Movies postsMonday August 18, 2008
How Owen Gleiberman gets ‘Vicki Christina Barcelona’ wrong
Have you seen what Entertainment Weekly is doing with their movie reviews? Instead of giving us the money sentence as a pull quote, they simply bold the money sentence within the review. Your eye is immediately drawn to it. I’m not sure how this differs from a pull quote but it does. The pull quote feels like a highlight reel: here’s the most important at-bat in the game today. Bolding a sentence within the review is like showing the highlight reel as the game is just starting. It’s like making one sentence Albert Pujols within the St. Louis Cardinals line-up: Here’s the important one. These others? Hacks. Don’t pay them any mind.
That said, the money or bolded sentence in Owen Gleiberman’s review of Woody Allen’s Vicki Christina Barcelona — “To Allen, commitment is a conspiracy of society. It’s a drag, man.” — did make me read the others. Because it made me think: “WTF is he talking about?”
In the film, Allen gives us two ways of being, embodies them in two American tourists in Spain for the summer, and lets them go.
Vicki (Rebecca Hall) is a Catalan scholar who is engaged to be married to a New York businessman. She knows what she wants. Her friend Christina (Scarlett Johansson) is unmoored. She’s just spent months acting in a 12-minute experimental film that she now disowns. She doesn’t know what she wants.
Thus when they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a Spanish artist, at a late-night restaurant, and he proposes taking them away for the weekend (taking both of them away, at the same time, and into the same bed), Christina is intrigued while Vicki is repulsed. Promising nothing, they go, Vicki to protect Christina. Of course, through a series of mishaps, it’s Vicki who winds up sleeping with the artist, and that night of passion becomes the pebble in what were once comfortable walking shoes. She’s bothered, unsure. She no longer knows what she wants.
Back in Barcelona, Christina hooks up with Juan, and gets involved in his artistic life with his artistic friends, including his volatile ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, the best thing in the film), and the twosome becomes a threesome, and Christina, who knows no artistic outlet, finds one, via photography. Meanwhile, Vicki, whose fiancé flies to Barcelona to join her, keeps walking around with that pebble in her shoe.
This is the source of Gleiberman’s sentence and review. He feels Allen is recommending the wild, artistic European life over the dullness of American business-as-usual. But while aspects of the artistic life are clearly intriguing (Bardem and Cruz, for starters), that’s not what the film is about. How do you deal with the emptiness? That’s what the film is about. Both characters have it. Vicki fortifies herself against it — only to find her fortifications aren’t enough. Christina allows herself to drift from intrigue to intrigue, from acting to photography, from this bed to that one, but always finds the solace temporary. Then she moves on. Neither has the answer because there is no answer. It’s just two ways of being. In the end, neither is happy.
The narration in the film moves the story along, but — and here’s my criticism — it’s a bit like Vicki, isn’t it? Tightly controlling the story, when the story, and the characters, should be allowed to move more freely. Gleiberman makes the same point when he writes that Vicki and Christina “never quite transcend the schematic.” Exactly. The narration (i.e., Allen), doesn’t allow them to. The turning point is when Christina, having found an artistic outlet, a man and a free-spirited life, gives it all up. Why? The narrator tells us that her gnawing emptiness returns. She looks off into the distance and she’s gone. But the scene feels externally controlled rather than internally motivated…because it is. The narration, as zippy as it allows the film to be, becomes a puppet master, moving the characters about to serve its own purposes.
Doesn’t mean VCB isn’t worth seeing. Cruz deserves an Oscar nomination for her performance. She’s so spookily direct that you don’t want to be with her — even though she looks like Penelope Cruz. Now that’s acting.
More, for all the film’s soft lighting and long, wine-filled lunches and dinners, for all its lightness, the theme of how to deal with life’s emptiness remains and is reflected back upon the viewer. You leave wondering which character you’re more like. Do you determine your spot and wall yourself up? Or do you flit from spot to spot, undefined? Some combination of the two? You examine the choices you’ve made. In what ways have I settled? In what ways am I unfulfilled? How do the two relate? It’s not that the film becomes a pebble in your shoe; it just reminds you that the pebble’s already there, and probably always will be.
Philippe Petit becomes a bird
Last week I hoped Man on Wire, a documentary about Philippe Petit's 45-minute walk, or dance, across the expanse between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, would make it to Seattle soon. It'll be here Friday. I won't be able to see it then — family coming to town — but next week for sure. Here's Moira Macdonald's interview with Petit in yesterday's Seattle Times. A nice graf:
“I remember absolutely everything,” said Petit of the walk. “I did stop a few times, and I even sat down and observed down. The plaza was empty because it was still under construction. I saw some people looking up; after a while, a gigantic crowd.” He remembers a seagull that hovered quite close to him for a few minutes, “gliding about me, looking at me as if to say, 'What is this guy doing here? What is this false bird invading my territory?' ”
And I never get tired of this picture:
No on Ferrell, yes on Gould
Let me temporarily interrupt this diatribe about the way the mainstream media allows itself to be used as a pawn in political elections to say this: Patricia and I went to see the new Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly movie Step Brothers last night. Patricia loves these type of movies, and I think Ferrell is one of the funniest men around. I even liked Semi-Pro, which most critics did not. Well, both of us hated Step Brothers. We laughed — my hardest laughs were at the very end (the fight with the schoolkids) — but most of the movie is merely unpleasant and obvious. It’s not even worth the DVD rental.
A worthwhile read, in the meantime, is this New York Times piece on Elliot Gould, who is being honored with a retrospective of his films at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn. I remember about 15 years ago when “The Simpsons” did a flashback episode to when Homer and Marge meet in the early ‘70s, and one girl turns down, I believe, Barney, for a date, with the line, “Who do you think you are — Elliott Gould?” That cracked me up. Growing up, I didn’t think much about Gould one way or the other; he just seemed like a guy whose time had passed. But recently I was watching California Split for this MSNBC piece and I was stunned by just how charismatic he was. The retrospective gets its name from a 1970 Time magazine cover story called “Elliott Gould: Star for an Uptight Age,” but Alan Arkin, in the smartest line in the Times piece, says the emblem of uptightness is misleading. “I’ve always thought he had a looseness about him,” he says. Exactly. In California Split he’s so much fun to watch. He is the film's energy.
Roger and Gene
It’s 1978 and I’m flipping between the five channels our TV offers — and doing it the old-fashioned way, without a remote — when I come across a scene from Magic, starring Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margret, a movie that has just been released in theaters. I can’t believe my luck. Then two guys come on and talk about it. There are scenes from other movies and the same two guys talk about them, too. One guy is tall, thin and bald, the other is fat, with big glasses and a mop of hair swooping over his forehead. The whole thing feels like it’s a one-off or a mistake and I assume it’ll end any second. How can they show scenes from new movies…on TV? That isn’t allowed, is it?
The show was, of course, PBS’s “Sneak Previews,” and three of the reasons it was unique — it was 1) an entertainment show, 2) offering clips of new movies, 3) while two guys argued — have become, in the three decades since, so ubiquitous as to be part of the downfall of our culture. But even after Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (the fat guy and the bald dude, respectively) left PBS for their syndicated shows (“& the Movies,” “At the Movies”), and even after they were copied to death, it was always worthwhile to follow them to whatever channel in whatever market in whatever time-slot they wound up in.
They weren’t pretty. They didn’t dress well. Obviously no one told them to smile at the camera. All of these things worked in their favor. They were about as non-corporate as you could get. They snuck onto television the way Ed Sullivan snuck on. The people following in their wake — Jeffrey Lyons, Neal Gabler, Michael Medved, et al. — all felt a little less genuine.
Siskel and Ebert loved movies. You could feel it through the TV screen. They argued all the time, usually intelligently, always forcefully, sometimes bitterly. One of the dumbest things people say about movies today — “Hey, it’s just a movie!” — would never have occurred to them because movies mattered too much to them. I remember a special episode they did in the late ‘70s slamming all of the gratuitous violence against women in movies. They chastised Hollywood for all the tired sequels. They encouraged the studios to take the right path. Insert your own joke here.
I always thought I agreed with Roger more than Gene — that Gene seem bitter in the 1980s — but looking over old clips, on both YouTube and At the Movies, I wonder about this. Gene seems more amused by their fighting, while Roger sits still and angry. And was it my imagination or did Roger give a free pass to too many films starring or directed by African Americans? I mean, She Hate Me? Roger, Roger, Roger.
It's gone now. Gene died in 1999, while Roger, battling thyroid cancer, has been more off than on since 2002, but the official notice came last week when Disney announced the replacements for Gene’s and Roger’s replacements. Both are young, both are named Ben, both have cinematic lineages. Neither snuck in.
It’s just time passing, of course, that’s what’s truly sad about it, but Roger has a nice farewell here. I wish I could offer him a better tribute than this. But I will remember to save him the aisle seat.
Repeating last year’s performance looks like a long shot, given the rest of this summer’s lineup. This batch is light on sequels, gloomy in spots (as with “The Dark Knight”) and heavy on comedies...The mix may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive...
— The New York Times, May 15, 2008
The success of “The Dark Knight” is an example of what can happen when an array of factors coincide...The brooding film, directed by Christopher Nolan, also fits the nation’s mood, Warner Brothers executives said.
— The New York Times, July 28, 2008
Different writers, to be sure, but it raises this question about movie audiences: Do people go to films to escape the national mood or reflect it? Or do they just go?
And just what are the “array of factors” Brooks Barnes gives in yesterday's article (via quotes with industry executives) for The Dark Knight's continued success? Let's see: 1) expertly executed promotion plan, 2) brooding film matched national mood, 3) sour economy forcing families toward cheaper entertainments like movies, and 4) the publicity following Christian Bale's questioning by the police last week.
Wow. Nothing on the stuff we talked about last week. No mention of the word “quality.” No mention of the phrase “word-of-mouth.” That's part of the problem with relying on quotes from industry executives. Those guys are in a bubble. They're in a town that talks about movies constantly so they can't tell the difference when people really start talking up a movie. In Seattle (or in Minneapolis, Omaha, Denver, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Portland, take your pick...), it's a little easier. One wonders if relying on industry executives for quotes about movies is a little like relying on Dick Cheney for quotes about WMDs.
Both articles also remind me of something I tell my writers in the magazines I edit: Just because someone gives you a quote, doesn't mean you gotta use it.
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