Saturday, December 12, 2009

Movies: A Serious Man

The Coens get back to what works in A Serious Man—a kind of 1960s version of The Big Lebowski, more tightly focused, steeped in Judaism and wreathed in wisps of marijuana smoke. A contemporary Job, small-potatoes physics professor Larry Gopnik finds his orderly word to be suddenly out of order. It begins with a Korean exchange student attempting to bribe him for a passing grade, and swiftly progresses to a proposed incursion on his rancher’s property line by the too-American neighbors, a request for divorce from his wife, a car accident, an urgent call from his doctor to discuss test results, and certain financial ruin, not to mention extreme emotional strain. Swirling around him are other such peripheral troubles as a jobless brother with a gambling problem and a cyst that needs constant draining, the warm-mouthed, paunch-bellied widower who is courting his wife, and a son too busy getting high and running from the neighborhood bully to prepare for his bar mitzvah.

The trajectory of the film is preëstablished by a sepia-toned short in which a 19th century Russian Jewish couple argue in their home in front of a guest as to whether the old man is or is not an evil spirit; the husband, who has befriended the bearded stranger after an accident on the road, thinks his appearance is a blessing, for he is a family friend of his wife’s. The wife, who heard that the man died three years ago of typhus, thinks that his appearance is a curse, and stabs him in the chest with an ice pick. The bright-eyed visitor is slow to show signs of pain, but eventually bleeds, then wanders back out into the snow. The husband cries that they are ruined because of her murder; she closes the door, certain that they are saved because of her vigilance.

During the movie proper, Gopnik’s car wreck is mirrored by another, but fatal car wreck: that of Sy Ableman, the widower-lover of Gopnik’s wife, who is called at his funeral (for which somehow Gopnik finds himself paying) “a serious man,” by the Rabbi Nachtner. After Gopnik has visited the over-zealous Junior Rabbi Scott, and the more senior but equally useless Rabbi Nachtner, asking, as a good Jew must, why it is that God is forsaking him, he tries to see the aged and wise Rabbi Marshak, stammering to his secretary that he is—that he has tried to be—a serious man. Marshak, who is busy thinking, refuses to see him, but towards the end of the film, does see Gopnik’s son, for the only work he still does is converse on the Sabbath wit the boy being bar mitzvahed. To this boy, he slowly and sagely says, “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies,” and then pulls from his drawer the boy’s transistor radio, confiscated from him at Hebrew school at the film’s start.

He is quoting, of course, the Jefferson Airplane song that has become the film’s theme, and this is the film’s most brilliant and hysterical moments. Gopnik senior so desperately wants the old man’s wisdom, but it’s given instead to his jejune boy. And yet, it promises to address the man’s crisis—his job, his marriage, and his entire reality are not what he thought they were. But just as that song asks questions without offering answers, the Rabbi Marshak offers no actual answers (“be a good boy,” he says)—and neither does the film. Though the bar mitzvah goes off without a hitch and husband and wife are brought closer by their child’s achievement, and though a colleague from the tenure committee drops by Gopnik’s office to tell him that the news will likely be good, the film ends before we’re given confirmation, before the divorce is called off, and while a tornado is visible on the horizon, and the doctor’s office is on the phone. We are a little disgruntled, but what else could we expect? The film is about uncertainty itself, so cannot offer any certain conclusion.

*Even if everyone else liked No Country For Old Men, I considered it a failure.

Movies: Up in the Air

There is something disconcerting about George Clooney, and Up in the Air crystallizes this thing. The ideal icon of contemporary consumer culture, Clooney is a very fine product. He is well-cut, of a nice weight with double-stitched seams. He has fruit in the nose, spicy overtones, and a balanced structure. He presents well, and he has a smooth finish. He is casually warm, and happy to appear at your benefit for Cause X and be photographed. But what does he actually stand for? What are his passions? What is under the worsted wool, the Egyptian cotton, the clean linens, and the sun-toasted, precor-toned skin? Brad Pitt undoubtedly poops. George Clooney? I’m not as certain. He may not have any viscera.

And Up in the Air embraces, however ironically, that hollow Clooneyan panache. Here is the American dream gone wrong, where corporations are our closest friends, and we are more loyal to them than our lovers. As Ryan Bingham, Clooney flies American Airlines between the country’s armpit outposts—Omaha to Houston to Detroit—laying people off (imagine a fin de siecle capitalist structure so bloated and necrotic that it outsources its termination processes). The tragedy of the working American is his boon; the worse the country’s economy get, the more miles he accrues. This is not-so-subtle social criticism from writer/director Jason Reitman, also responsible for Thank You For Smoking and the less-toothy Juno, but in our irony-saturated state, we need a stronger shake, a sharper stick in the eye, than this cotton-swabbed swipe.

Bingham’s stint in the sky isn’t unlike Ed Norton’s character’s at the beginning of Fight Club—single-serving coffee, single-serving cream, single-serving friend. But Fight Club rages against this empty husk of a life, and tears shit up. Tyler Durden’s disorder is a direct and violent engagement with his depression and disconnection. That was 10 years ago. Up in the Air, however ironic or sly, never breaks the circuit of escape. When the taste of what Bingham thought he wanted sticks in his throat, he runs. When the human connection he thinks he’s found turns out to be false, he runs. And as the film concludes, he’s on the plane again, going we don’t know where.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Movies: Road House

Because I watched this movie on VH1 on the plane, missing the first five minutes, the last ten minutes, and all the good parts in between that were replaced by commercials, I’m not sure that I should be reviewing it here. But I’m so fascinated by its extreme 80s-ness that I can’t help it. Everyone fell in love with Patrick Swayze’s moves in Dirty Dancing, but it’s in Road House that he shows his real moves, doing shirtless tai chi in front of his rented bungalow (no phone, no tv, no air conditioning—my kind of man!) while the next door neighbors—an all-male family of rich boors who, it turns out, have garnished their wealth by terrorizing the town’s small business owners—drive by in helicopters and monster-trucks. At one point, papa rich boor insists to Swayze that he’s done the town good—it’s because of him that they have a JC Penney. Oh, the 80s!

Only in the 80s could a movie with a plot this thin even be made—Swayze’s Dalton is the best cooler in the business (except for his gray-haired mentor, Wade Garrett (Sam Elliott in a fit of casting brilliance)), and he’s paid a pretty sum to leave his big-city digs and help revamp a rowdy roadhouse where brawls rage every night, so violent that the band—led by a blind blues guitar player—plays inside a chicken-wire cage. Dalton cleans up not only the bar, but the whole town, taking out the rich bad guys, and hooks up with a babelicious nerdy girl-doctor along the way (she staples shut a huge knife wound in his torso after he refuses any anesthetic, drives a red jeep, and looks ultra-hot when she takes off her glasses and unbraids her hair). I don’t know what happens in the end, but I wouldn’t mind watching the whole thing through again to find out.

Books: Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev

Once I left school, I started reading the introductions to novels, when they had them, since no one was around to spoon feed me context (which in the past I disdained to consider relevant, but I come to appreciate more and more as I create my own contextual database, reading more and more). Unfortunately, reading introductions first often colors one’s reading of the novel, such that during my reading of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, I was constantly seeking the development of the early image of the “nihilist”—a figure with which I’ve been long fascinated, and which the introduction of my moldy, hardcover copy of this book (left, now, in some airplane’s seat-pocket) posits was first established in this very book. I’d always considered nihilism a particularly French sensation, and known the Russians to be Francophiles (if not Francofetishists), so was somewhat surprised that the concept might have Russian origin (for I expect communist Russians to be nihilists, of course, but Turgenev published Fathers and Sons in 1862).

But to be honest, I found Bazarov a rather disappointing nihilist—rather a romantic, in fact—and his compatriot (and the novel’s true hero) Arcadii a rather dry, typical hero of the Russian gentry, sweetly naïve and achieving fulfillment only in finding a woman even more sweetly naïve to marry and set up farm (Arcadii and Katya reappear almost in carbon copy in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as Levin and Kitty, except that each is a bit older and more tired—though no less naïve and traditional). Bazarov, a naturalist with little patience for the affection of his parents, falls hopelessly in love with the widow Odintsova. When she rejects him, he (arguably purposely) contracts the quick-killing typhus (by touching an infected person’s wound with his own open wound—an experiment someone with his scientific knowledge would know would lead to infection).

As also discovered in reading the introduction, Turgenev lost most of his readership with the publication of this novel; older readers were offended, as they thought he was siding with the young nihilists, and younger readers thought that he was caricaturizing them, and siding with the “Fathers.” Having only read one other of Turgenev’s works, I would posit that he sides with no one, only observing people and the silly games they play with their minds, with a fascination much more pure than that of those who would follow—those writers like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, who had much clearer agendas. Turgenev, rather than trying to alight on the ideal way to live, simply sees the way we do live, a bemused smile on his face and a poignant chuckle in his throat.

Movies: The Bad Lieutenant

I walked into Werner Herzog’s new movie knowing nothing else about it—not that it was a “remake” of a 1992 Ferrara film, not that it starred Nick Cage, not that it would be filled with pulpy drug use, sex, and violence. Each of those facts may have turned me away from the theater (isn’t it a bit soon to be remaking a film from the 90s?), but Herzog’s directorship turned out to be the only essential fact. For while this is an obscenely over-the-top, Tarantino-meets-Lynch parade of human filth—the waxy-faced crooked cop, the soft-focus prostitute with two black eyes, the bombastic black drug king—the irony is constantly interrupted by Herzog’s tenderness for the true human types that circulate in that world—the African family shot dead in their home, the beer-soaked skin of a sad country girl who can’t understand why her lover goes to AA, the bone-thin black teenage mothers who come to the door when Cage’s McDonagh comes knocking at their shack looking for drug-dealing boyfriends hiding in the chiffarobe.

But aside from the constant play between pulp’s crass, cold hyperbole and documentary’s careful, compassionate honesty, there is the Herzog wildcard: a sudden shift out of plot and into a strange existential meditation on the beautiful absurdity and madness of life. In Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary about a scientific encampment in the Arctic, this meant following a suicidal penguin as he scuttled away from the flock and into the frame’s vanishing point, inland, away from the shore’s feeding grounds. In Lieutenant, breaks in McDonagh’s consciousness come with shots of iguanas that no one else sees. Herzog films these strange, scaly creatures with his National Geographic-style love of the wild; surrounded by prismatic light, their bulging eyes pulse, their horny skin still. Herzog uses a kind of lizard-cam so that we see the room from the iguana’s eyes, or, once, from the eyes of a crocodile slithering away from the site of a car wreck on the side of the road (where another croc’s insides are strewn across the street).

And the film’s “happy ending,” which sees the murder of the African family solved, the drug king pinned to the crime thanks to a (planted) DNA-kissed “lucky crack pipe”, the prostitute clean, married, and pregnant with McDonagh’s child, and the bad Lieutenant promoted to Corporal, doesn’t leave us with the couple kissing at the door (too soft and bright), or McDonaugh then snorting a pile of cocaine in a hotel room immediately after (too dark and harsh), but with another curious, elegiac interlude: McDonagh sitting on the floor in the dim blue of an aquarium, next to the Hispanic thug he saved from a Katrina-flooded prison at the film’s start, who has since changed his life and been clean a whole year—the entire year McDonagh slipped into deeper and deeper drug abuse, initially because of back pain caused by a disc injury sustained in saving this man. This Herzog moment is gratifying for almost no one—not the filmgoer who’s never heard of Herzog and came to see a Nick Cage action flick, not the romantic who wants to see every film tied up with the red ribbon of resurrection and resolution—but for the director’s humanist-compatriots, it is the ideal finish: open, quiet, unresolved, without judgment, without promise, without despair.