Showing posts with label film. Show all posts
Showing posts with label film. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

For Leap Day and the Treachery of Images

source on Married to the Sea

It just now occurs to me (or so I will assert) that middle February marked the fifth blogiversary of this not-quite-so-precious, precious-as-it-used-to-be blog. Neat!

I assume it said that blogs age at seven times the rate of dogs, who are said to age at seven times the rate of humans, by which unassailable logic we are over year 245 of this blog. For all that, it seems like only a few years ago that it all started with a post, the first of many, that existed to slobber over Neko Case.

As it was then, so it is now. In which connection I note that Neko Case will be contributing to the soundtrack of the forthcoming Hunger Games film adaptation, and together with the fact that Arcade Fire and the Decemberists will be contributing songs, tends to suggest that the film won't be a disgraceful piece of crap. After all, would recording artists of such quality put their names on the soundtrack of a slapdash, dumbed-down atrocity against the source material and the expectations of viewers? For the good of whatever, please don't answer that or put any thought into it.

Speaking of slapdash, dumbed-down crap, the Oscars recently honored several movies about movies while largely snubbing the far-more-than-feature-length elaboration of the Book of Job, The Tree of Life, which made the mistake of treating of non-movie themes -- telling us nothing, nothing about the fascinating lives of directors, actors, screenplay writers, or visual effects technicians -- and the further mistake of rattling on for 90+ minutes more than needed. I haven't seen any of the movies about movies and don't want to, notwithstanding the Oscar awards; I likewise don't go out of my way to gaze at paintings of picture frames, brushes, and paint, though I will admit that a few productions of this basic kind stand out admirably.

I forget what I set out to say. Ah yes, now I remember --- I didn't set out to say anything. I hereby pledge to try to post here at least once every Leap Day, but I do not pledge to try very hard.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

For 2011

photo source
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. No, it was mostly the worst of times:
  • Apropos nothing, Woody Allen is to filmmakers what the Chrysler Corporation is to cars: each new offering comes with loud assurances that the bad old days of slapdash ideas poorly executed are over, and that the newest effort represents a return to quality. So it was with this year's Midnight in Paris, which, critics more or less agreed, was Allen at or near his best. Even if that's true for MiP, the problem with Woody Allen films is the problem with Chrysler's cars: even at zenith, it was never very good, Annie Hall and the glorious 1960s muscle cars notwithstanding. More in this same generous spirit appeared in this earlier post.

  • Jenny Diski cares not for Mad Men and its dalliances with nostalgia:
    The style of the Sixties in Mad Men is so relentless and polished in every detail that it actually deals a death blow to authenticity. It is caricature, not authenticity, and although that, in a David Lynch sort of way, can be thrilling and effective if you subvert the style to darker devices, Man Men isn't sure whether it wants to be pastiche or historical realism. It wants it both ways, and for me, it is this indecision, which feels muddy and expedient as opposed to subtle or sly, that is Mad Men's self-sabotage. [quoted from here]
    Indeed so on every count: it is absurd to imagine that a striving advertising agency in midtown Manhattan circa 1962 would place an above-average emphasis on fashion in its formal and informal dress codes; nothing on Mad Men approaches the genius of David Lynch's obscurantist garbage, because Lynch's work is (I gather) "subversive" and "dark" when deploying period-specific stylistic visuals.

    Beyond that, and above all, Diski is entirely right to bemoan Mad Men as a lost opportunity to remove the glossy haze from early 1960's dramatizations to reveal that, in fact, things were  complicated and vexed on the grounds of lived life -- and thereby to clarify the urgency of that critical acumen for our own times. If only it did that instead of just insisting on a beautiful caricature!

    Ah, if only Mad Men would dare to be as stark, candid, and uncompromising about those days as Diski's favorites managed to be, The Apartment, and that paragon of fierce social criticism featuring Rock Hudson and Doris Day, Lover Come Back. Those films had the courage go push through to expose the euphemisms, injustices, imbalances, and smiling atrocities of the day.

    Sarcasm aside, Diski is watching it wrong. Mad Men invites its viewers, yes, to indulge a little nostalgia if they have a reserve of it to call on for that period; but it goes on to invite the taking of measurements between how things were and how things are, and to draw conclusions. It demands the same measurements and judgments about the distances between that time's given stereotypes and its embodied realities. Do we see it clearly -- what we think we hate about it and what we think we love about it -- or do we see its heroes, villains, and shibboleths only as we prefer to remember them? That Mad Men does not, on the whole, supply easy, clean answers is among its virtues and what sets it apart from most everything else on screens, then or now. That it puts actors on beautiful sets and in gorgeous period clothing is a device to its ends.
It is not 1961 -- please somebody tell the GDP and the assorted champions of austerity. It's entirely possible it never was 1961 in the popular sense. There is nothing more to say of 2011, or of 2012, except to wish my remaining three readers all the best.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Ahab Spring

Any decent Marxist will tell you that ideas spring from the material conditions of society, and while I am neither especially decent nor consistently Marxist, I can say that material conditions account for the sparse posting to this precious, precious blog. Suffice to say that back in the sun-fondled, bluebird-circled spring of this blog, I would often find myself, while running, musing on posts I wanted to write, but that in more recent months, my thoughts have drifted elsewhere. To where and why is not worth detailing.

I believe in, at most, two principles for effective, disciplined blogging --- that posts on the topic of why there aren't many posts are dull or worse; and that one shouldn't write anything that one wouldn't want to read. Life is probably too short for adhering too closely to principles, and here's a list:

  • Last week, I finished the Seattle Marathon in a time of 3:30:07 (8:01 mile/min pace). Weirdly, the gun time of 3:30:26 is given as my"official" time, which tells me that I should make sure to elbow and shove my way as close to the starting line as possible should I ever again find myself in the starting chute of the Seattle Marathon. It was a very windy and rainy day, so much so that the water got below my rain jacket and killed my MP3 player at almost exactly the halfway point. Fun times were had by all (not just me), or so I choose to assume, and I heartily thank the organizers, volunteers, and many spectators who braved a rough morning to make it all possible, enjoyable, and safe.
  •  Joanna Newsom is coming dangerously close to equaling Neko Case in my estimation of sheer musical power crossed with every important category of allure. Her album Have One on Me shows the rare quality of canvassing, you know, several of the high points of the human condition in an intelligent, entertaining, and deeply rewarding way -- and what more could be asked of music? If you expect the songs to grab you upon a couple of listens, though, know that you're doing it wrong. Take, for example, "Occident" --- but take your time, with my assurance, such as it is, that the effort will be worth it:

  • Having recently viewed Terence Malick's The Tree of Life, I am prepared to say that Malick has done it again: created a film that says rather less than he seems to be aspiring to say -- if this film added anything substantial to the quote from Job* with which it opened, I am at a loss to say what it was -- using roughly 90 minutes of footage that should have been edited out. Here's hoping his next between-film-projects period of quiescence runs as long as this film felt.
  • As I quipped on the twitter recently, Super 8 exactingly captures that uncanny quality of classic Spielberg films that makes me want to stop watching them: some combination of treacle, pat moral tidiness, and excess nostalgia.
  • About that * an item or two above -- it would be refreshing for a Job 38 style theodicy -- "where were you when I created quasars and centipedes and tetrahedrons and gravitational constants, you miserable little puke!" -- to move forward from that to show its fucking work. As in: what is this greater good, discernible from a longer and wider view, that, on a proper accounting, balances out the severe, constant, multifarious pain of the world?
Speak not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it inappropriately touched me.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Netflix Can't Say Goodbye

My continuing coverage of Netflix continues, breathlessly as ever, with the news that its forward-thinking CEO

... is now going to separate Netflix's DVD and streaming businesses into two different brands. The online half will be called Netflix, while the DVD-by-mail portion will be called Qwikster. The two services won't share anything—your queues, ratings, and even your billing information will remain distinct on each site. In a sign of how hastily Netflix arrived at this idea, it seems to have forgotten to search for @qwikster on Twitter. That handle is owned by a person whose avatar is an image of Elmo smoking a joint.
In Netflix/Qwikster's defense, I am pretty sure that the Elmo-smoking-a-joint avatar is a default assigned by Twitter to accounts that don't select a custom avatar. I could be wrong, but since this would be more interesting if true, it is true and I am not wrong. That's how the world works.

Oh, but I am wrong -- wrong to say anything in defense of Netflix/Qwikster, that is, and I will start here: I am not going to type that fucking stupid name ever again. In English, the letter w does not follow the letter q in any actual, correctly spelled word. That name is a hideous abomination, and given that it now applies to the side of the service I can more or less tolerate, I can expect it to prey on my sensibilities every time it is splayed across an envelope in my mailbox.

Netflix is certainly putting a lot of faith in its video streaming business, and why not when fully nine eight six of its top 100 rentals are available via streaming? A generous observer might round that up to 10%! I will not. I will observe instead that it continues to underscore the paltry quality of Netflix's streaming content even among its current subscribers. Now that they're breaking the service in half, it's not clear where our ratings and rental history will go, and as a result, the suggestion algorithm, which is often helpful in pointing to lesser-known titles, will no longer function as it did before.

So, to summarize: Netflix is joining the poor quality of its video streaming offerings to a less useful web site experience and more complex billing. More and more, Netflix's business model is reminding me of President Obama's approach to politics: someone in charge has decided the endeavor is no longer worth the trouble, so why even try to do the right thing, or even the popular thing?

Really, Netflix and president chickenshit: it's OK to say goodbye and quietly exit the scene. Be brave. Just take your severance package and pretend it never happened. You will be pleasantly surprised how quickly you are forgotten.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hail, Caesar

For purposes of this blog post, which contains many spoilers, I don't demand that everyone agree with my positive assessment of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the blockbuster film that charts the proximate causes behind the beginning stages of the rise of the planet of the apes, but some criticisms are more wrong than others, and a blogger has certain responsibilities to respond to the wrongness he/she finds on the internets.

To wit: the surprising agreement among the Pop Culture Happy Hour spokesmodels that the film's climactic ape riot made little sense. They share bafflement that (a) the apes were not engaging in a mass killing spree on their way out of town, but killed and maimed rather sparingly by the standards of cinematic animal rampages; and (b) that the apes were heading to, of all places, the Muir Woods National Monument located not far from San Francisco, the city where the apes had been detained either as zoo exhibits or medical dummies prior to their liberation and pharmaceutical-fueled cognition boost.

The credibility of (a), the fact that the apes showed restraint in the use of lethal violence against people, is a matter on which reasonable primates can disagree. To me, it simply indicates that the apes' cognitive upgrade came with a more developed ability to weigh the foreseeable consequences of actions, so (as I read it) they were wise enough to reason that excessive violence would bring ruinous reprisal from humans, who still vastly outnumbered and out-armed them.

The credibility of (b), destination Muir Woods, strikes me as not only plausible but among the stronger points of the film. Caesar led them to that spot because it was the one wild, ape-friendly setting he knew based on his positive experiences with his human "father," portrayed by James Franco. He knew what it was like there -- a serene place with tall trees and few people -- and he knew how to get there (cross the very prominent bridge). He did not, as a lesser movie would have him do, suddenly develop a detailed knowledge of and longing for a lost African savannah or forest; nor did he sprout a sudden determination to lead the apes to Rule the Galaxy and/or enslave humankind and/or liberate every captive creature and/or right every wrong on earth. His ambitions were bounded and modest -- gather every ape he knows and lead them to the Muir Woods, which were as far from the depredations of captivity and the injustices of people as it was possible, or necessary, to get -- things feel right there in a way that no other setting in his experience can match. That's entirely believable within the terms of this cinematic world, or so I say.   

Friday, August 19, 2011

They Blew It Up

Sadly, this conversation between actor Troy McClure and his agent was omitted from Rise of the Planet of the Apes (reviews), the latest in a long series of films devoted to the perils and possibilities of ape role reversals:
[phone rings]
Parker: Troy! Mac Parker. Ever hear of... Planet of the Apes?
Troy: Uh... the movie or the planet?
Parker: The brand-new multimillion dollar musical. And _you_ are starring ... as the human.
Troy: It's the part I was born to play, baby!
While every film should have something as rewarding as that exchange, and while Rise of the Planet of the Apes (RPA) lacks even a cameo from the ghost of Phil Hartman (as far as I know), I have not come to bury RPA, but to praise it. Jeffrey Sconce was right --- it's actually quite good!

How is this possible? Am I sure that yet another man-ape species confusion caper isn't stretching the already too extended conceit a few notches too many? Isn't RPA just another two hours of fucking stupid, bloated Hollywood dreck?

No, it really is quite good. Here are some ways:
  • Though rife with CGI -- including but not limited to the movements and facial expressions of the main character, Caesar the drug-enhanced chimpanzee -- the visuals are not distracting. This is not to say they're perfectly convincing in all instances, but the makers of the film did a good job of using these techniques in the story rather than passing them off as the story.
  • Speaking of that, no one in this film is entirely monstrous, and no one is entirely virtuous. Well, OK, maybe the Brian Cox character and his assistant are total monsters throughout, but at least they are monsters of a kind that exist in the real world.
  • Through several fight sequences, physical and verbal and semi-verbal, the scenes are consistently arranged in a way that makes clear which ape is doing what to which ape -- and as an added bonus, we know why the ape is doing the thing to the other ape, and we have a rooting interest without feeling too manipulated -- this is definitely so by the prevailing standards of huge-budget films.
  • The film did not insist on giving us a shocking "Oh dear gawd the chimp just spoke!" moment. I had been dreading that.
  • There were homages to the original P of the A films, but RPA did not insist on echoing -- fore-echoing? -- every last theme, scene, and character. Just to pluck an example from the ether, we did not have to endure a visual that recapitulates the image of the Statue of Liberty's ruins protruding from the sand, let alone a set of narrative contrivances to get us there.
  • The film did not insult us by reaching to be too "topical." It is not a mailed-in commentary on, I don't know, the financial crisis or the Arab Spring or (gawd forbid) the Teabagger movement. Or is it? It could be, but the connections are abstracted more than enough to keep the gag reflex in check. It concerns the specific way hubris can combine with technical and analytical acumen to produce disaster, but beyond that, it declines to read the headlines at us. It is, in other words, the next retelling of Frankenstein, and good for it.
  • Most unexpectedly, and most favorably by my lights, the film left off in a way that leaves sequels genuinely optional. By the end, enough story has been told to allow us to fill in the gaps between this film's conclusion and the original 1968 film's opening. At the same time, it leaves plenty of story to be told to fill out the passage of time from those two points. This manner of storytelling is all but heroic in this time when the ideology of the cancer cell dominates and films exist only to perpetuate franchises, most of which should never have existed in the first place.
Well played, Hollywood. You win this time.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Haiku for Bag

As I write this, I am badly losing a like count battle, the prize of which is the "handsome" bag shown above being offered by the Multnomah County Library's facebook page:
Haiku throw-down! Write a book or movie review in haiku form and post your creative concoction in the comments here - please include the title and author. The poem with the most 'likes' will win this fabulous book bag from the Friends' Library Store.[emphasis mine]
See, that's why I put handsome in scare-quotes above -- fabulous was the word I was searching for; handsome was only a draft. That bag is indeed fabulous.

My review in haiku, which has currently garnered zero likes, is of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Jar-Jar:
George Lucas needs cash -
fourth mansions are expensive!
CGI slapdash.
I am not, by the way, fishing for likes here. I didn't even give it a like myself -- frankly, I think I could crap a better haiku review than that. For example, Hamlet:
Something's rotten there.
Revenge trumps indecision
Regicide repeats.
Or how about The Shawshank Redemption?
Wrongly convicted,
Andy gets busy living,
heads to Mexico.
Not quite last but always least, there's the four to six hours of visual effects on which James Cameron hung the title Avatar:
Spears beat tanks. Like Dances with
, only no good.
I didn't think much of Inception, either --- and clearly, I have turned this into a chance to snark about movies I dislike using the power of haiku:
In dreams, our secrets
are there for the taking. Thieves
hack in. Confusing.
Likes remain at zero.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Netflix - Angering the Internets

As I write this, the internets are angry. The number was nine the last time I checked, but today, Netflix's own list of top 100 films contains only eight items that are available via its streaming service -- and of those, only one is in the top 30, and of that one, 100% is The Unexpectedly Disappointing Case of Benjamin Button or Who's Afraid of Benjamin Button or Benjamin Button: Time Will Seem to Flow Backwards as You Watch or Benjamin Button: Dark Side of the Moon, or whatever that lachrymose piece of crap is called.

Naturally, given the manifestly middling quality of its streaming service, Netflix is increasing its rates in order to pull more money from its customers properly price its offerings:
[W]e are separating unlimited DVDs by mail and unlimited streaming into separate plans to better reflect the costs of each and to give our members a choice: a streaming only plan, a DVD only plan or the option to subscribe to both. With this change, we will no longer offer a plan that includes both unlimited streaming and DVDs by mail.
Lance Ulanoff thinks Netflix is doomed. Doomed, I tells ye!
Over time, the world will walk away from physical media. Broadband access (wired or wireless) will reach every part of the U.S. and further and further around the globe, and consumers will get their HD video content exclusively from the Web ... With Netflix making almost no headway in accessing first-run films for instant streaming, and no hurdles to stop consumers like me from switching, Netflix's future looks very dire indeed.
Well, sure, but raising the price on a lackluster service is something beyond not-a-hurdle -- it's all but asking people to leave.

For me, Netflix streaming is worth little because of poor selection, poor sound quality, and the unavailability of subtitles (closed caption), commentary, and other extras that frequently come with physical disks. That means it's good for (a) the narrow band of videos it offers -- fans of Cheers, Family Ties, and Hawaii Five-O rejoice! -- where (b) you don't really care that you're only hearing it in two-channel stereo -- most tee-vee shows and films were recorded and mixed long before surround sound was widely adopted --  and (c) you can confidently assume there are no special features of interest and, of course, (d) you don't need closed caption because your hearing is perfect and you have no trouble with anyone's accent in any production. Oh, and don't forget that it works well only if (e) your internet connection is stable and swift, but with (d) and (e), I unfairly speak as though we live in an imperfect world.

So, with whatever apologies are due to Lance Ulanoff, I don't join him in welcoming the twilight of physical disks and the dawn of the streaming-only video age. Perhaps events will prove him right, but I see nothing to cheer about if so.

Still, for all my grousing, I will not drop Netflix --- not completely, and not yet. I will drop the streaming thing as soon as the price goes above zero. Until it drops off my account, it will remain a 'nice-to-have' for the rare case when something worth watching arrives there. Who knows? Maybe between now and September I'll want to remind myself of why I never thought much of Family Ties in the first place, or maybe their catalog of streaming titles will markedly expand. I will drop Netflix entirely the moment they seem to be skimping on their inventory of physical disks.

Last and least, to assure both readers that I am nothing if not richly layered, I note that I have made the final edits to this post while playing X-Men via Netflix streaming.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Onrushing Maw

As it happens, in that same filmspotting podcast I was caterwauling about yesterday, Matty Robinson had positive things to say of -- of all things -- Paul Blart Mall Cop, the Kevin James vehicle set in a mall in which a man (who is, you see, funny because he is fat) re-enacts the slapstick crime-busting antics that were already agonizingly tedious ten minutes into Home Alone. After which something something he gets the girl --- or we should say, the attractive girl is saddled with the character played by Kevin James, including all his ravenous insecurities and dawning medical infirmities.

Granted, for all that, PBMC is slightly more endurable than Congo, but with the prospect of The Zookeeper darkening our collective near futures, can we afford to permit a positive mention of the film oevre of Kevin James? I say we cannot.

Fortunately, as the image to the right illustrates, Jeffrey Sconce is already doing more than caterwauling --  he has situated The Zookeeper in the context of Biblical preachments, and has provided a helpful Zookeeper Checklist for those sad sacks who have been conked out and dragged to a showing of it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

I Saw Someone Wrong on the Internet

Adam Kempenaar and Matty Robinson of Filmspotting podcast fame did not like I Saw the Devil, not even a little bit. It was not what they were hoping to see -- they were hoping to see something else, and this film was not that something else.

Adam, for example, declares

there are no insights into the nature of evil, there's just a lot of pain and anguish ...
But what if the film is saying that evil is a condition that produces lots of pain and anguish in the interactions of people? I would say that is exactly what the film is saying, and saying quite clearly: that evil occurs when people produce pain and anguish in one another.

Both reviewers go on to explain that what they were hoping to see was something redeeming in all the evil the film presents -- progression, growth, lessons learned, a deserved chastening or two, a conclusion featuring a wistful stroll into a sadder and wiser sunset by at least one of the main characters.

Here's the thing: this is not trying to be that film; it is not telling that story. There are plenty of films that feature a dramatic arc of roughly that sort -- take True Grit (2010) for an example of a well-executed one, or take Taken for an example of a so-so one -- but I Saw the Devil makes precisely the statement about evil that the filmspotting guys accuse it of making, namely, that a wrathful seeking of vengeance creates a self-accelerating cycle of pain and a widening circle of broken minds and mangled bodies. Full stop.

The film suggests that rage-fueled evil burns through people indiscriminately; that while rage and hatred are motivating the choices people make, nothing is learned, and the choices become less and less comprehensible to observers. On this note, Matty sharpens his criticisms in an especially odd way:
He [the antagonist of I Saw the Devil] is not Anton Chigur from No Country for Old Men, not in the least bit; where you at least have some insight into what is driving these characters. ... Here there is no depth to these characters, it is completely flat.
As to the latter part: exactly! It is completely 'flat' in the sense that as the film's action proceeds, it becomes ever harder to detect any rationale for the shocking deeds being carried out -- the two main characters increasingly demonstrate nothing but hatred for one another and indifference (at best) toward anyone or anything that impedes their rage. Hatred and the wish for vengeance become the only notes anyone sounds. Precisely.

As to the Anton Chigur comparison, Matty is exactly wrong. Where in No Country for Old Men is any clear indication of what drives Chigur's relentless, wanton cruelty? Both the film and the book announce rather plainly, over and over, that Chigur lies beyond any moral, practical, or pecuniary calculus. Chigur is "something you don't understand," as the Sheriff muses; one of his victims compares him with the bubonic plague; he openly mocks everyone who bothers to try to bargain, negotiate, rationalize, justify, deal, or reason with him.

The antagonist of I Saw the Devil --- and as the film progresses, increasingly the protagonist as well -- fit this mold exactly.  If anything, the principals get more evil as their reactions build on their own ugly momentum, and everyone in the vicinity is noticeably worse off, or dead, by the end.

Roll credits.

If the above sounds like a faithful portrait of revenge, I Saw the Devil might be to your liking -- which is far from saying it is pleasant to watch. It is a beautifully choreographed and visualized image of the darkest, ugliest realities one would ever want to witness in the interactions of people.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

I Saw the Rage

I wasn't expecting much from I Saw the Devil, so I am here to reaffirm the wisdom of allowing a movie to exceed one's expectations: I Saw the Devil (IStD) is an excellent film. [Spoilers below]

By that I mean IStD takes the familiar tropes and themes of a "revenge story" but plays them through unflinchingly, as vividly distinguished from, say, the last and next few mailed-in Mel Gibson revenge-y blockbusters. IStD looks and feels like a revenge fantasy enacted in the really-existing world with its really-existing evils, which is to say it starts and ends with wrath, with all its limitations and rawness. There is no saving grace, no sober re-thinking, no inward reckoning, no redemption:

IStD shows the stakes of revenge and the wild swerves of cause and effect that expose those stakes, and surely this is what we would want from a revenge story made for the big screen, if we should ever hazard to want such a thing. See this one.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Socially Expected

 Forced smiles are always good.
Ophelia Benson recently had a neighborly chat:
I was walking along a residential street a few blocks from where I live (so I don't know anyone there, I don't recognize faces), mind elsewhere (though nowhere in particular) as usual, and suddenly some grizzled auld fella who was pottering in his garden snarled at me as he crossed the sidewalk toward the parking strip, "What would it take to make you smile?"

I jerked to a stop and turned to stare at him in astonishment, and after mulling it for a few seconds demanded why on earth he would ask me that.

We had a nice little shouty war there on the sidewalk, for three or four or five minutes.

He was of course surprised to be answered, and did a lot of angry shouting about seeing me walking past here all the time, and I never smile, I never wave, I never say hello.
"Let's put a smile on that face," he said in other words -- happily without a knife. Fun! Ophelia rounds it off with a question or two:
Now here's what I want to know. Lots of guys here. What do you think? I don’t believe for one second that he ever, ever, ever says that to men. Ever. I don’t think for a second that he thinks it's any of his business what expression a man has on his face when walking past his house. What do you think?
I think too many people have too inflated a sense of their own desserts when it comes to the facial expressions of others. Too many people expect the world to smile back at them at all hours of the day, whether or not a reason to smile exists. Socially Expected Smiling deflates the value of genuine smiling, and inflates the world's quantity of overstepped boundaries, and it needs to stop.

In answer to Ophelia's questions: though male, I do get the same crap once in a while because I am not inclined to walk around smiling -- not necessarily because I lack a reason to smile, but simply because I never picked up the habit of broadcasting the sunniest self-presentation to the world, and have never seen the value of cultivating it. A close cousin to this I get is the Social Expectation that I will give both a warm Hello and a warm Goodbye to individuals in whose vicinity I happen to spend time. While I am not personally aware of other men who are subject to these Social Expectations, I suspect I am far from alone.

And no, I don't imagine for a moment that men get these Social Expectations as strongly as women do. I think there is an even stronger Social Expectation -- in the USA, that is, where I am almost but not quite qualified to say the first thing about all this -- that women should be bouncing around with smiles across their faces at all hours, with or without any reason to be smiling. This is, after all, in keeping with their fundamental purpose in life, that of decorating the visual space men inhabit. Right?

As I said, these Social Expectations are misplaced and need to stop.

If plagued with a persistent need to see smiles on all the faces around you, go join a pod of dolphins or surround yourself with jack-o-lanterns. If you need a greeting every time you show up, and a sad whimper every time you leave, get a dog. Better yet, re-think your needs.

I hereby issue a pre-emptive fuck off to the next person who Socially Expects me or anyone else to smile, and I salute Ophelia Benson for pushing back against the petulant, needy toad she encountered.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Clear as an Azure Sky of Peakest Summer

The person or machine who writes the informational metadata for my cable provider helpfully informs viewers that A Clockwork Orange is 
Stanley Kubrick's award-winning adaptation of the Anthony Burgess novel about a future society terrorized by teenagers.
Well, yes -- in fairness, that would be the takeaway if you were to stop watching after the first fifteen minutes or so, but for any human or algorithm who stuck with it for the ensuing two hours, it comes across as a trifle, well, spare.

Still, one cannot fault the description for lack of clarity or, it must be admitted, accuracy. In roughly the same dumbed-down spirit of lucidity, we could say Moby Dick is John Huston's celebrated adaptation of the Herman Melville novel about a boat with a driven captain, and that No Country for Old Men is the Cohen brothers' award-winning adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel about a border town in Texas beset with drug traffickers.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Making the Best of Visual Coincidences

This disturbing image, now widely circulating on social media sites, suggests either that the recent royal wedding was foretold by some Disney movie or other, or that the recent royal wedding was patterned after some Disney movie or other.*

Either way, it suggests, albeit indirectly, that Disney movies and royal weddings have achieved what they were ever going to achieve for humankind and should cease. By now they're just repeating things that were, from the start, not worth representing in the first place.

I propose that Disney begin the cessations by canceling the release of yet another execrable Pirates of the Caribbean film, slated for a 20 May 2011 release and thus still not too late to call off.

There is still time to rip down the posters, drop the remaining advertising and promotional campaigns, and destroy all copies of the film. It's not too late.

* It does not show the instances in which participants and high-profile guests of the recent royal wedding did not eerily resemble drawings in feature-length Disney cartoons. It remains true that royal weddings and Disney films have had their time but need to stop.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Er, The Movie or the Planet?

The Silver Jews provide the soundtrack, somehow, to these visuals from one of the Planet of the Apes films.


Sunday, May 1, 2011

In Defense of Sausage Fests

Amanda Marcotte offers two reasons why The Shawshank Redemption enjoys the highest ratings of any film on IMDB:

2) Mediocrity rules ... I actually feel bad dinging the movie for these, because in a way, it's unfair. "Shawshank" isn't a mediocre movie---the acting, the script, the directing are all pretty damn good. But it still rises to the top for the same reason that mediocrity rules. It plays it safe. And not having female characters in it is one of the most important ways it plays it safe ... The idea behind "mediocrity rules" is that true greatness always runs the risk of offense, or at least turning people off. For one thing, greatness is innovative, which means that you lose huge portions of the audience that wants a warm bath of not being challenged at all ... "Shawshank" doesn't have anything in it that's going to chase people out the door. It appeals to the smart and the stupid alike, the liberal and the conservative. Everyone can get behind the story of a man redeeming himself after the system grinds him down unfairly. It's set in the past and outside of the world, minimizing the chance of referring to anything that triggers people's distaste. There's nothing polarizing about it ...
I have no interesting disagreements with any of that -- it's true to say there's little in this story that dares to divide the audience by taking a controversial stand, as by asking the audience to accept an evil character or reject a good character. An uninteresting qualification would be to observe how the film's broad acceptance testifies to the fact that compelling film and challenging film bear no necessary relationship.

What about Marcotte's first reason?
1) It's got no female characters ... I would argue that its lack of any real female characters contributes to the feeling that it's safe ... Women are polarizing figures in our society in general, because of the eternal rule of the patriarchy that a woman is never doing anything right. Everyone is eager to tear at women and judge women and examine women closely for perceived slights against what they personally believe a woman should be like. There's also the feminist urge to examine women closely to see if they're rising above the gender trap. Simply by being Other, women capture attention and controversy. There's a reason that Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin both are more polarizing figures than their male counterparts. Putting a woman onscreen causes the audience to start dividing against itself. But "Shawshank" is a bunch of dudes. This contributes to the non-challenging aspect of it. Even the rape somehow gets removed from the toxic gender norms that create rape (and therefore allow men to become victims) by the magic lady erasure of the movie. [emphasis mine]
Um ... no. First, off hand, I can't think of another film that observes so explicitly that rape arises not from sexual desire but from the desire to dominate, violate, and demean, a claim that I would expect Marcotte to embrace.

Second, while I can agree that the removal of women from a story can simplify it with respect to several well-worn strands of human conflict -- for starters, all the conflicts and tensions among men and women -- I would add that narrative fiction necessarily simplifies human experience in the service of story and theme. Quick -- how many films or novels show the details of food preparation and intake? What story of valor lingers on the tendency of terrified warriors to shit themselves, as the king of The Game of Thrones comments in episode three of the HBO series? What does The Stranger tell us about Meursault's view of his father, and what does Crime and Punishment tell us about Raskolnikov's teenage years?

The only question is what will be highlighted and what will be hidden, and the most that can be said of a story that features all men and no (or incidental) women is that it has made a particular narrative and thematic choice -- the same choice that other stories have made, none of them necessarily presenting tidy, accessible, crowd-pleasing worlds at that: Frankenstein, Moby Dick, 12 Angry Men, and There Will Be Blood spring to mind as examples of complex, challenging sausage fests.

Men and men's perspectives are overrepresented in film, and unchallenging films far outnumber thoughtful ones. These are problems, but they are distinct problems.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Digressions on a Pamphlet

It's not your fault, Will.
I came home today to find that someone -- I'm thinking a Christian of some stripe or other -- left a pamphlet at my front door. "JESUS TAKES AWAY the SIN of the WORLD" its cover proclaims beside an illustration either of Jesus himself, the bearded fellow to whom the phrase is being attributed, or Robin Williams's character from Good Will Hunting. It might be more fitting to call that the lower portion of a hair-helmet rather than a mere beard, but I digress.

It invites me to a gathering this Sunday that will explore how Jesus accomplishes this feat, and as if the cover weren't enough to entice me to drop all my Southie friends and join up with whatever they're offering, the inside of the pamphlet clarifies:
John the Baptizer stated that Jesus "takes away the sin of the world." (John 1:29) This drew attention to Jesus' role in saving obedient mankind.
"This drew attention to ...?" Who wrote this, first-year journalism students? It's also interesting to see that it's limiting Jesus's salvation powers to obedient people, which is surely a boon to those who wouldn't want to be saved by anyone who willingly saves disobedient ingrates. It does tend to overturn the cover's bold claim by suggesting that people are saved only when they follow orders, but if they follow orders in a manner that gets them saved, aren't they ipso facto without sin? If anyone is saving anyone, it sounds as though people are saving themselves. Or to put it another way about sin: "people call those imperfections, but no, that's the good stuff."

But I digress again; back to the pamphlet: the cover's helmet-headed gentleman is revealed to be either Jesus or John the Baptizer, which is good because I'm starting to run out of Good Will Hunting references, since I can't really think of a seamless way to mention how weird-looking Minnie Driver is or come up with a decent allusion to solving the whole thing on a chalkboard while I'm supposed to be emptying the garbage.

Sigh. The best part of my day is coming home, and, for about ten seconds, I think maybe no one has left any religious propaganda wedged in my doorway. (Cf.)

This blog post does not have a message, but if it had one, it might be to encourage you to see Good Will Hunting if you haven't already. It's a pretty good movie. Along with Matt Damon, Robin Williams, and Minnie Driver, it also features Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck, and Stellan Starsgard, who is the real-life father of the guy who plays handsome vampire Eric on True Blood, a tee-vee series I can't justify watching and can't stop watching.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Enter the Void: That The Dead Do Not Improve

The good news is that I gave Enter the Void 4 stars out of 5 on Netflix. In this I departed pretty sharply from Anthony Lane:
All of this is exhausting, not to say repetitive, and the actors are much less dynamic than the camera, but there is a proud, bloody-minded majesty in the trip. Even if you can’t face the rest of the movie, go for the astonishing opening credits, which look like an explosion in a font factory, and then walk out.
I hated the opening credits, but liked more and more of what I saw thereafter. The bad news is that I am not sure I shouldn't have given it one or zero stars rather than four.

I credit it for keeping my interest for 2-1/2 hours despite my continuous dread that it would lose me; and for some genuinely interesting mise-en-scène -- the scene early on in which the protagonist's friend describes the Tibetan Book of the Dead while descending a spiral staircase is, alone, a more evocatively arranged scene than many directors have managed over long careers; and for assembling a narrative in a way that requires -- gasp! -- the full attention of the viewer for the duration.

On the level of meaning, however, it just begs too many questions. To wit:

Why are these the scenes the dead consciousness revisits over and over? How does the consciousness know -- if he does know -- where and when to go to experience a significant moment from the past or present? For example, he's there several minutes before his sister learns of his death and still present when she learns of it; he's there when his sister identifies his body; he's there when his former lover, her son, and her husband have a loud dispute about him; he's there when the angry son decides to set him up for the police sting that leads directly to his death in a filthy night-club toilet.

We are there, again and again, as he watches people having sex -- people he knows and people he doesn't know alike. Whereas the only mourners we see are people who are mourning his death or the deaths he himself has mourned -- an interestingly narrow sample compared with the fairly broad survey of people fucking in Tokyo.

We are there when he descends to a microscopic vantage point to witness events that are impossible to see with normal human eyesight. Are these anatomical close-ups he sees within the scope of the biological knowledge he attained while still alive? This is not an idle question -- on it turns whether we can plausibly see these visions as dream-like, subconscious projections or take them as novel insights gained at the expense of death.

Does he in some way choose these destinations in time and space? If not, what agency is being proposed as having chosen them, and according to what rules, principles, guidelines, powers?

Granted, reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead and studying the larger tradition to which it belongs might well fill in some of these blanks. To be crass: who gives a shit? I am asking questions raised within the frame of the film and calling out the film's apparent unwillingness to answer them. Inasmuch as the film is saying something about Buddhist cosmology, it needs to show it and say it. Suggestions for further reading can be had elsewhere.

There's an interesting-enough story here, and a good deal of artfulness in assembling and presenting it, but in the end, according to this movie, we are in death much as we are in life -- self-regarding, sex-obsessed voyeurs who aren't quite healed from the traumas that shaped us, but given -- whether we want them or not -- opportunities to repeat the same old cycles that took us where we are. In the words of "Tennessee," the great Silver Jews song, "the dead do not improve" (lyrics; song).

Friday, March 11, 2011

Paula Deen Riding Sad Don Draper

Truly it is a day rich with memes -- with SJKP's entry fresh in mind, I here offer my entry in the Paula Deen Riding Things meme, which I've tastefully appended to my earlier effort to construct a Sad Don Draper from a still from The Road.

It's neither here nor there -- what is these days? -- but Paula Deen seems to be experiencing that moment from The Road in a far lighter spirit than Don Draper is, and for my part, it put me more in Don's state of mind.

On a penultimate note, I had no idea Paula Deen was so small. On a final note, who is Paula Deen? She does one of those cooking shows on the tee-vee, right? Or is she one of those Housewives of [City] people? One of the CSI [City] dramas? Jersey Shore? One of the American Idol judges? New letter turner for Wheel of Fortune?

On a final final note, frivolities aside, The Red Cross is making it easy to donate for the benefit of the disaster in Japan, or for any number of other ongoing disasters.

Owning DVDs

Quoth commenter Sheldon:

I really don't get those people that are actually buying those movies. For what, I mean, how many times can you actually watch a movie more than once, and then follow ups of those movies a few times more? I just don't get it. If you want to watch it again some years or months later, why not just rent it again? This has been troubling me for some time.
This comment has just caused three Hollywood moguls to re-soil their pants, or one to soil his pants three times, but I won't dwell on that. (For now. Except to say they should really get that checked out by a doctor.) Instead I want to say a few words in defense of owning DVDs*, which is something I do.

First, I only buy DVDs that I'm reasonably sure I'll re-watch many, many times, so it could be that I am not even talking about the same kind of DVD-buying as commenter Sheldon. If he is talking about the kind of DVD-buying that most becalms the bowels of Hollywood moguls -- the kind where people just walk through the DVD aisle at Costington's** and pile several of the new-release DVDs they recognize from television advertisements -- then I quite agree with him. That sort of DVD-buying is ridiculous. I question whether very many people engage in it, even in the best of times, but I sometimes get the impression that Hollywood moguls are basing a substantial business model on it.

I could, of course, just rent -- or download, or stream, or otherwise ascertain -- my favorite films and tee-vee programs when I feel the urge to re-watch them, but there's something attractive in the idea of owning the tangible artifact, owning it outright, with a clear conscience that I have it fairly, legally, and as permanently as we ever own anything. I can pick it up, hold it, look it over, play it, or let it gather a little more dust according to my own schedule and inclinations -- I can, in some small way, integrate this work of art I love into the flow of my life, and as I have commented with respect to books and probably music CDs also, I can see it on the shelf and call to mind something I value in the world and in my best ideas of myself. (I never promised this wouldn't get loopy.)

Of course, soon enough I won't be gainfully employed, and I don't picture keeping many DVDs in the final shopping cart with which I trundle off to my new life on the sidewalks, back alleys, side streets, parking lots, and city parks. I expect I'll barter away my copies of There Will Be Blood, The Proposition, Citizen Kane, and The Jerk only in the most severe desperation. Same goes for No Country for Old Men, L'Avventura, Stepbrothers, The Dark Knight, Better Off Dead, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, The Godfather trilogy, Mad Men seasons 1-n, Spinal Tap, Gangs of New York, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Wire, Cosmos, Bergman's "faith" Trilogy, Raising Arizona, the Olivier Shakespeare box set, Branagh's Hamlet, Fargo, Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds, the special-edition Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Star Wars trilogy, Family Guy volumes 1-n, American Dad volumes 1-n, Futurama volumes 1-n, The Simpsons seasons 2-n ... ah, dammit, I am going to need a second and third shopping cart.

* I am using DVD as shorthand for the DVD format, the blu-ray format, and the emerging 3-D format. DVD is a tidy, succinct initialism; whereas I would prefer to write, see, speak, or think the term "blu-ray" as little as possible because it is clunky and, well, retarded.

** Thank you, The Simpsons.