Saturday, October 31, 2009

Movies: Where the Wild Things Are

Where the Wild Things Are is my favorite children’s book. I love it so much that, not only do I have the tale committed to memory (“That night, Max wore his wolf suit, and made mischief. . . of one kind and another; his mother called him Wild Thing, and Max said, “I’ll eat you up!” so he was sent to bed, without eating anything. . .”), but I consider it one of my favorite books period, placing Sendak in the pantheon with Foster Wallace and Barthes, who write for adults (very smart adults, at that). As a child, I didn’t like monsters or adventure stories, and I didn’t identify with Max the way most children probably do; my attachment to the book was perhaps precocious—I loved it for its poetry—it’s tempo and its tone.

Generally, movies made about our favorite childhood things are destructive forces—nothing so materially realized can compete with the melting edges of our nostalgic dreamscape. But Jonze and Eggers nailed it, fleshing out the story only as much as needed to make a 101-minute movie out of a book comprising less than ten sentences. And by some trick of masterful art direction, watching a handful of giant, live-action furry monsters tenderly hugging a little boy seemed perfectly real and natural; not once did I feel that spark of critical distance that so often strikes me at the movies—even when watching actual actors not dressed as giant, furry monsters.

Max of the movie is a bit more sensitive (dare I say “twee”?) than Max of the book; his anger is grounded in frustration, with an older sister who ignores him for her friends, and a mother (the sweet, scratchy-voiced Catherine Keenar, who appears in the top-five of every hipster’s MILFs list) who ignores him (briefly) for a wine-swilling Mark Ruffalo-as-boyfriend. The Wild Things, rather than simply “rolling their terrible eyes and gnashing their terrible teeth and showing their terrible claws” also express a fully human range of emotions, with particular attention to the darker feelings of loneliness, insecurity, jealousy, and anger. They are, thus, able to move us as much as Max does, often bringing us to tears.

Characters aside, where the magic of the book lies in the pacing of the page turn (during the wild rumpus, there is no text at all, but the swinging bodies of the wild things propel the story forward nonetheless), the magic of the movie resides in the art direction. This begins when Max climbs into his private boat, something just tattered enough to belie the dreamscape, but solid enough to carry a small boy in and out of a day, and a week, and a year. The sloshing sea, the driving rain, and the huddled boy in his filthy, bedraggled wolf suit set us up for the craggy cliffs, endless dunes, and enchanted caves that Max discovers in the land where the wild things are. The Andy Goldsworthy-like palaces of twigs—huge, swooping organic gestures tumbled across a clearing in the wood and surrounded by a network of tunnels, a fort “to keep the sadness out,”—add another element to the movie—the human compulsion to build—not actually in the book, but in perfect keeping with Max’s psyche (for the land where the wild things are is, of course, something that Max has built in the first place, even if it is fully natural and uncontrolled, without technical structure).

And so, even if detractors will say that this is another hipster puff-piece (the Karen O. soundtrack is neither for children nor adults, for example) made by and for overgrown children, its values (creativity and friendship) are valid. Rarely does movie by the hipsters for the hipsters wear its heart so openly on its sleeve; there is nothing here that is coy or disaffected or too-cool-for-school. Jonze proved himself as tender as he is clever ten years ago with Being John Malkovich, probably one of the smartest and saddest movies ever made, and it’s a bit shocking that he hasn’t done a feature other than Adaptation since then. The man is a genius of humanity and should be making a movie every year, like Steven Soderbergh or the Coen machine. Eggers, further, has proven that he is a worthy screenwriter, and that the travesty that was Away We Go can be blamed fully on wife and co-writer Vendela Vida.

Books: All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren

A truly American epic, All the King’s Men, though written 60 years ago and set even farther back, is a coming-of-age tale for today’s young men, who don’t actually become men until their mid-30s, just like protagonist Jack Burden. Simple but heavy, Burden is a man with few convictions of his own, torn between the memories of an intellectual father turned religious madman, an emotional debt to the elderly judge who took his father’s place as a role model, and the demands of “the boss”—Governor Willie Stark, a power-drunk but service-minded politician, a self-made man made fully from piss and vinegar, and nights up late studying law. Burden has detached himself emotionally from his work (he’s a kind of guy-Friday cum-fixer, an underground PR man) and, in fact, from most of his life. The only thing in which he maintains any emotional investment is the elusive Anne Stanton, a childhood friend (actually the younger sister of his childhood friend Adam, who as an adult has withdrawn in his own way, a neurosurgeon of Ayn Randian proportions). Anne and Jack were high school lovers, but did not marry.

As Burden does his work, trying to wear blinders, the interconnected underbelly of his network slowly emerges; hands deep in the dirt, he discovers that the elderly judge was not always so ethical as he seemed—but furthermore that the elderly judge, and not the intellectual madman, was his actual father (was rather than is, as the confrontation over the ethical lapse drives the old man to suicide before the second discovery is made). Worse, Burden discovers that Anne and Stark are having an affair. He drives all the way west, spends a few nights drunk in a California hotel room, then drives back to work. It’s the affair, though, that brings the end of Willie Stark—brother Adam Stanton gets a secret tip-off about the affair, and in true no-compromises fashion, shoots Stark dead (Stark’s driver and bodyguard Sugarboy shoots Adam dead in turn).

With the deaths of all these fathers, Burden is at last able to become a man. He marries Anne Stanton, and with this epilogue, the novel’s throbbing pulse peters out. The story is Burden’s, though it ends with Stark’s death, because Stark’s life enables Burden’s repression. “All the king’s men” refers, of course, to the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, where Stark is the big egg on the wall, and Burden one of the men (along with a well-styled cast of supporting characters including the stuttering Sugarboy and the over-fed Tiny Duffy) who can’t put him back together after his fall. And yet, the breaking of an egg in most natural cases leads to the birthing of a chick. Stark’s life, career, and concomitant assignments generate the tasks that enable Burden to seal himself inside the shell, blindly rolling through the world, still an infant. It is truth of his heroes’ infidelities that lead to the deaths that break the shell, and so of course the egg can’t be put “together again”—nor would we want it so.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Books: In the Labyrinth, by Alain Robbe-Grillet

This is another of Robbe-Grillet's clean circles, spare but not sparse, spiraling almost imperceptably away from it's beginning before neatly coming back around. Everything is blown with snow. We follow a soldier through blanketed, blankened strets, lined with anonymous buildings that slowly become familiar-either because we're walking in circles, or because, like the soldier, we are exhausted—sick, wet, and delusional.

Grillet lodges the reader more firmly in the protagnonist here than in some of his other novels. In Jealousy, the reader is a locked-out onlooker, fascinated by the long-haired A, but trapped behind the eyes of her nameless husband, who is never described, who never describes himself, and who gives little of himself away in his descriptions of his wife and their plantation. But in Labyrinth, the narration comes from some third party. Nevertheless, we identify with the lost and woozy soldier as we navigate the text—where phrases and images and entire scenes repeat. Our textual déjà vu is the soldier's physical déjà vu.

And then, there is the matter of the box. The soldier walks in circles because he has a box that belonged to another soldier-one he did not know-and is trying to bring that box to a man-whom he does not know. Nor do we know whether he knows the contents of the box; we certainly do not, for whenever somebody asks him, he only answers, "things," or, when further pressed ("what kind of things?"), "my things" (an untruth, in fact). But the need to be rid of this box is strong, strong enough to push him forward through the snow, following a taunting child who wears a cape and may or may not know the way to the street whose name the soldier cannot remember. And yet, when he tries to be rid of it—to just shove it through the grate into the sewer, he cannot. Nor can we cast aside the book/box, until we have seen it delivered/finished, even though that delivery will not give us access to what is locked inside: who this man is, where he has come from, why he has nowhere to go. When the box's delivery is frustrated, his only remaining task is to die, which he does, from a gunshot unintended for him, in the bed in the home of the sprightly boy, tended by the kind woman, who doubles as a waitress in a painting of a cafe to which we are often drawn—for the soldier and his box are in the painting, as is the boy, and the soldier stops into the cafe as he walks, following the boy.

It is possible, in fact, that the soldier is not walking deliriously through the snowy streets of an unnamed French city, but is a phantom circling the illusory city dreamed by an old, delusional man, in whose dusty one-room apartment the painting of the cafe scene hangs. This man appears in the dream as the doctor, who carries an umbrella, tries to give the soldier directions, and ultimately presides at his death.

Movies: The Proposal

The Proposal: another embarrassing excuse for a film, so fraught with clichés that, in verbally summarizing the plot to a friend (which only required three or so sentences), he was able to preemptively identify each plot development. Of course, one knows, within the first few minutes of the film, when dragon-lady Sandra Bullock takes her Starbucks from her sweaty and apologetic male assistant, we know that, as little respect as these people have for each other, they will be in love and married by the end of the film. The deux ex machina that gets us there is the small fact that hotshot editor Bullock is Canadian, and so self-important that she never bothered to file the appropriate immigration papers. In order to avoid deportation, she blackmails her assistant, who will do anything to become an editor himself, into joining her in sham matrimony. But after a weekend with his family in small-town Alaska, condensed into 90 minutes worth of hijinks including a Hispanic male stripper, a bird of prey that steals Bulluck’s blackberry, and a native-American fire-ceremony turned booty-shaking extravaganza (offending two whole cultures in only one whole scene—brilliant!), the two have actually fallen in love (not before she runs from the altar, though, leaving him alone and ashamed). Why does Hollywood make these movies, and why do airplanes play them, when we are trapped with little choice but to watch and shudder?

Movies: State of Play

State of Play is yet another B-list political thriller, hardly worth watching, even whilst confined to an airplane and the dreaded middle seat. While its unending plot twists are more infuriating than the kinks in an old garden hose hooked to a low pressure spigot, which problems can’t be blamed on baggy acting, poor screenwriting, and inept camera handling can be pinned on the genre itself. For there is nothing thrilling about politics. They may be interesting (on occasion), infuriating (often), and convoluted (always), but they are never, ever thrilling. By their multi-constituent nature, they grind, slowly. Even Obama wasn’t thrilling (we could see it coming a mile away). Even Nixon wasn’t thrilling (shocking, but not thrilling). Even the discovery that there were no WMDs in Iraq wasn’t thrilling. Politics buries truth in a snowstorm of fact, and fact are the opposite of thrilling.

This is why I find it so strange that the foil in every political thriller is the shabby newsman. If there’s anything less thrilling than politics, it’s news about politics: the same facts, scrambled and regurgitated, supposedly to elucidate the underlying truth, but buried in its own snowstorm of multi-constituent bullshit: more money and power and machine. The news, like politics, is typically disappointing, disenchanting, and despair-inducing. Occasionally, they get it right, but even when it’s inspiring, cutting to the bone, it’s not thrilling.

And yet, we are again offered the alcoholic, workaholic, pot-bellied bachelor (the inexorable Russell Crowe) pitted against his old college roommate and only real friend, the slick, handsome, young Congressman (Ben Affleck, well-cast insofar as that wooden waxiness particular to politicians comes naturally to him) in an intellectual race to unravel the ethical hairball of private security contracting, at home and abroad. In order to glam up the tedious dilemma, the screenwriter starts off with a purported suicide that Crowe proves to be a murder, which Crowe then proves to be an assassination. For added sex appeal, it turns out that the victim was not only the young Congressman’s research assistant, she was also his mistress—and pregnant, to boot (Crowe uncovers that bit too). With the newsman as our guide, we trust that she was killed by the big bad network of military contractors that the young Congressman has been roasting—she knew too much. But then we discover, along with Crowe, that the victim was actually a plant—a double agent, hired by the big bad corporation to monitor the young Congressman. This is just the news that Crowe needs to publish his big story, which feels great, since it’s also just the story that will help the young Congressman put the big bad Corporation under the bus. But as the one-screw-loose hitman—an ex-military man himself—chases Crowe through an underground parking lot, armed with a semi, Crowe realizes that the young Congressman has been in on it all along. . . The next two minutes sees the young Congressman indicted and the movie ended. Wait, what?

Not to mention that along the way, there are the added glamorous accessories of an additional affair (the shabby newspaperman and the young Congressman’s wife have an old spark to fan), a drug-and-sex fiend PR man (even Jason Bateman can’t make this role work), a homeless teenager with drug-dealer boyfriend and a stolen briefcase, some collateral damage (including the homeless teenager and a pizza guy), and a spunky young blogger (Rachel McAdams) who learns to give up her gossiping to be Crowe’s gal Friday, and like it.

This film is completely bereft of even the minutest mote of quality. The filmmakers have no respect for their audience. Structuring the plot around the righteous “down with government military contracting” theme is not a free pass to make such an offensively stupid movie. Further, anyone intellectually bankrupt enough to enjoy this PG-13 smut doesn’t know or care about government military contracting. Perhaps the worst thing about a political thriller is that people end up caring more about the thrill than the politics.