Friday, November 28, 2008

Movies: Rachel Getting Married

This baggy, scraggly, mopey film reminds me of the baggy, scraggly, mopey teenagers you can usually find at mall food courts. From a distance, or to the uninitiated, there is a flash of something desirable, an artsy pain and edgy fragility particular to girls aged 13-19. Any actual time spent with them, though, reveals the same tedious troubles haunting the girls on the other side of the mall, shopping at Abercrombie and Fitch.

Anne Hathaway, whose charms are consistently lost on me, is surprisingly well-cast as an awkward twenty-something who takes a break from rehab to spend a long weekend at her family compound in hoity-snoity Connecticut. It slowly comes out that Kym (with a “y,” of course, sigh) has been addicted to a variety of drugs since she was a teenager, and that, when left to baby sit her toddling brother Ethan, she drove their car into a river because she was high. He died.

Now her divorced and remarried parents are coming back to the house to see their third child, Rachel, get married. Rachel, the most tedious white girl you have ever seen, is marrying Sidney, the coolest black dude you have ever seen. Supposedly, Rachel and Kym’s father has something to do with the music industry and therefore this liaison makes sense (Sidney, too, has something to do with the music industry).

In fact, the entire movie/weekend is actually just a set piece of hipster porn where upper-class blacks and whites intermingle happily over their shared love of every kind of music, from jazz to indie rock to contemporary chamber to Caribbean electronic. Kym’s brittle moments of nerve-wracking social self-flagellation are washed over by lengthy cuts of people dancing to really good music.

But who wants to watch a movie of people dancing to really good music? If this movie doesn’t totally annoy you, it will only make you jealous—I want to hang out at that party and dance to really good music. (Everyone there, with the exceptions of Rachel and Kym, seems pretty cool, probably too much so to pass the reality test.) The cinematography—random, shaky, handheld—clearly intends to quote the home-movie/“Our Wedding” sensation, so that we in the audience get an ultra-intimate, through-the-keyhole look at the unfolding drama. But: is this a keyhole we even want to look through?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Movies: Slumdog Millionaire

Based on his previous work, you may have thought of Danny Boyle as an artist grounded by the simple acknowledgement of life's inherent darkness. Like me, you would have misread him. In this romantic fairytale, he discloses that he's never been interested in the darker side of things, except so long as they illuminate the brighter by contrast. This is all the more disappointing for its profligacy: he squanders brilliant child actors, gorgeous cinematography, and shattering social revelations in the service of a lame flashback-driven plot about destined lovers, ultimately undoing all of the expose-style work he began.

The film opens with a Guantanamo-sytle interrogation scene (it's disconcerting that we're becoming accustomed to these) of a skinny boy by a fat man and uniformed officer Irrfan Khan. Twenty minutes later, the same officer is serving the boy chai and listening to him spin a reticent yarn: the introduction to flashback scenes that explain how such a boy (an uneducated orphan of the slums who, now in his early 20s, makes his living serving chai at a mobile phone call center) could win Rs. 20,000,000 on a quiz show; mystically, each question related to a dramatic—usually traumatic—experience from his childhood and adolescence.

These flashbacks allow cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, working in perfect concert with a team of astonishing child actors, to reveal the sordid slums of Mumbai—a cross between a Hooverville and a trash heap—as little more than the children's playground: a playground where marauding terrorists light your home on fire and kill your mother, a playground where you are lured by a frosty Coca-Cola into the arms of a Dickensian villain who will burn your eyes out with hot oil (blind singers, and otherwise damaged beggars, earn more than the bodily able), and a playground where the girl you've befriended will be groomed carefully for the whorehouse. This is enough to make a movie; Americans don't like to see things like this happening, and when art shows it to them in a meaningful way, they do something about it.

They won't do anything about it, though, because halfway into the film, Boyle derails and decides to develop a romantic relationship between groomed-to-be-a-whore Latika and about-to-be-millionaire Jamal. When they finally kiss at the end (for the very first time), they are in their early twenties, and have spent a total of less than five hours together as adults. And yet, we expect them to live happily ever after, because "it is written." Audiences are so excited that Jamal has not only become a millionaire, but has also won the girl, they have forgotten all about the real orphans in India who do live on trash heaps (I know; I saw them) and who won't become millionaires or fall in love with a partner marked from before time. Worse, by giving his protagonist the two-for-one special, Boyle does not address the ugly reality that, had Jamal not won mad rupees, Latika (who is living with an abusive gangster twice her age when Jamal comes into his wealth) would not have run away with him.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Books: Hell's Angels, by Hunter S. Thompson

This book reads more like an extended newsmagazine article than a novel, but I don’t ultimately have a problem with that (um, it’s not a novel, duh. Okay, whatever.) Thompson seems to be less of an insider than one would expect (buying an English make rather than a Harley, and then driving a car to the Angel’s big run on the lake rather than a bike)—and eventually, in fact, ends his uncomfortable pseudo-friendship with them when he gets “stomped” (Angel for “beat up,” the way only Angels do it, which seems to involve literal stomping on the victim’s fallen body) and flees the scene, never returning.

Thompson’s angle is that of an outsider-insider perspective; he does a careful reading (and quoting) of media to demonstrate that the Angels’ reputation usually preceded them; one or two stories, blown out of proportion by lazy journalists, created a mythic reputation that the biker gang then did their best to live up to—often failing even at that. The gonzo journalist manages to scrounge up enough street cred to hang with them at a few exclusive locations (the run on the lake being one, their favorite bar being another), talk to them about their reputation, and see firsthand whether they are as dangerous as they’re made out to be.

The portrait that eventually emerges is less scary than depressing—there’s an impulse, Thompson points out, to see the Angels as re-figured cowboys, heroes riding solo across the open plains. And yet, they subscribe to a very rudimentary group mentality, not unlike that of today’s street gangs or yesteryear’s KKK. They keep “mamas,” shared women who voluntarily become the sexual property of the Angels, and who are used, um, communally. They take as many of any kinds of drugs they can get their hands on, heedless of doses or compatibility, often not knowing what they’re taking at all. If these are heroes, they are heroes for a world in need of therapy; if they are monsters, they are monsters in a world that is eerily sterile, if comfortably safe.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Movies: Wild Style

In spite of (because of?) its wooden actors, amateur screenwriter, and purely functional cinematographer, Wild Style manages to be a perfect document of its time: 1982, in New York: the proto-hip-hop scene. Of course, I was just barely getting born then, so perhaps I am unqualified to make that judgement. What I am qualified to say is that the worst parts of the movie are the best, the groaners will make you laugh, and the incredibly naive depiction of race relations is probably more on point than any of today's elaborate dissertations.

The plot, which is sort of an coming-of-age tale, is just a loose character sketch that strings together episodic scenes of emceeing, b-boying, turn-tabling, and spray-painting. Lee Quinones, real-life street artist (not real-life actor, and it shows) is trying to win back his girl (Sandra Fabara, not much of an actress herself) while painting up whole subway cars in the yards at night (we get a brief visit from his older brother, in a military uniform, telling him to clean up his act, but that's as close to any parental involvement we'll see).

Meanwhile, a "lady reporter," who turns out to be a party girl styled on Debbie Harry, is coming up to write an article on graffiti art; she is in most of the best scenes, not because she can act, but because her extreme whiteness provides the perfect catalyst for delightfully awkward moments. The first is when her car breaks down in the middle of a burnt-out tower block wasteland, and 25 little black boys descend upon it. They look harmless enough but she's clearly threatened, but as soon as the kids discover that she is the reporter, they all push her car to her destination, a few of them getting trampled in the process. The next is when she walks out of the club without her black male escorts, and finds herself about to get held up at gunpoint. Her friends arrive in time to save her and, as they all pile into the car, she squeals with delight at the fact that she almost got shot (it's all part of the tour). Seeing her surrounded by a club full of black kids b-boying is just as funny as watching Lee surrounded by a bunch of Manhattan art collectors, which is the next stop. At the cocktail party, the hostess commissions Lee to make her a painting, and when he asks for a hundred dollars for materials, she writes him a check for two, then seduces him (and let me point out that Lee is uglier than the ugliest member of Bone-Thugs-n-Harmony on the last day of the month, even if you dig the Thuggish-Ruggish-Bone).

The film ends with a big hip-hop celebration on the Lower East Side, where Lee has finally addressed his demons and painted the entire bandshell, and the Cold Crush Brothers and Busy Bee and Double Trouble have all come out to emcee and the Rocksteady Crew dance on a rolled-out sheet of linoleum and the credits roll and we all miss old New York (which, I have to say, might be coming back—I'm starting to see groups of kids get on trains, clear a space, and break right there for change—something Giuliani thought he put an end to.

Now, if we could just bring back the painted-up subway cars I'd be happy. I'm not asking for lawlessness, just art. For the MTA's anniversary, the city ran old cars from the turn of the century. But I'd rather see one from 1982.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Books: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

When I admitted to having seen the movie but not having read the book, my friends who watched Gonzo with me swallowed their sighs of disappointment and lent me the darned thing, which I pushed through in a couple of days. I really don't know why I'd never read any Hunter S.; I've read tons of Tom Wolfe; I've read On the Road and tons of Henry Miller and Naked Lunch and all kinds of other assorted 1950-1970 drug/beat/sex/etc. literature. I guess Thompson never appealed to me because he came a little late to the game, after the party had already wound down and there wasn't any fun in it anymore. Of which scenario he is very aware.

My digression here is that the movie, which I watched a few years before instating this blog, was so artistically true to Thompson's writing and Steadman's amazing drawings that reading the book simply made me see the movie in mind's eye (this happened to me with The Virgin Suicides, but I'd seen that movie countless times, and this movie only once). There's no question that Thompson is incredibly evocative (I think more than provocative—this is still just a children's bedtime story compared with Naked Lunch), terribly incisive, and always has the precisely right string of words. When he's ready to, he cuts to the bone, because he writes what he feels, not just what he thinks (this is what separates him from Wolfe, who also writes very much from within a scene, but who also manages to constantly maintain a slight intellectual detachment from his subjects. Thompson is his subject(s).)

Monday, November 17, 2008

Movies: Quantum of Solace

Writing about Daniel Craig as Bond brings me, oddly enough, full circle—back to the exercise (at which I failed) that started me on this compulsive response writing: a challenge to review Casino Royale. I didn’t post it, but kept the unfinished draft on my laptop. The choice quote, I think, is this:

I positively loathe all Sean Connery Bond films, because I think Sean Connery is an apish thug who lacks the class and physical grace necessary to properly portray the character. But Daniel Craig has done what I thought impossible: he has swindled Sean Connery out of his uncontestable My Least Favorite Bond medal.

A second film in, Craig has failed to cultivate any suavity. He remains the converse of Pierce Brosnan’s debonair hero, who was always a natural with the ladies. Craig, in those IPO khaki pants (the real Bond would never be caught dead. . .) with his renegade Dennis the Menace tuft of blond, spends most of his time mooning over some lost girlfriend, and only manages to tumble one set (though a lovely set she is). Even Connery would be ashamed.

But the grand failure of Quantum of Solace cannot be blamed fully on Craig: plenty of blame lies with director Marc Forster, who turns out to be incompetent when it comes to filming coherent action sequences (and if Bond is not about the urbane hero, it must be about the action). During each vehicular sequence (and there is a car chase, a boat chase, a plane chase, etc.—to the point that one waits and waits for the train sequence, and is then let down to find that the penultimate scene, which does take place in front of a rail yard, involves no action), the cuts are so fast and so poorly organized that one does not come away with a general understanding of what just happened. The effect is more of being in a car wreck than watching one—we cannot logically string together the interior shots of Craig driving with the exterior shots of his and his enemy’s car/boat/plane. The sound of crushing metal is loud and the scrapes and explosions are gritty—again, a kind of grit not appropriate to Bond (who is the kind of hero who doesn’t wrinkle his dinner jacket while fist-fighting, who is such a clever driver that his sports car escapes chases unscratched).

The final key to any Bond film is, of course, the Bond Girls. And the casting agents do not disappoint with the plump-lipped, doe-eyed Olga Kurylenko and the dishy, red-headed Gemma Arterton (whose naked body (or body-double) looks disturbingly fantastic clad in a coat of black oil). But shame on the stylists—why are Kurylenko’s breasts so immobilized in those tank tops? And who did Arterton’s matronly updo? And more shame on the screenwriter—since when is Bond too sensitive to soothe Cami with more than just a kiss?

Even if the girls are the end-all be-all of the film, a word must always be given to the villain as well. I don’t know whether to blame lazy screenwriters or Mathieu Amalric’s definitive role in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, but I just couldn’t summon up any hatred for his character Dominic—a natural-resource capitalist wolf in green non-profit sheep’s clothing. And even the even badder guy, a dictator-cum-rapist who would sell out his own people for a buck and a fancy title, is such a hackneyed sketch that we can’t take him any more seriously than we might take the militants in Woody Allen’s Bananas.

So what do we have in the end? A very expensive, very noisy B-movie with A-movie fixings: gorgeous fireballs, pretty girls, and a disappointed audience.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Books: Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

This is one of those books that's too good to write about. Or, perhaps I'm just wussing out because it's actually one of those books that's too hard to write about. With no intended insult to Stephenson, what Cryptonomicon is, at its core, is a Thomas Pynchon book that is actually readable—that is, fun to read. It is, of course, plenty challenging, with a cross-generational and international plot, tons of mathematical, cryptographical, and technical digressions and details, and words I had to write down and later look up in the dictionary. And, like a Pynchon novel, it's riddled with paranoia, war, and distrust of the government and its military. But somehow, Stephenson makes us want to read and read and read, so that 900 pages isn't some chore to be hopeless hacked at, ten pages at a time, but a few weeks of total immersion into a different world, so that, when you've finished the book, you're lonely, and miss your new friends.

Who are they? Too many to list, but the very basic story is as follows: in the early 90s, Randy Waterhouse, whose grandfather was a brilliant mathematician and possible inventor of the computer, who worked as a cryptanalyst for the US Military during WWII, is working on a venture with an assortment of hackers and RPG-fanatics to lay Internet cable off a small island near the Philippines and, in concert with the tiny government of that island, create a depository and electronic currency. The cable-laying is outsourced to a company run by an American expat family; the young woman (Amy Shaftoe, short for America) becomes Randy's object of affection, while back in the WWII plot, Amy's grandfather is a berserk Marine who knows not enough of the too much that he knows, which lands him working on a special team that brings him into occasional contact with the young Gramps Waterhouse. The big secret is that the Japanese government, knowing that its losing the war, is building an enormous vault in a cave engineered by also half-berserk (war will do that to you) Goto Dengo, where they store about a gazillion dollars worth of gold. By the book's end, the aged Goto, who is somehow still alive, meets Randy (and his Israeli business partner Avi, who has his own fascinating set of plot-relevant neuroses) for dinner, where Randy reveals that he knows the coordinates of the vault (which he knows by having decoded his grandfather's encrypted IBM (oh, in the book they're called the Electric Till Corporation) cards. Needless to say, the ending is happy—another one of the things that differentiates Stephenson from Pynchon.

The real differentiation is that Pynchon's characters are cartoons, drug-induced mock-ups of people's worst aspects, flattened onto the page and then reinflated by weird quirks and sexual desires. The resulting characters are impossible to get attached to, and when we don't care about the characters, and the reading gets hard, we don't care to read on, to do the work and find out what happens (particularly since we know, if we've read Pynchon before, that nothing is going to happen). Stephenson's characters, for all their nerdy quirks, have more blood. Which is why I'm now committed to reading the 3,000 pages of his Baroque Cycle before circling back to Against the Day.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Movies: Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Judd Apatow simply is the new humor, and even though he technically had nothing to do with this movie (which is actually much better than your average Judd Apatow movie, being ever-so-slightly more restrained), writer/director Kevin Smith admitted that he expected audiences would think that he did—which didn't seem to bother Smith at all. It's clear from start (the stick-figure ad campaign reminisces of the "I hate you Sarah Marshall" one) to finish (full-frontal flaccid male nudity) that Apatow has seeped into Smith's comic consciousness, and perhaps pushed out some of the more arty, intellectual inclinations (I'm thinking Clerks here, the definitive Kevin Smith movie), but while certain Apatow-tendencies headline (Seth Rogen, of course), the classic Kevin Smith touches (Jason Mewes' Jay, who's finally cut his hair, but hasn't changed his voice) are still what make the movie.

Zack and Miri (Rogen and the Elisabeth Shue-reminiscent Elizabeth Banks) play long-time platonic pals and roommates having a quarter-life financial (and social) crisis. The night of their ten-year high school reunion, they lose their water, power, and heat, and then make fools of themselves in front of their old classmates. Over bottles of beer at the bar (don't ask me how they can pay for those, but not their rent), Zack gets the brilliant idea that they can make a quick buck by shooting a cheap porno and marketing it to all their classmates. For some reason, Miri eventually agrees, and they hold open auditions to cobble together a cast/crew consisting of their selves, Zack's coffee-chain coworker (who puts up his flat-screen money for a camera instead in exchange for the title of Producer and the concomitant rights to hold "titty" auditions), a few random guys (one of whom is the woody Lester (nee Jay), another a soft, short boy who will happily take it up the ass from a stripper chick wearing a strap-on), and a few random girls (said stripper with strap-on, and another stripper with the cheapest, most embarrassing boob job you've ever seen, who refuses to give blow jobs but likes anal).

The group makes the best of some minor mishaps (the original screenplay is a Sci-Fi: Star Whores) before realizing that the best place to film the movie is at Zack's chain coffee shop. They shoot a number of scenes between the more experienced actors before Zack and Miri make their debut together—a scene much more romantic than sexual, and lacking in all the special angles and noises and nonsense that make porn, well, porn. They have clearly now discovered their love for each other, but rather than living happily ever after (because that wouldn't be any fun!), they let themselves be controlled by embarrassment and jealousy; that night the cast has a little party and one of the strippers hits on Zack (with Miri's approval, of course). The two go upstairs together and Miri is sure they have sex. The next day, back on set, Miri wants to do her sex scene with Lester, and Zack gets so angry that he storms off. The movie never gets finished. When Miri goes home to find Zack, his room has been stripped bare.

Of course in the end they are reunited with the help of their friends and they confess their love and cry and hug and everything ends nicely. But there's nothing to talk about there—all romantic comedies must end this way. What there is to talk about is the thing that leads to their separation: that shit-testing that women do to men (if Miri didn't want Zack to sleep with the stripper, she should have told the stripper so, and, more importantly, she should have told Zack, instead of testing him) and that icing-out that men do to women (if Zack didn't want Miri to sleep with Lester, he should have told her, and told her that he loved her, instead of lying and telling her that their sex had been meaningless, just acting). And the lessons to be learned (men and women are shitty to each other because they are frightened and confused) are Apatow lessons, not Smith lessons.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Art: Drawing Babar at the Morgan Library

Because my parents initially met, and then later partially raised me, in San Francisco's now-defunct Cafe Babar, where the back room's store-front window was painted with a giant elephant in a green suit escorted by an elegant gray-haired woman in a black floor-length gown, I was always meant to like the Babar books. But I never did. I didn't like elephants, I didn't like old ladies, and I didn't like France.

But the show at the Morgan Library, which displays the original drawings and mock-ups for each page of Jean de Brunhoff's Histoire de Babar, all done on creamy paper in muted pencil colors and fat, fanciful French script, with pieces cut and pasted atop each other as the story evolved in the creator's mind, presents something very different than the garishly-colored, inelegant books presented to me as a child. Perhaps American booksellers don't think that children's eyes can distinguish between non-primary reds and greens. Or perhaps I was indeed too young to appreciate the jaunty curve of Babar's ears and trunk, or the sad single tear he cries when he loses his mother, or the exuberant absurdity of an elephant riding the elevators up and down at Galleries Lafayette.

Of course, all the new-found delight is sucked right out when the adult mind realizes that Babar is a thinly-veiled piece of colonialist propaganda (the orphaned African elephant comes to Paris, where he feels lost and awkward, until a kind old lady (France, of course) helps him, first by bathing him (oh, the insulting assumption that natives are dirty), then by clothing him in a suit (Babar wants to terribly to look like everyone else around him), then by letting him drive a car (it's not just the American Dream, but the dream of the civilized world—you have, perhaps, noticed that everyone in China and India now wants one), and finally, by going back home to bring more of his friends and family to France, where he gets married (in a government- and church-sanctioned ceremony complete with white gown and veil) and can therefore become a productive French citizen. I've heard told that Winnie the Pooh is England's own colonialist children's story; what a disappointment.

But still, the original drawings are gorgeous, and French is always better in storybooks than academic post-structuralist tomes. If we can forget about what it means for Babar to have his portrait taken in his new clothes, if we can stop ourselves from uttering the word "bourgeoisie," we can still enjoy a beautifully-drawn story about an elephant in Paris.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Movies: Synecdoche, New York

I’m stymied. Appropriately so. When one is confounded at the prospect of writing about a movie that is about the confounding prospect of making art whilst living life, and making that art relevant in light of that life—in light of all life—one knows that the filmmaker did his job well. If he hadn’t, one could simply write, “The so-called hero is an impotent loser to afraid of his own demons to do anything worthwhile,” or, “the filmmaker sets up a straw-man turned effigy, at whom he can coyly poke fun and then cruelly burn without ever investing that straw-man with his own frustrated soul.” But one can’t, because Kaufman did invest that hero with his own frustrated soul, and his hero does do something worthwhile, even if, at the end, he (the hero, not to be confused with the writer/director, though to do so is tempting) feels that he’s failed.

There are one million brilliant details, some larger than others, that beg to be discussed, which is another source of my fear of the insurmountable, which of course dovetails nicely with the hero’s own fear of the insurmountable. He is (he being Caden Cotard, the small-town theater director played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman), from the moment the film begins with the morning alarm of his clock radio, tackling an insurmountable task: to live an (artistically) meaningful life in the face of (eventual) impending death. Kaufman, of course, lulls us into believing that this will be a tender, domestic existential crisis; Caden’s precociously neurotic daughter Olive worries from the toilet that her poo is green, and from the backseat of the family car that she “has” blood (“I don’t want blood!” she desperately cries), and his beautifully aging wife Adele Lack (Catherine Keener) paints postage-stamp sized female nudes with a Yuskavage-meets-Bacon sensibility, so small that viewers must wear plastic magnifying lenses perched on their nose-bridges. Meanwhile, the voluptuous ticket-taker Hazel (Samantha Morton) who works at Caden’s box office seems to have a thing for him, in spite of his chubby nervousness, and their encounters are bathed in buttery, mellifluous light.

Our suspicion of the strain on the Cotard-Lack relationship is confirmed by the blonde caricature of their marital counselor (Jung meets Paris Hilton meets Caden’s curious subconscious), on whose couch Adele admits to fantasizing about Caden’s death (in front of Caden), which would give her a guilt-free chance to start over. Meanwhile, Caden doesn’t feel well; a freak plumbing accident lands him in the hospital with a headwound, from where he’s sent to an ophthalmologist for improperly-dilating pupils, from where he’s sent to a neurologist. Living cysts appear under the withered skin of his calves; pustules break out on his jowls. Adele misses opening night of his play (Death of a Salesman, in which all the roles are experimentally cast with young actors), and then decides to go to her opening in Berlin without him, taking their daughter with her. They don’t come back.

And it’s here that this film morphs, from a very intelligent and poignant indie-household drama, to a recognizable Kaufman mobius-opus. It is, without question, his grandest project to date. Caden finds himself served with papers, and while we’re all expecting divorce documents from Adele, who has been gone without contact for months now, who is famous, and who has a five-page, full-color spread in the cinematic equivalent of Vanity Fair, featuring the banner quotation, “I’m at a point in my life where I only want to surround myself with healthy people,” he finds instead an announcement that he’s won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant (which, if you don’t know, is a gift of $500,000 intended to allow the artist to pursue his or her work without compromises). With this, he decides to stage a new play, of his own writing, to address the entire ebb and flow of life and death and desire and disappointment and hope and fear and frustration and anxiety. There is no script yet, but he begins to cast his core group of actors in roles that echo the figures in his life. He has, meanwhile, tried to staunch the Adele-inspired bleeding of his heart with the attentions of Claire Keen (Michelle Williams), the na├»ve and ebullient actress who idolizes him; they marry and have a daughter, but it goes poorly; Caden’s heart belongs, in part, to Adele and Olive in Berlin, and, in part, to Hazel, whom he tried to bed, but too soon, finding himself on his back like a quivering, beached whale, pale and impotent and crying, while the light suddenly sharpened, showing Hazel’s heavy flesh, the frowsy kinks of hair, the lines in her sad, sullied face (she looks at that moment like nothing so much as a Courbet painting).

Caden goes to Berlin, but is sent away by Adele’s old friend Maria (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who has taken over his own role in Olive’s new, German life. He returns to work on his play, now developing in a ruined warehouse somewhere in New York, in which he’s building a replica of his apartment building, filled with actors replicating his life and all the lives around him. He acquiescently casts as himself a bespectacled thin man, who towers over him, who has been following him for years (it’s true—we saw his frightful shadow through the curtains when Caden and Hazel tried to make love, or standing on the corner watching, back when Adele still lived at home; his name is Sammy). He casts a Hazel (since she’s taken over as his assistant, and is so deeply now a part of his life, though they’ve not tried to become lovers again, and she has been married, birthing five boys of her own, the whole family living in the eternally flaming house she bought in a tenderly literalized fire sale), and soon it comes time to cast. But Sammy falls in love with the real Hazel rather than the equivalent actress; meanwhile Caden goes to bed with the equivalent actress the night of his father’s funeral, because Hazel is busy (having dinner, as it turns out, with Sammy). When Caden and Hazel rekindle their love for each other, Sammy jumps off the mock-apartment building’s roof; he’s dead, and a new Caden must be cast. The real Caden and Hazel, meanwhile, seem to have at last found completion; they go to bed in her burning house with the fragility and weight of age, and the next morning Hazel is dead, from smoke inhalation.

And so Caden longs again. He has been spending his nights cleaning the loft where Adele now lives, posing as her cleaning woman Ellen. Soon, he moves into her walk-in closet at her behest. She is never home, though she leaves him notes, leaves the shower running with steam, invites him to stay, in that sexy, breaking voice, for a fresh pot of coffee, without ever materializing. And so Caden casts an Ellen in his play, and when he begins to break down, the actress takes over for him (not the role of Caden in the play, but the actual place of Caden in his life), so that he can be Ellen (not Ellen in the play, but real, actual Ellen) in his real, actual life, though time has passed, and the elevators in the loft are no longer running, and the halls are filled with rats (the apartment’s interior remains timelessly pristine). Olive has long since died, from an infection of the floral tattoos that covered her entire body (painted by her mentor-turned-lesbian-lover Maria)—Caden was there at her deathbed, years after finding her dancing nude in a plexiglass box in a Berlin basement, speaking to her through translation headphones (she spoke only German), when she demanded that he apologize for abandoning her in order to spend time with his homosexual lover Eric (which confession has nothing to do with the truth, but which he repeats nevertheless, since she’s dying and demands it)—and then did not forgive him. And so, he is completely alone, nested in the corner of Adele’s closet like a pale, hairless rat himself.

All this while, the play has grown and grown and grown; nearly twenty years have passed, and the set has expanded from a warehouse to two warehouses, to warehouses one through nine; the play has become a compound (not at all unlike the grounds of an entire movie studio), on which everyone has a particular, pedestrian role that nevertheless burgeons with all the potential beauty and grotesquerie and sadness and joy of life. But the day comes that Caden leaves Adele’s apartment to find that everyone on set is dead; he has been aging and getting more and more sick, and less and less mobile, having seizures, then losing control of one leg and needing a cane, then needing a suitcase-sized machine to sleep. But he has outlived his entire cast and crew, except the one woman cast as Ellen’s mother in a childhood flashback; they sit on a couch together in the damp morning air on the wasted lot, and he asks to rest his head on her shoulder. The film increases in brightness until the images completely washes out, and the film is over.

So what is there for me to say about all of that, when Kaufman has said it all in the very film itself? We are driven to make art, but we are afraid. We know that we won’t last, and we know that it won’t either, but we are so attached to ourselves and to it, our art; we want it to be great, to be all-encompassing, to purge us of our every intention—not even just our mere actions. We want to make it, but we can’t—it’s too big, we haven’t the time, the strength; and it is logistically not tenable. But how else can we fill our empty spaces, make right what we did wrong, if not by reliving it, in our mind’s eye, with layers of punishing self-criticism—frustrated with circumstances, frustrated about being frustrated, frustrated for being frustrated about being frustrated. It is crippling. We are stymied.