Saturday, September 27, 2008

Dance Party, USA

Dir - Aaron Katz

Viewed: From the Couch

Clocking in a just over an hour, Aaron Katz delivers a small yet sumptuous slice of the last moments of high school life with Dance Party, USA. The opening shot finds Jessica (the endlessly adorable Anna Kavan) waking up on the living room floor of a house where every stable surface is claimed by an empty beer bottle or ubiquitous red plastic cup. It's morning and she wanders around the house. Despite what may have happened last night, she is alone now. Gus finds himself in a similar situation, realizing the limitations of drinking with friends and casual sex, the things that fill the days of a typical teenager, as a means to fill the soul.

Shot in a style similar to his Mumblecore (have we come up with a better word yet?) brethren Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass Brothers, we follow a small group of kids through the eye of Katz's video camera as they pass the time during a Fourth of July weekend. We first meet Gus as he's having a good time describing one of his past sexual encounters with a 14 year old to his friend Bill (who everyone else knows as Gus' Friend, much to his frustration). The story he tells quickly gets a bit disturbing -- similar to the conversations Telly would have with Casper in the film Kids. When Gus is done though, Bill doesn't quite by it. "I buy some of your shit, some of it," he tells Gus, "but not this shit." Gus seems confused and a little hurt by Bill's accusation but we later find out Bill was right. But the 14 year old girl is very real and when Gus comes to terms with what did happen with that girl last summer the film achieves a very honest and poignant level of film making and storytelling that is moving and awkward in the best sense.

There is a a lot of awkward moments and conversations in Dance Party. High school is of course the most awkward period in anyone's life, but there's a common problem with articulation among everyone we spend time with. Some of this is due to drukeness and some of it seems to come from a hesitation to be truthful. Before Gus meets Jessica at the Fourth of July party, he runs into an old friend who's been aimlessly traveling for a while. This friend tries to tell Gus his experiences driving through Nebraska and it's a painful thing to watch. You can tell he's had a life changing experience there, but he's unwilling or unable to express it. Gus is patient with him, he's looking for something meaningful as well, but his friend ends with a discouraged "I don't know..." But Gus soon meets Jessica sitting outside of the party, watching some cheap fireworks go off. It's obvious she's tired of the party as well and to Gus' surprise she has the ability to break down that wall in him, that he can tell her the truth about what happened with the 14 year old girl last summer.

It's a movie of small moments like these. It doesn't try to preach the importance of redemption or what it means to grow-up, but it finds and focuses on the moments when small steps are made in those directions. It's a great little film and the kind that I hope never goes away. I've pondered the bleak state of American independent film on here before and I can find nothing better than what is being produced by this small collective that has the unfortunate moniker of Mumblecore. There's never been better artistic advice than when the first person told someone, simply write what you know. Aaron Katz and his friends are coming from that honest place and their stories have so much more soul to them than the film students that try to jump into the ring by aping the style of whatever their heroes did. You can see them honing their technique, improving and becoming more confident as they move forward and for me, these are some of the most exciting films being made these days.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Funny Games (2007)

Dir - Michael Haneke
Viewed From: The Couch


And I was just about to go download some John Zorn.

Let's see, is there anything I want to talk about apart from the coolness of the opening credit scene that lists MUSIC BY: Bach, Mozart, John Zorn? In a movie this full of gimmicks, explicit discussions of the nature of reality, and a willingness to fuck with the rich, there really should be something more to say. Director Haneke certainly wants to get you talking with his story of two sociopaths (played by an okay but hammy Michael Pitt and the Jokeresque Brady Corbet) who torture wealthy couples, but the presentation here doesn't match the ideas. Haneke probably does have a lot of interesting things to say about the nature of media, of entertainment, of class, of cowardice, but you wouldn't know it from this film.

Maybe if Funny Games had been committed to breaking down the fourth wall though a sustained involvement of interaction between actor and audience, it could have been interesting. But no, instead we get a few random moments when traditional narrative is broken up, moments that appear to be those when Haneke got bored typing the script.

Maybe if Funny Games was not the remake of an earlier film, I could have excused the failings of the film to an inexperienced director. But no, aside from one brilliant shot in the middle of the film, nothing here approaches the the clever and philosophical camerawork from Cache, the director's last effort.

Maybe if Funny Games hadn't drastically miscast the lumpy and ever-suffering Tim Roth as the husband, it could have resonated more. But no, we have to endure Resevoir Dogs 2, as Roth writhes around in the role of coward that, if Haneke wanted to be subversive, would have been cast with a leading man type.

And maybe I've been too desensitized (Haneke's point), but the violence wasn't much, powerful at times, but nothing that causes more than a few flinches, and tame in comparison to the violence and gruesomeness found in your average horror flick. Haneke's intention is to make you link your own desire to be entertained through violence to that of his sociopathic killers, but given that this particular viewer gets quite bored during violence in movies, the killers' sly intonation of "you're enjoying this too, aren't you" went unappreciated.

Of course, thinking about it, I'm probably not the intended audience for Funny Games. This was released by the main studio division of Warner Brothers (man it's been a long time since I've seen that logo), and was subsequently marketed for a wide audience. Why else re-do the movie other than the chance to get wide distribution in America? I don't think he was interested in making a film for critics or even for sophisticated adult movie goers, but instead making a film for Hollywood's bread-and-butter: idiot kids and shallow adults who lap up movies like the Hostel and Saw franchises. Lure the walking consumer dead into the theater for a few hours on the pretense that it's just another slasher film, but end up delivering a meta-morality play that associates the passive reception of senseless violence with it's perpetration. Hmm...

Well fuck. If that's right - that Haneke is trying to sneak in some severe cultural criticism to the people that most need it - then it's brilliant. And if it's brilliant, than I should really go back and change some of that earlier stuff, even if it is all still true. So what if the film is random and uneven; that's the point. This might not excuse Roth, but maybe (big maybe) it was a sly poke at America's premier director of entertaining violence. The movie might have done very poorly among critics, but that's because they, like me, were expecting something like Cache: a film that is made for patient, understanding, and attentive film goers interested in examining larger themes and characters through film. But Funny Games doesn't do any of that. It just strips away the music and stylized violence of bad Hollywood films to reveal what gets people in the seats to begin with - violence committed by the evil upon the innocent. Shit Michael, nice work!

The following point is condescending, but I wonder what the average Friday night movie-goer - one whose conscious interaction with film usually ends the second they hit the bathroom - thought of Funny Games. Did they get it? I would hope so, but I think Haneke's point will likely be lost. Instead of getting audiences to recognize their complicity in violence, it's more likely to inspire banal complaints (kinda slow) or worse, cheers. The fact that it only grossed a little over a million is a good sign that Funny Games missed it's target audience. Hell of an effort though, even if my latent "understanding" of Funny Games has provided me far more enjoyment than the film itself.

Well Sean, how'd you like that 180?


You certainly ended up at the right point, I think. There is enough going on in this movie to base a lengthy essay on the topic of violence in film and what attracts audiences to sit in a dark theater, or in my case on the couch, and watch an "innocent" family get tortured for two hours. That's a good question and one that deserves essays and films like Funny Games to kick the question around. Also, I think Haneke in fact delivers some of his most clever and philosophical camerawork in this film.

A trend in recent American films like Hostel and it's bastard children is to have the Ugly American abroad, brutish and unappreciative of culture and paying the price. It taps into our xenophobic nature, and exploits it. What can happen to you when you when you stray too far from home? A lot of these kinds of movies can accurately be described as exploitation movies and often start with a simple question or rote situation and they even used to have titles like Don't Go In the House! or The Hills Have Eyes! and featured normal people crossing a border, leaving the boundaries of their normal lives and entering the forbidden territory. Very xenophobic stuff that taps into a primal fear. Funny Games on the other hand flips that recipe on its head. The fear of helplessness and having the killer step right into your territory and crossing your borders. Interesting. Where's homeland security when you need them, eh?

Innocence is something Haneke loves to ponder, especially in Cache but to a good degree in Funny Games as well. The family in Funny Games is rich. Their trying to spend their first day at their gated, fenced in enormous summer home by the lake. At the beginning of the film they're playing possibly the most bourgeois traveling game ever invented -- name that classical tune. There's a lingering shot of the contents of their refrigerator, filled with the most expensive kinds of juices, water, and cuts of meat you can buy. The first ten minutes of the movie is basically showing you just how rich this husband, wife and pre-teen child are. There must be a purpose to that lingering shot of the refrigerator, right? There must be a reason we're dealing with such a well-off family, no? But just because they're rich doesn't mean they deserve anything bad to happen to them, right? Haneke may have some back story to this family (maybe they got rich by fucking over the poor or something) but I think their wealth is shown more to comment on how it can turn people into impotent captives. Gates and fences won't protect us from the dangers of the outside world more than they'll prevent us from getting help when we most need it. With money and leisure brings impotence is not a new idea (though it is one that was brought to vivid life quite fruitfully in Wall-E) but in the confines of a thriller like this is still packs a potent punch. What is more frightening than not being able to do anything to protect yourself or the people you love? Aren't the worst nightmares the ones where you find yourself stiff as a board and unable to move?

I feel I should come to the defense of the cast here. I admire Tim Roth a great deal. A good portion of the movie hinges on the unspoken husband and wife relationship between Roth and Naomi Watts who brings that same limitless performance she had in Mulholland Drive. I'm sure it was Roth's tenacity to work with the best directors in the business that got him the role. If you look at some of the directors of his movies for the past decade you have Herzog, Coppola, Wenders, you have an actor determined to work with the best. Having seen The Incredible Hulk this summer where he played an agent of destruction created by the military (the best part of the movie really), there was a certain kick in seeing him play an utterly emasculated man. Calling it simply Reservoir Dogs 2 is cutting his performance short. I don't know if anyone else in the business can play The Wounded Man with as much depth of character as Roth can. I agree there could be a sly layer added if he went for a more typical leading man, but even as he constantly makes sure the audience is aware they're being manipulated and that they're watching a movie, having a Tom Cruise or a Brad Pitt would have been unnecessarily distracting. Also I found the team of Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet, playing a riff on Leopold and Loeb by going door to door in a lakeside community and killing the residents for no reason other than kicks, to be extremely effective and more memorable and iconic than the original duo. There's something special about Pitt, he's an actor that I'm fascinated by and another one that seems to be going out of his way to work with the best people he can -- Bertolucci, van Sant, Larry Clark -- all forward pushing film makers. Pitt has a disarming casualness to his acting style that I used to find off-putting in an un-earned confidence kind of way. But I'm starting to really come around to him since I re-watched The Dreamers recently and since Last Days refuses to leave my brain alone some two years since I saw it. That confidence is put to perfect use here and it's the most important performance in the entire movie -- if he doesn't come across as powerful and intelligent than it doesn't work at all. But it's a delicate display, Tim Roth has to believe he can give him a slap like he's a disobedient child one moment and the next he has to cower before him. Pitt pulls it off much better than ok.

On the subject of the fourth wall, I think the movie would have suffered considerably if the technique wasn't used as sparingly as it is -- only when we're about to embark on a new "game". Funny Games still does work as a horror/thriller movie. It still hits those nerves despite Haneke's jabs like these asides to the audience. Due to the intensity of the performances you still loose yourself in the moments and find yourself on the edge of your seat looking through the cracks in your fingers which is what any good horror movie should do and it's the reason why people like them, to fire those endorphins and to get those jolts in that part of the brain that goes off when you get frightened. At least I still did while watching this even when I knew what was going to happen. And I think a lot of people do and it's why some people will have that certain problem with the film. It works as a horror movie and yet it wants to question you every step of the way. It wants to have it's cake and eat it too -- and it does.

In a lot of ways, Funny Games is the anti-horror movie. You're absolutely right, there is little to no violence shown on the screen. I believe there is one all important slap and a couple kicks (I suppose we shouldn't count the moment that is rewound) and that is it - everything else is deliriously psychological. This is all due to the meticulous framing and technique that Haneke uses. It's like a bait and switch, everything that you would find in your average horror film is kept either in another room or just outside of the frame. The camera lingers when it should be cutting to what happens next and it cuts to something else when it should be lingering. Haneke turns the tables on you, which is what the entire movie is about, and he does it down to every last detail of the film. From the music to the camerawork to the role reversals to the killer making the audience complicit -- it's masterfully subversive and certainly one of the more difficult to enjoy great movies ever made. Twice.

I like to think that Hitchcock would love this version of the movie (having also remade one of his own movies). Funny Games was already one of the most perverse things ever made when it came out ten or so years ago. To remake it shot for shot and resubmit the film to the American audiences (unfortunately not under the main wing of Warner Brothers, but rather the now defunct Warner Independent banner, the demise of which I'm sure this movie played a part in) that are most complicit with eating this type of thing up (though the French are beginning to take over this market) is pure unprecedented provocateurism. Imagine after Cache, Warner Bros calling a meeting with Haneke and telling him, We'd love to be in the Haneke business, let us take care of your next movie, you can make whatever you want. And then Haneke gets that twinkle in his eye and decides now's the time. I'll remake my most audience un-friendly film -- I'll take this possibly once in a lifetime chance to give them the bitterest pill they'll ever swallow. Why not? In film these days, aside from Lars von Trier and a few others, the term provocateur was practically made for Michele Haneke.


So you really enjoyed the movie? As you were watching it? Hmmm......

Kidding aside, I think your review was honest enough to say a lot of things that upstanding critics felt reticent about. They were smart enough to know that Haneke was pulling one over on them, so they had to make sure that they didn't fall for the trap. It's funny, because your comment about Haneke "having his cake and eating it too" was exactly the criticism that came up most often at the time of the film's release - reviewers thought it was dishonest to make an intelligent film about enjoying movie violence that at the same time tried to be entertaining through violence. But that, as you mentioned, was the point.

As I said, thinking and talking about the movie have provided more interest than in actually viewing it, so I think it's a limited success at best (this might change).* I had initially keyed into the idea of this wealthy family trapped by modern conveniences like their gate and cell phones, but this, like so many other things, was sort of dropped. Yes we get the fridge and the classical music, but this was kind of a non-starter, unless you think Haneke is trying to associate the same fear of wealth that the Hostel folks are trying to associate with travel. It's pretty interesting, really, because if you follow through the logic of what you said about wealth as the captive, then this is a pretty nasty movie, and not in a good way. You posed the question of does the family deserve it, but don't really answer it. If the answer is no, which I think it is, then the lingering shot of the fridge is irrelevant. But if the answer is yes, then I think you have to say the critics have a point. Just because the target is a bourgeois families rather than sexually adventurous kids, it doesn't make the manipulation any less disturbing.

*My opening of the reivew is now almost a complete joke. I leave it up solely so that the rest of this thing makes sense.

There is a lot here (and in Cache) that also lead me to believe Haneke is working in the same tradition (with the same uneven results) of some of the best 60s and 70s European directors - Bunuel, Ferreri, Godard - in trying to undercut the foundations of what we would call normal civility. This is a very old story: that the rules of manners and decency are not some objective good but a very specific set of morals that favors a particular group of people. And in Funny Games it is in full display. After all, the killers are led from each victim to the next through polite introductions, and gain entry because of standard conventions. In particular, the scene when Brady Corbet tries to borrow the eggs is a masterful set piece in showing the progression of manners, as Naomi Watts becomes increasingly angry - not because she has lost a few eggs, but because her normal mode of action is completely useless. In fact, the crucial breakthrough when you realize something really bad is going to happen (if you didn't know it already) is not so much Roth's slap, but when Corbet comes back for eggs a third time. A silly and trifling thing in the grand scheme of things, four eggs, but it's completely believable when Watts flips her shit. And so maybe Haneke has also given us some good advice: long before our murderers become violent, they will be rude.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Burn After Reading - An Exercise in What the Fuckery

Dir. - Coen Brothers

Viewed: From the Balcony

Like an extended exhale after the tightly wound No Country For Old Men, the Coen Bros follow-up Burn After Reading is an off the hip, loose limbed adventure that has every one of it's characters asking "What the fuck?" and might have more than a few audience members and critics asking the same thing. After a quick search it doesn't look like anyone has counted the amount of times "What the fuck?" is muttered, sighed or screamed in the movie, but my low-ball guess would be somewhere around 20 to 30 times. It perfectly describes the attitude of the film (in a "What the fuck, why not?" way) and after you let your defenses down it's a pretty joyous mantra to let yourself be taken over by.

The dour Ronald Bergen mentioned he was hoping Burn After Reading would be a "return to form" by the Coen Bros. This has had me scratching my head ever since he wrote it about a month ago. What would a return to form from the Coen Bros look like? What movie most represents their form? If there is one director out there now (let's pretend Joel and Ethan are two halves of one director) that jumps styles, genres and aesthetics and yet stays completely recognisable -- it's the Coens. Barton Fink is pretty far removed from Raising Arizona just as Hudsucker Proxy is from Miller's Crossing or even The Big Lebowski. And if you think they've become too "commercial" recently, you obviously can't look past having people like George Clooney or Tom Hanks in their movies. Which is amazingly myopic. To think the Coens use a specific actor simply to get more attention is a huge disservice to a team that has consistently made some of the best casting choices resulting in career defining roles for many actors. I don't know why any fan of the Coens would fall under the belief that they're doing anything besides following their own very idiosyncratic whims from one project to the next.

That's not to say there aren't more than a few similarities, imagery, themes that weave these movies together. Anyone with cursory knowledge of the Coens work will recognize the trappings of Burn After Reading is familiar territory. A CD filled with "serious shit" falls into the hands of a couple of winningly dim bulbs who try to use it for their own benefit and end up destroying the lives of everyone they come in contact with. It's another movie that shows the futility of a scheme. It's another chain reaction movie that the Coen brothers do so well where we watch a simple mistake, something so small and relatively meaningless end up triggering something that devastates. The CD doesn't contain anything meaningful -- it's the bag of undies, or like the treasure in O Brother it's the catalyst and nothing more. The real driving force here is one woman's desire. Like Holly Hunter needing a baby in Raising Arizona, Frances McDormand needs her cosmetic surgery and anyone who gets in her way is going to pay an unfortunate price. The power of a strong-willed woman over the men around them is one of the recurring themes and it's all over Burn Without Reading.

No one here comes out unscathed but those who get the worst of it are McDormand's co-workers, the effervescent Brad Pitt playing the dullest tool in the shed and Richard Jenkins who plays her heartbreakingly devout boss at the Hardbodies fitness center where the CD is found, "just sitting there!". George Clooney has the dumb luck of meeting McDormand through a dating website and John Malcovich is the guy behind the "serious shit" on the CD who has to do battle with this "League of Morons". Watching and listening to Malcovich become increasingly unhinged at what's going on around him is one the greatest joys of the movie. He serves up the majority of the "what the fuck"s and they begin with the very first scene where he gets fired/quits his job as the man behind the Balkan desk at the CIA. His wife, played by Tilda Swinton, in full-on ice-queen mode, soon begins divorce proceedings and dowloads the contents of Malcovich's computer so as to get at his money. The League of Moron's soon descend and with each encounter you can feel Macolvich's boiling point getting closer and you know when this guy snaps it's not going to be good.

What's surprising is the last act of the movie when the knot starts tightening there is palpable tension brewing under all the laughs. The movie is another testament not only to the Coens near flawless ability to construct moving scenes but also to their tightrope walking skills when it comes to tone and characterization. Nearly everyone in this film walks the fine line between sympathetic and reprehensible. So it was surprising when I found myself actually caring about some of these people. And when look at their movies, any of them really, they are filled with over-sized characters -- sometimes even caricatures. But they make them work through what feels like simple sheer will. Even here when no one has good intentions or is uncorrupted, you enjoy spending time with them and would even come back for seconds, because we all know a Coen Bros movie improves the second time around. This has to do with the generally great actors they work with but it also has a lot to do with the way the Coens can create that world in which these characters can comfortably exist and shine even at their worst.

Burn After Reading isn't going to move into my or many fans top five Coen Bros list but it is simply ludicrously funny and one of the better movies I've seen this year and it's not nearly as easily disposable as some critics might lead you to believe.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Corporation

Dir: Mark Achbar
Viewed: From the Couch

Monday was a strange day. Still immensely sad about Wallace's suicide, I spent a good deal of the day hunting around on the Internet for remembrances, stories, and anything I could get my hands on. My Wallace collection thousands of miles away, I made due with the one story from the February Harper's and the scattered links to his stories and essays. I was also sick, so I decided to watch The Corporation, winner at Sundance in 2004 and elsewhere, a movie I had wanted to see for a while but had never gotten around to. Oh, and of course Wall Street was suffering it's greatest crisis in 79 years.

This was a strange collection of events, but there are some common threads (well, except the illness) that made Monday so weird. Anyone who read Wallace knew that he was fascinated by the functions of corporations: the bureaucracy, the marketing, the collective thought. He was also interested in the dynamics of the international financial system (though not to the degree of his acolyte Jonathan Franzen) and the vast complex systems that we create for ourselves. There is no question that enormous systems of corporate and financial systems structure a great deal not only of economic life, but social, cultural, and even psychological life as well. As The Corporation makes all too clear, the depth and penetration of the institutional attempts to re-wire our brain is a very real process.

The first response to this, if you are even a halfway decent person not completely immersed in in self-gratification by means of consumer products and entertainment, is outrage. This is certainly the response intended by The Corporation, which ends its long argument with an injunction from none other than Michael Moore to go out and do something about it. There is certainly no shortage of things you can do - get involved in politics, especially local politics, organize community reaction to such seemingly mundane matters like zoning and tax breaks, vote, etc. As propaganda, it's great.

The Corporation is not a perfect film - it suffers from an often condescending tone (cartoons, stock film, etc.) and the distracting hyperbole of Moore and Noam Chomsky that make it all to easy for people not interested in change to dismiss - but it is a very clever film, mixing serious economic and historic argument with simple investigative reporting. The most novel claim, a fascinating argument that had me hooked when I first heard the producer Marc Achbar explain it a few years ago, is that the modern corporation is a psychopath. While this might make some intuitive sense, it seems at first as just some radical rhetoric. But as the movie demonstrates, the diagnosis of the corporation as psychopath comes as a result of not some inherent evil, but through the decisions of case law in American courts. The two primary decisions:

1) After the Civil War, corporations attained the legal rights of an individual person. 'They' could own land, file suits in court, and apply for patents. In legal terms, they were literally personified - except, notably, in the case of punishment by incarceration.

2) Publicly owned corporations had to put the bottom line first. No matter what else a board of directors would like to do for the community, environment, or their own self-conscience, they would be open to stockholder lawsuits if they pursued these goals ahead of profits.

The result, a legally defined person who is also legally bound to pursue their own self-interest at the expense of outside interests. In other words, a psychopath. It's a brilliant syllogism:

P1) The corporation is an individual
P2) The corporation is concerned only with their own needs, even at the expense of others
P3) A psychopath is a person concerned with their own needs, even at the expense of others
C) The corporation is a psychopath

Once this argument is made, the rest of the film is dedicated to supporting evidence of the second premise: that corporations pursue profit motivations at the expense of community, powerless individuals, and American democracy itself. There's Monsanto getting approval for it's bovine HGH drug despite a worldwide surplus of milk, the absence of claims it works, and the possible harmful effects to humans; there's a marketing company that interviews parents in order to design their advertisements to better encourage the kids' nagging; there's the blatant political corruption, the callousness towards the environment, and the most shocking (and disputable) claim - that biotechnology and synthetic products created by Monsanto, DuPont, etc are the direct causes of the worldwide cancer epidemic. These segment are emotionally powerful, but to any close observer of the regular news, they should be familiar. The real strength of the film is the logic of the argument. It's not just that companies are evil, but that that their evilness is not natural, or simply the result of capitalism, but is contingent upon a series of legal decisions, decisions that American democracy is free to revoke at any time.

Now Wallace certainly shared the belief that we have created these mammoth organizations and structures with little forethought, and they they pose a danger to our politics, our social relations, and our souls. But Wallace was also quick to deny that they were automatically bad or evil. In a radio interview on The Connection, he explained that he was looking beyond how corporate and bureaucratic systems functioned or what their effects were, and wanted to know how and why individual human being got caught up with these systems to begin with. After all, they are our creations. Nothing, not external circumstance, nor a greedy few individuals, nor the logic of capitalism can explain it. It was, I think Wallace was arguing, too easy to take either the communist position that capitalism was inherently destructive and would collapse on itself or the anarchist position that there are 100 evil people in Davos who are pulling the strings. Instead, he believed there was fundamental lack of something - what he called a "lost, infinite thing" in his Kenyon speech - that made us susceptible to creating and joining these organizations and institutions.

Wallace attended church, as he surprisingly reveled in "The View from Mrs. Thompson's", and possessed a strong moralism that marked his biggest departure from postmodernist fiction, and it's not a major leap to suggest that this lost, infinite thing was faith in God. His words on worship in the Kenyon speech speak for themselves (a sort of rhetorical version of Dylan's "You Gotta Serve Somebody"). So it's possible to conclude that our lack of faith has led instead to a worship of business (The Corporation used the phrase "high-priest" to describe C.E.O. and Greenspan was "The Oracle" after all).

But another possibility, and one that would help explain the figurative meltdown of the global financial system, is that our current worship was created, at every level, by a self-constructed hierarchy of values. We could have lost God and replaced it with many things, with art, with family, with devotion to sports, etc., but we seem to have replaced it with a devotion to money and status that far outstrips previous civilizations. Like the psychopathic corporations were not natural, our current obsessions are not natural. The people making the loans knew they were involved in shady dealings but needed to support lifestyles that had people in their mid-20s out-earning their parents. The buyers, led on by dreams of new house, bought into the politically useful fiction that ownership is stability. The breakdown of our lending institutions was, as almost everybody has realized by now, due to a sick and pervasive hunger for something at almost every level.

Not that this needs reminding, but this is what makes McCain's current response to the collapsing market - that it was simple Wall Street greed - most unfortunate. The greed was there, sure, but it was merely a symptom of nothing short of a complete moral breakdown in American society, one that owes it's breakdown not to natural elements, but to systematic legal, judicial, and congressional changes, changes that came almost overwhelmingly at the behest of Republicans. Prescription drugs, including those that would allow us to fuck better, eat more without consequence, and sleep more without conscience, were allowed to be advertised on TV; media companies were allowed to operate several stations and newspapers in one town; tax incentives were given to home buyers while rent control was gutted; unions were replaced by foreign workers though carefully negotiated trade deals; family and communities were torn apart by the market in labor that fools like Thomas Freidman tried to argue were good for us. Everything that afflicted both the health of the American economy and American soul has been done by us in specific legislation. Like the corporate psychopath, the individual psychopaths who sold homes to the unemployed or created the derivatives that allowed this to go on - the ones who got us into this mess - were not inevitable, but created.

Wallace's fundamental critique of systems (if just one could be posited), was that they destroy what we most need and replace it with what we think we most desire. This is undoubtedly true, but it's also true that these critiques can be made not only through art, but in rational arguments like those found in The Corporation, or Fast Food Nation (the book), or even Al Gore. Behind the gimmicky portrayal and the blabbering of Moore, The Corporation came as close to an academic argument as I can imagine. It may not provide the inspiration in the same way Wallace smacked your head and said "look, dammit," but for those already alerted, it can be a powerful device. The crumbling of the American economy, which will continue, rest assured, has nothing to do with Wallace's death other than simple coincidence, but there is a link between our profound blindness to the systems that orient our values and the fall of powerful financial institutions. The latter, for sure, are going to wake some people up. People who have long slumbered in comfort - individuals no different, really, in their mental illness from the corporations where they work - are going to be forced to see how false their idol was. It's a long time coming, and it's going to be one bitch of a wake-up call, but the psychopaths of this country are going to know what Wallace was talking about whether they want to or not.

The Corporation Part 1 (Google Video)

The Corporation Part 2

Sunday, September 14, 2008

David Foster Wallace

Wallace was my hero.

Hero may seem inappropriate for a writer. Heroes enter burning buildings, raise families by working two jobs, throw game-winning touchdown passes, or patrol the mountains of Waziristan. They don't sit around in their office or a library and brood. For the most part, this is right. Writers (or at least the writers I like) in general are reclusive folks who very often lack the ability to sustain significant conversation or immersion in what we generally call everyday life. So this is cowardly, then, right, to withdraw into oneself instead of facing up to reality?

Not exactly. There is a quote from J.M Coetzee that captures the heroism I think Wallace exhibited. Coetzee (or, his character), in Diary of a Bad Year talked about how an individual can respond to the world around themselves, whether it's the injustices, the absurdities, or the just the all-around soul-killing moments of life. Generally, we think of two choices: passive submission or active radicalism; basically, sell out or pick up a Kalashnikov. But as Coetzee wrote:

The alternatives are not placid servitude on the one hand and revolt against servitude on the other. There is a third way, chosen by thousands and millions of people every day. It is the way of quietism, of willed obscurity, of inner emigration.

Wallace, as befitted the novelist of this generation, was extremely self-conscious. His interviews on the Charlie Rose show (linked below) were extraordinary in documenting a person who was so aware of who they were and what they are doing at every moment, of someone who constantly was in the process of self-evaluation. When I watch TV, especially interviews or news programs, I'm amazed by the skill and ease with which people conduct themselves. I've seen what a studio looks like, and what it's like to have a camera in your face, and it's the most disorienting thing you can imagine. Every time I watch an interview with some actor or spokesperson or pundit, I think, "my god, everyone is so strange - how do they do this?"

And then there was Wallace, who talked and acted almost exactly how I thought one should talk and act in such an odd situation, and life seemed a bit more understandable. It was a courage not to let himself slink into the false smiles and and banal language that the TV cameras almost will upon people. He may have appeared to be spasmodic, or uncomfortable, or pretentious in these interviews, but he was just acting in the incredibly strange and self-conscious way one should act in such an incredibly strange and self-conscious setting. It's the people acting 'normal' who are the most pretentious, the most willing to adopt a completely false persona for the purposes of fooling an audience. And of course all these people affecting normalcy make us feel even stranger, because we know we don't talk and act like that. Or, as Wallace described the cheap advertising essay from Frank Conroy in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again:

An ad that pretends to be art is-at absolute best-like somebody who smiles at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what's insidious is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill's real substance, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared; it causes despair.

And so too, I would argue, the despair of the false ease of television personalities, which we both know are false and accept as genuine. Any truly normal person should have breathed a deep sigh of relief upon seeing Wallace talk in a public setting.

Wallace's heroism came in the fact that he persisted in his efforts to try and remain a normal person in the face of so many absurd things. He was 46, and I am still shocked at how much he constantly questioned and evaluated media, technology, drugs, and all the other kind of things that vastly change our perceptions of ourselves and others. In my early twenties, I could keep up this fight, subjecting my every choice in entertainment and consumer products to a long series of questions about what it would do to me - mostly questions like: Will I be a more shallow person if I do this? Will I hate myself for this? Will this make me a more petty person? Is this dignified?

But as I get into the quasi-adulthood of the early thirties, I've had to stop asking so many questions and just accept a great deal of what I formally took to be nothing short of an absurd and greedy world pecking away at my soul. I don't rip the corporate labels off of my jeans anymore. I don't grumble when NPR airs what can only be called commercials. I accept that a beautiful and timeless game like baseball is pimped out as just another shiny box of cereal in the store aisle. I watch television. In short, I'm slowly losing the war. But if I'm losing the war, I'm also winning some small battles, like being (hopefully) a less annoying person to friends and family and creating (again, hopefully) some sense of stability in life. Stability may be bourgeois - or more likely, a lie created by people to sell you the means to effect it - and I curse myself for it sometimes, but I've noticed that I'm getting better at withstanding the barrage of election results, whorish television adds featuring my favorite songs, and the general onslaught of advertising and technology that was such a constant theme in Wallace's work. Thanks to reading Wallace, I take almost every step into this world cautiously, but I am stepping into this world nonetheless.

I don't know if I could have done otherwise and make it to 46. Wallace had shown some signs of a detente with the buzzing world of corporate media, allowing some of his works to be adapted for films, and recently seeming the refined political commentator in the Wall Street Journal, but his most recent work in Oblivion was evidence that the sad way in which human beings have created and ordered the world for themselves was still on his mind. I had thought Consider the Lobster showed that he was backing away from the really dark and scary stories of Oblivion, but it probably makes sense to look to a man's fiction rather than essays to get at the truth.

The fact that Wallace was out there made my own gradual acceptance of absurdity a little easier. Hell, I wasn't going to write one-tenth as well as him, and he was hardly known outside of literary circles and his core audience. I went on in a fairly nice and orderly existence and left Wallace to keep writing. I would still read him - still the only author whose works I bought in hardcover - but I knew that the world he described was a world I remembered like a dream. It was a world where everything you think is meaningful was being taken away, and the only way you think you can cope is to give up more of yourself. I don't think that way anymore - in part because of Wallace and in part because I just couldn't. That he could still think that way, and think that way for all of us, is the real testament to his heroism. Anyone who took all this world in with even a fraction less talent and bravery would have been gone a long time ago.

The Kenyon Graduation Speech

Charlie Rose (Solo)

Charlie Rose (w/ Franzen and some writer who appears to be a massive fraud)

Connection Radio Interview

"Good People"

'Getting Away From Already Being Pretty Much Away From It All''

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Dir: Béla Tarr
From the novel by László Krasznahorkai
Viewed From: Long Story

Note: The following review was composed by Sean and me after a synchronized international viewing of Satantango last Saturday, September 6th. Why we chose to do this is a mystery. And though what follows may in length appear to be the screenplay to the film itself, alas, it is simply the attempt of two people to get their minds around one film. I'll start.

It is hard, to say the least, to know where to begin to talk about Satantango, Bela Tarr's epic film on the lives of a handful of poor Hungarian villagers. It is hard, really, to even describe what takes place, after realizing how poorly the phrase "lives of a handful of Hungarian villagers" lives up to what is depicted on screen. How do you capture scenes of devastating power by saying "there is a protracted close-up of an owl" or "the Doctor walked to get more fruit brandy" or "the bad guys walked through a trash-strewn alley?" You cannot. And so I won't spend much time here trying to describe the actual contents of many scenes, but rather my reactions to particular scenes, the movie as a whole, some shallow artistic analysis, and, finally, some thoughts on Tarr.

First though, a few hopelessly inadequate descriptions are required to explain the basic outline of the movie. The entire thing, seven hours worth, takes place during the course of two days in a rain-soaked Hungarian village. It begins, after a great establishing tracking shot of a heard of cows (see what I mean?), with the rough outlines of a criminal plot. From the discussion between Futaki (Miklós Székely B., star of Tarr's Damnation) and Schmidt (szló Lugossy, the 'earth' from Werkmeister Harmonies' unforgettable opening sequence), we learn that quite a few villagers have planned a large left, but that Schmidt and his friend Kraner (János Derzsi) are going to abscond with the money before the planners meet that night. Futaki, though, after sleeping with Schmidt's wife (Éva Almássy Albert), overhears the plan and demands to be cut in.

For those hoping for a long unpacking of a criminal enterprise gone awry, with backstabbing, double dealing, and a final shot of all the participants shooting each other...sorry. Though it has the making of the genre where the dumb rubes get caught up in a world they do not understand, the proposed theft never truly takes place. As it turns out the money had been gathered by villagers to invest in a new communal farm, and believing the head of the plan has died- the poet criminal Irimias (Mihály Vig) - the villagers agree to split the investment money.

Rumors of the death of Irimias and his henchman Petrina (Putyi Horváth, in possibly the only comic performance in Tarr's filmography) are premature however, and in the second chapter the two return to the village after an important chat with the local authorities. Whatever Irimias's plans truly are - is he an anarchist, a true communist, a prophet, a savior? - they are big, and involve explosives. As Futaki claims of Irimias, he "can build a castle out of horseshit." It may be unclear what the castle is in this metaphor, but after two hours of watching the villagers slop around in the mud, it's pretty obvious what the horseshit is.

Okay, that's the set up. So how does Tarr transform such a simple outline into a extended allegory on communism, human frailty, suffering, faith, hope, and all other sorts of grand things? Well, first it is good to remember that like in all Tarr films, the Hungarian experience of communism - pretty bad even on that sliding scale - is always present. After all, it was the constant promise of communism that peasants and laborers could achieve redemption through hard work. (For a look at the human experience of eastern block countries, rather than the political Cold War narrative that's most often invoked, see Arthur Koestler's The God that Failed) But to view the movie as a simple human portrayal of political and ideological failures misses the care and dedication to character that is Satantango's greatest strength.

One thing that sets the story - based on the novel of the same name by the Hungarian writer szló Krasznahorkai - apart from the cheap allegories of someone like Orwell is that the characters come first, and the larger thematic elements are based upon how these characters live and act - not the other way around. I don't know the universal reaction to the film, but I didn't begin thinking about many of the symbolic elements until long after the film; the characters, on the other hand, are immediately brilliant.

The three primary characters of the film are Irimias, the doctor (Peter Berling), and the seriously disturbed child of one of the villagers, Estike (Erika Bók). The latter two, or more precisely, the introductory chapters on these two characters, were the biggest source of discussion between Sean and I. I have a hard time criticizing anything in this movie, but I can give a descriptive account of these scenes, and there is no question that the two times I felt least engaged in the movie were during the doctor's walk and the introduction to Estike. However, unlike the villagers themselves, I think the audience is rewarded for enduring these scenes.

I'll explain. As the only two characters that are outside of the plot (they have nothing to do with Irimias or the theft) they provide the twin poles through which which the audience experiences the movie. The doctor, as it turns out, is an almost omnipotent watcher on the town, and though we are supposed to care about him, his character functions more as a way to care through him about the village. If there is one fault with the doctor, it is that he is humanized too much, as we see his history with the prostitutes of the town (the only scene I can say really wasn't necessary) and with his needles. In a sense, he really does not belong as a well-rounded three dimensional character. He barely leaves his house, and the town seems to not care about him at all.

The other important character, Estike, is the most enigmatic in the film. The doctor, though an abstraction, is still recognizable, but what to make of a near mute and retarded child who tortures a cat for nearly 20 minutes? At this point, I don't know. As a dramatic device, Estike is necessary to realize the depth and depravity to which the town has fallen, and her fate becomes the moment when the town must really confront its horrors. So this justifies the girl inclusion, but how to tell her story so that she isn't simply a cheap device to advance the plot? Again, I don't know, but the way Tarr and Krasznahorkai chose to do it caused equal parts of boredom, repulsion, and fascination. It may not be the perfect sequence or device, but it is the part of the movie that I think most people will remember the longest.

One problem that Sean and I discussed was that the two scenes of the doctor and Estike are consecutive, meaning we spend a long time away from the most engaging character, Irimias. Irimias, unlike the doctor and Estike, is not only profound, meaningful, and essential to the thematic arc of the story, but is also a captivating speaker. In a novel, a good writer can create characters without dialogue using description, but a twenty page description of a character is always going to be more immediately interesting than a twenty minute shot of a mute actor, no matter how well shot. I imagine that in the novel, these three characters form a narrational triad, where your interest moves between the perspectives of all three. But in the film version, Irimias becomes the dominant voice; in part, simply because he speaks.

In a theater, the experience might be different. I saw both Werkmeister Harmonies and Damnation -the other two collaborations between Tarr and Krasznahorkai - on screen, and Tarr is a director that above all else demands consistent attention. In comments with Sean, I mentioned that I liked seeing it at home, but in retrospect, there wasn't one scene with the emotional power of the hospital sequence in Werkmeister or the dancing scene from Damnation. Tarr is a master hypnotist, and I often forget where I am watching his films, but it's a hard spell to cast without the giant screen and the blackened theater.

There is, of course, also the question of length when it comes to Satantango and I think an argument can be made that of the three collaborative efforts, Satantango represents the one where the concerns of the novel overwhelm the concerns of film. Sean will laugh at this, but when I watch movies based on novels, I always translate scenes back into how they would be described, and the movie makes a stunning case for Krasznahorkai's talents. Yet in doing so, in the care and dedication it takes to realize all of the connections between the villagers, the doctor, Estike, and Irimias, it also stretches Tarr's capacity for visual storytelling to its limit.

Prior to Satantango, I was convinced that Krasznahorkai's use of symbolism and image got Tarr out of the technically marvelous but emotionally flat realism where he began his career. Films like Family Nest and The Prefab People were jarring, but Tarr had 'only' a visceral anger and a perfect eye to work with; his early films, put simply, were not art. But the brilliant collaborations that surrounded Satantango allowed Tarr to focus his camera on characters and images beyond concrete housing slabs, drunken families, and violent men. These things still remained, of course, but they transcended the actual characters and objects they were based on. The extended dancing scene in Satantago prior to Krasznahorkai would have been devoid of music, disgusting, and violent, but instead it achieves a kind of beauty even after the audience learns the horrors that accompanied it.

But over the course of seven hours, I think Tarr may have sacrificed too much to the novelist by refusing to reign in several scenes. It's not that it is too long or too methodical, but that that there are so many powerful moments that, for the first time in a Tarr film I've seen, the art overtakes the artist. Really, the trouble is that Krasznahorkai's novel may have been too good. It probably helps novels like Werkmeister to bring Tarr's talents to bear on the visual enactment of a giant whale entering town, or a mob destroying a hospital, but Satantango lacks those fantastical elements. I found myself instead of being hypnotized by the scene, hypnotized by the idea of the scene.

It's funny to look back at the top and see that I was questioning how one would describe these scenes. Funny because of course Krasznahorkai did just that, and likely in language better than "the bad guys walked down a trash-strewn street." Whether he is a great novelist who helped Tarr, or whether Tarr is a great director who helped him, the resulting product - the best trilogy of films I can think of - is unquestionably great. Even if Satantango doesn't reach the perfect amalgam of story, actors, and camera of Werkmeister, it's visual brilliance, honest devotion to character, and sheer emotional weight make it an incomparable film, one I don't think will ever be equalled.

To ying your yang, whenever I read a book I envision how it would be shot as a movie.
I can't fault Satantango of much either. But my praise mostly revolves around the technical aspects of the film and its method of storytelling. It's one of the most stunningly composed movies I've seen. What I was most surprised with was his use of sound. It's something that I did not pick up on in Werkmeister. From the incidental sounds of people walking, the rain or any of their actions, to the actual dialog -- it is all sparse and repetitive. The kind of sound that is used to hypnotise people. A clock ticking, money being counted, footsteps on leaves, a glass rocking on a counter, a broom sweeping, a girl rolling back and forth, a drunk man telling the same story over and over again, footsteps, footsteps... And it's all a crucial part of the story. Each sound gives you a window into this world and into the heads of the characters. It can be a bit demanding on the viewer but if you care you can come to a realization why every shot is the way it is and every sound is where is in the grand design. Not only is the movie constructed like the steps of the tango, but you have to do a little dance with it yourself to stay attuned and in step to what Tarr is presenting.

One of my problems was the lack of a Janos in the film. A charismatic character to help guide you into this world. I don't have much of an interest in the Hungarian experience of communism, just as I don't with the Serbian experience from When Father Was Away on Business. I don't mean to belittle the importance of the suffering these people went through and are still going through or the rich history of these countries but there is so much complexity to the world that I wouldn't hold it against anyone in Europe or Asia if they didn't have much of an interest in the civil war of the states. And this is not to say that I didn't connect with Satantango, I did, but I didn't connect with any of these characters the same way I did with Janos. The evil little girl and the drunk doctor are the two most memorable characters for me, and like you pointed out they are the ones that have the least to do with the plot machinations of the film and neither of them are particularly characters I enjoy looking back on as they're both quite sad. Irimias for me was more entertaining and interesting as an idea than when he was when he was on film. Like the notorious friend of a friend that you continually hear stories about for years and then when you finally meet them they can only let down your expectations. He is certainly a captivating speaker, which his part and role in the story requires, but I didn't always understand what the other characters saw in him besides his youth and sophistication, both somewhat superficial features.

My favorite character in the movie is Hungary. "Can you smell it? The earth." I felt like I could smell it. And it doesn't smell good -- but lord does it look amazing; the images are so tactile. All the people in this farming community look like they sprouted up out of the ground themselves. As do the homes and buildings -- everything organic. The cracks in the land match the cracks in their faces. In a lot of scenes we are watching as they either walk away into the horizon/into the ground, or coming from the horizon/out of the ground, or like the nasty little girl, disappearing into a hole in the barn that appears like it could dissolve back into the earth at any moment. The framing of these shots has the picture filled primarily with the earth, very little sky and the camera never tilting upward, achieving that special Tarr feeling of claustrophobia even when we're outside. I think these locations, this land was the most tenderly tended to character; at any rate it was the character that kept my attention while the other ones went through their motions.

As I've said before regarding Tarr, there's a majesty in his pacing, a deliberateness that is transcendental. In the Werkmeister Harmonies review I mentioned how the length of some shots may seem superfluous or indulgent until the realization kicks in and that usually happens right as the particular moment in the film is ending and then we're on to the next shot, rinse and repeat. For this is what Tarr captures best: moments. It's the same thing that Harmony Korine said after Mister Lonely when people asked him how he works, he isn't so much interested in telling a story as he is in giving the viewer a series of moments that when taken as a whole represent the story he wants to tell. In Satantango, there are some realizations that don't reveal themselves until later on in the film but (almost) every single time they are there to be found and finding, or having them be revealed to you, is a wonderful, beautiful thing. Except for the scene that in some ways serves as the false ending to the story. From what I gathered, two government employees are translating Irimias' reports on the townspeople and turning his lurid descriptions into blunt data entry. It's briefly funny but the scene goes on and on with no real payoff, no real reward that all the other moments in the film have. The scene is so straightforward, which may the point but it felt out of place in the movie. A bit like the scene that it relates to when Irimias is being released -- they both feel more like scenes than the moments he normally deals with. If this were the true ending of the movie rather than the poetic piece with the doctor that follows, it would have been a real disappointment.

These problems are very minor in their impact of the movie, I only point them out since Paddy pointed out most of what's great about it. It does raise an interesting question for me though. How much of a literary experience do I want from a movie? I can understand, to a certain point, when people get angry at a movie for changing parts of a book they hold dear when it inevitably gets adapted. I never complain too much about this because I understand the cinematic experience is uniquely different from the literary experience. And I like that. Of course, because I am a wholly obsessed movie nerd I like my books to have a certain cinematic, kinetic nature to them and I love comics because they are extremely cinematic by design. Now Satantango is about as close as you can get to having a literary experience with a film. But what Tarr is able to do, for the majority of the time, is to never let the cinematic ball drop. It's a remarkable balancing (or juggling, to keep my metaphors straight) act and is what I think about when you say you wonder if Satantango will ever be equalled. For this reason, not to knock Fassbinder, I shudder at the thought of sitting through half of Berlin Alexanderplatz but would happily sit through another 7 hour Tarr epic if he were to make another one. But the next time I would make sure I got more than 6 hours sleep and didn't have a crippling hangover.


Yes, we certainly have different approaches. I know you see films in books, which is why I thought it was funny that I was thinking of words on a page while watching this. And of course I was enjoying some fine Belgian beer while you were suffering; we all know everyone experiences a film differently, but this was really pushing it. I do want to talk about a lot of what you said, but I think this might be approaching it's own seven hour mark, so I'll keep it short.

First, I like what you said about the organic nature of the town and the streets. Not only are the inside and outside the same, but the lonely walk on the dirt road feels the same as the lonely walk on the street, and the emotion - though for the life of me I can't pin it down - is constant regardless of circumstance. And I agree on the penultimate scene. The only justification really is that every scene is long, so it would break up the flow to cut this short. I think it's justifiable to include it, not just as a way of tying up some lose ends, but it also gives you a glimpse (well, a Tarrian glimpse anyway) at the fat and alcoholic bureaucrats who control so much of the destiny of the villagers. But it did feel out of place, and that would have been one sour apple without the final act with the doctor.

One small disagreement, but nothing major. I think Tarr is going for more than moments or images here; I think they are all in the service of telling stories of individual lives, and a bigger story about human existence. If you watch early Tarr, it's pretty clear that he as interested in narrative as in image (a big difference, incidentally, from his imitator Van Sant). I haven't seen Korine, but from the quotes you gave and your review of Mister Lonely, he doesn't appear as interested in story. I think the interest in individuals is what makes Tarr such an amazing director. What sets him apart from other visual-artist types is that even if you strip away the technique, there is an interest, a passion really, in filming everyday lived experience as strong as that of realist filmmakers like the Dardenne brothers.

Finally, I completely agree that the lack of a Janos makes the film less accessible. Not to kill this point, but it is a big difference between cinema and literature. In a novel, you can get away with mostly silent observers as the primary source of identification for the audience, but in film the lack of dialogue is lot more difficult to handle. It's like what would happen if you put Faulkner's characters on screen; they are just too withdrawn to really grab the audience though they shine on the page. And I don't mean identification in the sense that you think the character is like yourself, just that there is a co-witness to the events with a basic sense of human morality. The gradual breakdown in order in Werkmeister, for example, is powerful because you know there is someone in the film experiencing the same emotions you are. In a sense, the lack of a Janos makes Satantango an even more ambitious film, in that it forces you to observe these lives without the filter of the nice protagonist. You're really on your own here. The doctor and the girl may know what's going on, but they aren't telling anyone.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Beer of the Month: Joseph's Brau Oktoberfest German Style Lager

Those who know me may laugh at me pimping a Trader Joe's beer (for reasons I won't get into). But I've been the first to agree with people who have been disappointed with their beers in the past. It's no secret that they've got a few misfires in their regular lineup. But this years Oktoberfest is no misfire. It's the perfect German style lager and a great beer to be drinking as the summer fades away and fall, the greatest of seasons, descends upon us. I'll admit that it is surprisingly good and above all else it's a great alternative to those lame pumpkin beers that are also starting to show up. Choose wisely.

It's a malty golden beer that gives you a light but rich, smooth taste that is easy to drink and does well right out of the bottle. It's refreshing but it isn't too bubbly and not very hoppy at all -- a well balanced beer that covers your tastebuds with traditional malt and yeast flavors but isn't bitter in the least. Very little of the flowery or citrus flavors of the spring and summer. A good beer on a 70 degree day with a slight chance of rain. I would pair it with a good cheddar, some apple slices and Wim Wenders' fuzzily out of step yet admirably ambitious Until the End of the World.

White Noise - Fringe

Viewed: From the Couch on Tuesday nights

Well, this afternoon was supposed to be the day of a nice and timely Burn After Reading review. I'm really starting to give up hope on these early free screenings. I gotta work on a press pass... Needless to say, it didn't work out. Oddly enough I have qualms about waiting in line longer than the actual length of the movie. So when I show up an hour early and find that there's a solid chance the line is already long enough to call into question whether I'll even get a seat, it was time to head home and put an end to a what had been a long day to begin with.
So instead I'll share some thoughts about Fringe. A new show that will be re-airing it's pilot episode on Fox this weekend. If you have a TV and live in the US, I'm sure you already know about it. Yeah, it's supposed to be the new X-Files and it has Lt. Daniels from The Wire (Lance Reddick) playing another hard ass and that guy from Dawson's Creek (Joshua Jackson) and the requisite hot chick. This is all true of course, it does have a touch of the X-Files about it (the name refers to the category of fringe science) and Reddick is playing another take no shit cop. But it is easily one of the better things I've seen on basic, non-cable television in a while.

It starts out in a classic X-Files kinda way. An uneasy guy on a plane gives himself an injection and suddenly everyone has got a bad case of melty face. Start the investigation. The show definitely has its procedural elements but it does it in it's own charmingly eccentric way due to the charmingly eccentric mad scientist that ends up holding the answers to the antidote and the way to put a face to the bad guy. The later involves a cocktail of LSD and Ketamine and a dip in the ol' sensory deprivation tank. Thankfully no one turned into a werewolf a la William Hurt.

There's leaps in logic to be had here, but it never jumps too far into the realm of make believe where can't think that there's some perverse alternate reality that invisible skin could take place in. Sure, a healthy coat of suspension of disbelief should be applied before watching, but this is all part of the fun. Who doesn't want to see the hero solve the crime by going on a LSD trip? I might have a little bit of a bias since the action takes place in and around the Cambridge/Boston area. Unlike that horrid show Crossing Jordan they actually filmed their exterior shots on location. And as ridiculously implausible as it is, it was fun to have the gang working out of a dusty laboratory in the belly of Harvard University. It's all shot in a unobtrusive yet stylish way. There's none of that CSI techno bullshit but there is this admittedly gimmicky yet cool thing they do with titles that hang in the air like they're part of the scene, the camera moving around or through the letters... I smiled every time.

The mad scientist is played by John Noble with just the right amount of crazy so that it doesn't become too distracting. He has many quotable lines throughout the pilot and his rapport with his son, the Joshua Jackson role, is amusing. Unfortunately Joshua Jackson is given the worst cliched lines of the show. It's like the writers simply spun the wheel on the Incredulous Comic Relief Line Generator 3000. Oh well, I'm sure they'll figure out what to do with him as the show progresses. Lance Reddick is of course badass supreme. If you want mysterious gravitas look no further. For the first half hour of the show he has a highly amusing way of calling our main hero of the show "Liaison". If you know the actor you know the fun he could have with that word. And our hero, played by Anna Torv is indeed a babe but she also proves to be a good centerpiece, the straight man if you will, for the weirdness that surrounds her. She isn't able to hide her native Austrailian tongue as well as Dominic West did playing McNulty, but she manages well enough.

I'm looking forward to the future episodes of this one with a good bit of eager readiness. The episode ends with a line that had me in giddy laughter. A mysterious woman standing over a dead guy asks her lackey how long he's been dead... "Four hours." She thinks it over for a second, "Question him." Reliable TV renaissance man J.J. Abrams counts Cronenberg as an influence on the show (which of course brings a big smile to my face) and has said that the next two episodes are marked improvements over the pilot, which, if true, could be one of the strongest shots from the starting gate a television show like this has had in many seasons.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Flash of Genius

Dir - Marc Abraham

Viewed: From the Balcony

[I'll be sending in a couple of reviews away from RFC HQ-US today and tomorrow. Pardon the appearance until I get a chance to fix them up.]

When you tell someone you saw a movie about the guy who invented the intermittent windshield wiper you might get a crooked, bemused look coming back at you. But as unlikely as it might sound, this story of how our wipers learned to be more like eyelids is an absorbing David and Goliath of Detroit story (if David were more of an unstable obsessive, that is). Bob Kearns (Greg Kinnear) is driving his family home from church in a light rain when the requisite flash of genius occurs. The rain isn't heavy enough to keep the wiper blades from causing that annoying sound of dry rubber running against the glass. But it is the early 60s and the wipers on cars are only set to one speed. Being a doctor of engineering, Bob heads down to his basement and it doesn't take too long before he has a prototype he calls The Kearns Blinking Eye that allows the driver to set the speed of the wiper blades. Soon enough he has the attention of Ford who along with the rest of the Big 3 have been trying to crack this nut for some time. Unfortunately for Ford, Bob wants to manufacture the Blinking Eye himself. They go so far as to ask him for a price, but once he submits the Blinking Eye for Washington's approval (wipers are a safety device) the cat's out of the bag and Bob is given the old high hat by Ford. Like the song goes, the Big 3 stole his baby.

This results in a sharp decline in Bob's sanity and he rapidly hits rock bottom because a rock bottom must be achieved if this is to be a bio-movie, but Flash of Genius refreshingly gets this out of the way sooner than later when he is helped off a bus by state police as he mumbles about being invited to the White House to see the vice president. Most of this is your standard bio-movie stuff, there's no reinvention or particularly surprising twists going on. The inventor taking on the Big 3 stuff we've seen, perhaps with a bit more zing, in Coppola's Tucker, the disturbed genius bit we've seen with more stylistic flourishes in A Beautiful Mind and let's not forget Capra and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But nonetheless, Flash of Genius pulls you in and keeps your interest as you hope for the best for Bob as he pulls himself back from the brink and continues his endless fight for what's rightfully his. As the years go by and his family leaves him and his lawyer quits because he refuses to accept any monetary settlements Ford throws his way, you begin to doubt him. You start to see him like a domesticated version of one of Herzog's mad men or like the latter years of Lenny Bruce without all the smack; boxes of patent laws and useless paperwork from Ford begin to form a shelter around him.

This all leads to a courtroom showdown that takes place some 15 years after the first meeting with Ford. Little by little Bob has been able to win back his children who've helped him prepare his case and Bob serves as his own counsel for the proceedings with his oldest son at his side. This last third of the movie makes up for some of the more rote parts in the middle by providing some earned and authentically touching moments with Bob getting his friends and family to rally behind him after years of being ostracised. If anyone's had a damaged dad that's been separated from the family there will be many a heartstring tugged during the course of this movie. And as far as courtroom action goes there's some good scenes here even if Bob as his own counsel is played for laughs a little too much.

The solid performances are what pull this above being another yawn filled biography picture. Kinnear has made a nice career for himself by taking odd-ball roles in small pictures like this. This kind of dementia beneath the wholesome surface kind of part is where he excels, much like his Bob Crane in Auto-Focus. It's good also to see Mitch Pileggi here playing to his strengths as the evil face of Ford's greed. Alan Alda is welcome in any picture and it's a testament to Bob's obsessiveness that he can sit across the table from him and not heed his words. I'm pretty sure I'd be helpless against Alan Alda's when he's trying to convince me of absolutely anything. And the list goes on: Daniel Roebuck, Lauren Graham, Dermot Mulroney -- all underused actors that know how to do the most with the material their given. I'm pretty sure all you'll hear about when this movie gets out there is the quirky idea of a movie about windshield wipers and Kinnear as a possible Oscar nominee. The movie has more to offer than just his performance, it is certainly a crowd pleaser, half the audience was cheering during the court scenes and gave a hearty round of applause when the credits came up at the end, but at it's heart it is a simple family drama. It's a bit clumsy at times, falls into those bio-movie pitfalls with a thud, and about 15 minutes too long, but the movie ended up winning me over.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

One Night in Cambridge [Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia + Who Shot Hollywood? + The Silver Jews]

The night began with beers, politics and some good food at Shays. We cut our conversation short and headed to the Harvard Film Archive for a 7pm showing of Sam Packinpah's bizzaro neo-western masterpiece Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. We were a few minutes late and I tried to turn my phone off and find a seat without disturbing the guy at the front giving the audience the rundown on this unusual movie. It was to be Pekinpah's last movie to come from his own pen. It was a straight up flop at the box office. Roger Ebert was one of the only critical voices to stand up for it. But the nation was coming to terms with the end of the Vietnam war and the autuers of the 60s and early 70s were serving up a string of box office bombs. Pekinpah would find himself at the mercy of the studios after Garcia got shunned. The cast and crew were at each others throat for the majority of the filming. Pekinpah and Warren Oates, the star of the picture, were both at the height of their alcoholism and it is rumored that they and other cast members including Kris Kristofferson were frequently high on shrooms during the production (you can definitely tell Kris is on something). Needless to say, the results of all this are a wholly unique and unsettling take on the western genre that Pekinpah spent a large part of his career deconstructing.

[Some spoilers follow.] The movie starts in a Mexican village with a pregnant teenage girl enjoying her last, and the only, peaceful moments of the film as she sits by a pond watching the ducks and caressing her large belly. She's brought to the church where the town patriarch demands to know who is the father of this bastard child. Through brute force she admits that it is Alfredo Garcia. The hunt is on. The bounty takes two men to a bar in a Mexican town where Warren Oates is playing piano for tips (dressed in Pekinpah's trademark oversized sunglasses and white suit) and he smells opportunity when the two suits seem pretty desperate for this Alfredo guy. It doesn't take him long to finds out that his girlfriend was with him a few days ago before he drove his car off the road and died. That information and the promise of 10 thousand dollars is enough for him to pack up his convertible and go find the body and bring back the head of Alfredo Garcia.

What follows is a boozy nightmare trip trough the desert towns of Mexico. A desperate search for one man's head and another man's redemption. When he tells his girlfriend that if he'd died in Tijuana or if he died in Mexico City, it would have been fine since he didn't have anything to live for back then anyway. But now bringing back this guy's head can give him a chance to set right a whole lotta wrongs -- it's something to live for and in the end something worth dying for. It's a grim tale with a healthy amount of pitch black gallows humor and an unforgettable performance by Oates. The scenes with Oates barreling down dirt roads, swigging tequila and holding swear filled conversations with the fly infested bag containing Al's head are like something from a horror show and yet undeniably funny. As is this one liner during one of the film's darkest moments... (turn up the volume on this one)

That's from a scene in the first half of the movie after Oates has basically proposed to his girlfriend and they decide to camp out in the desert for the night when they're confronted by two gringo bikers (one played by Kristofferson). It's almost like a redux of the controversial ending of his Straw Dogs. Kristofferson takes Oates' girlfriend to the bushes behind the campsight, but once he's back there, once he's separated from his friend, he doesn't seem to have the will or the ability to go through with the act. But rather than run away from her would be rapist, the woman feels sorry for him. There's many ways to look at this scene and it's obvious that he's baiting the audience. It raises a lot of questions but perhaps it answers the reason why this good natured Mexican woman is so in love with Oates' belligerent drunkard. I haven't caught all of Pekinpah's films and I have yet to see any of his more gentler films like Junior Bonner -- unfortunately my weekend is only allowing me to catch this one from the HFA's series -- but this one is easily my favorite.

Walking from the theater smiling we strolled down Massachusetts Avenue to Central Square and The Middle East nightclub. The downstairs was sold out for The Silver Jews show. I asked the few clusters of smokers standing outside if anyone needed a spare ticket. No luck, but I didn't care enough about the 15 bucks to try to hard. Where Who Shot Hollywood was about to start their set so we went in. Four guys who's average age I would say is about 16 years old took the stage. The novelty of this doesn't easily wear off but they're a super tight band playing catchy as hell hook-filled rock n' roll. With the lead singer plucking driving baselines (and sporting a very Frampton era hairdo), a keyboardist, a sharp rhythm guitarist and what looks to be the youngest player or drums, they fall squarely into the still thriving garage rock combo style that's been kicking around since The Strokes reared there head at the turn of the century. But don't hold that against them -- not that you should anyway. There's no way not to fall for these guys' infectious joy and sheer good times vibe that emit. A couple of their tunes are a bit over the top in a naive love song way, but you're having too much fun bopping your head along and being amazed that a band this young can have such solid, rockin' chops. And hell, at their age they should be writing naive love songs. Let them age another ten years before the angst and cynicism sets in. I haven't seen many bands in the opening slot of a triple billed show win over so many fans so quickly as Who Shot Hollywood. Take note, they'll be taking over and breaking young girls hearts across the planet soon enough.

Hallelujah the Hills had a hard act to follow. I apologize that we didn't give them a chance. Halfway into their first song, a Neutral Milk Hotel/Decemberists type tune, we ducked out and I tried one last time to sell my spare ticket. No takers. The tall boy PBR that I had during the first set was making me sleepy. We grabbed an excellent gin and tonic at the newly plus-sized Cambridge Kitchen across Mass Ave. Feeling better, we headed back to find a half decent spot in the now packed downstairs. I still can't imagine what it was like in this low ceilinged hole in the ground when half the audience was smoking cigarettes -- and I was here smoking them back then and it still seems impossible to me.

The Silver Jews came out and I was surprised to see David Berman step right up to the mike sans guitar and start belting out "Smith & Jones" while strutting around the stage. This was in sharp contrast to the sedate Berman that showed up two years ago singing behind a podium and rarely straying too far away from it. While I was beyond pleased with that show and the not too dissimilar performance at the 2006 Pitchfork Festival, I was blown away by the exuberance and nuance that Berman gave his vocal performance this time around. It was like a different band. He was actually having a great time up there -- emphasizing certain words to the songs in playful ways, making punctuations with nervous gestures -- it doesn't sound amazing to say it but for David Berman it's pretty amazing and it made for a hell of a fun show even if he was still getting used to the idea. Here his in Dublin explaining part of the transformation.

Like last time around, the set list comprised of a mix of old and new, not relying too hard on either. He'd mentioned recently about how pissed he'd be if he'd gone to one of the recent REM shows where they just played their last album and said goodnight. I agree with him. By the end of the show my voice was shot from singing along -- something that I hardly ever do at a show but cannot help myself from doing with The Silver Jews. They had a great keboardist and the guitarist was especially . His wife Cassie on bass is also even better than I remembered her being from the first time around and their duet on Suffering Jukebox was a highlight. Also, I'd forgotten how better the Bright Flight songs sound live. At the end Berman even shook some of the hands of the audience (actually, he was doing this while singing as well) and I still can't get over it... After the lights went up we chatted briefly with a friend we ran into. I picked up a signed copy of Berman's book of poetry from the merch table and we headed back to Somerville.

It was a good night. A lot of the videos on youtube are of unsurprising poor quality -- but I think the herkyjerkyness of this one goes along with the song... (this is not from the Cambridge show)