erik lundegaard

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Thursday April 11, 2013

Consumption Written with Lightning

I saw Pablo Larrain's movie “No” Saturday afternoon. It was humorous and yet disquieting in a way I couldn't put my finger on. Its hero, René, played by Gael Garcia Bernal, was basically selling pablum and we were cheering him on to do so. He achieved a greater good in doing so. Patricia and I spoke about it during coffee afterwards.

But it wasn't until the next day, writing my review, that I wrote to a place where I realized this may have been the point. René believed in Hollywood endings but he was in an arthouse movie. In a sense, he wouldn't approve of the movie he was in—with its boxy aspect ratio and old-school, unflattering video format. The movie was about a group of people who said “No” to a dictator, which was a great event, a furthering of democracy; but the way they got there, through the cold machinations of an ad man appealing to the lowest-common denominator, indicated the direction democracy would go. We would wind up where we are. To use the Neil Postman paradigm, Chile overthrew “1984” to wind up in “Brave New World.” The people said “No” to Pinochet but they can't say “No” to René.

For a second I thought, “How brilliant.”

A second later, I thought, “How sad.” For Larrain. For filmmakers. They spend years on something that most people consume in hours and quickly forget. If I hadn't written my review, I would've thought “No” was simply a good, funny movie about the '88 election. I might have said there was something disquieting about it but I couldn't have told you why. Because I only would have spent two hours and change on it.

A novelist may spend years on a book, sure, but it takes most people days, or weeks, to consume that book. And in that time they're in the novelist's world. They're immersed in it. They have time to think on it. It's an entirely different experience. One that generally doesn't involve other people munching popcorn and checking their cellphones.

That must be tough for filmmakers. Their medium defies analysis for the mass. It leads to the ascendancy of people like René.

On the other hand, it's easier to rewatch a movie than it is to reread a book.

Gael Garcia Bernal in Pablo Larrain's "No"

Road to democracy or road to nowhere?

Posted at 07:18 AM on Apr 11, 2013 in category Movies
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Friday March 22, 2013

Breaking the Fourth Wall

For the past few weeks, Patricia and I have been watching all 13 episodes of Netflix's new show, “House of Cards,” in which Kevin Spacey's character, Rep. Frank Underwood (D-SC), keeps breaking the fourth wall, a la Richard III, to tell us his inner thoughts and potential schemes and means to power. It's fun, and Spacey does it impeccably.

I mentioned this at work the other day and one of my colleagues brought up a new YouTube video that compiles great fourth-wall breakers, from, yes, Richard III, to  Alvy Singer to Superman:

Not sure why they began the way they began. With a literal breaking of a wall? The “Blazing Saddles” stuff is less fourth-wall-breaking and more self-referential, isn't it? The James Bond, too, is post-modern/meta. I would've begun with Rob Gordon in “High Fidelity.” He gives you your structure.

Plus there's a whole lot more Groucho they could've done.

But the “Sweet Transvestite” number—Dr. Frankenfurter leading to Belushi to Damien to Norman Bates—is inspired.

Is fourth-wall breaking better for comedy and horror? To make us laugh or scare us? Seems to.

What's your favorite example? How would you rank them? I might put Norman Bates No. 1: When the voyeur, being watched (by us), watches back; when he reclaims that power.

Missing scenes? Off the top of my head, and besides Groucho, I'd go with Eddie Murphy in “Trading Places”: “... pork bellies, which is used to make bacon, which you might find in a bacon and lettuce and tomato sandwich.” Then the look.

Posted at 07:53 AM on Mar 22, 2013 in category Movies
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Sunday February 24, 2013

A Question for Fans of 'Zero Dark Thirty'

Timothy Egan has a piece on The New York Times site critiquing Kathryn Bigelow's “Zero Dark Thirty,” and Jeff Wells, a movie blogger and fan of the film, rather than responding himself, gets someone close to the project to respond. Must be nice.

It's not a bad response. It's certainly better than the official responses from Boal and Bigelow over the past months. Among other things, he/she says this:

By the way, we showed plenty of false starts. We portray the first eight years of the hunt as being wasteful because the name [of the courier] was in the files the entire time.

I've heard this defense several times now. My question: Why would Maya have been searching for the name of the courier, Abu Ahmed, if she hadn't already gotten it from Ammar after he'd been tortured for two years?

Here are the relevant lines of dialogue from the script; the moment Abu Ahmed's name first appears. It's when Ammar is enjoying a picnic lunch with Dan and Maya outside.

AMMAR: I wanted to kill Americans. We tried to get into Tora Bora but the bombing was too high. We couldn't cross.
MAYA: Sorry, who is the “we” in that sentence?
AMMAR: Me and some guys who were hanging around at that time.
DANIEL (casually): I can eat with some other dude and hook you back up to the ceiling?
AMMAR: Hamza Rabia, Khabab al-Masri, and Abu Ahmed.

(Maya makes notes on her pad.)

MAYA: Who's Abu Ahmed? I've heard of the other guys.
AMMAR: He was a computer guy with us at the time. After Tora Bora, I went back to Pesh - as you know - and he went North, I think, to Kunar.

This is why Maya began to search for Abu Ahmed. Because Ammar mentions him after two years of torture. He mentions him after being threatened with torture again. The fact that his name is in a file is as irrelevant as the fact that the Ark of the Covenant is boarded up in a government warehouse at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Bureaucratic files are where names go to disappear forever.

So if Ammar had never been tortured, Maya never would've been searching for Abu Ahmed, who never would have led us to Abottabad and Osama bin Laden.

So why isn't the above defense of the film's at-best ambiguous dramatization on the efficacy of torture a bullshit defense?

Jessica Chastain as Maya in "Zero Dark Thirty"

“Who's Abu Ahmed? I've heard of the other guys.”

Posted at 09:18 AM on Feb 24, 2013 in category Movies
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Tuesday February 19, 2013

Like Minds

This is from my January 1, 2013 review of Quentin Tantino's “Django Unchained”:

What is the next historic horror Quentin Tarantino will turn into a spaghetti-western-style revenge fantasy? ... History is nothing but groups of people being fucked over while the movies are all about wish-fulfillment fantasy. So why not meld the two? The Bible is full of revenge fantasies as well. Maybe that’s the next direction? “Quentin Tarantino’s The Bible.” That’s a title he’d dig. He’d dig it the most, baby.

And this is what “Saturday Night Live” came up with last week when Christoph Waltz hosted.

It's not bad. I like the line: “The H is silent.” It's a good Brad-Pitt-in-“Basterds” imitation. But it never lives up to the premise. It just melds the story of the Prince of Peace with Tarantino's violence. We're supposed to laugh at what we already know. We're supposed to laugh with recognition at the familiar bits rather than with surprise.

Christoph Waltz in Tarantino parody, "Djesus Uncrossed" on SNL

I think “less violent” takes a hyphen, too.

Posted at 11:53 AM on Feb 19, 2013 in category Movies
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Monday February 18, 2013

Why's FDR Hanging with the Three Stooges? Everything You Didn't Want to Know About Screen Portrayals of U.S. Presidents, and Didn't Ask

For Washington and Lincoln it was a silent short (“Washington Under the British Flag” and “His First Commission,” respectively). For Grover Cleveland, it was a James Cagney/Humphrey Bogart western (“The Oklahoma Kid”). JFK got an episode of a forgotten TV show, “Navy Log,” LBJ got “Batman: The Movie,” and FDR, believe it or not, got the Three Stooges.

These are the first moments our presidents have been portrayed on screen. Per IMDb.com.

Some surprising revelations. Herbert Hoover (1929-33) was never portrayed on screen until 1979's “Backstairs at the White House,” a mini-series attempting to combine “Upstairs Downstairs” with “Roots.” Then there's James Buchanan (1957-61), who has been portrayed only once, voicework by David Gergen, in the 2000 PBS documentary “The American President.” At least he had John Updike watching his back.

More recent presidents, of course, are first spoofed on television, generally “Saturday Night Live,” which has given us our first screen portraits, or caricatures, of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The British series “Spitting Image” beat them to George H.W. Bush, while “The 1/2 News Hour” beat them to Barack Obama.

Speaking of the Bushes: IMDb.com needs to fix its algorithms, since it includes obvious H.W. characters (a 1990 “Golden Girls” episode, voiced by Harry Shearer, for example) under W.'s character page. The site also includes the “Richard Nixon” thug in Godard's “Made in U.S.A.” on Nixon's character page. I've tried to adjust the numbers accordingly but take these numbers with a grain of salt. Treat them, in other words, as you would campaign promises.

Oh yes, and in case you were wondering, Lincoln wins. By a longshot.

Here are our 44 presidents in order of first cinematic appearance:

President Port. First Appearance First Actor
1 George Washington  154 Washington Under the British Flag (1909) Joseph Kilgour
2 John Adams  54 The Declaration of Indepedence (1911) Harry Linson
3 Thomas Jefferson  125 The Declaration of Indepedence (1911) Marc McDermott
4 James Madison  27 Old Louisiana (1937) Ramsay Hill
5 James Monroe  11 The Beautiful Mrs. Reynolds (1918) Charles Brandt
6 John Quincy Adams  8 The Declaration of Indepedence (1911) Robert Emmett Tansey
7 Andrew Jackson  47 My Own United States (1918) F.C. Earle
8 Martin Van Buren  4 The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) Charles Trowbridge
9 William Henry Harrison  7 Ten Gentlemen from West Point (1942) Douglass Dumbrille
11 James K. Polk  8 The Monroe Doctrine (1939) Edwin Stanley
12 Zachary Taylor  8 The Fall of Blackhawk (1912) George Cole
13 Millard Fillmore  4 The Monroe Doctrine (1939) Millard Vincent
14 Franklin Pierce  2 The Great Moment (1944) Porter Hall
15 James Buchanan  1 The American President (2000) David Gergen (voice)
16 Abraham Lincoln  327 His First Commisson (1911) Charles Brabin
17 Andrew Johnson  6 In the Days of Buffalo Bill (1922) Harry Myers
18 Ulysses S. Grant  94 The Battle of Shiloh (1913) John Smiley
19 Rutherford B. Hayes  7 The Flag of Humanity (1940) Joe King
20 James A. Garfield  7 The Night Riders (1939) Francis Sayles
21 Chester A. Arthur  3 Silver Dollar (1932) Emmett Corrigan
22 Grover Cleveland  9 The Oklahoma Kid (1939) Stuart Holmes
23 Benjamin Harrison  2 Stars and Stripes Forever (1952) Roy Gordon
25 William McKinley  11 A Message to Garcia (1936) John Carradine
26 Theodore Roosevelt  86 Why America Will Win (1917) W.E. Whittle
27 William Howard Taft  5 The Winds of Kitty Hawk (TV) (1978) Ross Durfee
28 Woodrow Wilson  31 The Sons of a Soldier (1913) Frederick Truesdell
29 Warren G. Harding  5 The Legendary Curse of the Hope Diamond (TV) (1975) Harry Dean Stanton
30 Calvin Coolidge  5 The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) Ed Flanders
31 Herbert Hoover  8 “Backstairs at the White House” (1979) Larry Gates
32 Franklin D. Roosevelt  97 Cash and Carry (1937) Al Richardson
33 Harry S. Truman  34 The Beginning or The End (1947) Art Baker
34 Dwight D. Eisenhower  37 The Long Gray Line (1955) Harry Carey, Jr.
35 John F. Kennedy  86 “Navy Log” (1957) John Baer
36 Lyndon B. Johnson  32 Batman: The Movie (1966) Van Johnson (voice)
37 Richard Nixon  81 Eulogy for RFK (1968) Marty Rednor
38 Gerald Ford  15 “Saturday Night Live” (1975) Chevy Chase
39 Jimmy Carter  23 “Saturday Night Live” (1976) Dan Aykroyd
40 Ronald Reagan  46 “Saturday Night Live” (1976) Chevy Chase
41 George H. W. Bush  27 “Spitting Image” (1986) John Glover
42 Bill Clinton  74 “Saturday Night Live” (1992) Phil Hartman
43 George W. Bush  112 “Saturday Night Live” (2000) Will Ferrell
44 Barack Obama 80 “The 1/2 News Hour” (2007) Ron Butler

  And here they are as ranked by how often they've been portrayed on screen. Interestingly, W. beats FDR. But U.S. Grant is ahead of Teddy Roosevelt? I guess the Civil War helps:

President Port. First Appearance First Actor
16 Abraham Lincoln  327 His First Commisson (1911) Charles Brabin
1 George Washington  154 Washington Under the British Flag (1909) Joseph Kilgour
3 Thomas Jefferson  125 The Declaration of Indepedence (1911) Marc McDermott
43 George W. Bush  112 “Saturday Night Live” (2000) Will Ferrell
32 Franklin D. Roosevelt  97 Cash and Carry (1937) Al Richardson
18 Ulysses S. Grant  94 The Battle of Shiloh (1913) John Smiley
26 Theodore Roosevelt  86 Why America Will Win (1917) W.E. Whittle
35 John F. Kennedy  86 “Navy Log” (1957) John Baer
37 Richard Nixon  81 Eulogy for RFK (1968) Marty Rednor
44 Barack Obama 80 “The 1/2 News Hour” (2007) Ron Butler
42 Bill Clinton  74 “Saturday Night Live” (1992) Phil Hartman
2 John Adams  54 The Declaration of Indepedence (1911) Harry Linson
7 Andrew Jackson  47 My Own United States (1918) F.C. Earle
40 Ronald Reagan  46 “Saturday Night Live” (1976) Chevy Chase
34 Dwight D. Eisenhower  37 The Long Gray Line (1955) Harry Carey, Jr.
33 Harry S. Truman  34 The Beginning or The End (1947) Art Baker
36 Lyndon B. Johnson  32 Batman: The Movie (1966) Van Johnson (voice)
28 Woodrow Wilson  31 The Sons of a Soldier (1913) Frederick Truesdell
4 James Madison  27 Old Louisiana (1937) Ramsay Hill
41 George H. W. Bush  27 “Spitting Image” (1986) John Glover
39 Jimmy Carter  23 “Saturday Night Live” (1976) Dan Aykroyd
38 Gerald Ford  15 “Saturday Night Live” (1975) Chevy Chase
5 James Monroe  11 The Beautiful Mrs. Reynolds (1918) Charles Brandt
25 William McKinley  11 A Message to Garcia (1936) John Carradine
22 Grover Cleveland  9 The Oklahoma Kid (1939) Stuart Holmes
6 John Quincy Adams  8 The Declaration of Indepedence (1911) Robert Emmett Tansey
11 James K. Polk  8 The Monroe Doctrine (1939) Edwin Stanley
12 Zachary Taylor  8 The Fall of Blackhawk (1912) George Cole
31 Herbert Hoover  8 “Backstairs at the White House” (1979) Larry Gates
9 William Henry Harrison  7 Ten Gentlemen from West Point (1942) Douglass Dumbrille
19 Rutherford B. Hayes  7 The Flag of Humanity (1940) Joe King
20 James A. Garfield  7 The Night Riders (1939) Francis Sayles
17 Andrew Johnson  6 In the Days of Buffalo Bill (1922) Harry Myers
27 William Howard Taft  5 The Winds of Kitty Hawk (TV) (1978) Ross Durfee
29 Warren G. Harding  5 The Legendary Curse of the Hope Diamond (TV) (1975) Harry Dean Stanton
30 Calvin Coolidge  5 The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955) Ed Flanders
8 Martin Van Buren  4 The Gorgeous Hussy (1936) Charles Trowbridge
13 Millard Fillmore  4 The Monroe Doctrine (1939) Millard Vincent
21 Chester A. Arthur  3 Silver Dollar (1932) Emmett Corrigan
14 Franklin Pierce  2 The Great Moment (1944) Porter Hall
23 Benjamin Harrison  2 Stars and Stripes Forever (1952) Roy Gordon
15 James Buchanan  1 The American President (2000) David Gergen (voice)

FDR and the Three Stooges

FDR: “As for you gentlemen, I find it possible to extend to you exective clemency.”
Curly: “No, please not that.”

Posted at 11:02 AM on Feb 18, 2013 in category Movies
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