Friday, September 28, 2007

Books: The Blood Oranges, by John Hawkes

Here, I must admit to making a rather silly assumption, which is that John Hawkes novel would be like John Fowles' novels (this is my first foray into Hawkes, whose Blood Oranges came highly recommended by an internet person who commented on my Facebook Visual Bookshelf (where I have around 100 titles on my "Want to Read" list)). The book thereby disappointed thoroughly, as it had all the sex, but none of the intellect to be found in Fowles, and we all know from experience that sex with mindless twats* is never as good as sex with intellectuals.

The story is simple to the point of discomfort: our narrator, Cyril, and his wife Fiona are childless, forty-something swingers of a bygone romantico-philosophico-sort, living in a villa near a Mediterranean beach and with grape arbors in their courtyard (mind you, I hesitate to even use the word "swingers," since it's certainly not in Cyril's vocabulary, and calls to mind something much cheaper than the project he thinks he is a part of). They seduce another couple, High and Catherine, who come travelling through with their three children and their dog, when the family's van unsalvagably falls off the side of the road into a canal. They move into the villa next door. Sex ensues, with plenty of inter-couple tension, as Hugh, who only has one arm and one flipper-like stump, despite his reticent relations with Fiona, is uncomfortable with the situation and jealous of Cyril's potent sexual relations with Catherine. His frustrations erupt one night when, after they discover an ancient and rusty iron chastity belt (complete with pointy teeth in key areas), he locks his wife into the device. Cyril argues with him, and then releases her. Shortly thereafter, Hugh hangs himself. Fiona takes the three children and moves away. Cyril is left to live alone in his villa, lusting after the homely native girl he has taken as a housekeeper, and visiting Catherine at the local hospice (nunnery?) where she now lives and listlessly sits in the garden, not speaking.

The discomfort I mention is in the isolation. First, the foursome is isolated from the society in which they are living. They do not speak the local language, and only occasionally engage with the locals (usually women), and always in a somewhat predatory way (Hugh, a photographer, makes nude portraits of peasant girls; Cyril, who doesn't need a camera to stand in for his penis, simply fucks, or tries to fuck, those same peasant girls). Second, the adults and their sexuality is isolated from the children. I can't help but wonder what the three children (a girl of conscious age, perhaps seven, perhaps ten, perhaps twelve, named Meredith, and two small twins who can walk but not speak, placing them between the ages of one and three). Meredith occasionally enters the stage and expresses dislike for Cyril (and who can blame her), as if she is aware that something is amiss, but isn't certain what. Her jealousy is apparent and one of the only palpable emotions in the novel. Ultimately, the four adults are completely isolated from reality. Where are they from? Where did they buy their clothes (I only ask because Hawkes spends so many words describing these outfits, which are very unlike the local garb), and more importantly, where did they get the money to do so? Where do they get the money to buy food? Who owns the villas, and how are they paying their rent? Libertines, I know, rarely have time for jobs, but I can't help but wonder how these people live in such isolation, except for the fact that they are simply curved but flat characters in a curvaceous but two-dimensional book.

Linguistically, or narratively, Hughes is supposedly ground-breaking/post-modern, because he writes in non-linear flashback sequences, each (again) isolated as a crystallized memory, or like a singular smoke ring (Cyril smokes, and takes pride in his fantastic ability to blow smoke rings of all shapes and forms). But Hawkes reads more like D.H. Lawrence than John Barth, and I'm here referring to the tedious Lawrence of Women in Love, rather than the racy Lawrence of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Cyril would never use the word "cunt," but does spend as many sentences describing the veiled eroticism of Fiona's blue skin-tight pants as Gudrun and Ursula devote to their love of stockings (please, does someone have an Alka-Seltzer?). My favorite writers write about sex and writing (Fowles, Miller, etc.), such that their minds are constantly cranking, and sex provides either some reprieve, or no reprieve, for that intellectual activity. Hawkes, it seems, is all dalliance, and no grit. I will give him one more chance with The Lime Twig, but that's all that he gets. I haven't time for such casual sex.

*Please note that I use this term in a completely equal-opportunity way. The male characters of The Blood Oranges are even bigger twats than the females.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Movies: Romance & Cigarettes

Lipstick red, turf green, chalk white, five o'clock shadow, patty sizzling in the fry pan, smoke-stained yellow wallpaper, and big hair make for high-saturation disappointment in Turturro's star-studded. . . musical?

Let me put it this way. James Gandolfini is a man that we love. He is a man that we respect. He is Tony Soprano. And many doubted that he would ever be able to be anyone but Tony Soprano ever again. He can. He's Nick Murder, and his silly little dirty mustache helps to remind us of that. But when he walks out into the street, singing, all we can say is what the fuck? Tony would never do this.

In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, here is a brief synopsis. James Gandolfini is Nick Murder, a Brooklyn-native who lives in a dirty little house with his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) and their three "grown" daughters (Mandy Moore, Mary-Louise Parker, and Aida Turturro). I say "grown" rather than grown because the three girls are in a perpetual state of teendom (and Mary-Louise Parker being forty-something adds a very strange affect to this mix), living at home and playing angst-rock on a makeshift stage in the backyard. Moore, as Baby, is in puppy love with neighbor Fryburg (Bobby Cannavale). Nick is in love with Tula (Kate Winslet), who has flaming red hair, a potty mouth, and a hot accent, and who works in Soho's own Agent Provacateur (where all the sales girls wear tight little pink smocks bursting at the bust to reveal $250 AP brassieres underneath; I know; I shop there). This is a small but sharp thorn in Nick's marriage to Kitty, who finds out as the movie begins that he's been cheating on her, and cuts him off from sex, speech, and meals. Nick gets advice from his coworker (bridge construction) Angelo (Steve Buscemi) and Kitty gets advice from her cousin Bo (Christopher Walken).

So how do you fuck up a cast like that, if you have a fairly decent plot, some eccentric characters, and a brilliant sense of color? Simple. You add some (sub-par) pop songs, and you ask brilliant actors to sing along in a totally non-campy way, while performing absurd and embarrassing choreography, and you hire a team of West Side Story backup dancers to perform choreography in the street while the stars sing, in their weak, croaky voices, over and along with the recorded music. Susan Sarandon is too classy to sing (Break Another Little) Piece of My Heart, and anyway, if you're going to use that song, at least use the Janis Joplin version, not the Dusty Springfield one.

Every time you start to like this movie, e.g. when Nick and Tula are lying in bed and Tula is eating fried chicken with her hands, the characters inevitably break out into song and tear down your suspended disbelief. It's infuriating, because we know the cast is brilliant, and the colors on screen are delicious. The three daughters are the film's saving grace, because their characters are the only ones that can substantiate these musical interruptions (interestingly enough, they play only bits of original composition—no pop song singalongs for them). Bobby Cannavale as Fryburg is the secret star of the picture, injecting (along with the sisters) the necessary camp in a way that no one else (maybe Christopher Walken) does (and I blame Turturro, not the actors). In fact, let's all blame Turturro, for wasting eleven of my dollars, but more importantly, the talents of his cast and crew.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Dance: The Boston Ballet at Guggenheim's Works and Process

I bought a bunch of single student (shhh) tickets for the Works and Process series at the Gugu, which brings in dance companies (and other things in which I'm less interested) to showcase small pieces of their work, interspersed by panel discussion. I'd rather see more dancing, less discussing, and discussions that include the dancers (the discussion only included the company's artistic director and two choreographers), but for $10, a bored girl takes what she can get.

The program consisted of three excerpts. In his introduction, the artistic director (Mikko Nissinen) explained that the company performs three kinds of ballets: traditional (e.g. Swan Lake), neoclassical (basically anything by Balanchine), and contemporary (in which the influences of modern dance are allowed in, to varying degrees). As a dancer, I can drudge up an interest in the first kind, prefer the second kind to the first, but get really excited only about the third. I expected that the program would consist of one of each, but I got lucky, and we actually saw two contemporary pieces (premiered in 2006 and 2007, respectively), and only one short bit of a traditional piece (a pas de deux from Swan Lake that looked, in all honesty, tawdry in comparison to the contemporary pieces that bookended it).

I have nothing but the utmost respect for ballet dancers, who train their bodies into whips of supple steel; I was thrilled by a contemporary ballet performed by the Dance Theater of Harlem when they performed in Berkeley. Then, one night in New York, something possessed me to spontaneously buy a ticket and walk into a Lincoln Center performance of Swan Lake and the thrill was. . . not so much. My problem with traditional ballet (aside from the soporific qualities of Tchaikovsky) is the (and perhaps here I show my Berkeley pedigree) hierarchical, non-egalitarian format. That is, only four people actually dance (two in particular), while another twenty dancers stand in formation and wave their arms around. This is a waste, and it is an insult. It's also not very visually dynamic. And then, there are silly costumes and sets (a trapping of theatricality not much less noxious at the opera), which at best distract from, and at worst occlude, the audience's appreciation of the moving body, the thing we came to see (sorry, old ladies in the box seats, we are not here for the story; the story is, in all honesty, completely retarded).

Therefore, I won't take the time to discuss the pas de deux; it was typical: proficiently performed, despite some flying feathers, and rather tedious. It seemed particularly idiotic after the first piece, excerpted from Helen Pickett's Etesian. Pickett (as the moderator explained when she came out and joined the panel) was a (top-notch professional) ballerina for 17 years (she doesn't look the part). She said the only interesting thing that was said on the panel the entire evening, which is that, when choreographing, she likes to use a ballet lower body, and a modern-dance upper body. What this means, if you don't know much about dance, is that the feet wear toe shoes, the legs are extraordinarily strong and straight, and the upper body is extremely—almost excessively—mobile. We are therefore given the elegance of the elongated leg en pointe, but all of the emotive expression of a torso that can roll and wiggle and thrust and contract, and the arms are not the rigid blades of a windmill, moving only along the surface area of an invisible globe around the dancer's head—they too roll and wiggle and thrust and contract. This makes for beautiful, emotive, and interesting dance.

The stage in the Gugu's Sackler Center is small, and Pickett ought to have removed a few dancers in order to accommodate that (eight bodies exploring their full range of motion looked crowded and, at times, messy, in the limited space), but that is my only complaint. It was a problem for the third piece as well, excerpted from Jorma Elo's Brake the Eyes. This was a barefoot dance (shocking, for a ballet company), and much more cerebral than the first. It did feature a prima ballerina of sorts—a lead female who danced a seemingly deranged character and would regularly break out into nattering, high-pitched speech in an unidentified foreign language, and then a burst of disturbing, higher-pitched laughter. She danced with three men and five woman who did quite a bit of dancing themselves, and the music came from Mozart, but was "sound designed" such that it was broken into pieces, interspersed with silences and then threatening low rumbles and banging (imagine the idyllic golden world of the Eloi interrupted by the incipient threat of the Morlocks*) There seemed to be a correspondence between the changes in the music and the appearance of the disturbed ballerina. The movements were often rigid and automaton-like (the choreographer (and the artistic director)) is Finnish, and I couldn't help but note the detached, hyper-intellectual aesthetic as particularly Nordic. Ultimately I think I prefer the timeless cerebral coupling of Merce Cunningham and John Cage, but for a ballet company, this is very avant-garde, and somewhat satisfying.

*In H.G. Wells' The Time Machine

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Books: God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens

In a rare foray into non-fiction, particularly of the Best Seller-type, I borrowed my friend's copy of Hitchens' new book and delighted, as I regularly do when reading his Fighting Words column on Slate, in his masterfully vitriolic diction. Some writers are erudite, and some are mean, but no one writes a polemic with such gusto as Hitchens, and even through many of my atheist friends declined to read the book, having dismissed the trappings of religion long ago. I gave the author free reign to preach to my choir, in hopes of augmenting my own writerly skills by osmosis.

I, too, gave up religion long ago—in my junior year of high school—when a very intelligent, empathetic, and demanding theology teacher (who was studying to join the Jesuit order) demanded that we question our faith, write lengthy papers on such philosophical topics as "Where have I come from; where am I now, and where am I going?", and who explained, for the first time after more than ten years of Catholic Christian education, what it really meant to be a follower of Christ's instructions. For me, the choice was more an ethical-intellectual decision than one of so-called "faith," or lack thereof; I had had my share of "spiritual" "moments"—those occasional feelings of heightened awareness and connectedness, usually late at night or on those windswept autumn days when the air is pristinely clear and suddenly still, almost always out of doors, and almost always alone—and it is easy enough to interpret these as belief in God (and just as easy to not do so). No, I eschewed Catholicism primarily because of something called the Preferential Option for the Poor, which is at the very crux of Christ's message, though few Christians have probably heard of it, and fewer probably practice it. In its complete application (and it cannot be partially applied), the Preferential Option for the Poor intimates the complete collapse of capitalism, and it is probably because of the close connection between religiosity and conservatism, in this country in particular, that the call to action is ignored. Then again, the Vatican doesn't seem to be in a hurry to act either.

Simply put, the Preferential Option for the Poor states that, if I have a loaf of bread, and my neighbor has nothing, rather than give my neighbor some, even half, of my bread (which seems charitable enough, and fair, right?), I am obligated (that is an intense word) to give my neighbor all of my bread. The whole loaf. And really, that is the essence of Christianity. Jesus said, "Sell all you have, and come follow me." That's quite easy to understand; it's not a parable, or a metaphor, and it requires no interpretation: it is a call to action, and it has been falling on the deaf ears of Christians for millennia. Christian clergy often take a vow of poverty (Jesuits, for example), and yet have developed legalistic loopholes (as if God operates like a chief justice) that allow the order itself to be quite wealthy, and to provide its members with all of the creature comforts said wealth can buy. I am not saying that everyone should be poor and devote their lives to service. I am saying that if you do not want to be poor and devote your life to service, you should not—nay, can not—call yourself a Christian, whether you believe in the Nicene Creed* or no.

Little of this has to do with Hitchens' book (he does not mention, for example, the Preferential Option for the Poor, or Christ's telltale instructions), although it is very much connected. We are both concerned with hypocrisy. Hitchens is less concerned with the hypocrisy of believers, though, as with the hypocrisy of individual religious traditions themselves, and ultimately the inanity of religion itself. I agree with him wholeheartedly, and I think that his literary-historical excavations of a few Faiths work extremely well to prove his point (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, for example, is expertly trashed (I'm afraid there's no reason to put it in kinder words) as Hitchens demonstrates its founder, Joseph Smith, to be a first-degree charlatan, who had already been convicted as an impostor, and who created his Book of Mormon out of thin air when his prior schemes failed him). Hitchens is particularly hard on Islam, saving his nastiest and most denigrating phrases for this faith that, today, Westerners love to hate, calling it, at best, an "ill-arranged set of plagiarisms" and perhaps not even a religion in its own right at all. But he directs his fury at all three Western monotheisms: Judaism (arguing that circumcision is a brutal practice of infant-abuse and disfiguration, on par with female circumcision, which he even more brutally (and rightfully) excoriates), Christianity, and Islam. He also includes a delightful short chapter on why the flesh of the pig (so exceptionally tasty) is banned by two of these top three religions (allowing Christianity to jump on the dietary bandwagon with its outdated Fish-on-Friday tradition).

The only thing that I found lacking was an address of Eastern religions. Hitchens dedicates only one chapter of nineteen to the topic "There is No 'Eastern' Solution," and yet his chapter did not convince me fully that this is the case. He dips quickly, when explaining how religions have historically been complicit in social evil-doing, into the problems of India's caste system, and the social inequity of the Dalai Lama's lifestyle. And yet, a textual deconstruction of the Tao Te Ching is not included (one might argue that that would be outside of the scope of this book, since for Taoists, there is no "God," but only the Tao). He did not convince me that a regular, dedicated yoga practice does not incite very real, positive change in people's lives (it would be hard to convince me, as a regular practitioner who has experienced said changes), although, perhaps again, such a practice falls outside of the scope of his book, since yoga is not a religion, nor is meditation, and since neither have anything to do, necessarily, with a god. (Although my militantly atheistic friends insist that the practice is made of mumbo-jumbo on par with the Koran, the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Tao To Ching, and express intense dismay that I have been so easily duped.)

Hitchens evades the proposed danger of nihilism (always an amusing threat, I think, by those who believe that they will be given some prize in the afterlife) by way of art and artful living (finding greater moral teachings in Shakespeare than the Bible, for example), and though he once or twice criticizes Nietzsche, I interpret his approach to life as quite similar to mine, and thereby similar to the "positive nihilism" invoked by (the so often misinterpreted) Nietzsche, to "Create oneself as a work of art." Perhaps such behavior is a luxury only the relatively wealthy can afford (i.e., creating oneself as a work of art is not likely a priority in Darfur), and furthermore leaves open to interpretation what kind of art is most aesthetically pleasing (I am certain that suicide bombers find that ultimate expression of their faith quite artful), but that problem is better left a philosophical and even political than religious one. Hitchens insists that basic human instincts will tell us how to act ethically (not a member of the William Golding school, him), which is why our stomachs turn when we witness torture or violence, and that it is actually the hegemonic trajectory of religious traditions that sanctify cruelty (sexual abuse of children by priests, arranged marriages and ensuing statutory rape of young girls by men twice their age, genital mutilation of infants and pre-teens (if anything, Hitchens is willing to allow adults to make their own poor decisions, but not to enforce their poor decisions on the bodies of innocent children), slavery, war, genocide, etc.

To address the actual roots of these issues though, Hitchens would have had to dig still deeper, where he would have found that the human condition includes the darker compulsions of greed, lust, fear, and a desire for power. These conditions are the motivating factors that have inspired people to use religion as a tool—an ideology—with which to blind their subjects to the reality of their intentions, and those people who see through the blindfold nevertheless see its utility, and themselves enroll, complicit, punch-drunk with the power to subjugate; others never do see the shadows on the wall for what they merely are, and die, drained, exhausted, empty, but somehow still uncorked. And that is tragic, because, as Hitchens and I know, they will not get a second chance. Christianity's Beatitudes state "Blessed are the Meek;" is that because they will never know any better?

*I still have good chunks of this memorized from my years of Catholic schooling; it is basically a laundry-list recitation of beliefs: "I believe in one God, the Lord, the giver of life, maker of all that is seen and unseen. . . He sent his only son. . . He was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day, he rose again, in fulfillment of the Scriptures. He will come again, to judge the living and the dead. . . I believe in the Holy Spirit. . . I believe in the Catholic and Apostolic Church. . ." and so on.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Movies: The Bubble

Yali, Noam, and Lulu are twenty/thirty-something Israeli flatmates in this latest look at the Israel/Palestine problem. The three are not unlike American Indie/Yupster youth; Yali manages a small, hip restaurant, Noam works at a record store and listens to bands from London, and Lulu works at a soap store (Sabon, it seems, if you know it), although she's an aspiring clothing designer. Yali and Noam are both gay, and while serving mandatory military duty at the Nablus checkpoint, Noam meets Ashraf, a young gay Palestinian man who quickly thereafter comes to Tel Aviv to stay with the three. After a few jealous sparks from Yali (who quickly finds his own sort-of boyfriend, the beefy, hunky, ethically-questionable Golan), the four settle in as a tightly knit set of friends, working to promote their Rave For Peace, to take place out on the beach, while Lulu deals with her own relationship issues.

Things are beyond difficult for Ashraf, though, whose family does not (and can not) know about his sexual orientation. His sister is engaged to the militant, bearded Jihad, who is meanwhile pushing Ashraf to marry his cousin (a nice enough woman, except that she's a woman). Yali has gotten Ashraf a job in the restaurant, and he is living in Tel Aviv under the assumed (Jewish) name Shimi. When someone at the restaurant asks if he is Palestinian, he panics and returns to Nablus without telling his new friends. Home for the wedding, Ashraf comes clean to his sister, who cries and coldly tells him that he is just confused. Lulu and Noam sneak into Nablus with a cute, hair-brained scheme to find Ashraf, but when they do connect, Jihad sees Ashraf and Noam kissing passionately. He agrees to keep the secret, so long as Ashraf goes through with his marriage to the unsuspecting cousin.

And now, things get worse. Violence, of course, is ever-present in Israel/Palestine, and a few small incidents have already occurred, but Ashraf overhears Jihad speaking to someone about a Tel Aviv bombing on his cell phone, and it's in retaliation for that bombing that the next day, the day after the wedding, an Israeli Jeep pulls up to the family's home in Nablus and shoots Ashraf's sister—Jihad's new bride—dead. In the midst of mourning, Ashraf finds Jihad about to record his suicide video, and volunteers to take his place. He returns to Tel Aviv, where he stands in front of the restaurant, and sees Noam (who is waiting for take-out to bring to Yali, in the hospital; his legs were hit by the bomb and he will never walk again). Noam sees the trigger release in Ashraf's hand, and runs out to him; as they embrace, Ashraf detonates the bomb and their bodies, and I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, horrified.

The Israel/Palestine conflict infuriates me to no end, and one of the few things that infuriates me even more is the unfair treatment of gays by certain so-called faiths. Beyond these, the thing that infuriates me most is the very concept of suicide bombing. Ashraf's hopelessness is crushing when considered against the quite real possibility of his moving to (yes, I'll say it) a more civilized city like London or New York or San Francisco, where he and Noam could have had a long life together, perhaps even working to increase tolerance in their respective faiths and cultures. Of course, the movie is a movie, and its impact comes from its intensely dramatic conclusion, but I have not seen a movie in such a long time during which I identified so deeply with the characters, felt so much like another one of their friends, that I am now starting to cry again just thinking about that explosion. Interestingly enough, the lovers' demise is much more upsetting given that the lovers are gay men (than if they had been simply a heterosexual couple), which leads me to wonder why I particularly fetishize (and whether anyone else similarly fetishizes) that relationship.

Outside of the theater, I heard some of the audience members complaining that the whole thing was too forced (i.e. names like "Golan" and "Jihad" are too loaded) but those complaints hold no water. This was actually one of the lightest, easiest to swallow representations I've seen of Israeli/Palestinian life, particularly for young people, and I've been there, so I can say. Those old Upper West Side Jews didn't know what they were talking about; it's been fifty years since they spent a summer on a kibbutz.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Movies: Shoot 'Em Up

I went to see this movie partially out of allegiance to my love for Monica Bellucci (first inspired by her performance in Malena, and strong enough to keep me sitting through Irreversible, although I did have to squeeze my eyes shut through much of the first half), partially out of my girlish admiration for Clive Owen (who has thrilled me since The Inside Man, particularly so when I saw him on the corner of Prince and Mercer a few weekends ago, and stifled my initial instinct to follow him into the cab he was hailing), and despite my loathing for Paul Giamatti (who has annoyed the hell out of me since the grossly over-rated Sideways (which made me ashamed of being a human being) and then all through American Splendor (yes, I saw them out of order)). Despite the bang-up cast, though (no pun intended), the film was a travesty, a brilliant exercise in American profligacy (of money and perhaps even more shamefully, of talent).

The film is based on the ludicrous concept (perhaps the concept of ludicrous-ness?) that a presidential candidate, in need of a transfusion from a willing, matching donor had set up a secret baby factory upstairs from a heavy metal club. The pregnant mothers, though, were systematically slain by someone who did not want that candidate to get his transfusion: that turns out to be the owner of a giant gun manufacturer (the candidate was running on the platform of gun control). Unfortunately for the gun manufacturer, one of the women, trying to escape, is intercepted by the renegade Smith (Owen), who is minding his own business at a trash-swept bus stop in the middle of the abandoned night, unshaven and in a black leather trench coat, crunching on a carrot, begrudgingly attempts to rescue her from the veritable army of gunmen pursuing her. During a ludicrous shoot-out in an abandoned warehouse, Owen manages to rescue the woman, deliver the baby, kill a ton of bad guys, and dodge the thousand bullets whizzing at him, with nothing but his carrot and the woman's pistol. On the way to safety, though, he realizes the woman's been shot dead (she looks like something my goth high school friends would have done to a Barbie doll). The baby's still alive, though, so, holding onto it like a parcel of cocaine (that is, carefully, but not really carefully enough), he dodges more gunfire on his way to the roof, off of which he jumps, crashing through the plate glass window of a neighboring apartment building, to safety.

We don't actually know anything about the candidate, or the gun manufacturer, until halfway through the movie, but I decided that it would make more sense (ha!) if I told you that part up front. Owen tries to ditch the baby a few times, but every time he does, someone shows up, trying to shoot it; thus, his hero mechanism is re-engaged, and he does what any unshaven, leather trench coat wearing, raw carrot-eating hero would do: he takes the baby to the whorehouse, where Monica Bellucci, vamping à la Jessica Rabbit, collects money to wet-nurse men with infantalization fantasies. Smith, it seems, was one of her old clients (although we get the impression that he takes his sex straight up). She refuses his role of five Gs in exchange for the task, but after he leaves, taking the baby along, the disgustingly evil (mind you, he was disgusting as a nice guy, too) Paul Giamatti shows up with a pistol, shoots up the place, and gives our darling whore a few pistol burns on her perfect inner thighs (the idea that a Monica Bellucci creature would ever accept this kind of treatment from a Paul Giamatti creature? As ludicrous as the idea that a lioness would sit around while a hyena gnawed at her leg). Before the filthy man can insert the filthy gun into her panting orifice (because he's clearly headed in that direction), Smith returns to the rescue, and the new "family" escapes, after quite a bit more exchanged gunfire.

And so it goes, the three running hither and thither (to a gun shop for provisions, to Smith's home, a post-Soho, post-urban, reclaimed abandoned loft space in which he grows his own carrots, and then to a tank: the only place where Smith is certain Baby and Mommy will be safe while he goes out hunting bad guys), each scene interspersed with grandiose gun battles in which Smith, an army of one, vanquishes armies of fifty and one hundred mercenary-type gunmen (in one particularly ludicrous scene, inside the gun manufacturer's warehouse, he rigs dozens of weapons to fire on a pulley system, and then implements the system to wreck quick and dirty havoc on his enemy). Giamatti's character, not the candidate, nor the gun executive, but simply a sort of hired mercenary himself (Chief Operating Officer of sorts, it seems), continually fields calls from his wife on his cell phone in the midst of gun battles, assuring her that he will be home in time for his son's birthday party (spoiler: he doesn't make it), and we are never clear on why he is so bent on killing both the baby and therefore Smith, aside from the promise of some financial gain, and, more importantly, his filthy ego. It's enough, though, that he's filthy evil (as are his cohorts) for us to respond with glee as Smith riddles his team full of bullets and, yes, pointy carrots (once through the eye-socket, which I think is only questionably fatal, but definitely unpleasant either way).

I've made concessions for other films with absurd plots, excessive gunfire, and culted infants, so long as they featured redeeming aesthetics. This movie, though, however stylized, is less redeemingly-so than annoyingly-so. It is hyper-pulpy, which is something that I usually appreciate (loved the look of Sin City), but it is not originally so, nor is it intellectually self-conscious. More a Cinemax interpretation of post-modernity than an HBO realization, Monica's simpering is too soft-core, and Giamatti's lubricious evil sickens rather than delights. Owen comes off the best, but considering his company, that's not saying much.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Movies: Amores Perros

Way better than the boggy Babel, Amores Perros has all of the grit and none of the yippy, yuppy fluff that made that later Iñárritu/Arriaga project so unbearable. And yet, the seed of what would really destroy Babel—excessive screen time given to non-sympathetic (to say the least) characters—was already planted.

The film investigates the relationships of three different male/female pairs, whose stories all interlock by way of dogs (one dog in particular, named Cofi). Octavio begins entering Cofi into dog fights in order to make money to help support his family and, more importantly, to impress and hopefully run away with his sister-in-law Susana, who has a small baby, is pregnant again, and who is treated horribly by her husband. At one of the last fights, when he has amassed enough of a nest egg for their escape, the competitor shoots Cofi out of pure villainy, and in the car, speeding toward safety while the villains chase them (Octavio stabbed the head villain in retaliation), Cofi bleeding all over the backseat, Octavio crashes into another car. The driver is Valeria, a leggy blonde model who has just moved into a new apartment with her boyfriend Daniel (who happens to be married with two kids and freshly embarked on a separation), and the accident destroys one of her legs (eventually, it needs to be amputated). Luckily, her lapdog escapes unscathed, and Daniel brings him home, where he falls into a hole in the hardwood floor chasing a toy, and becomes lost. Daniel finally finds him after tearing up holes all over the apartment's floor; he's sick, broken, starved, and has been attacked by rats, but he's alive. Meanwhile, a scraggly bum (whom we later learn to call El Chivo) we've seen wandering the streets with a cart and a motley menagerie of dogs, witnesses the car wreck, and, finding Cofi's bleeding body unattended in the middle of the street, takes him home and nurses him back to health. While he is busy stalking his estranged daughter, now an adult with her own apartment, committing vigilante justice (he shoots his daughter's step-father dead), and working on a project as a hitman (he ultimately does not kill the target, but instead ties him up, steals his money and his car, lures his client to his home, ties him up in the same room, steals his money and car, and leaves them there together with one gun), Cofi, doing only what he has been trained to do, attacks and kills all of El Chivo's other dogs.

None of this, though, occurs in the one-two-three order I've presented. The film starts in the middle (the car chase), goes back, comes around to the chase again, then continues. The sections each have threads of the of the other plot lines woven through them, although they focus most intensively on the couple at hand. We never meet El Chivo's daughter, only witness him, at the end, when he has transformed himself with a bath, a shave, a mani-pedi, and a wardrobe change (the suit stolen off of his client's back), sitting on her bed, piling thick rolls of money under her pillow, pasting a picture of himself on her graduation picture, over her step-father's own face, and leaving a message on her answering machine, apologizing for disappearing when she was two in order to fight with the Zapatistas.

Everything is beautifully filmed, and all the performances are fantastic. The characters' relationships are each loaded enough to provide fodder for much more than a single blog entry or just one night of conversation. Even the least interesting characters, Valeria and Daniel, who are most similar to characters in Babel (solipsistic, vapid, self-indulgent, etc.), who grate more and more heavily on our nerves as they shout "Richie! Richie!" seeking Valeria's lost powderpuff dog (an obnoxious abomination in and of himself), are redeemed when Daniel finds the dog's body, collapsed and matted, shaking, and we see that the dog is a cipher for the broken Valeria herself, and the tenderness with which Daniel holds its deflated body to his chest is the tenderness he feels for his broken beauty, who is now imbued with all of the dog's innocence; he never intended to be what he was; perhaps she didn't either. Each of the dogs actually functions as cipher: Cofi for El Chivo more clearly than for Octavio, although the characters are similar, pursuing the love of a woman who won't return it, well-intentioned at heart, but driven by circumstance to make violent decisions. At the film's end, each has even cut his hair, Octavio to the very skin, where stitches circle his skull after the car wreck. He is at his brother's funeral; he was shot dead while attempting to rob a bank after running away with his wife, baby, and all of Octavio's savings. Susana continues to reject his affection. In this trilogy of tragedy, his is the most affecting, perhaps since his character is the most innocent (or should I say least guilty? After all, he did fornicate (did I not say that yet?!) with his brother's wife, and he did pit his dog against others in fights, and he did stab a man in the chest), or perhaps just because he's played by Gael García Bernal, whom it's impossible not to adore (and I mean that as a movie-watcher, not as a young female).

Ultimately, the film could have been 20 minutes shorter (with nearly all of that cut coming from the middle section), but it's excellent anyway. I'm quite shocked by the number of people I know who didn't like it at all.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Books: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne

And you thought that I had given up reading! No, I've not, but: if all literature were like this, I probably would. Tristram Shandy is an over-rated dreadful bore, credited as the ur-postmodern novel, but in actuality as grimly frivolous (as opposed to delightfully overripe) as other aged literature, like the Canterbury Tales (pace throwback professor-types, I will be as young and irreverent as I please; I've earned that right by slogging through 650 pages of Sterne's semi-madcap drivel).

I haven't anything but praise for the concept and the structure of the book: a narrator who sits down to write his memoirs, but gets so caught in the details, the digressions, and the details of the digressions, and further digressions based on the first digressions' details, that he writes at a slower rate than he lives, such that he will never be able to complete his history. This is an insight into memoir and memory, record-keeping, journalling, and my reading list (I read much more slowly than I add books to my list).

It is, sadly, in the details that Sterne fails us. Small delights, like Tristram's father's obsession with noses, and his belief that the larger the nose, the better the man, wear out after one hundred pages of discourse, including a very Canterbury-like tale of a traveler in Europe whose nose was bigger than his entire body, who incited burning curiosity in the minds of everyone he met as to whether it was organic or not. And then, after Sterne spends half of the book on being born, he seems to tire of writing, and then jump to childhood and then on, until he abruptly stops, completely without warning. Perhaps we are to assume that Mr. Shandy died? He does not stop, however, mid-sentence, which would have been much more dramatic if that is indeed the case, and would too have been much more avant-garde.

But Sterne, I think, has no intention of being avant-garde, unlike the earlier defining authors of postmodernism, and this may be why his books is so banal. For the real deal (and you won't hear me say this often), watch the movie, featuring the ever-brilliant Steve Coogan.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Movies: 2 Days in Paris

Thanks to Julie Delpy's phenomenal screenplay and Jack Goldberg's brilliant performance, this is the funniest movie I've seen all year, and probably the best "romantic comedy" I've ever seen. I went by myself, late at night, and that didn't stop me from literally guffawing even though, amidst the rest of the audience's meager twitters, my laughing probably elicited more than a few WTF?s.

Delpy and Goldberg play Marion and Jack, a 30-something New York-based couple who have been together two years (practically impossible these days). They take a romantic vacation in Venice and, on the way back, stop in Paris for two days to visit the French Marion's parents. While Marion reconnects with her parents and old friends, Jack suffers from allergies, culture shock, and paranoia (perhaps grounded) that Marion has been cheating. Think of him as a more hard-core, virile version of Woody Allen, with tattoos. Think of her as a sexier and less grating version of the young Diane Keaton, in nerdy glasses that are somehow incredibly provocative.

The plot is simple, and much less interesting than the details over which the couple bicker (the photo, for example, that Marion takes of Jack, naked, with three helium balloons tied to his penis, and the fact that Jack finds an exact copy of the photo, only featuring a different man, in Marion's old room, and the way she justifies that it's a completely different photo because the balloons are of different colors). The brilliance is in the performances, particularly that of Delpy's father Albert as Marion's father Jeannot; he doesn't speak English and Jack doesn't speak French, and their uncomfortable exchanges over the topics of food and sex are absolutely thrilling, thanks to Delpy's expressive face and growls.

I read a review that gave away the ending as Marion and Jack deciding to split, but, while the ending is perhaps open to some interpretation (it's a great couple argument scene, by the way, brilliantly written, and very real), I left the theater certain that the couple stays together, and I'm generally not an optimist of that sort. And, considering how hard it is to maintain relationships at this age here in New York, that's not irrelevant.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Movies: This is England

This movie is really much too good to blog about. It's much too fun and tender and sickening and horrifying to express, in words, in this lazy venue. But in order to convince you to go see it, I'm going to try anyway.

In the best childhood performance I've seen in a long time (Abigail Breslin, eat your heart out), Thomas Turgoose is Shaun, a twelve-year-old boy living with his frizzy-haired, big-spectacled mum. His father went away to the Falklands war and died in combat, and every day at school, his classmates make fun of him because his trousers are too big. It's 1983.

On his walk home from school, after another fight, Shaun passes through a tunnel in which a small group of teenagers are hanging out. They all wear tight jeans, Doc Martins, and have very closely cropped hair. One of them—tall, super-skinny, looks like a manic candy cane—asks Shaun why he looks so glum, and invites him to sit down with them. He introduces himself as Woody and immediately starts cracking jokes about the boy who beat Shaun up, trying to make the boy laugh. It works, and Woody socially adopts Shaun into their little crew; he buys him a Ben Sherman shirt and has his girlfriend shave Shaun's head. The group goes traipsing through the countryside wearing silly outfits and go to an abandoned house, where they break everything they can with rocks, tools, and their fists: windows, walls, sinks, everything. It's exhilarating and delightful and horrible.

But it's all "innocent" fun, despite the barbs and the violence and the underage drinking; Shaun's mom is upset by the haircut, but lets her son continue to hang out with his new friends, and he even manages to land a punk-rock girlfriend twice his height, whose jaded exterior and naive interior combat each other when the two of them go into a shed together during a party, and she asks him, "Do you want to suck on my tits?" and he says "No," because he's never done it before and is afraid to do it wrong, and she admits that not many people have done it to her, either. All of this tenderness shifts, though, when Woody's old mate Combo crashes the party, with a leather-vested biker (sans bike) at his side. Combo's been in prison, and he and his friend appear easily twice the age of the rest of the crew, but we quickly see that Combo was once to Woody what Woody is now to Shaun. We see the confusion and horror and discomfort flitting across Woody's face as Combo launches into a vitriolic racist, violent, anti-Thatcher monologue, after using the term "nigger" in front of one of the crew's members (Milky, a Jamaican, raised British). Shaun jumps up to attack him (an absurd but potent intent) when Combo says that the Falklands war is meaningless, then explains, in a near-teary huff, that his dad died in the war. No one knew this, it seems, and Combo instantly becomes tender, but firm, explaining that Shaun's father died for nothing, and that it's now Shaun's responsibility to make that death mean something. The night ends on a nervous note.

Things get worse when Combo comes to the crew's hangout and demands that they each make a decision. He criticizes Woody as a snake in the grass who didn't rise to defend Milky when Combo made the mistake of insulting him, and implies that he will be taking over leadership of the crew, which divides in half as Woody and his girlfriend decide to leave, and some of the members (including Milky) follow. Shaun, though, stays, along with two others, because he was so moved (manipulated?) by Combo's speech about his dad.

Combo takes his new little posse to a skinhead meeting, where a speaker gives a rousing speech about what it means to be an Englishman. On the ride home, one of the kids makes the mistake of admitting he doesn't take it seriously, and Combo pulls him out of the car, beats him, and leaves him on the side of the rural road. The little crew next engages in various thuggish behaviors, including painting racist graffiti on walls, threatening Pakistani children, and robbing a small store owned by a (very culturally assimilated) Pakistani proprietor. Shaun glorifies in this madcap violence, while we in the audience begin to feel increasingly excited and uncomfortable.

And finally, the shit hits the fan. Combo runs into Milky and asks if he has a joint. Milky comes back to the house where he, Combo, the biker side-kick, another one of Combo's older buddies, and Shaun sit around, smoking a blunt. Combo asks Milky about his family, and Milky melts what threatens to be a tense situation with his big, stoned smile as he describes the family dinners they have at his house. Something about this monologue incites a (jealous) rage in Combo, though, who suddenly snaps and begins beating Milky. He beats him relentlessly. He beats him until he's an immobile bloody pulp that doesn't seem to be breathing. All this time, Shaun is screaming and writhing while the leather-vested biker (who hasn't changed his outfit the whole movie) holds him down, laughing in a sickness-inducing way at the spectacle.

An epilogue conversation between Shaun and his mum over a portrait of his dad tells us that Milky isn't dead and that Shaun, for all of the trauma he has recently been subjected to, will probably be okay. We don't find out whether he sees the connection between Combo's anti-"Paki" rants and the violence dealt to Milky, but we hope that his loss of innocence has meant a loss of naivete. And we hope that he'll be okay.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Movies: The French Connection

I know I saw this movie, and it was only five days ago (I'm sorry for being so far behind), but I can't for the life of me remember anything about it. Perhaps missing the opening credits while in the popcorn line did me worse than ever before—curses, Film Forum, for never showing trailers, except during the Noir Festival when I had to see the same No End In Sight trailer twenty times in a row, even after having seen the movie.

I do remember that Gene Hackman was very young, and played a narcotics cop with a drinking problem, obsessed with a hunch while the rest of his department mocked him, and that his hunch turned out to be right: a young corner store owner and his wife are breaking into the drug game by brokering a huge cocaine import. Hackman and his partner spend a long night in their car trailing the couple, then another long night watching a car parked under the highway that they believe has the goods inside. They find the goods in the car after a long search, and then set up the bad guys so that they get caught. The bad guys scatter, though, and Hackman wanders around a trashed warehouse trying to track them down. He thinks he sees one and shoots—killing one of his colleagues. Somewhere in there, I'm afraid I can't remember where, there is a "car chase" scene that is much talked about (even my doorman, who is younger than I am (that is, not even conceived when this movie was made) told me that there was an awesome car chase in this movie), which actually consists of Gene Hackman trashing a vehicle he borrows from a civilian whilst driving at break-neck speed through two-direction traffic chasing a subway train, on which the bad guy is riding. I guess it was an okay chase scene, for 1971. Oh, the spoiled, jaded youth of today!

Before the credits role, there are a few summations screens that sum up what happened to everyone. Basically, everyone who got caught got off with a light sentence or no sentence, and the most important bad guy was never caught at all. Seems folks were pretty jaded in 1971, too.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Movies: Minyeo-neun goerowo (200 Pounds Beauty)

With its [sic] title, 200 Pounds Beauty was screened last weekend as part of BAM's New York Korean Film Festival. BAM's website takes the liberty of correcting the title and singularizing the work "pound," but that is like going to barbecue in Koreatown and having your meat brought to the table already cooked. I only frequent restaurants with hot coals in the middle of my table.

The 200 pound beauty is Hanna, who is far from beautiful during the time that she's 200 pounds, and far from 200 pounds during the time that she's beautiful. Nevertheless, the plot strives to show that it's what's inside that counts—maybe—kind of—sort of—not really. Hanna is obese, and ugly to boot; she has a hairy upper lip, bulging eyes, and, well, bulging everything; her knobby, shiny chin sits inside a tire of flesh that one might call a neck. She is also accident prone, and has terrible table manners. She does, though, have a very sexy voice. She uses this for her part-time job as a phone sex operator, and for her "real" job: a pop songstress. Because she doesn't have the looks for pop music, though, she sings from a dais below the stage, facing video monitors that connect her to her producer/agent, while Ammy, a Korean version of Christina Aguilera, slinks around the stage, lip-synching into her headset and dancing provocatively.

Hanna is in love with her producer, a Korean Prince Charming type complete with professionally-tousled hair. She thinks that the emotion might be mutual until she overhears him conversing with Ammy in the bathroom about how they are just using her. At first suicidal, she quickly snaps into a more productive state and blackmails one of her phone sex clients—a preeminent plastic surgeon—into giving her total-body reconstructive surgery, for free. He does, and she is unrecognizably beautiful: thin, lithe, and lovely, she remarks after a workout "I even sweat pretty!" and after an emotional moment "I even cry pretty!" And she does.

Afraid to reveal her true identity, she auditions for her old producer as a Korean American from California, named Jenny. Her beauty and talent sweep him off his feet, and not only does he push her to stardom, marketing her as "a natural beauty" (she does not admit to having had any plastic surgery), but courts her romantically as well. Meanwhile, Ammy's career has been ruined since she lost her voice, and she has been hanging around the retirement home where Hanna's old, dotty dad lives; he and Hanna had once been extremely close, but she has been afraid to visit him since her surgery, having see Ammy there with him. Ammy finds out Jenny's true identity, and threatens to make the information public the night of Jenny's debut concert. After a number of incidents, including an attempted suicide by her best friend and back-up singer, and being confronted with her father at her album release party, Jenny breaks down crying on stage, and admits to her true identity in front of an audience of thousands. Her producer turns a video onto the screen behind her of the old Hanna, obese and ugly, but singing her heart out, and Jenny cries onstage while the audience goes wild. Afterward, Jenny cuts a new album and becomes a bigger sensation than ever. She gets over her crush on her producer, and he's now in love with her.

The movie leaves us there, with the moral that. . . what? Honesty is important, but in all honesty, fat is ugly, and beauty is rewarded? I suppose that's true, if not particularly edifying. The film out-Hollywoods Hollywood in its series of fatsuit movies which, I must admit, I've not seen (sorry). And although I'm not familiar with the emotional workings of Norbit, Shallow Hal, and whatever else has happened for the genre recently, I doubt any American film could be so openly shallow and simultaneously honest and simultaneously ridiculous as this. Whether that is a good thing or not (about any of these films), I have no idea.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Movies: Fong juk (Exiled)

Another stylized shoot-em-up from Johnny To provides stunning visuals of the violent kind, hung on a limp revenge plot; it isn't any worse for the wear, unless you were hoping to learn something, or be edified in some way. I don't expect that from my art any longer.

The story opens with two pairs of assassins calling at Wo's house, where his wife is home alone with her new baby. When Wo comes home, they come in, and a beautifully choreographed shoot-out ensues. Luckily, no one is injured. It is clear that To is not interested in realism. Wo asks his enemies, who now appear to be his friends, to stay to dinner, when they realize there is no furniture in the flat; Wo and his wife have just moved in, and their belongings are still in his truck downstairs. The assassins help him move in all of their furniture, and help repair all the damage done to the apartment by gunfire. Wo cooks up a feast, and they all sit down to dinner. Then, the assassins sleep over. Again, it is clear that To is not interested in realism.

Wo, we find out, was in the same gang as these four men; they all joined in their youth. These bosom buddies have been ordered to kill their homie by Boss Fay, because Wo attempted to assassinate him (along with one other of the four, whom Wo did not rat out). They don't want to kill him, but their lives, too, are now on the line. So, the five set out to find a dangerous contract job for Wo—one that might get him killed. It's an assassination contract for the life of Boss Keung, who runs the scene in Macau, and it was put out by none other than Boss Fay, who wants in on his business. This leads us to the next stunningly choreographed shoot out, which takes place in a huge (and luckily almost empty) restaurant. Wo sustains fatal injuries, pushed out the window and falling ten stories, then being shot up like a practice target for kicks. Boss Fay is shot in the balls. The four assassins, thanks to a bullet-proof vest, get off scot-free, and load the bullet-ridden Wo into a stolen car. Rather than take him to a hospital, they go to a safe-house surgeon, who happens to be busy entertaining a prostitute when they arrive. He begins work on Wo, but then banging on the door leads to the entrance of the bleeding Bosses Fay and Keung, along with their men. Our heroes hide, but it isn't long before Fay notices that they're there, and starts another shoot out; again, our heroes escape, dragging an almost-dead Wo with them. They bring him home, where he dies immediately on the couch. Outraged, his wife grabs her husband's gun and begins to shoot at them; they run out and get back into the car.

Here the film takes a turn for the existential; the four try to decide which way to drive, and flip a coin. They continue to use this coin as they wander on, when there is a fork in the road, and when the opportunity to commit a crime arises. Soon they realize that their car is leaking gas, and they leave it behind, trudging up and tumbling down sand dunes until they come to a body of water, where they exuberantly wash. There is a temple nearby with one ton of gold, but they decide not to steal it, since the coin toss comes up tails. Instead, they ask each other questions about how much a ton of gold really is, how many pounds are in a ton, and how much does a ton of pain weigh. It is then that they come upon gunshots in the woods; they hide themselves and watch as a policeman, his truck filled with the gold, shoots all of his comrades. They then encircle him to hijack his prize, then agree to all be friends and split the gold five ways. Everyone settles in for a happy evening beside the water—three of the original four joke about how they'll spend their money while the new guy sits playing a mournful, Old West-kind of tune on his harmonica—when the fourth gets a call on his cell; it's Boss Fay, and he has Wo's wife and baby hostage.

The party is over—for the moment at least—and armed with a few bags of gold bars, the four leave their new comrade at the dock with the remainder of the loot and go to rescue Wo's family. When they get to the hotel, they peacefully broker a deal to exchange the young woman and her baby for the one ton of gold, showing the two bags they've brought along, and promising that the rest is in a car outside. Boss Fay hands over his hostages and one of the four takes her outside to get the rest of the gold. On the way to the door, he tells her to run to safety and meet their new companion at the dock, slams the door behind her, turns around, and begins shooting at Fay. Fire opens all around, consummating the biggest, baddest shoot out yet. When the fire finally dies down, the camera pans around the room slowly, dropping in on each of our heroes, who appear, yet again, to have done the impossible, and survived. Then, it makes another round, during which each dies, artfully, and that's it; everyone—"good" guys and bad, has died.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Movies: Midnight Cowboy and The Panic in Needle Park

Nothing will bring you down quite like the combination of hustlers and heroin addicts, except for the combination of wanna-be hustlers and heroin addicts. In these two films, naivete and big dreams bring bright-eyed kids to the city, which promptly chews them up and spits them out. In the kind of public isolation only New York can inspire, love becomes synonymous with desperation, and the somehow, the only alternative is despair.
Midnight Cowboy, Schlesinger's 1969 classic, stars Joe America Jon Voight as Joe Buck, who gives up a shitty dish-washing gig at a roadhouse diner in his home state of Texas to make his fortune in New York City, providing wealthy old women with the service of his body. Unsurprisingly, he's conned by everyone he meets, including the woman he thinks is his first client, and the greasy grimy cripple Ratso/Rizzo (the ever-brilliant Dustin Hoffman). With no connections, he spends his days wandering the streets looking for clients, and the women of Fifth and Madison, furred and hatted, look the same as they do today, peering into shop windows and hurrying their lapdogs along the Avenue. When he runs out of money and is kicked out of his hotel, he spends his nights wandering the streets as well, this time the glaring, gritty 42nd Street, dotted with dozens of others in his trade, playing the gay market. In one of his most poignant moments, he buys a coffee at a diner and sits at a table with a woman and her son, asking if they're going to eat their Saltines. She is non-responsive, absorbed in the rubber rat she pulls from her thick black hair, clearly on some kind of a drug trip. Joe squeezes ketchup onto his crackers, disgust and disbelief driving him to look and not look, and the ketchup lid pops off, a giant glob staining his only pair of pants.

Joe finds Ratso/Rizzo in another diner, and though he wants to strangle him to death, the cripple is quick-witted enough to save his skin. He invites him back to "his place" (a shambles apartment in a condemned building), and Joe, somewhat warily, does spend the night there, clutching his transistor radio—his last possession aside from the clothes on his back and the boots on his feet—in his sleep. Having nothing and no one each of them, they become friends, tenderly abusive of each other as an Odd Couple in their own right. Ratso/Rizzo is particularly critical of Joe's cowboy look ("straight-up fag stuff"), but Joe nevertheless brings him along when he's invited to a Warholian soiree (as one of a hundred assorted weirdos scouted out in the streets). It's at the party that Joe has his first hit of marijuana, spinning him into a classic drug/dream sequence, while Ratso/Rizzo stuffs his pockets with free cold cuts and barks "Don't touch me!" at seductive women. Joe lands his first paying client in a $20 deal brokered by Ratso/Rizzo, only to find himself in bed with a young Liza Minnelli look-alike and a bout of erectile dysfunction. She shames him into hardness with accusations of homosexuality, and the next morning, not only pays up, but arranges a meeting for him and one of her friends. It appears that his career is finally about to begin.

Joe comes home, though, to find Ratso/Rizzo in bed, shaking; he's had a hideous cough for as long as we've known him, and passing winter after winter in a condemned building without heat in frozen New York with no health care is hard on anyone, particularly a malnourished cripple, but now he barely has the strength to walk at all, and his face is beaded with sweat. Intense fear swims in his eyes. He begs Joe to take him to Florida. To raise money for the bus tickets, Joe goes back out to 42nd Street, and picks up a dapper older gentleman; they go back to his apartment. The man has a fit of conscience and asks Joe to leave, paying him ten dollars for his trouble. Joe says he needs more money, but the man won't give it to him. Joe beats him bloody and senseless, raging with uncontrollable need and fear and disgust, and takes the money he needs from the man's wallet, leaving him to recover or die; we won't ever know. Joe takes Ratso/Rizzo to the bus station, and they board for Miami. Ratso doesn't make it alive; his body turns cold within five minutes of the city, after all of his fantasizing and Joe's planning, and Joe is again alone in a new city.

If that didn't get you down, no worries. The fact of the matter is that The Panic in Needle Park is so grim and gritty that it makes the lurid technicolor dreamscape of Midnight Cowboy look like nothing worse than Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disneyland. I live in what used to be Needle Park (well, not the park itself, of course, but the neighborhood, around the corner from the park), so despite my revulsion of needles, and heroin use in particular, I was itching to see this movie. My grandfather lived higher up on the Upper West Side, and I remember not feeling safe there in the 80s, and despite the extreme gentrification of my neighborhood, I do see the occasional few Needle-Parkers hanging around Gray's Papaya, or under the perpetual scaffold on the corner past Starbuck's. Many of them are old enough to be the originals, and probably are; they've certainly been immobile for the two years I've lived here.

Maybe Needle Park is grittier because 1971 was worse for New York than 1969, or maybe it's because Joan Didion and hubby John Gregory Dunne had a better sense of human drama and suffering. I think it's because heroin is the worst thing that can happen to a person, ever; it's worse than being alone, worse than resorting to prostitution, worse than sickness, and worse than death—probably because it leads to all of these things, without the peace of the sweet hereafter.

And there is no peace for Kitty Winn's sad and lovely and hideous Helen, once she's submitted. As the picture begins, she's left her small-town Midwestern home for New York and is living the Bohemian life, shacked up with an artist/lover; she's an artist as well. Her boyfriend's dealer comes over to the apartment one day that she's feeling sick and dreadful; she's just had "a free scrape," and the botched abortion has left her bleeding and depressed. The dealer—Al Pacino as Bobby—is instantly taken with her, and gives her his scarf to help her keep warm; when she later checks into the hospital, still bleeding, he sneaks into her room for a visit. From that point on, the other artist is history, and she's Bobby's girl. He has the sweet and reckless madcap attractiveness you saw in Jared Leto's Harry in Requiem for a Dream (the entire cast and crew of Requiem, I think, must have studied Needle Park fairly carefully; the television that Harry repeatedly steals from his mother and pawns is an exaggeration of the television Bobby picks up off the delivery truck and pawns to pay for his first date with Helen). She is clean and windy, in corduroy and knits, but somehow not intimidated by his petty theft, his career as small-time heroin dealer, his thuggish older brother, or his assorted junkie friends. She holes up in a filthy prewar studio (looks like mine!) with ten of them while they shoot up and pass out, and the camera offers us the longest shot of a needle crudely shoved into a vein in all of film history, I'm certain. If you're anything like I am, your eyes are squeezed tightly, you're writhing in your seat, and your guts are turning over.

It isn't long, of course, before Bobby goes from "chipping" to shooting up with a lot more regularity, and one night while he's sleeping, Helen—lonely and curious—does to herself what she's seen everyone around her doing. Not long after, Bobby is picked up by the cops, and while he serves time in prison, no one is there to take care of Helen, now a certifiable junkie with an eighty dollar-a-day habit. To service her needs, she services the sexual needs of whomever will pay, including Bobby's own brother. Bobby comes out of the clinker clean only to find the girl he loves has become filthy. Verbal abuse ensues, but it isn't long before they are together again, now hustling with a one-two punch con in which Helen brings home a trick, and Bobby come in early, smacks him around, and takes all of his money. Are you sick and sad yet? Bobby gets a deal with a big-time dealer, and the young lovers are excited at the prospect of having all the smack they've ever dreamed of, but heroin addiction knows no bounds. The cops pick up Helen for trying to sell some pills on the street, and to buy her way out of prison, she agrees to set up Bobby. At the movie's end, she meets him outside the prison doors the day he gets out. At least they're both still alive. For how much longer, we don't know. My expectations are low.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Advert: More Brilliant Google Ads

Every time I check my spam in gmail, a google ad comes up with another SPAM (as in the meat product)-related link. Today, it was this:

Spam Vegetable Strudel - Bake 20 minutes or until golden, serve with soy sauce

I love that there remains a disconnect in an algorithm somewhere that insists on advertising everyone's favorite canned meat product whenever junk mail is being disposed of, as if the subconscious associations weren't already negative enough (for both the meat and the mail). Google Ads, you rock my world.