Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Art: Richard Prince at the Guggenheim

As I rounded the top curl of the spiralling catwalk at the Guggenheim, I wandered away from the wall of shitty paintings and peered over the railing to the dark disk of lobby stories below, buzzing with milling bodies. I wondered what it would be like to go over and fall down; I felt a woozy and detached curiosity. Yes, Richard Price makes me want to die.

The show is a retrospective flaunting his "appropriation" (abuse?) of popular culture, including his photographs of advertisements (perhaps you are familiar with the Marlborough men?) and large-canvas "paintings" on which are stencilled semi-wry jokes (a few of these paintings, on close inspection, are comprised of tiny collaged bits of pornographic pictures, which have been partially painted over. I say, if you're going to use pornography, go with it, and don't try to hide it.) The museum's website calls Prince's appropriation a "deceptively simple act," but I would argue that, like Sherry Levine, who no doubt took her cue from him, the act of rephotographing another photograph is simply deceptive; it appears to be art, but it isn't.

I haven't a thing against appropriation itself. Andy Warhol is one of my five favorite artists (and I don't blame him for instigating this entire mess, though others do). I wrote my graduate thesis on photographers who appropriate the compositions of famous paintings. These photographers, though, make their work. They scout locations, find models, make costumes, and don make-up to recreate images to which we are accustomed, including some crucial asymmetries by which their art comments on the original. They also do post-production work in photoshop, and might print their photographs on canvas, painting over them to add texture.

I wasn't thinking about these artists, though, at the show. I was only thinking that Prince wasn't responsible for the best aspects of his work—he didn't write the jokes; he didn't take the glorious open plain photographs of the cowboys; he didn't write or draw the comics that he emblazoned across his canvases. I wondered why he bothered at all, and why any of us bothered, if this was good enough for one of the world's top art institutions. Meanwhile, the line to get in (and out of the rain) had grown even longer, wrapping around the block. When I left the museum, I fought a strong impulse to warn the crowds that the show wasn't worth their hour wait, much less $18 admission (I, as always, had gotten in free with my AAM card; very few museums, I find, are worth paying for, and the best ones—the Met, for example, or the National Gallery—are free).

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Movies: Lust, Caution

It's time for Ang Lee to give up the Hollywood charade and just shoot high-quality pornography, because clearly, that's what interests him, and furthermore, it's what he's best at. Lust, Caution wraps a flawed plot and melodramatic acting around its core of raw, rude sex (which doesn't sound much different than the average piece of pornography) in order to justify its way into the movie house; I say, to hell with WWII, occupation, and resistance if you're not going to make a film as good as Zwartboek.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Books: A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

Dickens writes the kinds of novels that are filled with twists and turns, surprise identities, and revealed secrets that we can see coming from quite a distance. Perhaps the past century and a half has given us a road map, but the author helps with his interminable set-ups and seemingly-random but all-too-lengthy descriptions, not unlike Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame.

A Tale of Two Cities localizes the French Revolution to the microcosm of its affect on one couple; as is typical for mainstream novels of the time, the couple is terribly uninteresting: blond, blue-eyed, and innocent, victimized partially by circumstance and partially by their own naivete. Lucie, a beautiful young woman who thought herself fatherless, is reunited with her father in the opening chapters; he has lost his mind in the Bastille prison, but with her aid and succor regains it. They emigrate to safety in London. Here, she marries Charles Darnay, another French immigrant, who also has a secret past; he is of nobility, but has renounced his title and wealth.

Meanwhile, in Paris, the much more interesting couple, the Defarges, are stirring up the revolutionary pot, and Madame Defarge (one of my favorite literary villains, ever) keeps a lengthy hit list coded into her knitting. Darnay, without realizing the state of affairs in Paris, returns at the behest of an old family servant who's been imprisoned, and is quickly imprisoned himself. Thus, Lucie and her father set off for Paris, where her father, a hero for his sufferance in the Bastille prison, is able to inspire the release of Darnay. The next day, though, Charles is arrested again, this time by the denunciations of both the Defarges and Lucie's father, Dr. Manet! The good doctor is as shocked as we are, until the Defarges produce a lost memoir, written by the doctor while he was in prison, and heretofore suppressed in his memory. The letter explains the occasion on which he was sent to prison (two evil royal brothers of the house Evrémonde picked him up one foggy night and forced him to provide medical care to a peasant brother and sister who died at their hands; afterward, they tried to silence him with gold, but his silence couldn't be bought) and in it, he condemns the Evrémonde house and all of its heirs. Furthermore, we find out that Madame Defarge was the sister of the slain peasants, explaining why she refuses to release Darnay.

All this time, though, we are certain that Darnay will be returned to his family and the safety of London; we simply wonder how. Dickens does not disappoint; he has all along been laying the seeds for the flower of his coup d'état: a man, Sydney Carton, lovesick for Lucie, but a depressive alcoholic without hope, who bears a striking resemblance to Charles Darnay. When Carton finds out that Darnay faces the guillotine, he sees that self-sacrifices is his calling; he blackmails a guard to allow him to switch places with Darnay, whom he drugs and has whisked away to safety (knowing that such an upstanding man would never willingly allow another to die in his place). The next day, Darnay, his wife, daughter, and father-in-law, are safe in London when Carton dies; Madame Defarge misses the execution, having been killed herself the day prior in a struggle with Lucie's bulldogish nurse Miss Pross.

Aside from the famous opening paragraph ("It was the best. . . it was the worst. . ." and so forth), which really is one of the best opening paragraphs I've ever read, the books isn't so very much a must-read. It is, though, one more classic under my belt.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Short Story: Suzie Q. Tuesday's Little Problem

Suzie Q. Tuesday has roaches in her apartment. It reflects poorly on her, but it's not her fault. She is upper middle class, and lives in an according neighborhood. She doesn't care much for dusting, but she doesn't much eat either, and is basically clean, if not neat.

Suzie Q. Tuesday tells her super about the problem, which is mounting. He tells her about the old lady living two flights up, who is the source of the problem, which has been spreading, slowly. He sprays her apartment and the others, and there is a sick, sweet smell when she comes home. There are also two dead roaches in the bathtub. There is also a living roach on the windowsill, which she slaps dead with a rubber flip flop left there expressly for that purpose, it being a high-traffic area. There is also one running circles inside the white plastic liner of her trash can, which she hasn't the skill to terminate.

Suzie becomes a decent, if unwilling, huntress. Rubber flip flops are strategically left around the apartment. Each day when she comes home from work and turns on the light, there are at least two, if not three, black marks on her white wall, which freeze and then scatter according to an inscrutable rhythm all their own. They know her single room better than she does, tucking themselves under the lip of the window frame, beneath the moldings, and behind the radiator cover. Suzie Q. Tuesday curses that she had her hardwood floors stained the brown of bloody chocolate—a perfect camouflage for the invaders and a color that amplifies her paranoia. Sometimes she sees the floor moving, and it's one of them. More often, she sees the floor moving, or a dark spot on the wall from the corner of her eye, but as she runs, or as she turns, she sees that it's nothing, or that it's a mere chip in the paint, or that it's a small ball of dust. One night, she comes home and turns on the light and is certain that she sees something running across her white duvet—toward the pillows, most unfortunately. She throws back the covers with her lightest and quickest touch—the pillows, too—but finds nothing. That night, sleeping is difficult.

The next day, Suzie Q. Tuesday approaches her super again. He promises to bomb the apartment that day. Suzie has left some soiled lingerie lying around, but she doesn't have time to go back up and remove it. Vinnie will have to shield his eyes. She imagines him going up there with his bombs and being briefly distracted, pressing the apricot-colored ouvert to his face and inhaling deeply. She hopes that it will inspire him to do a thorough job.

When Suzie Q. comes home, she opens the door into a thick mist of stultifying poison. There are canisters on the floor to remind her that the bombs have been detonated. She opens the windows, packs a bag, and prepares to spend the night at whatever man's who will have her. Meanwhile, she sees a number of roaches clinging to the walls, paralyzed, their antennae wilted. She wipes them up and flushes them, satisfied. For a fresh start, she decides to take out the trash, but, popping the top and tugging at the white plastic liner, she notices independent movement. Disassembling the stainless steel airtight apparatus, she sees them dancing their sick scuttle in a ring around the bottom of the steel cage, which opens along plastic seams to the outer world. Nauseated, she leaves the house, wanders awhile, then passes the night sleepless on a hard mattress in a filthy hovel uptown, next to the hulking body of a snoring black man. For all its apparent squalor, the dark basement apartment is free of vermin.

Suzie Q. Tuesday goes home the next morning before work to dress and speak with her super. She tells him that he has to do it again—another bomb—with the trash can disassembled and its contaminated parts scattered across the floor. She tells him to removed the radiator cover and anything else under which they may be hiding. She tells him to be relentless.

After work that day, Suzie Q. Tuesday drinks two glasses of pinot noir at the bar with her coworkers, prolonging the moment at which she must go home and clean everything. When she does get home, tipsy enough to be excited about scrubbing with Lysol and Ajax, she opens the door to find no fog and no decanted canisters. Her super is gone for the day, so she cannot ask him why he did not do his job as directed. She changes to shorts, keds, a t-shirt out from oxford, slacks, pumps, and braces for warrior mode. She goes to the drugstore for Raid and more Lysol, adds a bottle of Clorox.

Back home, they are waiting. Fat and brown, the adults are lounging along the curvature or the upended trashcan like crickets in the Midwestern dusk. The smaller ones are running up the walls. She is systematic—crush; flush—and takes her time. For over an hour, she kills, sprays, wipes, kills some more. The fumes are heady. Occasionally, the carcasses stick to the bottom of her rubber flip flop, which she rinses in the toilet bowl and then the sink. She will not spend another night next to a fetid, shadowy body that wants from her, even if it means spending the night awake, alert, hunting. When every last one visible has been disposed of, she sits down to write this chronicle. Every few sentences, she looks up to see another one climbing the wall; she sets the book aside, stands—crush; flush. Somehow, they are coming only one at a time now, slowly and as if drunk; they are befuddled and easy to slap, winded from the fumes and unable to perform their usual dashing samba. But they do keep coming, nevertheless, one every few sentences—crush; flush.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Movies: The Rape of Europa

Sometimes art looks better on the silver screen than in real life (e.g. Pollock), probably due to the infusion of light, but when this happens, we want to let our eyes linger. The Rape of Europa, though, is a tease, flinging picture after picture up for our delectation, but then snatching it away. It's an appropriate (if unintended) visual reenactment of the film's topic: the art snatched away from dealers, collectors, and museums as Hitler marched across Europe.

The documentary opens with the oft-repeated fable of Hitler's rejection from art school, substantiating and garnishing that fact by mentioning that Egon Schiele (who happens to be one of my favorite painters of all time, and whose pornographic drawings of Wiemar prostitutes in woolen stockings perfectly define "degeneracy" as used by Hitler) was accepted to the same school the year that Hitler was not. One talking head snarks that Hitler was a capable, but unispired artist, while (extremely competent) watercolor landscapes flit across the screen.

Our appetites are whetted with the mysteries of missing paintings, stolen during the war and never since recovered, which may be circulating in underground crime rings, hanging in private apartments, whose owners are oblivious to their provenance, or, most thrillingly, painted over, such that the present owner does not know what he or she possesses. From there, we move into history and stock footage, and more talking heads extemporize on the tastes of Hitler and Goering (basically, they had pretty decent, if somewhat staid taste). We find out that Hitler had plans to Hausmanize his home town, and make its main attraction (amongst a concert hall, an opera house, and a library) a museum to put the Louvre, the Hermitage, and the Uffizi to shame. In order to do that, he raided or tried to raid the collections of each to augment the collection he had already begun from art confiscated from wealthy German, Austrian, and Polish Jews. The Louvre and the Hermitage had experience evacuating their collections after previous dangers (World War I, anyone?), and moved their art into hiding in castles, basements, and secret private residences.

We also see the destruction that war in general (Americans sometimes to blame as much as Germans), mostly in the form of shelling, wrecked on art and architecture, and the film briefly touches on the Roberts Commission, which began at this time in hopes of protecting international treasures (and which is still in affect, although the army has apparently done a good job of ignoring the Roberts Commission's list of protected buildings in Iraq). We are also introduced to a group of "Museum Men," scholars, artists, and curators, who were sent to work alongside regiments and rescue art toward the end and then after the war. Caches of literally thousands of stolen paintings, sculptures, and tchochkas were found in basements, attics, and boxcars all over Germany. As much was restituted as possible; the rest was given to this museum and that. As I said, thousands of things are still missing, some of which would be worth hundreds of millions.

For all of this information, the doc dragged more than it delighted. As I've already complained, most of the pictures were whisked away before I could get a good look. The only other people in the theatre were two and threesomes of women over the age of fifty (to be expected, I suppose), and the film's pacing targeted them perfectly. All in all, though, I was informed and appalled, and determined that I must go to the Hermitage. Good enough, I guess.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Movies: We Own the Night

Marky Mark, where is your Funky Bunch? You are better than this; I know it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Books: Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges

I started my reading list almost three years ago when a boy that I was hotly pursuing sent me a list of recommendations, including Borges' Ficciones. There were some other books that by now I've read (Bester's The Stars My Destination) and most that I haven't been able to find (St. Exupery's Wind Sand Stars and T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom), but though he doesn't talk to me anymore—and hasn't, for more than two years—my compulsion remains to complete his list. In fact, the boy told me that if I ever published a book, he would come to my signing, which compels me still toward writing.

Ficciones, a short story collection, is something of a literary hipster's bible (don't think for one moment that my boy was anything but a literary (and sometimes culinary) hipster), and it is appropriately cagey, occluded, and inscrutable. It is also appropriately pompous, assy, and annoying. It is, like the booted, bias-banged flotsam of Avenue A, occasionally breathtakingly beautiful (c.f. "The Garden of Forking Paths"), but for the most part ("Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," "The Approach to Al-Mu'taism," "Theme of the Traitor and Hero," etc.) rather tedious. The difference between the two types of stories is simple: the good stories are stories, with characters and plots (plots that twist and collapse on themselves in a groovy post-Poe/proto-Pynchon kind of way), the bad stories aren't stories at all, but a kind of fictional criticism, usually literary, written in the impenetrable jargon of all literary criticism, but infinitely more infuriating, as they refer to non-existent literature, and are parading as stories (I like tofu, but if I order steak and the waitress brings be a piece of tofu, I will not be happy). A select few of the criticism-type stories border on being conceptually interesting ("Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" describes the brilliance of an ad nauseam rewrite of Don Quixote, praising the newer text in a side-by-side close reading of two paragraphs that are exactly the same), but they are still mostly tedious. Better is "The Form of the Sword," in which he demonstrates his knack for the surprise ending.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Movies: The Darjeeling Limited

Disclaimer: I have not yet seen Hotel Chevalier.

All of my friends (and plenty of critics) are currently hating on Wes Anderson. Because I so adored The Darjeeling Limited, and thought it was clearly his best movie since The Royal Tenenbaums (his best movie ever, in fact, one of the best movies ever), I will be here writing a lengthy defense of the film, the filmmaker, his aesthetic, his cast, and our generation (!) A tall order. Perhaps I will work backwards.

I will start by talking about myself. I think this is fair, since Wes does the same thing. My most critical friend said that the movie "had nothing to say and it did so with a lack of expediency." What my friend didn't notice is that the movie has quite a bit to say, and it's basically the same thing that The Royal Tenenbaums has to say. I think Rushmore might have had similar things to say as well. The film demonstrates for us, with much decoration, our neuroses, of which all that decoration is a major part. My parents were not wealthy, and so custom-tailored suits, monogrammed pyjamas, and designer 11 piece luggage sets are not part of my neurosis. My parents were, however, artists and intellectuals of a kind, and therefore writing short stories on hotel stationary, dressing pleasantly inappropriately, and taking romantic cross-country journeys by rail in hopes of self-discovery are part of my neurosis. Projecting a kind of image, furthermore, is a part, if not the core, of my neuroses; partially thanks to my parents, who "encouraged" my intellectual talents and pursuits, partially thanks to my teachers, who lavished all the more attention on me as my precocious vocabulary expanded faster than the universe itself. Some (over?) involved parents give their children room to explore interests and talents (and help them along the way; my dad took me to the library every Saturday and gave me a book by H.G. Wells when I was ten). This both beneficial and unhealthy; it makes for interesting, quirky, gravitational young adults who are somewhat socially maladjusted (see Margot Tenenbaum's sexual escapades, for example).

Remember Naomi Watts' character Dawn in I Heart Huckabees, breaking down into "Don't look at me. I just want to be left alone. I'm sick of this. I'm sick of you all looking at me. Look at me. Please, please, please, everybody. Everybody look at me now. I am so pretty. I am so pretty. Look at me. Everybody just wants to be me. I'm pretty." The Tenenbaum "children," like Darjeeling brothers Francis, Peter, and Jack, like me, and, I bet, like Wes, constantly act in such a way as to silently shout "Look at me! Aren't I so smart? I'm so smart! Look at me—love me!" and then shift, "Don't look at me; I'm a mess; I'm a disaster; I can't take the pressure." It wouldn't be correct to say that our entire generation feels this way, but I do think it would be correct to say that a subset does, and that subset includes me and most of my upper-middle class, college+ educated, twenty-something, urban-dwelling friends (please note that I've left out white; I've done so deliberately in favor of the "United Colors of Benetton" effect, and if you don't know what I mean by that, you are not part of our extroverted, insular subset.) We desperately need attention (having had it lavished upon us from an early age by our parents and teachers), and so we try and try to impress the people around us with our pretty looks, our intelligence, and our good taste (just look at my blog, where I basically brag about all of the high-faluting books I'm reading, and all the foreign art films I'm watching. Better yet, look at how chill I am—how post-modern—to admit that I'm bragging. Look at me!)

In The Darjeeling Limited, each brother is struggling to grow up and verify his existence, having lost his parents and their attention. Francis has just tried to kill himself, but didn't succeed. Peter is about to become a father, but he's still a child playing dress up with his father's sunglasses and razor. Jack insists that his autobiographical stories are completely fictional, the clearest metaphor for detachment from reality in the film; it's as if he suffers from PTSD, except that the stress was his entire life thus far. It's easy to see why anyone who faced more material struggles—poverty, or homelessness, or even just absentee parents—would find these brothers and their complaints rather annoying (One of my favorite Woody Allen bits: "In my family nobody ever committed suicide, nobody... this was just not a middle-class alternative, you know? I—my mother was too busy running the boiled chicken through the deflavorizing machine to think about shooting herself or anything.") But for me, well, I identify.

People criticize Wes for being too precious (and precocious, but that's different, and anyway, we all are, and he's not, really, I mean, he's a grown man, so now he's just brilliantly talented and skilled—a real top-notch artist). They are annoyed by his obsessive-compulsively constructed tableaux. Well, here's what I have to say about that. He's an artist! He's not lazy! He's paying attention! If only all filmmakers composed each frame so that it could stand alone as a photograph. My favorite shot in this film is made on the train, around one of the bunks, when all three brothers faces pop into the frame, with Adrien Brody's arm swinging down around them. . . I wish I could plop a picture right in here, but because it's just (an exceedingly artful) random bit, the still can not be found on the internet. Watch again, and you will know it when you see it. I won't even take the time to go into the richness of color, which we expect from Anderson (and from movies about India alike), or the beautiful sheen of the crumbling buildings and atypical vehicles (ditto). Basically, the man has taste, and we know it. If you disagree, you're probably not in my club, and I don't want you in it anyway.

There are two more things that I want to defend, because they have been attacked by my nay-saying compatriots. Those are a) Adrien Brody's performance, and b) the figuration in the plot of an Indian boy's death. I will start with Brody, because it's a less loaded issue. My witty friend said "Adrien Brody only deserves mention that he deserves not to be mentioned." Au contraire, my friend, you are witty, but you are wrong. Brody's performance is perfect. He manages, despite being an Anderson neophyte, to out-Wilson Wilson, out-Schwartzman Schwartzman, and to ultimately out-Wes Wes! How does he do it? There is some luck involved, of course; his tall narrow frame, drooping eyes, and sorrowful-comical banana nose contribute, but the effete way he puts his sunglasses on, the way he looks stonily into, through, and past the camera lens (thus into, through, and past the audience), and the pristine absence of camp in his stylizing (no silly mustache—Jason, what were you thinking?! Wes, how could you have allowed that?!) (no bonehead bandages, either—remember Luke's bandages in Tenebaums? Those were good bandages). . . Well, I rarely use ellipses, but I can only trail off with a sigh at his total perfection; he is my new favorite.

And now, the ever-so-slightly stick topic: the death of the Indian child. Much harped on by professional (excessively PC) critics, one of the plot highlights is the imminent danger of three Indian brothers about to drown when crossing a river; Francis, Peter, and Jack jump in to save them, but one dies (Peter's—who's else could it be? Remember, he is the one with the worst case of fatherhood issues). One of my friends lambasted this: "an Indian boy has to die in order for them to discover the true meaning of Christmas," but I don't think that this is the case. While the (beautifully art-directed) funeral does bring the brothers back together, I refuse to buy into the bleeding heart's poo-pooing that a brown boy has to die to save the relationship of the whites. How reductive shall we be? Death seems to be the only shock strong enough to bring these otherwise self-centered brothers together; they last saw each other a year ago, when their father died. There is parallelism, and there is symbolism, and there is fascination, but there isn't any racism.

I realize this post has a pretty crappy, unorganized trajectory, but that reflects only the disorganization of my thoughts, not of the film, which is perfect and brilliant and wonderful. And if you don't think so, no Voltaire #6 for you.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Books: Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee

For all his literary prizes, which I tend to ignore, it took an insistent recommendation from a well-trusted friend for me to add this book to my reading list. I did it despite my desire not to, because based on her first recommendation, I read his Elizabeth Costello last year, and found it lengthy despite its brevity; aged, solipsistic, and whiny. As it turns out, Disgrace is similarly aged and solipsistic, but perhaps because its protagonist is a man, it tends toward the comfort of the curmudgeonly rather than the shrill pitch of the matronly. My misogyny aside, it also has a better plot, more serious moral issues, and some sex, which always helps.

Coetzee's writing is simple, direct, and intelligent; his story-telling is so limpid that it reads less like a story than an account from the mouth of your buddy the protagonist David Lurie, over dinner and a glass of wine. He's had a rough time. Twice divorced, he's been satisfying his sexual needs by visiting an escort once a week; after he becomes a bit over attached, though, she refuses to see him any longer, and in a somewhat random fit of loneliness and excitement, he takes up with one of his students (he is a professor of English Literature, renamed Communications by the University and/or the State). Things go poorly, and after he refuses to apologize in front of an inquiry board comprised of his colleagues, he loses his job; with nowhere else to go, he packs some things for a long visit with his adult daughter on her semi-rural farm.

Lucy is something of an anachronism and then some. She moved to the farm when it was a hippy commune, but when all the hippies left, she stayed behind with her (older, homely) lesbian lover, and continued to grow vegetables and flowers to sell at the market. She hired an African man to help her, and he moved his family into the barn. Oh, by the way, we are in post-apartheid South Africa; that's important. Anyway, it's dangerous out in the country; while David is struggling to reconnect with his daughter, with himself, and with a rural way of life, he is gravely interrupted one afternoon when three young African men duplicitously gain entrance into Lucy's house, beat the professor and lock him in the bathroom, repeatedly rape Lucy, and then steal everything of value, including David's car. Before they leave, they pour a bottle of alcohol over his body and light him on fire. He survives with mostly second degree burns. Lucy survives too, but she seems only a shell of herself, withered inside, and, we eventually find out, becomes pregnant, refusing to expel the fetus.

David now struggles even more to connect with her, as their values clash so strongly (Lucy refuses to report the rape to the police, refuses to prosecute one of the offenders when given the chance, and had refused to take medication to prevent pregnancy). This clash is exacerbated after a discussion between David and Lucy's African farmhand, who now offers to marry her for protection. David finds the idea ludicrous, and even suspects that the man had a hand in the attack (he was, after all, conveniently not present that day, and, furthermore, seems to be related to one of the attackers), and wants Lucy to leave Africa. Lucy refuses to leave the farm, and is seriously considering the marriage, despite her (lack of) feeling for men, and despite the fact that this man already has two wives. David cannot comprehend her willingness to subjugate herself; Lucy seems to feel as though she is paying some debt for apartheid.

David goes back to his house in Cape Town to find his home broken into, everything of value stolen, and the withered carcass of a pigeon in his sink. He has, since his expulsion, developed an ability to connect (empathize?) with animals that are dead or dying that he heretofore lacked; dare we call it a creeping spirituality? If so, it somehow manages to evade offending me.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Movies: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Oh, how I wanted this to be the best movie of the year.
Oh, how I've sighed each time the great Brad Pitt agreed to another bad movie.
Oh, the potential, wasted.

So. I'm being melodramatic, and in a cloying, non-provocative way, but that's exactly what The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford does. The actors are brilliant, each and every one of them (although the Jesse James role gives Pitt surprisingly little room in which to shine; he has, we must admit, gotten older), but they are trapped behind a Vaseline-slicked lens* controlled by art direction that doesn't admit grit.

First things first. Casey Affleck, as we may have suspected, is the star here, rather than Old Man Pitt. He takes upon himself the creepy overgrown boy technique usually the province of Tobey McGuire (cf. Cider House Rules). His voice cracks at opportune moments, he stares with uncanny adulation at his hero, and he switches from adolescent bravado to huff-and-puff tantrum thrower at the crack of every joke made at his expense (there are many). His part is well-written and for that he is luckier than People Magazine's ex-Sexiest-Man-Alive. Pitt, here, takes on the role that would traditionally be saved for Robert Redford (Spy Game Redford is to Spy Game Pitt what Assassination Pitt is to Assassination Affleck): the old man, the wise one, he who has seen it all and is, frankly, tired. He wears it well—his face is starting to wrinkle expressively like an expensive leather handbag, as does Redfords, as does Pierce Brosnan's. For wintry scenes (a transition to my cursing the film's art direction), he wears big layers of heavy black skins and firs, vamping it up rockstar-shaman style as would have only Jim Morrison; being Old Man Pitt himself, a rockstar-shaman in his own right, he carries the burden well, but it jars the texture of the scenery.

And onto the scenery. There is a lot of it. The film is too long, and I would recommend that 20-30 minutes be trimmed in shots of trees and woods and hills, in order to isolate more closely the interior shots, within which we see the characters' interiors operating. The yellow lighting and sepia tones I appreciate, but the "blur" effect (an ever-shifting 20-40% of the perimeter of the screen "melting" away for aesthetic affect) cloys, and the voiceover (Mon Dieu! The voiceover!) reeks more heavily than great-grandmamma's violet toilet water.

Finally, a note on cowardice. Due to certain plot machinations that I found surprisingly difficult to follow, Robert Ford was given no choice but to assassinate Jesse James. And, given James' mental state, I would prefer to call it assisted suicide than assassination. And, as I support assisted suicide, and think that no one has balls like Dr. Kevorkian, by my book, Robert Ford was no coward. No coward would have even spoken to the outlaw hero, much less wormed his way into his gang, his home, his head. And no coward would have pulled the trigger.

So, forgive my melodrama, because in retrospect I like the movie better than I did while I was watching it. The good parts stick, and the bad parts fall away. Although I feel like a good re-edit (I'm certain the blur was added post-production) could make take it from three to five stars.

*Pre-photoshop, and perhaps even pre-filter, photographers would sometimes rub a ring petroleum jelly around their lense's perimeter in order to produce a fade-to-blur effect on the edges, approximating "art"—think Julia Margaret Cameron.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Books: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me, by Richard Fariña

Sigh. Here was another disappointment from another overrated beat cult novel. Better than On the Road, but as far as I'm concerned that doesn't say much. Fariña does well in naming his characters (Gnossos Pappadopoulis is his protagonist, Heffalump one of his good friends who dies in a Cuban shootout), and does well in making lists (one of my favorite literary techniques) of the random things that Gnossos carries in his rucksack, but ultimately, the writing is only occasionally inventive, characters (Gnosses excepted) lack charm, and the plot doesn't arc. Thomas Pynchon's introduction is worth the read, more than the novel itself.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Movies: The King of California

Like its female lead, Evan Rachel Wood, The King of California is cute, sweet, and good looking, but not very substantive, and just a little bit too young and naive to take seriously.

Michael Douglas plays Wood's batty father Charlie, an ex-jazz bassist whose alternative lifestyle (and clinical mental health issues) forced daughter Miranda to raise herself after her mother leaves them. Charlie had gone into treatment and left Miranda alone in their crumbling Victorian which, with gingerbread details and wraparound porch, appears to have been dropped into the middle of the Southern California nowhere by one of the cranes now constructing a planned unit development on all sides of it. At the movie's beginning, Charlie is coming home, and Miranda, who has survived by her own mettle, with a job at McDonald's, has to readjust to his presence. This is made more difficult, but more interesting, by his quest for a buried treasure of Spanish doubloons from the era of the missions, and against her better judgment, Miranda allows herself to be drawn into Charlie's quest, which commences with a planned break-in at the local Costco, under which Charlie is certain the treasure is buried. After jackhammering a body-sized hole in the cement floor, and hitting an underground river, Charlie does find the treasure. He does so, though, with no escape, as the cops arrive, and as they chase him, he jumps back into the hole, never to resurface. Miranda does, however, get to keep the treasure, which Charlie had the foresight to hide inside a mini-fridge, for which the sales slip is the last thing he gives his daughter before diving back down to his death.

The film's weakness is, unfortunately, its very magical realistic pretense; Charlie is repeatedly established as a nut, but at the end, all of his hunches are proven valid, and Miranda reaps their reward. And so what is the take-away? Your parents are always right, even if you are too cool to believe them? Follow your dreams? Have faith in the impossible? I mean, really. And if I am the jaded target market, the message wasn't properly coated for me to swallow.

What are good, though, are the second unit shots, mostly still, of the suburban corporate big box megastore strip mall American wastelandscape, beautiful in their crisp, plain font and primary color glory, up against a flat blue sky. Art direction and acting cues are borrowed at times from Wes Andersen, (particularly Pepper's motorcycle chase scene), but as he has come to define the indie aesthetic, this is not a particularly blame-worthy action (in fact, although it's little better than filmic petty theft, it makes the movie better). So really, this film only whet my appetite for the upcoming Darjeeling Limited.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Movies: Chepachet

Because this is a small film, and because I know the screenwriter/lead male, and because I know the screenwriter/lead male reads this blog and has waited patiently for my comments on his movie since he screened it for me last week (you know you've hit the big time when you get private screenings), I will take the liberty of formatting this entry a bit differently, simply as working notes for the filmmakers. I might therefore seem a bit antagonistic, but that's only because for once, I know that my feedback will be taken into consideration.

For my three readers who aren't the screenwriter/lead male, you can read a summary of the film here: In case you are too lazy to click the link and read it, but not too lazy to read the rest of this entry, there are three key characters: Cole (the good guy), Lud (the bad guy), and Karen (the victim). I hate to oversimplify, but if you're lazy, that's all you get.

1. Cole's part is over-written. I don't have the screenplay, so I can't pick out any specific examples. However, he repeatedly states things that the audience can infer, either from something that has already happened, or from filmic cues concurrent with his speech. I imagine this happened in the transition from play to film, when the writer didn't realize the richness that the new medium would bring to the narrative. Cole's character is a thinker—a philosopher of sorts (think Walden Pond)—but thinkers of his quiet kind don't enunciate their every thought, or explicate their surroundings (except in their writing, of course). I wonder whether this can be fixed in the editing room, or whether it would require re-shooting, which is probably not doable.

2. Ken Coughlin is great as Lud. He's callous and gritty and self-centered and just mean. But the story provides no explanation of why Lud is what he is. There was an accident, we know, caused by Lud's drinking and driving, after which he became "worse," it seems, but why would someone like Cole be friends with someone like Lud in the first place, and why would they live together? If they used to be jolly drinking buddies, and the accident affected them differently, introverting Cole, and aggravating Lud, why would Cole continue the friendship? If we get a bit trippy, and read them merely as ciphers for the two diverging paths of desire, (Cole is happy to even bask in the presence of the desired, while Lud must posses it, even to the point of risking its destruction), this problem is solved, but then the accident becomes irrelevant (unless it is a shock that shakes these usually-conjoined faces of desire apart?).

3. I could do without Mrs. Ware's Girls. I see that the intention is to situate Karen's character, but I don't need Karen's character to be situated. She, if anyone, is a cipher—the noble savage and blond bombshell and naive child, all in one. Sitting in their one-room schoolhouse, Mrs. Ware's girls are too old (and too physically developed) to be "girls," and give one the impression that Mrs. Ware is running a MySpace-based brothel with these. . . orphans? learning disabled? Anyway, it's borderline icky, and definitely not necessary. It's something of a negative distraction that should be removed.

4. Thoughts on being "spare." I like that the film is spare. That is, there are very few characters (and I've just requested that the cast be further reduced), and very few sets (mostly one room of one house, and that house's garden). I have asked that the dialogue become more spare as well. Because the characters function more as types than fully-realized people with histories, being spare is key, so that the characters' spareness is read as intentional, rather than as a miscalculation. Things can be trimmed still to remove the threat of a scatter shot appearance (we did this because we could, not because we had to). I would need to watch again with pen and paper to be more specific about this.

In fact, I could be a lot more nit picky with a pen, paper, and second viewing, but only because someone's listening.