Thursday July 31, 2008
We've come a long way, baby
A thought on the first season of “Mad Men,” the AMC show about a boutique advertising firm in New York in the early 1960s.
The show draws you in with whispers of handsome men and curvy women having martinis and cigarettes and uncomplicated sex in a time before feminism, and then delivers such reprehensible men and such sad, unsexy sex (Don't do it...don't do it...NO!) that you wind up longing for feminism to come along and finally right the effin’ ship. It’s the opposite of what it advertises. In this way it’s closer to art than product.
Wednesday July 30, 2008
Roger and Gene
It’s 1978 and I’m flipping between the five channels our TV offers — and doing it the old-fashioned way, without a remote — when I come across a scene from Magic, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margret, a movie that has just been released in theaters. I can’t believe my luck. Then two guys come on and talk about it. There are scenes from other movies and the same two guys talk about them, too. One guy is tall, thin and bald, the other is fat, with big glasses and a mop of hair swooping over his forehead. The whole thing feels like it’s a one-off or a mistake and I assume it’ll end any second. How can they show scenes from new movies…on TV? That isn’t allowed, is it?
The show was, of course, PBS’s “Sneak Previews,” and three of the reasons it was unique — it was 1) an entertainment show, 2) offering clips of new movies, 3) while two guys argued — have become, in the three decades since, so ubiquitous as to be part of the downfall of our culture. But even after Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (the fat guy and the bald dude, respectively) left PBS for their syndicated shows (“& the Movies,” “At the Movies”), and even after they were copied to death, it was always worthwhile to follow them to whatever channel in whatever market in whatever time-slot they wound up in.
They weren’t pretty. They didn’t dress well. Obviously no one told them to smile at the camera. All of these things worked in their favor. They were about as non-corporate as you could get. They snuck onto television the way Ed Sullivan snuck on. The people following in their wake — Jeffrey Lyons, Neal Gabler, Michael Medved, et al. — all felt a little less genuine.
Siskel and Ebert loved movies. You could feel it through the TV screen. They argued all the time, usually intelligently, always forcefully, sometimes bitterly. One of the dumbest things people say about movies today — “Hey, it’s just a movie!” — would never have occurred to them because movies mattered too much to them. I remember a special episode they did in the late ‘70s slamming all of the gratuitous violence against women in movies. They chastised Hollywood for all the tired sequels. They encouraged the studios to take the right path. Insert your own joke here.
I always thought I agreed with Roger more than Gene — that Gene seem bitter in the 1980s — but looking over old clips, on both YouTube and At the Movies, I wonder about this. Gene seems more amused by their fighting, while Roger sits still and angry. And was it my imagination or did Roger give a free pass to too many films starring or directed by African Americans? I mean, She Hate Me? Roger, Roger, Roger.
It's gone now. Gene died in 1999, while Roger, battling thyroid cancer, has been more off than on since 2002, but the official notice came last week when Disney announced the replacements for Gene’s and Roger’s replacements. Both are young, both are named Ben, both have cinematic lineages. Neither snuck in.
It’s just time passing, of course, that’s what’s truly sad about it, but Roger has a nice farewell here. I wish I could offer him a better tribute than this. But I will remember to save him the aisle seat.
Tuesday July 29, 2008
Repeating last year’s performance looks like a long shot, given the rest of this summer’s lineup. This batch is light on sequels, gloomy in spots (as with “The Dark Knight”) and heavy on comedies...The mix may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive...
— Michael Cieply, New York Times, May 15, 2008
The success of “The Dark Knight” is an example of what can happen when an array of factors coincide...The brooding film, directed by Christopher Nolan, also fits the nation’s mood, Warner Brothers executives said.
— Brooks Barnes, New York Times, July 28, 2008
Different writers, to be sure, but don't they ever talk to each other? Also, it raises this question about movie audiences: Do people go to films to escape the national mood or reflect it? Or do they just go?
And what are the “array of factors” Barnes gives in yesterday's article (via quotes with industry executives) for The Dark Knight's continued success?
- an expertly executed promotion plan
- the brooding film matched national mood
- the sour economy forced families toward cheaper entertainments like movies
- the publicity following Christian Bale's questioning by the police last week
No mention of the word “quality.” No mention of the phrase “word-of-mouth.” That's part of the problem with relying on quotes from industry executives. Those guys are in a bubble. They're in a town that talks about movies constantly so they can't tell the difference when people really start talking up a movie. In Seattle (or in Minneapolis, Omaha, Denver ...), it's a little easier. One wonders if relying on industry executives for quotes about movies is a little like relying on Dick Cheney for quotes about WMDs.
Both articles also remind me of something I tell my writers in the magazines I edit: Just because someone gives you a quote, doesn't mean you have to use it.
Saturday July 26, 2008
The Poetry of Philippe Petit
Nearly 10 years ago I was asked to write a couple of entries for Encarta, Microsoft’s encyclopedia, about certain celebrities they suddenly deemed encyclopedia-worthy. They included sports stars (Ivan Rodriguez, Lindsey Davenport), a movie star (Meg Ryan) and Philippe Petit, a French funambule, or wire walker. When I started, Petit was the one I knew, and cared about, the least. By the time I finished, the reverse.
Two years ago, when I was writing a piece on the history of the World Trade Center in movies, I came across him again, in Ric Burns’ documentary, “New York.” Petit was featured, of course, in the eighth episode, about the World Trade Center, created post-9/11. Although he fascinated, although you could say he was the best part of that very good documentary, I couldn’t fit him into my story. My story went a different way. But I have fond memories of watching the footage of him dancing on the wire between the two towers in 1974, and, more, of the cop, that great New York cop, talking about the poetry of him dancing out there above the void.
Now James Marsh has a documentary about the incident called Man on Wire, which got a great write-up by A.O. Scott in the Times yesterday. I would love to see it, but, at the moment, it’s playing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York and...c’est tout. Monday it starts in the Lumiere in San Francisco but that’s still a fur piece. I’m hoping it plays in Seattle soon.
Trumbo, for those keeping track, still hasn’t made it.
UPDATE: Select theaters nationwide on August 8. C'mon Magnolia, don't fail me now.
Friday July 25, 2008
That New York Times Front Page
That said, allow me to be enthusiastic again. Here's part of Obama's speech, as reported in the New York Times, before an estimated crowd of 200,000 in Berlin yesterday:
“Will we acknowledge that there is no more powerful example than the one each of our nations projects to the world?” Mr. Obama asked in his speech, then added pointedly, “Will we reject torture and stand for the rule of law?” The huge crowd applauded and waved American flags.
Waved American flags. Wow. It's been a while since I've seen a U.S. politician address crowds that large and enthusiastic. Have I ever seen it? In my lifetime? Here's the accompanying picture, which made the front page, too:
Friday July 25, 2008
That New Yorker Cover
Last Friday I was in the middle of Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker piece on Obama’s early days in Chicago when Patricia took the issue to the hairdresser’s and left it there. So I bought another copy at the local Bartell’s. The guy behind the counter saw it and said, “Getting the souvenir issue, huh?” I smiled. What the New Yorker has to do to become a topic of conversation.
I tend to like Barry Blitt, the cover artist whose drawings often accompany Frank Rich’s column in the Sunday New York Times, but this one didn’t do it for me. It could be I have no sense of humor about Obama, or racial matters, or the politics of swiftboating in the Bush era, but, more, it made me think back to Philip Roth’s essay from the early 1960s, “Writing American Fiction,” about the difficulty of making credible — even then — an American reality that always seems to be outdoing the best efforts of any novelist, let alone satirist. I’m surprised more people haven’t brought this up. Is it a satire if you’re merely expressing in cartoon form what others are expressing verbally or via mass e-mails? Sure, what they’re expressing is a lie, but lies work. Lies are taken seriously — often by the mainstream media. It’s built into the system. If the goal of the media is to be objective, to be a kind of he said/she said forum, then the more outrageous the lie the better. It moves the markers of the debate. The swiftboating of John Kerry is a classic recent example and Michael Dobbs’ piece in the Washington Post in August 2004 is a classic recent response from the mainstream media: “But although Kerry's accusers have succeeded in raising doubts about his war record, they have failed to come up with sufficient evidence to prove him a liar.” The lie becomes the debate. That’s the danger.
Can you even satirize a Fox News correspondent calling the Obama greeting a “terrorist fist bump”? That feels like a satire on its own. Since knocking fists is the main source of congratulations in Major League Baseball, which, the last time I checked, was our national pastime, you could do a many-paneled cartoon called something like “More Terrorist Fact Findings from Fox News,” with, in separate panels, a baseball (“Terrorist Danger Orb”), a referee signaling a touchdown (“Terrorist Victory Dance”) and an apple pie (“Terrorist Goulash”). Like that, but funnier. Blitt’s cover? It can just go in those mass e-mails still being sent out with the heading: See?
Hendrik Hertzberg is generally right: Those who will be influenced by the cover wouldn’t have voted for Obama anyway. But that doesn’t mean the cover’s good satire.
Lost in the discussion is Lizza’s article, subtitled “How Chicago Shaped Obama,” which is recommended reading: a reminder that Obama is less the second coming than pure political animal. It’s also a good primer on the history of politics in both its Chicago and racial forms.
Thursday July 24, 2008
One Good Cop
So one reader, Shen, writes the following about how Christopher Nolan helps break Batman’s usual vigilante-to-cop-to-camp cycle:
In Nolan's Gotham, the corruption of the police and political structure acts in a way so as to maintain Batman as simultaneous vigilante / institution. Nolan demonstrates this nicely even while keeping Gordan as a supporter, with the deep infiltration by the mob and other corrupt elements. Batman therefore simultaneously keeps his vigilante status (pursued by the “police” who are actually working for the mob, although this may be less effective with Gordan as commissioner now), and Batman as institution (he's the real crime-fighting institution, since the criminals know they can always plead insanity like in Batman Begins, or manipulate/bribe the police/DA to keep out of jail, like with the Dark Knight).
Smart stuff and all true. In an original draft of “Dark Knight My Ass,” in the section on the social changes reflected in the Batman films, I had a take on this but cut it for space reasons. If there are cops, why is Batman necessary? Different eras have different answers. In 1943, the cops were fairly incompetent. In 1949 they were merely understaffed and overwhelmed and so Batman rode in, like the Lone Ranger, to save the day. By 1989, post-Serpico, you have intimations of corruption, but only one cop, Lt. Eckhardt, is on the take. Sixteen years later, this situation is reversed: every cop is on the take, with only one good cop, Gordon, remaining. There’s an intersting book to be written about our attitudes towards cops as reflected in our films. Maybe it’s already been written.
My friend Adam also writes about what he considers some of Heath Ledger’s best work: his few scenes at the beginning of Monster’s Ball in 2001: “I remember at the time thinking, Jesus, who knew this kid was so good? I mean, to hold your own with BBT and do so with such deep and interesting character work — you could see it all back then.”
Wednesday July 23, 2008
The Dark Knight, somewhat ironically given Batman’s origin, is no orphan as to who or what is responsible for its massive success. A lot of fathers out there. To me, yes, it’s the Batman brand, plus it’s the fact that the film is a sequel to a well-made movie, plus it’s the buzz that the new one was even better. Plus it opened in more theaters than any movie in history. That never hurts.
Now the question: How far will it go? In pure dollar terms — that is, unadjusted for inflation — it may have already passed Batman Begins (at $205 million domestic). It will surely pass Tim Burton’s original Batman ($250 million) this weekend, maybe even before, making it the most successful Batman movie ever. Then, in terms of superhero movies, it has these guys lying ahead of it:
|2.||Spider-Man 2||$373 million|
|3.||Spider-Man 3||$336 million|
|4.||Iron Man||$314 million|
|5.||The Incredibles||$261 million|
The fact that The Dark Knight took in $24 million on a Monday is a good sign. $24 million is a good weekend for most movies. For the curious, Spider-Man’s $403 million is no. 7 on the unadjusted domestic gross list. The No. 1 movie is Titanic at $600 million. When TDK passes Spidey, we’ll talk.
In the meantime, one of the better descriptions of Heath Ledger’s performance comes to us from someone, David Denby at The New Yorker, who didn’t even like the film. Proof, if we needed it (and some of us obviously do), that it’s worth reading past your opinions:
Christian Bale has been effective in some films, but he’s a placid Bruce Wayne, a swank gent in Armani suits, with every hair in place. He’s more urgent as Batman, but he delivers all his lines in a hoarse voice, with an unvarying inflection. It’s a dogged but uninteresting performance, upstaged by the great Ledger, who shambles and slides into a room, bending his knees and twisting his neck and suddenly surging into someone’s face like a deep-sea creature coming up for air. Ledger has a fright wig of ragged hair; thick, running gobs of white makeup; scarlet lips; and dark-shadowed eyes. He’s part freaky clown, part Alice Cooper the morning after, and all actor. He’s mesmerizing in every scene. His voice is not sludgy and slow, as it was in “Brokeback Mountain.” It’s a little higher and faster, but with odd, devastating pauses and saturnine shades of mockery. At times, I was reminded of Marlon Brando at his most feline and insinuating. When Ledger wields a knife, he is thoroughly terrifying (do not, despite the PG-13 rating, bring the children), and, as you’re watching him, you can’t help wondering—in a response that admittedly lies outside film criticism—how badly he messed himself up in order to play the role this way. His performance is a heroic, unsettling final act: this young actor looked into the abyss.
Tuesday July 22, 2008
Michael Giltz on the history of Batman's opening weekends
There’s a good HuffPost piece by Michael Giltz on the history of Batman’s opening weekends. I know it’s a good piece because I’ve been doing nothing but box office and Batman articles for the last two months and even I didn’t realize the following:
Here's the truth: ignoring the Adam West quickie from 1966, the Batman franchise has released six movies. FOUR of them have set the all-time opening weekend box office record. The only two that didn't were the deservedly maligned Batman & Robin in 1997 and the acclaimed reboot Batman Begins in 2005 which made this film's success possible.
Don’t quite agree with the Heath Ledger graph. Sure, Ledger wasn’t a big opening weekend star (partly because his better movies, such as Brokeback Mountain, only opened on a few screens), but in death… Let’s face it, we’re a bit necrophiliac around here. We feed, we feed.
But Giltz’s main point I absolutely agree with. Everyone’s searching for an answer as to why Batman did well opening weekend but Batman always does well opening weekend. So it’s that, but it’s also how good Batman Begins was and how good the buzz was. It’s not just quantity (those 4,000+ theaters), but quality. If you build it right, we will come.
Tuesday July 22, 2008
Dave Kehr: A history lesson every Tuesday
Tuesdays I know there will be at least one smart movie-related article to read: Dave Kehr’s DVD column in the New York Times, which tends to focus on recent releases of historical films rather than recent films rushed to DVD before they lose whatever slight cache they have. Here’s Kehr a few weeks ago comparing two screen goddesses:
Where Ms. Loren is a pagan goddess, all bosom and hips, with almond eyes and pillowy lips, Ms. Deneuve is a perfectly proportioned Renaissance angel, thin-lipped, wide-eyed and enveloped in a nimbus of golden hair. Ms. Loren has the imposing physical presence of a monumental statue; Ms. Deneuve the exquisite, pocket-size beauty of a cameo brooch. Ms. Loren invites us to live more intensely in our world; Ms. Deneuve exists in another space entirely, one surrounded by velvet ropes, and she’s not sure she wants to share it at all.
Kehr’s column today is about two horror films from 1933: Universal’s original Mummy and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s avant-garde follow-up to The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Vampyr.
Most of the Internet feels noisy to me — a zillion opinions shouting at each other without reason— but Kehr’s column feels quiet and dignified. I don’t feel anxious there. It’s as much as reflection on culture as it is on film. It is, as my friend Steve says, a history lesson every Tuesday.
Monday July 21, 2008
The Dark Knight: The smartest superhero movie ever made
In case you haven’t heard, The Dark Knight had a better weekend than we did. It brought in $158 million (original estimate: $155 million), shattering the Spider-Man 3 mark of, what, $151 million, set last May.
What does this mean? It means that The Dark Knight will probably be the biggest box office hit of the year. Only twice this decade — and never since 2003 — has a film scored the year's biggest opening weekend without being the year's biggest box office hit. For once, that film is a critical hit, too, unlike last year’s Spider-Man 3 (mixed), 2006’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (mixed) and 2005’s Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith (mixed). Last I checked, Dark Knight had a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 84 on metacritic.com, which, for them, means “Universal acclaim.”
My review? Not quite that. I call it the smartest superhero movie ever made in an article on MSN. Check it out. Unless you came here from there, in which case you can check out my Huffington Post piece on Batman Forever.
And if you came here because you like David Carr or Robert Graves, see below.
Sunday July 20, 2008
David Carr: How That Guy became This Guy
I was surprised a few weeks ago when, in his Monday media column — this one on the dirty tricks Fox News pulls on rival reporters — David Carr wrote about being called a crack addict on Bill O’Reilly’s show, then added, “which at least has the virtue of being true, if a little vintage.”
Carr? A crack addict? I didn’t know. I shrugged and moved on.
This morning, rifling through the Sunday New York Times, I glanced at the cover of the Magazine — not my favorite section lately — which displayed a series of three mug shots and the title “My Years of Living Dangerously.” I assumed the mug shots revealed the subject’s regression, the awful affect drugs had on someone, but, no, the third photo didn’t look much different than the first: Just a curly haired guy, slightly overweight. In fact, only two years separated first and third photos. So what was the point? Then I saw David Carr's byline. Whoa. I didn’t even recognize him. Which is the point.
The article, an excerpt from his upcoming memoir The Night of the Gun, is Carr’s attempt to reconcile his two selves. He writes: “Here is what I deserved: hepatitis C, federal prison time, H.I.V., a cold park bench, an early, addled death. Here is what I got: the smart, pretty wife, the three lovely children, the job that impresses. Here is what I remember about how That Guy became This Guy: not much.”
So he becomes investigative reporter of himself. He interviews the people he knew and examines the gap between their stories and his. You don’t have to be a former crack addict for this to be worthwhile — we all have our stories and most of us stick to them — but, as Carr says, addicts are particularly good at storytelling and mythmaking: “You spread versions of yourself around, giving each person the truth he or she needs — you need, actually — to keep them at a remove.”
There are many (and no) answers to how That Guy became This Guy, but I was particularly intrigued by this section:
Eden House was a long-term therapeutic community, the kind of place that brimmed with slogans. This was the main one: “The answer to life is learning to live.”
This is the point where the knowing author laughs along with his readers about his time among the aphorisms, how he was once so gullible and needy that he drank deeply of such weak and fruity Kool-Aid. That’s some other story. Slogans saved my life. All of them — the dumb ones, the imperatives, the shameless, witless ones.
I lustily chanted some of those slogans and lived by others. There is nothing romantic about being a crackhead and a drunk — low-bottom addiction is its own burlesque that needs no snarky annotation. Unless a person is willing to be terminally, frantically earnest, all hope is lost.
Saturday July 19, 2008
Good-Bye To All That: Something to be said for blitzkrieg
I spent the morning in bed with Robert Graves. Since I liked I, Cladius so much I borrowed Good-Bye To All That, the autobiography he wrote in his late 20s, from my father, but the last few days were busy ones and I'd lost the thread. I wanted to pick it up again with a bout of sustained reading.
At the moment Graves is in the trenches of northern France. Volunteered. Raring to go. At school he was an iconoclast who didn't get along with the bullying sportsmen but as soon as war was declared he wanted to join the mass. Along with many others. Once they realized what it was they shifted to survival tactics, which might include a “cushie,” or flesh wound, that would take them away from the lines and maybe back home. One wonders about this desire to go to war. It's probably less patriotism than a wish to be where the action is; a wish to be involved in something greater than yourself. Once the action is revealed to be what it is, and the “something” not so great, other instincts take over.
There’s a great vignette about being stationed in Vermelles:
The old Norman church here has been very much broken. What remains of the tower is used as a forward observation post by the Artillery. I counted eight unexploded shells sticking into it. Jenkins and I went in and found the floor littered with rubbish, broken masonry, smashed chairs, ripped canvas pictures... Only a few pieces of stained glass remained fixed in the edges of the windows. I climbed up by way of the altar to the east window, and found a piece about the size of a plate. I gave it to Jenkins. “Souvenir,” I said. When he held it to the light it was St. Peter's hand with the keys of heaven. “I'm sending this home,” he said. As we went out, we met two men of the Munsters. Being Irish Catholics, they thought it sacreligious for Jenkins to be taking the glass away. One of them warned him: “Shouldn't take that, sir, it will bring you no luck.” Jenkins got killed not long after.
Much of the book is like this. Beautiful writing. Worlds contained in a paragraph.
I was reminded of our trip to France last summer and all of the memorials we saw in the small towns. In a church vestibule in Capestang: A la memoire del nos heroes morts pour la France: 1914-1918. Then 120 names. Outside a chuch in Manigod: Aux Enfants de Manigod Morts Pour La France. Then 56 names for World War I and five names for World War II. Something to be said for blitzkrieg.
Friday July 18, 2008
Manohla Dargis gets it on with Batman, gives Superman the cold shoulder
Yep, The Dark Knight opens today. I've got some things to say about it (I saw it last Monday with my friend Tim at the Pacific Science Center's IMAX Theater) but it'll have to wait until MSN posts my piece on why the film is the smartest superhero movie ever made. Hint: It has something to do with this. Piece won't be up until Tuesday.
In the meantime I sit on the sidelines and read other comments. Manohla Dargis manages to write quite a bit without saying much about where the film goes, just how it goes, but she gets off some nice lines. She calls Christian Bale , “a reluctant smiler whose sharply planed face looks as if it had been carved with a chisel,” and who “slid into Bruce Wayne’s insouciance as easily as he did Batman’s suit.” She's also right on Heath Ledger, whose “death might have cast a paralyzing pall over the film if the performance were not so alive. But his Joker is a creature of such ghastly life, and the performance is so visceral, creepy and insistently present that the characterization pulls you in almost at once.”
She also calls the film “a postheroic superhero movie,” which isn't bad, but which I don't quite buy. A friend commented that the film has echoes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, but for me a better comparision might be Angels with Dirty Faces. I.e., I show myself more heroic (to the movie audience) by being less heroic (to the movie characters). Does this mean postheroic? Could lead to a good discussion.
The Dargis lines that I truly disagree with are these: “Apparently, truth, justice and the American way don’t cut it anymore. That may not fully explain why the last Superman took a nose dive (Superman Returns, if not for long), but I think it helps get at why, like other recent ambiguous American heroes, both supermen and super-spies, the new Batman soared.”
Took a nose dive? At the box office? In 2006, Superman Returns made $200 million in the U.S., $391 million worldwide. A year earlier, Batman Begins, which she touts, made $205 million in the U.S., $371 worldwide. Not sure where the nose dive is. Sure, it didn't do as well as Warner Bros. hoped (i.e., it didn't do as well as Spider-Man), but it was hardly a disaster. Besides, for some people, including maybe me, the problem wasn't that this Superman wasn't dark enough but too dark. With Superman, I'd go for a PG rating to get the kids in. They went PG-13 and kept the 3-7 year-olds outside looking in. That's Supes' demographic.
Monday July 14, 2008
Bob le flambeur
Last May I did a piece for MSNBC, to coincide with the opening of Paris je t’aime, on the Top 5 films set in Paris. It was an excuse to see more French films before a bike trip along the Canal du Midi in June and July. Unfortunately I screwed up the deadline, had to rush it, and even without the screw-up I didn’t have the depth of knowledge you’d need for a good piece on the subject. I still don’t (the more you know, the less you know, etc.), but a new list, or at least an addition to the list, would probably include Bob le flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1956 take on an aging gambler and a perfect crime caper. Those shots around Paris from a speeding car window in 400 Blows? Melville does it four years earlier around Montmartre: Gorgeous shots of a life that doesn’t exist anymore. For a genre film, made a few years before Truffaut, et al., broke, the movie feels very New Wave.
Many films are suggested in this one. A shot of Anne (Isabelle Corey) dancing alone to a jazz band reminded me of something Roger Vadim did with Brigette Bardot in Et Dieu...crea la femme — which featured Isabelle Corey as well. Obviously The Good Thief, with Nick Nolte, is a direct remake, but there are also strong elements of Bob le flambeur (the debonair, moralistic gambler with the young protégé) inPaul Thomas Anderson's Sydney or Hard Eight. The film is beloved.
For all the great metaphoric use of Montemartre as both heaven and hell (from Sacre Coeur to Pigalle), and for all of Henri Dacae's gorgeous early-morning cinematography, what’s interesting about the story, and please accept all the usual spoiler alerts here, is how it upends the perfect-crime caper. A gambler (Roger Duchesne), on a losing streak and near broke, decides to rob a casino with the usual team of handy and not-so-handy men. He drills them like a military unit. Parts of the scheme begin to unravel (an informant hears about it, tells the police) but are solidified again (the informant is killed for other reasons), and it’s set in motion even as the police are closing in.
Then the reason why it was necessary in the first place unravels. Bob, the point man in the casino, begins to gamble and his luck begins to change. He keeps winning, and winning, and he forgets all about the caper. After several hours he remembers, but his men and the cops arrive at the same time, there’s a shoot out, and Bob’s protégé, Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), is killed. That’s a good take on the heist film: the heist never happens but the hero gets rich anyway. The denouement includes a good conversation between the cops and Bob on how much time Bob will do and what a good lawyer can buy you.
This is my fourth Melville film (Le Samouri, L’Armee des ombres, Le Cercle Rouge), and while I like him intellectually, his cool may be too cold for me. His leading men don’t intrigue. For all of Bogie’s cool, remember, he was a helluva talker.
Thursday July 10, 2008
Much Ado About Flashcards
Tuesday July 08, 2008
The history of Batman: from les Vampires to George Clooney
As a way of introducing a new round of reviews in the Batman cycle, let me point, first, to M. Rhodes' European Film Report and his post from a week ago on the early silent-film influences on the creation of Batman, including Les Vampires from 1915, The Bat from 1926 and The Man Who Laughs (i.e., the Joker) from 1928. Some of the clips go on a bit long, and to seemingly silent purpose, but when, say, the vampire-girl swoops onto the stage with her bat cape, or when “The Bat” beams a “bat signal” onto the wall, it looks stunningly familiar. If the lead in Man Who Laughs looks familiar, it's because it's Conrad Veidt, the German actor who played everything from Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to Major Strasser in Casablanca, and who was the first choice to play Dracula.
Rhodes' report is my kind of thing. How did we get where we are? How did such iconic characters as Superman and Batman come to be? Rhodes deals mostly with European cinema, which is why Douglas Fairbanks' Zorro isn't mentioned, but let me add, as a possible influence, from the newspapers, the murder of Fred Oesterrich in his home in 1922. His wife, Walburga, was charged with the murder but she was let go due to insufficient evidence. In 1930, a man named Otto Sanhuber claimed to have killed Oesterrich after living in Oesterrich's attic for more than 11 years. He was dubbed the “Batman” by the press. Who knows what influence this might have had when Bob Kane and Bill Finger were scratching their heads for superhero ideas in the wake of Superman in 1939. At the least, it's the first mention of a “Batman” in the New York Times in the 20th century.
Also, if you head over to the Movie Reviews section of this Web site, to the letter “B,” you'll find new reviews of the seven Batman serials and movies that prefigure the current Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale cycle: Batman (1943), Batman and Robin (1949), Batman: The Movie (1966), Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997). For most, it's probably too much information, but it's still a kind of exploration into how we got where we are.
Monday July 07, 2008
Never Google Yourself - Part I
Last week I got called stupid 5,001 times.
The extra came from my seven-year-old nephew, who I was picking up from golf lessons and driving to a friend’s house so I could take the two of them to, of all things, a Pokemon class for the afternoon. At the friend’s house, my nephew, all enthusiasm, wanted to get out the SUV’s side doors, but I was unfamiliar with my sister’s car — the newest car I’ve ever owned is a ’96 Honda Accord — and didn’t know there was an “Open” button located on the ceiling. “Open it!” he insisted. I held up my hands. “How do you open it?” I asked. Frustrated with an uncle whose newest car was five years older than he is, my nephew delivered the coup de grace: “Stupid!” he said. I laughed.
The other 5,000 times I got called stupid came as a result of that Slate article. My nephew gets a pass: he’s seven. The others, I assume, are a bit older.
David Poland's critique on “The Hot Blog” is indicative. His criticisms of my article — in which I wrote that, in general, a 2007 film that was well-reviewed (via Rotten Tomatoes’ rankings) made $2,000 more per screen than a 2007 film that reviewers slammed — are basically four-fold:
1. I love RT [Rotten Tomatoes]. It is a great site and a great idea [but] as a basis for statistical analysis, you should probably poll Patrick Goldstein's neighbors as soon as use those numbers for a factual analysis...
Some sympathy here. I didn’t critique RT in the Slate article. In earlier drafts, yes, but you’ve only got so much space, even online (where attention spans are shorter), and besides who wants to repeat themselves? Three and a half years ago I’d written about RT’s shortcomings in the same manner Poland did, and those shortcomings are still true, but I still say that as an attempt to quantify quality — which is what you need in a statistical analysis that uses quality as a frame of reference — it’s helpful.
2. The second HUGE mistake is, somehow, in spite of indicating a lot of knowledge in general, thinking that bulk numbers - as in, every film released on as many as 100 screens - can be used to analyze anything in a reasonable way. The math of the studio Dependents is quite different than the true indies, much less the small releases of under 300 screens and the behemoths of summer and the holiday season.
Obviously math from one place to another can’t be “different” (2 + 2... etc.), but if the box office numbers we’re getting are being calculated differently, well, that would be good to know. But Poland doesn’t continue. Maybe this “different math” is common knowledge in L.A. but it isn’t with me. Part of the reason I wrote the piece is that those Monday morning box office numbers always seem half (or less) of the story. If there’s more to the story that I’m missing, and that boxofficemojo — the site from whom I got most of my numbers — is missing, I’d like to know.
3. The biggest, perhaps, problem of all, is that after trying to take a run at this idea, and examining his data, Lundegaard didn’t just throw this junk science out. To wit… what is the leggiest wide-release movie (domestically, since it is the only stat we can use for all US releases as of now) of The Summer of 2008? Anyone? What Happens In Vegas... Rotten Tomatoes percentage? 27%.
Two things. He’s equating popularity with legs, which isn’t a bad method but has its own problems: Namely the problems he ascribes to my methodology in #2. But here’s the second and more important point: There will always be exceptions. I don’t understand why people don’t get this. All I’m saying, all the numbers are saying, is that a 2007 film that was well-reviewed (via Rotten Tomatoes’ system) generally did better, to the tune of $2,000 per screen, than a 2007 film that reviewers slammed. Are there exceptions? Of course. The tenth highest per-screen average belonged to National Treasure 2 and its 31 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating. Twelfth highest belonged to Alvin and the Chipmunks and its 24 percent rating. But when you crunch all the numbers, and despite such exceptions, the rotten films still sink below the quality films in box office.
4. And riddle me this… how can Lundegaard or anyone else assume that critics are increasing box office when “good” and “bad” are not the exclusive provenance of critics. There is no sane and knowledgeable person I know who does not accept that word of mouth is the most powerful element on the ongoing box office of a movie after the first week...
Three paragraphs later, Poland writes my answer: “There is nothing in Lundegaard’s story that suggests in any sustainable way that critics reviews have a direct cause and effect on box office in a real way.” Exactly! Because that’s not what I’m arguing. I’m arguing correlation, not causation. I’m arguing that critics, perceived as elitist, are simply fairly good barometers of popular taste. I’m arguing something fairly basic: that both critics and moviegoers like quality and don’t like crap.
Is this revelatory? In a society that dismisses quality, and that holds up crap for imitation, it certainly feels revelatory.
The studios will always try to make their numbers look good, and it’s part of our job to find out how they’re lying with them. Is my method — ranking films by the per-screen average for their entire run — the best method? I don’t know. It’s a method, a method we don’t usually see, and, maybe, a method to build on.
Monday July 07, 2008
Fox News: Anti-Semitic or merely vindictive?
One of my favorite New York Times writers, David Carr, has a great piece on news organizations dealing with Fox News' organization — particularly its PR apparatus — and the “fair and balanced” network comes off fairly paranoid and vindictive. Nixon's dirty tricks come to mind. Roger Ailes, Nixon's advisor and Fox's chief executive, comes to mind.
You write something they don't like, they won't talk to you for 15 months. You report the facts, they photoshop your face so it looks weathered, haggard, or, in the case of NY Times reporter Jacques Steinberg, virtually unrecognizable — or recognizable only to a Joseph Goebbels. Carr writes, “In a technique familiar to students of vintage German propaganda, [Steinberg's] ears were pulled out, his teeth splayed apart, his forehead lowered and his nose was widened and enlarged in a way that made him look more like Fagin than the guy I work with.”
See their photoshop handiwork here.
See the video from “Fox & Friends” here.
Throw up here.
Wednesday July 02, 2008
We interrupt this vacation to bring you a Slate piece
I’ve got a piece on Slate about movie box office and critical acclaim. If you’ve arrived here from there, apologies. It’s no fun to travel and find the same shit you saw in the last place.
The argument in the article is basically two-fold: 1) Quality films — as judged by critics’ rankings on Rotten Tomatoes — do better at the box office than people realize, and 2), as a result, critics, who are perceived as elitist, and moviegoers, who are, by their numbers, populist, are actually closer in taste than people realize. I’ve made this argument before. It’s the numbers-crunching that’s new.
While on vacation in Minneapolis, I’ve been re-reading David Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business. Mamet isn’t much of an essayist. He tends to wander within the confines of even a short essay — exploring four themes in four pages — but he packs a wallop, and the world, in a paragraph. It’s worth reading, or re-reading, for the paragraphs.
Mamet is an outsider who went inside; he knows how Hollywood works better than I ever will, and so it’s nice that some of my assumptions, about how audience-testing squelches innovation, and thus possible cash cows, are borne out by his experience.
Hollywood outsiders can never be sure. There’s that tendency to think, “Well, they’re professionals; surely they know what they’re doing.” Pushing against this is that great lesson from All the President’s Men: “The truth is, these aren’t very smart guys, and things got out of hand.”
We’re all involved in our self-fulfilling prophecies and maybe the numbers-crunching is mine, and maybe opening schlock in 3,000 theaters is Warner Brothers’. Who knows? But I’ll keep watching the numbers.
OK, back to vacation.