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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Magician

A few years ago I did a multipart series on the films of Ingmar Bergman, and at the time I regretted that I couldn't write about The Magician, because it wasn't available on DVD. Well it is now, on a pristine Criterion Edition disc, and I viewed it last night. It is sublime.

Made in 1958, a year after my favorite Bergman film, The Seventh Seal, it starts out similarly to that film. A troupe of entertainers are traveling across the countryside by carriage, only this time it's not the Middle Ages, but 1846. The travelers include a mysterious magician/Mesmerist named Albert Vogler (Max Von Sydow), who wears a fake beard and wig and is mute. He is accompanied by his wife (Ingrid Thulin), who poses as a young man, a loud and vulgar master of ceremonies (Åke Fridell), and Vogler's ancient grandmother (Naima Wifstrand), who sells love potions and tells people she's 200 years old.

Hearing reports of strange occurrences at his performances, the leaders of the town compel the troupe, who call themselves Vogler's Magnetic Health Theater, to perform for them. They are a bureaucrat, Egerman (Erland Josephson), his sexually frustrated wife (Gertrud Fridh), the pompous and toupeed Chief of Police (Toivo Pawlo), and most diabolical, a Dr. Vergerus (Gunnar Björnstrand). Josephson and Björnstrand have bet, with the doctor taking the position that there is no such thing as the supernatural, and he means to expose Vogler as a fraud.

Knowing Bergman's other films helps here, as he re-uses character names. Vogler was also the name of the mute Liv Ullman in Persona, Egerman was a name he used frequently for ridiculous bureaucrats and noblemen, and Vergerus was a name used for the villainous, most memorably for me as the treacherous clergyman in Fanny and Alexander.

The film's Swedish title is Ansiktet, The Face, and it ties in with Bergman's recurring theme of the masks people wear, which can be found in almost every film he ever made. Von Sydow, of course, is wearing a disguise, as is Thulin, but we all wear some sort of mask during the course of our lives. But beyond that Bergman explores, in a parallel manner, two antagonisms--art vs. science, and the artist vs. his audience.

In the supplemental materials, Peter Cowie relates that this film was made at the end of a seven-year run Bergman had as the director of a theater in Malmo. He was fed up with the audiences he was getting, and vented his spleen by depicting Vogler's audience as hypocrites and liars (early on, Thulin reads from a book that a land was so rife with deception that those who told the truth were seen as the biggest liars). Von Sydow can hardly stand to be in their presence.

That is the innermost layer, but the more easy to spot is the battle between art and science, as well as the other things symbolized by the fatcats in the audience--authority and bureaucracy. Björnstrand tells Thulin, as he tries to seduce her, "You represent what I hate the most--the inexplicable."

The Magician also has an underlying sense of menace, starting with the carriage ride through spooky woods, when they find an old actor who seemingly dies (no one seems to stay dead in this film), and climaxes with one of the most frightening sequences I've ever seen, when the presumed ghost of Von Sydow menaces Björnstrand.

Whether seen as Bergman's "fuck you" to his bourgeois audience or as a chilling tale of suspense, The Magician only adds to my esteem for the great director.

Monday, November 29, 2010

127 Hours

Surely by now most movie fans know what to expect when seeing 127 Hours: a guy cut his own arm off. And with a dull knife, to boot. I'm here to report that that scene, which is essentially the climax of the film, is as grisly and watch-through-your fingers as one can imagine (it's not the sound of the breaking bone, but instead the snipping of tendons as if they were piano wire that induces the willies). Fortunately, what leads up to that moment is perpetually gripping.

James Franco stars as Aron Ralston, who loves to go biking and hiking through Canyonlands National Park in Utah. He sets off one night, sleeps in his car, and is up at dawn to explore. He tells no one where he is going. After frolicking with a pair of female hikers in a hidden pool (Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn), he sets off on his own and manages to fall down a slim chasm, a rock falling and wedging his arm against the canyon wall.

This happens only about fifteen minutes into the film, so director Danny Boyle doesn't waste much time with a set-up. The rest of the film is Franco, dealing with his situation, and the audience squirming along with him.

A film like this is ideal for spotlighting the talent of a director and an actor. Given the limited space of the location, where Franco is trapped for ninety-percent of the film, Boyle wondrously makes things visually interesting, sometimes too much so (I'm not sure why he includes scenes of a large mass of people in what looks like India--left over footage from Slumdog Millionaire?). There are many uses of split screen, and when Franco hallucinates a thunderstorm it's as tumultuous as any gothic horror movie.

As for Franco, he's up to the challenge, though we are limited in knowing what kind of guy Ralston is. As he contemplates his mortality in that canyon we get a lot of flashbacks to his childhood, as well as glimpses of an old girlfriend (Clemence Poesy), but these scenes don't really have anything to add. The childhood stuff seems exceedingly normal, and we know that he and Poesy break up at a basketball game, but I'm not sure why. The film does not succeed as treatise on fathers and sons, or anything profound, as Sean Penn's Into the Wild did.

But taken as a stripped-down survival tale, 127 Hours is great stuff. The photography by Anthony Dod Mantle and Enrique Chediak makes excellent use of the scenery, and the music by A.R. Rahman mixes well with the tension of the situation, particularly in the amputation scene.

127 Hours succeeds best at asking questions that have open answers: How did he endure the pain? What would we do, in the same situation? Why didn't he have a cell phone?

My grade for 127 Hours: A-.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Spartacus

As 2010 rolls toward its conclusion, it's time to take my annual look at the films of fifty years in the past. I've already written about the films that arguably have the greatest legacy from 1960: Psycho and Breathless. Neither were nominated for Best Picture (although Alfred Hitchcock was nominated for Best Director). Another film from that year that has maintained a legacy is Spartacus, one of the last of the great sword-and-sandal epics.

It's hard for me to believe, but I had never seen Spartacus until yesterday. I suppose it's because it didn't get the television play that other films of its type got. It follows the conventions of that type of film, but is able to transcend them, making it smarter than the average spectacle.

Kirk Douglas stars as the historically-real Greek slave who led a rebellion against the Romans about a century before the birth of Christ. Douglas also produced the film, partly because he lost out on the lead for Ben-Hur and wanted to make an epic of his own. He did two things for film history that outweigh any qualities that are actually in the movie--he hired Stanley Kubrick to direct, and Dalton Trumbo to write the script.

Kubrick had made only two features before, but one of them was Paths of Glory, starring Douglas. Spartacus' original director was Anthony Mann, but Douglas fired him, sensing he was in over his head with the scope of the picture. Why he thought the far more inexperienced Kubrick was a better choice is a mystery, but it made Kubrick a major director, who would then go on to make half a dozen classic films. He distanced himself from Spartacus in later years, but his touch is evident.

Trumbo was a blacklisted screenwriter. He had worked throughout the McCarthy era, but using a pseudonym. Douglas insisted that he use his own name, thereby bringing the blacklist to a halt. For this alone Douglas deserves the respect and admiration of everyone in the entertainment community, and beyond. Certainly the film's most famous scene, when the captured slaves refuse to give up their leader ("I am Spartacus!") can be correlated with the McCarthy era, when those who some thought were lacking in courage "named names."

To quickly sum up the plot: Douglas is a slave who, after being insubordinate (he bites the ankle of a guard) is sold to a gladiator school, run by Peter Ustinov, where he is trained to fight for the amusement of the upper classes. He leads a revolt (after killing his overseer by drowning him in a pot of soup--a nice touch) and gathers slaves along the way to the sea, hoping to leave Italy and return to his native land. He falls in love with a slave girl (Jean Simmons), who escapes from Ustinov, and bonds with another slave, played by Tony Curtis.

The Roman authorities, led by Crassus (Laurence Olivier), try to stop him, ostensibly so he can seize power, while others, led by Senator Gracchus (Charles Laughton) hope to see them escape, out of his love for the Republic and a certain sense of decency.

The film is big, really big, with a cast of thousands and a panoramic sweep. Many scenes have the actors in extremely long shots, set against vistas (it was shot in Spain). There are many parts that are corny, to be sure. I have a hard time believing Kubrick really wanted to include a scene of a boy being squirted in the face with goat's milk, for example. Where the film rises above this kitschy stuff is the interplay between Olivier and Laughton, both making chess moves to try to beat the other one. Both of these actors turn in magnificent performances, but it was Ustinov, drolly effete and a marvelous source of comic relief, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Spartacus also won Oscars for costumes, art direction, and cinematography (although Russell Metty, who won the latter award, was relieved by Kubrick early on, and it was Kubrick who did most of the lighting). The film fell into disrepair through the years, and was restored in the early 90s. One scene, which was originally cut, features Olivier being bathed by Curtis, and talking about how he likes both "snails and oysters"--pretty homoerotic stuff for 1960. The restoration team wanted to pu the scene back, but the soundtrack was lost. Curtis redubbed his lines, but Olivier was dead. Coming to the rescue was Anthony Hopkins, who did a wicked Olivier impersonation. If you listen closely you can tell it's Hopkins, but to those who don't know wouldn't notice anything amiss.

Kubrick thought that Spartacus, as a character, had no flaws, and thus the film wasn't as interesting as it could have been. He's right, but this didn't occur to me while watching it. Most of these spectaculars were Biblical in nature, but Spartacus wasn't, although they did their best to make it so, having the film end with Simmons weeping beneath the crucified Spartacus. This was a bit much, and seemed to shoehorn Christianity into an otherwise pagan film. Still, I liked this film a great deal, and if it is too bombastic it is restrained compared to those of its kind.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Love and Other Drugs

Love and Other Drugs (a terrible title, but no worse than Hard Sell, the book on which it's based) is an amiable romantic comedy that has a really good film somewhere inside it. Unfortunately, it never transcends into something greater, no matter how hard it tries.

The film, directed by Ed Zwick and written by Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, is many films in one. Ostensibly it's a romantic comedy that shares many qualities with last year's Up in the Air. The protagonist is a shallow cocksman who has never really cared about anything but his career--in this case selling. When we meet Jamie Randall (Jake Gyllenhaal), he's a crackerjack audio-video salesmen. He gets fired after balling his boss' girlfriend, and ends up working for Pfizer selling pharmaceuticals. This part of the film is the most interesting, as it's fascinating to see how these guys work (full disclosure--my father has been in pharmaceutical sales for close to fifty years. He told me a doctor never pays for their own lunch, there's always a salesman to do that for them).

Set in 1996 (we know that by a title card, but if that didn't do it we hear The Spin Doctors and the "Macarena"), Gyllenhaal, after pushing Zoloft, ends up selling Viagra. However, we don't get any insight into how that drug changed the culture; instead it just sets up a number of smutty jokes, including an eye-rolling sequence in which Gyllenhaal suffers from priapism. Beware those erections that last more than four hours!

A study of the medical profession, as seen through the eyes of a guy like Gyllenhaal (there's also a nice performance by Hank Azaria as a GP) might have made the stuff of a very good movie, but Love and Other Drugs is after different fish. Gyllenhaal, in Azaria's office, meets Maggie Murdoch (Anne Hathaway), a beautiful, brainy free spirit that falls into the category of the "manic pixie dreamgirl," a woman who only exists in the movies, but is there to teach the main character his life lesson. In this film she has the variation of suffering from Parkinson's disease, which is novel, but edges the film into disease-of-the-week territory (and reminds me of Natalie Portman in Garden State--I believe her disease was epilepsy).

Hathaway's character is only interested in a sexual relationship, as she doesn't want a real relationship, knowing her symptoms will get progressively worse. Despite each other, they fall in love, and as these things go it's an engaging movie romance. It's not Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, but it's not Gerald Butler and Katherine Heigl, either. I do give credit for Hathaway to have the guts to go fully nude (several times--the fellows at Mr. Skin will be busy when the Blu-Ray comes out). I hate the phoniness of scenes of post-coital couples with strategically placed sheets around their body (and for you ladies, Gyllenhaal shows everything but the full monty).

The film doesn't suck, and the leads are very appealing, but the film never takes flight. I found the attempts at educating the audience about the plight of those with Parkinson's patronizing (it is similar to the way Up in the Air dealt with the unemployed). There's also a dreadful performance by Josh Gad as Gyllenhaal's fat, loutish brother.

I like films that attempt to mix drama and comedy, because, after all, our lives vary from one to the other sometimes within minutes, but this film never quite pulls it off. Once again Zwick takes an interesting idea and reduces it to the lowest common denominator (some scenes seem right out of American Pie, and do pharmaceutical reps really throw parties that look like they're in the Playboy Mansion?)

My grade for Love and Other Drugs: B-.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Tinkers

Tinkers, a novel by Paul Hardy, seemed to take everyone by surprise when it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last year. It wasn't highly reviewed or publicized, and Hardy is a first-time novelist. It tells the simple story of two men: a father and son.

Shifting narrative points of view, Hardy begins with George Crosby, who is a few days away from death in modern times. He seems to be an ordinary man, who had a passion for repairing clocks. He lives in northeastern Massachusetts, but grew up in Maine, the son of a tinker and salesman, who sold goods from a horse-drawn carriage through the backwoods in the 1920s (there's a lovely passage on Howard, the tinker's, interaction with an old hermit).

Howard was an epileptic, and when his wife brings home brochures from an asylum he decides to leave. This is told in between passages of George's gradual descent into death, with his extended family surrounding him.

A slim volume, Tinkers is short on plot but heavy, perhaps too heavy, on flights of literary fancy. There are some beautiful sections, and I loved a description of how Howard's brain felt after a fit: like "a jar full of rusty keys and old screws." But there are times the writing was so light and airy my eye just glided off the page.

The book also seems to take a very fatalistic view of life. Perhaps it can be summed up in this passage, while George, as a boy, is chopping wood: "Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn't it?"

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Alice's Restaurant

There was a time when "classic rock" radio stations always played Arlo Guthrie's epic song/monologue "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" on Thanksgiving. It's perhaps the only song in the classic rock genre that specifically refers to the holiday, and in the 1970s, when I came of age, the scruffy rebelliousness that Guthrie represented was still in vogue. I distinctly remember the first time I heard it, before I had any idea who Arlo Guthrie was. I must have been about fourteen, because I remember the bedroom I was in and wondering, as I listened, "What is this? It's great!"

The story behind the song is terrific. Guthrie, the twenty-year-old son of folk troubadour Woody Guthrie, debuted the song at the Newport Folk Festival in 1967. He played it three times, each time at a successively larger audience, until he closed the festival with it. It was recorded and became an instant sensation, for it's unique combination of cracker-barrel folksiness and pointed protest against the Vietnam War. In 1969, Arthur Penn made a film of it, with Guthrie starring as himself. I watched the film for the first time in a long time on Tuesday night, and then listened to the song on my drive out to Gettysburg yesterday.

The song, for those who haven't heard it, is an 18-minute talking blues number (the length, Guthrie would later point out, matched the length of the gap in Nixon's White House tape). He tells the story of how he visited his friends Alice and Ray in Stockbridge, Massachusetts for Thanksgiving, and ended up getting arrested for littering. He gently mocks authority, in this case the local constabulary, by detailing how they went nuts over the crime, with the "27 eight-by-ten color glossy pictures with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back explaining what each one was," and then, when put in the cell, how Officer Obie removed the toilet seat and the toilet paper so Arlo couldn't "knock myself over the head and drown, or bend the bars and roll the toilet paper out the window, slide down the roll, and make an escape."

But then, halfway through the song, he makes a sharp turn. My friend Bob and I, when we change gears suddenly in a conversation, still pay homage to Guthrie by quoting him: "But I didn't come to talk you about that. I came to talk to you about the draft." For that is Guthrie's mission here--to relate how, when he was processed for military service (he went to Whitehall Street, where he was "injected, inspected, detected, infected, neglected, and selected") he was asked whether he had rehabilitated himself after his arrest for littering to be in the military. After all the twinkly cornpone of this song, he tells the sergeant, pointedly, "Sergeant, you got a lot a damn gall to ask me if I've rehabilitated myself...you want to know if I'm moral enough join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages after bein' a litterbug."

The song made Guthrie famous, which resulted in the film, which is unfortunately very dated. It's very reminiscent of a certain style of 60s filmmaking, with abrupt cuts, muddy colors, and amateurish acting (Guthrie comes off better than some of the professional actors). It expands the story to really focus on Ray and Alice, two fortyish people who seem to live their lives through the hippies they watch over, and is overall a drama which seems to suggest the emptiness of the hippie lifestyle. We also get a subplot involving the death of Woody Guthrie, who succumbed to Huntington's Chorea when has 55. There's a great scene where Arlo visits him in the hospital to find Pete Seeger there, and they perform Seeger's song, "Car, Car." Just to show that there were no hard feelings, Officer Obie plays himself.

Guthrie would never match the success of that song, though he still performs today. I listened to it on The Best of Arlo Guthrie, which also contains his rock hit, "Comin' into Los Angeles," which is about drug smuggling, and the lovely cover of Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans," one of my favorite songs of all time. I also own a wonderful live album of he and Pete Seeger at Carnegie Hall, which is well worth checking out.

So, this Thanksgiving, remember: "You can get anything you want, at Alice's restaurant. You can get anything you want, at Alice's restaurant. Walk right in, it's around the back, just a half a mile from the railroad track. You can get anything you want, at Alice's restaurant."

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Les Carabiniers

Any good will I was feeling toward Jean-Luc Godard after Vivre Sa Vie had pretty much evaporated after seeing Les Carabiniers (The Riflemen), his 1963 anti-war film. Apparently critics and audiences hated it upon its release, and it hasn't gotten any better over time.

The problem was Godard's intellectual take on the film. He was successful in what he set out to do: Make an anti-war film that was so unpleasant to sit through that the viewer had no illusions about the romance or glamor of war. He has a point--if you're going to make an entertaining anti-war film, you're removing the edge off of your political point. So Godard made a film that is not entertaining, and is filmed in as ugly a fashion as possible.

The story concerns two oafs from the countryside. They are recruited into the army by two soldiers, who promise them anything: "Will we get to burn women?" "Will we be able to eat at restaurants and not pay?" Godard casts unknowns (and they appear, by their skill level, to be amateurs) to play these two nincompoops, who are given the iconic names of Ulysses and Michelangelo (their wives are called Cleopatra and Venus).

We follow these two as they stumble through the war, taking prisoners and shooting hostages. The action is flat, and recalls the Brechtian tactic of alienation, as there is absolutely no tugging on any heartstrings. When the boys make it home, they don't get their promised riches, but have a suitcase full of postcards of various places and things. In essence, they got the representation of those things, not the things themselves. The postcard scene goes on a long time, and seems to me to be Godard daring his audience to either walk out or hiss.

The film is only 75 minutes but seems much longer. Godard scholars seem to love it, but not I. To me it reeks of a kind of intellectual thuggery that passes for genius, when really it's just thumbing one's nose at the conventions of film. One can do that, as Godard did in Breathless, and make a film that is exhilarating to behold. Les Carabiniers, though, is a chore to sit through.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Wilderness Warrior

It is a testament to the fascinating life that Theodore Roosevelt led that this doorstop of a biography, The Wilderness Warrior, weighing in at over 800 pages, ends with Roosevelt leaving the presidency. It also has a singular emphasis--Roosevelt's abiding passion for protecting the wilderness. As the subtitle suggests, he was a crusader with an evangelist's zeal.

Douglas Brinkley has written an exhaustive study of Roosevelt's almost radical approach to preserving wildlife and its habitation. There is a long look at his precocious childhood, when his enthusiasm for animals and worship of Darwinism made it look like he would become a naturalist. He had his own museum of stuffed animals in his bedroom in Manhattan, and his father would be one of the founders of the Museum of Natural History (Roosevelt would, in turn, help found the Bronx Zoo).

Brinkley branches off to take estuaries that cover other major figures in zoological and conservation history, as Roosevelt went to Harvard. He became disenchanted with a career in biology, though, and ended up in politics, but he never lost his love for nature (his critics said he was more interested in birds than in the Constitution). Brinkley lands on all the frequent stops--his ranching days in North Dakota, his stint as New York City police commissioner, Rough Rider warring against the Spanish in Cuba, Governor of New York, Vice-President, and then, at age 42, unexpectedly president. But those stops are filled in by Roosevelt as lover of the wild, with extensive details on his forays, whether they be youthful hikes in Maine, or hunting trips in Dakota.

Viewed in modern terms, Roosevelt's attitude about animals contains a major contradiction--he loved them, but he also loved to hunt. He first went to Dakota out of concern that the buffalo were disappearing--before he had a chance to shoot one. He grew up a sickly child, and through his own efforts built himself into a "manly" man, and he maintained that American men must lead the "strenuous life" to avoid feminization, and that included hunting. (It also included war). He was never really dissuaded from this view, even by the likes of John Muir, who on an important meeting with Roosevelt at Yosemite during his presidency chastened him for the "boyish" fascination with killing things.

It was on a hunting trip to Mississippi that provided the inspiration for the Teddy Bear--Roosevelt refused to shoot a bear, because it was chained up and badly abused, and in his view not a sporting opportunity. The story and especially a political cartoon inspired two different toymakers to name stuffed bears after him, and the most popular toy that has ever been made was born (although he hated being called Teddy).

What Roosevelt did for preservation is the most lasting legacy of his presidency, and it is exhilarating to even contemplate it. As pointed out in my post on The National Parks, Roosevelt exploited a law called the Antiquities Act, which allowed him, with a stroke of a pen (and the spoken words "I so declare it") to set aside land from development. He did this with impunity, and scoffed at those who criticized him for it. He declared bird refuges and national forests, so much that if you do the math it turns out he protected 80,000 acres a day for every day in his presidency.

Brinkley's book doesn't examine all of Roosevelt's policy--it's not a thorough biography. He does touch on the major aspects, but we don't get the full effect of his presidency, particularly of his embrace of manifest destiny. We do get that he was loved by many (though not in the South, who wouldn't forgive him for dining with Booker T. Washington in the White House), and he fought those in his own party, which seems impossible today. The book ends with his departure from the White House (he promised he would not run again, and almost instantly regretted it). Thus we don't read about his safari to Africa, the 1912 presidential race, or his almost fatal trip to South America.

Brinkley's prose is very accessible, and at times almost novelistic, as when he describes a family pet as "poem of a dog." I really liked this passage: "Unfortunately, Roosevelt never published his campfire stories. With meat in the pot and log flames jumping high and low, on these outdoor outings Roosevelt would recount moments from the strenuous life with cliff-hanging suspense. There were accounts of sumo-wrestling with a 300-pound Japanese man; tramping toward the Mississippi River headwaters, boxing with the heavyweight champ John L. Sullivan, and encountering rattlesnakes in North Dakota. Holding his audience's attention with theatrical gestures, Roosevelt made it seem as if he had strode over the Alleghenies and down the Ohio River valley with Daniel Boone." He was the real life version of that guy in the Dos Equis commercials--the world's most interesting man. He was the first president to publish a book while in office, and it wasn't about politics, or economics, or foreign affairs--it was called The Deer Family.

The book does have a few problems. After a while one grows weary of yet another hunting trip, and he declared so many wilderness areas off limits that the accounts pile up like cord wood. And there are some shocking lapses in copy editing. We hear that Roosevelt loved the coincidence that Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day: February 22, 1803. Except that they were born on February 12, 1809. And consider this eye-opening sentence: "As every American schoolchild of Roosevelt's generation knew, July 1, 1873, was when the Battle of Gettysburg began." That's funny, because of every schoolchild of my generation knows, it began on July 1, 1863.

Inspired by the book, I went to a place that has been a short drive for three decades that I had never been to--Sagamore Hill, his summer home on the north shore of Long Island. It is well worth the trip, with a guided tour through the home, which is heavily adorned with the trophies of his hunting trip. There is hardly a room that doesn't have an animal's head on the wall, or a rug made out of skin on the floor. A museum gives a quick but thorough look at his life, and his gravesite is a short drive down the road. Theodore Roosevelt was a great man, not without his faults. We could use his like again, right now.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The National Parks

I have just completed watching Ken Burns' six-part film The National Parks, which features breathtaking photography and the typical Burns touch--humanizing a large subject through the use of individual stories. It was a wonderful experience.

As the subtitle of the project suggests, the notion of setting aside land because of its beauty or other factors is peculiarly American. The first National Park, Yellowstone, was declared in 1872, although parts of what would become Yosemite were preserved by the state of California before that. One of the purest expressions of a democratic society, it's still a little spine-tingling to think of the concept--land preserved, in perpetuity, for the "benefit and enjoyment" of the people, free from development.

Not that there weren't many battles along the way. The film takes a chronological approach. Yellowstone was declared a national park before many Americans even knew what it was, or developers could get notions about it (many refused to believe the descriptions of mountain men who talked of geysers and so forth). By the time of Theodore Roosevelt, there were only a few parks, but he was in the right place at the right time: a conservation-minded president leading at the time of the clash between business and conservation. He used a law called the Antiquities Act to bypass congress and declare places "national monuments," such as Devil's Tower. But when he did it for the Grand Canyon, which was savored by the mining industry, there was hell to pay.
But Roosevelt didn't back down (more on him tomorrow) and he ended up preserving 234 million acres, or half the size of the Louisiana Purchase.

The film continues with a series of several different fights for preservation. The Tetons, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Everglades, Biscayne Bay, and much of Alaska, all declared National Parks over the objections of either business or the locals (in Alaska Jimmy Carter was burned in effigy for his use of the Antiquities Act).

Many of the parks were created through the actions of a determined few, or sometimes a single person. Several of these people are rendered vividly by Burns and his writer, Dayton Duncan. Foremost is John Muir, the spiritual father of the environmental movement, who founded the Sierra Club and fought vigorously for the preservation of Yosemite, among other places. It was there that the one great defeat happened--a valley, called Hetch Hetchy, was dammed and flooded to provide drinking water for San Francisco. In a way, this fiasco served its purpose, as when other sites were suggested for damming Hetch Hetchy was recalled and rued.

Other personalities on parade in the film are Stephen Mather, under whose leadership the National Park Service was created in 1916. Mather pushed for greater attendance at the parks, to the point of building roads and encouraging automobile traffic, which turned out to be something of a deal with the devil. Another key person was George M. Wright, who argued that the parks should also be a way of protecting wildlife, and Adolph Murie, who studied wolves. Wolves had been eradicated from all of the parks in the lower 48 states, but Murie argued that they were essential parts of the ecosystem. They were reintroduced in the 1970s.

Watching this film at this period of American history is interesting, because the National Park Service is one of the greatest expressions of the good that government does. Today we wouldn't think of mining the Grand Canyon, but it was a hot topic in the 1910s. It was action by the government, through Roosevelt and Congressman John Lacey, that stopped their ruination (as what happened with Niagara Falls, which is surrounded by tacky souvenir shops). But it's also clear that the government couldn't do it alone--many of the parks were established through the largess of the wealthy, especially the Tetons, which were bought up by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

The best parts of the film are the touches that Burns specializes in. There are many experts interviewed, and they all share their personal remembrances of their visits, sometime in tears. There's also a segment where the diary of a woman who visited the parks over many years, starting in 1915, with her husband by car, along with the family dog, that resonate wonderfully. It is repeated throughout, like a mantra, that National Parks have served to connect generations, who remember visiting as children, and then take their own children.

But above all the film is spectacular to look at. The views are beyond breathtaking. I couldn't quite get over how majestic Denali looks, rising into the clouds like a children's drawing of a mountain. The Grand Canyon, as well as the other canyons of the southwest, are gorgeous, and the shots of nature, whether bears fishing or wolves bringing down an impala, are stunning.

The sad thing is how few of these parks I've been to. I've done very little traveling in the west, so the only parks I've been to are those in the east: Shenandoah, Mammoth Cave, the Everglades, the Dry Tortugas, and I'm not sure about Biscayne Bay. I felt a little wistful while watching, realizing there's little chance I'll get to too many of these. But I would like to try.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Eyes Without a Face

I was visiting friends this weekend and they had a DVD of a film I'd never heard of, a French horror film from 1960 called Eyes Without a Face. It was a Criterion Collection disc, and a pristine print of a genuinely creepy film.

It was also ahead of its time, dealing with a medical procedure that is now possible--the face transplant. The film begins with a mysterious woman driving through lonely streets in the middle of the night. She dumps a body in the river, and when it's fished out by the police a Dr. Génessier is notified. The body has no face, and it seems his daughter has the same affliction, having been disfigured in a car accident. He identifies the body as hers, which gives hope to another man who's daughter is missing.

Of course not is all that it seems. The woman who dumped the body is the doctor's assistant (she's played by Alida Valli, who was the femme fatale in The Third Man). The doctor's daughter is very much alive. Her father has been conducting experiments in trying to graft a new face to hers, but unfortunately he's been getting donors by force.

The film, directed by Georges Franju, is very quiet and restrained. It also has a very shocking scene for 1960, as it shows the doctor applying a scalpel to a woman's face and then peeling it away. Apparently this caused fainting back in 1960, and the film was subsequently cut.

At 84 minutes, the film is still a bit padded. I joked that it seemed half of it consisted of people walking up staircases. Still, it's a creepy bit of cinema, especially the lifelike mask that the doctor's daughter wears. This film could have been cut down to make a particularly chilling hour-long episode of The Twilight Zone.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Vivre Sa Vie

For his fourth film, Jean-Luc Godard diverted course and made a film that, on its face, was much more conventional in form than the first three. Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live), from 1962, was inspired on a sociological study of prostitution, and is a grim, almost clinical look at the oldest profession. As I was watching it, I was at times confounded by its precision and bloodlessness, but upon reflection I realized that it is a near masterpiece, and a philosophical treatise on the very nature of language and existence.

Dedicated to B pictures, and opening with close-ups of his muse, Anna Karina, we then get an epigraph from Montaigne: "Lend yourself to others, but give yourself only to yourself." Karina is a clerk in a record shop who is behind on her rent, and ends up working the streets. She meets a fellow who becomes her pimp, and she's soon working in a brothel. A montage of her meeting clients is accompanied by a voiceover of words taken directly from the study, which details the life of a prostitute, including the laws affecting them, how much they charge, and if they get days off. The film is structured as a series of twelve tableaux, each introduced by a title card, as if it were a novel. By the end, Karina has lent herself too much to others.

Whereas in Godard's other films, particularly A Woman Is a Woman, where theatrically dominates, and characters look into the camera, Vivre Sa Vie is more conventional. In fact, this first tableau has two characters who not only don't look into the camera, they are filmed from behind, sitting at the counter of a diner, ending their relationship. Godard's camera is very precise, frequently not moving at all. Only once, near the end of the film, does Karina pointedly gaze into the camera, and when she does I felt stunned, as if I were caught peeping through her window.

The overriding theme of the film is woman as object. There's a stunning scene where Karina moves through the brothel, looking for another whore to make a third with a client. She stumbles upon many women in dishabille, but they aren't in the clinch with clients, they are posed, as if sitting for artists (this is one of the least sexy films about prostitution, ever). In the last scene, Godard himself reads from Poe's story "The Oval Portrait," which is about a painter who, while painting a portrait of his beloved, drains her of life, like an artistic vampire. That Godard himself reads from the story is telling, as of course Karina was his wife at this point.

That story ends with the words, "She was dead." The other dominant reference in the film comes earlier, when Karina goes to a movie and it happens to be Theodore Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. She was the iconic saint/whore of Western culture, and he shows a fairly long clip in which she discusses her coming martyrdom, the clip ending with the title card, "Death." It doesn't take a genius to worry about Karina's fate in this film.

This film could survive multiple viewings to fully glean its treasures. It is available in a Criterion edition, with a number of extras and a commentary, and the photography by Raoul Coutard looks smashing. I also liked the score, by Michel Legrand. This is a stunning work, all around.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Triumph of the Stat Geeks

One of the charms of baseball, and perhaps one of its detriments, is that is can be reduced to numbers. Almost anything that happens on the field can be represented by a statistic. When it comes time to handing out post-season awards, those stats can be wielded like weapons, with arguments for and against someone, citing stats both basic and esoteric.

The trend upward for the stat-minded, who are often called sabermetricians (named after the SABR, the Society of American Baseball Research), has been slow, starting with the work of Bill James in the 1970s. It is now complete, with Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Marines winning the Cy Young Award for the American League. He easily beat out David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays and C.C. Sabathia of the New York Yankees. Hernandez had a record of 13-12. Price had 19 wins. Sabathia had 21. That 13 is the lowest total for a Cy Young-winning starting pitcher in a nonstrike season.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. I'm trying to keep an open mind, but as I read the responses of stat geeks on the Internet I'm troubled. Apparently, they are crowing because the baseball writers who have voted on this have come to agree with them that wins are not all that important in determining the winner of this award. Things like earned run average, strikeouts, quality starts, and innings pitched are more important. They also point out that Hernandez pitched for a woeful team, and had very little run support. If Sabathia and Hernandez would have switched teams, the argument goes, Hernandez would have won 20, and Sabathia 13.

Well, duh. Life is tough. Ifs have no place in these discussions--if my aunt had a dick, she'd be my uncle. This kind of reasoning seems emblematic of excuse-making. Hernandez may have had better stuff throughout the year, but Price, and especially Sabathia, who I think should have won the award, actually won more games. Sabathia won more than fifty percent more games, and winning over twenty has become a rarity in the game. As Herm Edwards said of another sport, but it applies here, "You play to win the game."

When I was a kid, there were three stats for pitchers--wins/losses, strikeouts, and E.R.A. Now there are a host of others, with cutesy acronyms: WHIP, WAR, and xFIP. I'm not knocking them--I don't want to come off like an angry old guy like Joe Morgan--but I fear the forest has been obscured by the trees. The signs have pointed toward this--last year Tim Lincecum and Zach Greinke won the Cy Youngs with win totals of 15 and 16, respectively, but there weren't guys with vastly superior win totals.

I guess this is just the way it is now, with younger guys who have been brought up on these new stats. Times change.

Incidentally, it appears that baseball will be adding another round of playoffs next year. Instead of four teams in each league, with one wild card, there will be now be five teams and two wild cards. It is supposed that the two wild cards will play a short round to move on, while the three division-winners get byes. If this is going to happen, which I wish it wouldn't, then I'm hoping for this scenario: the wild card teams play a one-game play-in (instead of a best two-out-of-three). This makes the game instantly exciting (there have been a dearth of maximum-extended series in the last few years), and makes sure that the winner has to spend their best pitcher.

This past year would have seen the Red Sox and Yankees play, which would have goosed the Yankees-Rays division race. No team would just coast into a wild card spot, as they won't want to risk their season on a roll-of-the-dice one game. It also only pushes the schedule one extra day. If it's going to happen, I could live with this set-up.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Indian Chief Who Killed a U.S. General

This is a dead horse, but can there be any doubt that Fox News is driven by a bias against President Obama? Many companies have mission statements tacked to their walls--surely Fox News includes one that states "Obama Can Do No Right." How else can we think after their Website took a story from U.S.A. Today and gave it the headline: "Obama Praises Indian Chief Who Killed a U.S. General."

The story was about a children's book, penned by Obama, that praises thirteen Americans from history. It's a diverse group, from the usual suspects like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln to Helen Keller and Cesar Chavez. All nationalities are represented, so it's not a shock that an American Indian was chosen, and Obama tabbed Sitting Bull, chief of the Lakota Sioux. He was certainly one of the great chiefs of North America, and took part in a war against the U.S. military, which had its best day at the Little Bighorn, when Custer's Seventh Cavalry was wiped out.

I can only imagine that some low-level editor at Fox Nation had this item come across their desk and, noting the company manifesto, had to somehow turn it into an Obama negative. It was a tough job--the book seems innocuous. One of the choices was Billie Holliday, who led a dissolute life of drug abuse, but she was passed over for Sitting Bull, whose life was summed up as the "Indian Chief Who Killed U.S. General."

The headline attracted a lot of attention. It generated buzz from the lunatic right, who cite it as another example of Obama's anti-Americanism. Mostly it engendered mockery by the rest of us, who see it for what it is--a naked cheap shot. It's interesting to note that Custer was not identified by name in the headline--I don't think anyone thinks Custer deserves much reverence these days. It was also interesting, and hilarious, that the headline was later changed to "Indian Chief Who Defeated U.S. General," as there is no evidence that Sitting Bull himself delivered the coup de grace. Fox' statement was that the headline was changed for "historical accuracy." That's very funny.

I'm also guessing that many who have taken the opportunity to pile on Obama for this are the apologists for the Confederacy, who have Stars and Bars bumper stickers and would throw a hissy fit if someone wanted to tear down the statues of Confederate leaders in their town squares. But, after all, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were also men who "defeated U.S. generals." Worse, they were traitors, which can't be said of Sitting Bull, who was just trying to avoid genocide.

I've enjoyed reading the comments by historians who actually know what they are talking about. One noted that at that point in his life, Sitting Bull was not leading his men, he was back with the women and children (Crazy Horse was the man). Another is skeptical of Obama's praise, saying that Sitting Bull's legacy is not exactly a pleasant one, as his actions led to the defeat of his people, and that he ended up a sideshow in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Perhaps Obama could have chosen a different Indian, who would be tough to find controversy with, like Squanto or Sequoia. But I'm sure the headline would then have been, "Obama Praises Drug-Addicted Jazz Singer."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Woman Is a Woman

Jean-Luc Godard's 1961 film, Une Femme Est Une Femme (A Woman Is a Woman), won the Berlin Film Festival Jury Prize for its "Originality, Youthfulness, Daring, and Impertinence." It is certainly all those things, but is it any good? Almost twenty-four hours later after seeing it I'm not sure. Godard seemed to have no qualms, as he has one of his characters look into the camera and say, "I don't know whether this is a comedy or a tragedy, but I know it's a masterpiece."

In this film Godard takes on the Hollywood musical, or at least the shell of one. There is very little actual singing and dancing--what is left is all those parts in between, and for anyone who has seen musicals, these are usually the worst parts. It's also reminiscent of those frothy Hollywood films of the 1950s that starred Doris Day or Sandra Dee. So, after Breathless, which was an homage to the Hollywood crime film and Humphrey Bogart, comes A Woman Is a Woman. The difference, and it's a big one, is that I don't think Godard had any affection for the archetype he was using. The whole thing feels very cynical.

The story centers around Anna Karina as a striptease artist who lives with her boyfriend, Jean-Claude Brialy. She desperately wants a baby, but he's not so keen on that. He jokingly suggests that she get knocked up by their good friend, Jean-Paul Belmondo, who also happens to be in love with her. When she actually goes to bed with him, Brialy is not so pleased. This is basically the entire plot. In between are candy-colored bits of business (the film was Godard's first in color, and the photography by Raul Coutard is very pleasing to the eye) that are fluffy and fizzy, and completely self-conscious. The whole thing begins with someone saying, "Lights, camera, action!" The actors frequently break the fourth wall, and there are all sorts of inside references. At one point Belmondo says that he has to hurry, because "Breathless is on TV tonight." Belmondo's character's last name is Lubitsch, which gives us an indication who Godard was really interested in emulating.

There are also in-jokes involving Francois Truffaut. Jeanne Moreau makes a cameo, and Belmondo asks her how Jules and Jim is going. Immediately after that, Karina runs into a friend on the street, who is played by Marie Dubois, star of Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player, and some jokes are made about that. Godard broke with Truffaut, whom he thought made "script pictures," while Godard was more interested in the camera, so I'm not sure whether these were insults or shout-outs.

The film also has a busy, absurdist style, with breaks in continuity that would characterize British films like A Hard Day's Night--Brialy, all of a sudden, is riding a bike inside the apartment, and in front of his stoop a couple is always there, kissing. Some of this is very droll--I liked a bit in which Brialy and Karina insult each other by using the covers of books from their shelves--this is certainly the only film in which someone is called a "Peruvian mummy."

While this film isn't as profound as Godard probably thought it was (or maybe not, maybe he thought it was all a joke, what do I know?) it's staying with me. Part of that is due to the luminescence of Karina, who won the Best Actress award at that same Berlin festival. I've only seen a handful of Godard's films, but his greatest genius may have been in choosing his leading ladies.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Royalty Porn

Two people who have accomplished nothing in their lives made big news today--it was announced that Prince William of the United Kingdom, heir to the throne, and his girlfriend Kate Middleton have become engaged to be married. The world is set to go crazy about this--TV networks are anticipating stratospheric ratings, and there's already a panoply of kitschy memorabilia for sale. Why are we so fascinated?

When I worked in actual porn, my boss could tell stories that could peel the wallpaper. She was open about her sexuality and love of porn. What was it she kept hidden under her bed? Her royalty magazines. I imagine this is true of many otherwise intelligent people, who have a weakness for these people who lead a real-life soap opera.

I'm not completely immune. I did get up at four o'clock in the morning to watch Princess Diana's funeral, but mainly that was because I wasn't going to miss the spectacle of Elton John playing at Westminster Abbey. I doubt I tune in for this wedding next year, unless there's nothing else on (of course, it will be on all channels, maybe even ESPN).

All of this poses a few questions. One--why is this woman, who appears to be a level-headed person, willingly jumping into the fishbowl like this? She must know she is completely saying goodbye to a normal life. The sturm and drang that her fiance's mother went through is certainly something she's aware of. Can she love a prematurely balding guy this much?

Two--of course it is expected for the heir to the throne to find a respectable woman to breed more heirs, but how much poon-tang does a prince get? We know that Prince Andrew got his share. These boys get sense of duty drilled into them from the time they can walk, but is there an urge to just go wild and bang models for a couple of years? I know I would.

Three--how short will the reign of future King Charles be? He's sixty-two. If his mother, who has indicated she has no plans of stepping down, lives to be the age of her mother when she died, Charles will be near eighty when he takes over. This guy has been such a sad sack I wouldn't be surprised if somehow he never becomes king, and it goes right to William. I think much of England wouldn't be upset by this.

The British monarchy is an incredibly archaic and superfluous institution. I've been told by actual British people that having a nonpartisan head of state can be advantageous, and given the rancor of the American system I see their point. But surely the main reason why the Queen and all of the princes and princesses haven't been made to get real jobs is their entertainment value. They are a real-life soap opera, and we Americans, who pride ourselves on not having royalty, keep trying to manufacture one anyway, whether it's the Kennedys, Bushes or Clintons.

I'm reminded of the great line from Mike Leigh's film High Hopes, in which a scruffy fellow is asked why he never dresses properly: "The day they machine-gun the royal family is the day I put on a coat and tie."

Monday, November 15, 2010

Fair Game

Like an unpleasant memory, George W. Bush has been removed from mothballs and made his way across the media landscape in the last few days to promote his memoir. Some of the revelations from the book haven't made anyone miss his leadership, especially his remark that the worst moment of his presidency was getting dissed by Kanye West. As many noted, that apparently beat out the tens of thousands killed in Iraq over a lie.

That's the story at the heart of the thrilling new film Fair Game, directed by Doug Liman. But politics aside (this film won't be popular among the Fox News crowd), it works on several levels, not least of which that it is an affecting portrait of a married couple in turmoil.

Naomi Watts stars as Valerie Plame Wilson, a CIA operative who lives in Washington with her husband, the former diplomat Joe Wilson (Sean Penn). I liked the way we see how someone in Plame's position works--the day-to-day stuff that isn't exactly James Bond (but on occasion comes close). The film begins shortly after 9/11, and Watts is part of a team working on tracing a possible sale of yellow cake uranium from Niger to Iraq. Since Penn is an expert on Africa, she suggests to her superiors that he might be of use. Wilson agrees to travel there, without pay, and comes to the conclusion that the sale never took place.

The White House, personified by the unctuous Scooter Libby (Vice-President Cheney's chief of staff), shows up in person at CIA headquarters and shakes the tree until he gets someone to agree that Iraq has the capability of making nuclear weapons. Bush, in his state of the union address, declares that the yellow cake sale took place, much to Watts and Penn's astonishment. Penn, a prickly fellow who for an ex-diplomat isn't terribly diplomatic, writes an op-ed in the New York Times stating that the administration is full of it. Stung, Libby (and by association Karl Rove) fight back, and a column by Robert Novak outs Plame as a CIA agent.

Penn fights back by taking to the airwaves, while Watts, unable to speak about her tenure as an agent, withdraws into a shell. She is taken off of all cases, including an attempt to help an Iraqi scientist escape from the country. She receives threats and the right-wing media engineers a smear campaign against her and her husband.

All of this is told in exciting fashion, with a terrific screenplay by Jez and John Butterworth. I am always a sucker for a film that tells a complex story in a straightforward manner that makes clear who everyone is and what's at stake. As I said, the politics are not objective--Libby is presented as a villain, and Watts and Penn as true blue heroes--but there are several other themes at work, namely the way that in the 24-hours news world, saying something loud enough and often enough seems to make it true, whether it's that Iraq has WMDs or Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.

All of that would be fine, but Fair Game ups the ante by being a very good character study. Watts and Penn are both wonderful in their roles, and the tension the crisis plays on their marriage is the emotional center of the film. The only conversation missing from the film is the one that must have taken place after Watts first knew Penn's article appeared: "Maybe you could have asked me about this before writing it?"

Liman's direction carries over a bit from his work on The Bourne Identity. There's lots of handheld camera work that wasn't always necessary, although I did like a scene when the Iraqi scientist is in his car with his young son, bullets flying around him, and it's all shot from the back seat of the vehicle. In a certain sense I liked this film in despite of Liman's direction, concentrating more on the script elements that worked so well.

Note: when Googling "Fair Game," the first dozen or so images all relate to the other film by that name, the one and thus-far only film to star Cindy Crawford.

My grade for Fair Game: A

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Le Petit Soldat

In recognition of Jean-Luc Godard winning an honorary Oscar this week (in absentia), I am going to endeavor to see all of his films that I can. But he's made an awful lot of them, so I'll have to do this in pieces (many of them are available on DVD). I already wrote about his debut film, Breathless, so I will now turn to his next few films, starting with Le Petit Soldat.

Made in 1960, Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier) was not actually released until 1963 because of the controversial subject matter: the French-Algerian conflict. Godard paints both sides as engaging in nefarious behavior, although it is not clear that he has any particular political point of view. As Breathless was a deconstruction of a certain kind of crime film, Le Petit Soldat is his version of a political thriller. And, it being Godard, who at this point was more concerned with experimenting with form than with content, I don't think the French had much to worry about.

The film is narrated from the point of view of Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), a journalist who has fled to Switzerland to get out of military service. He is working as some sort of operative for the French, but they suspect him of being a double agent, and tell him he must assassinate a certain person, or be killed himself. He doesn't quite have the stomach for murder, and when he does try his attempts are almost comically thwarted.

Eventually he is captured by the Algerians, and undergoes a long period of torture. This is probably what disturbed the French authorities most. Even though it is Arabs who are inflicting it, the torture is presented in such a banal fashion that Godard seems to be saying that this kind of behavior is matter-of-fact and probably exists on both sides. For 1960 this stuff is very brutal, and I worried about Subor--open flames are waved beneath his hands, and he is dunked face-down in a bathtub full of water, with no cut-aways. I do hope that when they got to the electricity part they were faking it.

The secondary plot concerns Anna Karina as a woman that Subor falls in love with (though he bets his friend 50 francs that he will not). This was Karina's first film with Godard, which would initiate not only a long and memorable artistic partnership, but the two would marry as well. To call her lovely is to do injustice to the word lovely--Godard was great at showcasing a woman's beauty (as seen with Brigitte Bardot in Contempt) and he does so here. There is a long scene near the beginning of the film, in which Subor takes photos of Karina, that recalls the bedroom scene of Breathless, but it's less cramped. Subor memorably says that "photography is truth, and cinema is truth at twenty-four frames a second."

Later Subor finds out that Karina has been working with the Algerians, and he has a monologue that is dizzying in its scope. He declares that he loves America because of their cars, but hates Algerians because he hates the desert, the Mediterranean, and Albert Camus. He also tells Karina that there should be no women over 25 years old.

There is a lot of florid writing in the film, particularly in the narration (which is intentionally over-descriptive--Subor tells us that Karina asks, "Why?" right before we actually hear her say it). He makes a lot of references to art: a sky is like something out of Klee, and he can't remember if Karina's eyes are Velasquez-gray or Renoir-gray. This kind of intellectual preciousness can be taxing, but there is no denying the raw power of his unconventional use of the camera. The film is very confusing, and could accurately be called a mess, but it's a fascinating mess.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The xx

I'd heard quite a bit about the debut, self-titled album of a band called The xx, so I finally picked it up a few weeks ago, and am just now listening to it with some attention. I like it, though it's difficult to classify. At first listen it can come across like "music to slit your wrists by," performed by the tragically hip, but if one peels back the layers it's a peppy, poppy suite of songs.

The xx are fronted by a male/female pair: Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. They share vocals on most of the songs, as if it were dialogue in some ongoing relationship. Almost all of the lyrics appear to be relationship-oriented, a throwback to the early days of rock and roll. Their sound also has an antique quality to it: the guitar has plenty of reverb, and the drums (or here called "beats") are deep and booming, just how I like them. The opening track, an instrumental suitably called "Intro," gets the theme going wonderfully.

The xx take this old-style musicianship and give it a space-age twist, though. The vocals are the kind common among shoe-gazing bands: Croft's is breathy and ethereal, while Sim's is droning. All of this mixes together to give the band a distinct sound, but it doesn't deviate much from song to song.

The best cuts have good riffs and hooks. I liked "Shelter," which Croft takes on herself, and "VCR," which seems to be a winking look at a relationship from a previous generation (the band members were all 20 years old when they recorded it, hence the name xx, and probably don't have much hands-on experience with the antediluvian videocassette recorder). The closest thing to a standard radio-friendly single is "Heart Skipped a Beat." I didn't care for "Fantasy," an experimental bit of noise that tests the patience of the listener.

Listening to the album put me in a nice state of mind, a kind of sonic reverie. After a few listens it gets redundant, but it's nice to know I can pull it off the shelf and return there at a moment's notice.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death

Here's a crime novel which really isn't about crime--it's about character. Namely, the character Webster Fillmore Goodhue. at the start of Charlie Huston's novel The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, Web is a slacker, sharing an apartment with his childhood friend, a tattoo artist. He does nothing but sleep and read horror movie magazines, and act like a dick.

It seem that Web used to be a teacher, and when we learn that he has an abnormal aversion to riding buses, it becomes gradually clearer that he was involved in a traumatic incident on a school bus. In fact, his antisocial, extremely sarcastic behavior stems from post-traumatic stress disorder, but he strains the sympathy of everyone around him. Including the reader.

Web eventually takes a job with a crime scene clean-up crew, and almost immediately gets involved with two different entanglements: a turf war involving a rival clean-up company, and then he gets drawn in by a femme fatale, who he meets while cleaning up the remains of her father, who has shot himself to death.

The biggest selling point of this book is the character of Web and his at times Promethean dialogue. He has a hard time keeping his mouth shut, and gets beaten up several times during the course of the action (and it's not always his fault). I knew I was in for a good time early on after reading this, after someone has called him an asshole: "Honestly, in most circumstances, in any given room on any given day, I'd say, 'Yeah, I'm the asshole here.' But in this particular scenario, and I know we just met and all, but in this room here?" I pointed at him. "I'm more than willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and say that you're the asshole."

The sterling dialogue masks that there isn't much of a story here. It's really all about Web redeeming himself and learning to deal with his grief--a story involving almond smuggling truck drivers seems kind of lame. It's what happens in-between, especially when he deals with the asshole described above, a would-be movie producer called Jaime, that the prose sings. There are also some lovely descriptions of the Los Angeles area, particular the port, and a couple of strong sections involving Web's dad, a burned out old screenwriter.

At times I felt a little lost during the book, as transitions were eased over, and I could never get used to the way dialogue was introduced by em dashes instead of quotation marks. What can I say--I'm a copy editor. Good book, though.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day

No, not that kind of veteran. I'm talking about what is commonly referred to as the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans' Committee (this year it has the ungainly title of The Committee to Consider Managers, Umpires, Executives and Long-Retired Players for Hall of Fame Election). The Hall announced this week the twelve men who will be on this year's ballot and, as a nerdy baseball fan, I've been chewing the data. Do any of these men deserve election?

To give some background: The first way to get into the Hall, as a player, is to be elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) after waiting out five years of retirement. The no-brainers, from Babe Ruth to Rickey Henderson, have all been elected this way. If a player receives 75% of the vote, they're in.

Players stay on that ballot for fifteen years, provided they don't dip below 5% of the vote, whereby they are dropped from future consideration, at least by the BBWAA. But, after a player has been retired for 21 years, they can be reconsidered by the "Veterans" committee.

The rules for selection by the Veterans committee has changed many times. There was a time when players who never received five percent in any BBWAA election were barred from election by the Veterans. For many years, a panel of "experts" decided on who got in, and during one particular stretch the committee was dominated by Frankie Frisch, a Hall of Famer who seemed set on getting all of his old teammates in, whether they deserved it or not. Then, for a few years, the panel concept was scratched, and the voters were the living members of the Hall. This was a good idea, except they proved to be taskmasters--no one was elected.

The Hall brass wants to see people elected and inducted. It's good for business. The attendance at induction weekend is a high percentage of the museum's yearly total, besides what it does for the village of Cooperstown's Chamber of Commerce. When popular players are inducted, like the year Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn got in, the place is mobbed. When lesser lights are inducted, the attendance is sparse. I think the Hall worries that one of these years, no one will be inducted.

So we have a new system starting this year. The managers, umpires, executives, and long-retired players have been divided into categories by chronology. This year, the panel of sixteen ex-players, writers, and historians will be considering individuals from the "expansion era," meaning 1973-1989 (why they called it that is curious, as only two teams were added during those years). Twelve names are on the ballot: Vida Blue, Dave Concepcion, Steve Garvey, Pat Gillick, Ron Guidry, Tommy John, Billy Martin, Marvin Miller, Al Oliver, Ted Simmons, Rusty Staub, and George Steinbrenner.

Now, the whole concept of a Veterans committee has always bothered me. For managers, umpires, and executives, or players who played before the Hall began elections in 1936, I'm fine with a blue-ribbon panel deciding. But this year we've got players on the ballot who were resounding rejected by the BBWAA, appearing only once and not getting the mandatory five percent to stay on the ballot. For instance, Ted Simmons got 3.7% in his one and only time on the writers' ballot. For them to be allowed into the Hall with the approval of only twelve voters (75% of the sixteen ballots earns induction), after a voting membership of 500 turned them down, seems entirely bogus. It's like a child being turned down by mommy, only to run to daddy for approval, or getting into a nightclub by sneaking through the back entrance. The plaques in the Hall gallery give no indication of how a person was elected--once you're in there, you're equal to all the others.

The BBWAA system isn't perfect (I'm always disgusted by the writers' bleating about keeping Pete Rose out because of his moral failings--as if a baseball writer was a paragon of virtue), but it's a system that seems to work. Having a backdoor in cheapens the whole thing. I'm all for keeping Cooperstown a busy place, but this, frankly, stinks.

So, do any of the twelve names on the ballot deserve induction? I don't think any of the players do, but I'll go through them and give my thoughts, though I don't have a vote. The statistics are from baseball-reference.com, which is a site I could spend hours on. They have a great feature that breaks down a player's average season, which is illuminating.

It should be noted that I'm old enough to have seen all these players, many of them probably in person. They were all great players, and a team with all of them on the roster would have been a formidable squad during the 1970s. But I don't think any of them are HOF quality.

Vida Blue: My first thought on Blue is that he was a one-year wonder, but I'm way off-base. Yes, he was a wunderkind in 1971, when he won the Cy Young and the MVP, when he was 24-8 with a 1.82 ERA with Oakland. But he had a better career than just that season, and had a decent stretch with the Giants. He won 20 games three times in his career, and 18 twice, ending up with a lifetime record of 209-161 with a 3.27 ERA. But winning 20 games in those days was not almost impossible, like it is now.

Dave Concepcion: Evaluating middle-infielders is tough, because their value is primarily defensive, and there's never been a surefire method of evaluating a player's defensive skills. Concepcion, who was the shortstop for the great Big Red Machine of Cincinnati, is considered a great defensive player, and he was a decent hitter, too, racking up over 2,300 hits and a .267 average. He did win five Gold Gloves and was a nine-time All Star. Certainly he was overshadowed by the big stars on that team: Rose, Bench, Morgan, and Perez, so his candidacy deserves a long, hard look, but ultimately I say no.

Steve Garvey: He was a huge star during the late 70s and early 80s, but his totals don't justify election. He had 2599 hits, 272 home runs, and a lifetime batting average of .294, and he was also a tough out in the post-season, hitting .338 lifetime. From 1973 to 1980 he hit over .300 every year but one, and that one he hit .297. He had over 100 RBI five times. So why don't I think he deserves election? It's hard to pinpoint, but I think his power numbers are too low for a first-baseman. If he had had over 3,000 hits, and a higher lifetime batting average, that would have made up for it. It's close, and I wouldn't strenuously object to his election (he was on the writers' ballot for several tries).

Pat Gillick: This is the kind of person the Veterans committee is good for, a general manager. Very few nonowner GMs have been elected, and they include big names like Branch Rickey, Ed Barrow, and George Weiss. Gillick won wherever he went, winning World Series in Toronto and Philadelphia and getting to the post-season in Baltimore and Seattle. His candidacy is intriguing, and I could be persuaded to vote for him.

Ron Guidry: For one magic season Ron Guidry was the best pitcher in baseball. In 1978, he went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA for the Yankees. He won twenty only two other times, and though his won-loss percentage is a fantastic .651, he only won 170 games in his career. He had an average season of 17-9, but I don't think his career lasted long enough to deserve enshrinement.

Tommy John: His most lasting legacy will probably be the surgery that is named after him, when a tendon from the leg is inserted into the arm, which resurrected his career, a long one, that lasted 26 seasons. His 288 lifetime victories are the most for any pitcher who is not in the Hall. But he also lost 231 games, and his average season was a mediocre 13-11. John never won a Cy Young Award, and only won 20 games three times. Another close call, but I say no.

Billy Martin: Those old enough remember when Billy Martin dominated the sports pages. He had five different stints as Yankee manager, and his tortured relationship with George Steinbrenner was the stuff of fiction (it would be a delicious irony if they were elected together). Martin managed five teams in his career, taking four of them to first-place finishes. He won only two pennants, though, and only one World Series title (in 1977). He won over 1200 games as a manager, with a .553 winning percentage, but he burned out a bit too soon to get into the Hall.

Marvin Miller: Here's a man who should be elected, no doubt about it. He was the first director of the player's union, and it was his leadership that changed the face of baseball. Every player now drawing a multimillion dollar salary should worship at his feet. Miller, now in his nineties, has come tantalizingly close in previous elections, and has asked that his name with be withdrawn from consideration. Here it is again, though. It is said that players always vote for him, but owners do not. Let's hope sanity prevails this year.

Al Oliver: If I were to vote for a player, it would be Oliver, though he is probably the least known of the eight players on this year's ballot. He played most of his career for the Pirates in the shadow of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, but racked up over 2700 hits and a .303 lifetime batting average (which, in the age he played, is considerable--consider that Pete Rose had the same lifetime average). He also knocked 219 home runs. He only had two 200-hit seasons, though. In his one year on the writers' ballot, he garnered a paltry 4.3%. I'd be tempted to vote for him, as in this case it would highlight the writers' ignorance.

Ted Simmons: He was a good catcher for the Cardinals during much of the 1970s, always in the shadow of Johnny Bench. On his baseball-reference page a writer asks, "More RBIs than Bench, more runs that Carter, more hits than Berra or Fisk. When will the Hall call THIS catcher?" Well, good points, but Simmons was never the best catcher in the game at the time like those players were. I just don't consider him an all-time great.

Rusty Staub: His numbers just don't justify my memory of him. He was a great hitter, but has only had a .279 lifetime average, which would be a low for a guy who has less than 300 home runs (292). He also could be a disaster in the outfield. I have fond memories of him, though, as during his stint with the Tigers he was one of the few good players they had, and he was a long-time fan favorite while with the Mets, many of these years as a slow-footed pinch-hitter.

George Steinbrenner: Certainly he was an owner who changed the game, and probably deserves induction, but as a certified Yankee-hater allow me to express my reservations. Steinbrenner revolutionized the sport, but was it for the better? Do we really like the game when a few teams dominate year after year because they have huge television deals? On the other hand, there have been ten different teams winning the World Series in the last 11 years, so if you can buy a contender, you can't necessarily buy a champion. That he was a convicted felon and an egomaniac also count against him. I was amazed by the bouquets thrown around the time of his death this past summer, and not surprised by the size of the plaque with his image at Yankee Stadium, several times larger than Babe Ruth's. I wouldn't vote for him, but can't argue with those who would.

The results will be announced December 6th.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Picture Claire

Somewhere in Picture Claire a good movie is hiding, like one of those "Find the Faces of the Presidents" drawings that use to be in puzzle books. I got the sense while watching it that it may not have been the cut of the film the director intended--released straight-to-DVD, it has an abrupt quality, as if a studio was trying to dump it. I suspect there was more to it.

A 2001 film from Canada, Picture Claire stars Juliette Lewis in the title role. She's a Quebecois who speaks no English, arriving in Toronto after her Montreal apartment was torched by arsonists. She is hunting an old flame, who we come to realize was really just a one-night stand, but has a lot more importance to her. While she's looking for him she runs into Mickey Rourke in a donut shop. While she's in the ladies' room, he is murdered by Gina Gershon, and the donut shop worker thinks that Lewis is the killer.

While the cops hunt for Lewis, a pair of clean-cut thugs look for Gershon. Picture Claire plays it very close to the vest with information, which can make the movie frustrating but also lends it a more moody, mysterious feel. We don't find out why Lewis' apartment was torched until late, and then it's in a throwaway line. But that, coupled with Lewis being unable to understand or be understood, makes the viewer feel just a little out-of-kilter.

McDonald applies a heavy hand, particularly in the use of split-screen images, but also has some lovely set pieces, such as two separate scenes in which Lewis is hiding inside someone's apartment while the owner is there, and another when a character frantically paws through broken glass to find diamonds. As fine an eye as McDonald has, though, the story never quite justifies all his hard work. Perhaps there is a superior director's cut out there.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Black & White

Black & White is a serviceable, straight-to-video film from 1999 that, while not being terrible, isn't much good, either. It has us presuppose that an L.A. cop could be a complete psychopath--something that I'm willing to go along with, but to a point.

Gina Gershon stars as that cop. We are introduced to her via Rory Cochrane, who is a rookie cop with a unflinching devotion to the Catholic church (how different this role is from the only other one I know him for--a stoner in Dazed and Confused). He is partnered with Gershon, whom he is told is the best cop on the force. She has some funny ideas about partnership--her first instruction to him is to take them to his house, to see how he decorates. Then she wants them both of them to strip, so they can stop wondering how they look naked. I wonder if this in the manual?

Meanwhile, there's a serial killer on the loose, who shoots victims in their left eye. Evidence suggests it's a cop, and then, when the detective on the case (Alison Eastwood) figures out that the four victims were all arrested by Gershon, she becomes the number-one suspect. Cochrane doesn't know what to think, given that he and Gershon have become lovers. Another detective, Ron Silver, who used to be Gershon's partner, pressures Cochrane to act as spy.

Directed by Yuri Zeltser, Black & White has an appropriately grungy look, and is largely set in neighborhoods you don't want to be in. As often is the case, I had a lot of problems with the flouting of actual police procedure, such as cops leaving their patrol cars without radioing in their location. A sergeant, played winningly by John Handy, seems to be channeling the viewer's reactions by frequently stating, "What the fuck is going on here?"

Monday, November 08, 2010

Secretariat

I had been vacillating about seeing Secretariat, shying away because of some of the reviews. But it has gotten some good notices, and after seeing the Breeder's Cup race on Saturday, which was one of the most thrilling horse races I've ever seen, I was in the right mood for Secretariat. I should have listened to my instincts.

Secretariat, of course, was the horse that won the Triple Crown in 1973. I have vivid memories of his 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes, one of greatest "holy fuck" moments in sports history. He is arguably the greatest thoroughbred in history, and also one of the best known. If you ask a person to name one race horse, chances are it would be Secretariat.

So his story, on its face, doesn't have much suspense. Instead, director Randall Wallace and screenwriter Mike Rich have made the story about his owner, and this makes sense, because you can't have a horse as a central character, because we don't know what it thinks (unless it's Mr. Ed).

Penny Tweedy, played with steel-eyed bravado by Diane Lane, complete with a period hairdo that seems to be sculpted out of neoprene, inherited her parents' horse breeding operation, which had been in decline. She carries out a deal her father struck with a fabulously rich breeder (James Cromwell), in which the result of a coin toss determines who gets what foal sired by Cromwell's horse by Tweedy's mares. He wins, and takes his pick. Tweedy loses, but gets Secretariat.

He turns out to be a super-horse, but there are all sorts of economic issues that I won't get into here. Suffice it to say that the script tells us that the entire farm's future rests on Secretariat (known to his handlers as "Big Red") winning the Triple Crown.

Not a bad story, but Rich deserves a night in movie jail for crafting some of the worst dialogue I've heard in recent years. All of the characters speak in either hoary platitudes or clumsy exposition, and much of it is in italics. My favorite was when Lane and Cromwell are conversing, and Cromwell reminds her that the Triple Crown consists of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes--three races in five weeks, and no horse has done it in twenty-five years. Gee, I'll bet she didn't know that.

Throw into that some weak characters. Lane fares best, but the "girl power" stuff shoveled on from nearly forty years of hindsight doesn't fit (nor does the attempt to parallel it with her teenage daughter's political activism, which comes and goes from the film without warning). John Malkovich is the horse's trainer, and he is almost entirely defined by his gaudy wardrobe. Nelsan Ellis, who is so amazingly electric as Lafayette in True Blood, goes to the other end of the scale as a dull groomsman who may be the son of Bagger Vance. And Margo Martindale is the trusted assistant who seems to have no other purpose but to look sorrowful and help Lane.

The film, surprisingly, really doesn't look that good. Dean Semler is the cinematographer, and there are the requisite layers of ochres and umbers for this kind of story, including a shot of Secretariat emerging from a storm cloud. But it doesn't have the snap of a feature film; it looks more like a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, which I guess is appropriate considering it's written and directed like one, too.

There are a few things in the film I liked. The editing of the Kentucky Derby sequence is quite good (although it lasts a lot longer than Secretariat's record one-minute-fifty-nine second dash), and a shot at the turn of the Belmont, to show just how far he was ahead, is clever. That race also included my favorite line of the film, when Malkovich, seeing that his horse can't possibly lose, yells out to jockey Ron Turcotte, "Don't fall off, Ron!"

My grade for Secretariat: C-

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Exxxotica

Yesterday I indulged in my annual sojourn to NJ Exxxotica, the expo of the adult film industry at a convention center in Edison. Loaded down with DVDs and Penthouse magazines for starlets to sign, I was one of those guys--charitably called "enthusiasts"--guys who wear Hawaiian shirts and have a perpetually slightly disheveled look, and have an encyclopedic knowledge of porn.

Almost right away I managed to get face time and autographs from the ladies I especially wanted to see: Stoya, Tori Black, Kagney Linn Karter, and Tory Lane, plus some new favorites like Alexis Texas and Faye Reagan (pictured here) a freckle-faced redhead, a type I have a particular weakness for. In fact, my most delightful encounter was with Miss Reagan, who signed my copy of This Ain't the Partridge Family XXX (a pornographic parody of the old TV show) "Come on get horny."

Beyond the stars, there's just a lovely Dionysian feel to the event, a large room full of women in skimpy outfits (girls from local strip clubs mingle throughout, riding on teeter-totters and swings and gyrating for tips) and booths offering the latest in everything from erotic lingerie to lube. When I was getting the signature of a young starlet named Alexis Ford, I told her it was like I had died and gone to heaven. "Do you mean hell?" she asked, trying to make a funny. But no, despite the attitudes of some of extremely religious folks, this is not hell. This is a place where sexuality is embraced and no judgements are made. The crowd, largely male and middle-aged, were docile and respectful. I feel safer in a group like this than I would at any Tea Party rally.

After a few hours of getting autographs I ducked into one of the many panels that were held. I sat in on one about girl-girl sex, moderated by Fleshbot editor Lux Alptraum. The takeaway I have from that is when Stoya was asked what the difference is between having sex with a woman on film and in one's private life. Her answer was quick and definitive: "In real life, no one yells at you for messing up your makeup with pussy juice."

The fantasy of getting an autograph from a porn star and finding that she inscribed her phone number did not happen to me, perhaps because of a big sign on the showroom: "No solicitation. No exchange of phone numbers. No prostitution." Yeah, that's the only reason that Faye Reagan didn't give me her phone number--she's a law-abiding citizen.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Sparky Anderson

I have to say something about Sparky Anderson, who died on Thursday at the age of 76. For over twenty years, he managed my favorite baseball teams. Although I have been a Tigers fan all my baseball life, I rooted hard for the Big Red Machine teams of the seventies, and then, when they ingloriously dumped him after the 1978 season, was tickled when the Tigers hired him, where he stayed for another sixteen years.

Sparky ended up as the all-time wins leader for managers for both teams, a considerable feat, given that both clubs were part of the original sixteen franchises (and the Reds go back to 1869). He ended up sixth on the all-time list, with over 2,000 wins, and was the first to win a World Series from both leagues (Tony LaRussa has since done it).

It's hard to know what Sparky was like other than his public persona. I have read, over the years, and especially in the last two days, accounts from those who saw how he worked, and he was a lot tougher than the image of the grandfatherly man who dropped double and triple negatives in his speech. I was amused by the story told by Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated of when Sparky spoke to the Reds team during spring training of 1975 and told them they had four stars on the team: Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, and Tony Perez. The rest were, in his word, turds. Those players had shirts made up identifying them as turds, and the team went on to win 108 games and a World Series.

Sparky was endlessly fascinating for fans and media. He was a great storyteller, even with his Stengelese grammar, and a master of hyperbole. Posnanski remembers many of the things Sparky said over the years about players, such as that Kirk Gibson would be the next Mickey Mantle. It brought back memories of his lauding of Chris Pittaro, who was supposedly so good that Anderson was going to move Lou Whitaker from second base to third. That was a short-lived idea.

I got a chance to see Sparky in person at the Hall of Fame parade this past July (picture below). He looked old (he has looked old ever since he started managing at age 36, because his hair was already white) but hearty, so his death seems sudden to me. This year has been one of great loss for the Tigers, as Ernie Harwell passed away earlier. But the memories linger on.