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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Funny People


Director Judd Apatow had the first box-office disappointment of his career last summer with Funny People, and due to a chorus of lackluster reviews I avoided it in theaters. But a few critics put it on their best of 2009 lists, so I decided to take a look and was surprised to find it very good--I'd venture to say that of the films he has directed, it is his finest. It's certainly his most mature.

Apatow, of course, specializes in films about men who act like children. In this film the man is George Simmons, played by Adam Sandler, a character much like Sandler himself: a wildly successful stand-up comedian who has made millions in puerile comedies, such as one about a merman, or another with Sandler's head on a baby's body. He lives alone in a vast mansion, without any real friends, out of touch with his family. Then he finds out he has a rare form of leukemia.

One night he goes to the local comedy club and is amused by Ira (Seth Rogen), an earnest fellow who works in a supermarket deli and lives on a friend's pull-out couch. Sandler, in search of some kind of human connection, hires Rogen to write jokes and be a general factotum.

A movie about a dying comedian has built in problems that could lead to box-office poison, and the film was also notorious for being close to two and a half hours long. But it's a shame it didn't find a bigger audience, because it is funny and also more emotionally authentic than Apatow's first two films, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up. As with those films, there is a core world of men with Peter Pan Syndrome--here it's Rogen's two roommates, an actor in a dreadful sitcom (Jason Schwartzmann) and a fellow comedian who's got a better career going (Jonah Hill). But unlike the guys in Knocked Up, these two are a little better put together, and if they aren't as crudely obvious, they seem to be realer people. The conflict between Rogen and Schwartzmann over a girl (winningly played by Aubrey Plaza, who is as close to real women in an Apatow-directed film) seems more genuine than the hijinks in Knocked Up.

But where the film really shines is in the relationship that develops between Sandler and Rogen. Though there's a love story involving Sandler's old girlfriend, Leslie Mann, this is about the love between two men (platonic, although there is a lot of discussion of genitalia). Rogen's character is a rarity in a Hollywood movie--he's a genuinely nice guy, the kind of person who apologizes when someone steps up on his foot. I instantly found myself rooting for him, perhaps recognizing a lot of myself in him. He has a stand-up routine at the end of the film about how he reacts to hot girls that I think resonates with a lot of men.

A film about comedians is tricky, because if they're not funny the whole thing collapses. Fortunately the comedy, by Sandler, Rogen, and Hill, is funny. There are clips of Sandler when he was first starting out (he and Apatow were comedians on the circuit together), and the insight into the process is fascinating. I think a lot of comedians hear a joke and instead of laughing say, with a straight face but with sincerity, "That's funny."

The film does take an unfortunate veer into a bizarre section in which Sandler and Mann take up again. Eric Bana, as Mann's husband, is done no favors with an impossible character to play. Apatow tries to make him both a prick and a decent fellow, but there's really nothing there for Bana to play. Apatow also casts his children as Mann's daughters (Mann is his wife in real life), but the nepotism isn't damaging, as the kids are good, especially the older daughter's rendition of "Memory" from Cats.

Funny People is also littered with cameos, and they are well-used, particularly Andy Dick, Ray Romano, James Taylor, and Sarah Silverman. The best turn is by Eminem, which had me hoping for another starring role by Mr. Mathers. Perhaps in a Judd Apatow comedy.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Julia


As we near the announcement of the Oscar nominations, there has been a drumbeat by some critics, notably Roger Ebert, for a dark horse: Tilda Swinton, for her performance of the title role in Julia. After having seen the film last night I can understand the sentiment, but I'm not sure if I'm in entire agreement. I think there is a difference between best acting and most acting.

Written and directed by Erick Konca, Julia, which appropriates the title of a much better film from 1977 starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave, was inspired by the John Cassavetes film Gloria, which itself was remade with Sharon Stone. One wonders if the essence of the story--a hard-bitten floozy learns she has a maternal side while on the run with a child--needs to be retold. But here it is, anyway. Swinton is Julia, an alcoholic who has just lost her job. A boyfriend (Saul Rubinek) forces her to go to AA meetings, where she meets a troubled young Mexican woman, who seizes on a new friendship to ask if Julia might help her kidnap her son.

Swinton, who cares about nothing except where her next drink is coming from, rightly thinks the woman is crazy, but when she learns that the boy is in the custody of a rich grandfather, she gets some ideas about double-crossing the woman and taking the boy herself. Armed with a gun she buys from a local street thug and an eerie plastic black mask, she snatches the boy (Aidan Gould) and sets off on an ill-thought out adventure that ends up in Tijuana, where real kidnappers get involved.

I found this film distasteful and ungainly. For a film in the thriller genre, it is long--about two and a half hours, and feels bloated. It is badly paced, and (obsolete reference here) plays like a forty-five record played at thirty-three-and-a-third. The scenes in which the boy is trussed up like a Christmas goose are unseemly, and the subsequent bonding between Swinton and her hostage, though perhaps true to the effects of Stockholm Syndrome, struck me as false.

Swinton, a fine actress, leaves nothing in her trailer here. She seems to have chugged Red Bull before each scene, and gesticulates wildly in a twitching fashion. What troubles me about the performance is that the effort shows--I never once believed she was the character, simply an accomplished performer flexing her acting chops. Sorry, Roger, I don't think she deserves a nomination. She's not likely to get one, anyway.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Anvil: The Story of Anvil

I must admit that I'm not much of a fan of heavy metal rock, and that I had never heard of the Canadian band Anvil before the documentary about them created some buzz. It has won several awards from critics groups as the best non-fiction film of 2009, so I figured it was worth a look. It turns out to be a heartfelt, fascinating real-life This Is Spinal Tap.

The film opens with footage from a heavy metal festival in Japan in 1984, featuring bands like The Scorpions and Bon Jovi, who would go on to sell millions of records. Also included in the bill was Anvil, who were well-respected by their cohort but would not catch on with the public. Interviews with members from Metallica, Slayer, and Guns 'n' Roses testify to Anvil's greatness, but twenty years later they were in complete obscurity, working day jobs, but still together, hoping to make more music and make it big.

The two founding members of the band are singer and guitarist Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner, who have a relationship like brothers. They are both interesting characters and make for good drama. Kudlow is fiery, temperamental, and a romantic, while Reiner is more stoic, but nonetheless dedicated to supporting Lips' vision. As Slash points out, how many bands last thirty years? "The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Anvil," he answers his own question.

The film has two segments. The first involves a pathetic tour to Europe, where they play before some enthusiastic but mostly sparse crowds. Their manager, a well-meaning fan, seems overwhelmed, and they get stuck in train stations and are enraged when a club in Prague tries to stiff them of their money.

Lips sends a demo tape to a man who produced them years before, and to almost everyone's surprise he agrees to make their next record in England, if they can raise the money. Lips' sister loans him the money, in a scene that would take someone heartless not to be moved by. During the recording session, Lips and Reiner have it out, and their reconciliation is so raw and revealing it's thrilling.

The film was directed by Sacha Gervasi, an Anvil fan and ex-roadie. There are many winks and nods to the resemblance to Spinal Tap (beyond the delicious coincidence of Robb Reiner's name), such as a side-trip to Stonehenge and a closeup of a dial on an amp that goes up to 11. Gervasi clearly has affection for the group but is not above telling it like it is, showing a concert hall in Romania that seats 10,000, but only has 174 fans in attendance. A scene in which Lips goes to work as a telemarketer has the kind of uncomfortable tinge of reality that frequents TV shows like The Office.

But in the end you can't help rooting for these guys, and I see on the Net that this film has given them a bit of a boost, including an appearance on Conan O'Brien, their first ever network appearance. I trust that Lips did not wear his regalia from 1984--a bondage harness--nor did he wave about his trusty prop--a large dildo. Rock and roll, man.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Girl Who Played With Fire


Stieg Larsson, a Swedish journalist, managed to turn in the manuscripts for three thrillers before he passed away at the age of fifty. The first, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, was a huge bestseller. I recently finished the second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire, but I don't recommend starting with that one, as there is a lot of reference to events that must have happened in the first book--these books do not stand alone.

Larsson's writing is also afflicted with a malady that many first-time mystery writers suffers from. He has a strong tendency of overdescribing, and bogs the narrative down with massive amounts of extraneous details. When he mentions a character he frequently gives us their precise age, plus a recitation of their background. This has the effect of stopping the action with dry facts that made the early portions of the book, which are exposition-heavy, a chore to get through. This alleviates a lot as the plot kicks in, but even toward the end of the book, when we're closing in a climax, he gives us the inventory of a character's kitchen: "The refrigerator contained an open milk carton, some cheese, butter, caviar, and a half-empty jar of pickled gherkins. The kitchen cupboard contained four half-empty jars of vitamins, tea bags, coffee for an ordinary coffeemaker, two loaves of bread, and a packet of crispbreads. On the kitchen table was a bowl of apples. There were three ham pies and a fish casserole in the freezer. That was all the food he found in the apartment. In the trash under the counter next to the stove he saw several empty packages for Billy's Pan Pizza." Not exactly gripping material, and there is a lot of this in the novel.

The book features two lead characters: Mikael Blomkvist, a crusading journalist, and Lisbeth Salander, a troubled computer hacker. They met in the first book and shared an adventure, which is referenced often, which is why the books clearly need to be read in proper order. As the book begins, Salander is traveling the world, and there is a long sequence about her stay in Grenada, including weathering a hurricane. As I think back, there is little reason why this was included in the book, and could have cut easily. The meat of the book really doesn't begin until close to page 200 of a 500 page book.

Larsson is also amateurish in creating his characters. Blomkvist is the kind of intrepid journalist that is common in mystery novels, and is given fantasy characteristics, such as being a ladies' man and very good in bed. Salander is a petite women who is covered in tattoos, possesses great martial arts abilities, and is a computer genius. Did I mention that she's also bisexual? Larsson's villain is a six-foot-six hulk who is incapable of feeling pain.

Despite all this, I got caught up in the book's second half. The plot concerns two of Blomkvist's colleagues, who are murdered while working on a book about Eastern European women who are trafficked to Sweden for prostitution (this is the subject of a terrific film, Lilya-4-Ever). Salander, who distanced herself from Blomkvist, is suspected of the crime, given that the gun has her fingerprints on it. Blomkvist is convinced of her innocence, and works with the police to clear her name. Meanwhile we get involved not only in the world of sex trafficking, but also of the evils of a system which has improperly classified Salander as psychotic. Larsson is a writer who is sympathetic to the plight of women, without exploiting the issue (although he does include a few Lesbian sex scenes).

If I had read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo first I might have not had the problems I did with The Girl Who Played With Fire. But I still think the book demanded much more judicious editing. 500 pages is long for a thriller, and it could have easily lost 100 pages or more.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Fawlty Towers

A topic that is sure to generate a lively discussion at any gathering is determining the best television comedy series. It is the question that perhaps indicates what kind of person you are, even more than "Who is your favorite Beatle?" Usually when asked this question my snap response is All in the Family, while recognizing that like most popular shows, it ran its course long before it went off the air.

Certainly in my top ten would be Fawlty Towers, which, like the BBC version of The Office, benefits from its brevity. There are only twelve gem-like episodes of this British farce, created by Monty Python-alum John Cleese and his then wife, Connie Booth. The were two seasons of the show, the first which ran in 1975 and then a second season of six fours years later, and then nada, not even a reunion special. Cleese is clearly a man of integrity--there is no shark-jumping involved with this show.

For Christmas I received the boxed set of DVDs and over the last month took a look at all twelve episodes, plus a bit of the many interviews. I had seen most of them before, but was reminded how ingenious the premise was, as well as the beautiful comedic structure of them, which reached great heights in three or four episodes.

The show is about, of course, a hotel run by an incredibly rude man. The origin of the character was a hotelier in Torquay, a seaside resort on the South coast of England. Some members of the Monty Python troupe stayed there, and were appalled at how rude the manager was. They decamped for another hotel, but Cleese and Booth stayed, fascinated by him. They studied him, and a few years later, when looking about for ideas for a show, hit on the idea of basing a sit-com around him. Basil Fawlty was born.

Cleese provides commentary on all the episodes, and he states that Fawlty's essence is based on a fear of his wife, the diminutive but steely Sybil, played by Prunella Scales. This is true, to a point. He does fear her, but will go to great lengths to edge around her, particularly if money is involved. In "The Builders" he is insistent on using a cut-rate contractor, and in "Communication Problems" he is determined to bet on a horse, even though he has been strictly banned from doing so by the Mrs., his "little nest of vipers." He is also keenly concerned with social status, constantly turning his nose up at those he finds beneath him, yet overly fawning on anyone with status, such as a doctor or nobleman. In confluence with that, he is also a prude. All of this combines to make Fawlty a character that is infinitely at odds with his surroundings, as he will do anything to avoid embarrassment, which is the impetus for almost all of the episodes.

Fawlty is also enhanced as a comedic character by the physical nature of Cleese. The original hotelier in Torquay was a small man with a large wife, but Cleese, readily admitting he can't play small, as he is six-foot-six, turned it around, and made Basil a large man, a "brilliantined stick insect" while Sybil was tiny. He moved through the hotel like a giraffe on roller skates, and the episodes that have him running up and down the stairs, or making mad dashes into town (especially the great episode "Gourment Night") especially delicious.

The relationship between Basil and Sybil is curious and perhaps best left unexamined. Certainly there is a bond there, but who knows what it consists of. In an interview, Scales speculates that Sybil found Basil "posh," and perhaps a step up, society-wise. There are mixed clues about their married life--in one episode he kisses her on the cheek, and she tells him to stop it, but in another, Basil mishears a question and thinks he's being asked how often he and his wife "do it." He's embarrassed, but defiantly answers, "two or three times a week." The mind reels.

The company also included Booth as Polly, the waitress/maid, who pretty much served as a straight woman. Booth, who had avoided interviews for years, appears on the DVD, and talks about being Horatio to Basil's Hamlet, that is the calm listener to the other's mad tales. She hates working there, but always finds herself Basil's confidant, trying to help out his schemes almost againt her better judgment. In "Communication Problems" there's a wonderful scene in which she takes the responsibility for betting on the horse, and when Sybil asks her the name of the horse, he tries to act out in charades. "Flying tart!" Polly cries out, when Basil tries to mime "Dragonfly."

Then there's Manuel, the perpetually confused waiter from Barcelona. It was weird to see Andrew Sachs, his creator, interviewed, as the actor has a mild-mannered British accent, while Manuel of course is Spanish. The scenes between Basil and Manuel are some of the greatest slapstick since the glory days of film comedy, and I will never forget the tableau that ends "The Wedding Party," with Manuel, flat on his face, with Basil straddling him, in his underwear, holding a frying pan high above his head.

What are the best episodes? I think the show hit its stride toward the end of Season 1 with "Gourmet Night" and "The Germans" (which features Cleese doing his silly walk and a talking moosehead) and then the first two shows of Season 2, "Communication Problems" and "The Psychiatrist," which are dizzying farces of the highest level. The show I least liked was "The Anniversary," which had Basil trying to throw a surprise anniversary party for Sybil but her thinking that he had forgotten, and leaving in a huff. The lengths he went to convince the party guests that she sick in bed seemed forced.

Fawlty Towers certainly deserves its acclaimed status, and is still the best comedic farce series ever to air on television.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Departures


After seeing Departures, I can't say I'm surprised that it won the Best Foreign Language Oscar last year, not because it's great--it pales in comparison with Waltz With Bashir or The Class--but because it so obviously is catnip to the kind of voters who select the award--those of a certain age, who might have started to contemplate death, and who appreciate an old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment.

Departures, directed by Yojiro Takita, is from Japan, and in many ways is tied to the culture there. But in most respects it's basic Hollywood to its bones, to the point of edging way over into sentimental, maudlin drama. In English and with Western actors, this film wouldn't be out of place as a TV movie of the week, complete with manipulative scenes meant to tug at the heartstrings.

The story concerns a young man who, as the film begins, plays cello in a symphony orchestra in Tokyo. After playing Beethoven's Ninth to a sparse crowd, the orchestra is told they are dissolving and the man (Masahiro Motoki) is out of work. He and his perky wife (Ryoko Hirosue) move back to his home town, to live in his late mother's house. He sees an ad in a newspaper for a job involving "departures," which he thinks means a travel agency. It does, sort of. He's hired immediately by the eccentric boss (Tsutomu Yamazaki) as an "NK agent."

Since I have no knowledge of Japanese funeral practices, I'll trust that what we see is true to life. Apparently undertakers in Japan sub-contract to these NK agents, or encoffiners. They go to the home of the deceased, and in a ritual cleanse and prepare the body before putting it in a coffin. There seems to be no embalming involved. Why undertakers don't do this, as they do in America, I don't know. Anyway, Motoki is understandably reluctant to do this, as he's never even seen a dead body before, but Yamazaki has a hunch about him and of course he turns out to be a natural at it.

The film then goes on to show how death is inexorably a part of life, and the value that these encoffiners play to the families of the deceased. I've always been fascinated by people who work in the funeral business. It is a necessary and crucial function in society, but boy would I want no part of it--handling dead bodies and dealing, day after day, with people in mourning. But for those who have a talent for it, it is a rewarding work, as Motoki learns. Much is made of the connection between playing a cello, which is shaped like a body and sounds like the human voice, and the handling of a corpse.

So we get a look at a niche of society that isn't often seen, and that's good, but where the film goes off the rails is a completely hackneyed plot. A conflict, in which Hirosue is disgusted by her husband's job and leaves him, seems artificially manufactured, as is a subplot involving Motoki's long-lost father. The ending, which is supposed to turn on the waterworks, only had me rolling my eyes. It's interesting to see that the West hasn't cornered the market on lachrymose drama.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Baader Meinhof Complex


Over the next few weeks I'll be able to catch up on the Foreign Language nominees from 2008 that I haven't seen yet. As a reminder, I have already reviewed Waltz With Bashir and The Class. I now turn to the German film, directed by Uli Edel, The Baader Meinhof Complex.

The film is an almost documentary-style depiction of the left-wing terrorist organization that cut a violent swath across West Germany in the late sixties and early seventies. Known to themselves as the Red Army Faction, or RAF, they became known to the media as The Baader-Meinhof Group from the names of two their leaders, one of whom, Ulrike Meinhof, was a respected journalist (it seems to me as if it would be like today if Naomi Klein joined a paramilitary group).

Based on a non-fiction book, the film is full of details but short on characterization. Meinhof is the most interesting character. As the film begins she's seen in domestic bliss (albeit on a nude beach) with a husband and two daughters. Her resistance to the Vietnam War, Israel, and the Shah of Iran, as well as catching her husband in the arms of another woman, radicalize her further, and she becomes involved in a plot to free a member of a gang in a group led by Andreas Baader and his girlfriend, Gudrun Ensslin. At first she's just going to play the role of a dupe, but at a key moment she jumps out a window after her comrades, forever turning her back on her children and the world she knew before.

That's a powerful scene, but I wish there were more like it. I'm not quite sure what the point of this film is. The gang members seem to be depicted honestly (I'm certainly no expert on this), and therefore childish and at times psychotically violent. I don't know if anyone still sees them as heroes, Edel and his writer, Bernd Eichinger certainly don't. But I wonder how this material was improved by making it a narrative film, and not a documentary.

Aside from the principle characters, we learn little about any of the other gang members. They seem to pop up without explanation, commit violent acts, and get captured, all without knowing who they are. It is with films like this that we can understand how in other films of this type characters are combined--there's just too many to keep track of here. Also, the adherence to real life--Meinhof committed suicide during her trial in 1976--robs the story of a complete arc. After her death (which is not shown on screen) the film seems to stumble to a close.

I did admire the technique involved. This is a long film--two and a half hours--but it moves briskly, and its editor Alexander Berner, is to be commended. The acting is also uniformly excellent, particularly Martina Gedeck, who was so good in The Lives of Others, as Meinhof. But I still felt wanting while watching it, searching for a point of view that was sadly lacking.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Grapes of Wrath


It was seventy years ago today that John Ford’s masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath was released. Based on the iconic novel by John Steinbeck, the film has become the cinematic representation of America during the Great Depression, but holds up just as well today, especially given the nervous economic conditions.

Operatic in structure, it tells the deceptively simple story of the Joad family, sharecroppers in Oklahoma, who have been walloped by a double-whammy: the economic crisis of the depression, and the ecological disaster of the dust bowl. When Tom, the prodigal son, arrives after four years in jail (for a murder in self-defense), he finds the homestead abandoned. Muley Graves, a neighbor, is holed up there, and tells Tom what’s going on–because of the erosion of the soil, the crops have failed, and the banks have kicked the farmers off of land they had occupied for generations. In a scene that is frighteningly current, a bulldozer shows up to knock over the Graves’ farm, driven by a neighbor, who needs the work. The bank is some nebulous threat, and Graves and his sons don’t know who to fight. “Who do we shoot?” they ask, in vain.

Tom finds his family at his uncle’s house. They are a no-nonsense bunch. Seeing Tom for the first time, his Ma shakes his hand in welcome. He’s just in time, as they are headed to California. There’s a handbill circulating offering work picking crops. They pile up an ancient jalopy, and along with Casy, an ex-preacher who Tom has befriended, hit the road. They travel along old Route 66, which Steinbeck called the “mother road,” but endure some hardship along the way, as both Grandpa and Grandma die, as they can not live when separated from the land. They also encounter kindness, such as in a diner where they are sold a loaf of bread for less than cost and a waitress gives the kids a price break on candy.

There are a lot of Biblical allusions to the film, none so much as when they reach the Colorado River. Pa looks to California across the water and calls it the “land of milk and honey.” As if in a baptism, the men take a dip into the water. But in the form of Casy, the religious talk isn’t always the Sunday sermon kind. When Tom finds him he is something like Christ, wandering in the wilderness, and he tells Tom: “Maybe there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue, they’s just what people does,” which recalls Hamlet’s line, “There is no good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Steinbeck wrote the book after researching the migrant workers who picked fruit in the San Joaquin Valley during the thirties. Many of them were Okies, fleeing the devastation of their home state, and many of them suffered horrible poverty. The Joads find out that their dreams were naïve, with migrant camps run by the brutal hand of cops, wages kept low, with no where to shop but the company store. They leave one camp when Tom overhears that local hooligans plan on burning it down, so they move on and find work as scabs at another. Tom, who is a character defined by his rage (when he comes home Ma asks him, “are you mean mad?”) sees the injustice and is quick to fall in with the strikers. He ends up in a fracas and has to hide, and the Joads move on again.

Steinbeck was concerned that the film would soften the book, but was pleased with the result. The movie is more upbeat than the book, though. The Joads end up at a government-run camp, run by a Franklin Roosevelt look-a-like, and it is something of a cooperative paradise. The Joads are amazed to find running water, no cops, and even dances. It is at this dance that Tom memorably dances with his mother to the recurring musical theme of the film, “Red River Valley.”

But the authorities are still on Tom’s trail, and he realizes he must move on away from the family. Here he has his aria, one of the great speeches in American cinema. Ford, who used closeups sparingly, does move in tight to Tom in this instance, when he tells Ma: “I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.” As if this was thought to be too eloquent, Ma replies, “I don’t understand it, Tom.”

Ford wanted to end the film there, with Tom walking down the road in an extreme long-shot, silhouetted against the sunrise, but producer Darryl F. Zanuck wanted something more upbeat and definitive. So a dénouement was filmed, but not by Ford. The Joads are moving on to Fresno, where they hear there is twenty days work. Ma philosophizes how men and women handle adversity better, thinking that women see life as one long river. Then she chuckles and says, “Rich fellas come up an’ they die, an’ their kids ain’t no good an’ they die out. But we keep a’comin’. We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out; they can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ’cause we’re the people.”

It’s almost impossible, for me anyway, to think of some of these scenes without my tears duct wobbling. It is true that both Steinbeck and Ford were accused of sentimentality–Orson Welles called it Ford’s vice. But there is a difference if the sentiment is honest, and rooted in the characters. Here it serves to give the audience empathy. A scene in which Ma makes some stew and is surrounded by starving children, not sure if she has enough beyond her own family, is sentimental but illustrative of how we all make decisions like that all the time.

The cinematography was by Gregg Toland, who the next year would blaze a comet-like trail with his work on Citizen Kane. His photography of The Grapes of Wrath is no less brilliant. Ford said that it was beautifully shot, though there was nothing beautiful to shoot, and it recalls the era’s photographs by Dorothea Lange. Ford’s actors used no makeup, and you can see the years of hard work in their faces.

Ford won the Oscar for Best Directing (though the film itself lost to Rebecca for Best Picture). Jane Darwell won Best Supporting Actress as Ma (her best scene may have been a silent one early in the film, when she decides whether to keep or burn family treasures before they leave Oklahoma), but Henry Fonda, as Tom, did not win Best Actor. This is one of the most familiar Oscar screw-up stories. He lost to his good friend James Stewart, who had a smaller part in The Philadelphia Story. It’s widely believed that this was Oscar playing catch-up, as Stewart had lost the year before for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (beaten by Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips). No doubt the Academy figured they’d make it up to Fonda later. They did, in his second nomination–forty-one years later for On Golden Pond.

The legacy of this film is long. Both Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen wrote songs about Tom Joad, making him an almost supernatural figure, like the union organizer Joe Hill. Though the book was and is still banned in some places, the film wasn’t as controversial, and was even lauded by some of the right-wing. Richard Nixon was pleased because Soviets could see it and note that even poor families could afford to own a truck. It is be noted, though, that Steinbeck was adamantly anti-Communist. Ford’s politics were more complicated. He was a good liberal, but at the end of his life supported Nixon and the Vietnam War.

As I said, the book has a much more harrowing ending, reproduced in the stage version, mounted by the Steppenwolf Theater Company. I saw it on Broadway about twenty years ago (Gary Sinise played Tom). The Joads are living in a barn. The daughter Rose of Sharon has delivered a stillborn baby. They come across a starving man, and she offers her breast milk to him. To further emphasize the “family of man” theme, the stage version cast as African American as the stranger. Clearly the America of 1940 was not ready for such an image.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Age of Wonder


The second of the New York Times Ten Best of 2009:

The Romantic period, which roughly consists of the last few decades of the eighteenth century and the first few of the nineteenth, is mostly thought of in terms of literature and music. But author Richard Holmes argues persuasively that there was Romantic science as well, in his richly entertaining book The Age of Wonder, subtitled How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.

The Romantic movement began as a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment with writers such as William Blake, but Holmes, who has written several books about the Romantic poets, argues that the scientific discoveries of the age inspired the poets, and that there was a give and take between them. He begins with a chapter on the botanist Joseph Banks, who accompanied Captain Cook on an expedition to Tahiti, where he collected several new plants and also lived a few months in paradise, taking a Tahitian girlfriend. Banks would come home to England a national hero, and then would be elected president to the Royal Society, a body of scientists who acted as an advisory body to the crown (and still exists today). He would be president for over forty years, and would shepherd British scientists for a generation.

Among them were William Herschel, the astronomer who discovered the existence of the planet Uranus (ably assisted by his sister Caroline, who discovered many comets), Mungo Park, who explored the Niger river in Africa in search of Timbuktu, and Humphry Davy, a chemist who, among other things, discovered chlorine, iodine, and invented the safety lamp for miner's which revolutionized the mining industry (the poor miners had had a tendency to be blown up when using exposed flame in methane-laced mines).

Herschel and Davy are the dominant characters in the book, and Holmes expertly gives them life as people and as geniuses. Herschel's success came in his ability to build telescopes, including a forty-foot-long one that was used for several years, and his painstaking visual sweeps of the heavens. He bristled when others suggested his spotting of Uranus was just luck. One learns though that Herschel was not always right--he was convinced both the moon and sun were inhabited by life.

Davy, who grew up in a poor family in Cornwall, was a daring scientist (incidentally, Holmes notes that the word "scientist" was not coined until much later in the nineteenth century) and a poet as well, who experimented on himself, most notably in breathing nitrous oxide, which he seemed to like a great deal. He was not immodest though. Holmes writes, "Here was a chance for Davy to fulfil his greatest ambition: to show that a man of science could serve humanity--and be a genius."

Holmes takes a sidetrack from these men with an adventure-filled chapter about the ballooning craze, which began in France. It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of what those days must have been like, when man for the first time was able to go into the clouds and look down and see what the Earth looked like from a bird's eye view.

In the latter part of the book we learn how the Romantic poets fit in. Percy Shelley, who was kicked out of Oxford for circulating a pamphlet promoting atheism, found Herschel's discoveries supported his view--with so many stars in the firmament, there must be other planets around them, and how could God be a deity over all of them? Lord Byron, in his poem Don Juan, made reference to many of the scientists and discoverers of the day:

This is the patent Age of new inventions
For killing bodies, and for saving souls,
All propagated with the best intentions:
Sir Humphry Davy's lantern, by which coals
Are safely mined for (in the mode he mentions);
Timbuctoo travels; voyages to the Poles;
Are always to benefit mankind: -- as true,
Perhaps, as shooting them at Waterloo.

The most notable meeting of Romantic science and Romantic literature was Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, which demonizes science as playing with God's powers to bad effect. She was inspired by the surgeon John Hunter and Davy's experiments with galvanism (a word that is derived from the Italian scientist Galvani, who was able to make dead frogs move when touched with electricity) and Vitalism: "Ever since the 1790s the new developments in Romantic medical science and theory had begun to raise fundamental questions about the nature of life itself. What distinguishes organic from inorganic ('dead') matter, or vegetable from animal life?"

Of course, Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein finds out the answers to these questions the hard way (the end of the book, a chase to the Arctic, certainly was inspired by polar expeditions of the time).

Holmes continues: "What is less clear is where she gathered her ideas and materials from, and how she created her two unforgettable protagonists: Dr. Frankenstein and his Creature. One is tempted to say that the Creature--who is paradoxically the most articulate person in the whole novel--was a pure invention of Mary's genius. But in Victor Frankenstein of Ingolstadt she had created a composite figure who in many ways was typical of a whole generation of scientific men."

Holmes writes that the history of science is like a relay race, with one generation handing off the baton to the next, and he brilliantly shows the through-line from the Romantic scientists to those who came after them, in this case culminating with Charles Darwin. He also, blessedly, takes it easy on those of who are not scientifically-geared--there was little in the book that zoomed way over my head. This is a book for both those who love the history of science, as well as those who understandably enjoy the rich tapestry of the lives of the Romantic poets.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Junior Senator From Massachusetts

It hasn't been a great week for progressives, liberals, and right-thinking people of America. The Supreme Court ruled that corporations have free speech, and somehow can therefore give as much money to candidates as they want (which means conservative, iron-fisted ruling candidates will eventually take over the country for good). And in Massachusetts, a Senate seat that had had the name Kennedy attached to it for almost sixty years went to the G.O.P., pretty much dooming any hope for health-care reform. The teabaggers think they've got power, and I've spent all week like an ostrich with my head in the sand, avoiding the nightly news.

Now, I have no idea if Scott Brown, the winner in the Bay State, is a great statesman or yet another scary, certifiably insane Republican. He could be the second coming of Daniel Webster for all I know. I don't know what he stands for, although I'm sure he'll be getting lots of memos from Mitch McConnell, Jim DeMint, and the rest of the lunatic right. But I am intrigued by one thing about him: he's the first centerfold model to be elected to the Senate.

As almost everyone knows, Brown posed for Cosmopolitan in the early 80s when he was a law student. This has been an interesting fact about him, but not in any way a problem. I ask you to imagine this, though: had Brown been a Democrat, how would that have gone? I submit that it would have been constantly brought negatively up by a Republican opponent, suggesting that he had loose morals and was thisclose to being a Communist, terrorist, or both.

But it wasn't an issue, because no self-respecting Democrat could or would take that road, because that's the kind of issue that Democrats don't give a shit about. Just as only Nixon could go to China, only a Republican could pose naked and be talked about as presidential timber.

As Barack Obama was a trailblazer for African Americans, so Scott Brown may be for nude models. I can only hope for the day we see California Senator Pamela Anderson (alas, she can not be president--she was born in Canada).

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Claire's Knee


Fair warning--seeing Eric Rohmer's Claire's Knee today, 40 years after it was made--may cause arguments. The fifth of Rohmer's Six Moral Tales, the film presents, at its center, a fairly reprehensible cad, a man who toys with the affection of two teenage girls, while being egged on by a female writer who must have missed the memos going around on feminism.

The story is set one summer in the French Alps, in vacation homes by a lake. Jerome (Jean-Claude Brialy), a diplomat, is on holiday, but he will return to his post in Sweden and marry his long-time girlfriend later in the summer. He runs into Aurora (Aurora Cornu), an old flame, who is lodging with a family on the other side of the lake. There are two teenagers living there--Laura (Beatrice Romand), a precocious girl who develops a crush on Jerome, and later her step-sister, Claire (Laurence de Monaghan), who has an oafish boyfriend, Gilles.

Aurora immediately picks up on Laura's crush and tries to encourage it. This is because she's a fiction writer, and sees the people around her as characters. She describes a story she's thinking about to Jerome, about an older man who watches young girls play tennis, and asks him how it should end. In another telling moment, she looks at a fresco of Don Quixote, who is wearing a blindfold, and says, "Heroes are always blindfolded."

Jerome tells Laura that he is engaged, and she is upset, but then he accompanies her on a hike and makes a pass at her. She maturely tells him that she wants to be with someone who loves her. There are many discussions of love in the film. Jerome thinks that he and his fiancee are ideally matched because they are good friends and have known each other for six years. He also says, incorrectly, that he has stopped thinking about other women. Laura thinks that friendship and love can be mutually exclusive.

Jerome loses interest in his dalliance with Laura when Claire, a leggy blonde, shows up. He becomes obsessed on the title joint, which he calls "the magnetic pole of my desire." He is interested in her only as sport, telling Aurora that if she came on to him he would turn her down. He is interested in her only because she is not interested in him. Aurora should tell him he's a pig at this point, but I guess the French don't think that way.

So Jerome ends up cruelly revealing to Claire that her boyfriend was kissing another girl, and while attempting to comfort her fondles that glorious knee while she dabs her eyes with his hankie, a scene I found infinitely creepy. It reminded me of the actions of Trigorin in Chekhov's The Seagull, who destroys Nina simply because he can.

The color photography, by Nestor Almendros, is soft and lovely, and belies the cruelty going on. The acting is a bit strange, too. Brialy, who reminds me of a cross between Liev Schreiber and Griffin Dunne, is effective if he was aiming to present Jerome as a smug abuser of women, while Romand, who would later go on to appear in several of Rohmer's films, is very appealing. It's clear that De Monaghan and Cornu are amateurs, though. I caught Cornu looking at the camera a couple of times.

I'm not sure what the reaction was back in 1970, when attitudes about casual and intergenerational sex were different than they are now. Was Jerome seen as a brute then, or was it just par for the course? David Denby, in this week's New Yorker, pens a short ode to Rohmer, remembering how his spirits were lifted on a cold February day by seeing Claire's Knee. I guess you had to be there.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein

There has been a lot of metafiction concerning the great characters of nineteenth-century literature, most notably Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. So why not Victor Frankenstein and his creature? Peter Ackroyd, noted literary biographer, has written a novel in which the scientist searching for the spark of life actually meets his creator--Mary Shelley.

The result is neither fish nor fowl. It is a moderately exciting thriller, but at the end trails off. It is also a moderately interesting exercise in academia, offering portraits of Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and John Polidori. But as I was reading the book, and noting the parallels between it and Shelley's novel from 1818, I was forced to wonder why it was written, when I could have just reread the original?

A first-person narrative, Frankenstein is a Genevan who goes to school at Oxford, where he meets and befriends Percy Shelley. Inspired at a lecture on galvanism by Humphry Davy, and flush with funds after the death of his father, he drops out of school and sets up a laboratory in London, where he experiments with electricity on dead tissue, seeking to reanimate it. He hires some "resurrection men," graverobbers, who supply him with fresh corpses. When he lucks into one that is only hours dead, his experiment succeeds, with horrible consequences.

Much of the action parrots the original, with bizarro-world differences. As said, this takes place in England, not Germany, and the creature is not stitched together with an abnormal brain. But he is super-human, and intelligent, learning by hiding in a family's barn. In retribution, he kills someone close to Frankenstein (Shelley's first-wife Harriet, who in reality got dumped by Shelley) and then demands that he create a mate for him.

The story then deviates from the original, indeed traveling to the point where the story was originally created, the summer that the Shelleys, Byron and Polidori spent on Lake Geneva, where their ghost-story contest produced Shelley's novel. That summer has inspired many recreations (at least two films have been made about it) and I didn't find Ackroyd's telling of to add any spectacular new wrinkles.

After a terrific middle--the scene in which the creature comes to life are page-turning, the book winds down to a less than satisfactory ending, with a hastily tacked on close that is like an M. Night Shamalyan film. For those who are interested in all things Frankenstein, or in the romantic writers, this book will prove interesting, but if you're new to it all just get the original novel.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

My Night at Maud's


Following the death of Eric Rohmer last week, I was trying to think of how many of his films I'd seen. I'm not quite sure, because his films, especially those of the eighties and nineties, have a certain sameness to them, and the titles are simplistic. I do remember quite clearly seeing Pauline at the Beach, if only because of the spectacular sight of Arielle Dombasle in a bathing suit (I don't remember the plot).

In many of the obituaries the two of his films mentioned most often were My Night at Maud's and Claire's Knee, both of which I haven't seen. So Netflix to the rescue, and last night I took in the former.

Released in 1969, and nominated for Oscars as Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay, My Night at Maud's is quite extraordinary. As with most of Rohmer's work, it's very talky--really it's just a series of extended conversations. As part of his series Six Moral Tales, it's a study of how an individual follows a moral code, is tempted to break it, and then rights himself. In this case it's a young man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who, as a Catholic, follows the teaching of his church. Over the course of the film he falls in love in first sight with one woman, is tempted by another, but remembers himself and adjusts accordingly.

Included in the film is a long discussion of Pascal's wager, which simply put is that you have a doubt in the belief in God, the thing to do is go ahead and believe, because the pay-off is better if there is a God. Pascal was a mathematician and philosopher, and the notion that a film could stop dead and allow a close to ten minute discussion on him is kind of exhilarating. What's more amazing is that this film is actually very sexy.

The film opens at mass. Trintignant spies a beautiful young blonde girl (Marie-Christine Barrault). He swears to himself that he will marry her, though he doesn't know her. He even follows her in his car while she rides on a motor scooter. Later he bumps into an old school chum (they discuss the probability of their meeting) who is now a philosophy professor. After the discussion of Pascal and attending midnight mass (it is Christmas Eve), his friend (Antoine Vitez) invites him over to his friend Maud's apartment. Played by Francoise Fabian, Maud is a divorced mother who is powerfully sexy and knows it, and she enjoys flirting with the men. Because it is snowing, she offers Trintignant the option to crash at her place. Vitez, who had slept with Fabian once and hoped to again, leaves in something of a huff. Trintignant is cagey. Maud is not a Catholic, but he is smitten, and when she changes into a short nightshirt and climbs under her fur bedspread he doesn't know what to think. She promises not to touch him and he lies next to her. In the morning she is naked, and they start to make out but he pulls back.

Later in the film Trintignant meets Barrault, and he ends up spending the night at her place (after his car gets stuck in the snow). Their evening together is much more chaste, but still ripples with electricity. Part of her appeal to him is her Catholicism, and when she reveals that she has a married lover it's a blow to him. But he confesses that the night before he met her he spent the evening with Maud, and they promise never to speak of it again.

The acting is excellent, as there are challenges galore. The takes are extremely long, and Rohmer was very specific in his writing, even inserting pauses like Pinter. Yet there never is a moment when you don't feel that you're actually watching real people converse. Another interesting factor is that Rohmer never used a music score--if the sound didn't come from the action of the film, he didn't want it in there. It's a habit I find refreshing, as so often movies are undermined by bombastic scores.

Monday, January 18, 2010

This Week in Entertainment News

It is a testament to the bipolar American psyche that the news could be dominated this past week by two issues: the horrible tragedy in Haiti, and the late-night kerfuffle involving Conan O'Brien and Jay Leno. It is amazing that almost everyone has an opinion on the latter, even if they don't watch late-night TV or understand that the controversy is completely irrelevant to everyone except those directly involved. Then, to add another layer on the duality of real-life and make-believe, the Golden Globes were awarded last night. Maybe it was the rain, maybe it was thinking about Haitians, maybe it was James Cameron winning two awards, but did that crowd seem gloomy.

As for the late night stuff, I am a Letterman guy, when I watch TV that late, which is a rarity. I've always thought of Jay Leno as a mediocrity, the kind of comedian who seeks out not a lowest common denominator, but instead a warm, happy middle ground, where he seeks not to offend nor to stretch the boundaries of comedy. He's like the macaroni and cheese of comedy. I like some of his bits, like Headlines or Jaywalking, but the comedy in those bits comes from others--he's incidental. His monologues are egregiously bad, and he delivers them as if begging to be loved.

As for Conan O'Brien, I have never seen much of him. I've probably seen less than a dozen of his Late Shows. I watched his first Tonight Show appearance, and he seemed an improvement over Leno if not a revelation. I am completely indifferent about him as an entertainer.

Having said that, I do think he got the fuzzy end of the lollipop from NBC. As I understand it, the deal that was made in 2004, in which Leno would retire and O'Brien would take his place, was executed so O'Brien would not leave the network for a show in an earlier time-slot on Fox or someplace else. At the time, it looked like they were giving Leno the bum's rush, even though he was beating Letterman in the ratings. They were so high on Leno that to accommodate O'Brien the network gave Leno the ill-famed ten o'clock, five-night-a-week slot, which everyone and their mother thought was a desperate move of a doomed network. Indeed, if NBC had any kind of successful prime-time lineup, they would have never made the move.

But they made the move, afraid to lose Leno to another network. O'Brien promptly lost viewers, and was regularly getting clobbered by Letterman. But Leno's show was a critical and ratings disaster, and though relatively cheap to produce was angering the affiliates. Thus NBC pulled the plug, but is allowing Leno to crawl back to the 11:30 slot, offering Conan sloppy seconds and a midnight slot, which he rightly wrinkled his nose at and said stuff it.

Leno, long the nice guy of comedy, is now perceived as an ethically-challenged heel. The classy move would have been to accept the cancellation and move on, whether to a show in Vegas or a peaceful life tending to his car collection. But Leno, to me, seems like a man who craves the adoration of the public, and was not ready to leave television. That Conan stood in his way seemed small potatoes to him.

Of course, all of us would gladly take Conan's problems. Reports are that he will pocket 40 million in severance from NBC, though whether he can get another show in the short term is unknown. When this story is placed in context with massive unemployment and devastation in Haiti, it all seems obscene to even think about it.

Last night's Golden Globe awards were also on NBC. Host Ricky Gervais got in a good joke about hoping he wouldn't be replaced by Jay Leno, but aside from his wickedly gleeful humor there seemed to be a pall on the proceedings. The red carpet was full of stars carrying umbrellas, and the situation in Haiti seemed never far from their thoughts--Nicole Kidman and Maggie Gyllenhaal both urged viewers to donate, and Jason Reitman, in his acceptance speech, noted that George Clooney didn't even want to come, as he is putting together a telethon. Meryl Streep, in her acceptance speech, waxed philosophical about the frivolousness of award shows while real life is so depressing, but tried to channel her mother, whom she compared to Julia Child, and put on a wan smile.

The Golden Globes are voted on by only about 90 press representatives from foreign countries, but have the weight of something far more important. They have always been seen as looser and funner than the Oscars, but that was missing last night. For one thing they really have to do something about making it so difficult for the winners to get to the stage (for the TV winners, seated in the upper tier, it's particularly grueling). Maybe they should take the tip from hospitals, and paint a line on the floor. Escorts for the ladies seem to help, until one of them stepped on Chloe Sevigny's gown.

The winners were mostly predictable, though there were a few surprises. Robert Downey Jr. seemed to have won because he was likeable, and The Hangover's win for Best Comedy was something of a surprise, but an enjoyable one, as it meant that Mike Tyson took the stage. Mo'Nique's passionate acceptance speech probably dissipated any ill feelings about her reluctance to "campaign" for an Oscar--I think she's a shoo-in now. And the body language between screenwriters Reitman and Sheldon Turner after their win for Up in the Air was interesting--they were the product of a shotgun co-credit, as Reitman battled the WGA to have Turner's name removed, even though the reports are that Turner contributed a lot to the final script (they did not work on it together).

Aside from that win, Reitman seemed to have a miserable evening, especially when he was trumped in Best Director and Best Drama by James Cameron and Avatar. Let's face it--Cameron can't help but come across as a putz. He didn't pull a "King of the world" this time, but he was smarmy and self-congratulating none the less. For his first award he mentioned his full bladder, and then for his second, after classily saying he thought Kathryn Bigelow (his ex-wife) should have won, ruined any good feelings by speaking in Na'Vi, and then asking the assembled to pat themselves on the back for being entertainers. Puh-leeze.

My highlight was the heartfelt and funny tribute by Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio to Martin Scorsese, who then gave an eloquent speech, even quoting William Faulkner. The only fly in that ointment was the commercial for the upcoming Shutter Island at the end of his clip montage. Nothing happens in Hollywood without the selling continuing.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Single Man


Before A Single Man I only knew its director, Tom Ford, for being the photographer who shot the somewhat sensational cover of Vanity Fair with a naked Scarlett Johannson and Keira Knightley. I think it's interesting that for that cover he chose to insert himself in the photo, otherwise marring a pretty good thing. In his film debut, he does something of the same thing.

Not that I didn't like A Single Man, I admired it a good deal. It has a fine foundation, with a solid script by For and David Scearce, and is elevated by an outstanding central performance by Colin Firth. But Ford, whom I picture wearing a beret and carrying a megaphone, has decided to direct this thing within an inch of its life, seeking to call attention to himself.

Based on a groundbreaking novel by Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man, set in Los Angeles in 1962, details a day in the life of a British college professor named George Falconer, played by Firth. Eight months earlier his partner, Matthew Goode, was killed in an automobile accident and he has not gotten over the grief. He has decided to kill himself, and goes about the day in an interesting combination of a fog and astute clarity, as he gets all his papers in order, and lays them out carefully on his desk.

During the day he teaches a class, giving a little speech about the fear of minorities, flirts with a hunky Spaniard in front of a liquor store, has dinner with his friend, neighbor and fellow ex-pat (Julianne Moore), and goes skinny-dipping in the ocean with a student, who clearly is up for more than just swimming. Throughout we get glimpses of his past life with Goode, whom he met shortly after the end of World War II, and with whom he was deliriously happy.

The novel was one of the first mainstream books that was open about homosexuality, which of course back then was the love that dared not speak its name. A poignant scene, which Firth nails, has him hearing the news of Goode's death from a cousin, as the young man's parents weren't going to tell Firth at all. Upon hearing that he isn't even invited to the memorial service is a heart-wrenching moment.

What's unclear in the script is just what the turning point for Firth was to make him to decide to kill himself. Not to be morbid, but I'm interested in the thought processes of suicides--what goes through the mind when one makes peace with the decision to end one's life? We get a lot of the preparation--Firth clearing out his safe-deposit box, buying bullets, and a ghoulishly funny sequence where he tries to get comfortable before shooting himself, but it seemed to me that the death of a loved one, horrible as that was, didn't justify the drastic step. Given the date (November 30, 1962), there is peripheral talk about the Cuban missile crisis and the real possibility of nuclear annihilation, but Firth shrugs that talk off.

As stated, Ford, like a man playing with a new toy, overdoes it in his direction. There are useless bits of flair, such as slow-motion footage, unnecessary close-ups, and turning otherwise meaningless objects like a little girl in a blue dress, or a rose, or an owl, into hugely important symbols. Ford is also obviously in love with the time period, and there is loving details, with vintage sports cars, furniture, music, and an exquisitely rendered bar near the beach. The photography by Eduard Grau has a washed out look, like a fading Polaroid, although at certain times colors, like the blue in the girl's dress, become vivid. This has the effect of making the film look like a layout in a fashion magazine, which is further reinforced by having several actors look like models (which I'm sure a few of them are--a quick check reveals that a young woman playing a student is top fashion model Aline Weber).

However all of that did not ruin my enjoyment of the film. Firth's characterization is so authentic that it leaps off the screen. Coupled with his turn in Easy Virtue earlier this year this has been an outstanding year for him. Moore, who has a brief role, also makes a mark, as a boozy woman afraid she has lost her looks and carrying a torch for her friend, of whom she ruefully remarks that if he wasn't such a "poof" they could have had a life together. The chemistry between them is great, particularly a scene where they dance to "Green Onions."

I was less impressed with Nicholas Hoult as the solicitous student. He dominates the last quarter of the film, and is so annoying (he keeps calling Firth "sir," and I was hoping Firth would tell him to knock it off) that it really started to bug me. I think this is less the fault of the actor, who has a pretty face that Ford must have been enchanted by, rather than the character.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Kate Moss


It must have been about 1994 when, all over New York, photographs like the one on the right started appearing on bus shelters and billboards all over New York City. I, an oversexed man who knew fashion models as if they were baseball players, was struck with the thunderbolt not unlike the one that Michael Corleone was hit with in Sicily when he first saw Apollonia in The Godfather. Who was this girl, who looked unlike any model before her?

She was Kate Moss, of course, and quickly almost everyone would know her name. She was a teen from the working class suburb of Croydon in England, and she was a new breed of model: the waif. Volumes would end up getting written about her and her kind--was she a gamine, "heroin chic," an advertisement for anorexia, or just a new way of thinking, that women didn't have to be close to six-feet-tall to be models. I don't have any answers to any of those questions, I just know that she lit up my imagination like a solar flare.

I worked at Penthouse magazine back then, one of the few places in the entire country where they can't say much about the open display of sexual images in the workplace. Therefore my office wall was, shall we say, provocatively adorned. One section of it was covered with a collection of Kate Moss images, mostly the stark black and white Calvin Klein ads shot by Patrick Demarchelier (the ones without Marky Mark). The very first thing I ever did on the Internet was to go to a Kate Moss gallery site. I even went to meet her at a signing (I think it was at Macy's) in the absurd, hopeless belief that she would take one look at the schlump that stood before her and cast aside the rich, exotic millionaires she cavorted with on a regular basis and throw in her lot with me. Alas, it did not happen.

Kate Moss turns 35 today, and has certainly had her ups and downs since emerging into stardom some fifteen years ago. She has had some high-profile relationships with men like Johnny Depp (who seems to share my taste in women, as he was also involved with my other abiding crush, Winona Ryder) and Pete Doherty. She had a baby. She was photographed snorting cocaine, but now has become a sort of grand dame of fashion, with her own clothing line. And she still looks stunning (and frequently goes topless in public--her champagne-glass-shaped breasts may be the most photographed of all time, Pamela Anderson excepted).

Fashion models aren't as important now as they were back in the go-go nineties. Around the turn of the century it became more desirable to have entertainers on the covers of magazine. It seems as if models, just for being models, aren't as interesting to the general public anymore. They have to date famous men, or have a sex tape, to break through as household names. Even the models in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue seem anonymous these days, and they have resorted to using female athletes and Beyonce to drive interest.

But when models could scale the heights of fame just for their physical allure, well, Kate Moss broke the mold. For the life of me I can't think of another of the waifs that accompanied her during that phase, but she's still there, and I tip my hat to her.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dave Brubeck

A few weeks ago Dave Brubeck was feted as one of the Kennedy Center honorees. I've long had an interest, if not knowledge or passion, about jazz, so I picked up a CD from the Ken Burns Jazz set featuring Brubeck and his quartet, and have been listening to it in the car all week.

In doing some reading, I've learned that Brubeck typified "West Coast" jazz, which was marked by a softer, more rounded sound compared to New York be-bop. Many regarded the West Coast sound as inferior jazz, though this may have had a racial bias--most West Coast practitioners, like Brubeck, were white. I like the sound, which seems to me a forefather of the lounge, or "bachelor pad" sound, with its seductive rhythms and heavy use of brushes in the drumming. It definitely was cool, as they called it.

Brubeck is best known for two recordings, which both appeared on the huge bestseller Time Out. One is "Blue Rondo A La Turk," inspired by the rhythms of Turkish music, in 9/8 time (basically, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, 1-2-3). The hybrid of east and west works great, and the musicianship of Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on sax, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums is perfect. The other is the quarter's most famous songs, "Take Five," composed by Desmond, which is recognizable probably almost everyone. It is in 5/4 time, with Brubeck supplying an insistent theme on piano while Desmond slips in with an almost conspiratorial sax line. Then Morello takes hold of the middle section, in a complicated series of drum riffs that seem to defy the senses. I could put this recording on repeat and let it go for about an hour.

The album I picked up also has the perky and pleasurable "Perdido," "Allegro Blues," in which the New York Philharmonic contributes, and two standards: "I Get a Kick Out of You," and a sweetly melancholy "Stardust." The most curious cut is called "The Real Ambassador," which I learned comes from a jazz musical that Brubeck wrote in collaboration with Louis Armstrong. Satchmo and Annie Ross are on vocals. Hearing it is like being transported to the fifties in a time machine.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The New World


Terrence Malick's 2005 film The New World made it to a few top-ten-of-the-decade lists, even being chosen by Mick LaSalle as the best of the decade. The film had its detractors, too, and at the time of its release I made a conscious decision not to see it, even though it was playing at the theater where I worked. I found his previous film, The Thin Red Line, to be a crashing bore, so I was wary. It turns out I like The New World very much.

To be sure, the film is slow, and as with The Thin Red Line, Malick seems to be more interested in contemplating nature than a story. But whereas it didn't work on Guadalcanal, it did in Jamestown, Virginia, 1607. An English ship arrives to begin work on a colony, and the resident Indians (called "naturals" by the leader of the English, Christopher Plummer, a much nicer term than "savages") are inquisitive but standoffish. One of the crew, Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) is set to be hung for mutiny, but Plummer realizes he's needed and spares him. Instead he sets off on an expedition upriver to barter with the chief of the local tribe. He's captured, but spared when a young girl (Q'Orianka Kilcher) pleads for him.

She is, of course, Pocahontas, though her name is never spoken (Pocahontas was a nickname, anyway). Malick, in telling this tale, chooses to side with myth and weaves a tale of romance between Smith and the girl, though there is no evidence that there was one (the story of Smith's salvation at her hands is questionable, as well). But this is clearly not a historical document, though the rest of it is very in keeping with the archaeological record. It was filmed very close to the events of the story, and the buildings, costumes, etc. reflect as accurate a portrait as could be made.

I got caught up in the rhythm of the piece. I was amused to see, in some reviews, the over-used phrase "tone poem" to describe the film, but if there ever was a film to earn that sobriquet this is it. Malick uses some tricky editing, such as jump cuts, which move the story along in unsettling ways, and then slows things down for shots of nature, mainly trees swaying in the wind. This is a lot more interesting that it sounds, and when combined with the ethereal music of James Horner and the exquisite photography of Emmanuel Lubezki, makes for a thrilling, hypnotic effect.

At the end of the film, as at the end of Pocahontas' life, she makes a trip to England. The scenes of her experiencing her own "new world" are heady and perfectly captured. What must it have been like for a simple Indian girl to be transported across the ocean and presented to the King of England? Watching this film you do get some idea.

While not a film to be viewed while sleepy, The New World is an intoxicating brew of sounds and images.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Fetch Clay, Make Man

Playwright Will Power was taken aback when he saw a photo taken just before the rematch between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston in 1965. Seated next to Ali at a press conference was Stepin Fetchit, an African American actor who had become largely reviled by the black community because of the negative stereotypes his characters had amplified in the 1930s. Power wondered, what was behind this odd juxtaposition?

The answer comes in Fetch Clay, Make Man, his accomplished work now playing at the McCarter Theater. Though the script gets bogged down with a lot of exposition, it manages to pack a wallop, as the representatives of two different eras of black American history meet head on.

The play has two settings: the lockerroom in the days just before the Ali-Liston fight, in Lewiston, Maine, and the office of William Fox, who ran the Fox movie studio, in 1931. In 1965, Ali summoned the largely forgotten Fetchit (his real name was Lincoln Perry), ostensibly to pick his brain on his remembrances of Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion. In particular, Ali wants to know about the "anchor punch," but Fetchit says he doesn't know anything about it. Ali's main assistant, Brother Rashid, a former hoodlum turned into a devoted acolyte of Elijah Muhammad, bristles at the presence of Fetchit, but Ali's new wife, Sonji, is more cordial. Fetchit pegs her as a woman who is only play-acting at being a Muslim.

The scenes in Hollywood are meant to give us a clearer picture of who Fetchit was, as he out-foxes Fox in contract negotiations and then, a few years later, is told that he can not give interviews where he speaks excellent English. Fox tells him that the movie-going public is comforted by the stereotype of Stepin Fetchit--a lazy, shiftless Negro--and that he should live that character off screen as well as on. Fetchit agrees to do so, for a thirty-percent pay raise.

Back in Maine, Fetchit and Ali form a bond, and Fetchit participates in the pre-fight press conference, embarrassing everyone by defending the character of Uncle Tom. Ali still wants him around, though, thinking Fetchit will tell him about Johnson's punch.

All of this is presented in dazzling style by director Des McAnuff, who uses mixed media to tell the story (the play ends with photos of the real Ali, most notably the iconic Neil Leifer photo of him standing victorious over a knocked-out Liston). Power, who runs a hip-hop theater, just goes to show that certain elements of drama are universal--the play is conventionally, even squarely constructed, with some clunky bits of exposition. The scenes in Hollywood are the clumsiest, with Richard Masur as Fox struggling to find a character in a role that is essentially a plot device.

The other actors are fine. Evan Parke is Ali, and what a role to attempt. For many years he was the most famous man in the world, and his persona oozed genius from every pore. Parke steers clear of a strict impersonation, though the familiar cadences break in, especially when Ali rhymes. John Earl Jelks, as Rashid, is brilliant as the man who wants to keep Ali on the true path of Islam, and his questionable past rears its head every now and then. As Sonji, Sonequa Martin is also very good.

But the evening belongs to Ben Vereen as Fetchit. Vereen, best known as a song-and-dance man, is a natural entertainer, and convinces us that Fetchit was one as well, but where he really shines is expressing the dual nature of the man--he made millions playing the "coon" but in reality was an intelligent, proud black man. He was also always on the hustle, as he sees dollar signs by making friends with Ali. He thinks they should make a movie together, directed by John Ford, but Ali hesitates at that choice, thinking Ford would have him killed off by a cowboy.

I wouldn't be surprised if this play has long legs, and even makes it to Broadway, but who knows in this economic climate. It deserves a shot at the title.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Yi Yi (A One and a Two)


Edward Yang's Yi Yi (English title A One and a Two) was released in 2000, and made many best of the decade lists. It is of epic shape--almost three hours--but focuses on the smallest of subjects: the inner workings of a family.

The film begins at a wedding and ends at a funeral, and between the two we meet the extended family of NJ (Nien-Jen Wu). The wedding is of his brother-in-law (Hsi-Sheng Chien), who is a bit of a sad sack, to his very pregnant girlfriend. NJ has two children: the dutiful high-school age daughter (Kelly Lee) and an enigmatic eight-year-old (Jonathan Chang). The night of the wedding NJ's mother-in-law collapses from a stroke, sending her daughter (Elaine Jin) into a severe depression.

The film then follows the strands from these characters. Wu, worried about his company, goes to Tokyo to secure a deal, and has a rendezvous with his old flame (Su-Yun Ko), who has never gotten over him. Chien, who owes Wu money, has unwisely invested with a friend (one thing we learn--never trust a guy who's nickname is "Piggy") and casually maintains a relationship with an old girlfriend. Lee makes friends with a girl who lives next door, who dates a soulful boy. But later, when that couple is having problems, Lee is asked to be a go-between, and she eventually forms an attachment to the boy. Meanwhile Chang deals with bullying teachers and develops a fondness for photography. He takes a series of photos of the backs of people's heads, thoughtfully thinking that since no can see the back of one's head he will be helpful.

Yi Yi combines the structure of Western film with the pacing of Asian film. There are many long takes, usually long shots. Nothing is hurried, which goes a long way for the length of the film, but I was never bored--there is no way to guess what is coming next. Some of the film is quite funny, but always with an edge of melancholy, particularly a party for Chien's newborn, which ends in tumult when his old girlfriend shows up. Some of the writing soars, such as the scene near the end of the film when Wu and Ko hash out why they broke up. Then there is the exquisite editing when Yang cuts between Lee on her first date with the boy and Wu and Ko reliving their first date in Tokyo.

It was interesting to learn on the DVD extras that this film was never released in Taiwan, Yang's home country, due to his disgust with their distribution system. I'm surprised that this film has never been remade by a Hollywood studio, but perhaps Yang has no interest in that. Certainly a Hollywood film would be much shorter, and would probably take shortcuts that would betray his vision.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Let the Great World Spin


"Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful. Some thought at first that it must have been a trick of the light, something to do with the weather, an accident of shadowfall. Others figured it might be the perfect city joke--stand around and point upward, until people gathered, tilted their heads, nodded, affirmed, until all were staring upward at nothing at all, like waiting for the end of a Lenny Bruce gag. But the longer they watched, the surer they were. He stood at the very edge of the building, shaped dark against the gray of morning. A window washer maybe. Or a construction worker. Or a jumper."

So begins Colum McCann's lyrical and powerfully moving Let the Great World Spin, the winner of the National Book Award. Set in New York City in August of 1974, with the Nixon resignation in the news, McCann follows a group of seemingly disparate but ultimately connected characters as French acrobat Philippe Petit audaciously wirewalks between the towers of the Word Trade Center.

Though Petit's stunt is the fulcrum of this book, and presumably sparked the idea in McCann's imagination, it is not in the forefront of the story. Like Icarus in Brueghel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which has the winged boy in the extreme background, Petit is on the periphery of the story. There are only a few sections of the book that deal with the nuts and bolts of his walk. Instead, McCann sees the event as representing something bigger in a 1974 New York City that was hot, dirty, and seething.

There are three main character groups: an Irish monk living in the Bronx, tending to the prostitutes who stroll underneath the Major Deegan Expressway; a married pair of artists, who have moved upstate to detox and escape the New York art scene, but make a fateful return visit; and a group of women who have all lost a son in Vietnam, with one of them, the wife of a judge, making a special bond with a black woman from the Bronx. There are a few other characters who pop up briefly, such as a photographer of graffiti and some computer programmers from Palo Alto who dial a pay-phone near the World Trade Center to get a first-hand account of Petit's walk.

Those scenes, which I remember only after leafing through the book as a refresher, could have been dropped without incident. It's the main characters who provide the meat of the tale. Corrigan, the Irish monk, is a fascinating fellow, who realizes he is in love with a nurse of Central American ancestry. Tille and Jazzlyn, mother and daughter as well as streetwalkers, are also memorably etched. McCann makes the daring choice to narrate the book in several voices. He is an Irishman, so when he gives us the view of Corrigan's brother, it seems appropriate, but when he has a chapter of Tillie, incarcerated, emitting a kind of stream of conscious riff, it's nervy but pays off. I don't know if he spent any time with ladies of the evening, but it sure seems like it.

Petit's stunt is the event on the periphery, but there is another incident that serves as an anchor to the story, an auto accident that is viewed from many different points of view, which makes the book seem like a screenplay by Guillermo Arriaga. This is even more apt a comparison when characters from the different groups meet coincidentally, making New York City seem awfully small (one character decides she's wants to find someone she met the night before and just happens to stumble upon him in a restaurant, even though she has no idea where he will be). These connections are cinematic (J.J. Abrams has bought the film rights) and give the reader several little "a-ha!" moments, but I think ultimately they cheapen the story a bit.

I'm also of two minds about a coda which takes place in 2006. It wraps up the character arcs nicely, but I'm wondering if McCann isn't trolling in middlebrow waters by wrapping the package so neatly. I did love his closing lines, which recalls the end of The Great Gatsby, which ended: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." McCann ends with: "The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough...The world spinning." Fitzgerald's ending suggests a never-ending struggle, while McCann is much more passive and accepting.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sherlock Holmes


As someone who has read the entire Arthur Conan Doyle canon of Sherlock Holmes stories, I viewed the Guy Ritchie film with some trepidation. Making him as a combination Batman and Jack Sparrow isn't exactly staying true to the character. However, the movie wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Not great, certainly, but moderately entertaining enough to keep me interested through most of its running time. Holmes now belongs to anyone to do what they will with, and worse things have been done. During World War II Basil Rathbone's Holmes battled wits with the Nazis.

Robert Downey Jr. stars as the great detective, and its a curious and unsatisfying performance. He seems to have based it on Johnny Depp's turn in Pirates of the Caribbean, not by aping it but by consciously affecting a kind of whimsical eccentricity. I found it off-putting and not keeping with the character as written--his Holmes seems incapable of functioning in society--and furthermore Downey mumbles so much I couldn't make out half of what he said. I think his success in Iron Man has spoiled him a bit.

On the other hand, I thought Jude Law as Dr. Watson was terrific, and consistent with the character as created by Doyle. Watson, an ex-soldier, was a man of action, and Law presents him as such. Nigel Bruce's characterization as a bumbling fusspot ruined the character for years. Law, much as he wants to get married and leave behind his bizarre friend, is addicted to the risk (Ritchie and his screenwriters give him a gambling problem).

The best part of the film is the overall look. The sets, costumes and photography well serve the Victorian time period. Even the music, by the usually criminally bombastic Hans Zimmer, was enjoyable. Ritchie's directing style is a little too modernistic, though. I found the action scenes badly handled, and regretted they were even thought to be necessary. Doyle's Holmes was not afraid of a fight, but I don't recall any mention of him participating in nineteenth-century fight clubs. I also didn't care for his voice-overs detailing his fight strategy.

Where the film is lacking is the central mystery, which is a problem considering we're talking about Sherlock Holmes. The baddie is a Satan-worshipping Lord who seems to have found the ability to rise from the dead. It seems to have been cobbled together from leftover Dan Brown manuscripts and From Hell, the Alan Moore graphic novel about Jack the Ripper, and seems oddly familiar.

Purists shouldn't be too upset. There are several nods in their direction, with details that will please them: Mrs. Hudson, Mary Morstan, Irene Adler (though Rachel McAdams is wasted in playing her), Inspector LeStrade, and bullet-holes in the shape of the letters VR. Interestingly there is no mention of a cocaine habit, though Holmes at one point drinks liquid that is intended as anaesthetic for eye surgery. The screenwriters manage to cover most of their tracks in plotting, though Tower Bridge and Parliament are much closer together in this film that they are in real life.

The best Sherlock Holmes film remains Murder By Decree, with Christopher Plummer and James Mason. The best Holmes ever? Why, Jeremy Brett, of course, in the BBC series.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Old West

Driving back from my mother's house after Christmas I had in my trunk a box that, in addition to the visible cargo, also held a great deal of nostalgia and sentiment for me. They were nineteen volumes of a series Time-Life Books did called The Old West.

They were first printed in the 1970s. I was a voracious reader as a kid, especially of American history, so my parents got me a subscription. I believe that a book came every other month or so, and I loved them. They were leather-bound to reproduce the look and feel of a saddle, and predominantly pictures, whether old photographs or paintings by prominent Western artists like Charles M. Russell or Fredric Remington. Each book dealt with a slice of history of the American frontier, with titles like The Cowboys, The Indians, The Soldiers, The Gunfighters, The Forty-Niners, etc. I remember poring over them, especially the ones that dealt with the more cinematic topics, such as The Gunfighters and The Soldiers. The former had a detailed analysis, complete with diagrams, of the Shootout at the OK Corral, which has stayed with me through every movie I've ever seen on the subject.

Those books I had in my youth are gone. When I was in high school, my parents newly separated, we moved around a lot, living in rented houses in Ringwood, New Jersey. One of them had a basement that had a horrible mold problem. We stored all my books down there, a recipe for disaster if you're a bibliophile--the books were ruined. It still eats at me today.

My maternal grandfather also owned a set of the books. I had two grandfathers, of course. I have to say I was closer to my paternal grandfather, who was a country boy from Rabbit Hash, Kentucky and doted on me when I was a small boy. If my father's parents were more Hee-Haw--cornbread and snap beans, my maternal grandparents were more Mad Men--martinis and trips to Europe. Both sides of the family were and remain lovely people, but I always felt a stronger bond with my father's side of the family.

However, we are all a combination of two strands of DNA, and there are parts of myself that clearly stem from my mother's father. He was an autodidact and a bibliophile. I have vivid memories of his den, where he had impressive bookshelves well stocked with volumes, mostly of the Time-Life variety, on subjects like American history, politics, and literature. On visits I used to plop myself in a comfy chair and leaf through them, picturing myself leading a life of learning as an adult. It wasn't the library of a true intellectual--there were plenty of Reader's Digest Condensed Books, but to a kid it seemed very august.

He died in 2002. My grandmother, his widow, recently had a big year. She turned 90, and the family moved her from Florida, where she and my grandfather had retired over thirty years ago, back up North to Michigan, so she could be more closely cared for. She sold her house and much of the stuff was pared down. I made one request--I wanted the Old West books. My uncle Steve, who drove Grandma and her belongings northward, graciously offered to pack them in a box for me. When he next visited my mom in Gettysburg, he brought them along, and now I have brought them the last leg of their trip back to me.

I've just been going through them again, reliving those heady days of a teenage boy, my head full of old Western films and a love of history. I'm also finding a few neat things, such as a page of notes my grandfather made, or a notation on the frontispiece of one of the volumes reading, "Finished, 1/2/75." He was a man who never stopped learning. I believe right before he died he was studying the railroads of Europe during World War II.

A quick check of the Internet reveals that there are actually 26 volumes to the series. My grandfather must have stopped buying them at one point. No matter, in this day and age I can pick them up cheap on eBay, and my bids on the missing seven volumes are in. I'm in extreme belt-tightening mode, but I need to complete this set.