Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Movies: Gran Torino

I was certain that this movie was going to suck. I laughed so hard during the trailer that I gave myself a stomach-ache. What could be more preposterous than Clint Eastwood in his traditional vigilante role, only this time pulling guns (or just pointed fingers) at a rainbow coalition of teenaged gangstas?

Turns out Clint has a better sense of irony than I thought. At long last, a screenplay (courtesy Nick Schenk) that, for all its racist epithets (which is all anyone seems able to talk about), flows, feels real. Eastwood plays a Korean War vet, freshly widowered, with two spoiled sons, a sprinkling of spoiled grandchildren, and a mint-condition Gran Torino that he helped build when he worked at the Ford plant. He keeps his home, his car, and his guns ship-shape, with no company but an all-American yellow lab and a cooler full of (unironic) PBR cans. He's also the last white man in the neighborhood.

This man becomes an unintentional hero simply by protecting his own lawn at gunpoint; the next morning, his stairs are covered with gifts from the Asian families of the neighborhood. The plucky girl next door, Sue, forces a friendship, enabling the widower vet to also become mentor to her shy and aimless brother Thao. Clint and his guns save Thao from his gangster cousins, then Sue from a trio of black thugs, salivating after quickly dispatching her white wanna-be thug wanna-be boyfriend (this is probably the film's best scene: honest, wry, terribly funny, and even a bit scary).

What he can't save them from is retaliation; not only does their house get shot up, but Thao's face gets burnt with a cigarette, and Sue gets beaten and raped (yes, by her own so-called family). Of course, Clint goes into vigilante mode, but instead of bringing a gun, the man with little left to live for brings only his life, and when he gets shot full of bullets (landing in a none-too-subtle Christ-posture, arms akimbo), all the Asian gangsters get sent to prison, an ending not satisfying for all, but plenty satisfying for me. Thao, of course, inherits the Gran Torino, much to the spoilt granddaughter's dismay.

So maybe there's nothing ironic about the ending; I've actually heard the film called certain variations of cloying, saccharine, sentimental, and improbable. But after a season of cloying, saccharine, sentimental, and improbably films, Gran Torino really does feel refreshing, unflinching. And I don't think it's simply because we're so culturally hypersensitive these days that a slew of sordid soubriquets makes a big bang. I think it's because Eastwood has made about a gazillion movies and by now knows exactly what he's doing.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Movies: Revolutionary Road

I've meant to read this book for years now, and still haven't gotten to it. Nevertheless, I was still able to find the movie disappointing.

Perhaps my hopes were too high. Visually, there is nothing wrong with the picture; the light is buttery and warm on Kate Winslet at home, cool and steely on Leonardo DiCaprio at the train station and in the office. Certain sequences (particularly of all the perfectly choreographed gray and blue and brown hats descending the stairs at Grand Central Terminal) are a bit heavy-handed, but that can, I suppose, be forgiven. But the over-rehearsed delivery of the too-literary screenplay cannot be; Kate and Leo shuttle between giving the sense that they're putting on a stage play (ironic, given that Kate's character is a failed actress) and simply playing house (again ironic, given that the young couple is in a way playing at house). One never quite gets over the fact that one is watching Kate and Leo (rather than Daisy and Frank Wheeler)—disappointing, since we know they are both better than that (cf. Kate in Little Children, in which she plays a ethically-similar role and Leo in The Departed or Catch Me If You Can, protean roles that he plays with intent zest).

Hearing the book described by those who have read it, the story seems to belong to Frank, trapped in a soulless, corporate position despite the ambitions of his youth. But the movie belongs to Daisy, trapped in a house with two children and a third on the way, despite the ambitions of her youth. Frank never knew quite what he wanted to do; Daisy actually wanted to be something (even if wanting to be an actress is something for us to privately smirk about). Frank gets recognized for his work with a promotion; Daisy gets chided for even considering an abortion. Moving to Paris is her idea, an idea with which Frank plays along until it's no longer convenient for him.

I've never considered myself a feminist, but after watching this film, I wanted to go straight to the church of Ortho and thank the gods of contraception on my knees. A friend described the movie's end as "devastating" (Daisy does decide to end her pregnancy, alone at home, and as a result, bleeds to death.)* But I didn't find this devastating at all; in fact, after all the couple's raging arguments, their actually having the third child would be much more devastating. I am, in that sense, rather aligned with the movie's best-written character (and the only one portrayed with any subtlety at all, by Michael Shannon): the clinically-insane John Givings, son of the Wheelers' real estate agent and neighbor (not-so-subtle Kathy Bates). John's mother describes him as "an intellectual," so brings him to the "nice, young Wheelers'" for drinks on his afternoon off from the loony bin. John's turns out to be the only voice of reason, acknowledging that "a lot of people are onto the emptiness, but it takes real guts to acknowledge the hopelessness." He is the one that "curses" Daisy's pregnancy, in a beautifully filmed shot in which the focus melts from him, standing in the background, to Daisy's profile, smoking in the foreground.

My final complaint about the film is another ironic one: Kate and Leo are constantly smoking and drinking, and I feel like the actors use these gestural ticks as a crutch. This is ironic, of course, because Frank and Daisy and every American in the 1950s and probably every person everywhere at every time uses smoking and drinking as a crutch, to pass the time, to suffer through, to silence the ghosts. But the blame likely lies with Mendes, for letting them do it, for lingering everlong on the flaming sticks, the clinking ice cubes. Certainly, these moments create tone, but this movie is not supposed to be an amber-colored tone poem. It's supposed to seethe and suppurate. And most times, the cigarettes are a huge distraction. Daisy and Frank have a knock-out, drag-down fight, and Daisy runs out of the house and into the woods. Frank chases her. She screams. He leaves. She lights a cigarette. Wait. When, in the middle of that knock-out, drag-down fight, did she remember to grab her ciggies and engraved silver lighter as she ran out of the house? Right. Mendes just liked the look of her hand up against her face as she leaned against the tree, as shot from the kitchen window, where Frank watches her. If not smoking, what would she have been doing? Something a bit more nuanced? Never.

And that, ultimately, is the reason this film disappoints: it lacks personal nuance. Daisy and Frank are basically typecast. Because they stand in for the American couple, this is within reason, to a degree, but the result is somewhat airless, stagy. For studies on the American Dream's lack of feasibility, so far as movies go, I will stick with Little Children (would have loved to see Patrick Wilson as Frank instead of Leo; I'm certain it would have been a much more dynamic and credible pair). I'll still give the book a chance, eventually.

*Feminist says, "God forbid she actually has a successful abortion and leaves her husband and two kids behind, moving to Paris on her own, and living happily ever after." It's astounding that traditional media still insists on punishment by the death penalty for women who dare to choose their own sexual and procreative fate.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Books: The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud

When this book came out two years ago, it was on every Best Of list that I read. Critics were foaming at the mouth with praise for its relevance, insisting that no book has ever captured so well the purgatorial zeitgeist of the Boomer's Ivy-educated babies, whose intellects are all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Messud couldn't have been happier; from the very start, she name-checks a canon of literature ranging from War and Peace to Infinite Jest, clearly with the intent of inserting herself into that canon. Unfortunately, her novel isn't up to snuff. She may have fooled the critics, appealing to their superiority by making references (Emerson! Musil!) that they can take pride in recognizing, but rather than creating anything fresh and/or meaningful, she instead writes a chatty, gossipy telenovela about three hip, if directionless, girls (okay, one's a gay guy, but for all of his interests, he might as well be a third woman) on the brink of—OMG—30.

These three friends went to Brown together years ago, but seem to have lost all their steam. Marina has been working on the same book (a kind of pop-dissertation on the historical relevance of children's clothes) for seven years, stymied by, well, the fact that a book is a hard thing to write (and also by the fact that her father is an incredibly famous left-wing journalist; she lives with her parents in their posh CPW apartment). Luckily, she's just met the dashing Ludivic Seely, a kind of Ayn Rand-cum-Oscar Wilde, who's hell-bent on taking New York by storm with his new cultural magazine The Monitor. Danielle is a public television producer who can't get her documentary on Aboriginies pushed through, and instead settles on a program about liposuction procedures gone awry. Her new love interest is. . . Marina's dad. The third musketeer is Julian, a freelance critic forced to take secret temp jobs to make ends meet. At one of these office gigs, he meets David Cohen, a boring but handsome and successful banker, and immediately moves in with him, disappearing from Marina and Danielle's lives.

The first wrench to get thrown into the system is Marina's cousin Bootie, an idealistic college dropout (he who reads Emerson and Musil, and dismisses Infinite Jest) who moves into the CPW apartment to work for Marina's father. There, he becomes disillusioned with his intellectual hero and writes a rabid, slanderous invective, reviewing the man's secret early drafts of a new, philosophical project, pretentiously entitled "How to Live." Seely wants to publish the article in The Monitor, and Marina does not; this is a small problem, as they are getting married.

Luckily, a new wrench destroys everybody's plans: 9/11. I'm certain that The Emperor's Children has also made the Best of 9/11 Literature list (um, ew?) but I'm a bit uncomfortable about using the disaster as a plot device. The argument can be made that the incident did change the course of every New Yorker's life, but I still find it in poor taste that Messud resorts to invoking a historical incident to give her piddling, self-important characters relevance in the real world. Like each of her other pop-intellectual quotations, 9/11 is, in this way, reduced to cultural flotsam, another shred of gossip, another invitation for the supposedly-savvy reader to empathize.

The book's title is an abridged version of the Seely-inspired title of Marina's book: The Emperor's Children Have No Clothes. Ironically enough, it seems that The Emperor's Children has no clothes, either.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Movies: Casino

Well, it's not Goodfellas, but for a movie about Vegas, perhaps it's appropriate that Casino is too big, too bright, and too glammed for its hollow core. Perhaps the otherwise brilliant Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro, whom I like more and more the more I watch him) has to take a dumb gamble on the hard-boiled hustler Ginger McKenna (the hardly compelling Sharon Stone)—every hero has his Achilles' Heel, and blonde broads are an old standby.

And yet. I have an old beef with characters who make mistakes so dreadful that I can't bear to watch. I realize that, in storytelling, no mistake usually means no plot, so what, if not the lucre-loving whore, could bring about Ace's demise? As a Jewish gambling genius installed at the Tangiers by the mafia to generate profits, what, if not the volatile admixture of his ego and that of a head-turner, could push him over the edge? Really, Mr. Pileggi has no choice. So I suppose I forgive him.

And if he and Scorsese couldn't quite make Goodfellas twice, they could take one of the best parts—Joe Pesci as Tommy—and redo it—Joe Pesci as Nicky: just as wild, just as violent, just as riveting. And how my heart does break the first time he makes it with Ginger. Omph. Wow. Brutal.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Movies: Goodfellas

I know I'm a little late to the party, but wow, what a movie. Dare I say I liked it better than the Godfathers? I think I did. I think everything about it is perfect, until the end (rather like The Departed in that sense, when two and a half hours of brilliant movie-making fall apart with a ten second ham-fisted shot of a rat on a banister), when Ray Liotta breaks the fourth wall in the court room—what works in Ferris Bueller is not what works in Goodfellas. Not that Henry Hill and Ferris Bueller don't have tons in common—Hill's surroundings are simply more sinister. We don't want him palling around with us.

Though he's only half Italian, the teenaged Henry Hill idolizes the Sicilian gangsters across the street. Much to his parent's chagrin (Ferris, anyone?) the sweet-smiling, fast-talking kid gets himself employed parking cars and hawking stolen cigarettes, until he gets his first suit, gets "pinched" (but let off), and becomes a bonified gangster. From there, it's straight to the top: money, women, cigars, booze, and poker games. So long, mom and dad, hello smoldering Jewess and the Copacabana. When he does get sent to prison, it's with a few of his best buddies, and they use their connections to smuggle in salamis and bottles of wine, making stunning pasta dinners every night, mincing garlic cloves with razorblades.

And then it's the 70s, and Henry's back on the streets, but he has a little bit of a drug problem, along with a mistress, the most gauche home that you imagine, and a Pater Familias who tells him that he'd better lay off the drugs and fast. But Henry needs the money and he has a couple of buddies happy to help (the loose cannon Tommy (Joe Pesci) and the smooth, trustworthy snake Jimmy (Robert De Niro)). Everyone's rich, and everything's good (except that Pater Familias Paulie (Paul Sorvino) has disowned Henry for staying in the drug game). And then things get dicey again; Jimmy thinks he's going to get "made" and instead he gets "whacked" (saw that one coming). Jimmy makes to hurt Henry's wife, but she knows better and gets away. And, in one of the best drug-addled chase scenes of all time (are there that many?) a very hopped-up Henry Hill runs errands around the neighborhood, trying to make a pasta dinner while preparing a big shipment, followed by a police helicopter, stealing glances in all his mirrors and through the windscreen from behind those black plastic Ray-Bans. (Ferris?)

Of course the gig is up and when Henry's finally arrested, he has no real choice but to rat out the whole gang, going into the witness protection program with his wife, moving to the middle of nowhere where the pasta is "egg noodles with ketchup" (bascially the most depressing thing ever, even for a non-Italian).

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Movies: The Wrestler

Darren Aronofsky: the first go-to dark director who hasn't disappointed me this year (of course, he disappointed me with The Fountain, so he's not golden, but that's not what this is about). You've got to hand it to a guy for making a movie so depressing that the happiest possible ending is to kill off the protagonist. That's real dedication to the truth.

Backing up: Randy "The Ram" (a disturbingly on-point Mickey Rourke) had his glory days as a pro-Wrestler in the 1980s. Twenty years later, he's still wearing his hair bleach blonde and long, and he's still trying to get by wrestling, supplementing his income working stock at a grocery store. When he gets locked out of his trailer for being late on rent, he sleeps in his van. He has an estranged daughter and nurses a crush on an aging stripper (Marisa Tomei, whose animal body is far too hot to be that of an actual aging stripper). Today's wrestling matches are brutal, involving staple guns and broken glass and barbed wire and roach spray to the eyes. Then he has a heart attack and the doctor tells him he can't wrestle anymore, and he cancels the big upcoming rematch with the Ayatollah.

But things are looking up—the stripper convinces him to make amends with his daughter, and they go for a walk on the abandoned boardwalk he brought her to when she small. He cancels the big rematch coming up and takes extra hours at the grocery store, working in the deli. He asks the stripper out for a real date.

But Randy's always been a fuck-up. There's a drunken night out and he misses a dinner date with his daughter; she refuses to ever speak to him again. The stripper refuses to see him outside the club (problems of her own), he cuts his hand on the meat slicer at the deli, and he realizes that he has nothing to live for but wrestling. The rematch is on. The stripper tries to make amends, but it's too late. He goes into the ring; he fights. He feels another heart attack coming on, but he won't stop. He climbs the ropes for his signature move—the Ram Jam—and as he leaps off, the screen goes black: death.

Aside from its philosophical implications, the film is visually viscerally brutal to boot. Aronofsky has always been completely unflinching, leaving it to me to close my eyes during Requiem For a Dream's needle sequences and, now, during most of The Wrestler's wrestling scenes. I readily admit to being squeamish, but it's key that the director is not: seeing Randy's opponent attach dollar bills to his own forehead using a staple gun, whether I can bear to watch it or not, is the ultimate indication of the depths to which our hero has sunk. When Randy puked after that match, I almost did so myself. That is potent filmmaking.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Books: Falconer, by John Cheever

Here is a prison drama easily taken at face-value: the book begins when Farragut arrives at prison, and ends when he escapes. We get some but not much of his back-story, and a curiously detached access to his emotional state while in prison. Farragut is a junkie who curses the guards when they neglect to give him his methadone, but he consistently seems a sane and rational narrator; he is in prison for killing his brother, but recounted in a flashback, the "murder" is perhaps an accident. He is educated enough that he's given a job at a typewriter. He takes a homosexual lover, but with little fanfare: no violence, no doubt, but simple acquiescence to circumstance—it's better than the ravaging loneliness he felt before.

One should always hesitate before reading an author's work autobiographically, but I do think that Cheever's alcoholism and concomitant stint in rehab immediately prior to the writing of this novel is relevant—it was the closest to first-hand experience of prison life Cheever had, and all the frustrations (isolation, deprivation, infantalization, loss of control, lack of privacy, and of course withdrawal) of rehab are similar to those of prison. Too, Cheever's own bisexuality likely explains the ease with which Farragut succumbs to such a relationship (where a less sexually-evolved male writer could only portray homosexual relations as rape, a struggle with power rather than loneliness).

There's something very clean and simple about Cheever's writing—it doesn't call attention to itself, but only tells the story. The story, too, is small; there's a prison uprising, but it's at a neighboring prison, and the incarcerated at Falconer merely hear about it on the radio, and make a half-hearted attempt to join in solidarity by lighting one mattress on fire. Nothing here is epic, grandiose, timeless, melodramatic. Farragut eventually makes his escape by zipping himself into a body bag, leaving the dead man in his bunk, and this is the greatest symbol we're given—a rather functional one at that. As much a fan as I am of the hyper-inflated post-modern novel, I appreciate Cheever's lean functionality, his suppressed rage, his matter-of-fact-ness. There's a silent realization of our choicelessness in most matters, which few novelists—control-freaks most—constantly deny.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Movies: Doubt

Another day, another dollar, another disappointment*

I knew by watching the trailer that this film would be ridiculous; there's simply no way to invest billowing black robes with suspense. As a Catholic school girl myself (of the 80s, rather than the 60s) I had a very Sr. Aloysius (Meryl Streep)-like nun as a fourth grade teacher (who insisted that "often" be pronounced with a hard 't,' until I, filled at that age with moxie, demonstrated otherwise with the classroom's dictionary). We didn't have the luck (or the worry, depending) of having a Father Flynn, though there were a few like him at my high school.

I say "like him" in a good way, rather than a damning—since everyone must have an opinion, mine is that he didn't do it. Certainly he could have, but director John Patrick Shanley doesn't stack enough clues against him; the only moment in which we see him in bad light is at the dinner table, carving red meat, red in the face with wine, and the only sin there is gluttony, one that doesn't dovetail neatly with pederasty.

I usually have trouble separating Philip Seymour Hoffman from his roles, and this one was no different. Seeing his red face chuckling piggy-like over meat and wine, hearing his smug explanation for the length of his fingernails, I thought, as I always do, of Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the role for which the cinema gods created Phil Hoffman. Meryl Streep, for all everyone will coo that she owns her role, also looks like layperson playing dress-up. The crankiness she nails, the self-righteousness as well, but something is still amiss. There's something flat, dare I say lay-person like in the accent of her whine: New Jersey rather than New England. Amy Adams, delightful child actors aside, is the real performer in the film, transitioning from doe-eyed to nervous to shrill to wistful as the plot, which she's inadvertently set in motion, turns around her (I found myself wanting to see her play Brioni in Atonement, a role much the same, but with a bit more literary depth).

In the end, Doubt feels much too short, too small, too quiet, and too stagy. There's no reason why a film made after a stage production should be as shallow; film can do more, and its powers should be harnessed every time.

*Actually, I saw this movie on the same day, and the same dollar, as this one (another dramatic changeling), because I knew they would both suck. I was planing to watch Gran Turino, which will also suck, on the same day and the same dollar, but it was playing on a different floor. Bastards.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Movies: Frost/Nixon

Here's one of those movies that people feel they ought to see, but don't necessarily feel they want to see. Because I allow much of my life to be ruled by oughts, and because it was snowing, and because I was sick, and because my office closed early thanks to the inclement weather, I went to see it. It was, like David Frost's hair, well-primped, but on close inspection disappointingly thin, ultimately fluffy and insubstantial.

What I'd wanted—what I'd been promised, in reviews of both the film and the stage production on which it's based—was meat: an energetic, tooth-and-claw, information-rich exchange between two potent personalities. What I got, instead, was the window-dressing around the exchange: a pretty Diane Sawyer look-alike in giant tortoise-shell glasses, a James Reston Jr. as disheveled as he is disgruntled, and a sensuous Rebecca Hall as Caroline Cushing, Frost's cushion-for-pushin' of the moment. The plot suddenly seemed hackneyed: playboy Frost has a big idea but almost loses the opportunity to change history because he's too busy partying; then, a taste of failure bucks him up, he spends a few all-nighters studying, listens to his colleagues, and makes history. Nixon, a curious cross between a raging bison and an affable grandfather, ultimately concedes in a moment that, in the context of the film, lacks the impact it had historically.

Ultimately, this film is supposed to be about the leading men's performances, but David Frost seems a mere rework of Martin Sheen's Tony Blair in The Queen, and Frank Langella (who is he?) does not define Nixon the way, say, Val Kilmer defines Jim Morrison in The Doors, or Ben Kingsley Mahatma in Gandhi. I didn't even live through the Watergate scandal, but I remain unconvinced. If anyone is successfully impersonating anyone here, it's Rebecca Hall impersonating Eva Green. A small shot does go out to Kevin Bacon for his excellent portrayal of Jack Brennan, Nixon's Chief of Staff, and who has the best (and best-delivered) line of the film: "I think a man's shoes should have laces, Sir."

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Movies: Amarcord

Do not watch foreign movies without plots when you are sleepy. Nothing lulls one so gently as a gravelly voice, reminiscing in Italian, even in technicolor. You will find yourself battling your eyelids, and you will lose. You will demonstrate "basketball head," that bouncing effect one sometimes sees on the subway at four in the morning, when one is vivacious and drunk, but the basketball heads, bouncing, are exhausted from the night shift. You will miss parts of the movie.

Indeed I saw enough to know that it's better than the other Fellini movie I've seen (La Dolce Vita), but not enough to warrant the director's reputation. Certainly, it's funny, in that particularly Italian way—families that fight over dinner, children that misbehave at school, hairy-backed men that leer at big-bosomed women, and men that climb trees and cry out for hours "Voglio una donna!" (I want a woman!). But, without much more than a wandering narrator to bind all the vignettes together, Fellini risks putting his less dedicated viewers to sleep.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Movies: Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In)

Unquestionably the best movie of the year, and additionally the best vampire movie I've ever seen, this Swedish film borders on aesthetic perfection with its minimal, frozen landscape and equally snow-white protagonist, a toe head boy so white as to be bloodless. All these varying shades of pale, of course, serve to show all the more starkly the careful siphoning of blood, funneled into a canister from a carefully strung up corpse in the first "violent" scene; it is, in fact, so clinical, so neat, so Swedish, that it hardly seems violent at all, and it then makes the actual violent scenes—the pouncing, open-mouthed attacks—heart-stopping: these attacks leave a dark red mess in the snow.

This is as much a coming-of-age tale as a vampire story; the toe headed Oskar is bullied at school and we first see him pressed to the frosty glass of his apartment, his soft, pale chest bare, wearing sagging white briefs and fondling a small knife he keeps hidden in his room. He is play-acting, hissing "squeal like a pig!" (c.f. Deliverance), imagining revenge. He spends frosty evenings alone in his sterile apartment building's frozen courtyard, where a snowy jungle gym offers little diversion, jabbing at the trees with his knife, hissing "squeal like a pig!" It is there that Eli appears, she who will become his friend, in spite of their differences. We know her secret before he does, but he eventually finds out. He will save her life, and she will save his in turn. Eventually, they will leave that town together.

But here is the existentially brilliant twist. At the film's beginning, an old man is Eli's caretaker. He goes out nights, strings up bodies, and bleeds them into a canister to feed her. But in this new town, people are suspicious. The dead are missed. The old man is caught, and he disfigures his face with acid before he can be identified. Wheezing in a hospital bed, he provides Eli her last meal when she comes to say goodbye.

At the film's end, we realize that Oskar will be Eli's new caretaker. We see him again, pressed nearly naked to the glass window, and the film makes an elegant circle. If the old man wasn't Oskar per se, we know that Oskar's fate will be the same. He will spend his life procuring for Eli, and suddenly their friendship feels a bit less special, a bit more troublesome. We wonder how many boys Eli has "seduced" (in this startlingly unerotic way).

Earlier, I said that the movie "borders" on perfection; the only reason it isn't truly perfect is a scene that could still be edited out with no damage done to plot continuity. One of Eli's victims, a woman, doesn't immediately die, but instead finds herself thirsting for blood. She scrabbles at the snow where a body had fallen days before, trying to lap up the frozen leftovers. One evening, she enters the cozy apartment of a grandmotherly man who keeps cats—scores of them. Recognizing evil, each one arches its back, hisses, and, then pounces, until the woman is covered in howling, biting, clawing cats, and she runs from the room, screaming and grasping at their clinging bodies. This scene is so poorly executed (the cats look mechanical, unreal) that it threatens the credibility of the rest of the film (which, for a vampire movie, is surprisingly credible—pedestrian, even). That said, the film is so otherwise stunning that it saves itself.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Movies: Fatal Attraction

Fatal Attraction is, no contest, the absolute worst movie I've ever seen (n.b. I have never seen Basic Instinct or Indecent Proposal). Aside from the fact that we simply can't believe that Michael Douglas' character would cheat on his beautiful, touchable wife (Anne Archer) with the disturbingly manly, flat-chested, perma-frosted lunatic played by Glenn Close, once he has, we can't believe that she could fall so instantly for him, demanding that he leave his family and start a new one with her. We might believe that she'd call the house endlessly, hanging up when the wife answers, but we can't believe that she would kidnap their daughter, or kill their daughter's rabbit and leave it boiling on the stove top, or break into their house and try to kill Michael Douglas in the shower with a kitchen knife. I am generally the first in a room to proclaim that "girls are crazy," (my personal and contemporary take on "hell has no fury. . .") but I draw the line at boiling rabbits. That scene, which cuts from boiling pot to empty hutch, to mom opening pot lid to daughter running toward empty hutch, to mother's screaming face to daughter's screaming face, and back and forth between screams, is probably one of the top ten hokiest horror moments in the entire history of film. It's so horrible it's almost brilliant, but it's not enough to make midnight movie status. Flashdance might be so bad it's good, but this is just plain old bad.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Movies: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Here is another case of a tough director making a sappy movie strung together with the faulty flashback device. Worse, it's a case of a screenwriter taking a perfectly poignant short story that meditates on existential truths and inflating it to the point of bursting with all varieties of Hollywood/fairy tale (for aren't they the same?) nonsense, star-crossed lovers in particular.

The most serious flaw with Benjamin Button is the structure: in an attempt to tell the life story of a man born old, who grows younger until he quietly passes away as a baby in swaddling clothes at the age of 80, the screenwriter resorts to the favored technique of the magical-real epic: the reading of the hero's story by a tangentially-related character (in this case Button's daughter, now a woman in her 40s, a smoker eating jell-o snack cups in a hospital room as she watches her mother's wheezing death while Hurricane Katrina roils outside the windows). As I've explained before, this structure creates a "dunking" effect, in which the audience is plunged repeatedly into the waters of the story only to be pulled out, sputtering, back to the "present," the "real," the hospital room. We do not enjoy the sensation.

Worse, each dunk serves as an instant fast-forward to another "chapter"—for Benjamin, another age, for the world around him, another society—so that director Fincher invests his energy in creating 5-15 minute lifestyle montages, rather than ever probing his characters for depth. Epic, and its sweeping grandiosity, is almost mocked, since Fincher gives us the encapsulated versions of five big-budget Hollywood films in one: the antebellum Southern black caretaker drama, the salty sea-faring adventure, the WWII tragedy, the 1960s love-in (complete with escape by motorcycle), and the Indian self-discovery adventure (and there are probably a few more I'm not presently recollecting).

After 159 very long minutes, what we have is less a sense of Button, his ageless love for recurring partner Daisy, or any deeper understanding of the human condition, so much as a demonstration of the kind of filmic scenography a big budget can buy, or (less sympathetically) a parade of the cliches on which writers rely when innovation is outside of their means. If this movie is successful, it will definitively confirm my fear that the average moviegoer desperately wants these cliches, is as comforted by them as the manual laborer by his Bud, and the sorority girl by her boyfriend's diamond: when their expectations are not subverted, nor exceeded, but simply met.

Had, say, Charlie Kaufman written this screenplay, we could rest assured that Daisy's name would have remained Hildegarde, and that Benjamin, as he grew young, would grow as dissatisfied with her as Fitzgerald suggests. For the essence of Fitzgerald's story is that everything in life—intelligence, success, power, beauty, pride, love—is fleeting, whether one ages backward or forward. This film, flirting with literary sacrilege, threatens precisely the opposite, that the soul and its bind to another are timeless, a dangerous fairy-tale indeed.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Books: As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner

Though this book had a few magical passages, I’m still waiting for the Faulkner bug to bite. Nothing in his oeuvre, thus far, has compared to the sensation of reading his novella The Bear, which I did in high school; since then, I’ve started but not finished The Sound and the Fury, fought through Light in August and Sanctuary, and now finished As I Lay Dying without holding onto anything more than a tone, a dusty hopelessness, a repressed sorrow.

Here, we have a poor Southern family, whose matriarch has died. Her husband is intent on bringing her body back to her family’s home to bury it there, perhaps because he had promised to do it, perhaps because he doesn’t want to pay for the plot to do it locally. There are five children—the pragmatic Cash, a carpenter who builds her coffin himself, outside her window while she’s dying, the child Vardaman, who continually insists “my mother is a fish,” the hot-headed Jewel, who works nights to earn enough money to buy himself a horse and consequently can’t stay awake days to work his own family’s farm, the “curious” Darl, who eventually ends up in a home for the insane, though he seems the most sane of them all, and the girl, Dewey Dell, who finds herself with a pregnancy to be rid of. The five of them, with their father Anse, take to the road with their mother Addie in her coffin on a wagon, traveling day after day toward her hometown. A storm has ruined all the bridges, and the body begins to stink, bringing vultures. Still, Anse refuses to bury her anywhere but her home. All the townspeople they encounter shake their heads, try to talk sense into Anse, but he won’t listen, nor will he eat, nor will he sleep. The family refuses to “be beholden” to anyone, and refuse any greater hospitality than a barn to sleep in.

It’s while sleeping in a barn, when Addie’s been dead eight days, that Darl tries to burn the barn down, to end the mad journey. Instead, Jewel saves the coffin from the flames, and the family presses on—after sending Darl to the asylum. They do eventually reach their destination, and bury the body. Anse immediately finds another woman, and introduces her to his four remaining children; the novel ends there.

I think it’s fair to say that Faulkner is generally esteemed more for his style than his content, but his various narrators and mysticism-infused stream-of-consciousness tends to obfuscate his content, so that tone is the only thing that lasts—a haziness, an uncertainty, a rumor of disgrace. I’ve yet to decide whether this is an achievement or failure. Fame aside, I've yet to decide whether I like it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Movies: Deliverance

I almost always only watch movies at the theatre, because I don’t have a television and my laptop’s screen is particularly small. There’s a long list of old movies I want to see, but I am patient, and I wait for them to come to the theatre; the important ones usually do. But a visiting friend talked me into renting the DVD of Deliverance, and then left me alone to watch it. And so I experienced this film in a very intimate way, postcard-sized, on my burning lap, the sound wired into my ears by penetrating, plug-like buds.

If any movie should be watched this way, this is the one. Scaled down to the size of my two hands, each frame can be studied whole; they are all masterpieces, perfectly composed, perfectly framed. The calm, dark Cahulawassee River pushes through the center of the screen, carrying our four avatars downstream on an adventure; outdoorsman Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is intent on showing his more pansy friends what it means to actually live life. And then, everything goes to all to hell very fast.

The four friends are in two canoes; one has gotten ahead and pulls over to the shore for a bit. The two men walk up into the woods a bit and are confronted by filthy, toothless, gun-toting locals. One of the Oakies ties Ed (Jon Voight) to a tree and taunts him with a knife, making him watch while his friend Bobby is toyed with by the other aggressor, made to “squeal like a pig,” and is anally raped. Before Ed and Bobby are both killed, Lewis and Drew arrive on shore and Lewis dispatches Bobby’s aggressor with an arrow through the chest (Lewis, of course, is the kind of man whose weapon of choice is a crossbow; in a telling earlier scene, early in the morning and alone, Ed borrows the crossbow and tries to shoot a deer, but chokes). The second aggressor runs away, and the four men briefly argue about what to do with the dead body. Drew, the bespectacled, guitar-playing voice of societal ethics, insists that they find police and report the incident. Lewis, the earth-bound pragmatist, insists that they bury the body, row away, and never speak a word about it again. The others side with Lewis, the four bury the body, and return to their boats, the adventure ruined.

But that is not the adventure’s end. The men now have the increasing rapids of the river to contend with, and at a very strong break, the despondent Lewis, who hadn’t put on his life jacket, disappears when his wooden canoe is destroyed. The three remaining men pile onto the surviving metal canoe and keep paddling, with only survival on their mind, but they are shot at from a distance. Lewis is immobilized, Bobby has been sodomized, Drew has drowned, and it is left to Ed to climb a wall of rock, crossbow slung over his shoulder, to hunt down the toothless local they assume is shooting at them from the shore. Here is the most stunning night lighting I’ve seen in cinema, blue and chill and throbbing nevertheless, as innocent-eyed Voight hangs from a rope, clinging to fistfuls of rock, in a cold sweat. At the top of the cliff, he succeeds in his assassination, but realizes perhaps too late that the man he’s killed is likely not their previous aggressor, and getting an arrow through his own chest in the process. But he returns to the boat, and he, Bobby, and Lewis eventually make it to their destination, noticing Drew’s mangled, drowned body on the way.

Back on shore, before they can pile back into their station wagons, they are treated by the local doctor, and grilled by the local police. Their agreed-to story, though thin, holds, and they are left to leave with a warning never to come back.

Nothing, I think, has been so simultaneously beautiful and violent as this, so lulling and distressing, so dark and remorseless, but so seductive and compelling. They don't make movies like this these days, this brutal, this gritty.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Books: Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, by Philip K. Dick

It has been my intention to read a PK Dick novel for three or four years now, but we already know that my ever-increasing list of things to read is self-defeating. I chose this Dick novel at random, mostly for the ring of its long and poignant title, and found it to be a perfectly serviceable sci-fi dystopian novel; famous television host and crooner Jason Taverner finds himself suddenly non-existent according not only to extensive government records (all of his ID cards have disappeared, and when he’s picked up by the cops, they find no Jason Taverner records on file), but also to the world—once a household name with hundreds of thousands of adoring fans, no one—not even previous friends, colleagues, lovers—recognizes him by face or name; he is completely alone. A slightly imbalanced young waif, who falsifies IDs and then finks to the police about it for a living, comes to his aid, though he’s not certain all the while whether she’s for him or against him; the entire world seems to be a conspiracy, and for a moment, he wonders whether he’s been living in a drugged dream, fantasizing his entire life while knocked out in a flophouse, and only now coming out of his life-long high.

The policeman, whose story comes out in tandem with Taverner’s, lives with his psychotic, drug-addled sister-cum-lover, who briefly seduces Taverner and gives him the drugs that make him wonder whether he’s been drugged all along, but her own dose of drugs kill her, and he sees her withered skeleton on the bathroom floor and flees. Now, the world has shifted again, his files have reappeared, his songs are on the jukebox. He again exists, but has been recognized at the scene of the woman’s death, and is now targeted by the police as her murderer. His lover, who previously seemed not to know him, now knows him but wants nothing to do with him, wants to turn herself and him both into the authorities. The epilogue kindly resolves all, freeing Taverner after trial, and describing a future in which the police apparatus breaks down, the students are freed from hiding and forced labor camps, and multiple-space-inclusion drugs are no longer experimented with. Dick does not disclose whether cars still fly or whether the phone-grid sex network still prematurely ages people, or whether Sixes (the elite group of engineered humans of which Taverner is one) are ever surpassed by Sevens. But there is enough resolution that he loses some of the gains he made, for sci-fi’s ultimate goal is not to satisfy, but to shatter, to disturb, to shake; happy endings don’t make lessons learned.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Movies: Milk

The more I write about movies, the more concerned I become about being repetitious. And yet, I must say it again: flashback is a lazy way of structuring narrative. Flashback inclines the filmmaker to create a series of superficial vignettes, strung together like beads on a cord, rather than an integrated length of film. We go to the movies to fully immerse ourselves in lives unlike our own. Why else the dark room, the larger than life screen, the surround-sound speakers? We want to swim in the water of cinema, wetting even the tops of our heads.

The usually impeccable Gus Van Sant makes this mistake in his new film Milk. After beautiful opening credits culled from stock black and white footage, Van Sant opens with Sean Penn as Harvey Milk sitting at a kitchen table. Milk is speaking into a microphone, taping his memoir, in case he is assassinated (which he eventually will be). This scene then invokes Milk’s memories, so that Van Sant cuts away to illustrate key moments in the gay activist’s life, each time coming back to the kitchen table, shaking us out of the past we were just slipping into, pulling us out of the water into some purgatorial, intermediate state—not really in the movie, but not quite out of it either.

What happens, then, is that the flashbacks become less about storytelling than moment-capturing. We watch a series of lifestyle commercials rather than a movie, groups of beautiful young boys hanging out in Milk’s Castro camera shop, in droopy mustaches and bell-bottomed pants, flush with the thrill of making something important happen, or two men in bed, their shadows wrestling, implying something dangerous and beautiful and different than anything straight lovers have experienced. Nothing binds these experiences to each other; Van Sant plunges his audience again and again into the dunking tank, rather than letting us swim through the pool.

Van Sant has always treated his male subjects with a particular tenderness, caressing their awkward faces with his camera (c.f. Gerry, Elephant, Paranoid Park). Milk is no departure from this signature, and if there is any reason to watch this movie, aside from Penn’s startlingly on-point performance, it is to see the way Van Sant handles James Franco’s wistful smile, or Emile Hirsch’s mercurial eyes.

Watching the trailer for Milk, my friends and I always laughed at the very end, when a giant credit, “screenplay by Dustin Lance Black” flashed across the screen, larger than any credit we had seen before. We laughed because the banner was only appropriate to a big-name writer, someone with serious cache. But the only appropriate response to this was, “who the hell is Dustin Lance Black?” And now we have an answer: the man responsible for this lazy screenplay, who, had he known better, would have written something that wasn't a waste of Van Sant, Penn, Franco, and Hirsch's special magic.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Books: The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

It is difficult for me to discuss this book on its own terms because of the scenario surrounding its reading. I was on the subway, settling in for a long ride from Brooklyn to the Bronx on a rainy Sunday evening. The car was nearly empty, and I was reading. A few stops later, a group of black teenagers, perhaps six or seven, get on the train and commence being rowdy. They make a lot of noise. I don’t look up; I am reading my book. My book is The Old Man and the Sea. It is not very compelling, but I am reading it anyway. Meanwhile, the thuglets are creating a rather wild rumpus; there are plenty of open seats for them in which to sit down together, but instead, they sit, one at a time, directly next to white strangers, even insinuating themselves at one moment between the children of a white family. But I don't see any of this; I don't look up. I'm reading my (very plodding) book.

Then one sits down next to me. I don't look up from the page. His friends come and sit across from us and watch. I continue to read. He puts his head on my shoulder. I am holding my book with my right hand. Without looking up, I wrap my left arm around his shoulders and begin to stroke his hair through his hat. His friends bust up laughing, shocked, shouting ho! As he snuggles into my arm, I lean in and ask if he wants me to read to him as well. He nods his head yes. I begin to read (this very plodding narrative) aloud. At first my voice is unsure, but as I notice more and more people watching (the children of the white family have gathered around, their mouths open, and everyone else in the car is staring as well), I read more confidence and clarity. Another of the black teens comes over and wraps my arm around him as well. I read for about ten minutes until they start to get fidgety. One of the kids starts singing, let's talk about sex, ba-by, and, without missing a beat, I look up from my book and sing, let's talk about you and me, and again, shocked, they shout ho! nuh-uh! and laugh. We commence chatting for the rest of my ride; they ask me how old I am, what my name is, what my number is, and whether we can talk. I give them my number with the caveat that I mostly like to talk about books (they tell me that books are boring, but that they'll call me and let me read to them). When I have to get off the train, they are disappointed, and say why are you leaving us? I wave to them from the platform as the train rolls away.

They didn't call me. That made me sad.

This was the best thing about the book, but any book could have stood in. As an archetype, I suppose any book should fit in with The Old Man and the Sea, which is the same story as Steinbeck's The Pearl, only with an old man and a fish rather than a young couple and a pearl, and with a bit less calamity. The novel is didactic; spare, yes, but not intelligently so. In fact, it's rather naively so, and, in fact, rather pompous. Hemingway's connection with the Cuban fisherman is distanced and strained; clearly he wants to write in the man's simple voice, but he has no access to that simplicity, so that he instead inserts native words here and there, inadvertently breaking the fourth wall ("Tomorrow I will eat the dolphin. He called it dorado.") Toward the novel's end (the plot is a parabola of labor, with the apex being the lashing of the great fish to the side of the boat), the entire fish has been consumed by sharks, in spite of the fisherman's bravest efforts to kill them off. We are neither surprised nor disappointed; that is, obviously, the only possible end to this plodding theme of suffering.

No wonder those kids think books are boring.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Books: The Sweet Dove Died, by Barbara Pym

Knowing nothing about Pym, I started this novel assuming she was a contemporary of Henry James, writing about characters taken from the time of DH Lawrence. I quickly checked the publication date and was shocked to see “1978,” but still assumed her fiction was of the historical nature, her protagonists being an orphaned young man working in his uncles antique shop and an older, refined, single woman the boy and his uncle encounter at an antiques auction.

Because of the things they do, the way they speak, and the things about which they talk, her characters have the repressed musty-fustiness of the Victorians—but that turns out to be something of an aesthetic choice. Leonora Eyre, the “heroine” (of cautionary, tragic sorts) collects Victorian baubles and her pristine flat, like her wardrobe, recalls that era. She has aged well, therefore drawing the attentions of impressionable James and his decorous uncle alike.

Pym gently implies that Leonora doesn’t care for sex, and James doesn’t seem to mind that, especially once he falls libidinously for the unkempt bohemian Phoebe. This new girl, who lives out in the country, makes him terribly uncomfortable by dressing poorly and leaving breadcrumbs around the apartment, but he keeps going back for the you-know-what, and successfully keeps it a secret from Leonora.

The secret comes out when James leaves both ladies behind for a tour of Europe. There, he meets Ned, and the two have a (very much implied, but never stated) affair. While he’s gone, the two women discover each other, as each feels entitled to his furniture. Upon returning, James smooths things over with Leonora by ignoring Phoebe, and all is peachy again, until Ned comes for a long visit, and convinces James to drop Leonora. The irreproachably proper woman finally loses herself in tears, but by the novel’s end, Ned has moved on to another man more interesting than James, and James has come back to Leonora.

There’s something rather repressed in all of this, and it’s hard not to read Leonora as a stand-in for Pym (although if she is, the woman was rather hard on herself). Pym’s own shying away from description of any sex acts or even words—like “homosexual”—that might clarify James’ relationship with Ned are the literary version of Leonora’s turning her head away in embarrassment when James’ poor uncle tries to kiss her mouth after an evening of cocktails.

At first, this shuttered world of implication and innuendo is attractive and fascinating, but, like Leonora herself, it begins to cloy rather quickly. Disappointingly, the appearances of Phoebe and Ned breathe no fresh air into Pym’s narration; she is forever trapped in Leonora’s voice, in spite of being an omniscient narrator.