Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Movies: Shine a Light

I'm going to tell you this right up front: I don't even really like The Rolling Stones.

Don't get me wrong, I want to. I want to like them. I borrow people's Stones CDs all the time in hopes that I'll finally find the right album, and click in. I could listen to ten Bob Dylan CDs from the mid-80s and early-90s and think that he was rotten, if I never got my hands on Highway 61 Revisited or Time Out of Mind or The Freewheeling Bob Dylan. But one would imagine that a movie like this would be a great showcase for their talents, particularly in IMAX. The Rolling Stones. Larger than life itself.

Keith Richards and Ronnie Woods are more than competent guitarists. Charlie Watts is a more than competent drummer. Mick Jagger isn't really a competent singer, but he was really quite stunningly beautiful in his youth, and has somehow managed to drag that out until now. He demonstrates in the film, once again, that he's quite a competent coked-up dancing monkey. But their songs just aren't that good. The best two cuts in the movie are two that feature guest appearances (Buddy Guy, who demonstrates, just when you thought that at least the Stones could play the blues, that the Stones cannot play the blues at all, and Christina Aguilera, who, for all her attendant antics, has some fucking pipes, and knows how to growl). The handful of decent songs the Stones did record (Wild Horses, Beast of Burden, Gimme Shelter) are not performed. Anyway, at each of the Stones' most blues-drenched moments, you only end up wishing you were instead listening to Led Zeppelin play You Shook Me.

Moving on to Scorsese, who, unlike the Stones, deserves his laurels. He did a killer job (although I wonder whether it was he or the Stones who decided that everyone standing up in the front, against the stage, should be an under-30 female, preferably blonde. . . what do those girls know about the Stones anyway (speaking as an under-30 female, sometimes blonde, who, clearly, doesn't get the Stones at all)). To be honest, the opening "behind-the-scenes" sections, shot in mostly black and white, in which Scorsese tries (and generally fails) to communicate with Mick about what the set list is going to look like, the band hangs around hotels, rehearses, looks at sets, the crew fiddles with lights and tries to figure out how to manage all the cameras, are far superior to the actual concert footage. Why? Because Scorsese is more interesting than Jagger, and film-making is more interesting than aged rock stars who were never that good to begin with.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Books: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers


Dear Dave Eggers:

You don't know me yet, but I'm not ashamed to tell you that I love you, even in front of the entire interweb. You had me at page xxi—that's right, before the "actual" book even began.

Dave Eggers, like you, I have had a tragically privileged life, and I've floundered these past 26 years, looking for someone who can understand me. I had thought it impossible, but you have proven me wrong; you are the one for me. No one else can understand us: the superiority, the violence, the guilt, the self-loathing, the self-aggrandizing, the self-consciousness, the immobilization, the paranoia, the inner narration, the inclination to fantasy, the paranoia, the inevitability of sudden and brutal death, the lust for violent ends, the disgust with the lust, the half-dead shuffling, and the pleasure of throwing things, particularly at the beach.

My heart belongs to you; I may never read another book again. Why bother? No shard of literature, no matter how polished, could reflect me as yours does.

Dave Eggers, do not be afraid. I am not a psychotic stalker. I don't know whether you live in San Francisco (where I grew up, thus finding my excitement exacerbated when your book turned its page to those "construction paper" hills. . . no one has ever said it better), or in New York (where I live now, and where the inside flap does say that you live, although it was written some time ago, and you may, by now, have moved back to California, as we all one day must, or somewhere else, like Bucharest, or Oaxaca, where, supposedly, literary communities of ex-patriots have formed, although I do think you are above being a part of something like that, too mature to "buy in" to ("buy into"?) something like that). I do not know whether you still live with your brother (again, so I'm told by the flap, but the flap was produced eight or more years ago, and a lot can change in eight years (imagine, eight years ago, I lived in San Francisco, a senior in high school, a wearer of flowing, black, "gothic" gowns, wandering Ocean and Baker Beaches—which you yourself had wandered!—but had never heard of you. . . born too late!)); perhaps you are married, or live with a fiancé or a girlfriend (in which case, I would like to immediately direct my apologies to her; love knows no bounds, particularly those of society). If you do not have a wife or a fiancé or a girlfriend, I am more than available to fill that role. My qualifications include practiced skill at dish washing and picking up around the house (I think, based on your confessions, that this would be a great boon to you and young Toph, who probably isn't so very young any more, and might even have a wife, fiancé, or girlfriend of his own). I've only learned how to throw a frisbee last summer, and because of a raging case of bursitis in my right shoulder (there is no visible swelling, but the pain occasionally keeps me up at night), I will not be able to play this game again until, perhaps, next summer (cross your fingers for me, okay?), but like I said, I can do many other things that don't require any torsion of my right arm that would be helpful and pleasant, both around your house, and in your bedroom (it seems as though you need that sort of attention in particular, or at least you did eight or so years ago, and that is one thing that, from experience, doesn't usually change over eight years, unless, of course, you now have a wife or a fiancé or a girlfriend, in which case, again, I apologize).

I am willing to relocate if necessary, although Chicago is out of the question (too cold; I'm certain you agree, in spite of any fond childhood memories you may have).

Dave Eggers, I await your response, in the form of one dozen long stem white roses and a red Toyota Prius Micro Machine, with bated breath, knowing full well that you are a "pe[rson] or entit[y] who [is] not likely to respond." No matter. To die, having found you, sought you, and confessed my love to all the interweb, is enough. Better, at least, than to have married some wealthy, attractive man, had four children, kept my figure, eaten cake for 88 birthdays, and passed silently during an afternoon nap in the hammock while summering in the Hamptons, never knowing that you were out there, the one for me.

Dave Eggers, I am so excited, and so grateful. Do not keep me waiting long.

Dahl Haus

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Movies: My Blueberry Nights

Wong Kar Wai, say it ain't so. Tell me that you're not really responsible for this travesty, that you were just tired, exhausted really, empty, after making so many brilliant movies, that you licensed your name to some young hack who gave you millions from his father's bank account in exchange for the use of your name, that he wrote this awkward, cliche-ridden screenplay, that he hired these incompetent actors, specified their tawdry costumes, and chose the mediocre music to accompany all their stilted scenes.

Clearly you aren't yourself without Christopher Doyle by your side. Darius Khondji does a decent job at mimicking his style when still, but the moving shots are so sloppy, so blurry, so runny; I'm reminded how ugly digital still is. I'm reminded that white Americans don't look so good smoking and sulking (whereas Chinese people do this with great panache in each of your other films). I'm reminded that, while you posit that Jude Law is the answer to every one's existential problems, there aren't enough Jude Laws to go around, and, in the average all-night cafe in New York, one will never find Jude Law wiping table tops. One will find a squat immigrant who hasn't learned English yet. There is no free pie in New York, either.

And yes, people are in pain: they drink, they gamble, they refuse to talk to husbands/fathers/etc., just wanting those people to disappear, to die, and then, when those people do disappear, die, they are sad, they regret their choices, they hate themselves, they cry, they drink, they gamble. But could you not have found a more original way to tell us this? Did the alcoholic have to be a cop, whose wife left him for a cowboy? Did the gambler have to be a girl, whose daddy taught her to gamble? Could anything be more trite? Do you think that this is what America is? Is that how you see us? Through the lens of the 1950s? What happened to the nuance and the poeticism of In the Mood For Love? Is it just America that bunged it up? Are we so crass? So sloppy? So shallow? Do you think we are?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Books: The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, by T.E. Lawrence

I have never seen Lawrence of Arabia, which is based on this book (and for that I blame the many friends who refused to go with me when it was being screened, both in San Francisco and New York, in all its 70 mm glory). I didn't know, though, that this book, the one that's been on my current reading list since that list's inception (which was a list of recommendations from a person whom I trusted better before I began reading the books on that list), belonged to that movie. Of course, both feature Lawrences, but what do seven pillars of wisdom have to do with Arabia?

What are the seven pillars of wisdom? Gosh, I don't know. I read each and every one this brick's 660 (paper thin, yellowed) pages (albeit, some while on the stairmaster; cardio makes even the worst of tasks seem diverting), and I don't remember finding any pillars at all, much less seven. Plus, Lawrence seems to be constantly bent on his very lack of wisdom, calling his work something like a charade, telling us that, though he's living in the desert with Arabs, wearing their clothes, eating their food, riding their camels, and leading them into battle (with the Turks, alongside England and against Germany (it's WWI)), he's only a poseur. He constantly tries to quit, but the English won't let him.

I find war books/movies sort of tedious, and aside from a sparse scattering of philosophical asides, that's what this book is, even if it does take place on camels instead of airplanes, and even if the specter of thirst and starvation are always near. One person I encountered while reading suggested that President Bush ought to read the thing, given our situation in Iraq right now, but I wasn't able to get anything out of it to explain anything, except that all native Middle Easterners are not the same, and nor are they all friends, which is something that we already (ought to) know.

A small point I would like to make has less to do with the book than something I read in the news while I was reading the book. South Korea banned the use of dog meat in restaurants to comply with Western "culinary" (animal rights) sensibilities. And yet, many restaurants continue to serve dog meat, illegally, because there is a demand for it. Now, because the dog slaughtering isn't monitored, there is an increased health risk. And Americans still decry the eating of dogs, because, well, dogs are our friends. Which brings me back to The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, in which Lawrence and his Arabic army eat camels, even though camels carry them through the desert (only when starvation is imminent and other food isn't available, and they always choose the oldest, mangiest, least otherwise useful animal). Hence: you eat what you can to survive, and if you're going to "use" an animal in one way (and don't think keeping a pet isn't "using" the animal) you might as well use it in another way, for food, if you have to.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Movies: The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Every once and a while, an old movie is so weirdly contemporary that it knocks my socks off. For all of its Cold War obsessions with the Reds and its wooden handling of the possibility of mind control, I found this movie to be, somehow, relevant. (I've yet to see the 21st Century remake, so no comments on that yet.)

Raymond Shaw isn't a particularly likable guy (there's something incredibly elitist and anti-social about him), but he's just come back from the Korean War, and he's been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving the lives of nine fellow soldiers. The problem is, though, that he didn't save them at all—in fact, he killed two others, and is about to kill some more civilians—he just doesn't know it. Meanwhile, two of those "rescued" men, including Major Marco (Frank Sinatra), are having terrible dreams at night, in which they sit in a hotel lobby listening to a woman talk about hydrangeas. Except then the woman morphs into a round-faced Asiatic with a long mustache lecturing to a group of Russian and Chinese communists who take notes while Shaw strangles one American soldier to death, and then shoots another one through the head, following the lecturer's directions with a dream-like "Yes, Ma'am."

We quickly find out that these dreams are the repressed memories of something that really happened; the Reds have programmed (hypnotized) Shaw to follow their directives, and they control him via the (random and inconvenient) mechanism of the appearance of the Queen of Diamonds face card in a game of solitaire. They have trained him in cahoots with his own conniving mother (a brilliantly evil Angela Lansbury), who is pushing to make her senator husband, Iselin (Shaw's step-father), President via a Vice-Presidential nomination (Shaw's final task is to assassinate the Presidential nominee during his acceptance speech). Ironically enough, Senator Iselin is rising to power thanks to his accusations that Congress is full of Reds who must be rooted out. Meanwhile, there are two romantic subplots: one in which Shaw revives a courtship with another Senator's (Jordan, Iselin's enemy in the Senate) daughter (his mother quashed the initial courtship) and which ends tragically when, under the Queen of Diamonds' spell, he murders both Senator Jordan and his daughter. (The other romantic subplot, between Sinatra and Psycho's Janet Leigh (she'll never be anyone else to me than Marion Crane), is basically unnecessary, if a bit delightfully odd). Luckily for the home team, Marco manages to decipher his dreams and the solitaire/Queen of Diamonds key to the puzzle, and free Shaw from the trap of his mind with a a deck of cards containing 52 Queens of Diamonds and a (somewhat hokey) speech.

So what, in all that, is relevant? Don't make me figure it out. Instead, let me tell you that the best part is when cold, weird, unhappy Shaw rekindles his affair with (marries, actually) Miss Jordan, and is in such high spirits that he makes a joke, thereby shocking himself: "I just made a joke! Not a very good joke, I admit, but a joke! . . . Me! Ha! Big day! Mark that down in your book. Raymond Shaw got married and he made a joke!" It's a rarity that I make direct quotations here, so you know that this one's really really good. Other excellent moments include the different versions of the hydrangea fantasy, populated, in the white soldier's dream, with old white women, and, in the black soldier's dream, with old black women. Trippy. Hysterical. Brilliant.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Books: Anti-Memoirs, by André Malraux

In my previous incarnation as a real estate broker, I had ample time to poke around other people's apartments during dull open houses. Some people had collected interesting art, some people had collected interesting liquor, and some people had collected interesting dust. One man, a journalist who specialized in the Middle East, had collected interesting books (and art, and dust), and had an entire wall of tightly-packed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the long living/dining room. I poked around at those quite a bit, and ended up adding a number of titles from his collection to my reading list. One was Malraux's Anti-Memoirs.

I don't know what appeared interesting about it at the time (since I was even less interested in geography and foreign affairs then than I am now, when, even though I now listen to to NPR all morning at home and read Slate all day at work, I probably couldn't tell you who's who between Mubarak and Musharraf, never mind Maliki and Muqtada (it's not my fault; they're all Ms!)) , but, having finally read it (two years after I put it on the list), I can tell you that there isn't much interesting in it now. Malraux writes in an episodic, non-linear way (he seems to have organized the book in some way according to which real-life incidents inspired which novels, but since I've never read any of his novels, this made little sense to me).

I will be the first to admit that my lack of joy in reading this text probably derives from more user error than lack of skill on Malraux's part. Indeed, he seems to have been quite the adventurer (fighting in the French Resistance, being captured, escaping torture), quite the statesman (discussing politics and religion, and whether the two ought to meet, with Nehru (unarguably the best parts of the book)), and quite the philosopher (pointing out to an ambassador, who said something about donkeys being "activated" by carrots they never eat, that "Man eats the carrot, but it makes him hungry" (perhaps the most insightful comment in all his pages). And so, even if I had to slog, hour after hour, through this dense volume (it's one of those ones where you read two whole paragraphs and then realize that you have no idea what you just read because you were thinking about what you were going to eat for dinner, and now you have to go back and read it all over again), on the few occasions that I actually engaged in what he was saying, I was fairly impressed.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Movies: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Clint Eastwood is pretty sexy, but even his good looks don't warrant three hours of watching in this baggy-at-the-knees Western. Don't call me a young punk; I know it's a classic. That doesn't mean it's any good.

The initial premise is great: three different men (a "good" one, a "bad" one, and an "ugly" one) each want to collect $200,000 in gold coins hidden in a graveyard. The problem is that only the ugly one knows which graveyard, and only the good one knows which grave. Over the course of the movie, they try to beat and trick it out of each other, while the Civil War rages around them, adding extra mishaps along the way.

Despite the fact that the only good thing about the good guy is that he's the good-looking Clint Eastwood (his character is actually a con man and a scoundrel, even if an endearing one), that the movie is totally racist (the ugly one, of course, is a Mexican, who's as weak, stupid, and conniving as Mexicans were in the 1970s), and that whoever did the makeup for Eastwood's sunburn was an idiot, this still could have made an excellent hour-and-a-half movie. The penultimate scene, in which the good and the ugly conspire to blow up a bridge and thus clear the surrounding battlefield for privacy at the graveyard is the most infuriating: a climax deferral that distracts from what Westerns are all about: individuals shooting each other (that is, individuals, and not armies); conversely, the scene a bit before that, in which the good and the ugly conspire to kill all of the bad's lackeys in a dusty war-torn town, is great.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Movies: Stalags

This mediocre documentary seeks to shed light on the Israeli pulp fiction genre that emerged in the early 1960s, burned brightly for a few years, and quickly faded into collectors' oblivion. . . until now! These books were/are (supposedly) extremely controversial due to their plots, in which sex and dom/sub violence met against the backdrop of Nazi Germany. In these "perverted" (translation: silly) stories, American fighter pilots are beaten and raped by buxom female SS soldiers for the masturbatory delight of teen male readers who were turned on not only by the sex and violence, but by the illicit nature of reading about concentration camps (it was the era of the Eichmann trials, and until that point, there was an air of repressive mystery around the Holocaust for those born after it.)

The documentary becomes tedious (even mildly annoying) when interviewees (particularly Holocaust survivors) criticize these books as evil filth, as though there is something evil (rather than human) in being aroused by the abuse so often concomitant with power relationships (Foucault would have a field day). Sexuality is a strange thing, and, in fact, the more these books are repressed and made out to be "bad," the hotter they become.

More strangely, the women interviewed for this film insist that no female Jews served German soldiers as prostitutes in exchange for better treatment in camps (and/or their lives). They don't deny that there were accusations of such, but they do deny that those accusations had any grounding in reality. To propose that this never happened is naive, and to condemn a woman for making that choice is equally naive (I'm fairly certain that self-preservation is a stronger instinct than sexual and/or moral disgust). The film then takes a strange accusatory turn, explaining that some of the more prominent Stalag novels are being included (as historical documents, not literary ones) in Israeli public school curricula. This seems more than strange, if not just wildly inappropriate. While the books shouldn't be repressed, they also shouldn't be assigned (this from the girl who was made to read Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member as a high school sophomore).

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Books: Air Guitar, by Dave Hickey

When I wrote in a previous post that some essay writers are tedious, I was referring to this guy. Don't get me wrong—I read his book anyway, and it had its interesting moments—I just found him to be a little dry, and, worse, artistically hypocritical.

When writing about himself, Hickey seems obsessed with freedom; he reminisces about hanging out with jazz musicians who smoked marijuana when he was a child (his dad was one such), dropping out of grad school because his ideas were too outside of the box, and running an art gallery where he spent as much time discussing art with the paper boy as the customers. He subtitles his book: "Essays on Art and Democracy," and its easy to see that his greatest concern is that people be free to live their lives and express themselves in their own ways, without all kinds of societal bullshit getting in the way. And yet, his writing style is precisely the kind of withdrawn, uptight, judgemental shit he's criticizing. His essays are cold and academic—detached; he says "down with the ivory tower" from that tower's very parapet. And in the few essays he does step down (like the one told from the point of view of Lady Godiva, the female wrestler), he's still no Tom Wolfe, who covers all the same topics, only better.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Movies: The Apartment & Never On Sunday

Being seven blog entries behind, particularly when half those entries cover two movies each, is not the kick in the butt it ought to be. Sitting down to write this is like pulling teeth, probably because The Apartment is one of those perfect movies that you don't need to say anything about. And yet, I set myself these tasks.

Without having seen many Billy Wilder movies, I feel safe saying that The Apartment is the best, because it's just that good. Jack Lemmon plays Baxter, young office drone #7649 (not really, but you get the idea) at a huge New York accounting firm, where he lusts sweetly after pert elevator girl Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine). Baxter spends his evenings (and sometimes even his late nights) killing time at the office, the streets, and neighborhood bars, while a number of higher-ups at the firm use his apartment to entertain their various lady friends (mostly switchboard operators and secretaries from the firm as well). He doesn't like it, but it lands him not one but two promotions (he is suddenly the youngest executive at the firm), and so no matter how distasteful the situation is, he lives with it—until, that is, he finds out, thanks to a compact with a broken mirror, that the irreproachable Miss Kubelik is his boss' flavor of the month. Broken promise after broken promise, and cold, 1950s ad-man behavior (instead of buying Fran a present, he pulls a $100 bill out of his wallet for her after their Christmas Eve tryst) drive Miss Kubelik to attempt suicide, in Baxter's apartment, after the boss leaves, so that when Baxter comes home after his own drunken holiday escapade, he finds her passed out cold on his bed. With the help of his neighbor, a doctor, she pulls through, and after a few more twists and mix-ups, the movie ends as they toast to the New Year together. In paragraph form, it sounds kind of pat, but Romantic Comedy weren't always dirty words. The film addresses—lightly but nevertheless seriously—the kind of isolation one finds tucked into every nook of New York, where people live having left their families and histories behind, looking for something better, but rarely finding anything at all.

Never on Sunday is a film strangely paired with The Apartment, which suffers by its relative irrelevance, but mightn't be so terrible on its own. Its concerns are more overtly, if crudely, existential, highlighted via cultural comparisons that are a gimme for a post-structuralist cultural critic. The heroine is Ilya (Melina Mercouri), the noble moral savage (a Greek prostitute who delights in her work (i.e., not your average American crack ho, but a beautiful woman with a zest for life's simple pleasures: eating, swimming, and sex)). The idiot is Homer (actor/director Jules Dassin), an American "amateur philosopher" who comes to Greece, the seat of the last so-called evolved civilization, with the hope of identifying where society "went wrong." He finds the embodiment of said "crisis" in Ilya, and attempts to reform her. Illogically, she lets him, and all the town suffers from the loss of her butterfly-like presence. She, too, seems to wilt under the seriousness of 18th Century continental philosophy, 19th Century chamber music, and early 20th Century painting (Homer replaces a photograph of all her male friends with a cubist Picasso monstrosity). Luckily, a plot twist enables her to free herself from his yoke (he had entered into a Devil's bargain in a shallow subplot, accepting money (to buy books, records, and other educational materials) from the landlord/pimp No Face, who shared Homer's dream of Ilya's retirement, but for more capitalistic reasons). Quickly, Homer becomes the social pariah he seems to always have been, but he still refuses to leave the small town. By the film's end, though, he's redeemed himself, and, after innumerable glasses of ouzo, dances the gleeful dance of the locals in the bar before boarding a ship home and throwing his notebook into the sea. He's enough of an obnoxious idiot that we find ourselves kind of wishing that he hadn't found reconciliation, but instead had his nose and a few other things broken by the burly Greek fishermen, but the film doesn't seem to want to concern itself with the question of cruelty, despite its supposed philosophical bent.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Books: Out of Africa, by Isak Dinesen

I never read books like this, so don't ask me why I decided to read it; I have no idea. I think I meant to read A Passage to India before/during my trip to that country, didn't get around to it, and thought this would be a similar sort of thing (a crusty colonial tome). When I blithely requested it from NYPL.org, I didn't know that I'd be getting a memoir, not a novel, and that it would be written by a women, not a man. For all the complaining I do about books written by women, this one isn't terribly bad, if a bit dry.

Danish Dinesen (Karen von Blixen-Finecke) lived on a failing coffee plantation in Nairobi in the early 20th century, and describes her time there with a kind of nostalgic, soft-focus detachment. It wouldn't be difficult to construe the book as racist, although for all the "curious ways of the natives"-type talk, Dinesen did clearly respect them more than the average colonialist, even if the Bible came hand-in-hand with more necessary Western items (like medicine).

Perhaps more confusing than her relationships with the Africans (with whom, it must be said, she related in different ways, because of the different tribes' varying lifestyles and attitudes) is her relationship with the country's animals; the most tender, poignant passage in the entire book is a description of the flamingos that an exporter boxes and puts onto a ship for passage to a European zoo, where the confinement breaks their fragile legs. And yet, she constantly goes out to shoot lions at the behest of the natives (who keep livestock), showing no qualms about that kind of violence. I imagine that when lives outside of the sub/urban landscape, PETA becomes less than irrelevant. Nevertheless, reading this today, in New York, I couldn't help but shudder each moment a bullet hit the noble head of a lioness mauling a dead giraffe or padding through the darkness.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Movies: The Misfits

Arthur Miller gives Marilyn Monroe room to flex her existential muscles in the beauty's penultimate film; a brooding look at loneliness and detachment in rootless modern society with a tacked-on Hollywood ending that reifies traditional gender roles and undoes most of the work of the film.

That's a tightly-packed sentence. Let's back up a bit. The movie opens in Reno, with a meet-cute when a mechanic comes to pick up a car with a bent fender; it belongs to Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe), a dance teacher from out of town, and is badly dented because, according to Isabelle, the old landlady (Thelma Ritter), Roslyn's so beautiful that men keep driving into her in order to start up a conversation. (That's the first and last innocent laugh we'll have, and there is danger lurking behind even that innocence: the "attack" of appreciation that aims to disable and thereby possess.) Roslyn appears and the mechanic, Guido (Eli Wallach) is instantly smitten himself, and offers to drive the two women to court; Roslyn is in Reno to finalize a divorce. Isabelle came to Reno when she was Roslyn's age for the same reason, never remarrying and never leaving, and instead renting rooms to young divorcees and serving as their witnesses in court.

After the proceedings are finalized, Roslyn and Isabelle go out for a drink, where they run into Guido and his friend Gay (an old and weather-beaten Clark Gable, whom I've always found more boorish than debonair), a cowboy who's hoping to go out mustanging in the next few days, and who also now has his eye on the luscious Roslyn. The four share a few drinks and decide to drive out to Guido's country house, since Roslyn has no plans. There, in a half-constructed ranch house surrounded by empty desert with a view of distant mountains, the four get drunk as skunks, and we watch the rivalry between Guido and Gay mounting. Roslyn both excites and embarrasses us as she kicks off her shoes after dancing with both men and runs out into the grass, spinning around with her arms in the air, the straps of her dress falling off her shoulders. Her sensuality bubbles dangerously close to the surface, reacting strangely with her childlike naivete; simultaneously turning us on and frightening us (who will protect her from two ravenous men, out in the middle of nowhere? Certainly Isabelle won't be strong enough. . .)*

Advantage isn't taken. . . or is it? Roslyn wakes up in a bed and she appears to be nude between the white sheets (at least her pendulous upper half, poorly disguised by those white sheets, is), and Gay comes in to invite her out for breakfast in front of the dining room's picture window; he's fried her an egg. The two lonely people converse in the promise of morning sun and make a kind of "connection;" it's clear when they decide to permanently move into the house together (Guido's house, might I remind you, where he lived with his now-dead wife before abandoning it mid-construction and moving into the city), it's as lovers, and they exuberantly play at housekeeping, planting flowers and a vegetable garden, and rearranging the furniture.

But this can't be more than a game (and dare I say farce?) They have their first little quarrel (and Roslyn shows her proto-PETA stripes) over a rabbit wrecking havoc on the vegetable garden; Gay pulls out a shotgun to kill it and Roslyn kicks up a fuss—he doesn't like to see his labor going to "waste" and she doesn't think that his labor warrants the death of an innocent animal. That storm blows over and the whole gang of four (Guido and Isabelle have come for a visit) decides to drive into town and find a third cowboy for that mustanging expedition (is Gay already tired of the married life?) Along the way, they run into Perce (Montgomery Clift), a young cowboy trying to scare up the entrance fee for the rodeo, who's talking to his mom from a phone booth. Gay promises to pay Perce's fee if Perce agrees to go along on the mustang expedition afterward, and a deal is made; he jumps into the car and they drive out to the rodeo.

Things now start to get a bit ugly. In town, they stop in a bar, and Roslyn innocently gets herself into a paddle-ball wager and proves herself to be an expert; here she performs an unintentional grotesque burlesque, rhythmically swinging her entire body to whack the ball again and again as the onlookers gawk and count out loud. People pull out money and wave it around, supposedly entering the wager, but instead invoking the strip club (Gay will later, when things get even uglier, charge Roslyn with having been the sort of dancer that dances in bars, in a less than innocent way). The camera, like every eye in the bar, focuses on her rollicking bosom and bottom. Soon, a hand reaches out and starts rhythmically slapping that bottom, and soon Gay's fist lands on the face belonging to that man. The group grabs up the money and runs out of the bar, heading for the rodeo.

This is Roslyn's first rodeo, and she's horrified to see Perce being thrown first from a bucking bronco and then from a bull. His second fall is bad, and he has to be rescued, unconscious, from the dirt and the charging bull by Gay. A doctor bandages his head and nose, and the five go to another bar to celebrate. Perce feels woozy and goes out back for some air; Roslyn goes with him. Here, he tells her his story, his bandaged head cradled in her lap while she sits on the floor in a garbage heap: he left home because his father died a few years ago and his mother remarried a man who stole the family's ranch, his rightful inheritance, out from under him, and tried to make him into a paid laborer; he doesn't much like cowboying, but he doesn't have much choice. His despondency highlights Roslyn's own; she doesn't seem to have a family either, or even a home, only an ex-husband we never saw, and whatever relationship she's currently engaged in with Gay. Speaking of which, he soon adds his own isolation and despondency to the mix; he comes out, asking Roslyn to come back into the bar and meet his kids (whom he had mentioned briefly before, while playing house; he told Roslyn that he only sees them once in a while, at rodeos, but that they love him, and they love seeing him perform). When they go back into the bar, though, the kids are gone, and Gay starts shouting their names, hollering for them to come back. They go out into the street, Gay shouting all the while, more and more desperately, but his kids are nowhere in sight. He, too, is alone.

The next day, the three men, plus Roslyn, head out to the mountains to go mustanging. Roslyn, in peg-leg jeans and windblown hair, is out of place in front of the campfire, and worried about Gay's dog, who's clearly spooked. We wonder why he brought her out there at all. He takes her back to the truck and puts her to sleep there, away from the men, even though she's far from tired and trying to have a conversation with him about the animals. The sun rises with a threat the next day, and the movie becomes brutal. Guido flies a small plane, which he has brought out for the mission; their standard procedure is that he scares the wild horses down out of the mountains by flying low above them, and when they come out into the open, Gay and his helpers, this time just Perce, tie up the horses.

It's upsetting enough to watch the horses running away from the whirring flying machine, but when they come out into the open plain, Guido lands, fires up the truck, and starts chasing them around again, this time with the two cowboys hanging off the back, lassoing up the horses with ropes tied to big tires, which keep them in one place. Then, systematically, once each of the horses has been caught (one stallion, four mares (one old) and a foal. . . only six when Gay had said he'd spotted eleven, and when they had once gone out to catch hundreds at a time. . . there just aren't any left), they approach it and break it down, fighting to pull it to the ground, bend its legs, and tie it all up. It's basically horrifying to the layperson, and Roslyn channels that point of view, screaming and crying, fighting between the simultaneous desire to look and not to see. We have since found out, along with Roslyn, that these horses are not being caught for riding or ranching, but. . . to be killed, and processed into. . . wait for it. . . dog food. When they are all tied up, Gay and Guido calculate how much money they'll get; the take will total less than the amount Roslyn collected in the bar with the paddle-ball. Screaming, crying, she offers them all of her money in exchange for letting the horses go, but Gay won't concede. Alone with her in the cab of the truck, Guido confesses his love to her, but quickly sours when she doesn't respond the way she wants. Perse, too, seems affected by her anxiety, and, without making similar demands on her affection, runs out and cuts the horses loose.

Gay is incensed and, already sweating from the first round, grabs a rope and takes up a fight against the stag. The battle is long, grueling, sweaty, bloody, brutal. For a few tense moments, the horse runs, dragging Gay along the ground behind him, who refuses to let go of the rope, until the cowboy struggles to his feet and continues the battle, eventually bringing the huge animal to its knees in sheer exhaustion, and then completely to the ground. There, where it lies on its side, Gay throws his body across its big belly, confirming his victory. And then, after a few panting breaths, he cuts the horse loose again, and watches it run away. Guido, furious and sputtering, gets in the plane and flies off, taking Perse with him, and carping that all women are the same, all of them crazy, he had thought Roslyn was different, but she's just like his wife, crazy—revealing an ugly side of his character we had never seen nor expected, inspired by not only rejection, but the loss of his friend, and the invalidation of what he thought were shared values. Perse listens in silence. The camera cuts to the cab of the truck, where Roslyn scoots into Gay's arm around her shoulders, as they drive home (wherever that is), to their happy Hollywood ending.

And we, in the audience, feel sick. Why should Gay win the prize of Perse's actions, but only after displaying his masculinity, his dominance, his power? And why should Roslyn be the prize, inevitably to be won by one of these three men, whom she's only encountered by happenstance? And what does it mean to reveal such ugliness in a man like Guido, to nullify everything kind he ever said about his wife? And what will happen to Perse, who seems to be the only worthy man in the bunch, even if he is a bit lost (and wouldn't that make him a better match for Roslyn, who is something of the same). And how are we to really believe that Gay and Roslyn will have any happy life together, when we know that his time is passed? In the middle of the drama over the mustanging, he explains that "it just got turned around;" he used to catch the horses for a more noble cause (at least more noble than sudden death), but society changed around him, making him a relic who could only continue to do the same actions, even if for a different outcome (the means justifying the ends in a weird anti-Machivellian twist, for equally ugly results). It is at this time that he accuses Roslyn of having danced in bars, with innocent intentions, for men who "turned it around" into something less noble and free, and we see that what Miller is really grappling with here is the taught interplay between something positive, like freedom, and something damaging, like loneliness, and what rootlessness might have meant "then," (nobility) and what it means "now" (isolation, desperation, farce). And so how, knowing that, can we accept this red ribbon, this snuggling couple driving off into the sunset? It's too unsettling; we can't accept it, but a movie has to end.

*There is something strangely layered about Marilyn; she has the jaded core inherent in any woman who knows she's beautiful, and who has been taken advantage of because of it, but nevertheless maintains a surface effervescent innocence, and her irrepressible sexuality bubbles up through both of these.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Music: Beach House and The Papercuts

I found out about Beach House last year, when they opened up for The Clientele. I don't love The Clientele (in fact, I ended up leaving in the middle of their set), but had gone along with a few friends who did. Beach House turned out to be the delicious creme filling in the middle of two otherwise dry cookies (I don't remember the name of the first act, but they were fairly forgettable): sweet and dreamy and viscous. A good-looking but shy bearded man played a sedated twangy surf guitar (think Sleepwalk by The Ventures) while an even more shy girl sat at a keyboard (organ? I dunno; clearly I am no expert), perpendicular to the stage, slouched over with her long hair hung all over her face. She played slowly and moaned sweetly into the microphone. That was it. But it was magical. My friend bought the CD and I listened to it again and again.

This year they came back, but it seems that instead of taking opiates, singer Victoria Legrand dropped some acid. Or maybe a year of touring and good reviews has helped her self-esteem. Either way, she. . . still needs to work on her performance strategy. This time, her keyboard was set up to face the audience, and the techs had her bathed in light (leaving guitarist Alex Scally in the dark; perhaps he's still shy). She talked a bit in between songs, but instead of coming off as friendly or inspiring or sweet, she just came off as a wee bit crazy and somewhat annoying. As the show wore on, she began to gesture strangely with her fingers in the air in front of her face (keyboards and hand gestures go together about as well as ice cream and soy sauce, by the way). She also amped her singing up a bit, so that at times, she growled instead of moaned (think Stevie Nicks versus Patti Smith. . . of course no great insult to compare her to either).

Of course, the expectation principle was strongly in effect here (I most enjoyed Beach House when I had no expectations), so I won't say anything dreadful, and I will probably still procure their new album. But I might not go out of my way to see them live again. As other people have argued, their quiet, dreamy sounds are more appropriate for intimate late nights in small spaces, and the mood they invoke is not one that you want to share with 500 drunken strangers pushing and shoving and spilling beer on your shoes. Also, you probably need to by lying down to best appreciate their sound, not standing for three hours waiting for them to come on, and then standing for another forty minutes while they play, so that all you can think about is how much you need to stretch your lower back. That's just distracting.

As for The Papercuts, their music is fairly pleasant, if a bit repetitive and lacking in virtuosity. Singer/songwriter Jason Quever has a thin warbly voice and seems to be yet another casualty of the Thom Yorke school of mumbledom (mind you, Thom Yorke is one of my top five favorite people in the history of the world ever, but that doesn't mean his greatness can be appropriated by cribbing his style, although performer after performer has tried (the singers of Palo Alto and Muse come to mind immediately). It took him quite some time to warm up, and even then, he was reaching for notes he couldn't even hit with a bow and arrow pointed at the sky. The bassist is going to develop horrible carpal tunnel if he doesn't learn how to hold his instrument properly.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Dance: Dance Brazil

I was training in capoeira for about six months before I found out that the constant, throbbing pain in my right shoulder was a tear in my supraspinatus and a bout of raging bursitis, and had to temporarily quit (I am still in quit-mode, and my athletic activities are now limited to these lame rotator cuff exercises that I have to do with a green stretchy piece of rubber). So, going to see Dance Brazil, where twenty steamy young Brazilians, whose bodies demonstrate what God had in mind when God created bodies, slink and slip and jump and kick and do such acrobatic feats as turn cartwheels without hands, made me more sad than anything, except for maybe angry that I couldn't go to class the next day and get my inspired ass kicked by my inspired teacher (who was also at the show). They did a few little samba pieces, too, but for some reason I wasn't at all inspired to go take a samba class (even though that would probably be a lot more safe for my shoulder). I just really want, more than anything right now, to be able to glide and slip and flip like these people. They are amazing.