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Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Savages


Watching The Savages is a little like asking a friend how things are going and they proceed to tell you----and none of the news is good, and you learn it all in every miserable detail. The film is written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, who last was in theaters with The Slums of Beverly Hills, which was also about a screwed up family but at least that one had some sense of joie de vivre. This film is like a migraine.

Ostensibly the story of a brother and sister, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, who must deal with their father who has slipped into dementia, The Savages presents two of the more pathetic characters I've seen in quite a while. Both of them are involved in theater--he is a professor of drama who specializes in Brecht, she is an aspiring playwright who temps to earn a living. His girlfriend must go back to Poland because her visa is expiring, she is sleeping with a married man.

Their father, played by Philip Bosco, apparen't wasn't much of a parent, as Hoffman says at one point, "we are doing more for him than he ever did for us," in rationalizing putting him into a utilitarian nursing home in Buffalo. Linney feels guilty, and hopes to put him in a classier place. Meanwhile the two forlornly try to go about their lives while coping with a disabled parent, and I think the experience of watching is about as much fun as going through that horrible situation would be.

There is some caustic humor occasionally, and the acting by Hoffman and Linney are first rate. But Jenkins really heaps it on her characters. We know Hoffman is a schlub, but do we really need to see him injure himself and require a neck brace? Linney's character is even more of a mess, if that's possible. I did like a friendship she made with an orderly at the nursing home, and I smiled to myself in the opening scenes, when she uses her temp job as her own personal office, mailing out fellowship applications and helping herself to Post-It notes. But mostly I didn't care for this woman at all, and despite a coda that suggests she turned things around, it wasn't enough for me.

The issue of caring for elderly parents is certainly one that many can or will be able to relate to, but I didn't feel this film said anything interesting or profound about it, and wasn't funny or brutal enough to make it entertaining. At one point Linney asks someone who has read her play, "You didn't think it was middle-class whining?" which was a dangerous line to put in this film.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Savage Beauty

I am a fairly literate fellow who has read quite a few classics in my day, but for some reason I have always had trouble reading poetry. Whenever I try my eyes glaze over after just a few lines. But I have always enjoyed the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay. I think I first took an interest in her when I heard the poem Conscientious Objector, which begins, "I shall die, but that is all I shall do for death." Her most famous poem is, "My candle burns at both ends, it will not last the night. But ah, my friends, and oh, my foes, it makes a lovely light!"

Millay's life was as interesting, if not more so, than her poems, and I have had Nancy Milford's biography of her, Savage Beauty, on my bookshelf for quite a while but finally got around to reading it. It is an excellent book, handling her personal life as well as discussing her work. Millay was primarily a lyric poet (perhaps that is why she is easier to read), but lived the life of a Bohemian and had a very sad end.

She was born in Maine in 1892 in humble surroundings but through the assistance of some well-placed women in society attended Vassar. While still in school she won a prize for a poem called Renascence that made her something of a name. All while reading this book I was amazed that a person could actually become famous and earn a living as a poet, which is practically impossible today. Millay won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, and by 1938 she was famous all across America, in fact, she was listed in a poll as one of the ten most famous women in the U.S. Her books sold well and she toured the country doing readings, as well as reciting on the radio.

Millay also was part of the Provincetown Players, rubbing elbows in Greenwich Village with John Reed, Louise Bryant, and Eugene O'Neill, and one of her early lovers was Floyd Dell. Millay had lovers of both sexes, and was a tad on the promiscuous side. She married a businessman, Eugen Boissevant, in 1923, but that didn't entirely stop her, as she had a long love affair with poet George Dillon, who was quite a bit younger than her.

By the 1940's Millay began to crumble under the weight of alcoholism and an increasing dependency on a variety of drugs, particularly methadone. She and her husband lived in a house they called Steepletop in upstate New York, and her husband babied her, driving a wedge between her and her sisters. Her husband died of lung cancer in 1949, and she died a year later, falling down a flight of stairs.

One of her sisters, Norma, was still alive while Milford began the project and gave her complete access to Millay's letters and papers. Much of the book cites letters, and one wonders how some biographies would be possible without them. At times Milford breaks from the narrative to include an aside between herself and Norma, perhaps most amusingly when Norma recounts how Edna told her about masturbation.

My only misgiving about the book is that I wanted more. Milford ends, as one might expect, with Millay's death, but I would have liked to know a little more about her legacy and the reactions of her family and friends to her death. But to criticize a book for saying you want more is a kind of praise, I imagine.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Sweeney Todd

This film is sumptuous to behold. The costumes by Colleen Atwood, the production design by Dante Ferretti, the cinematography by Dariusz Wolski, all of them are excellent, and create the world of Victorian England that, if it is not completely historically accurate, then at least this is how we think it should be seen, from the novels of Dickens to the stories about Jack the Ripper--smoke-filled skies and awash in gray. I admired this film a great deal, but as the screen went to black following the final tableau, I didn't feel very much, and by the time I put on my coat and left the theater the entire experience had pretty much dissipated.

One knows one is watching a Tim Burton film immediately, as the opening credits are familiarly stylized, with blood flowing through a gear mechanism. I've enjoyed many Burton films over the years, and there are many aspects of Sweeney Todd that are perfectly suited for his gifts, but he's never been strong when it comes to genuine emotion. A few of his films, notably Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish, have endeavored at sentimentality, but are camouflaged by their fairy-tale structure. So it is with Sweeney Todd, who was kind of a boogey-man for English children. This is all well and good, but this film is seriously lacking a heart, and if we are supposed to feel any pathos for the title character, well, there is none.

I am unfamiliar with the stage play, so I don't know how closely the film hews to the source. It is the story of an innocent barber who is railroaded by a judge who covets the barber's beautiful wife. After serving a long prison sentence, he returns seeking vengeance, and now calls himself Sweeney Todd (and has a skunk-like shock of white hair). He returns to his old shop and finds on the ground floor a pie shop run by Mrs. Lovett, who recognizes him and is sympathetic to his cause. Much mayhem ensues, including about a dozen or so throats being slit with gushing blood. Then Todd and Mrs. Lovett figure out how to dispose of the bodies, making good use of her pie shop downstairs.

The stage musical can get by on a thin plot, because the audience is usually interested in hearing the music, but in my view a film can not, so there's not really much story here. Will Todd kill the judge? Will his young daughter, now a teen and in the evil clutches of the judge, be rescued? And who is the mysterious beggar woman? All of these questions don't take a rocket scientist to answer.

The music is by Stephen Sondheim, who I think is an acquired taste. As a lyricist he is without equal, but his music is complex and not exactly toe-tapping--he could have never written "My Favorite Things." A number of the songs are clever lyrically--particularly "The Worst Pies in London," in which Mrs. Lovett displays her lack of cooking skills, and a song between Todd and Lovett about how different London citizens might make better eating than others. But on the whole, I didn't find the music particularly brilliant.

As for the performances, yes, Johnny Depp can sing. He's no Pavarotti, he's not even Len Cariou, who created the part on Broadway, but he's in tune and does his best with the limitations of the role, since he really only has one motivation, and that's vengeance. I almost always find Depp an interesting actor, but here he doesn't need to do much but scowl and be handy with a razor. Less successful is Helena Bonham-Carter as Mrs. Lovett. She is made up like a typical Burton character, with raccoon eyes and a bird's-nest hairdo, and she gets a few laughs, but her singing voice is very thin. Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall and Sasha Baron Cohen are all fine in supporting roles, but young Ed Sanders is very good as Toby, the street urchin who finds a job with Mrs. Lovett and begins to suspect that things aren't quite what they seem with Mr. Todd.

I have no idea how this will play with audiences. Already there have been reports how some people weren't even aware it was a musical until the singing starts. When I went to see it a couple brought a child under ten, and I wondered whether they realized how much gore there was about to be unleashed. Were they expecting another Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride? Sweeney Todd is not those, though it does have its moments of gleeful carnage.

Again, this film earns my respect but not my affection.


Monday, December 24, 2007

A Christmas Carol

Christmas for the secular can be complicated. Or, to quote Linus Van Pelt, "You're the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem." But it is a problem for someone like me, who believes in the divinity of Christ as much as I believe in Santa Claus. To celebrate this holiday without acknowledging the religious baggage is tricky. So what does one do?

For starters, there's lots of stuff I don't do. I don't decorate, at least not anymore. One year I did the whole tree thing, and that was fine, but I have no further need to repeat the process. You won't find one red light bulb, nor garland of tinsel nor sprig of holly in my domicile. The only evidence that it is Christmas at all is the modest stack of Christmas cards I have received. I am perfectly at peace with this decision (I don't decorate for any other holidays either). Of course, I also don't go to church.

So what's a poor atheist to do? Well, American society has done its part to secularize the holiday, to the consternation of some. Christmas is now about shopping, mostly, and we have been wringing our hands about this. Even this morning while watching the news I heard a newscaster introduce a story by saying the phrase "The true meaning of Christmas," in reference to a spot about someone who gives away a lot of money. To get back to Linus, he was spot on about the true meaning of Christmas--it can be found in the Gospel of Matthew, and deals with a child in a manger. But in a diverse culture, where no one likes to shut out anyone, this aspect of the season is very often sidestepped.

Of course, the true origins of a celebration at this time of year go before the time of Christ. There was the pagan Scandinavian celebration of Yule, and the Roman Saturnalia, both around the winter solstice. The Christians were smart to associate all of the big days on the calendar, from Christmas to Easter to the Annunciation to the Assumption, on pagan holidays that were constructed around the calendar. Many of the Christmas trappings, like holly and Christmas trees, stem from these pre-Christian traditions. However, I'm not a Wiccan or a Roman, either, so I don't really feel the pull to get in touch with my inner pagan.

Instead I just cherry-pick the things I like about it. There are, of course, the TV specials A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, animation from the mid-sixties that shows a disdain for consumerism even forty years ago. But my favorite piece of Christmas-related entertainment is the film of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, specifically the 1951 version starring Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge.

It would be hard to imagine who doesn't know this story, as it has provided sit-com writers an easy out for countless Christmas-themed episodes: a mean person is visited by ghosts on Christmas Eve and suddenly change their ways. But there's something about the Sim film that I think perfectly captures Dickens intention. Dickens' story is not secular--there are references to the Christ child, but his point is larger, and can be embraced by secularists who believe that the concept of God can be found within each person as their basic humanity. Scrooge has lost his humanity, but over the course of one evening it is returned to him by a close scrutiny of his own past and the lives of those who are around him, and he is redeemed.

I enjoy this film version the most for a couple of reasons. It is very faithful to Dickens, and even adds things entirely keeping with the situation, as Mrs. Dilber would say. There are things added to Scrooge's past, particularly a nasty little scene where it's shown how Scrooge and Marley take over their company. But mostly it is the performance of Alistair Sim that makes this film work. To start with, his personal appearance reminds me of sinister political reporter Robert Novak, who would scare anyone. Sim is also adept at handling some of the more vicious lines of dialogue that Dickens wrote, such as the passage that begins with, "Are there no prisons, are there no workhouses?" and ends, "If they would rather die, let them do it and decrease the surplus population."

But I never stop delighting in his transformation from covetous old sinner to giddy schoolboy on Christmas morning. In the George C. Scott television film, which is a handsome production and also very faithful to the source, I found Scott's transformation wanting, perhaps because it was more intellectual than emotional. Nothing can top Sim so ebullient that he has to stand on his head.

And emotional this film is. I have watched it every year for quite a while now, and there have been moments in my life when I have been particularly vulnerable and wept openly while viewing it. There are some moments that always get me, even though they are highly melodramatic, such as Scrooge revisiting the deathbed of his sister and calling after, "Forgive me, Fan!" or at the very end, when Scrooge calls on his nephew's home as the guests are singing "Barbara Allen." The director, Brian Desmond Hurst, adds a nice touch as Scrooge is about to go into the parlor but hesitates, but the maid urges him to go ahead. And then, who wouldn't be moved when Scrooge apologizes to his niece: "Can you forgive a pig-headed old fool who has no eyes to see or ears to hear with?" Then comes the scene in which Scrooge teases Bob Cratchit a bit before succumbing to his own joy and announcing that he now wishes to help him raise his family The look on the actor Mervyn Johns' face is priceless.

And so Scrooge became a man who kept Christmas well. Although I don't exactly keep Christmas in the traditional sense, I do enjoy it for its reminder about the possibility of redemption, and, as Scrooge and the Grinch learned, that it's more than about retail sales.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Deceased

I have a corner of my bedroom where I keep a few stacks of paperback novels that I've purchased over the years, and every once in a while I dip into it. I hadn't read a horror novel in a while, and the only one I had was The Deceased, by Tom Piccirilli. The details of when, how and why I purchased this are lost to me (although as I look the book up on Amazon it's telling me I bought this in June, 2001). I think I read Piccirilli's book Hexes, and must have been encouraged enough to give another of his works a try. I really shouldn't have.

Fans (and writers) of genre fiction frequently complain that it is not taken as seriously as literary fiction, and is unfairly stigmatized. I think that's because most genre fiction is junk, and that's because fans of a particularly genre, like science fiction or horror, read several books of the type and become immune to how tortured the prose can be. When you read a novel by a good writer, and then pick up a book like this, you realize how bad it is. Piccirilli certainly hits on some key horror themes, but the execution of them is muddled.

The premise is promising: a horror writer, son a famous horror writer, returns to the secluded home where his teenage sister murdered his entire family with an ax and then killed herself. She spared him, locking him in the closet. Even more disturbing is that no one ever found the chopped off heads. Something has sparked a return, and though his agent urges him not to, he goes back. The agent's secretary has a friend who is doing her dissertation on the dead horror writer, so the two women follow, and end up in a waking nightmare, as the ghosts of the deceased are quite active and not very friendly.

Piccirilli also weaves in a couple of themes, namely incest and fetuses, as one of the women tagging along is pregnant, and the other lost a baby. It makes for a lurid story, but I'm not really sure what he is saying. The main problem I had with this book is that most of the time I had no clue what was going on. He is poor in setting the scene so that the reader understands who is doing what to whom. Occasionally he hits stride, as the chapter in which we learn how and why the sister goes on an ax-wielding rampage, but these moments are not plentiful enough.

There's also some touches that are groan-inducing. Having the family's last name Maelstrom is a bit much, and just what is the turtle that is wandering around supposed to be?

This book makes me appreciate writers like Stephen King. Though he has written some pretty disposable books at least I have fairly firm grasp on what's going on. I think I'll stay away from horror novels for a while.



Thursday, December 20, 2007

Tory Lane

As you might imagine, evaluating performers in adult films is not the same as critiquing acting in mainstream films. An adult performer is asked to expose themselves doing what most people would never allow others to see. While film actors don't really shoot guns at each other or go through plate-glass windows, adult performers actually do have sex on camera. However, they can fake the emotions involved. That is why, in my view, the exceptional performers are those who appear not to be faking anything.

One of those performers is Tory Lane. A former stripper from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Lane is twenty-five years old and already has over 270 films to her credit. She is not, on first appearance, the type that I normally go for. She has obviously phony boobs, which is usually a turn-off to me, and her face is not what I would call conventionally beautiful. She has a kind of malleable face that can take on many looks, and thus I would be hard pressed to describe her to a police sketch-artist. She also has a tough, city-girl edge to her, and her dark brown eyes and swagger suggest she comes from Italian stock. In high school she was probably the kind of girl who hung out smoking in the girls' bathroom and dated the dropouts who rode motorcycles and had tattoos.

All that being said, she is also a fantastic adult performer, and leaves everything on the screen. Of her voluminous output, I have perhaps ten of her films, and they display a pretty wide spectrum, I think. I first took notice of her in something called I Know You're Watching 5, which has the girl talking directly into the camera during their scenes, something that the habitual onanist appreciates. I was struck how the camera loves her, and she can command attention with her expression and the way she speaks. One is beyond the help of Viagra if this scene can't arouse. And though Lane frequently comes off as a tough chick, she is quite adept at showing a tender, sensual side in films like The Enchantress and University of Austyn (although in the latter film it is really pushing it to cast her as a cheerleader--teen films aren't her proper milieu. Since she has a bit of a hardened look I would expect her to slide into the MILF category shortly).

Most performers aren't called upon to do much acting these days in x-rated fare, but occasionally they are, and Lane even shows she has the basic ability found in most community theater productions. The only film of hers I have where she has to actually deliver a long scene of dialogue is in the cleverly titled The DaVinci Load, and she is quite convincing as a hooker. Well, not really much of a stretch, I guess.

But Lane's best work is in the scenes that allow her to go completely batshit, where if you just had the sound on you wouldn't know if she was having sex or going through an exorcism. In Nikki Hunter's film Ravenous she is Hunter's "bitch," led into the room on a leash. This kind of stuff is too strong for the faint-hearted, but I find it riveting the way she completely abandons herself into the role. And it doesn't get any better than her scene in Slave Dolls 2, another film in which she is a submissive, this time to Mark Davis.

In an interview in Adam Magazine (I am a contributing editor, under the name Alex Portnoy), Lane comes across as a free-wheelin' gal who also, believe it or not, is a certified medical technician. She proudly calls herself a whore, and when asked what she would be doing if she weren't in adult films, says she would be a stripper or a housewife--"barefoot and pregnant." She also doesn't come across as a dumb bunny, and talks about saving her money. She does make a few miscues, though. In one film she is in a scene that is featured in the extras as deleted. She was supposed to have anal sex, but can't go through with it. Turns out she had jalapeno pizza the night before, so a lesson to us all. Her other orifices remained open for business, though.



Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Fifty Years Ago

As 2007 comes to a close, I thought it would be fun to Netflix my way back to the past, specifically to fifty years ago, 1957. I started by viewing the five films that were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar that year, all of which are available on DVD, and three of which I had never seen before.

I started with Sayonara, which is very typical of films from the fifties. It was filmed in Cinemascope (four of the five were), and has the kind of bloat that one associates with "event" pictures that were all the rage as the film industry competed with television. The film is nearly two-and-a-half hours long, but tells a story that could have been easily been wrapped up in two hours or less, but goes overboard in the way that many extravaganzas from the period did, making sure the viewer knew they were filming on location and spending a lot of money.

The film deals, in a superficial Hollywood liberal way, with racial discrimination. Set in Japan during the Korean war, the script specifically focuses on the many relationships that U.S. GIs made with local Japanese women. This was frowned upon by the brass, and they made it very difficult for soldiers to marry these women. As the film begins, Marlon Brando, as an ace fighter pilot, is transferred to Japan. He has a buddy, played by Red Buttons, who has married a local girl, Miyoshi Umeki, and set up house with her. Brando, who is engaged to the daughter of a general, thinks that Buttons is nuts, but he in turn meets a Japanese actress, Mika Tan, and he wants to marry her. The roadblocks put up by the military inevitably lead to tragedy.

Brando, who was by now a big star, and starting to become the idiosyncratic performer that many would know him for, gives a very strange performance. He affects a Southern drawl that makes him sound like he's from Dogpatch, and appears to be improvising most of his lines. I read that he and director Joshua Logan were at constant odds over the script. Buttons and Umeki won the Supporting Acting Oscars.

Witness for the Prosecution is the unlikely teaming of Billy Wilder and Agatha Christie. Based on her book and play, this Wilder film is a good old-fashioned courtroom drama, starring Charles Laughton as a cantankerous but brilliant barrister who is recovering from a heart attack. He is under doctor's orders to refrain from the excitability of criminal cases, but he can't resist taking the impossible case of Tyrone Power, who is accused of murdering an elderly woman who left him a lot of money. Power's wife, Marlene Dietrich, doesn't help his case, and ends up being called as a prosecution witness.

This film is lots of fun, and it was Wilder who added the comic relief of Laughton being clucked over by his solicitous nurse, Elsa Lanchester (who was Laughton's real-life wife)--at one point he tells her, "If you were a woman, I'd strike you." There are surprise twists at the end. I must admit, though, that it's hard for me to watch Marlene Dietrich today without thinking of Madeline Kahn as Lily Von Schtupp in Blazing Saddles.

If you want to talk about dated films, think of Peyton Place. Based on the novel by Grace Metalious, which was a runaway best seller, this film is a soap opera that is shot in golden hues. It is the story of a small New England town that looks like a Norman Rockwell painting but beneath the surface everyone has terrible secrets. It was thought that the novel was unfilmable, as it was all very racy stuff for the time period, but it was made and was a big smash. Today, though, it's difficult to watch without laughing. Some of the plot points are still disturbing, such as a man raping his stepdaughter, but in this day and age, when porn is easily found on the Internet, it's pretty tame stuff. It's especially hard not to laugh when characters make big revelations, accompanied by a dramatic musical sting. Five members of the cast: Lana Turner, Diane Varsi, Hope Lange, Russ Tamblyn, and Arthur Kennedy were nominated for Oscars, but the film didn't win any statuettes.

Two films from that year's quintet deserve classic status. 12 Angry Men is the kind of film that when I stumble upon it on TV it's hard to turn away. Finally I just went ahead and bought it on DVD. Directed by Sidney Lumet, it is the gripping story, told in real-time and mostly on one set, of a jury deliberating a capital murder case. Eleven vote to convict, but one man, played by Henry Fonda, holds out, and over the course of ninety minutes eventually convinces all of the others that there is reasonable doubt. Some of the finest character actors: Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, Jack Warden, Robert Webber, Ed Begley and Lee J. Cobb, are on hand, and remarkably each of the twelve make a distinct character, despite us not knowing their names or much of their backgrounds. Some of the sociology is laid on a little thick, but I can't help but feeling good as one man's stand is able to change others.

The winner of the Best Picture Oscar that year was David Lean's Bridge On the River Kwai, which I've seen many times. They used to play it on the 4:30 movie when I was a kid, and took a whole week to show because it is so long. The story of British soldiers in a Japanese prison camp during World War II, it is an almost perfect melding of entertainment and art, and a grand adventure yarn. It is also, slyly, a commentary on three cultures clashing--the Japanese, British, and American. The Japanese commander, gruffly played by Sessue Hayakawa, follows the Bushido code, but is really just a bureaucrat. He must use British labor to build a railway bridge, and if he fails, he will have to commit hari-kari. He in his over his head when he meets Colonel Nicholson, memorably played by Alec Guinness, who is a by-the-book martinet. Guinness, as an officer, refuses to perform manual labor, as this is a provision of the Geneva Convention. There is a war of wills, and Guinness finally wins, and when he does, he sets about overseeing the building of the bridge and forgets that he is aiding the enemy.

Meanwhile, the American, played by William Holden as the wise-ass everyman who prefers girls and booze to being a hero, teams up with another Brit, Jack Hawkins, who sees the war as some kind of great game (or "good show"). They are trying to blow up the bridge, and the ending is one of the best of any picture of any year.

Lean would specialize in huge epics that wouldn't be made today, or at least not the same way. The end of the film, when the bridge is destroyed and a train wrecks, would today be shot using CGI or models. Lean, though, built an actual bridge and wrecked an actual train, having to get it in one take (which makes me think of the joke that has the punchline, "Ready when you are, C.B!"). The verisimilitude of the entire production gives it a kind of sheen that never abates.

Lean and Guinness won Oscars, as did the nominal screenwriter, Pierre Boulle, who wrote the source novel. However, over the years, it came out that Boulle had nothing to do with the script. It was written by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman, two blacklisted screenwriters. After their deaths they were posthumously awarded the prizes, and in the restored version of the film they get their rightful place in the credits.



Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Juno

It's interesting to see that the marketing for Juno centers around its screenwriter, fancifully named Diablo Cody, who was previously best known as a writer of a memoir about being a stripper. It's kind of a surefire thing, identifying anyone as an ex-stripper, or even more vividly, a pole-dancer.
This is Cody's first screenplay, and it shows, but it is also evident of a great talent.

The tale is that of a sixteen-year-old girl who manages to get pregnant the first and only time she has sex, with her best friend, a meek boy. She chooses to give up the baby for adoption, and she sort of adopts herself the yuppie couple who she finds in an ad in the penny saver. There's not really much conflict along the way, as Cody likes her characters too much to put them through much sturm and drang, and instead focuses her abilities on the dialogue.

Oh, the dialogue. You see, Juno, our heroine, is the kind of verbally gifted teen whom we've seen before in TV shows like Dawson's Creek and The Gilmore Girls--impossibly pop-culturally saturated for their years. Juno's lines are a patois of suburban hip-hop and a kind of His Girl Friday rat-a-tat which is as dizzying as it is funny. It's difficult to cite any examples because they all fly by so fast that the last bon mot pushes out of the memory the one that came before it. A few words stand out, though, as the rules of the FCC precluded Rory Gilmore from using words like, "pork-sword" and "vag."

Also, there are some times in the script that are just amateurish, like when Juno's step-mother (Allison Janney) gets ticked at an ultrasound technician, and the big speech by Juno's dad (J.K. Simmons) which basically says look for someone who loves you for yourself. Jeez, I never thought of that! There are also some plot inconsistencies--at the beginning of the film, Juno is buying a pregnancy test in a store within earshot of everyone, including the store clerk, who teases her about it and calls her homeskillet (?) But then later she's worried about her parents and her schoolmates finding out she's pregnant. And it's never discussed how a couple of intelligent kids forego birth control. A line about a condom breaking would have been nice.

If Cody likes all her characters, she is most fond of Juno herself, who at times seems like an alien dropped into our world. She has the bemused father, and the step-mother whose patience has its limits, and her impregnator, played by Michael Cera, tries hard to keep up with her. After his role earlier this year in Superbad, Cera has cornered the market on awkward but sensitive teenage boys. For all of Juno's linguistic acrobatics, I thought that Cera's character was perhaps the most accurately written. He marvels at Juno, but isn't quite sure how to win her, and one's heart breaks a little every time one sees him running in his track outfit.

As the yuppie parents-to-be, Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman are also fine. Garner is a woman pushed to the edge by the inability to procreate and previous disappointments trying to adopt, while her husband retains his adolescence and manages to bond with Juno over shared interests in rock music and horror films. It's a decision he makes that provides the fulcrum on which the plot turns.

Of course, though, the film belongs to Ellen Page in a star-making turn as Juno. I haven't seen her other starring role in Hard Candy, and thus my only exposure to her is her fleeting turn as Kitty Pryde in the last X-Men film. She is a pint-sized performer that packs a giant wallop, though, handling Cody's lines like a master juggler. She manages to be both winsome and brittle. Her character has been fussily created, down to her favorite bands, the pictures in her school locker, and the ironic t-shirts she wears, but Page takes all that information and breathes life into her.

I should add that some of the credit must go to director Jason Reitman, who seems to be ignored in a lot of the publicity, maybe because he was never a stripper. He is a fine director, though, and following Thank You For Smoking, which I thought was dandy, he has become someone who work I will look forward to seeing.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Atonement

Atonement is a first-rate adaptation of a splendid Ian McEwan novel that, when I read it, I thought couldn't be turned into a film that made any sense. Instead, it is one of the best of the year, and pushes its director, Joe Wright, who previously made the charming but comparatively lightweight literary adaptation, Pride and Prejudice, into the A-list of directors.

The first act takes place on a hot English summer's day in 1935, with the alarums of war in the distance, on a large estate belonging to the Tallis family. The older brother is arriving for a visit with a friend, the scion of a chocolate manufacturer. Briony, an overly-imaginative thirteen-year-old, has written a play for the occasion, while her older sister Cecilia languidly soaks up the sun while some sort of unspoken tension exists between her and the housekeeper's son, Robbie, who has earned a scholarship to medical school. A series of misunderstandings will lead Briony to accuse Robbie of a crime which will change the lives of her, Cecelia, and most of all, Robbie.

This first portion of the film, perhaps forty-five minutes long, is an exquisitely wrought pressure-cooker, making perfectly clear what occurs in each agonizing detail, from the way Robbie ends up sending the wrong note to Cecilia to the way scenes are misinterpreted by Briony, through the use of multiple viewpoints. It's almost hard to take a breath during this sequence, especially having read the book and knowing what's coming next, but I think those who haven't will also appreciate the power of the writing and direction (the screenplay is by another old hand at literary adaptations, Christopher Hampton, who previously Oscared for Dangerous Liaisons).

The next section follows Robbie during the early months of World War II, during the evacuation of Dunkirk. The action drags a bit here, and there's a long single take following a group of soldiers on a chaotic beach that seemed a bit show-offy, and then Robbie has an emotional catharsis in a movie house that also was a bit much. The film is quickly back on solid ground, though, when we are now with Briony at age 18, training as a nurse, attempting to atone for what she now realizes what a horrible mistake.

The film ends with a coda featuring Vanessa Redgrave as an old Briony, now a famous novelist, and it's here that, as with the book, the rug is pulled out from under the reader/viewer, and we have to reevaluate everything we have just seen. Even knowing what was coming the ending has a gut-punching power that I would imagine is even more emotionally devastating to those who don't (the women sitting next to me made an audible gasp at the revelation).

There are many elements that make this film so good, starting with the writing and direction but extending to the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, which contributes to the suffocating heat of the first section to the soot-smudged air of the war scenes, and the music by Dario Marianelli, which incorporates the clickety-clack of typewriter keys, which are so important to the story. Finally, there is the acting. James McAvoy is excellent as Robbie, while Keira Knightley is glamorous and smoldering as Cecelia.

Handing the role of Briony in addition to Redgrave are Saorsie Ronan and Romola Garai, and it is helpful that they resemble each other but it's clear that they are the same character just by their posture. Briony is a character who, though she is creative and even fanciful, as her sister describes her, also is somewhat rigid in her beliefs. Somewhere early in life she was damaged somehow, and those around her ended up paying because of it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Blonde on Blonde

After seeing I'm Not There a while back, it was easy for me to fall into a period of listening to a lot of Bob Dylan's music, and it made me wonder what his best album is. Initially I thought Highway 61 Revisited, which contains his most famous song, Like a Rolling Stone, which though it is always playing on some oldies or classic rock station, has never lost its ability to enchant me. Other great songs on that record are Desolation Row, Tombstone Blues, and The Ballad of a Thin Man, as well as the whimsical title track, which introduces a slide whistle to the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Other possibilities are Bringing It All Back Home and Blood on the Tracks, and some might even say one of his most recent trilogy, Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, or Modern Times. But I think the consensus on Dylan's most ambitious record is Blonde and Blonde, which was the first double rock-album ever released and was his apogee as a pop idol. I have a vinyl copy of it (for every music fan of 40 or over there is probably a monument to obsolescence somewhere in their house--a large collection of 33 RPM records that go completely unheard) so I picked up a used copy of the CD, and gave it another listen last night.

There are many well-known songs on the record, including the first, Rainy Day Women #12 and 35, which uses a brass band and includes the memorable refrain, "Everybody must get stoned!" Another big hit was Just Like a Woman, which has been mocked by Woody Allen and decried by some feminist groups. The song does walk a perilous line between insufferable paternalism and endearment, but I think the tenderness with which Dylan sings it makes it fall more in the latter arena.

The album expanded on Dylan's use of surreal lyrics, and includes two examples of some of his most gymnastic writing. Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again is a jaunty anthem about--what? I don't know. I do know that a few of the lines cause me endless glee, such as "Shakespeare's in the alley, with his pointy shoes and his bells, speaking to some French girl, who says she knows me well." And one of Dylan's greatest songs, Visions of Johanna, which could be about Joan Baez or about Hell, has one of his most evocative lines--"Ghosts of electricity howl in the bones of her face."

The overall tone of the record is in the blues, with songs like Pledging My Time and Leopard-skin Pillbox Hat (said to be about Edie Sedgwick). There are some forgettable songs on the album, and the closing, eleven-minute-plus Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands is a bit of a drag, though musically complex, in 6/8 time.

I think individual songs on this album are among Dylan's best, but if I had to choose, I'd say Highway 61 Revisited is still my favorite from beginning to end.



Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Lucky at Cards

When the Hard Case Crime series started three years ago, I read the first two--The Grifter's Game and Fade to Blonde, and enjoyed them both, but didn't keep up with them. They've had a steady output of at least a title per month since then, so I'm going to try to catch up. For my next read I chose Lucky at Cards, a novel first published pseudonymously by Lawrence Block back in 1964.

Block also wrote The Grifter's Game, and of course has gone on to be one of the most esteemed crime writers, with his Matthew Scudder and Bernie Rhodenbarr series. Lucky at Cards shares some of the skeleton that The Grifter's Game does--a con man finds himself seduced by a femme fatale who convinces him to try to do away with her husband. Things don't go as planned.

There are differences, though, that make Lucky at Cards so much fun. The story is narrated by a card shark, Bill Maynard, who after getting caught cheating by some toughs in Chicago gets his teeth broken. He's in an unnamed town between Chicago and New York and gets his teeth fixed by a dentist, and the subject of poker comes up. The dentist invites Bill to a friendly game, and there he meets Joyce Rogers, the much-younger wife of Murray Rogers, a prominent tax attorney. She's had a dicey past, and recognizes him as a "mechanic," (a term for someone who cheats at cards) and they hatch a scheme to get Murray's money. He has an airtight will, though, so killing him won't do any good. Instead Bill tries to frame him for murder.

Block's style is effortless and smooth. As it was written over 40 years ago there are some amusing lines, particularly about money (sixty dollars to fix teeth, and a 10,000 a year job being good money). There's also a rather unenlightened attitude towards women, not only in the figure of Joyce, but in a schoolteacher Bill falls in love with who would have done well to read Betty Friedan. But the twists and turns are a lot of fun, and the book ends with perhaps the only time in literature that a man is playing gin rummy with his life on the line.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Pucks Along the Mohawk

This past weekend I took one of my hockey road trips, this time to Schenectady and Troy, New York. The Princeton club was taking on the Dutchwomen of Union College and the Engineers of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI for short).

Every once in a while these trips are necessary for me. It's a chance to get in the car and be largely unencumbered by much of anything. Along the way I stopped at an IHOP (I hadn't eaten there in ages) and had a meal which must have made my blood sugar sky-rocket. Then I tooled up the New York Thruway and found my way to a nice little bed and breakfast in the Stockade District of Schenectady.

Schenectady is one of those towns that was once very fashionable (it was the home of Henry James' Daisy Miller) but is now way past its prime. Unlike Troy, though, which is still pretty much a place you don't want to be after dark (I stayed there last year), Schenectady seems to be making something of a comeback. The inn I stayed at was only a few blocks from downtown, so I took a little walk and was heartened to see that the area was full of nice little shops. A state-of-the-art movie theater was right on the main drag, next to an old-time movie palace that is now used for stage productions. I took in The Golden Compass at the theater, which is run by a chain called Bow Tie, and they get a thumbs up from me, as they make a point of not showing any commercials before the feature (review of the film directly below this post). I also took a walk down to the Mohawk River, which was completely frozen over.

Union College's best known alumnus is obscure president Chester A. Arthur, and there is a statute of him on campus. Hockey is a pretty big deal in these parts, but unfortunately the women's team is the weak sister of the ECAC, not having won a league game in over three years. Princeton ended up winning, 7-0, but the Union goalie, Lundy Day, certainly gave her all, making 23 saves in the first period alone. She was eventually pulled in the third period to save her any further embarrassment.

The next morning at breakfast, the innkeeper asked me what brought me town and when I told her she mentioned that the other guest was the Union goalie's mother. There I was, in my Princeton sweatshirt, hoping that if I saw this woman it wouldn't be too awkward. But before I saw the mother the front bell rang and in walked Lundy Day herself, with a male friend in tow. As my allegiance was apparent from the insignia on my shirt, there was a nice uncomfortable pause. I didn't know what to say to her. She did play well for a while, but for me to give her the standard, "Nice game," might have seemed to ring hollow.

I was just finishing up my breakfast, so when her mother joined the two of them I did my best to get the hell out so I wouldn't be a constant reminder of the game the night before. When I left I did wish her good luck in her game that would be played that day against Quinnipiac. I was heartened to learn later that night that Union would tie Quinnipiac, 0-0, and that Day was the big hero.

Princeton, for their part, went on to beat RPI, 3-0, so I drove home very happy. My next trip, weather permitting, will be up to the University of Connecticut in a few weeks.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass is a passable children's fantasy-adventure, with a plucky heroine and some mystical mumbo-jumbo. What interested me most in it, though, had less to do with what was on screen that what went on behind it. It is based on a series of books by Philip Pullman, which I have not read. But I do know that Pullman is a fervent atheist. Apparently the books have an underlying message that children should think for themselves, and not succumb to theocratic authority.

The film has pretty much that same message. Only a harebrained zealot would interpret anything in the film that suggests that atheism is the best team to join. However, harebrained zealots are everywhere, and one of the worst is William Donohue, head of the U.S.'s Catholic League. Even though he admits there is nothing objectionable in the film, Donahue has encouraged a boycott by Catholics, in case children should see the film and want to read the books, and thus they will be swayed to the dark side. This makes me mad on so many levels I just want to spit. First of all, atheism, like any religious belief, is not like influenza--exposure doesn't lead to being indoctrinated. Second of all, if I was religious, and I had a child, I would think that exposing that child to all of the world's religious beliefs would be a good thing, because if they did end up following the religion I would hope they would they would do it out of a personal faith, not because they were brought up with blinders and brainwashed. And perhaps most objectionable, I don't think Donahue would dare try this is the books had a positive Judaic message, or Hindu, or even Muslim. Only atheists can be so openly and cravenly insulted.

But enough about nitwits like William Donohue. What about the film? Well, as I said, it's passable fare. There seem to be a lot of this type of film these days (during the previews I saw trailers for a few more, and they all seem to be blending into one film). It doesn't have the spark of the Harry Potter films, but is about as good as Chronicles of Narnia.

It begins with a half-hour of rather clunky exposition. We are told that this is a parallel universe to our own. In this particular universe, the soul does not reside within the body, but in a daemon--an animal that accompanies people where ever they go (sort of like a witch's familiar). Seeing all those animals walking about made me wonder whether people regularly carried plastic bags to clean up after them, or maybe CGI animals don't defecate?

Anyway, there's more stuff about "dust," not the stuff under your bed but some kind of matter that could be proof of other worlds, which the Magisterium, a church-like organization that rules everything, thinks is heresy. Daniel Craig plays a professor who wants to prove the existence of other worlds, and his plucky niece, Lyra, played by Dakota Blue Richards, is some sort of gifted child who is the other person who can read what is called an elithiometer (hope I have the spelling right), or the titular compass, which when asked a question gives one the truth (truth and religion don't go very well together).

Little Lyra catches the eye of Mrs. Coulter, played by Nicole Kidman (the delicious irony of the villainess sharing a name with perhaps the most despicable female public figure in the U.S. is pretty damn sweet), who is some sort of agent for the Magisterium. Lyra escapes her though, and endeavors to find where missing children have been taken. All of this was starting to make my head hurt, and reminded me of numerous other films, from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (missing children) to Pinocchio (the daemons are sort of like Jiminy Cricket) to Mary Poppins (little Dakota uses an accent that is very reminiscent of Dick Van Dyke as Burt the chimney-sweep).

The film gets a needed lift at about the hour mark when two characters arrive--Sam Elliott as Scoresby, a kind of Wild West figure, and a polar bear named Iorek Byrnison, voiced by Ian McKellen. A word of advice to any filmmaker--if you want to improve your film, have Sam Elliott in your cast. He instantly picked things up with his performance. Normally I think a good rule is that any film with talking CGI animals is bad, but I really dug Iorek. He's a washed up warrior, working odd jobs for whiskey, when Lyra employs him as her bodyguard. He ends up battling the king of the ice bears (voiced by Ian McShane) in a fight that was surprisingly exciting.

The ending resolved a few things but left open the obvious call for a sequel, which may or may not come, depending on box office. There's a lot of ridiculous stuff in this film (pity Eva Green, who stars as a witch with some of the most ponderous lines of dialogue I've heard in many a moon) but enough to like that if a sequel were made, I'd be there, especially if Iorek the ice bear returns.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni

When Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni both died on July 30th of this year, it was sort of the cinematic equivalent of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson dying on the same day. There is no record of Antonioni's last words being "Bergman lives," though. Having gone through a trek through the films of Bergman on DVD, I now turn to the other giant who died on that day, Antonioni. Only five of his films are available on DVD: L'Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse, Blowup, and The Passenger.

The story goes that Antonioni admired the work of the abstract expressionist painters, and told one of them, Mark Rothko, "My films are like your paintings--they are about nothing, with precision." Antonioni's work was like nothing that came before it. He said that cinema didn't have to be entertainment, and he routinely broke the rules of film grammar. From watching the five-film representation, I can understand why he was greatly admired, but at the same time his work didn't move me. Perhaps it's because there isn't a shred of sentimentality to them at all.

Antonioni's films weren't really about nothing--if anything, they were about alienation, a struggle to find meaning in life, and a profound ennui. L'Avventura, the film that put him on the map, was booed at the Cannes Film Festival, but also won the Jury Prize. It is about a group of people from the Italian upper class who go on a yacht voyage around the Aeolian Islands off of Sicily. The group disembarks on one of the islands, and the main character up to then, Anna, disappears. Her friends look for her, but she is never found, nor do we as viewers ever find out what happened to her. The film still goes on, though, for another two hours, as her boyfriend, Gabrielle Ferzetti, and her best friend, Monica Vitti, fall in love with each other. Anna not only disappears physically from the film, but she also vanishes from the lives of the characters.

This film is a striking example of composition and the use of deep focus. Antonioni is like a still photographer in grouping his actors, along with the architecture that surrounds them. To me, though, this tends to make the characters more like dolls than people. On the commentary, a critic named Gene Youngblood gushed how the thought this one of the most romantic films ever made, but I just didn't see it.

La Notte and L'Eclisse complete what is generally considered a trilogy (some include Red Desert to make a tetralogy, but alas that film is not available on DVD). La Notte is very much like a Fellini film of the period, but without Fellini's zest. Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau are a married couple who are close the end of their love. They visit a dying friend in the hospital, then the last half of the film is them attending a party. They flirt with other people, and then in the morning realize their marriage is over. L'Eclisse (Eclipse) is an interesting yet confounding film. It recalls what Jean-Luc Godard said when asked if films need a beginning, middle, and end. "Of course," he said, "but not in that order." L'Eclisse begins with an ending, as Monica Vitti and her boyfriend are breaking up. It's as if we are seeing the last few moments of a different movie. But we follow Vitti as she visits her mother, who trades on the stock exchange, as if it were a casino. Then we end up following her broker, played by Alain Delon. There is a sense, and it's kind of thrilling, that any moment a random character could walk by and suddenly the camera would follow him, and he would now be the main character.

The most famous part of L'Eclisse is the ending, or should I say the beginning. For six to seven minutes, after Vitti and Delon have left the stage, Antonioni focuses on what seem to be random places. A bucket full of water, a building, a street where a buggy goes by, then a nurse pushing a pram. We realize that we have seen all these things before. In a conventional film we might see them as establishing shots, but now we see them absent any of our characters. Then streetlights come on, and the last shot is a closeup of a bulb, burning brightly.

Blowup was Antonioni's first film in English, and is set in London's swinging sixties. The main character is a fashion photographer, David Hemmings, who is the male animal run amok. At the beginning of the film he has spent the night in a homeless shelter, taking pictures of the poor, but then comes out and hops into his Rolls-Royce convertible, returns to his studio, and takes pictures of supermodel Veruschka while she writhes on the floor, scantily clad.

The spine of the film concerns candid photos Hemmings takes of two people in a park. One of them is Vanessa Redgrave, who desperately wants the pictures back. When Hemmings develops them he realizes he has photographed a murder. A conventional film would have Hemmings contacting the police, or being threatened by the criminals, but this is not a conventional film. Instead it is a philosophical one, dealing with the role of the artist in reality. Antonioni resists convention at every turn. A very common element of films in the sixties was the inclusion of a rock number to draw in the youth crowd. This film has a performance by The Yardbirds, but is not typical. As they perform, the crowd watches impassively, as if they were zombies. Only when a guitar is smashed does the crowd awaken, feverishly attempting to snatch a piece of the guitar. Hemmings grabs it, but when the leaves the club he realizes the guitar piece is worthless, because it has been removed from its context. The film ends with Hemmings watching two mimes play a game of tennis without rackets or ball. When one of the mimes indicates that the ball has gone out of the court, and indicates that Hemmings should retrieve it, he pauses a moment, and then goes to grab the imaginary ball, thus entering into their world.

The Passenger stars Jack Nicholson as a journalist in North Africa investigating a guerilla war. He is staying at a remote hotel. When an Englishman who looks very much like him dies of a heart attack, Nicholson makes a snap decision to assume his identity. But the dead man turns out to be a gunrunner. Again, this is the kind of plot that a Hollywood film would do all sorts of things with, but Antonioni has different fish to fry. The film is not so much concerned with narrative as it with mood and tone. Frankly I found it a bit of a snooze.

I do like that Antonioni doesn't spoon-feed the audience. His films are mysteries, but in the usual sense. Most of us are accustomed to mystery films involving a puzzle and a solution, but his films don't have solutions. They are very intellectually rigorous, but I guess I've been too conditioned to the Hollywood method and need some kind of emotional involvement. A true cinema buff should take a look at these films, though.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Norman Mailer

Hearing of the death of Norman Mailer at age 84 on November 10th, it occurred to me that I knew him more as a public figure than I did as a writer. I have read only two of his books: Tough Guys Don't Dance, a mystery thriller he wrote in six months when he needed some cash, and Armies of the Night, his award-winning book about the anti-war movement, specifically the march on the Pentagon in October, 1967.

That leaves a lot for me to catch up with. Reading the obituaries and tributes it would seem that the obvious choices would be The Naked and the Dead, his debut novel of World War II which made him an instant literary star, and The Executioner's Song, his Pulitzer-Prize winning true-crime novel about Gary Gilmore, which many cited as his masterpiece. Mailer was also a proficient writer of non-fiction and essays, and some of the other titles that interest me are Advertisements for Myself, which includes his famous essay "The White Negro" about hipsterism, and Miami and the Siege of Chicago, about the presidential conventions of 1968.

Despite Mailers' gifts as a writer he will always be best remembered for his antics: stabbing one of his wives, running a quixotic campaign for mayor New York City, championing a writer who was an ex-con who ended up murdering someone. Only a few months ago a clip surfaced on YouTube of Mailer getting into a fistfight with actor Rip Torn while Mailer was shooting a movie in the sixties.

And then there were his public appearances. There were two I thought of immediately upon hearing the news of his death. One was an appearance on the Dick Cavett Show, where he appeared to be drunk and sparred with fellow guests Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner. Cavett got into it with him and Mailer snidely made reference to Cavett's sheet of paper with questions on it. Cavett suggested he take the paper and "fold it four ways and stick it where the moon don't shine." Not only was it great television, but it makes me nostalgic for a time when people like Vidal and Mailer were guests on a network television show. The other is Mailer's participation in a panel discussion on feminism that occurred about 1970. The results were turned into a film called Town Bloody Hall, and I caught in on PBS many years ago. It's an absolute hoot, with Mailer trying to maintain some kind of macho swagger (he goes off on a rant about how the word "cunt" is appropriate) and debates with feminist firebrands like Germaine Greer.

But of course Mailer was a great writer. I found my old yellowed copy of The Armies of the Night and re-read it. Mailer divides the book into two parts. The first is The History as Novel, and he writes of himself in the third person, detailing three days surrounding the march on the Pentagon and his subsequent arrest. He rubs shoulders with men such as poet Robert Lowell, critic Dwight MacDonald and musician and mischief-maker Tuli Kupferberg. While he is writing in the third person, he doesn't spare his warts, and seems perfectly aware of his giant ego. And the man is such a brilliant stylist. Consider this passage, where he talks about obscenity:

"The common discovery of America was probably that Americans were the first people on earth to live for their humor; nothing was so important to Americans as humor. In Brooklyn, he had taken this for granted, at Harvard he had thought it was a by-product of being at Harvard, but in the Army he discovered that humor was probably in the veins and the roots of the local history of every state and county in America--the truth of the way it really felt over the years passed on a river of obscenity from small-town storyteller to storyteller there down below the bankers and the books and the educators and the legislators--so Mailer never felt more like an American than when he was naturally obscene--all the gifts of the American language came out in the happy play of obscenity upon concept, which enabled one to go back to concept again. What was magnificent about the word shit is that in enabled you to use the word noble: a skinny Southern cracker with a beatific smile on his face saying in the dawn in a Filipino rice paddy, "Man, I just managed to take a noble shit." Yeah, that was Mailer's America."

The second part of the book is The Novel as History, and Mailer removes himself from the proceedings and details just how the march was organized and what happened to others than himself. This reads a bit like a term paper, albeit a very good one, and kind of allows the fun of the first part of the book to deflate. Hopefully anyone who hopes to stop the war in Iraq will read it, though, as the gang that Mailer was running with did manage to eventually stop a war. Maybe these methods should be used again.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Great White Fathers

Great White Fathers is a dandy book by John Taliaferro about the construction and the iconography of the presidential faces on Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The monument is an interesting symbol, not least because it is smack in the middle of a sacred area for the local Indians. Having a huge sculpture of the leaders' of their oppressors has rubbed the Indians the wrong way for years.

The mountain was carved under the supervision of Gutzon Borglum, and the bulk of this book is his biography. He was an interesting cuss, to say the least. A man of huge ego (one would have to be to take on projects the scale he did) he led a fascinating and outrageous life. Taliaferro, in telling Borglum's story, goes off on tangents that are quite interesting, such as the history of public sculpture in America, the history of the Klu Klux Klan (Borglum was never a member, but was sympathetic to their cause, and almost included them in the monument at Stone Mountain, Georgia) and presidential politics, as Borglum was heavily involved with the candidacy of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. One is amazed that he found time to carve Mount Rushmore.

Beyond the exploits of Borglum, Taliaferro tells a larger tale of the legacy and meaning of the monument, and this is in basically two prongs: the tourism that has sprouted around it, and the feelings of the Indians. Borglum was adamant that he didn't want trinket shops to sully the grandeur of the thing, and that was a wish not granted. Nearby Keystone, South Dakota is full of all sorts of tourist traps that keep the economy afloat but demean whatever purpose the monument has. Of course, this is why the monument was built in the first place, as it was the idea of a South Dakota businessman. Automobile travel had become more available to the masses and people were starting to take driving vacations. He wanted a reason for people to come to South Dakota, and hit on this idea. And there is an interesting history of Indian acceptance and protest of the monument. One Indian, Ben Black Elk, was an unofficial greeter for years, and made a nice living posing for photographs. Other Indians have not been so happy about it, and have staged many protests over the years.

Then there is perhaps the even bigger question of whether taking a perfectly good mountain and artificially turning it into a tourist mecca a good thing. That's a question that is difficult to answer, I think.

Monday, December 03, 2007

I'm Not There

"It's like yesterday, today and tomorrow, all in the same room. You never know what will happen," is the last line of Todd Haynes' cinematic collage I'm Not There, and it's a good summation of what has just happened. Haynes has taken the myth and legacy of Bob Dylan and his music and split it into six, each one existing alongside the other. The result is in very much in keeping with Dylan's career--occasionally brilliant and occasionally maddening.

Dylan was aware of making himself a myth from the very beginning. Though he was a middle-class kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, when he arrived in Greenwich Village in the 1960's he would give interviews stating all sorts of things, like that he was a carny from Gallup, New Mexico. He has reinvented himself many times over. He has been folkie and rock star, Jew and Christian, jester and sage. Haynes' approach is therefore quite appropriate, but the film doesn't completely work as a whole.

There are six Dylans here, but none of them are called Bob Dylan. They all have different names: Woody, an eleven-year-old black kid who rides the rails and enchants hobos with tall tales while strumming a guitar (Marcus Carl Franklin); Arthur Rimbaud, a poet who is going through some sort of inquisition (Ben Whishaw); Jack Rollins, the troubadour who makes a huge splash on the folk scene in the early sixties, playing music in traditional forms but with contemporary lyrics (Christian Bale); Robbie Clark, a movie star who is "James Dean, Marlon Brando and Jack Kerouac rolled into one," (Heath Ledger); Jude Quinn, a folk singer who has angered his fans by going electric (Cate Blanchett); and William McCarty, an outlaw hiding out in a town that appears to exist outside of time (Richard Gere).

Of these six facets of Dylan's persona, three of them do not involve music, and I thought those didn't work as well as those that did. None of them are as fully realized as the Jude Quinn segments, which captures Dylan when he was at the height of his fame. It begins with him going electric at a folk festival, and includes the apparently apocryphal anecdote of Pete Seeger attempting to cut the power lines with an ax. There is the flirtation with an Edie Sedgwick-like model, cavorting with The Beatles, and sharing Jesus jokes with Allen Ginsberg: "Come down off there before you hurt yourself!" Mostly this segment deals with Dylan/Quinn's adversarial relationship with the press, which is personified by Bruce Greenwood as a BBC reporter who tries to take off the mask Quinn is wearing. The very best part of the film is when all of this is set to "The Ballad of a Thin Man," which was Dylan's excoriation of the press. It also captures the time when his early fans turned on him for going electric, including his famous concert at Albert Hall when someone in the crowd yelled, "Judas!" and Dylan/Quinn replies, "I don't believe you." Haynes does not choose to add what Dylan did next, which was to turn to his band and say, "Play it fuckin' loud."

Blanchett really nails the Dylan of that period, who wasn't interested in playing anyone's game. When you watch tapes of those press conferences you can almost sympathize with the press, because he never gave straight answers. Haynes doesn't include my favorite, when Dylan is asked what he considers himself. "A song and dance man," is the reply.

The second-best segments involve Franklin as the young boy, Woody, who has taken his name from his idol, Woody Guthrie (who Dylan did worship). Franklin is a terrific young performer, and is quite engaging as a cocky kid full of blarney. There's also a great musical moment when he plays Tombstone Blues with Richie Havens.

Least successful are the Ledger and Gere segments. I've never really thought of Dylan as a matinee idol, so didn't really get the whole Robbie Clark sequences. He is an actor who is married to a French artist (Charlotte Gainsbourg) but has a wandering eye. Is this a comment on Dylan dumping his girlfriend to marry British model Sarah Lownds? He certainly wasn't the first celebrity to have a messy private life, and as these things go, it wasn't particularly that messy.

As for the Gere segments, they certainly are hallucinatory. Gere is William McCarty, which of course was Billy the Kid's real name (a wink at Dylan's participation in Sam Peckinpah's film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid). He lives in a western town, Riddle, Missouri, that is being torn down for a highway. Given Dylan's enigmatic qualities, Riddle is surely not an idly chosen name (young Woody also claims Riddle as his home town). The town is a kind of Old West dream state, where zoo animals roam free. It's nice visually but doesn't really have anything to say about Dylan, other than that he is a very private person.

If all this is at times profoundly head-scratching, there's always the music. In addition to Ballad of a Thin Man and Tombstone Blues, a lot of my personal favorites are represented. Bale (apparently lip-syncing) does a nice job with The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, and the Gere segments are scored with the intro to The Man in the Long Black Coat, one of the best from his otherwise fallow 1980s. However, if you are not a fan of Dylan's, there probably isn't much reason for you to see this film.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Oscar: WIld-Ass Guesses

Before the onslaught of critics' and guild awards, here's my stab at who will get the major Oscar nominations. All the major releases seem to have been seen by at least someone by now, but I'm sure the landscape will shift over the next month. Final predictions in January. All nominees in alphabetical order.

Best Picture:

American Gangster
Atonement
The Kite Runner
Michael Clayton
No Country For Old Men

I wouldn't be gobsmacked if any of these don't make the cut, as there is no clear front-runner at this point. Atonement and No Country seem the safest bets, with Gangster and Clayton next. I'll stick in The Kite Runner to get the feel-good slot. There Will Be Blood may be too distasteful and idiosyncratic, and Into the Wild seems to have faded. I'm not buying (yet) the Tom O'Neill ejaculations for Sweeney Todd.

Best Director:

Paul Thomas Anderson, There Will Be Blood
Joel and Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men
Sidney Lumet, Before The Devil Knows You're Dead
Ridley Scott, American Gangster
Joe Wright, Atonement

Rarely matches with Picture. I figure the directors will be kinder to PT Anderson than the general voting ranks, and will get a charge out of giving Lumet another nomination.


Best Actor:

George Clooney, Michael Clayton
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood
Johnny Depp, Sweeney Todd
James McAvoy, Atonement
Denzel Washington, American Gangster

Other possibilities: Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild, Tom Hanks, Charlie Wilson's War. Philip Seymour Hoffman may be undone by his own hard work, as he really deserves a nomination for Before the Devil but could split votes with The Savages. But he will probably get a supporting nod (see below).

Best Actress:

Julie Christie, Away From Her
Marion Cotillard, La Vie en Rose
Angelina Jolie, A Mighty Heart
Keira Knightley, Atonement
Ellen Page, Juno

Four of these women are pretty safe, and I'm sticking with Jolie in the fifth slot out of pure stubborness. If she doesn't get it it will probably be Laura Linney for The Savages. Way outside chance for Amy Adams in Enchanted.

Best Supporting Actor:

Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men
Philip Bosco, The Savages
Hal Holbrook, Into the Wild
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Charlie Wilson's War
Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton

Bardem and Wilkinson are locks, and Holbrook should be close to one. I've gone with a second old man, Bosco, which may be wrong-headed, but I have doubts about the others: Paul Dano, There Will Be Blood, Ethan Hawke, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Casey Affleck, Assassination of Jesse James, Ben Foster, 3:10 to Yuma.

Best Supporting Actress:

Cate Blanchett, I'm Not There
Kelly MacDonald, No Country For Old Men
Saoirse Ronan, Atonement
Amy Ryan, Gone Baby Gone
Tilda Swinton, Michael Clayton

Other possibilities include Marisa Tomei, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Ruby Dee, American Gangster, Jennifer Garner, Juno, Leslie Mann, Knocked Up, and Vanessa Redgrave, Atonement. Interesting thing about Ronan and Redgrave, they are two of three actresses (Romola Garai is the third) playing the same character in the film. If two are nominated it would be the first time two or more performers playing the same character in the same film would be nominated in the same category.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Bonnie and Clyde

A great film transcends time, and Bonnie and Clyde is a great film, but it becomes even more fascinating when considering it in the context of the time when it was first seen. The film, directed by Arthur Penn and produced by and starring Warren Beatty, was released forty years ago, and has, over the years, been less remembered as a piece of cinema than it has as a benchmark in the history of film criticism.

In 1967, all over the U.S. and many other countries, there was an Us versus Them mentality. "Don't trust anyone over 30," so the saying went, and conservative old world values were taking a beating as almost every element of society protested. Drugs and free love were now in the mainstream. Psychedelia was now prevalent on Madison Avenue, and this can all be seen in Bonnie and Clyde, even though the film is set during the Great Depression in the dust-bowl. The trailer (one of the few extras on the DVD) is clear in this regard. "They're young, they're in love, they kill people!" is the tag-line, which is scripted in "groovy," psychedelic graphics.

The story is well-known among those who follow film criticism. The film was released in late summer and the New York Times venerable critic, Bosley Crowther, panned it, as did Time magazine. Pauline Kael, though, wrote a 9,000 word hosanna in The New Yorker, and the film went on to be nominated for ten Academy Awards. Crowther resigned and was replaced by Renata Adler, who was not yet thirty years old. The times, they were-a changin.'

What was it about Bonnie and Clyde that ignited such a firestorm? Looking at it again last night, I think it was two reasons: the violence, of course, and that it managed to maintain, simultaneously, two different tones. Films had been violent before, consider Psycho, but Bonnie and Clyde did not suggest it, it showed it. For the first half hour, the film is a somewhat lighthearted romance about two spectacularly appealing movie-star types meeting cute (Bonnie catches Clyde trying to steal her mother's car) and embarking on a rompish life of crime (that Clyde is presented as impotent is a disconcerting harbinger). Flatt and Scruggs "Foggie Mountain Breakdown" plays on the soundtrack, perhaps reminding viewers of wholesome fare like The Beverly Hillbillies, which was contemporary. They adopt the simple-minded C.W. Moss to further reinforce their family unit, and while robbing a bank C.W. comically can't pass up getting a great parking space, which dramatically slows their getaway. Then a bank employee steps on the running-board of the getaway car, and Clyde shoots him in the face. A page had been turned in the history of cinema.

The mixture of the hillbilly humor and the almost New-Wavish direction by Penn (there are subtle jump cuts, slow motion, and consider the scene where Bonnie visits her family, which is shot with some kind of amber filter) can be unsettling. What is to be made of the existence of the character of Blanche, wife of Buck Barrow, a preacher's daughter who screams in terror and runs around like a lunatic when the gang is ambushed by police? She is both comic relief and heart-wrenching pathos, the only true victim of the piece. And then there are the scenes that amplify the rebellion of the sixties: the scene in which the Texas Ranger is humiliated, and the scene where Gene Wilder and his girlfriend are kidnapped. The Ranger scene is sort of encapsulation of the anti-authority feeling that was widespread. He was "The Man," who should be helping poor folks, Clyde says. The Ranger would get his revenge, of course, in the most brutal of fashion, perhaps a reminder of the carnage not only on the streets of the urban centers of America but also Vietnam. And the Wilder scene (it is amusing to see Wilder had his familiar tics even back then) is clearly presented as the hip vs. square. The Barrow Gang are the cutting edge, "with-it," while Wilder's button-down undertaker is fuddy-duddy nowheresville.

The most famous scene of the picture is the last, the balletic orgy of bullets that end the ballad of Bonnie and Clyde. The film was released by Warner Brothers, whose stock in trade had been the gangster pictures of Robinson, Bogart and Cagney, but if there remained any doubt that this was your father's gangster picture, it ended right there. People today who are weaned on Saw and Hostel films would yawn at this scene, but I can imagine how shocking it was back then, and then how unsettled people must have been gathering their coats to leave the theater as the film ends abruptly seconds later.

Film violence would never be the same. Sam Peckinpah picked up the ball and ran with it, and now, forty years later, we are grappling with torture porn. There is no direct cause and effect, I think, because what Bonnie and Clyde was trying to say was that people didn't just grip their chests and fall over when they got shot--there was blood. Over the course of time that realization became a means for titillation.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Transformers

Megan Fox, in an interview with Maxim (my go-to source for info on college-age starlets) said that Transformers was "the best film Michael Bay has ever directed." Let's pause to contemplate how fraught with ambiguity that statement is. Is it merely hype from a girl trying to put fannies in the seats, or is it a sardonic, back-handed compliment, kind of like saying someone is the world's tallest midget?

I caught up with this film over the Thanksgiving weekend, and I give thanks for Megan, who may just be the most beautiful female human being walking the planet. She is so good-looking it hurts. I think if I were ever in her presence I would just sizzle and melt like the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz. In Transformers she plays the hottest girl in high school, natch, who happens to know her way around a car engine and has a juvie record, which only heightens her appeal.

I am not in the demographic for this movie. I understand that the genesis of this was a Hasbro toy--vehicles that with a few twists and turns could be turned into robots. This led to a cartoon series, and eventually a summer special effects extravaganza that grossed over 200 million domestic. I have never played with the toy or saw the cartoon, being in my twenties by the time it hit, but there is evidently a large population of kids who now in their twenties and thirties who did, as well as current kids, who enjoy this sort of thing.

I have a hard time understanding how anyone over thirteen could tolerate this nonsense. We have a dumb storyline about how these sentient robots, who can manipulate themselves into common machines, do battle over the future of mankind. They find a kid, Shia LeBoeuf, whose ancestor had a key piece of information that is now in his hands. He and the hot chick end up being involved in this, best summed up by LeBoeuf's line, "I bought a car and it turned out to be an alien robot."

There are further inanities, such as John Turturro hamming it up as a secret agent, Jon Voight visually pained while playing the Secretary of Defense, and another hot chick, this time a blonde Australian, playing a computer expert while running around in fuck-me pumps. All this and the fact that the robots have given themselves names that they could have lifted off the doodles of a third-grader's notebook, like Megatron, Ironhide, and Starscream. The head good-guy robot is called Optimus Prime. Wouldn't a sentient robot from an advanced race know that his name is an oxymoron?

At least this film knows it's dumb. Several times the script winks at the camera, indicating a level of camp. But there is good cheese and bad cheese, and this is pretty bad. The only way to tolerate this sort of thing, aside from watching Megan Fox, is imagining what the robots from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 would do to it.

And is this the best Michael Bay film ever? Taking a look at his filmography, which I realize I've seen an alarmingly high percentage of, I would say no. He was the director of a Playboy Playmate Video back in 1990. I would say that remains his crowning achievement.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bergman: Regrets and Recriminations


This is the last of my posts on the films of Ingmar Bergman (at least until a few more become available on DVD), and will cover his films of the seventies and a few more besides.

I mentioned before the prominent use of red in The Passion of Anna. Well, in his next film, we are soaked in red. The setting for Cries and Whispers is almost entirely the inside of a turn of the century house which has red floors, red walls, red draperies. It is like being inside a womb, which is appropriate, because this is the story of four women. Three of them are sisters. One, Harriet, is dying a slow and painful death. Her two sisters, Liv Ullmann and Ingrid attend to her, but are distracted by their own painful memories, so it is the maid, Kari Sylwan, who is her closest attendant.

As Andersson dies, each woman has a flashback to a pivotal event in her life, and Bergman does not fade to black, he fades to red. The men in these women's lives make token appearances, as they are ineffectual and like dolls. Ullmann's character is a flirt who dallies with the doctor while her husband is away. Thulin is a cold woman and her flashback is the most memorable, as she takes a shard of broken glass and puts it in a place that will make anyone squirm. Cries and Whispers is a suffocating, intense film of great beauty and fragility, and amazingly was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1973 (not just Foreign Language--Best Picture!). Sven Nykvist's camera work did win an Oscar.

Bergman's next move was quite daring. Though he was internationally renowned director he was having trouble financing his pictures. He decided to do television, and the result was a six-part domestic drama, Scenes From a Marriage. It was a huge hit in Scandinavia. Policemen in Denmark noted that on the last night of the show no one was on the streets. For the U.S. market, Bergman whittled the film down to just under three hours, and it was also a huge art-house hit. The film documents the decline of the marriage between Johan and Marianne) Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann). At the beginning of the film they have been married for ten years and are quite happy, especially contrasted with their good friends, whom they share an uncomfortable dinner with. But Johan meets another woman, and breaks the news to Marianne in their summer cottage. She immediately wants a divorce, but Johan is for some reason hesitant. In a later scene, which bubbles with terrific writing and acting, they meet at her office to sign the divorce papers. They are a bit giddy, and make love on the floor, but before the scene is over Johan has assaulted her. It's as if the two are locked together in some primeval link, forever compelled to reconnect.

In the mid-seventies, Bergman was arrested for tax evasion. He was later exonerated, but the experience was so dreadful (the authorities took him away from a theater rehearsal) that he vowed never to work there again. He relocated to Munich, and made a deal with Dino DeLaurentiis (that just doesn't sound right). He now had all sorts of money to work with, and the result was one of his biggest duds, The Serpent's Egg. The film was in English, but set in Weimar Germany. It concerns an American circus performer, David Carradine, as he gets involved with sinister, proto-Nazi psychological experiments. It was Bergman's homage to the German expressionism films of the twenties and thirties, and it just doesn't work. In the supplemental materials, Ullmann thinks it's because Bergman, now flush with funds, abandoned his style of tight closeups and went whole hog with production design. An entire set replicating 1922 Berlin was built, so he showed it off. It's an interesting picture, but not a very good one.

His next film, shot in Norway, was something of a milestone in that it combined the forces of the two greatest Swedish names in cinema, both of them Bergman--Ingmar and Ingrid. Autumn Sonata concerns a famed concert pianist, reunited with her two daughters, neither of which she seen in many years. Ingrid Bergman is the mother, Ullmann is one of the daughters (the other is spastic and needs constant medical care). Over the course of the ninety minutes of this film the two women hash out all the old wounds they have been carrying for years. Bergman was an inattentive mother, and Ullmann lets her have it, especially in a scene that lasts a good twenty minutes. This is the kind of film that makes you examine your own relationships with your family members, and if you're lucky they are better than they are in Bergman films.

In the early eighties Bergman announced he was retiring, and his last film was to be Fanny and Alexander. In many ways, the resulting film was a catharsis for him, as well as being unlike anything he had ever done before. For one thing it was a spectacle, involving lavish sets and costumes and a huge cast. It is the story of two children, who first are in a large, boisterous family of theater professionals. But after their beloved father dies, their mother (played by Ewa Fröling, a lookalike of Liv Ullmann) marries a severe bishop, and the kids are plunged into a Dickensian nightmare. Their grandmother, with the assistance of a kindly Jewish antiques dealer, endeavors to rescue them.

Early on in the film, Alexander plays with a magic lantern, which is a key touchstone in Bergman's life and works. It was with this kind of toy that he first discovered a love of cinema, and he titled his autobiography Magic Lantern to boot. Fanny and Alexander is the kind of film that is for serious film lovers, a sumptuous feast of the senses. After I saw it for the first time I walked out of the theater emotionally wrung out.

Bergman did not completely retire. He continued to write scripts, and directed a few more films, some for TV. One of them as After the Rehearsal, with Josephson and Lena Olin, which I liked so much I saw it twice in a few weeks over at the Lincoln Plaza cinemas, but it is not available on DVD. His last directorial effort turned out to be Saraband, which reunited the characters of Johan and Marianne from Scenes from a Marriage, now old and long estranged. Marianne decides to visit him for reasons she's not quite sure of, and ends up in the middle of a squabble involving Johan's ineffectual son and his granddaughter, who is a talented cellist. The film is a series of dialogues, as there are never more than two characters on screen at once. It has a very theatrical tone, though the recognizable Bergman closeups are there. We also again hear some of the most shocking, scathing language between family members you are likely to hear, such as Josephson telling his son that he means nothing to him. Contempt is palpable in this film.

On the DVD extras for Saraband, there is a fascinating glimpse of Bergman in action as a director. He was in his eighties when he made the film, but is spry. He has a reputation as being such a dour man so it's nice to see him in lighthearted moments. At one point he tells Ullmann that she is not speaking loudly enough, and she teases him by saying he is old and hard of hearing, which makes him laugh. Watching him work with actors is very interesting as well.

Now that Bergman is gone it's easy and tempting to over emphasize his attitudes about death. On the Saraband extras he talks about this, and relates that he once had a great fear of death, which is what The Seventh Seal was about. And then, his last wife died, and since he did not believe in an afterlife, he was disconsolate that he would never seen her again. But his friend Josephson gave him a bit of advice. "Just hang on to that," he told his old friend.