all!) post-modernist riffs, it's empty of the original's aura. Tucked into one of those quiet little corners I mentioned is a low wooden tabletop (more a cipher for a tabletop; even if you sat on the floor a la Japan, it would still be too low) from Carol Bove, decorated (forgive me, I could say "marked," but I think "decorated" is more precise) by bits of driftwood, a slightly weathered black and white photograph in the style of Man Ray, another other little odds and ends (the only thing missing an Imogen Cunningham coffee table book), which, in the absence of any instructive wall text, I couldn't help but read as a parody of a Pacific Northwestern intellectual elitist's home (a professor and his wife (an "artist" or a "poetess") in their fifties, childless). The best-looking piece by far is a kind of dangling sculpture: a hanging cluster of netted buoys in weathered reds and oranges and yellows and greens, recalling (this time, far surpassing) Eva Hesse's untitled testicular hanging nets (grouped in threes and fives instead of twos, but fooling no one nevertheless). Unfortunately, I have no picture of the buoys for you, and I don't have the artist's name either. I will therefore have to go back, armed with a (probably illegal) camera.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Movies: I'm Not There

Todd Haynes' (brilliant, stunning, gorgeous, fantastic) new Dylan anti-biopic isn't perfect, but it's damn well near, and surprising and different and new enough to make up for what it lacks otherwise.

By casting six actors to play Dylan at different historical moments, Haynes (likely unintentionally) establishes a test to separate the brilliant actors from the competent from the complete hacks (to break it down for you right off: Cate Blanchett and Ben Whishaw are phenomenons unto themselves; Christian Bale and Marcus Carl Franklin are capable and enjoyable, if missing that je ne sais quois of the aforementioned, and Heath Ledger and Richard Gere are vortexes of anti-charisma that threaten the entire film's stability; if the film were a souffle, they would be edge that might just cave in). To be fair, Ledger and Gere's Dylans are the Dylans we all might like least (except for Bale's Christian Dylan, whom we probably all hate the most (but Bale is redeemed by also playing the folksy Times They Are A-Changing Dylan, whom we probably all love the best))—the bad father/bad husband/bad movie-making Dylan, and the inscrutable, rambling, half-dead Dylan we see on stage today, his tempo hopped up, his hope gone, touring and touring and touring until he collapses dead on stage one day (I've been predicting it since the first time I saw him live; remember, you heard it here first). All that aside, final note to the casting directors: Ledger and Gere are both too fat to play Dylan, and far too goyische, adding insult to injury. They're in way over their heads!

Haynes makes up for these two's weakness by art directing the hell out of their sections (not that Blanchett's segments aren't art directed to the pearly whites (because they are, and brilliantly so), or Franklin's either (ditto). The director recreates five distinct historical moments (five instead of six because Wishaw's section—an interview only—features very little other than the actor himself, tightly framed, against a blank white wall): a hyper-colored late-50s South with creamed-spinach carpets and yam-colored walls;a xerox-copied late-60s with pills, cigarettes, and giant tarantulas; a home of an aging hippy (did I mention that Julianne Moore plays an amazing reminiscing Joan Baez, and perfects the Behind the Music interview persona to the very smallest of interactions with her cat?); the seaside empty family resort of the mid-70s, where Sara (played beautifully by Charlotte Gainsbourg, who, in her naive hipsterish ways, probably walked onto set in her street clothes, more appropriate than any costume that could have been found) raises Dylan's first two daughters while he philanders on a film set far away; and the surreal, costumed, face-painted Western town of Riddle, through which Gere rides around on a horse while an Ophelia-esque corpse is displayed on stage while a sorrowful rag-tag Civil War band plays a dirge (this, I imagine, is the closest we'll ever get to Bobby's interior world, where Desolation Row meets Talkin' World War III Blues meets Not Dark Yet.)

The film is non-linear, non-rational, and non-realistic, and if that troubles you, you're probably not a big Dylan fan. I can imagine a non-initiate (in my reality, there can be no dissenters, only the not-as-yet-enlightened) watching this film with a mixture of trepidation, confusion, and frustration; he or she wouldn't get the hilarity of references to the great 1967 documentary Don't Look Back, for example, or appreciate the way snippets of lyrics are woven into the characters' dialogue. Never having seen many of the older movies, like the 1973 Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, I'm sure I missed some myself. The music, of course, is almost all Dylan (with the inclusion of The Monkees' I'm Not Your Stepping Stone, my absolute favorite song when I was five years old, no kidding), and so certain to please any fan (and although, as usual, my absolute favorite Dylan song of all time—Buckets of Rain—was not included, plenty of non-hits were indeed used, like my second favorite Dylan song of all time, Ballad of a Thin Man.)*

In the case that you are one of these non-initiates, I recommend that you listen to Dylan for a few years before attempting to enjoy this film. I was probably around 18 when I started to get into Dylan heavy, so it will take you awhile; don't worry, though, it will all be worth it. Dylan-haters, I refuse to believe you exist, but I paradoxically know you're out there. You, too, might find enjoyment in this film (believe it or not), because Blanchett and Wishaw, brilliant as they are, play Dylan with that perfect edge that he has always had: cold, sarcastic, distant, unappeasing. The entire film has a back-handed, razor-sharp current slicing underneath it, dramatizing the ever-present criticism and distrust of the Dylan persona: the slip-shod put-on-ness, the ugly detachment, the uncontrollable ego. As a lover, I love even these aspects of (yes I'll say it) the greatest song-writer of all time (who, don't get me wrong, has written some real shite in his day (see Empire Burlesque)). I've long had crushes on both Cate Blanchett, and more recently, Ben Wishaw (since first seeing him in Perfume), but they've managed to supersede previous incarnations of themselves this time around. That Wishaw, he is one to watch.

*Caveat emptor! The commercial soundtrack is comprised of all indie-star covers, for whose quality I can not yet vouch.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Movies: On the Waterfront

I long intended to see this movie (along with The Wild One, which I've still yet to see), perhaps misguidedly due to my appreciation of the (totally unrelated) Billie Holiday song with the same key word in the title, and also in despite of my general ambivalence toward Marlon Brando (hated him in Carousel, liked him well enough in Streetcar Named Desire, didn't pay attention to him in Godfather, but have never found him attractive; his waist is too short and his voice is too high). Anyway, when I found this amongst the post-Thanksgiving booty (said friend is a wanna-be actor and a proclaimed Brando devotee), I was rather excited and settled into the couch, trying to recalibrate my senses to old-movie time from new-movie time.

Calibration aside, the film managed to hold its own against the newer films I'd just seen. Brando plays Terry Malloy, a waterfront dock worker who, by a familial relation, gets roped into working with the bad guys instead of the good guys in the brewing battles between the oppressed dock workers and the crooked mob-related union that treats them so poorly. Something of a well-intentioned fuck-up, in the film's opening scene, Malloy inadvertently plays a crucial role in the mob's murder of a friend and co-worker, a punishment for making noise about the union's unfairness. Malloy retreats to his haven—a rooftop pigeon coop—where he cares for his birds (and his now-deceased friends'), while down on the street, a local priest (Karl Malden) and the deceased's sister, Edie (Eva Marie Saint), get riled up and decide to get to the bottom of the murder. Both come to Malloy, and from that point, the remainder of the plot stretches clearly ahead: Malloy will struggle with his conscience, trying to decide whether to continue playing nice with the mob and having a cush, steady position; he will be persuaded somewhat by the priest's call to conscience, but moreso by his affection for Edie, with whom he will fall in love. At first, he will be shunned for choosing the side of right, but in the end, the other dock workers will be moved by his confident sense of right, and they will allow him to lead them to victory over their oppressors, who will be punished (both by the law, when Malloy testifies against them, and by Malloy's own fists). It won't be easy, and other, lesser characters will sacrifice their lives to make way for this triumph.

So, I've gone and made it sound very kitschy and corny which, I'm afraid, no movie from 1954 could hope to avoid being. What I found so appealing, though, unspoken and yet heavy-handed puns aside, were Brando's rooftop sequences, in which he feeds and holds his pigeons, literally "above" the seamy world in which he lives, and yet still very much a gritty, grimy, earthly laborer (the pigeon is far from a celestial bird). Those are the characters young Brando plays best, and the tender intention behind his coarse behavior is evoked perfectly in the way he handles his birds, and in his dejection when he comes up to the coop late in the film to find that each bird has been shot dead by his friends-turned-enemies. Brando's hapless tenderness manages again and again to sucker us into forgiving his characters (though a militant feminist might argue that that hapless tenderness indicts him again and again as a schmuck and a con-artist.)

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Movies: The Motorcycle Diaries

The day after Thanksgiving, with nothing to do and no where to go in the bitter cold, I snuck into my friend's apartment (I have the keys to feed the cat when he goes away, and he had indeed gone away for the holiday weekend) to watch DVDs on his giant plasma television all day. I had to choose from his collection (which includes the bootlegged 8 Mile I had brought over to Thanksgiving dinner, i.e. it's not the best collection), and amongst the not that interesting (Da Ali G Show), the empty cases (Cool Hand Luke), and the utter crap (Hot Chick), I found something promising: an as-yet unwrapped copy of The Motorcycle Diaries, featuring the illustrious Gael García Bernal (on whose brilliance I have expounded in the past). After fighting with the technology for ten minutes or so (three remotes, and not one of them turned on the television, which had no buttons on it either, for aesthetic effect, I suppose; I finally found them tucked away on the inch-wide side of the screen), the movie started, in Spanish, to my surprise.

That was the first of many great things about the film. I expected another Hollywood biopic in which everyone speaks English, maybe with a Hispanic accent, even though they live in countries where no one speaks English (like Frieda), but instead, saw something so exuberantly well-crafted that it really knocked my socks off. The casting of actors for bit parts, and even extras, each of whose faces were rich with expressive details to evoke a time and place even more strongly than the scenery, architecture, vehicles, or other place markers around them, is spot-on, and even if Bernal is perhaps too handsome for the part, his ever-present infectious sweetness hit the perfect mark to describe his character's humanitarian epiphany. Rodrigo De la Serna, finally, who plays Granado—Guevara's sidekick, a Sancho Panza to Guevara's taller Quixote (Granado describes their broken-down cycle as Rocinante toward the film's beginning, probably unconscious that he is the Panza rather than the star).

The film tells the story of the famous Che Guevara's less-famed political coming of age: a road trip on a broken-down motorcycle from his native Argentina through Chile and Peru to eventually work a stint at a leper's colony (Guevara and Granado are medical students). Along the way, they have adventures and trials; they lose their tent and have nothing to protect them from the weather; their cycle finally becomes irreparable and they continue the journey on foot. Along the way, they meet generous women, angry men, and a number of Peruvian peasants who can't find work and can barely afford to live. Once at the leper colony, Guevara stuns the patients, doctors, and nuns alike by refusing (rather Christ-like) to isolate himself from the patients, touching them with his bare hands, playing soccer with them, and, in one climactic scene, swimming across the freezing river in the middle of the night in order to celebrate his birthday with them (the patients and the staff live on separate sides of a river, demarcating the segregation against which Guevara feels so strongly). By the film's end, Guevara is primed for a life of work toward social justice; he's forgotten about the wealthy girlfriend he left behind, and might not return to Argentina to finish his medical degree.

Better than most films of the "road trip" genre, though perhaps inaptly named (the motorcycle is kaput by the middle of the movie, and Guevara doesn't keep a diary so much as write detailed letters home to his family), the film's greatest achievement is to partially-aestheticize the poverty, sickness, and suffering the Guevara found so inspiring, such that it remains dismal and real without turning the audience away in disgust or horror. The art direction mimics Guevara's embrace of the people—his tenderness—in showing their beauty and ugliness simultaneously, the way the best Dutch painters were once able to do. We don't see that very often in art of any kind today; instead we are offered the black/white dichotomy of airbrushed supermodels and scarred villains—characters lack poignancy and depth.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Movies: Before Sunrise


It's going to be okay. Julie Delpy will ditch the Mayim Bialik grunge gear and Ethan Hawke will loose the stonewashed jeans and leather jacket in time for the 2004 sequel, Before Sunset (incidentally, they will both also lose a lot of baby fat). I haven't seen the sequel yet, but I know that this will happen. I've seen the pictures.

Will they have grown any more interesting? That cannot be told. A well-tailored suit and a stunning clavicle only register so far on the interest meter in a movie where nothing happens other than meandering conversation. The question is, will Ethan Hawke's character come up with any questions more interesting than "What was your first sexual experience," and will Julie Delpy's character realize that there's no reason to "feel like shit" just because you've had sex with someone you might never see again.

That is, will Before Sunset be any less dopey than Before Sunrise? One day, I will find out. Perhaps I'll wait the allotted six months that they assign each other.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Movies: 8 Mile

Watching a bootlegged DVD of this movie at two in the morning on a thirteen-inch television screen provided a ghetto ambiance that complemented the film perfectly. In fact, because I was watching a DV recording sloppily made in a movie theatre, with a line of gray fuzz running through the screen's center, I cannot tell you whether the dim, dingy haze that surrounds Eminem and his compatriots as they drive around Detroit and hang in the underground club was an aesthetic choice made by the director, or just an affect of the copy-of-a-copy treatment; either way, it worked.

The script, I'm sorry to say, is bare to a fault (considering that I couldn't make out a lot of the dialogue thanks to the television's tinny speakers and the DV's crappy mic, this turned out to be not such a bad thing), and when the characters do speak, their conversation is as intellectually evolved as the dialogue in Flashdance (8 Mile actually feels like the masculine, rapping remake of Flashdance in quite a lot of ways). The acting, though, is surprisingly inoffensive; Eminem seems comfortable playing himself, and Kim Basinger plays his drunken, trailer-dwelling mother with aplomb. It's kind of strange seeing Kim Basinger so fucked up.

What the film lacks in screenwriting it makes up in soundtrack, heavy on early-nineties rap, especially Biggie. Even here, though, my expectations weren't met; I expected to hear something more underground, more hardcore; something I hadn't heard before, but I didn't. Most disappointing were Eminem's rap sequences. I've never been a big fan of his (we started off on a bad foot when I heard his music being played on Live 105, San Francisco's old modern rock/alternative station, on which rap had never been played; I believed at the time (and still do), that his music was included only because he was white), and I haven't listened to enough (any?) of his songs to tell you whether he's an equal rapper to, say Biggie. Based on his rapping scenes in the film, though, he has bad rhythm, and gets more mileage out of the piss and vinegar he isn't afraid to spew from his mouth than from any musical or word-smithing brilliance.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Music: Art Brut and The Hold Steady

Art Brut, whose first album (which is completely brilliant (and hilarious)) came out last year, opened for The Hold Steady last week. Some other English guys who call themselves the 1990s opened for Art Brut. The show was at Terminal 5, the only decent venue conveniently located within walking distance from my house, and I went, even though I had no clue who or what The Hold Steady was; I like Art Brut enough that I didn't really care.

I'm not one of those people who goes to shows every week. I clearly don't know anything about the local music scene, since I hadn't ever heard of The Hold Steady (they are, apparently, from Brooklyn, and epitomize, as I would find out, everything that I can't stand about Brooklyn. . . or should I say "new" Brooklyn, that is, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, Park Slope; not Sheepshead Bay, Bed Stuy, Bay Ridge). The performances I am accustomed to attending have assigned seating (or at least seating) and generally well-mannered audiences. And even when I was a teenager who loitered in malls after school, I wasn't an ill-behaved one. The worst I ever did was shred food court napkins into tiny pieces and leave them like miniature haystacks on the plastic table tops, with the excuse to my cohorts that I was "creating jobs." (These days I am fanatical about cleaning up after myself in public places, and have gone so far as to insist on taking my own trash out of Starbucks when the employee was standing right there, trying to take it from me.)

Digressions aside, this was an 18-and-over show, and, while I want to respect the rights of young people to see their favorite bands perform live (I recall listening to one of my closest friends--a real indie aficionado--bitch for three years about how she couldn't ever attend the 21-and-over venues in Seattle, where she was going to college), I expect them to behave better than barn animals. Aside from the fan-boys who knew every lyric to every song (unheard of 1990s included) and the girls with snub noses, ironed hair, and autographed band t-shirts squealing in my ear (my friend gave me earplugs, but I needed them more for the audience than the bands), the crowd was basically tolerable.

The 1990s were pretty dismal (a guitarist who sang lead, a bass player, and a drummer who also sang, but clearly whose role in the band was to look hot, hence his placement front and center, and his inability to sing and play drums fast at the same time). When Art Brut came on, we all pepped up a bit, and did some minor jumping around (Art Brut is like, basic post-punk rocking with amusing, ironic, semi-intellectual, faux naive lyrics). They were pretty entertaining performers, if somewhat over-styled, but the propelling force of the music--the lyrics--were generally uninterpretable due to acoustics, audience participation, etc., making the live show a lot less enjoyable than listening to the album on headphones. Songs from the new album, which I don't have, and haven't heard, did not compel me to buy it or hear it.

Along with all of the teeny-boppers, there were plenty of classic indie rockers in the crowd: men in their fifties with glasses, grayed temples, and t-shirt clad foodie bellies. In the break between Art Brut and The Hold Steady, a young asshat (technical term) wormed his way to the front and center (where my friend and I were standing, perhaps three feet from the stage), and began verbally harassing a bald, bespectacled music fan, for "being too old for a rock concert" and the like (the kid not realizing that this guy lived through the bloody creation of rock as we know it, and even the birth of indie rock as we know it). When the band came on stage, the asshat began to jump and push, creating a mosh pit (to which creation the crowd was amenable). I remained put through one song, sustaining minor injuries, and then decided to leave. I am too attached to my body, plus the band was awful. Imagine a group of white, aging hipsters, the leader of whom looks like a cross between George Costanza and Newman, pretending to be hardcore. That, my friends, is Brooklyn, and its representative rock band, The Hold Steady. Give me Seattle or give me silence.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Movies: Beowulf

I really had almost zero expectations when I walked into the I-Max 3-D spectacular that is this movie (miraculously, I hadn't seen the trailer, and was only there for Angelina Jolie, of whom I'm not even that fond anymore (she jumped the shark long ago), excepting that I had read the book Beowulf in seventh grade. That was long ago enough that, when the movie ended, I had to check with my movie-going pals to be sure that they did alter the plot (which seemed longer and more complicated than I had remembered). Indeed, they did (and to little affect, I think), but I will discuss that in a bit. The point I want to make now is that I walked into this movie having seen only a poster or two, and therefore expecting it to be a live-action film, not a computer-animated one.

On the topic of technology, I don't want to give the impression that I am poo-pooing the technical advances of the past few years, or imply that I'm not impressed that an I-Max 3-D movie even exists. Because that, in and of itself, is quite amazing. However, being a member of my generation, of course I am very difficult to satisfy, and I have long list of complaints about the visual aspects of this film. First and foremost, watching it felt like being in a video game. I'm not certain that would register as a negative comment to the creators and the fans, but that's because I'm not the target market. I don't play video games, and I don't really want my movie-going experience to feel like a gaming experience. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I do think that I prefer my movies flat. Specifically, the shots in which the camera pulled back in space, while trees whizzed up from behind us felt particularly awkward, because one doesn't ever run (fly?) backward at such a speed. Additionally, I disliked certain textural elements (Beowulf's skin, in particular, was too buffed and gleaming; it appeared plasticized) and types of character motion (the Queen in particular (as well as old Beowulf's young mistress) moved in a bobble-headed kind of way that I found particular noisome.)

Back to the topic of plot, and including a discussion on casting/artistic direction, I am disappointed in the temptation twist the writers included in the plot, and the casting of a temptress (Angelina Jolie, of course) as Grendel's mother. Again, it's been more than ten years since I read this book, but the plot then was simple: there is a monster named Grendel that is horrifying to behold; there is a coward called Unferth who has a boil on his neck which he picks, and who wets his pants in fear when he sees the monster Grendel. There is hero called Beowulf who comes and kills Grendel, and who then must kill Grendel's mother, an even more horrible monster. Then, the story is over. I agree that there isn't much meat there for feature-length film, but if the goal of the feature-length film is to show gore and combat, then the film doesn't require a very generous plot arc anyway. The writers, however, decided to add in some "babes" (really, the women in the film aren't anything more than that, not even getting equal technical attention to their features and movement), as well as a plot twist that darkens Beowulf from hero into fallen hero. The updated plot progresses thusly: Beowulf comes to kill Grendel who, for some reason, is the "shame" of the king. After Grendel is dead, Beowulf must go to kill Grendel's mother, but because Grendel's mother is the enchanting Angelina Jolie, covered in gold latex, with built-in high heels growing from her feet (kind of gross) and a Rapunzel-length braid that has its own prehensile, tentacle-like abilities, Beowulf succumbs to her temptation: if he lies with her and gives her a new child, she will make him king. After he does the deed, he returns to court and lies about having killed her; the king sees the reflection of his own youthful folly in Beowulf and commits suicide after pronouncing Beowulf heir to his throne. Beowulf inherits the lovely (and tedious) Queen, and no one knows what he's done until years later, when he is gray and wrinkled, and a fire-breathing dragon (his own son by Grendel's mother) comes to attack his kingdom. He kills the dragon, and dies whilst doing it (therefore before he can kill Grendel's mother). At the film's end, the possibility for the continuance of the cycle is reopened when Grendel's mother approaches Beowulf's dearest friend, the next in line to be king.

These additions theoretically give the film more philosophical depth (power, lust, and greed are inconquerable, and always ultimately lead to evil and destruction), but the tone of the film desensitizes the audience from any potential philosophical ruminations. Angelina Jolie, ultimately, was a poor choice of representative for Grendel's mother (though sell tickets, she did), as was Crispin Glover a poor choice of representative for Grendel (whom I always pictured as being fat, blobby, and slimy, rather than emaciated and dessicated). Mostly, I am disappointed that Unferth didn't even have a visible boil, much less one that he picked, as that has been the most memorable image from the book, clinging to me for nearly 15 years now.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Movies: Margot at the Wedding

Despite having an over-written script executed by surprisingly unskilled actors, Margot at the Wedding manages to still be a very watchable movie, even a pleasant experience (despite the unpleasantness of most of the characters); this is mostly thanks to excellent cinematography, and also the performances of child actors Zane Pais and Flora Cross, who create the only believable portrayals of emotion in the film.

Emotion is really the key here; the plot is (supposedly) fraught with it—it's an emotional family drama of the talky, late-Woody Allen kind (think Interiors), tinged with a bit of indie weirdness added by the creepy neighbors in the house next door. Margot (an icy, high-strung Nicole Kidman, who channels a combination of Mia Farrow (shrinking) and young Diane Keaton (gnawing)) takes her son Claude out to her sister Pauline's house (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The sisters are estranged and haven't spoken for a year, but Pauline is about to marry Malcolm (Jack Black, horribly misplaced in this completely non-farcical drama), and Margot and her son are there for the wedding. Equally importantly, Margot's husband (John Turturro) and her other son (whom we never meet) are not there. As the plot unfolds, we find out that Margot has been having an affair for some time with a local writer (which will, over the course of the film, sour), and that Malcolm once shared a kiss with that local writer's teenage daughter. More disturbing things will happen with the neighbors (they will roast a whole pig, naked (the neighbors, not the pig), and the neighbor boy will attack Claude's neck with his teeth in the tall grass). These things will not be explored; they will just happen.

What will be "explored" are the feelings of the key characters. People will yell, and laugh, and (this is the unfortunate part) pretend to cry. Let's be honest. Can Jack Black cry? I'm sure that Jack Black, the man, has experienced sad things in his life, and has cried. However, on screen, his attempt at crying reads like his attempt to hide his own laughter at himself attempting to cry. I would expect more from Leigh and even more from Kidman, but no; their alligator tears are just as dry, and they switch from scrunched toddler-tantrum face and high pitched whining to straight face and perfectly-formed eloquent speech and back to the tantrum within in moments. Compounded with the fact that they are saying things that people just don't say (particularly in front of young people, which people just don't do—even with extremely precocious young people raised in Manhattan), this pretense renders it impossible for the audience to connect with the characters (the aforementioned Pais and Cross excepted, who are natural and wonderful and not pretentious at all).

At the end of the film, Margot is putting her son on a bus, and staying behind; there is a conversation between the two of them in which he asks her to come along and she refuses. As the bus starts to move, she appears to change her mind, and drops her jacket and then her purse on the ground, and runs after the bus, shouting "Wait!" until it stops. Then she gets in, and sits next to Claude, panting. The bus continues (onto Vermont and the hubby, we presume). But here is my question. How are we to believe that a woman as totally rigid and uptight as Margot would leave her coat and her purse in the middle of the sidewalk and go off to Vermont without a suitcase or even a tube of moisturizer? That's right: we aren't. And so it all goes. At least the film looks good.