Monday November 30, 2009
Review: “Twilight” (2008)
WARNING: AWKWARD, LONGING SPOILERS
I actually know Forks, Wash., or towns like Forks, Wash., since Patricia’s mom used to live in Joyce, Wash., further north and east on the Olympic peninsula. We used to go there every August for the Blackberry Festival. Patricia’s mom organized the local art show at The Grange, Patricia’s brother, Alex, a marine biologist from Port Townsend, was sometime-judge in the blackberry pie contest, and Patricia herself sometimes helped out at the cotton candy stand. The highlight was always a noon-time parade down main street, or the only street, Agate Beach Road, filled with vintage '30s cars and vintage '30s men (VOFWs) and usually something high-schooly. We watched near the Joyce General Store, which sold candy I thought ceased to exist in 1968. There were no vampires.
But it’s a brilliant conceit that a vampire clan would hang out on the Olympic peninsula to avoid the sun—which, in this universe, doesn’t destroy them but merely turns their skin all sparkly. The peninsula also works as a hangout for the Cullens because, well, it’s isolated, there’s game in the forests, and it’s already full of weirdos. The peninsula’s the place Washingtonians go when Walla Walla gets too crowded.
Bella (Kristen Stewart), our heroine, arrives in Forks from Phoenix, Ariz., cactus in hand, in March, because her mother and her new husband, Phil, are heading to Florida for spring training. Phil, according to the mother, is “a minor league baseball player.” Since Bella is 16 or 17, her mother would have to be, what, 32-35 at the youngest? Which means she’s either a cougar (to go with the Native American wolf packs), or Phil needs a new job. Generally if you don’t make the bigs by 30 you don’t hang around.
For a new girl in town, Bella does surprisingly well. In fact, she has to do little. Her father gives her a truck, the kids flock to her, she’s popular just by sitting there and, um, not knowing what to say or, um, maybe not caring what to say. The other kids fill her in on the Cullens, who seem good-looking and aloof, like Duran Duran in 1983, and she and Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) exchanged slow-motion, smoldering looks, like they’re in a “Hungry Like the Wolf” video. She also winds up sitting next to him in biology class. Biology. At first he ignores her, can’t seem to stand the smell of her, but then he’s charming and curious, and before you know it they’re in love, and before you know it she figures out that he, and all of the Cullens, are vampires. It takes about a week? Doesn’t say much for the rest of the folks in Forks, does it? Or do they already know and accept it as part of the usual peninsula weirdness? “Cassandra Starlight here used to be named Peggy Jones until she hit 54 and decided to change it, Zeke’s got a bumper sticker on his pickup saying ‘My real president is Charlton Heston,’ which he put on during the Bush years, and Dr. Cullen and his family? Well, they’re vampires. But kindly folk.”
It's been much-written, but, yes, Edward is the dream boyfriend for teenaged girls who are curious about but afraid of sex: He and Bella can’t have it because he might lose control. He might literally want to tear her apart. So romantic! There’s also a “gift of the magi” quality to their relationship: She loves him enough to become a vampire, he loves her too much to make her one, and so there they are, staring into each other’s eyes, longing. If anticipation is greater than consumption (see: “The Tao of Pooh”), then theirs is one great relationship. But it’s still a teenaged relationship, and, even though he’s a 100-year-old teenager (he became a vampire during the influenza outbreak of 1918), it’s full of awkward, teenaged conversations. Let me speak for the adults in the audience: Thank you for those moments when the camera pulls back, the music wells, and we just see them talking. It's lazy writing, sure, but still appreciated.
What else about Edward appeals to teenage girls? Basically he’s James Dean (the brooding, handsome, tortured loner) but superfast and superstrong and with the ability to read everyone’s mind but hers. So she’s as much mystery to him as he is to her. She’s mysterious and he’s curious. One wonders if that’s why he loves her in the first place. If true, it seems like an unromantic reason to me. I only love you because I don’t know you.
Their relationship also allows her, for all her spirit, to be the damsel in distress. No ass-kicking girl here. The good and bad vampires, the wolf packs, could tear her apart before she could blink so she gets to be rescued without guilt. Feminists, of course, are up in arms, but is this the secret desire of girls, as rescuing (particularly if you’re superstrong) is the secret desire of boys? This is not to discount lines like Edward’s: “I don’t have the strength to stay away from you anymore.” I know that has its appeal, too.
The movie does a good job with the locale, by the way. The kids go to La Push and Port Angeles, they reference Kitsap County sheriffs, and the men drink Rainier beer and watch Mariners games. There's a lot of cloud-cover and drizzle. It’s all very Pacific Northwesterny.
“Twilight” isn’t as horrible as I thought it’d be and it’s kind of fun to watch with a girl, or even a woman, to see what she likes about it. That should be its appeal for boys. Most of us are like Edward—we have no clue what you’re thinking—but the big question is if “Twilight,” by giving us that clue, is helpful, or just slowly, vaguely horrific.
Friday November 27, 2009
The 2000s: Decade of the Sequel
A few weeks back in the New York Times Magazine, A.O. Scott asked the following question:
The rebel Hollywood of the ’70s gives way to the blockbuster-mad ’80s, which is followed by the rise of the indies in the ’90s. And then?
And then Frodo and Spider-Man, Mumblecore and midbudget Oscar bait, Will Ferrell and Sacha Baron Cohen, “The Dark Knight” and the Transformers movies, along with everything else.
Which is more smorgasbord than answer. So let’s answer the question Scott wouldn’t. What were the 2000s to film? How did this decade differ from previous decades? How will it be remembered?
Here’s my quick-and-dirty answer: the 2000s were the decade of the sequel.
Yeah, I know. The sequel? What year are you stuck in, idjit—1978? Sequels have been the driving economic force for Hollywood for years, for decades, and you’re saying that now, suddenly, this decade, we’re in “The Era of the Sequel”? Get a clue!
Except I’m talking less about how many sequels were made than how well they performed. Sure, they’ve almost always performed well; that’s why they keep getting made. But this decade? They’ve performed really well.
Here’s a chart of no. 1 box-office hits of the year that were sequels, per decade, for the last 40 years:
The two no. 1 sequels in the 1980s both came from the “Star Wars” franchise: “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980 and “The Return of the Jedi” in 1983. Ditto his prequel, “The Phantom Menace,” in 1999. The only non-“Star Wars” sequel to go no. 1 during this period was James Cameron’s “Terminator 2” in 1991.
So basically the only time a sequel reigned atop the annual box office chart from 1970 to 2000 was when it happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
In 2002, Lucas’ second prequel, “Attack of the Clones,” actually became the first of the “Star Wars” movies not to be the year’s most popular movie. It finished third to both “Spider-Man” and “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.” So it seemed we were entering a new age.
We were. The following year, the sequel to “Two Towers,” “Return of the King,” was the biggest hit of the year, and it’s been sequels ever since:
2003: “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”
2004: “Shrek 2”
2005: “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith”
2006: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”
2007: “Spider-Man 3”
2008: “The Dark Knight”
2009: “Transformers 2”
An argument can be made that this isn’t that big of a change. Sequels have gone from finishing second or fourth for the year to first. Big deal.
But it is different. Here’s how things used to work. Some new movie would come along and everyone would say, “Oh, dude, you gotta see this!” and everyone would go. These movies would become the no. 1 movies of the year: “The Exorcist,” “Jaws,” “Rocky,” “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Batman.” And, yes, all generated sequels. But with the exception of “Star Wars”—actually even including “Star Wars”—these sequels didn’t do as well at the box office. There was usually something original people wanted to see more.
No longer. Now the original film is merely a stepping stone to the vast wealth of the sequel. Sure, the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” made $363 million inflation-adjusted dollars in 2003, but the second made $464 million in 2006. Sure, the first “Shrek” made $339 million in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2001, but “Shrek 2” brought in $510 million in 2004. And, yes, “Batman Begins” made $230 million in inflation-adjusted dollars in 2005. Three years later, “The Dark Knight” brought home $533 million.
Instead of something original, we now want the same characters, doing the same thing, in a story that either improves upon the original (“The Dark Knight,” “Spider-Man 2”) or doesn’t (“Spider-Man 3”: any of the “Pirates” sequels).
The question is why.
Part of it has to do with the way movies are rolled out now. Word-of-mouth means less, critics mean less, opening weekend means more. It’s a spectacle and people pay for the spectacle. Search the New York Times archive for the term “opening weekend” and for most of the 20th century you’ll get references to the “Wood, Field and Stream” columns of Raymond R. Camp. “Opening weekend” isn’t used to refer to the movies until 1980, in an article anticipating the release of the first “Star Wars” sequel. And opening weekends didn’t truly become currency until “Spider-Man” broke the $100 million opening-weekend mark in May 2002. That’s when even the average moviegoer took notice. Since then, Spidey’s record has been broken five times—all by sequels.
Movies are made differently now, too. Sequels are anticipated. They’re planned along with the originals. Sometimes they’re filmed along with the originals. The word “sequel” isn’t even effective anymore since we’re really dealing with four types, maybe more:
- The traditional sequel: These usually come out once every three years. Each film contains its own dramatic arc and more-or-less ends. Examples include the “Spider-Man” movies, the “Shrek” movies, “X-Men,” “Lethal Weapon,” etc.
- The double-whammy sequel: Several years after the success of the original, these sequels are filmed together and released within a year of each other. Usually the second sequel is of the “to be continued” variety and everything’s tied up (more or less) with the third sequel. Examples include “Back to the Future,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Matrix.”
- The episodic sequel: These are often released every year. They’re based on popular books and follow the path of the books. Examples: “Harry Potter,” “Twilight,” possibly “Lord of the Rings.”
- The “Wait! Let me squeeze out one more” sequel: Shows up 15 to 20 years after the last one, when the stars and/or director don’t have the options they once had, and are relying on past glories to resurrect careers. Examples: “Indiana Jones,” “Rocky” and “Rambo,” “The Godfather.”
Even if the studios are better at making and marketing sequels, however, it doesn't answer the question why are we going as often as we’re going? Because the studios are better at making and marketing sequels? Because theaters, and thus box office, are for blockbuster sequels, while the dramatic movies that don’t generate sequels are now for home viewing via PPV or Netflix? Because in the age of the Internet, we no longer see star-driven movies (“Forrest Gump,” “Jerry Maguire,” “As Good As It Gets”), or director-driven movies (Spielberg) but character-driven movies (Shrek, Batman, Harry Potter), which are easier to sequel-ize? Because after 9/11 we all became a bunch of wimps and just wanted daddy to tell us the same story over and over and over again?
All of the above?
No. 1 sequels used to be George Lucas’ province but now we’re all living in George’s world: special effects are everything, actors are nothing, things whiz by, the fun never stops. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, we used to go to the movies to see how people behaved on the roller coaster ride. Now we go for the roller coaster ride. If it has people on it, even better.
Thursday November 26, 2009
Happy Birthday, Charles M. Schulz
Charles M. Schulz, who created some of the first fictional characters I ever cared about, was born on this day, November 26, 1922, in St. Paul, Minn. There's a good personal essay on the “Peanuts” universe by Jonathan Franzen in his book of essays “The Discomfort Zone,” which I read about five or 10 years ago in The New Yorker. You can read it here. At one point Franzen writes:
Schulz never stopped trying to be funny. Around 1970, though, he began to drift away from aggressive humor and into melancholy reverie. There came tedious meanderings in Snoopyland with the unhilarious bird Woodstock and the unamusing beagle Spike. Certain leaden devices, such as Marcie’s insistence on calling Peppermint Patty “sir,” were heavily recycled. By the late eighties, the strip had grown so quiet that younger friends of mine seemed baffled by my fandom. It didn’t help that later “Peanuts” anthologies loyally reprinted so many Spike and Marcie strips. The volumes that properly showcased Schulz’s genius, the three hardcover collections from the sixties, had gone out of print. There were a few critical appreciations, most notably by Umberto Eco, who argued for Schulz’s literary greatness in an essay written in the sixties and reprinted in the eighties (when Eco got famous). But the praise of a “low” genre by an old semiotic soldier in the culture wars couldn’t help carrying an odor of provocation.
All of which I agree with, particularly the Spike criticism; but even in his later years Schulz had his moments. This is one of them. In a series from 1988, Charlie Brown is outside the house of the little red-haired girl, hiding behind a tree and lost in his usual reverie. Then suddenly she comes outside:
When I first saw this I was living in Taiwan and dealing—with about as much courage and luck—with my own little red-haired girl, albeit the tall, brown-haired version. I identified, in other words. As a child I identified with Snoopy and as an adult with Charlie Brown. You can argue that Charlie Brown is the most adult character in the strip: he feeds Snoopy, takes care of Sally, organizes the little league team, sees the psychiatrist. Linus may be the philospher, the potential minister, but Charlie Brown is already the nervous, overworked parent.
I wound up cutting the strip out of the English-language newspaper in Taiwan and bringing it home with me seven months later. Ever since I've kept it in an old cigar box (PHILLIES BLUNT), along with autographs, old political buttons, my high school tassle. Stuff that's tough to throw away.
I recommend the Franzen book. I recommend The New Yorker. I recommend a song called “Charlie Brown” by Gavin Osborn:
It's all a lot of oysters and no pearls
But I recall the little red haired girl
How I used to sit on this bench in school
And stare at her across the playground
All I wanted was to sit next to her
Talk to her just be with her
That wasn't asking too much was it
But it never happened
Then she moved away
And I don't even know where she lives
Still got my lunchbox just in case
I even saved her a sandwich and a drink
Happy thanksgiving, everyone. Happy birthday, Sparky. Good work, Google, combining the two:
Wednesday November 25, 2009
- Good music! Kris Tapley over at In Contention has posted this beautiful Ryan Bingham song, “The Weary Kind,” from the new, as-yet-unopened Jeff Bridges film, “Crazy Heart.” Listen. Ecoutez. The song certainly reflects my mood during this long, sick November. I'd recommend buying it on iTunes but it's not available yet.
- Benjamin Schwarz, literary editor of The Atlantic, picks the 25 books of the year. I've read exactly zero of them. Bad former book critic, bad former book critic.
- Hendrik Hertzberg finds distant precedent in tea partiers and anti-health care nuts battling against their self-interest.
- Patrick Goldstein has an interesting post on right-wing attacks on one small moment in the new Sandra Bullock movie “The Blind Side.” His explanation for why the scene is in there is fascinating, makes sense, but won't, I'm sure, shut them up. Nothing will. Hollywood is a town that leans consistently left, sometimes loopily so, but you'll never convince the right-wing nuts (or right wingnuts?) that the product of that town is ultimately conservative. In my mind, no industry has done more than the movie industry to propogate the myth of the efficacy of the lone gunman using violence to achieve his ends. That's ultimately a conservative message.
- Related: Andrew Sullivan takes down the GOP's new ten commandments like they're false idols to which the conservative masses bow down and worship.
- Related: Alaska attorney Donald Craig Mitchell, writes about being named in Sarah Palin's book Going Rogue, and on the numerous lies in one simple paragraph about him:
Had Lynn Vincent, Sarah, or Meg called me before Lynn had finished writing Going Rogue, I would have told her that in a single paragraph Lynn/Sarah got almost every one of their facts about me, other than that I am an attorney, wrong. While I probably once was, I haven’t been a “prominent” attorney in Alaska in years. While I am a registered Democrat, my personal politics are hardly “liberal.” To the extent anyone cares, I am a social libertarian who is an Eisenhower era deficit hawk who agrees with Teddy and Frank Roosevelt that the principal responsibility of government is to save capitalism from itself. And while during the presidential campaign several of my ‘Governor Girl Reports’ were posted by individuals other than me on the Huffington Post and Atlantic Monthly web sites, none of those musings “detailed an ethics attack strategy.”
- Clay Shirky takes on the issue of what becomes authoritative in our culture, and what's becoming authoritative in Internet culture (and thus our new culture), and how they differ. Fascinating piece. He's just laying it out, seemingly unconcerned (he always seems unconcerned), but his description alarms me for, I guess, two reasons. One, even though they've rarely done me good, and even though they've stumbled at times, I haven't given up on the old authorities: The New York Times, Merriam-Webster, etc., and I still don't trust, but admit to being amazed by, enterprises like Wikipedia. Two: His description of algorithmic authority reminds me of nothing so much as how investment banks bundle mortgage securities. Individually, they're risky. Bundle them, chop them up, and sell the sections and the risk is made diffuse. Which works untll everyone gets too careless. Which they always do. But Shirkey's a must-read. The obvious joke is that he's an authority on this matter. To play with an example he uses: there's a world of difference between “Some guy on the Internet said so” and “Clay Shirkey said so.” In fact, the problem with the former sentence, the lack of its authoriy, may be less the “Internet” reference and more the “some guy” reference. At least the Internet is specific.
- Some crazy, lovely person has compiled the 100 greatest lines from the five seasons of “The Wire.” Most of my favorites (Bunk: “Shit is fucked”) didn't make the cut but, among the ones that did, I'm partial to these:
- Omar: “I never put dirt on anyone who wasn't in the game.” Bunk: “A man must have a code.” Omar: “Oh, no doubt.”
- Frank Sobotka: “We used to make shit in this country. Build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy's pocket.”
- Prop Joe: “You don't think I'm gonna send any of my people up against Brother? Sheeeyit, that nigger got more bodies on him than a Chinese cemetery.”
- Reverend: “A good church man is always up in everybody's shit. That's how we do.”
- Det. Freamon: “You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money and you don't know where the fuck it's going to take you.”
- Russian mobster Sergie Malatov, talking about a dead body: “Did he have hands? Did he have a face? Yes? Then it wasn't us.”
- Bodie: “This game is rigged, man. We like the little bitches on the chessboard.”
- Jim Walsh on Ondi Timoner's documentary “We Live in Public” and the way the thing you're using right now is changing you and the world. A Timoner quote:
“The thing that freaks me out is that there are only so many hours in a day, and it’s so easy to create volume online, of emails and messages and correspondence,” says Timoner from her home in Los Angeles. “So it’s like two lives we’re living at the same time, and the real one is getting more and more compromised by the virtual one. You have to ask yourself, `Why am I on here? Why am I posting this online? Why am I still on here after two hours?’ ”
- Now go outside and play.
Tuesday November 24, 2009
The Rigged (National) Game
Since the New York Yankees and their $208 million payroll won the 2009 World Series in six games over the Philadelphia Phillies and their $111 million payroll, there’s been renewed debate among fans and journalists about how much money matters in baseball.
One side reminds us that for all the money the Yankees spent this decade—and they spent a ton—they only have two titles to show for it. There was even one year, 2008, when they didn’t get to the post-season. So how can money matter so much? Just look at the Mets. They’ve been the biggest spenders in the National League every year since 2003 but made the post-season just once, in 2006, and didn’t even get to the World Series that year. Yankees smart, Mets not, and even money-plus-smart guarantees nothing, so everyone quit your bellyaching.
The other side, led by folks like Joe Posnanski at Sports Illustrated, reminds us that it’s less a matter that the Yankees are outspending other teams than by how much they’re outspending other teams. The Mets may have outspent the Cubs (no. 2 in the N.L.) by $15 million in 2009 but the Yankees outspent the Red Sox (no. 2 in the A.L.) by $80 million. They outspent them, in other words, by the entire Toronto Blue Jays payroll. That $80 million difference between the Yankees and the Red Sox is the difference between the Red Sox and, well, no other team in the American League, because no other team in the American League had a payroll $80 million less than the Red Sox. (The Athletics were $59 million behind.) In terms of payroll, in other words, 1st and 2nd are further apart than 2nd and 14th. That’s the new math in baseball.
Posnanski also reminds us that baseball is a game where dominance can be obscured. The best teams lose a third of their games, the worst teams win a third, so the real battle is for that final third. Add in the two tiers of playoffs, including a best-of-five division series, and almost anything can happen.
Unfortunately it usually doesn't. Yes, this decade the Yankees spent and spent and have only two World Series championships to show for it; but just one other team, the Red Sox, won as many. It’s “only” two championships if you’re the Yankees. It’s “only” four pennants if you’re the Yankees. It’s “only” eight division titles and a wild-card berth if you’re the Yankees. Eight division titles and a wild-card berth would look pretty good in Kansas City.
How much does money matter? Here’s a chart of how often American League teams, ranked by payroll, made the playoffs since 1995:
No. of A.L. Playoff Appearances By Payroll Rank, Since 1995*
*based on payroll numbers presented in USA Today
Teams that spent the most money went to the playoffs 12 of the 15 years, teams that spent the second-most went 9 times, and so on. Half of the 60 playoff slots have been filled by whatever three teams were the spendiest teams that year. The 11 remaining teams fought over the other half.
Sure, there are certain years, such as 2000, when only one team among the top seven spendiest teams made it (psst: the Yankees). Plus you have certain teams, like the “Moneyball” Athletics and the Gardenhire Twins, who, for a time, can consistently make the playoffs despite low, low payrolls. But that 2000 Yankees and their no. 1 payroll wound up winning the pennant against the upstarts, while the “Moneyball” Athletics and Gardenhire Twins, despite five post-season appearances each this decade, have yet to win even one pennant. So even here, “money” generally matters more than “ball.”
What’s particularly troublesome is how consistent—almost codified—things have gotten recently. In the last six years, the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels, have each been to the post-season five times. During those six years, they were 1-2-3 in league payroll four times (2004-2007), 1-3-5 once (2008, behind Detroit and the White Sox), and 1-2-4 once (in 2009, when the Tigers outspent the Angels by $1 million). The true wild card in the American League is thus whomever wins the Central. That other wild card? It’s ensconced in the East (11 out of 15 times), and, in recent years, it’s almost always the Boston Red Sox.
By the way, if you’re curious about how payrolls and post-season appearance correlate for National League teams, here you go:
No. of N.L. Playoff Appearances By Payroll Rank, Since 1995*
*based on payroll numbers presented in USA Today
The discrepancy between the haves and have-nots of the N.L. post-season isn’t as dramatic—because the discrepancy between N.L. payroll isn’t as dramatic. Yes, it helps that the wealthiest N.L. teams (Mets, Cubs, Dodgers) have sometimes mismanaged their wealth; but it helps more than there's not one team willing or able to outspend every other team by an embarrassing amount in order to cover these mistakes.
All in all, the National League looks like the kind of system that people could defend as “fair enough.” But that’s the system without the Yankees in it. The one with the Yankees is decidedly more skewed.
These are just stats, of course, but they confirm what most of us feel: that baseball, particularly as it’s played in the American League, is a rigged game. In his post-World Series column in The New York Times, William Rhoden wrote the following:
The Yankees are widely despised because they buy players, but as Jeter pointed out, their cornerstones are homegrown: Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and himself. “We’ve played together for 17 years, including the minor leagues coming up,” Jeter said... “You don’t see that too often, especially with free agency and then guys staying together.”
This argument is often used by supporters of the current system to refute the Yankees’ financial domination. It actually demonstrates it. Four All-Stars, two sure Hall-of-Famers, on the same team for all (or most) of this time? Jeter’s right: You don’t see that too often. And why don’t you see it too often? Because for most teams, there’s always another, bigger team hanging around, checking out its best, young players, and declaring, after a moment or two, and maybe with a nod of appreciation, “He’d look good in pinstripes.” The Yankees kept Jeter and Rivera and Posada, in other words, because it didn’t have to worry about the Yankees.
Every fan of every small- or medium-market team knows this. We develop even one good player—a Joe Mauer, a Zack Greinke, a Felix Hernandez—and the question is always: How long do we get to keep this guy? The answer is usually: Not long. In this way, 20-25 teams feel like farm systems for the other 5-10. For fans, it’s a feeling of increasing helplessness and hopelessness, and it’s destroying the game.
Rhoden ended his post-World Series column in The New York Times this way. It's kind of tongue-in-cheek but mostly cheek:
If Matsui or Johnny Damon do not return, the Yankees may go after St. Louis outfielder Matt Holliday. Need one more starting pitcher? Why not go after the Los Angeles Angels’ John Lackey? Posada has two years left on his contract. Who is to say that as Posada winds down, the Yankees won’t go after Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer? The franchise has its shopping cart out.
Beware. With checkbook in hand, the Yankees may be coming to a neighborhood near you.
That’s so New York. As if he had to tell us to beware. As if we didn’t already know.
Monday November 23, 2009
The Lessons of a New Moon
So what lessons can we cull from the $140 million opening-weekend of “New Moon”—the third-highest opening ever, and the highest (by far) for a non-summer film? Hint: It's not about the vampires and werewolves.
The biggest lesson is this: Quit ignoring girls. If you make a movie aimed at the sensibilities of teenage girls as much as “Star Wars” is aimed at the sensibilities of teenage boys, they will flock.
Here's a second, similar lesson: Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. The Twilight series is trading on what made the most successful movies of all time (Gone with the Wind, The Sound of Music, Titanic) successful. Those movies gave us a girl, choosing between two guys, against a backdrop of historic tragedy. The Twilight series just leaves out the backdrop of historic tragedy, and, rather than, say, Ashley and Rhett, or Leo and the other guy, this girl is choosing between a vampire and a werewolf.
OK, so some things do change.
Final lesson? Girls are just as dopey as boys. Maybe dopier.
(Psst: Transformers 2)
OK, not dopier.
Sunday November 22, 2009
Quote of the Day
"Thank you, God. For letting me have another day."
—Amarante Cordova (Carlos Riquelme) upon arising, painfully, in the morning, in Robert Redford's underrated "The Milagro Beanfield War." For all the movie's magic realism, and its issues of class and rampant development (it's a Redford movie, after all), this is what stays with me. This simple line. I wish I could live it. Doesn't mean I won't keep trying.
Saturday November 21, 2009
DVD Reviews: 1 Win, 1 Loss, 1 Tie
I‘ve been down with a cold for the last five days and wimping out when it comes to movie choices. Last week Patrick Goldstein mentioned that when he’s sick, which he is, with the H1N1 virus, he goes for the comfort food of old John Wayne westerns. Not sure what my cinematic comfort food is. Woody Allen? Bogart? I nearly watched “The Insider” again last night but instead went with “Visions of Lights,” the 1992 documentary on the history of cinematography, since I didn't know if I could last the length of “The Insider.” BTW: I'd love to see an expanded version of “VoL.” I could watch cinematographers talking about their craft a good while longer.
I‘ve also been catching up with a few cinematic also-rans from this past year that, if I weren’t sick, I probably wouldn't have bothered with. As I said: wimping out. Wasn't as bad as I thought: 1-1-1:
- The Win: The Taking of Pelham 123, with Denzel Washington and John Travolta. Didn't do particularly well with critics (53% from the-ones-who-matter), and did equally so-so with audiences (opening third, behind “The Hangover” in its second week and “Up” in its third, with $23 million, on its way to $65 million domestic—which, by the way, is less than “New Moon” took in yesterday). Jeff Wells over at Hollywood Elsewhere, a fan of the new “Pelham,” has been thrashing around ever since at the idiocy of both critics and audiences. He even recently recommended it for best pic. I wouldn't go that far but it's a good movie: tense, fun, surprisingly relevant. The critics probably turned against it in comparison with the ‘73 version, and that was certainly my reaction upon seeing the trailer in May. I wrote: “I’m a fan of the original, so this hypercharged version, with cars crashing and malevolent, tattooed villains spouting threats, just makes me feel sad and wish for 1973 New York.” Which may have been the problem, box-office wise: the car crashes were designed for kids, the actors for adults, and the twain didn’t meet. It also loses me near the end—you‘re a civil service dude, Denzel!—but it’s a good movie with solid, fun performances. Not best pic but worth renting. Put it this way: It's fun watching actors acting.
- The Tie: Valkyrie: This one did slightly better with critics-who-matter (57%) and slightly better with audiences ($83 million domestic, $200 million worldwide), but as a story it suffers from what “Inglorious Basterds” did not: we know how it ends. Some too-dramatic flourishes by director Bryan Singer (the Wagner record; the cry before execution) but, given the aforementioned, you still get sucked in. Plus the cast is a who's who of British actors you like to see in movies: Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branaugh, Tom Hollander. Also impressed with German actors Christian Berkel and Thomas Kretschmann in small parts. Kretschmann looks like he could play Liam Neeson's younger brother in some future movie. (Check it out.) As I watched, I remembered more about the assassination attempt on Hitler—even the day it happened—and I'm surprised they didn't bring up why it didn't succeed. From what I remember, the table under which the bomb was placed was just too thick and protected those above it.
- The Loss: The Land of the Lost: I went in thinking it couldn't be as bad as critics (21%) and audiences ($65 million worldwide) thought it was and came away wondering how any critic could‘ve given it a positive review. I mean I’m sick but not that sick. I also wondered what they could‘ve done to make it work. What if they’d kept the kids kids? What's the point of turning the two characters into adults? And aren't the characters played by Will Ferrell (who always makes me laugh) and Danny McBride (who never does) too similar anyway? And who wants Will Ferrell in a romance? Yes, I got two or three belly laughs out of it (as I said, Will Ferrell makes me laugh), but most of the movie is startling unfunny and as slow-moving as a Sleestak. Don't be like me. Don't rent it thinking, “It can't be as bad as everyone says.” It is. If you‘re sick, it’ll make you sicker.
Oh, and if anyone's got thoughts on movies to watch when you‘re sick, by all means...
Addendum: Meant to give a shout-out to my main companion—after Jellybean and Patricia, of course—during this sickness: E.L. Doctorow, whose book, World’s Fair, I'm reading again after 20 years. I'm loving it. It feels, in tone, similar to Willa Cather's My Antonia. There's not much greater praise than that...
Friday November 20, 2009
The Biggest Movie of the 2000s Ranks Just Behind the Third-Biggest Movie of 1965
The good and bad of blogging is that there's always something to write about because there's always something online worth refuting. This is good because you always have a subject. This is bad because you always have a distraction from what you should be writing about.
Allow me to be distracted this morning.
I came across this HuffPost piece via IMDb.com, which, for some reason, thought it link-worthy. Danny Groner argues that the biggest hits of the decade are cartoonish, explosive granfalloons but the "Twilight" series is character-driven and appeals to both fortysomething parents and their tweens. Plus they're boffo box office. So Hollywood should take notice. Or already has:
Fourties [sic] these days skews younger, not older, and that's where Hollywood is seemingly heading in the next decade. Sure, new parents are bound to pop up to replace the young moms who have outgrown Dreamworks' animated films. Nevertheless, if this decade's enormous box office stats has taught us anything it's that people are willing to see twice as many movies as long as it keeps them feeling young and in touch with what's popular.
His point seems to be that Hollywood movies, driven by animation and explosions, are more popular than ever, but they can be even more popular if less attention is paid to kids, and the kids in all of us, than to tweens and the tween-parents in all of us. Or something.
Despite whatever argument that is, my disagreement with him comes earlier, when he talks about how popular movies have been in the 2000s:
It's evident that big blockbuster franchises reigned supreme in a way they never had before and nobody would have anticipated. And they did it bigger than any decade before. These so-called "kids' movies" pulled in huge numbers around the world.
So few words there, so much wrong.
- This decade, blockbusters continued to reign supreme in the way they have since the 1970s. It's nothing new.
- I believe this was anticipated.
- They did it bigger than any decade before only if you don't adjust for inflation. Once you adjust for inflation, it's a different, sadder story.
I'm sure someone, somewhere, has a spreadsheet of adjusted numbers for international box office, but inflation-adjusted domestic numbers are easily accessible online. And what do they tell us? That, at least it terms of individual films, the blockbusters of this decade blocked little and busted less.
Since the advent of sound, six of the eight decades are represented in the six highest-grossing (and inflation-adjusted) domestic films of all time:
- Gone with the Wind (1939): $1.4 billion
- Star Wars (1977): $1.2 billion
- The Sound of Music (1965): $1 billion
- E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982): $1 billion
- The Ten Commandments (1956): $.9 billion
- Titanic (1997): $.9 billion
Which decades are missing? The 1940s and the 2000s. The 1940s don't show up until no. 20, "Fantasia" ($.6 billion) while the 2000s don't show up until no. 27, "The Dark Knight" ($.5 billion). And what ranks just ahead of the biggest hit of our decade? "Thunderball," which wasn't even the biggest box-office hit of its year. It wasn't even the second-biggest box-office hit of its year. It came out in 1965 and both "The Sound of Music" and "Dr Zhivago" did better at getting our asses in the seats.
So the biggest hit of this decade ranks just behind the third-biggest-hit of 1965...and movies are more popular than ever?
I'll admit that if you toss in DVD sales and rentals, TV, PPV, etc., movies may be more popular than ever. But not in terms of box office, which is Mr. Groner's sole measure.
I'll also admit that the way blockbusters reigned supreme did change a bit this decade. But that's a discussion for another day.
Thursday November 19, 2009
Three Lines About Movies
A nice line from David Denby in his New Yorker review of "The Messenger":
“The Messenger” joins the group of strong Iraq-war movies that, like rejected suitors, stand hat in hand, waiting for an audience to notice their virtues. (My canon includes “In the Valley of Elah,” “The Hurt Locker,” and the commercially conceived but affecting “Stop-Loss.”) Box-office wisdom holds that it’s too early to make movies about this conflict, but how can it ever be too early to make a good movie?
It's exactly my canon. Even "Elah," which has that too-obvious end—although, to cut Paul Haggis some slack, I don't know what I would have put in its place.
THE NOT BAD
In A.O. Scott's surprisingly scattered piece about the decade in movies and what it all means, he does give us the following:
This [Manichaean struggle defined by an endless cycle of vendetta and reprisal] was even true of Jesus, whose travails in Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” played like the first act of a revenge drama, the one in which the hero is humbled as pre-emptive justification for whatever fury he comes back to unleash at the end.
Which is what I've been saying ever since I saw it: "It's the first third of a revenge flick," I said when people asked. "With the last two-thirds implied." And implied mightily. Jesus emerges from his cave to a martial drumbeat. Because of the cultural noise surrounding the film, I always assumed he was out to get revenge less on the Roman soldiers who whipped him than on, say, me, the non-believer.
THE KINDA UGLY
Finally, there's the usually reliable Lynn Hirschberg, whose piece on "The Self-Manufacture of Megan Fox" begins thus:
Yes, Fox is beautiful and often scantily clad, but dozens of beautiful girls arrive in Hollywood every day who are more than happy to pose nearly naked. Unlike them, Fox has a quality that sets her apart: Fox is sly. Canny.
The evidence comes a paragraph later:
Fox, who is 23, understood instinctively that noise plus naked equals celebrity.
Admittedly I'm way up here in Seattle, but it's my assumption that hundreds, probably thousands of pretty girls in Hollywood have figured that out. Before they even stepped off the bus.
Wednesday November 18, 2009
- Is the Vietnamese government blocking Facebook and its more than 1 million users in that country? "A technician at Vietnam Data said government officials had ordered his firm to block access to Facebook and that VDC instituted a block on the site Nov. 11. He declined to give his name because he was not authorised to speak to the media."
- I'm sure you've seen the clip of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show calling out Sean Hannity's show on FOX News for trumpeting the size of the crowds at a Thursday afternoon anti-healthcare rally in D.C. ... by mixing in footage from a larger, Saturday-afternoon rally from two months earlier. If not, it's here. A few days later, Hannity apologized, but in a non-mea culpa, ham-handed way. The mistake, he claims, was not intentional. That'd be pretty tough to pull off. News shows don't just mix in two-month-old footage with today's footage. It's not like all the ingredients are on the countertop and they just happened to, oops, grab the wrong one. But things got better after Hannity's apology. To be precise, the attack on Hannity got more pointed. Here's a link to both Stewart's reaction to watching all of Hannity's show and Andrew Sullivan's attack on both Hannity and FOX News in general as enemies of conservatism. He writes:
Yes, I've tried [watching Hannity] as well. It's like listening to Hugh Hewitt. Or reading Pravda in the old Soviet Union. But somehow watching a human being so brainwashed and engaging in conscious brain-washing makes it worse. Hannity is a pathological level of propagandist, because his entire reality, his entire mindset is programmed for ideology and partisanship. There is no world for him but politics; and no perspective within politics except conflict and warfare. He greets views that do not comport with the opportunistic ideology of the moment as threats to be extinguished, not ideas to be engaged.
Whatever else this toxic, shallow and brutal perspective is, it is not now and never will be conservative - unless that word has now been so corrupted it has no meaning at all.
- This is really sweet, and already a YouTube favorite. A soldier returns home and is greeted by his dog, Gracie, who is happy to see him. To put it mildly.
- The Webbies post their 10 most influential Internet moments of the decade that just whizzed by. You start out astounded that Wikipedia launched only nine years ago then become more astounded that the iPhone only debuted 2+ years ago. The new is becoming established in the blink of an eye; the established is disappearing even faster.
- Just in time for Xmas: Paste Magazine unloads their top 12 music books of the decade. I've read #s 11 and 8—the Minnnesota books—and even interviewed the author of no. 11. His books's out in paperback. Get it if you didn't in hardcover.
- And here's more of Paste Magazine's best of the decade. memes, TV shows, live moments on TV shows, album covers. Album covers? Do we still count those? The only time I see them anymore is when they're the size of postage stamps.
Tuesday November 17, 2009
Quote of the Day
“I always remember that actor [in the Australian low-budget thriller ”Patrick,“ who spends the movie in a coma]. I thought he was amazing looking in that movie with his eyes just wide open and everything, and in the original script [for ”Kill Bill“] I had it written like that. Then I showed it to Uma and she goes, 'I'm not going to do that,' and I go 'Why?' and she goes 'You wouldn't have your eyes open like that if you were in a coma! That's not realistic.' I go, 'Actually I never thought was it realistic or not, it's just Patrick did it, alright, and it looked really cool.”
—Quentin Tarantino in the documentary about Australian exploitation movies, “Not Quite Hollywood,” demonstrating what is right and wrong about him as a filmmaker.
Monday November 16, 2009
Review: “2012” (2009)
WARNING: END-OF-THE-WORLD-AS-WE-KNOW-IT SPOILERS
Imagine you’re a divorced father with an 11-year-old son named Noah and you take him and his sister camping in Yellowstone Park, but he’s sullen the whole time because he still blames you for the divorce, and he’s already bonded with mom’s new live-in boyfriend, a breast-augmentation surgeon named Gordon, who’s given him a cool new cellphone with which he won’t stop playing. But imagine during this camping trip the lake that was once there is now all dried up and guarded by the U.S. military, and imagine via the ramblings of a rogue radio DJ you figure out that the earth’s core is heating up, and, days later, via the snide remarks of the kids of the Russian billionaire for whom you chauffer, you figure out there’s a giant spaceship that the best and brightest and richest are all getting on in order to survive this global cataclysm, which is coming, yes, right now, so imagine you return like a madman to your ex-wife’s house and get the kids and the ex-wife, and, yes, even Gordon, and you all pile into your limousine as California shakes and the earth crumbles behind you, right behind you in the rearview mirror, and in order to get away from it all you have to drive around slow grandmas and falling telephone poles and through falling skyscrapers, but you do it, you get your family to an airport, and you convince Gordon, who’s had one or two flying lessons, and is dithering even as the world breaks up, to fly the family up and out, and you all watch in horror as half of California sinks into the sea.
Then imagine you fly back to Yellowstone in Wyoming because the rogue DJ has a map that shows where this giant spaceship is being built, and to get this map you have to drive a camper crazily up an down a small mountain, and then around more falling trees while, again, the earth crumbles in your rearview mirror. But you get the camper back to the airfield in time and you search and search and, yes!, find the map, but, no!, just then the crumbling earth catches up to you and the camper falls into the widening crevices and it looks like you’re toast. But with your family watching, and with Gordon urging everyone to just leave you behind, you somehow crawl out of the crevice, map in mouth, and then run and catch the plane as it gathers speed and takes off with you breathlessly on board and Wyoming literally opening up and bursting into flames below you. But you’ve got the map now so you know where to go to save your family. Holy shit! China!
Then imagine you’re in the Vegas airport, which is where you head even though, let’s face it, it’s closer to the west coast and the disasters you left in the first place, but you don’t have time to think about any of that, you just need a bigger plane, one that can take you and your family (and Gordon) all the way to fucking China, and lo and behold!, you run into your Russian billionaire, who has such a bigger plane, but who needs a co-pilot, which you have, in Gordon, and a deal is struck, and the two families take off in this giant Russian jumbo jet with its large cargo hold filled with expensive automobiles instead of, you know, hundreds of the people below who instead of being saved die horribly as Nevada, too, succumbs to earthquakes and upheavals and destruction.
Them imagine this same plane, damaged during your miraculous takeoff, makes it all the way across the Pacific Ocean but suffers final engine failure and has to crash in the Himalayas, but everyone survives because of two people: 1) the Russian pilot, who gives up his life, and 2) you, because, as the plane is near-crashing-landing, you drive everyone in one of those expensive automobiles out the cargo hold, down a ramp, and onto the snow and ice of the Himalayas at, what, 150 miles an hour, before the final, fiery crash of the plane, but you do it, you do it again, you save your family (and Gordon) again.
Then after the Chinese military drops in and picks up the Russian and his kids—because they’ve paid their way on board the spaceship, leaving you and your family, not to mention the Russian mistress, in the snow-capped mountains to die—imagine you manage, at the last instant, to flag down a Tibetan Buddhist family driving a truck to, quel coincidence!, the same secret spaceship. where they have a family member who’s a guard and who’s allowing his family to stow away on board. And imagine because they’re Buddhist they let you and your family stow away on board, too, and you do, you’re inside!, you’re finally inside the spaceship!, even as the Russian and other billionaires are mere rabble below, about to be left behind in the devastation of earth’s final moments.
Except imagine that the powers-that-be have a change of heart, and decide to let those billionaires actually board the ship, and they lower the ramps, and you and your family, not to mention the Russian mistress and the Tibetan family, who are stowed away in there, are caught in the gears of this lowering and raising of ramps, and though the Chinese guard’s foot is crushed in the machinery you manage to save him, but you can’t save Gordon, poor Gordon, and he’s crushed and gone, allowing you to finally reunite with your family, and with your wife who still loves you.
But imagine the devastation of the earth has created tsunamis that have now reached the mountainous levels of the Himalayas, and they come crashing onto your ship, which isn’t a spaceship at all but an ark, an ark to travel these new oceans. Except, in the raising and lowering of the ramps, something, and not just Gordon, got caught in the gears, and is preventing the final ramp from being raised, and water is pouring in, ocean water, one imagines freezing ocean water, although arguments can be made that this water, too, has been heated enough by the earth’s core so that those drenched in the water, which is you and yours, do not suffer from hypothermia. But now imagine the powers-that-be, aware of you, and aware of the problem with the ramp, need a volunteer to swim down and remove the obstruction, even as they define such a mission as “a suicide mission”; but with a final farewell to your ex-wife, who now loves you, and your kids, who now admire you, you go, you swim down further into the cargo hold, and your son, your formerly bratty son, actually follows, and the two of you remove the obstruction that allows the ramp to close, which allows the engines to start, which prevents the ark from crashing into Mt. Everest and dooming all. Instead everyone is saved. Everyone. Because of you. And guess what? It wasn’t a suicide mission at all. You and your son survive.
And now imagine it’s 27 days later and you’re one of 4,000 people left alive on earth, but everything is stabilizing faster than anyone anticipated, and—better!—it’s discovered that Africa has risen several thousand feet, and is habitable, and that’s where everyone is headed, toward the Cape of Good Hope, ah yes, Good Hope, and for the first time in 27 days the ark doors are opened and people get to breathe fresh air, and you and your wife, who loves you again, and your kids, who admire you again, all of you stand on this platform like a family on vacation and lean on the railing and look out at the placid ocean that you’re plowing through in this brave new world that barely has any people in it, and your son looks up to you and says:
“Daddy? When are we going back home?”
Question: Do you smack the kid around? Or do you smack around the writer-director who wrote that shitty line?
There were many instances in “2012,” particularly in the second half, when I wanted to smack around writer-director Roland Emmerich. To be honest, the first half of the movie isn’t that bad. At least it’s better than I thought this type of movie would be. Emmerich is a good roller-coaster operator and he gives us a helluva ride. Here’s his problem: He thinks he has something important to say about life. And he has nothing important to say about life.
The action-hero father described above is novelist Jackson Curtis, played by John Cusack. When I first heard Cusack was going to be in this disaster flick, this update of “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno” but with an all-star cast fleeing, not a upside-down boat or a burning skyscraper but the entire planet, I blanched. Really? Lloyd Dobler? In this? But he’s the best thing in it. He makes us care. Someone else has written that Cusack and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Adrian Helmsley, a scientist who is among the first to figure out that solar flares are heating up the earth’s core, which will cause cataclysmic shifts in the year 2012, are the two best things in the movie, but it’s really just Cusack. Sorry. Normally I love Ejiofor, but the scientist role is a drag role unless you do something like Jeff Goldblum did in “Independence Day”—another Emmerich project—where he always seemed not quite there because he was always two steps ahead of everyone else. Ejiofor doesn’t give us that. His scientist isn’t even particularly smart. He doesn’t figure out what’s happening to the earth’s core (his scientist-friends in India do that) and his timeline for when the cataclysm will occur is off by months or years (which is why the panic at the end). But he cares. That’s his redeeming quality; he cares. And there’s nothing worse, during an environmental cataclysm, than a scientist who doesn’t know science but who cares.
Plus he’s given one of the worst speeches any actor has ever been given to read.
Let me back up. So in 2009 scientists in India discover the earth’s core is heating up, and, in 2010, the President of the United States, Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover), announces the bad news to other world leaders, but everyone keeps it secret. And in secret they build their arks. And in secret they finance the building of the arks by offering the richest people in the world a seat on board. Cost: 1 billion euros per. And in secret they gather the best that humanity has created (this DaVinci, that Picasso) along with the best that God has created (“of clean beasts and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of every thing that creepeth upon the earth”), to try to preserve something of what has been.
And when do they tell the rest of the world? They don’t. Because they don’t want to start a panic. Which you kind of understand. But still.
Plus anyone who knows about the world ending and tries to tell the rest of the world? They kill them. Boom. Dead. Which you kind of understand. But still.
When the apocalypse finally happens, Pres. Wilson decides to stay behind in D.C.—to go on the air and let the people finally know what’s happening—and the vice-president, well, he dead, and so Chief of Staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt), doing his best jowly Al Haig impersonation, takes charge on one ark. And when it’s discovered that Helmsley’s calculations are wrong again, and, instead of hours, they have a mere 28 minutes before a tsunami hits them in this, one of the highest places on earth, Anheuser orders the ramps of the arks raised, dooming the hundreds of people in the holding area still clamoring to get on board.
And that’s when Helmsley, this simple scientist who can calculate nothing correctly, overrides Anheuser, the cutthroat career bureaucrat who didn’t even tell his own mother the cataclysm was coming, and talks directly, via “Star Trek”-like viewscreens, to the world leaders in the other arks, about those hundreds of people below, and about what it means to be human. And how the best in us involves risking ourselves in order to save others. And how if we begin this enterprise, this brave new world, by an act, not of sacrifice but of selfishness, then we have doomed the enterprise from the outset.
And there is silence. And there is silence.
And all the world leaders say with contempt: “Who the fuck is this guy?”
No, they agree with him. And so the ramps are lowered and the rabble are allowed to board. And the people are saved. And by extension, through this act of sacrifice, we are all saved.
The problem? Those rabble are all the rich fuckers who paid a billion euros a seat and told no one else, including their own mothers, that the world was ending. They’re the richest of the rich, and the selfish of the selfish. And they’re the ones who are going to start our brave new world?
The time for that Helmsley speech was 2010, when every backyard mechanic and carpenter and welder could’ve attempted to build his own ark, for his own friends and family, but the leaders of the world didn’t allow this to happen. The enterprise, in other words, began with the most monumental act of selfishness possible. And nothing Helmsley could say in 2012 could right that.
But Roland Emmerich needs his moment of hope. Even if it makes no sense within the story he’s created. Even if it’s such a lie that instead of raising hope it raises bile.
All of which raises a disturbing question. Most of the movie is about the rush to get to a safe place, the ark, which, yes, is safer than Yellowstone, safer than Vegas. But is it really safe? It’s one of the three vessels floating on the oceans of a dangerously different world, and filled to capacity with rich bastards, politicians, monarchs, bureaucrats and schemers. In some ways, give or take a cute John Cusack family, they’ve managed to gather the worst people in the world into this one place. And some of these people, remember, were nearly left behind in the Himalayas, and so know not to trust the people in charge. Which is who exactly? Who is policing matters? What rules of government are being adopted? Who is ensuring that food is shared, and property isn’t stolen, and women and children aren’t taken? Who is making sure these arks don’t turn into floating versions of “Lord of the Flies”?
I know. It’s just a movie. By which people always mean: It’s not supposed to make sense. It’s just supposed to make us thrill at all of the destruction. So in “2012,” along with everything mentioned above, we get to watch the Vatican crumble, God and Adam on the roof of the Sistine Chapel torn asunder, the Washington Monument collapse, and the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy, risen by a tsunami, obliterate the White House. Fun! And if it all feels a bit derivative, well, at least Emmerich, the man responsible for “Independence Day” and “The Day After Tomorrow,” is stealing from himself here. But did his dialogue have to be derivative, too? Did Jackson Curtis, on first meeting the wacky DJ, have to say “I have to get back to...earth”—like Woody Allen to Christopher Walken in “Annie Hall”? Did he have to say, upon discovering their destination was China, “We’re gonna need a bigger...plane”—like Roy Scheider in “Jaws”? Are these homages or lazy writing?
And don’t get me started on the scene where, in the quiet of the cargo hold of the Russian plane, with the world being destroyed below them, Jackson turns to his ex-wife, played by Amanda Peet, and asks, “Do you think people change?”
Do I think people change? I think solar flares change and the earth’s core changes and tectonic plates shift, and, yes yes yes, I think people change, or at least are capable of changing, every single moment of their short, sad lives, but at the moment I just think people die, as they are doing right now below us.
The only one who doesn’t change, apparently, is Roland Emmerich, who keeps giving us this, the dumb epic disaster film brightened by the last, false moment of hope, and who deserves, for the ten bucks and 160 minutes he just cost us, to be smacked around, yes, just a little.
Sunday November 15, 2009
Not Stars, Selves
So our search for a culprit in the global financial meltdown has taken us from Nick Paumgarten's "The Death of Kings" in the May New Yorker (where many were called but no one chosen), to Michael Lewis' "The Man Who Crashed the World" in the July Vanity Fair (which chose Joe Cassano, head of the financial products group at A.I.G.).
John Cassidy, in a New Yorker piece last month called "Rational Irrationality," suggests a culprit closer to home: You. OK, me. OK, all of us. Not in a "we're all guilty" way but in a "human nature" way. Cassidy suggests that those involved didn't act particularly greedy or irrationally; they acted normally greedy and rationally. They acted the way most of us do. And they will keep doing so. And that's the problem.
He starts with a factual metaphor: the opening of the Millennium Bridge in June 2000, and how, apparently because the bridge's architects hadn't anticipate so much foot traffic, the bridge, with people on it, began to sway a bit; but the more pedestrians adjusted to the swaying the worse the swaying got. Engineers call this phenomenon "synchronous lateral excitation," and Cassidy says, in a non-metaphoric way, it's responsible for our booms and busts. We all do what we all do. Or to quote Catch 22:
Dobbs: Look, Yossarian, suppose, just suppose, everyone thought the same way you do.
Yossarian: Then I'd be a damn fool to think any different.
When the subprime mortgage was going gangbusters, why wouldn't you get involved? When it faltered, why wouldn't you get out? Cassidy writes:
Saturday November 14, 2009
Review: “The Horse Boy” (2009)
How far would you go to help your child? To grasp at a final straw that may help your child? How far would you go?
“The Horse Boy,” a documentary by Michel O. Scott about a couple living in Texas with their autistic four-year-old boy, gives one answer: Mongolia.
Actually that’s not even the real question-and-answer. The real one is this: How far would you go in your mind to help him with his? Would you go so far as to believe that a visit to shamans in Mongolia, and to the reindeer people in upper Mongolia near the Russian border, would help him with his autism? As uncommon as “The Horse Boy” is, in other words, it’s still a common story. When life throws us a gigantic curveball, and western society/medicine shrugs its shoulders, what cure won’t we try?
Rupert Isaacson, a long-haired Brit, met his future wife, Kristin Neff, a down-to-earth Californian, in India in 1994. For seven years they traveled together before getting married and settling down near Austin, Texas, where she was a professor and he was a travel writer. A son, Rowan, was born in December 2001. A few years later he was diagnosed with autism. It was, says Rupert, narrating the film, “like being hit across the face by a baseball bat.
“We tried everything,” he adds, but the child couldn’t or wouldn’t speak. He had tantrums, inconsolable tantrums, several times a day, some lasting for hours. We watch footage of some of these tantrums, and we both sympathize with the parents and want to get away from the child. And if we, watching one meltdown for 10 to 15 seconds, feel such a tension between sympathy (which moves toward) and flight (which moves away), imagine how the parents, who had to deal with this 24/7, feel. It’s a wonder they didn’t break.
Then one day Rowan ran onto a neighbor’s property and up to a horse named Betsy. Rupert was a horseman himself, a good rider, but he kept Rowan away from horses for obvious reasons. The child is small and fragile and doesn’t know it, and the horse, big and strong, doesn’t know the fragility and importance of the child. Both beings are potentially volatile.
But there was an immediate connection between the two. Betsy’s reaction to the boy was gentle and submissive, and Rowan, on Betsy’s back, calmed down and actually began talking. “This is a nice horse,” he says. Rowan, it turned out, had an affinity with animals, particularly horses, particularly Betsy.
And this is when Rupert makes a giant leap of faith. In his travels, he’d encountered shamans in different parts of the world, and he searches for a place that combines healing and horses. It’s the area of the world where horse-riding began: Mongolia. And off they go.
No easy task. A trip with Rowan to the local supermarket can easily turn into a disaster and now they’re taking him across the world? It doesn’t help that the Mongolian city they land in, far from Rupert’s expectations, is a depressed post-Soviet city; an urban slum.
With a van they soon trek to nearby mountains and visit nine shamans there, who examine the three, and chant, and declare that the problem is an ancestor on Kristin’s side, her mother’s mother, who is clinging to Rowan. They say a black energy had entered Kristin’s womb during Rowan’s birth. Meanwhile, Rowan is crying and crying, Rupert expresses his doubts. “Did I really have his best interests at heart here?” he wonders. Then both parents are lashed by a shaman to release evil spirits.
The whole thing seems insane.
“And then something happened,” Rupert reports. There’s a lot of this. Something is always happening in the doc, and this time it’s Rowan laughing and playing with another boy, the son of their guide, across the steppes of Mongolia. He had never played with other children before. To the parents, it’s a giant step forward.
But for every step forward... The plan is to trek across Mongolia by horse to upper Mongolia, and the reindeer people there, but, on a horse with his father, Rowan throws tantrums in a way he never has on a horse, shouting “Car! Car! Car!,” and much of the trip has to be made by van, where Rowan is consoled by the plastic animals—his horses and cows and pigs—he’s brought along. By the familiar.
Talking heads throughout the doc try to explain to us what autism is (a disorder of neural development), how it manifests itself (obsessive, repetitive, uncommunicative behavior), and what advantages it may have (the ability to focus). It’s posited that some of our most brilliant minds may have been mildly autistic. It’s posited that shamans may be mildly autistic. One of the talking heads, a professor, turns out to be autistic herself, and says she wouldn’t trade it, and the clarity of its focus, for what other folks supposedly have. Another talking head states that we need to move in the direction of viewing autism not as something other than normal but simply as another way of being.
Whatever loftier goals Rupert and Kristin had at the outset—i.e., possibly “curing” Rowan of his autism—are, halfway through the trip, simpler: Rupert wants Rowan to ride a horse by himself; and Kristin wants Rowan to poop properly. There are autistic adults who still shit in their pants, and that’s one of her great fears: cleaning up shit every day for the rest of her life. At bottom is the great fear of the parents of all autistic children: If the child doesn’t learn to function in society, if he can’t interact with others, what will happen when they, the parents, die? Who will care for him then?
Emotions careen with Rowan’s moods. At one point Rupert says, “Don’t put the camera on me. I just want to cry.” The final trek is made, up grassy mountains, and Kristin has a harder time of it than Rowan. The Reindeer people are found. The shamans are visited. Rituals are performed.
The takeaway is this: By the end of the doc, both parents get their wish, and Kristin, back in Texas, says the difference between Rowan before the adventure and after is night and day. Now he poops by himself. Now he plays with other children. So was it the adventure? Was it the shamans? I have a touch of Hamlet in me—There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio... —but ultimately I’m a cynical man who knows people will believe what they want or need to believe. Kristin, down-to-earth, leans toward the adventure; Rupert, always vaguely hippyish, leans towards the shamanism. Both agree the why isn’t so important as the progress Rowan made.
The importance of the doc for the viewer, meanwhile, is, yes, this dichotomy between what we don’t know from science and what we don’t know from religion, and the ways we fill the gaps—the chasms—between the two. The unknowability of what Rowan is helps us reflect upon the unknowability of what we all are.
But its true importance is simpler. We spend 90 minutes with an autistic boy. We watch him at his worst. And in the end, we see him riding Betsy, bareback. by himself. Smiling.
Thursday November 12, 2009
- It feels like Richard Brody is a bit too kind to Wes Anderson in his Nov. 2nd, New Yorker profile on the director, "Wild, Wild Wes." Or maybe he's simply too kind to Anderson's 2003 film, "The Life Aquatic," which came on the heels of his biggest hit ("The Royal Tenenbaums"), which came on the heels of his most critically acclaimed film ("Rushmore"). After detailing several critic complaints about "Aquatic," Brody writes:
"In fact, 'The Life Aquatic" does tell a story, but it's one that sprawls with an epic ambition and a picaresqe wonder. Anderson's playfully unstrung storytelling was both purposeful and meaningful: life in the wild, the film suggests, doesn't follow the neat contours of dramatic suspense but is filled with surprises, accidents, and sudden lurches off course. ... 'The Life Aquatic' was proof of Anderson's maturation as an artist..."
- Come again? Here's my 2007 take on Anderson and his ouevre. I actually like Anderson, within limits, which I hope my article makes clear, but I'm not a fan of "Aquatic," for reasons stated, none of which has to do with its lack of storytelling. The short version of Brody's article is here, but you have to buy, or borrow from your local library, the Nov. 2nd New Yorker to read it in full. Or subscribe. I recommend subscribing already.
- The Washington Post focuses on a quiet but powerful contingent that is being ignored in the same-sex marriage debate: the ex-spouses of now-out-of-the-closet gay men and women. This section in particular packs a whallop:
Many of these former spouses -- from those who still feel raw resentment toward their exes to those who have reached a mutual understanding -- see the legalization of same-sex marriage as a step toward protecting not only homosexuals but also heterosexuals. If homosexuality was more accepted, they say, they might have been spared doomed marriages followed by years of self-doubt.
"It's like you hit a brick wall when they come out," Brooks said. "You think everything is fine and then, boom!"
Carolyn Sega Lowengart calls it "retroactive humiliation." It's that embarrassment that washes over her when she looks back at photographs or is struck by a memory and wonders what, if anything, from that time was real. Did he ever love her?
"I'm 61 years old," said Lowengart, who lives in Chevy Chase. "Will I ever know what it's like to be loved passionately? Probably not."
- I'm going to have to permanently link to Joe Posnanski below but in the meantime here's his early Hall of Fame arguments and they warm the cockles of my cold, cold Seattle heart. Actually his argument is: Who is the best eligible hitter not in the Hall of Fame? He then goes through the usual suspects. Pete Rose, Shoeless Joe and Barry Bonds are not eligible so he eliminates them. Mark McGwire? Impressive, certainly. A homer ever 8 at-bats, "but we knew how he did it," and anyway there's that lifetime .263 batting average. Dick Allen? Don Mattingly? Minnie Monoso? Babe Herman? I'll cut to the chase—particularly since the photo at right is a giveaway. Posnanski suggests Edgar Martinez. He talks about why he's a great hitter, all of which should be familiar to Seattle fans (lifetime: .300/.400/.500), and why he won't make it anyway, which will also be familiar to Seattle fans. Edgar's got the percentage numbers, but he played the majority of his career as a DH and he didn't play long enough to accumulate the gross numbers: the 3,000 hits, etc., because the Mariners (idiots!) didn't bring him up until he was 27. If he'd played his entire career at third, I think he would've made it. If he'd been a DH but had the cumulative numbers, I think he would've made it. It's the two together that put the kibosh on him. Of course I'd vote for him in a second but I'm obviously biased. At the same time, here's my non-bias: How many career .300/.400.500 guys, with as many at-bats as Edgar, aren't in the Hall of Fame? Extra credit. We've just been talking lately about what a great pitcher Mariano Rivera is. So how did Edgar do against Rivera? 16 at-bats, 10 hits, 3 doubles, 2 homeruns, 6 RBIs. A .625 batting average and a 1.888 OPS. Don't know if anyone with double-digit at-bats against Rivera has ever done better. Obviously that's not an argument in favor of the Hall but it is fun.
Wednesday November 11, 2009
“On armistice day
The philharmonic will play
But the songs that we sing
Will be sad”
—Paul Simon, “Armistice Day” from the album, “Paul Simon.” And here's a pop-up, audio version. And since we‘re talking Simon, here he is singing “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” on Sesame Street, with a little girl getting WAY into the act. I watched this last night and couldn’t stop smiling. If we want to celebrate soldiers and what they died for, well, the laughter of children ain't a bad way to go.
Tuesday November 10, 2009
Review: “An Education” (2009)
WARNING: COMING-OF-AGE SPOILERS
You could say Nic Benns’ brilliant title graphics are at odds with this story.
“An Education” is about a smart girl, Jenny (Carey Mulligan), raised by careful, working-class parents in post-World-War-II England, who, when she’s 16 going on 17, and Oxford is in sight, gets involved with an older, wealthier man and almost chucks it all because his life is so much more interesting than her life of Latin, math and cello-playing. “My choice is to do something hard and boring for the rest of my life or go to Paris and have fun!” she says.
Then there are the title graphics. Backed by the bouncy, piano-heavy, early rock n’ roll beat of Floyd Cramer’s “On the Rebound,” animated drawings of books shift into diagrams of microscopes, and these change into cells dividing and DNA patterns and music notes, and on and on, subject by subject. Hard and boring? Education never looked so fun.
It’s 1961 and Jenny’s a girl on the cusp. She’s cute, with deep dimples on fresh cheeks, and she’s filled with over 10 years of education that she doesn’t quite know what to do with yet. She’s more mature than her classmates, savvier than parents and teachers. She’s interested and interesting but with an air of What’s it all about, Alfie?
Enter David (Peter Sarsgaard), who pulls up in his Bristol car while she and her cello are waiting for the bus in the rain. First he disarms her with forthrightness (he knows she’s not supposed to accept rides from strange men...), then misdirection (...but he’s a music lover and he’s worried about her cello) and finally charm. The boys in her school are tongue-tied around her, but this man—this man—makes her laugh.
He sends flowers. They meet again and he proposes a Friday-night Ravel concert with dinner afterwards. She says there’s no way her parents, particularly her no-nonsense father, Jack (Alfred Molina), will allow it. But David shows up anyway and charms them, too. “I didn’t know you had a sister, Jenny,” David says, as he kisses her mother's hand. Check out Jenny’s reaction. Did he just say that? Did her parents just buy that? Can you really get away with that?
Much of the movie is learning just how much one can get away with. At the concert they meet David’s friends, Danny and Helen (Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike), and attend dinners and nightclubs and auctions. They make weekend trips to Oxford and Paris. In her first encounter with Helen, a tall blonde, tres chic, done up almost like Deneuve before Deneuve, they’re waiting to check their coats and Jenny drops a few lines of French, just as I’ve done, something about trop cher. Helen stares at her placidly:
“What’s that you said?”
“I said it was too expensive.”
“But those weren’t the words you used.”
“I was speaking French.”
At first I thought Helen was mocking Jenny’s schoolgirl pretensions, her need to trot out her French; but it turns out Helen is as dumb as a stump. At the same time, she’s not mean. She’s rather sweet.
Even as Jenny's caught up in the whirlwind of David’s playboy lifestyle, she gets clues about him. Some seem positive: He has Negro friends, or at least clients, in 1961. Some seem icky: the odd talk he instigates before sex. Some reveal the chasm between them: At Oxford, David says to the group, “I spent three years here,” to which Danny responds, “Oh God.” The institution she’s spent her life trying to get into is, to these folks, simply a dreadfully dull place.
Is that why they need her around? Because life is all so dreadfully dull and they need fresh eyes with which to view it? She has a gas bidding for a pre-Raphaelite painting, and so do they, because she has such a gas. “That’s why you’re here,” David tells her later. “To save us from ourselves.”
Other shoes drop. On the way back from Oxford the two men go to an open house and steal a beautiful, framed map. “Liberating it,” they call it. She finds out David’s real job: He moves Negro families into neighborhoods, gets the scared old ladies to sell to him cheap, then moves the Negroes out and reinflates the price. It’s a brilliant scheme, playing on the prejudices of the era (and probably this era), but it's awful. He's a con man; charming, yes, but a con man. But this shoe doesn’t drop hard enough. Now Jenny knows he cons old ladies, and he cons her parents, but somehow she thinks she's immune.
Amidst this whirlwind, her studies falter, Oxford dims, and her dowdy coats and hair are replaced by things sophisticated, swept-up, elegant. In subtle ways, she becomes dismissive of teachers and parents, who aren’t in on the con. You can get away with so much in life. She leaves school altogether—with her father’s blessing—when David proposes marriage, but this turns out to be the biggest con of all. His name isn’t David Stewart but David Goldstein, and he’s married with children. When Jenny arranges to surreptitiously meet the wife (Sally Hawkins from “Happy-Go-Lucky”), the wife immediately figures out who and what she is. “You’re not in a family way, are you?” she asks. “Because that’s happened before.”
But now what? There’s a heart-breaking scene where her father talks to her outside her bedroom door. He had a very regimented life set up for her, to get her into Oxford, but he succumbed, perhaps even more than her, to David’s charms, dazzled by the possibilities of her life away from all this: from the penny saved: from the bit-by-bit; from the pinched existence. The earlier Oxford trip had been greased by a promised meeting with C.S. Lewis—“Clive,” as David had pretended to call him—and in a bar we see David signing Jenny’s copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as “Clive,” with everyone, including Jenny, amused. Now outside the bedroom door, the father talks about listening to a radio program the previous week, which mentioned how C.S. Lewis left Oxford in 1950, and how he thought, “Well, they’ve got that wrong. My Jenny...” The thought trails. He believed his daughter over the radio. His lack of bitterness at being conned, his solicitude for her in her heartbreak, makes the scene extra poignant. “All my life I've been scared,” he admits. “And I didn't want you to be scared.” He leaves her tea and biscuits.
“An Education” is based upon the memoir by Lynn Barber, which was adapted by Nick Hornby (“High Fidelity”; “About a Boy”) and directed by Lone Scherfig (“Italian for Beginners”; “Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself”). It’s an impeccable film, beautifully acted, wonderfully written, hilarious at times and sad at times. Everything feels exactly right within the confines of its story, but it doesn't resonate much beyond that. Most of us already know the lessons Jenny needs to learn. Plus the movie leaves unanswered its most fundamental questions. During her engagement, Jenny tells her school’s headmistress (Emma Thompson, in a killer cameo), “It’s not enough to educate us any more, Miss Walters, you’ve got to tell us why you’re doing it.” It’s a good question, but Miss Walters never really answers it—nor does the movie. Instead, after Jenny’s been derailed, she spends the rest of the movie struggling to get back on the rails. To what end? Because that's what we do? As people? In this society? If she really feels that way about education why is she doing it? What's it all about, Jenny?
Ultimately, I guess I just don't buy the film's separation of education and fun. Education can be as fun as a Floyd Cramer rock n' roll number; “fun” can be as dull as a weekend with Peter Sarsgaard.
The last line of the movie does resonate. We see Jenny, finally at Oxford, biking with a classmate, and we hear her in voiceover: “One of the boys I dated—and they were boys—suggested we go to Paris, and I said I'd always wanted to see Paris. As if I'd never been.” It suggests so much. A pretense to innocence that's no longer hers. A time before she was conned. A kind of con of her own.
Monday November 09, 2009
Epitaph for a Tough Guy—I
“It is a hazard peculiar to cultists in the arts—that is to say, to highbrows—that unless they keep their transatlantic signals open and alert, they tend to canonize foreign talents that are rejected on the home ground as commercial hacks. There was, I remember, a delightful period in the late thirties and early forties when American highbrows yearned for a native naturalistic actor as mighty as Jean Gabin. Their counterparts in Paris were meanwhile lamenting the early demise of Gabin as a 'serious' talent, and panting over Bogart for what the critic of Le Matin called his 'vitalisme, tendre et profond.'”
—Alistaire Cook, “Epitaph for a Tough Guy,” in The Atlantic, May 1957
Sunday November 08, 2009
Lancelot Links—World Series edition
- Let's start out with Joe Posnanski's Sports Illustrated piece, “The Best Team Money Could Buy,” since it's the best piece I've read on the Yankees and their $208 million payroll, and what this means year after year for fans of Major League Baseball. Posnanski writes about why we need to talk about this. (Because it's been so-talked-about we've stopped listening.) He writes about why the payroll issue gets masked. (Because baseball is a sport where even the best teams lose a third of their games.) And he talks about why it's the Yankees in particular that are the problem:
- “The Yankees are not a big-market team. They DWARF big-market teams. They are quantitatively different from every other team in baseball and every other team in American sports. They don't just spend more money than every other team. They spend A LOT more money than every other team. The Boston Red Sox spend $50 million more than the Kansas City Royals? Who cares? The Yankees spend $80 million more than the Boston Red Sox.”
- Keith Olbermann isn't just for stentorian and (let's face it) often pompous putdowns of (let's also face it) wackjob Republicans; he's also a baseball fan. And in this piece, in honor of Johnny Damon's double-steal-without-an-error in Game 4, he counts down the nine smartest plays in World Series history. Couple things I like. He doesn't number them, or bold-face them, so he forces you to, you know, actually read them. Plus, most such pieces tend to focus on recent years, but Olbermann, like a great centerfielder, ranges wide, going from '55 to '46 to '07 (1907) to '69 to '72 to '60 to '88 to '91 to, finally, last Sunday. When he first raised the subject I immediately thought of '91. But I haven't really thought about what might be missing. Anyone? Anyone?
- Last Monday after Game 5, on the Facebook page of friend, a Yankees fan, I wrote the following: “What's interesting is that the Series is playing out like I feared it might: two even teams with uneven closers. Switch closers and the Series might already be over. In other words, no matter who they give it to, Mariano Rivera is always the Yankees' post-season MVP.” Here's dramatic evidence just how true that is. Rob Neyer even adds: “Purely in terms of increasing his teams' chances of winning, [Rivera] must be the most valuable pitcher in postseason history.”
- Here's even better evidence: The New York Times offers this cool, interactive chart on every batter Mariano Rivera has faced in the post-season: from Jay Buhner's swinging strikeout in the 12th inning of Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS (so that's why we lost that one) to Shane Victorino's ground-out to second base Wednesday night. I already knew one of the two post-season homers Rivera's given up—to Sandy Alomar in '97, which changed that ALDS around—but didn't know the other: to Jay Payton, with two men on, in Game 2 of the 2000 World Series. Overall: 397 outs, 82 hits, 14 runs allowed. Marquis Grissom scored the first run in Game 3 of the 1996 World Series (triple, single by Mark Lemke), and Chone Figgins scored the last in Game 6 of the 2009 ALCS (single, moved to second on ground-out, single by Vladimir Guerrero). Rivera's worst post-season for runs allowed? A tie: between 2000 and 2001 (4 each). Every other post-season, the most runs he's ever given up is 1. The good news? He turns 40 this month. The bad news? He wants to play five more seasons.
- After all that, I figure you might need a laugh. The Onion gives it to you. Their headline says it all: “95-Year-Old Yankees Fan Afraid He'll Never Get to See Team Win 27 More World Series.”
- Not good enough? How about some good, old-fashioned anti-Yankees moments? Here you go, courtesy of MLB (sorry for all the ads for the U.S. Marines. They may be few and proud but they're hardly brief):
- October 17, 2004: David Ortiz's walk-off homer in the 14th inning beats the Yankees in Game 4 of the ALCS. The Yankees still lead 3 games to 1.
- October 18, 2004: David Ortiz's walk-off single in the 14th inning beats the Yankees in Game Five of the ALCS. The Yankees still lead 3 games to 2.
- October 19, 2004: Curt Schilling and his bloody sock mow down the Yanks in Game 6 of the ALCS. The Series is now tied.
- They don't have Game 7 up? Damon's grand slam? For shame! But here's a “Baseball Tonight” rundown of the greatest ALDS moments. Ignore #s 8, 6, and particularly 2. Pay attention to #7 (Joba Chamberlain and the midges in Cleveland in 2007), #4 (Sandy Alomar homers off Rivera in 1997), and particularly, yes, #1, baby, a game I was at (Swung on and lined down the left field line for a base hit! Here comes Joey! Here's Junior to third! They're going to wave him in! The throw to the plate will be...LATE! The Mariners are going to play for the American League Championship! I don't believe it! It just continues! My oh my!).
- Before the Series ended, Tyler Kepner wrote a nice piece on why the final moments in baseball are more memorable than in other sports. Yes, it has something to do with baseball's timelessness. More importantly, he doesn't even mention Bill Mazeroski, Gene Larkin, Joe Carter or Luis Gonzalez. Instead he writes about your Eric Hinskes and Sal Yvarses, your Jackie Robinsons and Joe Jacksons. And your Jorge Posadas. That one was sweet. But not as sweet as Gonzalez's.
- Finally, if you're looking for a good, hot-stove-league song, I'd recommend “Cooperstown” by the Felice Brothers, about Georgia in 1905, and Ty Cobb and baseball. It gets better every listen. Something about the last line below in particular gets to me: “And tomorrow you'll surely know who's won.” I keep coming back to it. I don't know what it means but it feels so right. Maybe because it suspends the action. It lays open all possibilities in the present and leaves true knowledge to tomorrow. And even then it doubts it. “Surely” implies that it's not sure at all:
I'm on first
And you're on third
And there are wolves all in-between
And everyone's sure that the game is over
The catcher's hard
He's mean and hard
And he nips at the batter's heels
And everyone's sure that the game is over
And the ball soars
And the crowd roars
And the scoreboard sweetly hums
And tomorrow you'll surely know who's won
Saturday November 07, 2009
Review: “The Damned United” (2009)
WARNING: BRI-ISH SPOILERS
“The Damned United” is the third time in the last three years that Michael Sheen has starred in a movie written by Peter Morgan, and it goes something like this. His job is to play a fairly decent, somewhat intellectual and usually vainglorious man on the rise (Tony Blair in “The Queen,” David Frost in “Frost/Nixon” and Brian Clough here) who butts heads with established power (Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Nixon, Don Revie/Leeds United) and winds up bruised. The confident eyes become lost, the telegenic smile turns frozen and embarrassed, and he loses his way. Basically he starts out American and becomes British. But only by becoming British (that is, embarrassed) can he overcome what he needs to overcome (the American part) to be successful.
I thought of this at the end of “The Damned United.” Clough struggles throughout the movie but before the credits we’re told he went on to manage Nottingham Forest, where they won unprecedented back-to-back European Cups in 1979 and 1980; now he’s considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, manager in football history. Immediate thought: Why didn’t we watch that? Immediate guess: Because there would be less drama? Secondary guess: Or because it would be less British?
This movie is totally British. It starts out in 1974 when Don Revie (Colm Meany) leaves the all-powerful Leeds United professional football team to manage...England? In some European-y thing? We don’t have anything like that in American sports. The closest is the Olympics or the World Baseball Classic, which are off-season, irregular gigs, not permanent gigs like this one.
Clough is tapped to replace him. Apparently he had success elsewhere. Apparently he doesn’t think much of Revie or Revie’s style of play, which is brutal and suspect, and he says so on the telly. “Football is a beautiful game,” he says, “and it needs to be played beautifully.” He battles with the players—who loved Revie and his dirty style of play—and he battles with the board, who want him to shut up already. A key moment comes early. Clough, in a conference room with the board, points at Revie’s photo on the wall and says his goal is to make Leeds United so all-powerful that it’ll wipe away the years of success Revie had with the club. He wants to make Revie look like a piker. He wants to make him irrelevant.
I kept translating it all into American. OK, so Revie’s like John Madden and Leeds is like the Oakland Raiders, except more successful than those bastards ever were. Maybe like the ‘70s Yankees? The Bronx Zoo? But who’s Clough then? Billy Martin? A little. But Clough feels less working class, and certainly less crazy and combative, than Martin. Clough takes shit from his players. They physically hurt him.
At the same time there’s an advantage to watching this as an American. Since it’s all new, you have no idea how it will turn out. The disadvantage is you don’t know how it began. Why does Clough hate Revie so?
Then the movie tells us. We go back to 1967 when Clough and his assistant, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), managed Derby (pronounced “Darby”), a team at the bottom of the second division. (Leeds was at the top of the first division.)
Through some kind of lottery system, Leeds winds up playing a match with Derby, in Derby, and Clough preps the stadium as much as his team. He makes sure the crew repaints this and that, and cleans here and there. He scrubs the hallway floor himself. He places oranges on the towels for the players, and breaks out a good bottle of wine and two wine glasses in anticipation of sharing it with Revie. Then Leeds rolls into town, rolls over Derby, and leaves. No wine is shared. Revie doesn’t even shake hands with Clough after the match. A fire is lit. He’s like a spurned lover. Now he wants to win.
With Taylor as his source for talent, and going over the head of his board of directors, he assembles a good football team and they rise in the rankings and make the jump to first division. They lose again to Leeds, but he buys even better players and they rise further and beat Leeds, both in a match and in the division. They come out on top! Which means what? Are there playoffs?
The more successful he gets, though, the mouthier he gets, and the more trouble he has with the board. “I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the country,” he says, “but I am among the top one.” Muhammad Ali, via footage, warns him to shut up, that only he is the greatest and mouthiest. Such scenes are interspersed with the present (1974), where Leeds plays far from beautifully and keeps losing. Clough is without Taylor, his source and his brain, and we intimate something disastrous happened between them. Eventually, after only six weeks, with Leeds near the bottom of Division I, their worst start in 15 years, Clough is fired. Afterwards he goes on a British TV show expecting kid gloves, but is seated next to Revie and they have it out. He comes off as the sad, spurned lover, and Revie gets in the last harsh word. Except Clough warns him fortunes may change. “Let’s see where we are in a year’s time,” he says. “Let’s see where we are in five years’ time.” It feels hollow, a desperate lunge, but it turns out to be amazingly prescient, since, in five years’ time, Clough will have won the European Cup with Nottingham while Revie, having left England to manage, of all teams, United Arab Emirates, will be banned from the sport.
In this way, Clough’s prescient warning to Revie is reminiscent of Queen Elizabeth’s prescient warning to Tony Blair: “You saw all those [negative] headlines and you thought: ‘One day that might happen to me.’” the Queen says. “And it will, Mr. Blair. Quite suddenly and without warning.” As it did. But that scene worked. It works less well here. Maybe because it worked so well there? Put another way: Peter Morgan needs to stop predicting the future from the past.
No, that’s not it. It worked well there because the Queen wasn’t so much predicting the future as presenting the universal. Even the best leaders misstep, and when they do the press will be on them. That’s the way of leaders and the way of the media. But where you and I will be in five years? That’s unknowable.
“The Damned United” does a lot of things right—from Colm Meany’s hair (a masterpiece of 1974 coiffure) to its startling efficient method of detailing some of the lesser matches (the sound of cheers, a giant moan, and then flashing the final, sad score). The colors often look washed out, as in photos of the era, and the walls of every other room are half-covered in wood-paneling.
I particularly love one shot. It’s the big fight between Clough and Taylor in ’73, after they’ve left Derby amid controversy and signed on with Brighton. Then comes the offer from Leeds. It starts out amusing. “What do we care about Brighton?” Clough says. “Bloody southerners. Looks where we are. We’re almost in France!” Indeed, they’re on a dock at the beach. But as they continue to argue, things get nasty. Taylor accuses Clough of too much ambition, Clough accuses Taylor of too little. He disrespects Taylor’s role in his own rise. He says he’s nothing. Nothing. He calls him history’s fucking afterthought. The camera then cuts to a long shot of the two men on the dock, seen at the bottom of the screen, and they’re both on the left side. Taylor storms off, exiting stage right, with Clough following to get in his last, nasty words. Then he retreats back to the left. Then you see him beginning to regret what he’d said and tries to call Taylor back, but it’s too late. He’s just a lone man on the left side of a long dock.
Here’s what the movie does wrong: I don’t get what makes Brian Clough a good coach. He buys better players from other teams, and he works them hard, but if there’s more to it we don’t see it here. I also don’t believe that his monumental drive to succeed was borne of Revie’s refusal to shake his hand. It feels prissy and belittling.
Still, “The Damned United” is a fun movie, better than those forgettable American sports movies released every January: about the underdog, misfit team that no one thought... but with the can-do coach... and the montage... and the rise... and the last-minute shot. I’m no soccer fan, but standing up during the credits I realized its 97 minutes went by like that. There was never a moment when I wasn't interested. I just wish it meant more. Brian Clough learns his lesson about hubris but the lesson should’ve gone deeper. He was actually right what he said to Taylor, but he should’ve included himself, not to mention you and me, in the charge. We’re all history’s fucking afterthought.
Friday November 06, 2009
Michelle Malkin's Journey from A to A
There's an odd piece on the Crosscut Web site called "Michelle Malkin's Journey from Ideas to Tribes," by Ross Anderson, a former Seattle Times political writer whose office was next to Malkin's when she was a columnist at the paper from 1996 to 1999. I remember those days and those columns. I remember thinking what a lousy writer she was. I remember wondering if she got the gig because of her race and gender. According to Anderson? Yes:
The Times had been looking for a new voice, preferably a minority and a woman. That she turned out to be both of the above, plus a young libertarian was a bonus.
Anderson is wondering what happened to the person he knew back then. "I didn’t always agree [with her]," Anderson writes, "but I always enjoyed chatting at our office doors." Now, he says, she's guility of tribalism, a kind of "my people vs. your people" attitude. "Missing are those ideas we exchanged at our office doors," he says.
Fine. So what ideas did they exchange at their office doors? "She never asked what I thought," Anderson admits, but he told her anyway. Afterwards, he writes, "Michelle said nothing, resisting an impulse to roll her eyeballs."
This is exchanging ideas at office doors? Anderson's description refutes his own premise. Malkin hasn't journeyed anywhere. She didn't care what you thought back then; she doesn't now.
"You" being not just Ross Anderson but you.
Thursday November 05, 2009
Welcome to My Least-Favorite Month
It gets awfully dark awfully fast in November. Worse, I know the light will continue to die for another month-and-a-half, and I rage, rage against its dying. Well, “rage.” I sigh, sigh against the dying of the light. November is the month of death. December at least gives you rebirth in either pagan (Winter Solstice) or religious (Dec. 24) terms, when either we return to the sun or the Son returns to us, but the only thing November gives you is fat raindrops and dead leaves swirling in a vortex and stoplights swinging on their cables. It gives you cold and wet and dark.
And Thanksgiving. It's its one saving grace. My favorite holiday is in my least-favorite month.
Thanksgiving has never been a favorite in Hollywood, though, which is why the paltry selection below. It's slightly startling. But then Thanksgiving has always been treated by men in the marketplace as poor cousin to the more lucrative Christmas. The first week in November is for opening movies like “Elf” and “Fred Claus” and Disney's “A Christmas Carol.” Disney's. As if Charles Dickens had nothing to do with it.
In no particular order.
- Home for the Holidays (1995): Jodie Foster's film is the most emphatically Thanksgiving-related movie in recent memory. I wrote about it in 1997—two years after it was released—but never bothered to put up on this site. Not sure if the film is worth revisiting. Anyone? Here's some of what I wrote back then:
Yeah, we all know what a pain the holidays can be, and how meddlesome parents can be, and why it's necessary to have your favorite sibling there when you tackle both parents and holidays—which is why, in Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays, we understand when Claudia Larson (Holly Hunter) pleads with her brother, Tommy, to show up and help her out. Bad news: Tommy is played by Robert Downey Jr., which means he's a hyperactive, insensitive lout who causes more problems than he solves. He snaps Polaroids of people in embarrassing situations, he taunts, he teases, he mocks sensitive conversations. What the hell did she need him there for anyway? I actually liked her parents (Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning). The father's phone conversation with Tommy's lover, for example, demonstrates a kind of class that Tommy doesn't come near. Claudia never seems to realize that she needs her parents to protect her from Tommy rather than vice-versa.
- The Ice Storm (1997): Another film I wrote about back in the day but never posted here. It takes place the weekend after Thanksgiving, 1973, when both the U.S. government and nuclear famiies are falling apart. It's a cold world and a cold poster, and Sigourney Weaver plays a cold bitch, but man she still makes me hot:
Right from the start, when teenager Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) quotes from an early '70s Fantastic Four comic book, I was into this pic; and while I never lost sympathy for Paul, I had none for the other characters. They were all distant, creepy, obtuse or sexually perverse—or some combination of that less-than-fantastic four. There's a nice juxtaposition of the adults' empty sexual rompings with the unsupervised teenagers' fitful entries into sexuality. The movie seems a lesson in the dangers that result when grown-ups don't grow up. A more obvious lesson is as old as Winesburg, Ohio: suburban lives are empty, empty, empty.
- Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987): My favorite John Hughes' film. Just flat-out funny. Ten years earlier Steve Martin was the world's wild-and-crazy guy but by this point he'd become the world's straightlaced guy: the guy who needs to loosen up a little and sing a “Flintstones” song now and again. What a change. It wasn't until I read Martin's memoir, Born Standing Up, that I realized he never was that wild-and-crazy guy. Even when he seemed the hippest guy in the world, the most popular host on the hippest late-night TV show, he was pretty square, and always had been. In the midst of the '60s, for example, when everyone was into politics and pot and love, he was off at two-bit carnivals performing magic tricks. It's fascinating—the bent road he took to hipness, before finding his way back, via vehicles like this, to becoming just another uptight suburban dad trying to get home for Thanksgiving, and shouting impotently at the sky: “You're messing with the wrong guy!” Martin was goofy-funny as the wild-and-crazy guy but I never identified with him. But “You're messing with the wrong guy”? Oh yeah. Who can't relate?
- A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973): This is how old I am: I still think of “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” as the new one. The Peanuts Christmas and Halloween specials first aired when I was 2 and 3, respectively, so they were always there for me. The Thanksgiving special? Didn't come around until I was 10 and beginning to move away from “Peanuts” and toward Marvel comics, and I didn't think it was as good as the first two. Something cheaper about it. And nothing as memorable as “All it needs is a little love, Charlie Brown” and “I got a rock.” On the other hand, I know people, younger people, who love it, with its absurd Thanksgiving feast of popcorn and toast, so maybe it's less a consequence of what it is than when we saw it.
- Hannah and Her Sisters (1986): How long has it been since I've seen “Hannah and Her Sisters”? Ten years? I didn't even remember, until I began researching for this post, that one of its main dinners is a Thanksgiving dinner, in which, apparently, no one gives thanks for what they have but keeps pursuing what they don't. Barbara Hershey, for example. The movie contains one of my all-time favorite lines, delivered with a slight, disgusted shake of the head by the great Max von Sydow. The artist Frederick has just been watching TV, and he's about to find out that his girl, Lee (Hershey), is sleeping around on him, but in the meantime he delivers this spot-on diatribe about American culture. It's the last line that's my favorite but I'll include the whole quote:
You see the whole culture. Nazis, deodorant salesmen, wrestlers, beauty contests, a talk show. Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling? But the worst are the fundamentalist preachers. Third grade con men telling the poor suckers that watch them that they speak with Jesus, and to please send in money. Money, money, money! If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in his name...he'd never stop throwing up.
- Pieces of April (2003): Anyone see this thing? I didn't. I remember when it came out, though, playing at the Guild 45th in Seattle, back when Katie Holmes was trying to be Ms. indie-actress. This is her second Thanksgiving related movie, after “Ice Storm,” making her Ms. (or Mrs.) Thanksgiving. Invite her over. Break out the turkey and stuffing and corn pudding.
Tuesday November 03, 2009
- It's already over but here's a great piece from Dan Savage who defends the sexification of Halloween as a kind of straight people's gay-pride parade: a day when straight people are allowed to dress up and bust loose:
We don't resent you for taking Halloween as your own. We know what it's like to keep your sexuality under wraps, to keep it concealed, to be on your guard and under control at all times. While you don't suffer anywhere near the kind of repression we did (and in many times and places still do), straight people are sexually repressed, too. You move through life thinking about sex, constantly but keenly aware that social convention requires you to act as if sex were the last thing on your mind. Exhausting, isn't it?
- Martin Scorsese on the 11 scariest movies of all time. I've seen 1, 4, 6, 7, 8 and 11. I keep missing the Brits.
- It's not just me. Even members of the Academy question havng 10-best-picture nominees.
- Hilarious piece from The Onion on the long, sad, World Series drought for the Philadelphia Phillies. Sample: "To put into perspective just how long the Phillies have gone without a championship, the earth has almost made one full orbit of the sun since the franchise last paraded through downtown Philadelphia holding the famed Commissioner's Trophy."
- Floyd Norris, in his column in The New York Times last Friday, says people who ask why financial-industry CEOs are so well-compensated are asking the wrong question. The real question is: Why is there so much more money in the financial industry than there used to be? From 1929 to 1988, the financial sector averaged 1.2 percent of GDP. Then it shot up in the 1990s, peaking at 3.3 percent in 2005. Why? He tosses out some possibilities, including higher charges (for managing hedge funds) , concentration (the big guys are bigger), the derivatives debaccle, evading taxes and rules, and excessive risk-taking. Worth reading the whole thing.
Monday November 02, 2009
Review: This Is It (2009)
WARNING: INCOMPLETE SPOILERS
“This Is It” was going to be the title of Michael Jackson’s fourth and final world concert tour and instead it became the title of a documentary featuring rehearsal footage from that fourth and final tour, but the folks at Meridian 16 in downtown Seattle didn’t even bother with it. On the tickets, on the internal marquees, they stuck to the essential. They called it “Michael.”
The doc starts out reminiscent of “A Chorus Line,” with back-up dancers telling us their brief histories and what Michael means to them. They often get teary; they can’t believe their good luck. “I’m from Australia,” one dancer says, and that’s enough to break him down. Another begins, “Life’s hard, right?,” then he talks about how he’s looking for something to shake him up and—cue title—“This is it.” We even get the classic “Chorus Line” shot of a stage full of dancers being whittled down to a handful. Then the announcement: “And the Michael Jackson principle dancers are...” Silence. No names. If the point of “A Chorus Line” was to draw out all the nameless people in the chorus line, the point here is to keep them nameless. Only one name matters.
Oh, baby, give me one more chance
Michael, 50, more painfully thin that ever, with a face more wrecked than ever, doesn’t always sing or dance his heart out here. He can still do it—we see and hear him do it—but he’s obviously pacing himself. “I’m trying to warm up my voice,” he says at one point, apologetically. He’s the anti-Elvis: way too thin rather than way too fat; too much the perfectionist rather than the doped-up Vegas performer stumbling over his lyrics. We watch him coach his musicians, dancers, producers. “You gotta let it simmer,” he says of the music for “The Way You Make Me Feel.” When there’s not enough funk in one song, Michael has this back-and-forth with the keyboardist:
Michael: It’s not there.
Keyboardist: It’s getting there.
Michael: Well, get there.
He says it kindly enough, in his usual falsetto, but there’s a bit of steel in his voice, too, that’s surprising and welcome. He wants it how he wants it.
All of this footage was meant for Michael’s private library, which raises two questions: 1) Why does someone need hundreds of hours of rehearsal footage for their own private viewing?; and 2) What would he think of his private footage becoming this very public documentary? Wasn’t Michael too much of a perfectionist to let the process of perfecting the product become the product? AEG Live and Sony sure didn’t let this one simmer, did they? There was money to be made and they’re making it—over $100 million worldwide opening weekend. But even as you’re feeling badly that Michael no longer has a say in which of his products gets used, you watch, on the screen, the making of a short film that would’ve accompanied the “Smooth Criminal” number, in which Michael, all gangstered-up 1940s style, interacts with Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. When he was alive, Michael knew: The dead, particularly the famous dead, never have a say.
The outpouring of affection when Michael died on June 25, 2009, was immediate and, to me, a little sad. We appreciate nothing until it’s gone, even though things are always going, and so there’s always the opportunity to pause and appreciate the things that are still here—while we’re still here. Only the wisest do this and I’m hardly among the wisest, but I do have an aversion to the pile-on. Part of why I never wrote about Michael until now.
I'm gonna teach you/All about love
He was always part of my landscape. Me and my older brother, Chris, watched him and Jackie, Jermaine, Tito and Marlon, every Saturday morning on their early '70s cartoon show. We watched the Jacksons pitch Alpha Bits cereal during the commercials. I even bought a box of Alpha Bits because there was a Jackson 5 single on the back. Unschooled in patience, I poured all the cereal into a big bowl, cut the record out and tried to play it on our small, kiddie turntable. But it was made of thin cardboard, with only a veneer of vinyl, and it played warped: slow and deep. The cereal got stale. An early lesson in waste.
I doubt we saw the famous “Ed Sullivan” performance, but we certainly saw the brothers on “The Flip Wilson Show” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” and performing lame skits on “The Rich Little Show.” I remember those. I remember the thrill of watching Michael dance, so slippery it was like liquid, and trying to move like him, and imagining I was coming close. He brought the funk to a south Minneapolis basement. In a way I wanted to be like him, but in another way, a sadder way, he wanted to be like me.
An argument can be made that Michael was the most representative American figure in the second half of the 20th century. In a country finally dealing with its racism, and its history of white performers stealing from black performers, a black singer finally emerged as the most popular singer in the world. Then he slowly turned white. If you made this shit up no one would believe it.
I missed “Off the Wall” when it first came around, but like everyone I was there for “Billie Jean.” And, yes, I watched “Motown 25” when it first aired. I was 20 and still thrilled by his slippery, seemingly effortless movements. “Beat It” and “Thriller,” and their accompanying videos, broke him wider, and got him on the cover of Time magazine (a big deal back then, kids), but they didn’t do as much for me. I didn’t care for the whole Broadway-style dance number; I wanted Michael dancing alone. By himself he was electric. Others, I felt, hemmed him in.
Curious: Did he ever dance the way Fred Astaire danced, with a partner, where the point was give-and-take, push-and-pull, male and female? Instead he went solo or—with his brothers or back-up dancers—fronted multiple echoes of his own movements. Somehow that feels significant.
People think it’s sad that he left us at 50 but I think it’s sad he left us at 30. Sure, he seemed bizarre in the mid-‘80s—one white glove and the epaulets and the huge sunglasses—but no more bizarre, sartorially, than Prince or Bowie or Elton John. But around “Bad” you really began to wonder what he was doing to his face. Fans can talk all they want about the vitiligo and the lupus but they can’t argue past the plastic surgery: the disappearing nose and lips; the widening and painted eyes; the long, straight, scraggly hair. By the time of “Black and White,” I winced looking at him. By the mid-‘90s I had to turn away.
His persona in videos became the way he combated the rumors swirling around him. Too weak? He played gang- or gangster-tough in “Bad” and “Smooth Criminal.” Too asexual? He kept grabbing his crotch near a pretty girl in “The Way You Make Me Feel.” It all felt hollow. He kept trying to be what he wasn’t—“Bad” and “Dangerous”—while his anger felt real but misdirected. He shouted at the world to amused effect. Why was he angry? What did he want? World peace? Get in line. The pretty baby with the high heels on? Then kiss her already! You’re Michael Jackson! His marriages in the ‘90s seemed shams. As a child he sang of a “baby” and a “darling” (“Oh, baby, give me one more chance”/”Oh, darling, I was blind to let you go”), but as an adult did he ever have a baby or a darling? One hopes. In the doc, he talks a lot about love but without much heat or light. It’s a word people use.
That was it
“This Is It” is supposed to be a celebration but to me it’s just sad. How did so much talent go so horribly awry? It’s also inevitably incomplete. In these types of docs, rehearsals lead to final shows, and the absence of a final show here is deafening.
Michael spoke of the tour as his final curtain call, so one assumes he meant the double meaning in the title. “This is it,“ for revelling in the now, and ”this is it," for departure.
The documentary makes lies of both of these meanings. It doesn’t revel in the now but in a past in which Michael lives; and as long as anything connected with Michael makes money, we know this won’t be it. They’ll keep it coming.