Three Stories with J.D. Salinger — Epilogue
Epilogue: The Fat Lady Sings
I have many more stories about J.D. Salinger, of course. In Mr. Wolk’s 10th-grade English class, we had to write mini-plays about one of the texts we’d read, and I wrote mine, or ours (it was a group project), about Holden Caulfield riding an elevator up Macy’s Department Store, making it, or trying to make it, all symbolic, with each floor representing an age of life. It was a disaster. In college I rediscovered the humor of The Catcher in the Rye and delved into the book several times a week. (One of my favorite lines: “I thought the two ugly ones, Marty and Laverne, were sisters, but they got very insulted when I asked them. You could tell neither one of them wanted to look like the other one, and you couldn’t blame them, but it was very amusing anyway.”) I kept having discussions with friends about the best story in Nine Stories. Twenty years ago Pete said “Teddy.” Craig has rarely deviated from “For Esme.” I keep coming back to “The Laughing Man.”
When I interviewed Jeff Bezos in 1996, and he was informing me of the future—the Internet’s 2300 percent growth rate, the sorting capabilities of computers, the 1.5 million English-language books in print—I threw him off slightly by asking about the past, Hapworth 16, 1924, a then-31-year-old story that his Web site said was being published as a book in January. Bezos recovered nicely, though. You know how amazon.com makes recommendations based upon what you’ve bought or browsed? He was like that in the interview. I brought up Salinger so he kept bringing up Salinger. When I wondered how they weeded out frivolous customer reviews, for example, he said, “It's an incredibly small number of people who actually do that. We had God review the Bible. We had J.D. Salinger review Catcher in the Rye. It was very funny. The person who did that one actually had a terrific sense of humor.” I got the distinct impression, though, even as he spoke about him, that Bezos thought Salinger was dead.
When most famous authors die, pundits and obituary writers toss around some variation of the phrase, “A great voice has been stilled.” When J.D. Salinger died last week at the age of 91, it was opposite. Now that he’s dead, we hope he’ll talk. Are there more stories? Novels? Letters? Something? I can’t pretend I’m not intrigued. I followed him to his beginnings so I’m sure I’ll follow him to his ends. At the same time I know that a week doesn’t go by when he’s not talking with me already.
Here’s to Buddy. Here’s to the Fat Lady. Here’s to moving from one piece of Holy Ground to the next.
Three Stories with J.D. Salinger — Part III
Part III: Seymour: An Erasure
During my year in Taiwan, British author Ian Hamilton published a thin biography called In Search of J.D. Salinger. It was thin because Salinger wasn’t talking, and neither were his friends, and neither, it turns out, were the letters Salinger had written to those friends in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, which Hamilton found in library collections at Harvard, Princeton and the University of Texas. They weren’t talking because it was ruled, in Salinger v. Random House, Inc., that while the letters themselves were public, Salinger still owned the words in those letters, and those words couldn’t be reprinted without his permission. Which, of course, he refused to give.
In Newsweek magazine, whose international edition I read in the Tien Mu library on the outskirts of Taipei, Walter Clemons took it upon himself to review not only Hamilton’s bio but Salinger’s oeuvre and his then-23-year silence. The review bothered me enough to write a letter to the editor. Here’s how it appeared, the second of three letters under the heading “In Defense of the Author”:
Walter Clemons writes of J.D. Salinger: “His work went to hell as he withdrew into solitude ... The sad fact is that one can’t hope that the work he’s done in his jealously defended privacy is likely to be very interesting.” No, one can still hope, Walter, despite your sad “fact.”
It was Clemons’ language that pissed me off—his confusion of facts and hopes—but I didn’t agree with his opinion, either. I was still dazzled by Salinger; I hadn’t seen the pattern.
The best criticism I’ve read of Salinger is a cautionary review of Franny and Zooey by John Updike in 1962. Updike notes that in “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters”...
...Seymour defines sentimentality as giving “to a thing more tenderness than God gives to it.” This seems to me the nub of the trouble: Salinger loves the Glasses more than God loves them.
In this same review, Updike writes that the Franny of “Franny” and the Franny of “Zooey” are not the same person. The former is a simple college girl going through a spiritual crisis because she found a book, The Way of the Pilgrim, in her college library. The latter is a savant, the youngest of the seven Glass children—each of whom appeared on the radio show, “It’s a Wise Child”—who got The Way of the Pilgrim, not out of her college library, but out of older brother Seymour’s bedroom. When Zooey admonishes his mother for not realizing where Franny gets her books (“You’re so stupid, Bessie”), it’s as if he’s admonishing Salinger himself, who got it wrong the first time.
All true. But it’s nothing compared to how Salinger kept changing his second-most-famous character.
When we first see Seymour Glass sitting on a beach in 1948’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” he’s a classic Salinger hero: skinny, pale, good with kids, a bit crazy. He could be Holden as an adult. Then he returns to his hotel room, lays down next to his wife and blows his brains out.
We don’t see Seymour again until “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters,” published in November 1955. In the interim, Salinger published The Catcher in the Rye and nine short stories (the other eight stories of Nine Stories and “Franny”), but it’s not until “Raise High” that we find out that some of the characters in these stories—Seymour in “Bananafish,” Walt in “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” Boo Boo in “Down at the Dinghy,” and Franny in “Franny”—are actually part of the same family. The Glass family.
“Raise High” is about Seymour’s wedding, and his disappearance from same, in 1942, but Seymour himself is never shown. We only encounter him through the thoughts of the hapless Buddy, the second-oldest Glass child, and through excerpts in Seymour’s journal, which Buddy reads on the edge of his bathtub.
By this time, the quirky young man of “Bananafish” has become, in Buddy’s words, “A poet, for God’s sake. And I mean a poet. If he never wrote a line of poetry, he could still flash what he had at you with the back of his ear if he wanted to.” He’s a man conflicted between acceptance of everything and discrimination of, say, the best way to live, or the best poetry, and he bridges this gap with a kind of condescension. He writes of his future mother-in-law: “She might as well be dead, and yet she goes on living. ... I find her unimaginably brave.” We find out that when was young he threw a rock at a beautiful girl because she was so beautiful. He claims to have scars on his hands from touching people he loves. He’s either a crazy man or a holy man—or both crazy man and holy man—and Salinger hasn't showing his cards in the matter yet. We still have that tension. It’s part of why the story works.
“Raise High” is, in fact, one of the best pure stories I’ve ever read. It’s both rooted in the everyday and mystical. Its ending is so understated it doesn’t seem to end but continues to glide along into the unknown. He does this in 89 pages. In “Zooey,” published a year and a half later, a boy takes a bath and talks to his mother and sister. It’s 150 pages. The indulgence has begun.
“Zooey” is set in 1955, and, though Seymour’s been dead for seven years, he continues to grow. We find out he got his Ph.D. at 18. We get a glimpse of his poetry (“The little girl on the plane/ Who turned her doll’s head around/ To look at me”). The beaverboard in his old room is full of quotes from wise men and wise texts: Tolstoy, Epictetus, De Caussade, Ring Lardner, Mu-Mon Kwan, and The Bhagavad Gita. The tension between crazy man and holy man is dissolving, and, with it, story.
It’s in the next one, though, published more than two years later, that Salinger, the master storyteller, gives up on story altogether. It’s called “Seymour: An Introduction” but it might as well be called “Seymour: An Erasure.” Remember that poem about the girl on the plane? That’s actually Buddy’s translation of Seymour’s haiku, which was written in Japanese, one of dozens of languages Seymour knew. Remember the Seymour of “Bananafish”? That’s actually Buddy’s interpretation of Seymour, which he now admits was a little too much (“alley oop, I’m afraid”) like himself. By this time Seymour is no longer a crazy young man (“Bananafish”), or a poet, for God’s sake (“Raise High”); he’s one of the greatest poets in the history of the English language. And how could one of the greatest poets in the history of the English language write that crap poem about the girl on the plane? He couldn’t. Buddy did. Or Salinger did. But who’s Salinger? A hack compared to Seymour. The creation has outgrown his creator. Seymour has become too powerful to write about.
In order to even capture Seymour in “Hapworth 16, 1924,” published six long years later, Salinger has to shrink him back to the age of 8; and even here, pintsized, he’s so powerful Salinger can barely keep him on the page. Seymour may be a kid writing a letter home from summer camp, but the letter is over 100 pages long and includes sentences of Jamesian complexity. Story? Gone. Epiphany? What’s the point? Seymour is a reincarnated wise man now, increasingly aware of past, present and future. He accurately prophesies his own death. He talks about the other lives, or appearances, he’s lived, and the appearances of everyone else at the camp. So what can he realize that he doesn’t already know? How can he journey to a place he doesn’t already see? You understand why it’s the last thing Salinger ever published. He’s left himself, and his creation, nowhere to go.
Anyway that’s the story the fuss was all about.
Tomorrow: The Fat Lady Sings
Three Stories with J.D. Salinger - Part II
Part II: My Summer of Salinger
I first encountered J.D. Salinger the way most of us did—when I was assigned The Catcher in the Rye in high school—but there was a time when I could read no one else. It was the summer of 1987. I’d just graduated from the University of Minnesota and was in love with a girl who was in Maine for the summer while I was about to leave for Taiwan in the fall. It felt like life was flowing in the wrong direction and I could do nothing to stop it. I felt bruised, and other authors kept pressing the bruised spots. Only Salinger consoled.
I didn’t re-read Catcher. I re-read Nine Stories and the Glass family stories, and then re-read them again. I read “Hapworth” in an old copy of The New Yorker my father had kept. I was so desperate I read a slim paperback, Salinger, published in 1962, which consisted of cold, critical thoughts on the author, but which contained references to Salinger stories I’d never heard of. “Personal Notes of an Infantryman”? “Slight Rebellion Off Madison”? The titles themselves sounded magical.
Turns out that before the nine stories of Nine Stories, as far back as 1940, Salinger had published stories, in magazines like Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post, that had never been collected in book form, and I found them at the University of Minnesota library. Throughout that long hot summer, I kept returning to its cool, fluorescent-lit stacks to read about ‘30s kids at parties (“The Young Folks”) and young married couples with problems (“Both Parties Concerned”).
It was hit or miss stuff. “Hang of It,” from 1941, concerns a World War I screw-up whose drill sergeant bellows at him, “Aincha got no brains?!” and the narrator sides with the drill sergeant. In the end we find out that the narrator is (“alley oop, I’m afraid,” as Buddy Glass would later write) the screw-up, now a colonel, and forever indebted to his loveable old drill sergeant. It’s the kind of thing Holden Caulfield would’ve torn apart.
War transformed Salinger’s writing. “The Stranger,” from December 1945, is blunt and unsentimental in comparison. “Your mind, your soldier’s mind, wanted accuracy above all else,” Babe Gladwaller thinks as he returns to New York to inform Vincent Caulfield’s girlfriend about his death. “So far as details went, you wanted to be the bulls-eye kid: Don’t let any civilians leave you, when the story’s over, with any uncomfortable lies.”
That’s right: Vincent Caulfield. He first shows up in “Last Day of the Last Furlough” from 1945, telling Babe: “My brother Holden is missing [in action].” Holden, not missing at all, not touched by war at all, shows up in two other stories from 1945 and 1946, while his much-imitated way of speaking—that repetitious, inarticulate way of circling closer to the truth, replete with I means and goddamns—shows up even earlier. In “Both Parties Concerned,” Ruthie leaves her husband, Billy, but she can’t stand staying at her mother’s place and returns. “It got me down,” she tells Billy. “I mean when I saw her looking so funny in her hair net again. I knew I wouldn’t be any good at home anymore. I mean not any good at their home.”
So many bells go off reading this stuff. In “The Varioni Bros.,” Joe, the more poetic half of a songwriting duo from the 1920s, dies horribly, tragically young—prefiguring Seymour Glass. In “The Stranger,” Babe’s relationship with his sister, Mattie, is right out of the Holden-Phoebe school. In “A Boy in France,” Mattie’s letter to Babe allows him to fall “crumbly, bent-leggedly, asleep”—as Esme’s letter would for a different soldier in “For Esme—With Love and Squalor.”
Eventually my love and need for Salinger became, like all loves and needs, stifling. I was reading 50-year-old stories that—beyond this epiphany or that moment of grace—didn’t take me anywhere I hadn’t been taken before, and better, by the same author. Occasionally I’d glance through these magazines to stories by the likes of Alice Farnham and Walt Grove and wonder whatever became of them. One issue of Story trumpeted the inclusion of “the 1944 Avery Hopwood prize novella, ‘Mexican Silver’ by Hilda Slautterback.” And it dawned on me—me who had such grand literary ambitions, but who had published exactly nothing—how hard it would be, not to be published and remembered like Salinger, but simply to be published and forgotten like Hilda Slautterback.
It was a Salinger reference that finally kicked me free from Salinger. In “A Girl I Knew,” the narrator mentions Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, and I sought it out. From there I read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, and by then I was living in Taiwan and on a new trajectory.
Tomorrow: Seeing More of Seymour
Three Stories with J.D. Salinger - Part I
My First Story with J.D. Salinger: Hapworthed
In October 1996 I was writing an article for a short-lived Seattle Times weekly about someone named Jeff Bezos who had started something called amazon.com, and, needing to see what a .com was, I biked over to my friend Ciam’s house and went online for the first time.
It would be interesting to see a screenshot of what I saw. I remember Ciam sat down at his desk and tapped on his computer keyboard, until, after some time, and even odder noises, he declared, “Here we are.”
I look over his shoulder and narrowed my eyes. “Is this on your computer?”
His explanations about what the online world was, I’m sure, fell noiselessly into some bottomless pit in my brain labeled “tech crap.” Once things go abstract I don’t quite get them, and if I understand the online world now it’s less because I get its abstractness than because I’ve transported its abstractness into the tangible world. Some part of my brain thinks reading online is as real as reading a newspaper.
“So what kinds of books do these guys have?” I asked.
Ciam shrugged. “Give me an author,” he said. I suggested Norman Mailer. I often went through phases with writers, and I was going through a Mailer phase now—even reading him chronologically—and I was pretty aware of all he had written. Or so I thought. After we typed in his name, some of the titles that came up dumbfounded me. The Bullfighter from 1967? Ciam and I were testing amazon but it felt like I was doing the failing.
So I suggested J.D. Salinger. Just four titles, right? The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction. Sure enough, we got those four titles in all of their various incarnations. We also got this: Hapworth 16, 1924.
“You’re kidding,” I said, staring at the screen.
“What?” Ciam asked.
“Hapworth. It’s the last story Salinger published—in The New Yorker in 1965—but it’s never been published in book form.” I motioned toward the screen. “Can you find out more about it?”
Ciam clicked on the link—a verb and a noun that hadn’t yet entered my vocabulary. Hapworth was due to be published by an outfit called Orchises Press in January 1997. Three months away.
“Wow,” I said. Initially I was more excited as a reader. Only slowly did I realize I had something of a scoop.
“Does anyone else know about this?” I asked, looking around.
The next time I spoke to my editor at The Seattle Times I mentioned the Hapworth discovery and suggested we do a separate story on it. Or at least a side-bar. The first J.D. Salinger book in 35 years! Think of it!
He didn’t share my enthusiasm. It’s not new? he asked. It’s just a reprint? he asked. “But feel free to put it in the story,” he added helpfully.
There are moments in life when you show what you’re made of, and, unfortunately, this was one such moment for me. I don’t remember my editor’s exact arguments but I accepted them in a defeatist way—as a door closing—rather than as what they were: a door opening. Since I was a freelancer, this editor had basically given me carte blanche to pitch the story to someone higher on the food chain: The Washington Post, The New York Times. But taking the individual for the institution, and assuming the institution knew what it was talking about, I folded.
Too bad, I thought. Felt like a story to me.
I did mention Hapworth to my sister. She had just gotten a job as a reporter with the Washington D.C. Business Journal, and, since Orchises Press was located in Virginia, I thought it might make a good local story. She ran with it. A few days after her article appeared, The Washington Post picked it up. A few days after that, The New York Times picked it up. About a week later, in the bookstore warehouse where I worked, National Public Radio, which we listened to all the time, did a feature on the excitement the new edition of Hapworth was engendering. I stood for a while and listened. In Don DeLillo’s novel, Libra, the CIA agent who suggests assassinating JFK is, by the time the assassination goes down, just a guy sitting in his basement going through his wine collection. He’s out of the picture. That’s how I felt—like I was on the wrong end of the radio. I listened for another moment before going back to shelving books.
The punchline? Perhaps because of the sudden media attention for Hapworth brought about by my sister’s story, Salinger withdrew permission to publish. Thirteen years later, the story still hasn’t been seen in book form.
Tomorrow: My Summer of Salinger
The New King of the World
To put this in perspective: When James Cameron's "Titanic" became the worldwide box office champion with $1.843 billion in 1997-98, it more than doubled the previous record set by "Jurassic Park" in the summer of 1993: $914 million.
In the 12 years since, and despite rising ticket prices , no film has gotten within 60 percent of "Titanic"'s total. "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King" reached $1.1 billion in 2003-04, the second (and awful) "Pirates" movie reached $1.06 billion in the summer of 2006, while "The Dark Knight" grossed almost exactly $1 billion two summers ago. Those are the only other movies that even reached the $1 billion mark. Basically halfway there.
Until now. This week, "Avatar," Cameron's first movie since "Titanic," broke "Titanic"'s worldwide box office mark and currently stands at $1.861. And climbing. Fast.
Cameron's raising the bar when no one could even get close to the bar before. That's almost mean.
Who's Controlling the News? Not Auletta
"You missed it."
I kept thinking of that line from “All the President’s Men” while reading Ken Auletta’s Jan. 25th New Yorker piece, “Non-Stop News: Who’s Controlling White House Coverage?” Auletta missed the story. Shame. I normally like Auletta.
The story for me doesn’t begin until the fifth of 11 sections, the one beginning “Like other American workers, journalists these days are crunched, working harder with less support and holding tight to their jobs” and ending with a quote from Chuck Todd, who, this section tells us, is not only NBC’s White House correspondent and political director, but is busy from dusk 'til dawn with appearances on “Today,” “Morning Joe,” his own (aptly named) “The Daily Rundown,” along with the usual blogging and tweeting from and to various sites. The news cycle is now a cycle in the way that time is a cycle. It never stops. As a result, Todd, and other journalists, have no time for in-depth coverage or even deep thought or analysis. “We’re all wire-service reporters now,” Todd says.
The sixth section is also about how technology has transformed media matters but this time from a White House perspective. “The biggest White House press frustration is that nothing can drive a news cycle anymore,” Republican political advisor Mark McKinnon says. Auletta then goes on to criticize the Obama White House for being too slow and reactive. He criticizes Press Secretary Robert Gibbs because “he rarely asserts control from the podium, to steer the press onto the news that Obama wants to make.” I.e., He’s not telling the newsmen what the news is. One could argue he’s treating them like adults.
So if we’re all wire-service reporters now, and the Obama White House isn’t steering these reporters towards the news, who is? That’s where it gets scary. Auletta writes: “What the press is paying attention to, [former Obama White House Communications Director] Anita Dunn says, is cable and blog attacks on the Obama Administration.” And who’s steering those? Guess.
That’s the story: In an increasingly fragmented, perpetual news-cycle world, who or what is steering the news? That’s even the story in Auletta’s headline, isn’t it? And he still misses the story.
Because much of Auletta’s piece is old news. Has the mainstream media been pro-Obama? Is Pres. Obama too prickly with the media now that the honeymoon is over? Should he be lecturing the media on its faults the way he does? About how the media focuses on the most extreme elements on both sides? About how they’re only interested in conflict?
Early on, Auletta quotes from a PEW Research Report on Obama’s early glowing press coverage:
The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonpartisan media-research group concurred; tracking campaign coverage, it found that McCain was the subject of negative stories twice as frequently as Obama. (The study says that the press was influenced by Obama’s commanding lead in the polls—the kind of ‘Who won today?’ journalism he now decries.)
Allow me a sports metaphor. Do we assume that Albert Pujols gets more positive press coverage than, say, Yuniesky Betancourt? Of course he does. He’s a better ballplayer. Our eyes see it, the stats prove it. Unfortunately, politics has no such stats beyond poll numbers and votes. I’m not suggesting that Barack Obama is Albert Pujols; I’m merely suggesting that, in dealing with two political figures, we’re not dealing with two interchangeable blocks of wood. I’m suggesting that the mainstream press cannot pretend that the Yuniesky Betancourts of the political, legal or business realms are equal to the Albert Pujolses of same, without losing as much credibility as they would if they misreported facts. Objectivity is not stupidity. Let me add, not being a journalist, that I have no idea how you work this out within the constraints of objective journalism. But make no mistake: This is an issue for objective journalism. If objective journalism is to survive.
Perhaps more importantly, does the Pew Research Center Project include FOX News and conservative radio in their study of mainstream media? If not, why not? The notion that “the media” is limited to The New York Times goes against what should be the brunt of this article. We’re in the middle of a whole new ballgame.
Auletta quotes ABC’s Jake Tapper on the matter. “This President has been forced to deal with more downright falsehoods than any President I can think of,” Tapper says. Auletta then lists off some examples: “Obama was brought up a Muslim; he was not born in the U.S.; he studied at a madrassa in Indonesia.” How about: Obama is Hitler? He wants to kill your grandmother? He’s destroying the foundation of American society? That’s daily fodder in these venues, and it keeps seeping out, and it becomes the story. Even when it becomes the joke story, on “The Daily Show,” or “The Colbert Report,” it’s still the story. In addressing these falsehoods in an objective matter, or a jokey matter, how are you not perpetuating these falsehoods? That’s the issue. This was the issue in the summer of 2008 and in the fall of 2009. And today. And for 10 pages of prime New Yorker real estate, Auletta misses it.
Review: “Precious” (2009)
WARNING: GIFT-OF-THE-UNIVERSE SPOILERS
“Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” is set in Harlem in the 1980s, a hopeless period for both race relations and social progress in America. If the 1960s was the two steps forward, the 1980s was the one step back. One image from the period, and the film, is particularly weighted with hopelessness to me. With all of the crime in the streets, with all of the crime in the homes, there in the classroom is a poster of McGruff the Crime Dog, a cartoon hound in a trenchcoat, urging kids to “Take a bite out of crime.” How exactly? By speaking up? By getting an adult? And if the adult is the crime? McGruff is a harbinger of the very thing he fights. He shows up only where crime is rampant and offers nothing. He’s a symbol of impotence.
He’s also a symbol of one of the three universes of “Precious.” All of them are depressing.
The first and worst universe is the brutal, everyday world that Claireece Precious Jones (Gabourey Sidibe) lives in. She’s 16, fat, black, illiterate. Sexually abused by her absentee father since age 3, she’s now pregnant with his second child. The first child, who has developmental problems, is being raised by her grandmother, while her mother, Mary (Mo’Nique), lives off welfare, watches TV all day, and is emotionally and physically abusive to Precious. She tears down Precious every day with a stream of verbal abuse; if Precious is unresponsive she resorts to the physical kind. Precious is also attacked in the streets and ignored in the schools. There is nowhere she is safe.
Except in the second universe, her fantasy universe, where she often goes after being physically abused. Here she wears feather boas and is photographed on red carpets. She’s on BET and magazine covers. She’s beautiful, important, and loved by a light-skinned boyfriend, but the universe is depressing for being so distant from her reality, and for being a slightly more glamorous version of the empty, cheesy shows her mother watches. Who would even want to live in this universe? Only someone whose reality is the first universe.
The third universe is the solution. When administrators at her public high school discover she’s pregnant with her second child, most likely sexually and physically abused, and virtually illiterate, they release her to a special program in an alternative school, “Each One, Teach One,” which is run out of the 11th floor of the Hotel Theresa. Her intro there is inauspicious. The receptionist puts personal phone calls ahead of administrative duties, doesn’t even expect Precious (though there’s hardly a clog of humanity at the place), and needs copies of a phone bill and her mother’s budget to complete the bureaucratic process. Precious’ second day begins even worse. She needs money for food but her mother is masturbating in bed and ignores her. So Precious steals a bucket of fried chicken and eats most of it on the way to school, before throwing it back up in a school garbage can beneath a sign reading: “Try for a better future.” There are such self-esteem signs all over the school. One reads: “Determination.” In another, the following words form a circle: “feeling good about yourself will lead to more reasons for” and back to the first word. Plus there’s McGruff. That harbinger of good times.
When Precious finally enters the classroom (via white light?), the feeling-good-about-yourself times continue. The students, five or six girls, are asked by their teacher, who goes by the name Blu Rain (Paula Patton), to talk about something they’re good at. After the movie, walking down Broadway on Capitol Hill, my girlfriend Patricia commented with amazement on how “all of those girls were so different.” One’s a tough Chicana, one’s a lesbian, one’s from Jamaica, etc. “That’s the point,” I replied flatly. “I know,” she responded, “But...” She liked it. She was caught up in it. I wasn’t. I also wondered about casting. If the classroom was supposed to be feel-good, how did Paula Patton wind up as Ms. Rain? She’s pretty enough to make Halle Berry feel like something the cat dragged in.
And so our first and third universes battle for the soul of Precious. The caring teacher vs. the uncaring mother. One props up, one drags down. “You’re special, Precious.” “You think you’re special, Precious?” Ms. Rain has the students write every day, and the book, “Push,” by Sapphire, is in the first-person, so you get a sense of the progress Precious makes through the writing itself. That might be interesting. On the other hand, it is reminiscent of “The Color Purple,” which was a best-seller, and then a hit movie, a few years before the time “Precious” is set in. Aspects of “Precious” also reminded me of “The Bluest Eye,” Toni Morrison’s first novel, which was published in 1970, and which I read around the time Precious was first walking into that classroom, when Sapphire herself was a remedial reading teacher in Harlem and dealing with girls like Precious every day. I guess every generation needs their version of this story; I guess it’s why it felt old to me.
No, it’s worse. Parts of it feel like a lie. Even as Ms. Rain tells Precious it’s OK to be fat and black (but not illiterate), the good people in the film—Ms. Rain, Nurse John (Lenny Kravitz), and, to a lesser extent, Ms. Weiss (Mariah Carey)—are thin, good-looking, light-skinned. That’s what good is in this universe. “But you’re still beautiful, Precious.”
The movie’s villain, meanwhile, is fat and black. Mary allows her child to be sexually abused and then blames the child for taking away her man. She’s also an argument against welfare—wasting her life in a small cluttered apartment and watching the worst TV has to offer. There are few cinematic moments more depressing than Mary doing a bump-and-grind while smoking and watching Florence Henderson give clues on “$100,000 Pyramid.” The horror of our culture is in that moment. The waste... The waste...
Mo’Nique is smart enough to play Mary as the victim—that’s how she sees herself. It’s a great performance and Mo’Nique deserves her accolades. Put it this way: I believed Mary. I believed Ms. Weiss, too. She’s fighting the good fight but she also has the tired, thousand-yard stare of the career bureaucrat. With the world the way it is, you can only care so much. After her appointment with Precious, she has one with, say, Angela, and another with Bettina, and Clarice, and on and on until five o’clock, at which point she gets to punch out and grab a drink, and then do it all again tomorrow. Five days a week, 52 weeks a year. With that schedule, how much emotion do you put into your 10:15? Carey plays her right. But Ms. Rain? She cares. Deeply. Particularly about Precious. Because Precious is precious? No, because we’re watching Precious’ story rather than Rita’s story, or Rhonda’s or Jermaine’s or Joann’s or Consuelo’s. Ms. Rain has to care more about her because we care more about her. “Your baby loves you,” she tells Precious. “I love you.” In a gritty, horrific story, Ms. Rain is wish-fulfillment. That’s why I didn’t believe her. Or the movie.
The nominees for the French Cesars were announced last week, and Un Prophete (A Prophet), whose trailer I've seen a dozen times at Landmark theaters in the last month, and which is among the front-runners for the Academy's best foreign-language film, was the big dog, le grand chien, with 13 nominations, including best picture, director, actor, supporting actor and original screenplay. According to boxofficemojo, Sony Classics will finally release it here on February 26, but I'm not sure where "here" is yet. NY and LA? Probably. Fingers crossed for more. Hell, fingers crossed for Arkansas.
Speaking of—foreign films—what a motley crew the Cesars chose! At the same time they obviously don't suffer from the same strictures the Academy operates under—one film per country, selected by said country, etc.—because there are three Hollywood productions among the nominees. Mais..."Gran Torino," France? Vous etes fous?
Last year, by the way, "Seraphine" won the Cesar for meilleur film over, among others, "Entre les murs," "Il y a longtemps que je t'aime" et "Paris." "L'heure d'ete," my favorite film from last year, received only one nomination: meilleure actrice, un second role, for Edith Scob, for playing the mother, or grandmother, Helene.
MEILLEUR FILM (BEST FILM)
- A L’ORIGINE (IN THE BEGINNING)
- LE CONCERT (THE CONCERT)
- LES HERBES FOLLES (WILD GRASS)
- LA JOURNÉE DE LA JUPE (SKIRT DAY)
- UN PROPHÈTE (A PROPHET)
MEILLEUR RÉALISATEUR (BEST DIRECTOR)
- JACQUES AUDIARD, A Prophet
- LUCAS BELVAUX, Rapt
- XAVIER GIANNOLI, In the Beginning
- PHILIPPE LIORET, Welcome
- RADU MIHAILEANU, The Concert
MEILLEUR ACTEUR (BEST ACTOR)
- YVAN ATTAL, Rapt
- FRANÇOIS CLUZET, In the Beginning
- FRANÇOIS CLUZET, Le dernier pour la route
- VINCENT LINDON, Welcome
- TAHAR RAHIM, A Prophet
MEILLEURE ACTRICE (BEST ACTRESS)
- ISABELLE ADJANI, Skirt Day
- DOMINIQUE BLANC, L’Autre / The Other One
- SANDRINE KIBERLAIN, Mademoiselle Chambon
- KRISTIN SCOTT THOMAS, Partir / Leaving
- AUDREY TAUTOU, Coco Before Chanel
MEILLEUR ACTEUR, UN SECOND RÔLE (BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR)
- JEAN-HUGUES ANGLADE, Persécution
- NIELS ARESTRUP, A Prophet
- JOEYSTARR, Le bal des actrices
- BENOIT POELVOORDE, Coco Before Chanel
- MICHEL VUILLERMOZ, Le dernier pour la route
MEILLEURE ACTRICE, UN SECOND RÔLE (BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS)
- AURE ATIKA, Mademoiselle Chambon
- ANNE CONSIGNY, Rapt
- AUDREY DANA, Welcome
- EMMANUELLE DEVOS, In the Beginning
- NOÉMIE LVOVSKY, Les beaux gosses
MEILLEUR SCÉNARIO ORIGINAL (BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY)
- JACQUES AUDIARD, THOMAS BIDEGAIN, ABDEL RAOUF DAFRI, NICOLAS PEUFAILLIT, A Prophet
- XAVIER GIANNOLI, In the Beginning
- JEAN-PAUL LILIENFELD, Skirt Day
- PHILIPPE LIORET, EMMANUEL COURCOL, OLIVIER ADAM, Welcome
- RADU MIHAILEANU, ALAIN-MICHEL BLANC, The Concert
MEILLEURE ADAPTATION (BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY)
- STÉPHANE BRIZÉ, FLORENCE VIGNON, Mademoiselle Chambon
- ANNE FONTAINE, CAMILLE FONTAINE pour Coco Before Chanel
- PHILIPPE GODEAU, AGNÈS DE SACY, Le dernier pour la route
- LAURENT TIRARD, GRÉGOIRE VIGNERON, Le petit Nicolas
- ALEX RÉVAL, LAURENT HERBIET, Wild Grass
MEILLEURE PHOTO (BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY)
- CHRISTOPHE BEAUCARNE, Coco Before Chanel
- LAURENT DAILLAND, Welcome
- STÉPHANE FONTAINE, A Prophet
- ÉRIC GAUTIER, Wild Grass
- GLYNN SPEECKAERT, In the Beginning
MEILLEUR MONTAGE (BEST EDITING)
- CÉLIA LAFITEDUPONT, In the Beginning
- HERVÉ DE LUZE, Wild Grass
- ANDRÉA SEDLACKOVA, Welcome
- LUDO TROCH, The Concert
- JULIETTE WELFLING, A Prophet
MEILLEUR FILM ÉTRANGER (BEST FOREIGN FILM)
- AVATAR; directed by James Cameron
- GRAN TORINO; directed by Clint Eastwood
- MILK; directed by Gus Van Sant
- J’AI TUÉ MA MÈRE / I KILLED MY MOTHER; directed by Xavier Dolan
- PANIQUE AU VILLAGE; directed by Stéphane Aubier and Vincent Patar
- THE WHITE RIBBON; directed by Michael Haneke
- SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE; directed by Danny Boyle
“Avatar” Passes “Dark Knight”
Early estimates have “Avatar” winning the Friday box office with $9.1 million (over “Legion”'s $6.7 million), which means several things:
- It now has $526 million domestic. So it should pass “The Dark Knight”'s box-office total of $533 million today and thus become the second-highest-grossing domestic film (unadjusted) of all time.
- When that happens, it'll become the highest-grossing film of the decade. Which means James Cameron has had the highest-grossing film of the decade two decades in a row. Not even Lucas (1970s) or Spielberg (1980s) can say the same.
- On a lesser scale, and assuming no surge from “Legion,” it will be no. 1 for six weekends in a row. No other film of the 2000s had better than four weekends in a row. It's the longest reign atop the weekend box office since, of course, “Titanic,” in 1997.
Build it well and they will come.
“I want you to open at $75 million and then drop only one or two percent the following weekend, and never drop more than 30 percent any weekend. This is going to be a movie with legs, OK?” “OK, Skip.”
Mickey on the DH
"After all, what keeps baseball going? It's the records. People are always talking about records, and if you elminate the records, the game loses a lot of its romance. Yet that's what they're doing. They are making records easier to erase."
—Mickey Mantle on the advent of the designated hitter in 1973, with obvious repurcussions for today; from the book, "Hammerin' Hank, George Almighty and the Say Hey Kid: The Year That Changed Baseball Forever," by John Rosengren
Rebuttal? Joe Posnanski argues that most baseball records are hardly as sacrosanct, or as pure, as we imagine them to be; that many factors—some as small as a strike zone, some as big as a ballpark—help create even the purer records:
Stuff usually isn’t black or white, up or down, left or right. It’s complicated. Carlton Fisk, of all people, should know that. If it makes people feel better to shout “fraud” in a crowded theater, hey, it’s a free country. But it seems to me there’s already enough noise out there.
- From Neal Gabler: Finally! Someone else comes out against the Academy's switch from five to 10 nominees for best picture. Then he goes too far. He blames a general cultural inflation within democracy—everyone demanding, and getting, what they want, so everyone feels good about themselves—but, to me, a greater source of the movie industry's problem (and thus the Academy's problem) is the fact that studios target specific demographics within our increasingly fragmented society. “We'll make this for 13-year-old boys, this for 13-year-old girls, this for fans of horror, and this for awards shows. And this last movie we'll release in New York and L.A., then in select cities, and maybe one day we'll widen it to a quarter of the theaters that, say, a cartoon about gun-wielding hedgehogs played in. When it doesn't do well, we'll scratch our heads and say, 'Well, I guess the audience for serious drama isn't what it used to be,' and we'll stop making those kinds of films.” Of course it could be that the audience for quality drama isn't there anymore. Or it could be that this audience has simply shifted indoors, waiting for DVD or PPV. But I'd guess very few players in Hollywood are trying to make movies for a general audience anymore.
- From Uncle Vinny: Simon Heffer's piece in the Telegraph (UK) is as much a slam on the moribund British film industry as it is a paean to modern French cinema, and, at least to this latter issue, I agree, agree, agree. Obviously he loses me with this statement—“Almost every Hollywood film is now made to appeal to such a broad audience...”—since, as I argue above, Hollywood isn't trying to appeal broadly but specifically: to 14-year-old boys. (The result is the same: stupid films.) I was also saddened to read Mr. Heffer's appreciation of “Mesrine,” starring Vincent Cassel. Not because I disagree but because I haven't been able to see it yet. I had tickets for both parts at last year's Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF) but it was pulled at the last instant. Forget why. According to IMDb.com, it doesn't even have a U.S. distributor. DVD? Not in this country. It sits in my Netflix “saved” queue, along with a dozen other great or interesting films, such as “OSS 117: Lost in Rio” and “The Century of the Self.” And don't even get me started on where the hell “Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis” is. But thanks to Mr. Heffer I have added “Le gout des autres” to my queue. The most startling thing about his article, though, is that he spends a thousand words praising modern French film and doesn't mention “L'heure d'ete.”
- From David Carr: One of the best journalists working smartly reminds us that it's not Leno, Conan nor Zucker who's responsible for this debacle; it's you and me. The audience for traditional late-night shows is being lost to other media, primarily this one, and if Leno's ratings are slightly higher than Conan's it's because his audience is older and less likely to be here. Moving Jay back to the “The Tonight Show” is like moving a man to the driest part of a sinking ship—and knocking over other passengers, including a tall redhead, in order to do it. That man might last a little longer but it's hardly stopping the ship from sinking.
Birthday Lyrics of the Day (47)
“And I know that in nearly four years
I’ll be hitting 50
That ripe young age
That halfway point
When life really begins
But Saturday let’s celebrate
Neither the past nor future
But the present
Here I am
In the shape I’m in!”
—Loudon Wainwright III, “The Birthday Present”
Welcome to the Loser's Club
"This is the point, to me, where art and fandom coincide. Every work of art is one half of a secret handshake, a challenge that seeks the password, a heliograph flashed from a tower window, an act of hopeless optimism in the service of bottomless longing. ... Art, like fandom, asserts the possibility of fellowship in a world built entirely from the materials of solitude. The novelist, the cartoonist, the songwriter, knows that the gesture is doomed from the beginning but makes it anyway, flashes his or her bit of mirror, not on the chance that the signal will be seen or understood but as if such a chance existed...
"Though I derive a sense of strength and confidence from writing and from my life as a husband and father, those pursuits are notoriously subject to endless setbacks and the steady exposure of shortcomings, weakness, and insufficiency—in particular in the raising of children. A father is a man who fails every day. Sometimes things work out: Your flashed message is received and read, your song is rerecorded by another band and goes straight to No. 1, you son blesses the memory of the day you helped him arrange the empty chairs of his foredoomed dream, your act of last-ditch desperation sends your comic-book company to the top of the industry. Success, however, does nothing to diminish the knowledge that failure stalks everything you do. But you always knew that. Nobody gets past the age of ten without that knowledge. Welcome to the club."
—Michael Chabon, "The Loser's Club," from the book Manhood for Amateurs
Globe Highlights: Michael on McCartney, Marty on Movies
I don't have much to say about the Golden Globes except Patricia and I watched them—the first hour live before heading out to a Sunday-night dinner party, the rest on DVR Monday as she recovered from oral surgery and I built an IKEA TV cart. (Their motto: so easy even Erik Lundegaard can build one.) I wrote about the sorry history of the Globes last year, and if anything was surprsing this year it was the lack of sorry history. Sure, I would've gone Mulligan over Bullock for best actress, and Damon or Stuhlberg for best actor in a comedy or musical over Downey, Jr.—even though I haven't seen "Sherlock Holmes" and love me some Downey, Jr.—but it's not a bad list. Gervais was funny, rippingly so at times, most of the speeches were good. Two highlights:
- Michael Giacchino winning best soundtrack for "Up." He gets to the podium, has to squeeze in past Cher, who doesn't seem to know where she is, and says: "I just can't believe Paul McCartney said, 'Go, Michael!' That's like awesome. I don't know if I have anything else to say, that's like the greatest thing in my life right there." Anyone of a like age, even non-musicians, know what he's talking about. He went on to talk about Pixar as his family. It was short, sweet, heartwarming, spoke to a generation.
- Martin Scorsese winning the Cecil B. DeMille Award. The highlight reel worked well in terms of theme and music, but, like most things these days, I thought it was too quick-cut, went too fast. But it was Marty's speech I truly loved. Even this went too fast for me. I could listen to him talk about movies for hours and days, not minutes, and recommend, if you haven't seen them, or even if you have, his two documentaries on movies: "A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies" and "My Voyage to Italy." As I wrote two years I still hope to someday see "A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through World Cinema." His speech Sunday night had elements of that in it. It focused not on his accomplishments but the accomplishments of the medium:
If you've ever sat through the end credits of a movie you know how many people it takes to make a picture: 200, 300, 500. If it's an average of even 300, and I've made 40, 50 movies, including documentaries, that's quite a lot. And saying that movies is a collaborative process is not a cliche, it's the truth. I've collaborated with a lot of people, many of them are here tonight. I want to thank them all. ... I'm especially moved and grateful to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. They've provided The Film Foundation with enormous support for more than 12 years, making possible the restoration of over 70 films. Just a couple of titles: masterpieces like Stanley Kubruck's "Paths of Glory," Elia Kazan's "A Face in the Crowd," and the stunning new color restoration of Michael Powell's and Emmeric Pressburger's "The Red Shoes." Without this generosity the film community would be poorer indeed and the history of film would be incomplete. Because as William Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It is not even past." And as far as I'm concerned, making films and preserving them are the same thing. In this room, none of us who make films and watch them would be here without the people who came here before us. Whether it’s DeMille, Hitchcock, the Senegalese filmmaker Sembène, Kurosawa or John Ford, de Sica, Bergman, Satiajit Ray, we’re all walking in their footsteps every day, all of us…
That's total class. If Gervais pricked the self-importance of stars and awards shows, Scorsese showed why what was being awarded Sunday night mattered after all.
Your MLK-Day Rental
Another example of how liberal Hollywood isn't is the paucity of good movies about the civil rights movement. You've got your documentaries (“Eyes on the Prize”; “Four Little Girls”), one or two good movies starring white people (“Mississippi Burning”), and a good biopic on a man who, for most of his public career, denigrated the civil rights movement (“Malcolm X”).
Recommendation: an HBO movie from 2001, “Boycott,” starring Jeffrey Wright as a young Dr. King and Terrence Howard as a young Rev. Ralph Abernathy. In an MSNBC piece on Wright in 2005, I wrote the following about “Boycott”:
I remember the first time I became aware of this film. I was at Scarecrow Video in Seattle and from the TV above the counter I heard Dr. King giving a speech. Except it was not his rousing “I have a dream” voice; it was his everyday sermon voice that lingered on words but never reached for the stratosphere. Save for the richness of the baritone, it was almost boring, and I wondered why they were showing one of Dr. King’s boring speeches at Scarecrow. But when I looked up it wasn’t Dr. King talking but Jeffrey Wright. I’d seen him play the graffiti artist Basquiat and the Dominican druglord Peoples Hernandez in “Shaft.” Now Dr. King.
When I finally saw the film what blew me away was not just the imitation — that he could do both versions (rousing and everyday) of the public Dr. King — but that he was able to articulate a private Dr. King that felt real. Let’s face it. In most Hollywood biopics great figures are, to quote “Amadeus,” “people so lofty they sound as if they s--t marble.” Not here. Jeffrey Wright’s private Dr. King teases and jokes. He flirts with his wife. While getting ready for bed, when she asks him if he thinks their neighbors will give up their cars to aid the boycott, his rich baritone drops to a purr. “Well,” he says, getting close, “I’ve been told I have certain powers of persuasion.”
The theme of “Boycott” is that history just doesn’t happen. History is a series of choices, and the filmmakers work hard to show you the choices that began the civil rights movement. To do this they need a human Dr. King who works things through — from simply asking for a more humane bus system to demanding the elimination of segregation itself. It’s not just a great performance. No one will ever do a better Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Let me repeat that: No one will ever do a better Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Review: “Broken Embraces” (2009)
WARNING: NONE-SO-BLIND SPOILERS
Pedro Almodovar’s “Los abrazos rotos” (“Broken Embraces”) begins with a movie being filmed. We’re seeing through a camera as technicians fuss around the female star, who stands in the center, lost in thought. She might be bored. At one point, she charmingly gives her lips a Chaplinesque back-and-forth waggle. Then she’s replaced by Penelope Cruz. The original girl wasn’t the star but the stand-in. One anticipates doppelganger themes, or themes of perception, for the rest of the film. The person you’re watching isn’t the person you think you’re watching.
Indeed, after the opening credits, we get a close-up of a female eye with the face of a man visible in the pupil. The man who’s being seen can’t see. He’s writer-director Mateo Blanco (Lluis Homar), who gave up the name, and the directing half of his profession, when he lost his sight 15 years earlier. Now he goes by the nom de plume Harry Caine.
The owner of the eye (Kira Miro) is reading to Harry at the breakfast table about the death of a businessman, Ernesto Martel (Jose Luis Gomez). Is she his nurse? After quizzing her about Martel’s death, he says he’s not interested in the news; he’s interested in her. What’s she like? He asks for her measurements (36-26-36). He asks her to describe her looks. He asks if he can touch her face with his hands. He does. And he works his way down. And her breathing gets heavier. And he lifts the thin straps of her chemise and squeezes her breasts.
Me in the audience: Pedro, you are my favorite gay man.
They have sex on the couch, which Almodovar films discreetly but sensually, as he pans slowly across the back of the couch, revealing a hand there, a foot there. Afterwards, with the woman in the bathroom, another woman, Judit Garcia (Blanca Portillo), arrives and looks disapprovingly at Harry. He senses her disapproval and tells her: “Everything’s already happened to me. All that’s left is to enjoy life.” The reader of the newspaper isn’t his nurse after all; she’s simply somebody who helped him across the street. And Judit? Is she maid to Harry? Assistant? Friend? Ex-wife? One senses a history. And the handsome young man, Diego (Tamar Novas), who shows up a minute later? He’s her son, but what is he to Harry? He almost seems like a son to him, too. Much of the movie is sussing out such relationships. What do these characters mean to each other? You could say that’s the question each of us asks every day. What do we characters mean to each other?
By the way: Harry’s wrong. Everything hasn’t happened to him. And it’s the death of Martel that sets things in motion again.
Harry tells Judit a story he wants to make into a film. The playwright Arthur Miller had a son with Down Syndrome whom he cut out of his life; but the son grew to a man and forgave him, going so far as to tell him, at a fundraiser for people like himself, “I’m proud of you, papa.” It’s a story about an overwhelming act of forgiveness, but soon Harry is visited by a young filmmaker, Ray X (Ruben Ochandiano), who wants to make a film about the opposite: filial unforgiveness. A father who couldn’t abide a gay son, who made the son ignore what he was. Bitterness emanates from Ray—it’s obvious he’s talking about himself—but Harry detects even more, and, with Diego’s help, realizes that Ray is the son of Ernesto Martel, and Ernesto Martel is the man who ruined Harry’s life.
Much of the rest of the film is flashback—told by Harry to Diego.
In 1992, Lena (Penelope Cruz), not an actress at all but secretary to Martel, is overwhelmed because her father is dying of stomach cancer and the health-care system is spitting him out. Martel is sympathetic, allowing her the afternoon off to attend to him. But things get worse for the father. He’s in agony. At one time Lena was a budding actress but went nowhere except into the role of sometime, high-class prostitute, and she contacts her former madam to get some quick money to help her father. Except a client phones her at home and that’s not the way it works. The madam admits, with a shrug, that one wealthy client insisted that if Lena ever returned to the business he would get her home phone. The client, by the way, is Martel. Initially we wonder if it’s all a fantastic coincidence. Then we don’t. As solicitous as he initially seemed, he’s always had his eye on her. After he helps her get her father into assisted care, the two walk away together, not touching. One senses debts about to be paid.
Two years later she’s his mistress. Meanwhile director Mateo Blanco is making a comedy, “Chicas y maletas” (“Girls and Suitcases,” recognizable as a spin on Almodovar’s “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”), and Lena wants to try out for a role. She does, and there’s an immediate spark between the two. Judit, who’s around even then, is jealous. Martel is jealous. He gets his son, Ernesto, Jr., the future Ray X, hampered by bad skin, bad hair and big glasses, to film them as they film the movie; then he employs a lip reader to tell him what they’re saying. Initially it’s all work stuff. But behind closed doors, away from Ernesto, Jr.’s camera, we find out it’s more. They’re hot and heavy in love. Martel suspects it and takes Lena away for a weekend.
I’m not a huge Almodovar fan but I love the way he allows us the time and space to figure things out. At this point in the movie, for example, we see two people making love under the sheets. For a second the sheets seem like a shroud. Are they? Is this sex as death? Yet the two seem to be enjoying themselves. Is it Lena and Mateo? No, when the sheets are removed, it’s Lena and Martel, away for the weekend. So maybe she loves both men?
Then she goes into the bathroom and throws up. It was sex as death. The sheets were a shroud.
The following Monday, having spent all weekend acting with Martel, her acting before the camera suffers, and when Mateo questions her she complains about Martel, calling him a monster. Of course it’s all filmed by Ernesto, Jr., and said aloud by the lip-reader. And now Martel knows.
This is where Almodovar loses me. He’s always had a bit of Douglas Sirk in him and I’ve never liked grand-staircase melodrama. But that’s what we get. Lena returns to say her final goodbyes, and, just as she’s heading down the grand staircase, he pushes her, she falls, she can’t get up. Now she’s in a cast. How can they film the rest of her scenes? They improvise. Then she shows up at Mateo’s with bruises on her face, and, with the film in the can, she and Mateo go away for a month and only return to Madrid when their movie opens to critical pans. Mateo must find out what they did to ruin his film in his absence.
During the course of watching this film, Almodovar’s film, we assume Lena’s dead, since she’s not in the present; so we wonder how she died and how Mateo went blind. That’s in the last act. On their way back to Madrid, Ernesto, Jr., looking sinister, is on their trail again, thanks to information he and his father received reluctantly from Judit. He’s filming them as they kiss in their car at an intersection; and he’s filming them as they pull out into the intersection and an SUV slams into the passenger’s side, killing Lena, blinding Mateo.
In other words: Someone meant them harm, harm was done, but the two aren’t related. It was all a horrible accident.
In the end, Harry and Diego—his son, he learns, 90 minutes after the rest of us figure it out—work together to re-make “Chicas y maletas,” which Martel had purposely sabotaged. Ray X is helpful, too. Forgiveness, the point of the Arthur Miller story, abounds.
I’m all for forgiveness but “Broken Embraces” ranges too far with its story and themes and feels weak as a result. I expected, even as I wrote this, for the film to coalesce in some way, but it didn’t, or hasn’t. At the start, the people you’re watching are not the people you think you’re watching: the movie star who’s a stand-in; the nurse who’s a fling. For the rest of the film, everyone is exactly who you think they are. I guess I wanted something a little more melodramatic, or at least surprising, from Mr. Almodovar. I didn’t want twists so obvious even a blind man could see them.
Nurse? Assistant? 36-26-36?
- The other day my father was searching for a Ring Lardner quote on the origin of the phrase "crossword puzzles," clicked a link to Salt Lake City's Deseret News and came across...his own article on the history of the crossword puzzle that he wrote for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune 20 years ago. They give credit but no money (at least not to the author). But follow them on Facebook! Follow them on Twitter! As for the quote? Lardner said crosswords were so-called because "husbands and wives generally try to solve them together." Nice line.
- Speaking of quotes: A few weeks back the L.A. Times asked screenwriters for the origins of their famous movie lines, such as "Go ahead...make my day." Most of the screenwriters give a lot of credit to the actors saying the lines, and two of those lines are said by Tom Hanks, but my favorite anecdote of the bunch, maybe because it's my favorite line of the bunch, is Frank Pierson on "What we got here is failure to communicate."
- New York Magazine asked critics around the country for their worst movies of 2009. It's fun to read—not least because some of them try to outdo each other with their contrarianism. Really, Nathan Lee? Really really, Rex Reed? And either remove the caps lock, Choire Sicha, or get a new job before you give yourself a heart attack. On the other hand: Exactly, Joe Morgenstern. And thanks for the laugh, Michelle Orange. Elsewhere Patrick Goldstein does us the favor of adding up these "worst ofs" and getting the top 10 worst films of 2009. Number one? Guess.
- Snkkt! They're prosecuting the guy who uploaded that copy of "Wolverine" onto the Web last March, more than a month before its theatrical debut. His name is Gilberto Sanchez, 47, a glass installer and musician from the Bronx, who says he bought a bootleg copy of the movie from an Asian, possibly Korean, man in a Chinese restaurant, watched it with his grandkids, then posted it on the Web so others could enjoy it. Not smart. Worth jail time? I don't know. The bigger question is how the bootleg got into that Chinese restaurant in the first place. But that's the difficult part. Which is why Sanchez is being prosecuted by himself.
- Tom Shone's Slate piece on the politics of "Avatar" was fun reading. It's not only smart but kept me off-balance, veering from "What are talkin' about?" to "Exactly!" to "Oh, please," to "Right effin' on!" The slide over into the Cameron oeuvre is particularly good and the ending packs a whallop. Smart smart smart. Even if Slate's headline is dumb dumb dumb.
- By the way: If "Avatar" wins the weekend, as it's predicted to do, it will be no. 1 for the fifth weekend in a row. When was the last time our throwaway culture kept the same movie no. 1 for five weekends in a row? Way back in 1999, when "The Sixth Sense" was also no. 1 for five weekends in a row. (Three other films in the 2000s managed four weekends at no. 1:"The Dark Knight," "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." More here, in a piece I wrote in 2006.) And if "Avatar" manages a sixth weekend at no. 1? That'll be the most since, of course, "Titanic," back in '97-'98, when it spent... wait for it...15 weekends at no. 1. As I've said and said and said: fanboys are all well and good but there are no repeat customers like teenage girls dying to see Leonardo DiCaprio dying for them.
- Nathaniel over at Film Experience raps up his 100 best films of the 2000s with his top 15. It's not that I agree with him—although I do some of the time (Brokeback, Habla Con Ella, Rachel); it's, as he writes, "List-making is, by its very nature, personal. If you're doing it right that is."
- How about some baseball action? Joe Posnanski takes apart Tom Verducci—not for arguing that Edgar Martinez shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame, but for arguing that Edgar Martinez shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame because "Only four times did Martinez play in 150 games and put up an adjusted OPS of 120." Edgar's adjusted OPS in those seasons, Posnanski notes, was considerably higher than 120. "There are many ways to mess around with the numbers and one is to make the qualifying standard way below a player’s standing," Posnanski writes. "If you do that, you can come up with all sorts of crazy stuff." He gives examples. Most seasons with 10 or more home runs? Turns out Chili Davis is tied at no. 24...with Babe Ruth! Who knew?
- Finally, if you know me, if you read me, if you love me, you know how much I love both baseball and Charles Schulz's "Peanuts." Which is why I think this is the greatest thing ever.
Ballplayers: Daddy-o, Papa, and a boy named Charlie Brown
Many Nations, Under Netflix
Everyone and their brother has posted this already but last week the New York Times gave us a great interactive feature tracing the popularity of 2009 Netflix rentals by zip code. Here's mine in Seattle, for example:
- The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- Slumdog Millionaire
- Burn After Reading
- The Wrestler
- Rachel Getting Married
- I Love You, Man
What do the above movies have in common? Most are smart, some are Oscar contenders, only a handful did well at the box office.
But that's hardly news, is it? More interesting is the fact that you can calculate the racial makeup of cities by toggling toward films such as “Not Easily Broken,” starring Morris Chestnut, which was very rented in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, but nowhere rented in Seattle and Minneapolis and Denver. Not a speck of color on those maps. Same with “Obsession” or any Tyler Perry flick. In fact you can guess which is the whitest (or least-African-American) city of the three based on these rentals. According to Netflix's maps? Seattle. And that checks out. According to 2005-07 data, the African-American population in these cities are: 8.2% in Seattle, 9.9% in Denver, and 17.7% in Minneapolis.
Equally intriguing is calculating where films such as “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” are popular (in the South) and where they aren't (in cities). It's the anti-“Milk,” which is hugely popular in cities and not at all in outlying areas. Looking at these maps, you realize, yet again, that we're hardly “one nation,” let alone “under God.” And don't even get me started on “with liberty and justice for all.”
Quick quiz. The maps below represent the 2009 Seattle Netflix rental habits for four movies: “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “Rachel Getting Married,” “Cadillac Records” and “Seven Pounds.” The darker the color the more popular the film in that area. Click on each map for its answer.
Review: “The Spy Next Door” (2010)
WARNING: SPOILED-ROTTEN SPOILERS
I went into “The Spy Next Door” thinking that Jackie Chan, at 55, wouldn’t be able to perform the stunning moves he’s given us for over 30 years but hoped the story around him would make up for the deficit. It’s the opposite. He still moves with more grace than any action star in Hollywood. But the story around him?
Jackie plays Bob Ho—a take-off on “Bob Hope” as his Chon Wang in “Shanghai Noon” was a take-off on John Wayne. He's a Chinese spy on loan to the CIA who pretends to be a pen salesman in southern California, and he’s living next door to, and romancing, a woman named Gillian, the mother of three, played by fashion model Amber Valletta. One wonders which is the bigger fantasy: the international spy next door or the international supermodel (with three kids) next door. I’ve got my pick.
Bob would like to quit the biz and marry her. Smart man! Four things are getting in the way: 1) She likes how ordinary and honest he is, when he’s been dishonest about how ordinary he isn’t; and 2)-4), her three kids hate him. He’s boring, they complain. So when Gillian’s father winds up in the hospital because of a senior softball accident, Bob volunteers to babysit while she flies to his side. He’s going to win them over.
The kids are the usual mix of Hollywood stereotypes and impossibilities. Farren (Madeline Carroll), verging on adolescence, wants to dress in short skirts and bare mid-riffs, and takes forever in the bathroom. Ian (Will Shadley), the middle child, has the vocabulary of a Harvard freshman but wants to be “cool,” even as he feeds girls twice his age lines like, “If I said you had a nice body, would you hold it against me?” Finally, there’s Nora (Alina Foley), who’s cute and runs away a lot. Together they conspire, as Farren says, “to deep-six Bob.” While searching for evidence against him, Ian downloads sensitive material that gets the bad guys, Russian terrorists, on their trail.
But first Bob has to screw up making breakfast while the kids sit at the table and roll their eyes. Then he drives them to school while they roll their eyes and argue about who gets the front seat. Then he loses Nora at the mall and has to perform a Jackie Chanesque stunt to get her back. Eventually he uses the tools of his trade to keep them in line, and he has heart-to-hearts with Farren and Ian, but they always get back to rolling their eyes.
“The Spy Next Door” is billed as a family comedy but one wonders how good it is for families. Not because Gillian is a single mom and Farren isn’t her child—it’s her ex-husband’s child from his first marriage—but because it takes a “kids being kids” attitude toward the brattiest behavior. It smiles and shakes its head lovingly at impossibly smart boys booby-trapping their sisters’ hair-dryers and 11-year-old girls dressing like sluts. When Ian complains that he wants to be cool, Bob tells him “You are cool,” rather than, “Why do you want to be cool?” or “Isn’t cool boring?” or “Isn’t the whole point of being cool to be disinterested? And aren’t you interesting because you’re interested?” I’m not saying the conversation would’ve worked, or should’ve worked, since it doesn’t really work in real life (I’ve tried), but at least it would’ve been said. Better that than to tell Ian to brush back his hair and flip up his collar so he looks like a kid’s version of the worst preppy asshole from 1985. Which, of course, gets him noticed by the older girls at school. Because girls like preppy assholes from 1985.
Jackie isn’t completely innocent in this, either. Like Paul McCartney, he’s always had a cutsie thing that needs controlling, and director Brian Levant, who's made a career out of ending the careers of tough guys by directing them with kids (“Jingle All the Way”; “Are We There Yet?”), doesn’t control him, or the movie, enough.
English, too, will always be a problem for Jackie—particularly in comedies. He’s much funnier in Cantonese or Mandarin. At one point Bob is supposed to say, “Maybe you write her a poem”; but Mandarin, and I assume Cantonese, has no closing “m” sounds, only opening “m” sounds (example: “Mei-guo” for “America”), and he can’t quite get his mouth around “poem.” During the closing-credit “blooper” reel, he says the line over and over before shaking his head and declaring, “I hate English.” That ad-lib made me laugh harder than any scripted line in the movie. Maybe because there was honesty behind it.
There are some sweet moments. When Nora has trouble sleeping Bob sings her a Mandarin lullaby. And when Farren complains about not really being part of the family, Bob talks about growing up an orphan—which is what happened to Jackie (his parents abandoned him to a Peking Opera school)—and adds that family isn’t your blood but who loves you and whom you love.
Then the Rooskies come, Bob’s cover is blown, and, despite the heart-to-heart about family, Farren deep-sixes him—not because he’s boring, her original objection, but because he’s exciting. Gillian is unable to forgive him—twice—for lying to her and putting her kids in danger. Even though her kids are brats and put themselves in danger. And even though the lie was in the interest of international security. And even though his lie is nothing next to the lies the film propagates.
Ni tzi na-lie, Wong Fei-hung?
The Mom next door.
Clay Shirky Quote of the Day
"It is our misfortune to live through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race, a misfortune because surplus always breaks more things than scarcity. Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.
"To make a historical analogy with the last major increase in the written word, you could earn a living in 1500 simply by knowing how to read and write. The spread of those abilities in the subsequent century had the curious property of making literacy both more essential and less professional; literacy became critical at the same time as the scribes lost their jobs.
"The same thing is happening with publishing; in the 20th century, the mere fact of owning the apparatus to make something public, whether a printing press or a TV tower, made you a person of considerable importance. Today, though, publishing, in its sense of making things public, is becoming similarly de-professionalized; YouTube is now in the position of having to stop 8 year olds from becoming global publishers of video. The mere fact of being able to publish to a global audience is the new literacy, formerly valuable, now so widely available that you can't make any money with the basic capability any more.
"This shock of inclusion, where professional media gives way to participation by two billion amateurs (a threshold we will cross this year) means that average quality of public thought has collapsed; when anyone can say anything any time, how could it not? If all that happens from this influx of amateurs is the destruction of existing models for producing high-quality material, we would be at the beginning of another Dark Ages.
"So it falls to us to make sure that isn't all that happens."
—Clay Shirky, in a collection of World Question Center pieces
Cute Little Rebooties
The big question about the rebooting of the Spider-Man franchise, which I didn't ask in my post yesterday, is whether the reboot will become the new norm. The point, in other words, is no longer to tell a story (the movie), or to continue telling the same story (the sequel) but to tell the same story over and over again (the reboot).
And who wants the same story told to them over and over again? Children. Young children. Our culture is definitely infantile but I'm sure it'll keep surprising me with how infantile it is.
One also wonders if Sony will take a page out of the “Dark Knight” playbook by making the first movie about the origin of the superhero while saving the best villain for the first sequel. I wouldn't be surprised.
What's interesting is that Sony's reboot is in direct contrast to what Marvel Entertainment/Studios is attempting to do with their characters/movies. They're treating movies like issues, and builiding toward the creation of The Avengers. They want the whole Marvel Comic universe onscreen, having new adventures, rather than telling the same story again and again.
Oh well. What are the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John if not a reboot of Mark?
The reboot: Marvel was there first. “Tell us that story again, Daddy.”
The Sunday New York Times, print edition, had a great section—section, kids—on the Oscars. All yer Oscar news is one spot. You just flip pages.
First, the front page of the section explicated three great scenes from 2009: Dargis on one of the bomb defusings in “The Hurt Locker” (good brief history of the zoom, too); Holden on “The Messenger” (which, in November, was playing a block from where I work, but which I criminally never saw); and my favorite of the bunch, A.O. Scott on the snowball fight in “Where the Wild Things Are” (a truly underrated film that will hopefully get more attention). I'm a fan of these kinds of scene explications. I've done a few myself.
When he finally found a role in which he looked entirely at ease, it was in a film that was neither a standard-issue piece of studio entertainment nor quite an offbeat indie, but something in between: Steven Soderbergh’s tricky comic caper movie “Out of Sight” (1998), based on a novel by Elmore Leonard, and with all the noirish eccentricity that implies. Mr. Leonard’s skewed world, in which competence, wit and unfussy romance are highly prized — and constantly endangered, because there are always way too many thugs and morons about — turns out to be an environment in which Mr. Clooney (if not his character) can thrive.
His performance is all sly looks and bone-dry readings, held together by a general air of barely contained exasperation at the antics of the fools and knaves who surround him. And although he’s a thief and an escaped convict, he looks with undisguised admiration at the United States marshal who’s trying to bring him to justice: she knows her job, and she’s Jennifer Lopez besides.
His style in “Out of Sight” is too elusive, too stylized — it’s like lowlife Restoration comedy — to serve as a repeatable, bankable star persona, but it’s the foundation, in a way, for everything good he’s done since then, the theme on which he works his small, increasingly subtle variations. The larcenous gulf war soldier he plays in David O. Russell’s inventive “Three Kings” (1999) is a tougher, slightly bitterer version of his “Out of Sight” character, and it fits.
On the back page we get the annual, “And the Oscars Should Be...,” which is always fun because it's so disagreeable—in the sense that the three Times critics rarely agree with each other. Even with 10 options for best picture this year, only one film showed up on all three ballots: “The Hurt Locker.” My tastes run with Ms. Dargis' here: “Summer Hours,” “Avatar,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Where the Wild Things Are,” and “The Informant!” All the 22 films listed are good, though. Well, I still don't get the critical love for “District 9.” A.O.
But I'm with A.O. on best director: Assayas, Bigelow, Cameron, Coens, Soderbergh. (I wonder why no one picked Jonze as best director, though, since two of the three chose “Where the Wild Things Are” among best pics. That kid didn't direct himself, people.) Does Manohla get intentionally quirky with her acting choices? George Clooney for “Fantastic Mr. Fox”? Zoe Saldana for “Avatar”? James Galdolfini for “Wild Thing”? Two voice performances and a voice/movement performance. Maybe she's making a comment about modern acting.
The only actor on all three lists? Colin Firth for “A Single Man.” No actress makes all three. Ditto the supporting roles. Original screenplay? Just Mark Boal for “The Hurt Locker.” Adapted? Rien.
Eight categories, 45 slots, and they agree on just four. Fun!
It's made me begin to think about my choices. (McKay will most likely get a supporting actor nod from me, for example.) What about you? Where are you disagreeable?
Boal and Bigelow: Two of the four that the three agree on
Spider-Man 4 No More!
We got the news yesterday, via Nikki Finke's site, that Sam Raimi walked away from “Spider-Man 4” because he couldn't deliver on the summer 2011 release date and didn't want to compromise the series' “creative integrity.” (Yeah, we know: “Spider-Man 3.”) With him went everything, including Toby Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, and now Sony's planning a reboot with a new director and a new Peter Parker/Spider-Man. And 3-D. The fall-out from the success of “Avatar,” I guess. Now every studio will be pushing 3-D the way that, after the success of Cameron's “Titanic,” every studio pushed movies with water. Because that was the obvious lesson of “Titanic” to them: People like water. So with “Avatar”: People like 3-D. They do, but within limits. “X Games 3D—The Movie” was hardly a hit in August, for example. “A Christmas Carol” did OK in November, $137 million, but 16 non-3-D films did better for the year. You need more than 3-D.
More to the point: A reboot? Of Spider-Man? The original wasn't even 8 years ago! Is that by how much we're speeding things up? By the time Warner Bros. rebooted the Batman franchise, four movies and 16 years had passed. By the time Sony reboots Spider-Man, three movies and 10 years will have passed. Do I hear two movies and 6 years? One movie and 3 years? Hey, let's keep telling the same story over and over and over again.
Oh wait, please don't tell me: Shia LeBeouf? No, can't be.
And this was a successful franchise—one of the most successful franchises of the '00s. The first movie had the highest domestic gross of 2002. The second had the second-highest domestic gross of 2004. The third had the highest domestic gross of 2007. Can't get much better than that.
One wonders what the creative conflict was—and how creative that conflict was. Or was the problem financial? Raimi supposedly wanted a $230 million budget. The L.A. Times also adds:
The studio said it would hire a new star and director and re-boot the movie as a story about Parker's early life as a “teenager grappling with contemporary human problems and amazing super-human crises.” Because Sony is essentially starting from scratch, the studio has pushed the picture's release to 2012.
“Contemporary” human problems? As opposed to the outdated problems he grappled with originally? Like love, death, guilt, shame?
Somewhere, Electro, the Scorpion, and Kraven the Hunter are sitting back down.
Review: “New Moon” (2009)
WARNING: PENSIVE, TORTURED SPOILERS
Near the end of “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” as the Volturi, the council that enforces vampiric law, is arguing over what to do with vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and his human girlfriend Bella Swann (Kristen Stewart), one of the members of the council, Marcus (Christopher Heyerdahl, distantly related to Thor Heyerdahl), stands and declares, “Let us be done with this!”
Me in the audience: Amen, brother.
“New Moon” is painful. It's as painful as listening to a girl lament about some unsolvable problem everyday for a year. Bella and Edward start out tortured together (Bella: “I can’t even think of someone hurting you.” Edward: “Bella, the only thing that can hurt me is you.”), and they soon become tortured separately. She thrashes in bed. She sleepwalks through her day. Basically she’s waiting, which means basically we’re waiting. At one point the kids debate which movie to see at the local theater, “Love Spelled Backwards is Love” or “Face Punch,” and Bella opts for the latter, declaring, “Guns, adrenaline, that’s my thing.”
Me in the audience: Then it’s a good thing you’re not watching your movie.
It begins well enough with the image of a new moon that slowly fades to a half-moon, a quarter, sliver, all the while revealing the title. Then we get a dream/nightmare from Bella. She’s at the edge of the woods looking over an open field toward more woods, where an old woman, her grandmother, stands. She’s with Edward, and, though she warns him, he walks into the sunlight, revealing his vampireness (vampirity?) to her grandmother; so she walks with him into the open field to introduce the two. But when she speaks her grandmother speaks, with the same voice, using the same words. She looks over at Edward, confused. When she looks back, she’s looking into a mirror. Her grandmother is her. She’s aged, Edward hasn’t, and she’s an old woman now. Then she wakes up. A year older. It’s her 18th birthday.
Everyone wants to celebrate it except her, and one gets the feeling it’s not just the nightmare. She’s just built that way. People do shit for her and her response is blank confusion. She’s a bit of a downer.
When she first sees Edward, at school, in the parking lot, he walks toward her in slow motion. That’s how love is revealed these days: via slow-mo. In the old days it was through words, words, words, and in English class we get one such example: “Romeo and Juliet.” Which means after hearing the Bard’s dialogue, and after Bella is nearly attacked by one of Edward’s clan and the Cullens decide to leave Forks, we get Stephenie Meyer’s dialogue:
Edward: You just don’t belong in my world, Bella.
Bella: I belong with you.
Edward: No, you don’t.
Bella: I’m coming with you.
Edward: Bella, I don’t want you to come with me.
Bella: You... You don’t want me...?
He goes, she’s bereft. And bereft and bereft. At one point she realizes that whenever she's in danger she sees Edward's face, so she keeps putting herself in danger. She becomes an adrenaline junkie, and her friend, Jacob (Taylor Lautner), helps her rebuild some junker motorcycles to help her newfound need for speed. She enjoys his company but he’s got a crush on her. Plus he’s a werewolf—part of that Native American wolf pack that has treaties with vampires. When she learns this she manages to rise above the emotional minutia of her life and wonders whether all of the stories she heard as a child, of fairies and trolls, are true; but then, poof, that moment is gone, and it’s back to Bella Bella Bella. Me, I wondered if this meant there was some Frankensteinian clan living over by Lake Quinault. Fire, bad. Rain, good.
As awful as the dialogue was before the revelation, it gets that much worse after it. Here’s Bella and Jacob walking on the beach:
Bella: So. [Long pause.] You’re a werewolf.
Jacob: Yep. Last time I checked.
Werewolves, we find out, are warm, 108 degrees, which is why these wolf-boys run around shirtless in the Pac Northwest winter. (BTW: Are there girl werewolves? Is there a Title IX issue for them somewhere?) Like the Cullens, this wolf pack leaves humans alone. They prowl after bad vampires. They like cliff diving. They eat muffins. As wolves do.
“Twilight” fans are apparently divided between Team Jacob and Team Edward, and, with no rights in the matter—not having read the books, disliking the movies, and being, you know, a straight guy—I’ll still cast my vote for Edward. Maybe because he’s more learned. Maybe because his powers are tempered by shame. Probably because Pattinson’s the better actor.
Much of the movie is Jacob mooning after Bella, who is mooning after Edward, but in the last act she travels to Rome to save Edward. He thinks Bella’s dead and, like Romeo, he’s thinking of suicide. Which, for a vampire, means revealing himself to humans so the Volturi will kill him. He’s about to do this when Bella arrives in the nick of time and saves him. (Take that, Shakespeare!) But the two are led before the Volturi anyway, and the council debates the whole ugly matter. Should they kill him, whom they can’t trust, or her, who knows too much? Him? Her? Him? Her? She shocks them when she offers her life to save his. A human? Doing this for one of us? Well, to be fair, Aro (Michael Sheen), a good-looking one of you. You might do better with the girls, too, if you dressed snappier and didn’t look so creepily bug-eyed all the time.
By the end we’re back in Forks. All of that turmoil just to get Edward to see the logic of turning Bella into a vampire—which she contemplates the way other girls contemplate losing their virginity: “I was thinking maybe after graduation?” So the movie is less love story than an excruciatingly long and pointless pause in the love story. It sets up the love triangle that really isn’t a love triangle. Poor Jacob. He’s got the bod and the sincerity, but you can gauge each couple by what it watches. Bella and Edward get “Romeo and Juliet.” Bella and Jacob? “Face Punch.”
The Sky People Are Speaking
The weekend actuals are in and we have a new no. 1 movie of the year! Hauling in $15.1 million, it's..."Daybreakers," the new no. 1 movie of all 2010 releases. Congratulations! Guess you can't keep a bad vampire down.
Oh, and "Avatar" was the no. 1 movie in the country again for the fourth weekend in a row and has now surpassed "Transformers 2" as the highest-grossing domestic release of 2009, while its worldwide box office is at $1.34 billion, no. 2 all-time by a mile. So, yeah, good job there, too, Jimmy C.
I keep wondering when it's going to drop big time but it's got staying power like no movie since... "Titanic." Example: It opened in the mid-$70 million range, which is less than half of "Dark Knight"'s opening weekend, and yet, four weeks later, the domestic totals of the two films are comparable: After 24 days, "Dark Knight" had $441 million, "Avatar" has $430 million. Plus "DK" was coming off a fourth-weekend total of $26 million. And remember: "The Dark Knight" actually had staying power. That's what's amazing about all of this. Cameron's movie has a real shot of beating both "Titanic" records: the $600 million it made domestically and the $1.8 billion it made worldwide. His only competition is himself.
Steve Tesich Quote of the Day
As an immigrant to the United States, Mr. Tesich says, he was for a long time very positive and very optimistic about this country. That optimism, he says, has changed, and the change started with Vietnam.
"I didn't just love America," he says. "I was in love with America. I honestly believed that it was going to be one of those nations that would take care of everybody, that would try to make its rewards available to all. And now I feel there is absolutely no agenda for helping those on the bottom in this country. Nobody is really interested in them. And I don't know what the country stands for."
No. 2 With a Bullet (or an Arrow)
Less than a month after it opened, James Cameron's "Avatar" is already second on the unadjusted worldwide box-office list...to James Cameron's "Titanic." Of course it's got a long way to go to be no. 1: another $700 million or so—or what only 35 films have managed to make worldwide in their entire run.
What's remarkable isn't just the fact that Cameron now has the top two films all-time; it's that almost every other top film is a sequel, or part of a trilogy, or based on an extremely popular series of books. In the top 20, you can count the originals on one hand: Cameron's "Titanic" at no. 1, Cameron's "Avatar" at no. 2, and Pixar's "Finding Nemo" at no. 19. That's it. (I was going to add "Jurassic Park" but then remembered the Crichton novel on which it's based.)
Here, from boxofficemojo, is the current top 20 worldwide list. Unadjusted:
|Rank||Title||Studio||Worldwide||Dom. / %||Overseas / %||Year^|
|3||The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King||NL||$1,119.1||$377.0||33.7%||$742.1||66.3%||2003|
|4||Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest||BV||$1,066.2||$423.3||39.7%||$642.9||60.3%||2006|
|5||The Dark Knight||WB||$1,001.9||$533.3||53.2%||$468.6||46.8%||2008|
|6||Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone||WB||$974.7||$317.6||32.6%||$657.2||67.4%||2001|
|7||Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End||BV||$961.0||$309.4||32.2%||$651.6||67.8%||2007|
|8||Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix||WB||$938.2||$292.0||31.1%||$646.2||68.9%||2007|
|9||Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince||WB||$929.4||$302.0||32.5%||$627.4||67.5%||2009|
|10||The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers||NL||$925.3||$341.8||36.9%||$583.5||63.1%||2002^|
|11||Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace||Fox||$924.3||$431.1||46.6%||$493.2||53.4%||1999|
|14||Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire||WB||$895.9||$290.0||32.4%||$605.9||67.6%||2005|
|16||Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs||Fox||$884.4||$196.6||22.2%||$687.9||77.8%||2009|
|17||Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets||WB||$878.6||$262.0||29.8%||$616.7||70.2%||2002|
|18||The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring||NL||$870.8||$314.8||36.1%||$556.0||63.9%||2001^|
|20||Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith||Fox||$848.8||$380.3||44.8%||$468.5||55.2%||2005|
Will "Avatar" make it to $1.5 billion? More? Variety's Clifford Coonan reports that the Chinese hen hsi hwan the film. In the U.S., meanwhile, with everyone back to school or work after the holidays, the film's weekday totals are dropping off at a 50% rate—but that's still a slower rate than other films in the top 10. We'll see how it does this weekend. There's still buzz about the film. There's backlash, too, but mostly I hear (or read on Facebook) that even if you don't like the chatter, and even if you think the storyline is too "Dances with Wolves," you need to check it out in the theater, because it's AMAZING in the theater. That's nice to hear. Cameron's getting us all back together again. Except for these folks, of course.
My take. Again.
Quote of the Day
"It was, readers of The New York Times recently learned, a very good year for Paramount Pictures. Two of the year’s biggest hits, “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” have helped the studio climb out of its financial hole with a combined domestic take of more than $500 million. Both movies are deeply stupid, often incoherent and hinged on the principle that the spectacle of violence is its own pleasurable end. “Transformers” is also casually racist. But hey, that’s entertainment.
Or, more specifically, that’s Hollywood entertainment in the conglomerate age. The major studios have long been in the business of serving sludge to the world, but now the reek often spreads around the globe simultaneously with massive coordinated openings. “Revenge of the Fallen,” for instance, opened the same day on more than 4,000 screens in the United States — about a 10th of all the screens in the country — and soon about 10,000 more abroad. “Angels & Demons,” the sequel to “The Da Vinci Code,” opened on some 3,500 screens domestically and ate up more than 10,000 internationally. The French film “Summer Hours,” meanwhile, the best-reviewed release in The Times that weekend, opened on two screens.
—Manohla Dargis, "Amid Studio Product, Independents' Resilience," December 17, 2009
Good-Bye, Mr. Snappy
“What was the worst thing that Michael Jordan could do to you? He can go dunk on you. He could embarrass you. What's the worst thing Randy Johnson can do to you? He can kill you.”
—Jeff Huson on the fear of facing Randy Johnson, who retired yesterday with a 303-166 record, 3.29 ERA and 4875 strikeouts against only 1497 walks. First ballot Hall-of-Famer in five years, he'll go in, unfortunately, as an Arizona Diamondback. More wins as a Mariner but those Cy Youngs stacked high in Arizona. Some links:
- From the Seattle Mariners site. Includes audio and video of RJ announcing his retirement and talking about his career.
- A nice video retrospective from “Baseball Tonight” when he won no. 300 last summer.
- Here's RJ by the numbers, courtesy of ESPN.com.
- Bob Finnigan's Seattle Times' piece from Game 5, 1995
- Every Seattlite remembers this one from the “Almost Live” program: How much of a chance do you have of winning the Washngton State Lottery?
I'd include more but MLB.com makes it difficult to find video (no rebroadcast, kids, without express written consent), and then you have to sit through a 30-second commercial for a 12-second clip. But we know the highlights. The no-hitter in 1990. The Kruk at-bat in the '93 All-Star game. The one-game playoff with California in '95. Coming in from the bullpen (“Welcome to the Jungle”) in Game 5 against NY. The Larry Walker All-Star at-bat. Striking out 19. Striking out 20. Coming in from the bullpen in Game 7 against NY. The perfect game. No. 300.
Good-Bye, Mr. Snappy. We hardly saw ye.
Review: “A Single Man” (2009)
WARNING: MODEL-HANDSOME SPOILERS
“A Single Man” is a serious film with a one-joke premise. It’s a day in the life of George Falconer (Colin Firth), a professor of literature in Los Angeles in October 1962, and he’s spending it planning his suicide. His lover has recently died, he’s alone, he can’t go on. The Falconer cannot hear the falcon. But throughout the day, people keep intruding upon his plans. His divorcee friend, Charley (Julianne Moore), insists he come over for dinner, he runs into a hot Spaniard outside the liquor store, a cute student, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), questions him, compliments him, insinuates himself into his life, goes skinny-dipping with him in the surf. By the end of the day George has an epiphany, a moment of clarity, and he’s ready to go on living. Then he has a heart attack and dies. Badda boom.
It’s an atmospheric film. Too atmospheric. It was directed by fashion designer Tom Ford from a Christopher Isherwood novel, and we get a lot of slow-motion shots of people too beautiful to exist against backdrops that feel designery—the Hitchcock “Psycho” painting on the brick wall, for example. George’s squabbling neighbors are beautiful, his students are model-beautiful, the secretaries at the university are done up just so, while Carlos at the liquor store could make even straight men gay. Even Colin Firth, who’s never exactly been Paul Newman, looks great in his designer eyeglasses and Tom Fordish suits. Thank God for the maid: She looks like a maid.
The movie opens with George dreaming he’s drowning. He dreams of a car accident in the snow and crawls up to a sprawled, bloody body and kisses him on the lips. Then he wakes up, and, in voice over, tells us how it hurts to wake up, how long it takes him to become George again, how each day is a haze. How today will be different.
In flashbacks, we get some of his life with Jim (Matthew Goode), starting with the phone call informing him of Jim’s death in a car accident. The caller, Hank, is a sympathetic member of Jim’s family—the other family members voted against even passing along this information to George—but Hank’s sympathies only go so far. When George, distraught, asks about funeral arrangements, he’s told, in effect, Don't bother, the services are for family only. It took a moment to place the voice: Jon Hamm, Don Draper of “Mad Men.” So even the voices are shockingly handsome.
The best-actor talk for Firth begins with this phone conversation, particularly after he hangs up, when his face crumples into a myriad of emotions: horror, fear, pain, disgust, anger, guilt, horror. It’s heartbreaking. The rest of the film seems a disservice to this moment.
Do we know when the car accident happened? How far in the past? The film, like George’s days, is a haze. The film is also like George in that both miss Jim. When we see him in flashbacks, with his amused eyes and love of life, we want to follow him, but we’re stuck with George, who’s cramped and internal and too persnickety even to kill himself properly. There’s certainly humor in the situation. He leaves his financial information in neat piles on his desk (to save someone the trouble) and lays out the suit and tie he wants to be buried in. “Tie in a Windsor knot,” he writes. He’s about to blow his brains out but he wants the Windsor knot. Then he can’t even do this. The pillows aren’t right, he worries about the mess, he tries it within a sleeping bag. Finally, fed up, he heads over to Charley’s for dinner.
Julianne Moore is also getting Oscar buzz, deservedly so. Charley’s still beautiful, but she’s aging and knows it, and she’s alone and feels it, and there’s pain in her smile and laugh. Their dinner together is sad. He counsels against living in the past and she responds, “Living in the past is my future.” His goal, of course, is, as he says earlier, to let go of the past “completely, entirely and forever.” And not in a carpe diem kind of way.
Before he takes another pass at blowing his brains out, though, he needs some Dutch courage and heads down to the local bar. There he runs into Kenny again, the cute student who’s been stalking him, and, with a kind of “fuck it” manner, he loosens up, goes skinnydipping, takes Kenny back to his place, and puts him to bed without bedding him. He has his epiphany staring at the stars. He’s feeling something like happy. And then he has the heart attack. Carpe diem indeed.
I’m curious about Isherwood’s novel now, since “A Single Man” feels like the kind of story that’s so internal it only works as a novel. Tom Ford and Colin Firth give it a go and create a fashionable failure.
Lancelot Links (Still Loves David Simon)
- Last Lancelot Links ended with this Q&A from David Simon of “The Wire,” and it's so good I decided to begin this Lancelot Links with it—in case you didn't get a chance to read it the first time around. Simon's view of the world is basically my view of the world—just, like, lots more articulate.
- Tired of reading? Feeling like Chance the Gardener and just want to watch? Here's a joyous end-of-the-year video from Matt Shapiro (who's 17? Really?) on our 2009 cinematic moments. Nicely done, kid. I saw it via Jeff Wells' site and he had the audacity to complain it was a week late. Jeff wants his end-of-the-year celebrations before the end of the year—even though some of the best movies aren't released until the end of the year. And in most cities not even then. Two words for Jeff Wells: Chill the fuck out.
- Via Sully's site, a nice 10 or 15-year-old video of Jon Stewart interviewing George Carlin.
- A New Year's message from Minneapolis' own Dan Wilson: “What a Year for a New Year”
- Opinionator subhed on The New York Times' site: “Is 'the system worked' this White House’s 'heckuva job, Brownie'?” Quick answers: 1) The former is about a disaster that didn't happen, the latter is about a disaster that did; 2) the former is something Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said, the latter is something Pres. Bush said; 3) the former defended a bureaucratic system put in place by the Bush administration; the latter defended an incompetent and party loyalist. So my opinionator answer to the Times, and to Tobin Harshaw, who hasn't impressed me thus far, is no. The subhed, though, is an early candidate for most fatuous of the year. Heckuva job, Tobin.
- In the Times', and Tobin's, favor, of course, the system didn't and doesn't work. I see old men made to take off their shoes and belts at airport security, and yet this guy, with all of the alarms he sets off, waltzes in with a bomb in his undies? But blaming Napolitano for one comment doesn't answer the question: What to do? How do we keep the system efficient and safe? I don't have answers. I just know fatuous when I hear it.
- Via Rob Neyer's “Sweet Spot” column on ESPN.com, I saw this bizofbaseball.com piece on the spendiest MLB teams of the 2000s. Some highlights (or lowlights): Six of the 30 spent over $1 billion. The second-spendiest was...wait for it... the Boston Red Sox, who spent $1.3 billion. And the team who spent the most? Yeah: Your (or their) New York Yankees, who spent $1.87 billion. Quite a gap between 1 and 2. The thriftiest, or cheapest, was the Florida Marlins, whose $0.4 billion still got them a World Series title, but they're the anomaly. Most of the time, if you don't spend, you don't dance in October. The two spendiest teams are the only teams to have two titles in the decade.
- Also via Neyer, who agrees with Jason Rosenberg's All About the Money (Stupid) piece blasting MLB Fanhouse writer Ed Price's headline: “No Rival to Red Sox in 2000s.” I agree the headline's silly, since the Red Sox had nothing but rivals. But I disagree with everyone who's given the meaningless title of “team of the decade” to the Yankees. Sure, based on the stats, the Yankees eke out the Red Sox—and blast by every other team. But baseball's not just about stats. It's about who's expected to win and who isn't, who pays to win and who doesn't, who wins all the time and who doesn't. The Red Sox are the team of the decade to me because they overcame not just a nearly 80-year legacy of operatic futility but they did so in a fashion no team's ever done. Down 3 games to 0 to the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, and behind in the ninth innng of Game 4, they managed to tie the game with a walk, a stolen base and a single, then win in extra innings on a David Ortiz homerun; then they won the next night in extra innings on a David Ortiz base hit; then they won behind the bloodied sock of Curt Schilling; then they tore the Yankees a new one in Game 7 for the greatest post-season comeback ever. Plus in their two World Series titles they never lost a game. They turned their franchise around entirely. The Yankees? Considering how they began the decade, considering how much money they spent, considering the history of their lofty franchise, they were actually kind of a disappointment. Besides, as everyone knows: Yankees suck.
King of the World!
Last Monday I wondered if James Cameron's “Avatar,” already at $615 million worldwide, would eventually surpass “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” at $1.1 billion worldwide, to become the second-highest-grossing film (unadjusted) of all time—after Cameron's “Titanic,” which is no. 1 by a mile with $1.8 billion.
That question hasn't been answered but it has. Because after today “Avatar”'s worldwide b.o. is estimated at $1.01 billion: fourth all-time and spitting distance to “Lord of the Rings.” So by Wednesday or Thursday, James Cameron will officially have the two highest-grossing movies of all time.
Meanwhile in the U.S. “Avatar” is already at $350 million and will shortly blow past “Transformers 2” ($402 million) to become the no. 1 movie of the year. The only question is if it can surpass “The Dark Knight” ($532 million) to become the no. 1 movie of the decade. If it does, Cameron will have had the no. 1 movie of the decade two decades in a row. No director has ever done that. Not even Spielberg, though he came close (“Jaws,” “E.T.,” “Jurassic”).
Hollywood tends to place its bets on opening weekends but Cameron's showing everyone how short-sighted this is. “Avatar” made $77 million opening weekend. That's 28th all-time and fifth best for the year—behind “New Moon,” “Transformers,” “Wolverine” and “Harry Potter.” But such films tend to drop like rocks (40-60 percent) that second weekend. “Avatar”? It dropped two percent, to $75 million, giving it the best second weekend of all time. Unadjusted.
The best third weekend? “Spider-Man” at $45 million. Whoops. Scratch that. Now it's “Avatar” at $68 million.
And from here on in Cameron's just competing with himself. The record-holder for best fourth weekend is “Titanic” at $28 million. Fifth weekend? “Titanic.” Sixth? Same. All the way through the 12th weekend. It's all “Titanic.”
Which means weekends 2 through 12 are now all Cameron.
Cameron, by himself, is rewriting the lessons of Hollywood, and the biggest one is this: Opening weekend is for pikers.
The Double Features of 2009
Heroes for our time? No, heroes for the opposite of our time:
- "The International" (Clive Owen tries to bring down an international bank just as we were trying to prop ours up.)
- "Up in the Air" (George Clooney fires people as unemployment hits 10%.)
Getting and spending we lay waste our powers:
They think they're the heroes of their story when they're the villains of their story:
They can't change that history, can they?:
- "Star Trek" (in which they blow up the planet Vulcan)
- "Inglourious Basterds" (in which they kill Hitler in June 1944)
Flunkying for the rich and famous isn't all it's cracked up to be:
Movies about the people you care about before they did the thing you care about:
"Someone's hiding some Judaism..." OK, maybe not:
Don't worry; we'll care about your art after you die:
Review: “Nine” (2009)
WARNING: SPOILERS HERE...HERE...AND...(MMM)...HERE
I’m no marketer, so who am I to tell the Weinstein Co. how they should—or should've—marketed “Nine,” the Rob Marshall musical based upon the Broadway musical based upon Federico Fellini’s 1963 classic “8 1/2.” But given the film’s weak opening box office, here’s a thought. Instead of the tagline, “This Holiday Season: Be Italian,” why not plaster the poster with one of those sexy shots of Penelope Cruz and use these lines of hers from the movie?:
I’ll be here.
Waiting for you.
With my legs open.
When I sat down in the theater I knew I’d be seeing a lot of sexy women wearing sexy things and saying sexy lines but that was the jaw-dropper for me. I think I coughed in surprise when she said it. I may have whimpered. Her lines, her presence, complicate the life of film director Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis), but my thought, and probably the thought of every guy in the audience: I should have such problems.
“Nine” looks great but suffers from two problems: 1) Most of the songs are so-so, and 2) the drama is internal and circular. It’s tough enough for movies to dramatize the creative process. How do you dramatize the non-creative process?
Guido Contini is a director whose earlier films redefined Italy for much of the moviegoing world in the early 1960s but whose latest films flopped. Now it’s 1965 and he’s a week away from starting film no. 9, titled “Italia,” but he has no idea what the story will be. He fakes his way through a press conference, he fakes his way through talks with his producer, he ignores calls from his muse and star, Claudia (Nicole Kidman). His costume designer, Lilli (Judi Dench), tells him, as he lays prostrate on her desk, that directing isn’t that tough. “You just have to say yes or no, what else do you do? ‘Maestro, should this be red?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Green?’ ‘No.’ ‘Yes,’ ‘no,’ ‘yes,’ ‘no.’” She tosses her hands in the air. “Directing.” Unfortunately Guido has no answers, no yes/ no. Eventually he flees Rome down the coast of Italy in his light blue Alfa Romeo. My thought, and probably the thought of everyone in the audience: I should flee in such style.
Guido flees into the arms of his mistress, Carla (Penelope Cruz). He thinks she’ll clear his head but she clutters it. Worse, the production company follows him down. Worse, his wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard), follows him down. She sees Carla, sparks fly, Carla is banished, Carla tries to kill herself. What’s a man with so many women to do?
As responsibilities and women tug at him in all directions, Guido’s life, certainly his creative life, swirls uselessly away. Nothing gets the attention it needs. He’s not stable husband to Luisa nor steady paramour to Carla; he has no work for Lilli or Claudia. Each woman has her own musical number but most of these are hardly show-stoppers and most don’t move the story further along but simply reiterate what we already know. The one show-stopper, the song you hum coming out of the theater and wish you could sing with the full-throated passion the singer does, is “Be Italian,” sung by Saraghina (Fergie), the whore from Guido’s youth who would show the neighborhood boys this and that for coins. She’s his first lust, the woman who started him on this journey of loving women too much and not enough, and she tells him, she sings to him:
Be Italian, be Italian
Take a chance and try to steal a fiery kiss!
Be Italian, be Italian
When you hold me don’t just hold me
But hold this! (clutches her breasts)
He’s stopped listening to this advice. He takes no chances and steals no kisses. Acclaimed and idolized, he’s the pursued now rather than the pursuer. Even a reporter from Vogue magazine, Stephanie (Kate Hudson), tries to get him into bed. Is the film suggesting a correlation between women and creativity? That when it becomes unnecessary to pursue the former, one is unable to pursue the latter? Fame has made Guido weak in the art of the pursuit.
Fergie, the one true singer in the bunch, belts it out, while the two main women in Guido’s life lock horns memorably. Cruz is pants-wettingly sexy while Cotillard is pained and effective. Her second number, “Take it All,” is staged as a burlesque, a sad striptease in which she gives up everything (the clothes are a metaphor) for this man who gives nothing back. Meanwhile, Dench, in her musical number, “Folies Bergeres,” flashes cleavage and seems completely French (in conversation she’s completely British). She seems to be having a great old time with the role.
The others? Hudson works fine, but the role is meaningless. Sophia Loren, playing Guido’s mother, has nothing to do. Kidman is an afterthought.
And Day-Lewis? It’s critically sacrilegious to write this but he may be wrong for the role. It’s not much fun watching him run circles in his head without having the decency to turn something into butter. Or, as Brando suggested, to get it.
The movie’s definitely missing oomph. Like Guido, it ignores the wisdom of Saraghina. Its British star is surrounded by actresses from France, Spain, Australia and America, leaving no one important to be Italian.
The word I'd use to sum up the decade. I'm bushed, you're bushed, we've all been Bushed—the country and the world. We need a new starting line. Hey, here comes one now.