31 July 2010

A Perfect Day for Bananafish: The Pitch

This one slipped through the cracks a little bit but, while reading the latest underwhelming piece of best 20 under 40 writing in the New Yorker (Tea Obrecht's "Blue Water Djinn") I was reminded of another beach story: Salinger's "A Perfect Day for Bananafish." The only difference is that the latter might be the best thing the magazine ever published (the only story that Nabakov gave an "A+" besides his own pieces) and the former is...not.

Earlier this year, in Lillian Ross' Postscript for Salinger, there is one item that left me breathless:

"Brigitte Bardot once wanted to buy the rights to 'A Perfect Day for Bananafish,' and he said that is was uplifting news. 'I mean it,' he told me. 'She's a cute, talented, lost enfante, and I'm tempted to accommodate her, pour le sport.'"

This is a film the world needs, even 45 years after the fact. I can smell the nail lacquer on BB's fingertips right now.

The principal cast and crew puts itself together in my mind instantly. Bardot is Muriel, Jean-Paul Belmondo is Seymour Glass, Godard directs, Coutard shoots. The year is 1965 and Godard goes right from Pierrot le fou to Bananafish, capping the greatest six-year stretch in the history of the cinema.

We could start in homage to the shot that ends Contempt--tracking back left after "Silencio," a long shot across the beach creeping up to a modern hotel in the south of France...

(Long aside on casting: In 1965, if BB, Belmondo and Godard all died in a dune buggy accident on the way to the set, you could back them up with Deneuve, Delon and Demy. If that group all got lost in a sandstorm, you would still have Moreau, Marc Michel and Malle. Keep that in mind when you try to cheer yourself up on the state of the art in 2010. I guess you could roll with Ludivine Sagnier, Melvil Popoud and Francois Ozon (the only advantage here is you could use Moreau's fabulously ravaged voice as the mother). To play in deeper hypotheticals, if we were making the film in, say, 2000, WTT demigods Emmanuelle Devos, Mathieu Amalric and Arnaud Desplechin could have knocked it out of the park, though the actors now might be a bit too old.)

Okay, the reason this film will be great is Salinger's evergreen voice. Pick up Nine Stories. That cadenced dialogue is crisp a clean sheet in the summer breeze--we need to bring back telling people, "don't be fresh." My favorite sentence is about the young girl, Sybil, as seen by Seymour: "She ran a few steps ahead of him, caught up her left foot in her left hand, and hopped two or three times." Just imagine the mid-60's French equivalent of a Fanning sister doing that. Adorable.

The thing is that "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is only 23 narrow pages long. And we don't want to turn into a pure invention like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But I think there are enough hints at backstory dropped in Muriel's conversation with her mother to provide some enticing flashbacks: the funny business with the trees; the incident with the window; those horrible things he said to Granny about her plans for passing away; what he did to all those lovely pictures from Bermuda. You only see the couple together in flashback, until the last moments on the twin beds. Godard will figure everything out, using "Seymour: An Introduction" as necessary.

And if it has to be a short film, let it rub shoulders with La Jetée or An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. I'm telling you, sit a minute and picture Seymour and Sybil out finding bananafish. It's grand.

30 July 2010

Not Sebald

"I sat at a table near the open terrace door, my papers and notes spread out around me, drawing connections between events that lay far apart but which seemed to me to be of the same order." --W.G. Sebald, Vertigo

What a perfect description of what I try to do every time I sit down to write. But why is Sebald so much better at it? Just look at the smug bastard.

After that sentence he's able to segue as smooth as a Spanish midfielder from checking out an innkeeper in a mirror to a discussion of provincial Italian theatre to a remembrance of a Chinese optician named Susi Ahoi who keeps making everything go out of focus and then back in, now as then.

29 July 2010

A Defense of Hans Zimmer!

You see, it's not his fault that the "score" to Inception is so atrocious.

It's that damn Edith Piaf (=Marion Cotillard=Mal!!!) whose song “Non, je ne Regrette Rien” sounds even worse when dramatically slowed down.

Now, my question is: how much did ole Hans get paid to to sludge up a Piaf song and turn the volume up to 11? At least six figures right?

(I like that the video is cut in half. It makes unraveling the meanings really challenging, like Inception! The NYT piece on the subject is here.)

25 July 2010

Make It Better #2 (Inception)

Even though I'm well-versed in John Q. Public's tendency to heap praise on Hollywood garbage, I have to admit the love for Christopher Nolan's Inception bewilders me. Looking at the other huge, Oscar contending hits from the last three years, I can at least understand the draw. Slumdog Millionaire is perhaps the most predictable film ever made but it's an easy escape into an Otherized spectacle (Bollywood dancing! Music by M.I.A.!). Avatard is likewise harebrained but walking with the blue Evan Turners through the 3-D spores from the tree of life was viscerally cool. Even Nolan's own Dark Knight had that one moment of joy when the Joker stuck is shaggy head out the car window into the magic hour air.

Inception, somehow, has even less to recommend it than all the other dreck (the comparisons to 8 1/2 are my favorite but why stop there--it's the Citizen Kane of the subconscious!!). I'm going to award Mr. O'Hehir at Salon the award for best zinger: "Inception may have been directed by Christopher Nolan, but Nolan's dreams are apparently directed by Michael Bay." It's so irredeemable that, for this edition of "Make It Better," I'm offering proposals to Mr. Nolan that could have helped push the film all the way into the land of farce, where it belongs.

1. Mr. Nolan, sir, could we make the music MORE portentous?

I don't think Hans Zimmer went far enough with the drum and trombone wailing. My eardrums were tested, but did not quite rupture. Given the hundreds of millions that this film is making, could you hire people to whack audience members over the head with frying pans during future screenings? We ought to leave Inception concussed and bleeding from the ears. My theory is that Leo wears that perpetual sweaty grimace because he was forced to listen to the soundtrack while acting.

2. Mr. Nolan, could we make the character names MORE symbolic?

It's been pointed out in many reviews but I still can't get over it. Ellen Page plays an architect of labyrinthine dreams named Ariadne. Fucking ARIADNE from Greek myth. It's not like the team gives her the codename Ariadne because she makes puzzles or because she helps save Cobb from THE MAZE OF HIS SUBCONSCIOUS IN WHICH HIS WIFE IS THE MINOTAUR--it's her actual fucking name. But I don't think it's the best choice. Given her role as the person who must explain everything that happens in the film, in the most transparent, stilted dialogue imaginable (e.g. "Do you think you can just lock her in a prison of memory?!?"), she should be renamed Exposition (Codename: Ariadne). She exists for the purpose of exposition and should be called that outright.

Also: Cobb's wife's name is Mal (BECAUSE SHE IS BAD!) but this is too subtle. I think certain viewers in Indiana might miss the point of a character just called Mal. I propose she be renamed Mal Evilheart, to remove ambiguity.

3. Mr. Nolan, could we make the film MORE humorless?

There is one moment in the film, apropos of nothing in a hotel lobby, where Arthur bends over and kisses Ariadne/Exposition to distract some bad guys--wait, I mean "dreamer's projections!"--and says the gambit was worth a shot (you'll note this line was spoken by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is far too amusing to be in this film). I uttered a short chuckle, which was the only time I laughed with the film all evening. The rest of the time was spent laughing at lines like, "I'm asking you to take a leap of faith!"

4. Mr. Nolan, could we have MORE slow motion shots of the van falling into the water?

I know there are dozens in the film already, but there were times in the last act where, for up to 60 seconds in a stretch, I was unaware of exactly how close that fucking van was to the water line and when the "kick" would rouse the passengers. If only you had tried to ramp up the dramatic tension just a little bit! There's still more juice in that lemon! Maybe in the DVD extras you could include an hour-long, slow motion film of just the van falling with your commentary on exactly where the team is on all the other levels of the dreams within dreams for each frame. (I honestly believe that fans of Inception would watch such a segment.)

5. Mr. Nolan, could we have ONE title card added right at the end of the film?

It should read: OMG GUYZ WILL THE TOP STOP SPINNING?!?!?!?!!?!?!?

Thank you for your kind consideration.

P.S. If, by chance, you want to see a dreamy movie that isn't aggressively stupid, check out Alain Resnais' Wild Grass.

21 July 2010

Crash (not the film that I already know is shitty, the other one)

I've just finished J.G. Ballard's Crash, which has to be the smuttiest book I've ever read primarily in a work breakroom (all apologies to James Salter's A Sport and a Pastime). I wondered if anyone preparing their Lean Cuisines took note of what I was reading with the Grinch's smile on my face.

My main point of entry for the novel is that, since my first accident at age 17, I've imagined, to the point of distraction, crashing my car and being maimed in the wreckage each time I get behind the wheel. If I'd only added a total conflation between the collision and the moment of orgasm, I'd be close to the mindset of the novel's main characters: the proto-reality TV goons Ballard (errr...) and Vaughan. There are so many mechanical and mammalian juices in this book that it's practically damp in your hands.

To pick my favorite of the dozens and dozens of repetitive, but somehow always new, descriptions of the crash/orgasm juncture:

"I remember my first minor collision in a deserted hotel car-park. Disturbed by a police patrol, we had forced ourselves through a hurried sex-act. Reversing out of the park, I struck an unmarked tree. Catherine vomited over my seat. This pool of vomit with its clots of blood like liquid rubies, as viscous and discreet as everything produced by Catherine, still contains for me the essence of the erotic delirium of the car-crash, more exciting than her own rectal and vaginal mucus, as refined as the excrement of a fairy queen, or the minuscule globes of liquid that formed beside the bubbles of her contact lenses."

Obscenely beautiful how Ballard accelerates into these complex sentences of grotesque passion. You can't read this book and think of car interiors the same way. If I ever see a sedan with "mustard leatherette" upholstery, like that in the main vehicle Vaughan drives, I'll be unable to sit down on it.

While we get many iterations of straight sex in many iterations of back seats (wait for the jaw-dropping car wash sequence in particular), the climax of the climaxes in Crash is between Ballard and Vaughan. I credit the author for making good on the homoerotic tension he built for 200 pages. Ballard and Vaughan are the only two characters who, by any stretch of the imagination, love each other as they fuck.

There's also a good deal of wishful starfucking throughout the book--Vaughan's endgame is to die in a crash that also kills Elizabeth Taylor. So it's natural that they made a movie of it (though my mother will be sad to know it's without a racist Sandy Bullock).

At first I was horrified by the excesses of the trailer, then I realized it appears to be a straightforward depiction of events in the book. I'm still too scared to rent the film (mostly because James Spader is in the lead role) but I look forward to my next adventure in Ballard's prose.

18 July 2010

Polanski's Repulsion

Because I was so excited to hear about Roman Polanski once again escaping extradition the States for sodomizing a 13 year old and because it was on the shelf at the library, I just watched his 1965 film Repulsion.

My favorite thing about the film happened before it started. I put in the DVD and for whatever reason moved on to another important task (like bitterly refreshing the gamecast of the Tigers getting swept by the Indians). Some minutes later I noticed a faint clanging of bells and began investigating all open Firefox windows for an annoying pop up. Not finding anything that could be making the noise, I spent a while looking for an unknown alarm on my computer. I was wondering whether I had some kind of ear infection as I started the film, where the constant refrain of church bells is just one of the many signs that Carole (Catherine Deneuve) is losing her mind.

The plot is a straight line: Carole's sister leaves her alone in an apartment for two weeks with a decomposing rabbit and very bad things happen. The only reason to see this film is the not inconsequential pleasure of watching Deneuve wandering around in a nightie for 90 minutes (David Thomson has accurately compared her effect in this era to liquid cocaine). Polanski claimed that he just made Repulsion to get funding for the "more personal" Cul-de-sac, which is just like Coppola making The Godfather so he could direct Apocalypse Now, right?

Also, the somewhat sheepish essay in the Criterion booklet says that Repulsion is a big influence on the painter Luc Tuymans, which is kind of bewildering but neat.

17 July 2010

Winter's Bone Redux

I already saw Debra Granik's Winter's Bone at SIFF and loved it but I couldn't resist seeing the film again as a paying customer. I mostly wanted to confirm my laudatory thoughts because I've walked around calling it "the best American film of the year" (though a friend pointed out that Malick just might be coming out with The Tree of Life by the end of 2010, a real challenger on the horizon).

Perhaps because I'm preoccupied with artistic development this week, I got to thinking about the music of Winter's Bone in the second viewing. Since I didn't have to listen closely for crucial plot points, I was better able to enjoy the homespun songs that shroud the background (the music in Sayle's Matewan is the closest comparison I know). I was hoping there was an official soundtrack out there but apparently not.

The main class distinction among the people of Christian County seems to be the presence of satellite tv dishes on the porches of the more successful meth cookers. Those without television, like the Dollys, even consider picking up a banjo and making music (as mandatory instruction on topics like scatter gun safety allows). When Teardrop and Ashlee start strumming at the end of the film, it's a doubly happy moment. Not only will the family live on--they might even excel at something other than drug manufacture.

There's also the news that star Jennifer Lawrence has signed on to the new X-Men picture....It should be a more glamorous role for her but I hope that we aren't looking back in six years with the same wistfulness we feel for the Lost in Translation-era Scarlett Johansson.

14 July 2010

William Finnegan on Surfing

There are so many remarkable things about William Finnegan's 1992 New Yorker piece "Playing Doc's Games" that it's hard to know where to begin. Well, I should begin by saying you need to pony up subscription money to read this piece, or track it down elsewhere (but, with their thousands of archived articles available online, The New Yorker has become a better value).

First, there's the magazine itself, allowing two consecutive issues to be dominated by lengthy articles about surfing by a then less-known writer like Finnegan. Now I can only imagine the space being filled by a facile Malcolm Gladwell article on some contrary-sounding hypothesis that only his brilliant mind can elucidate, or an Oliver Sacks column on a New England man with a humorous brain condition. Not to mention all the poetry sprinkled through the issue (they're still mostly uninspiring poems from wizened old men, but there's more of them!).

I wouldn't normally be fascinated by thousands of words on surfing, but Finnegan's piece contains multitudes. He gives the precise descriptions in a New Yorker article: locations, techniques, subcultures and heroes. But Finnegan goes much deeper into his own psyche than I ever would have guessed. What begins as a standard glowing portrait of his charismatic friend Dr. Mark Renneker, a surfer/doctor/writer/guru/humanitarian, turns into a study of an artist finding his way.

Finnegan is lured by the easy blend of camaraderie and instruction he gets as a member of Doc's posse, trying to prove himself on the violent waves off Ocean Beach, San Francisco. But, after a few winters in the water, he realizes that surfing can be as distracting to one's vocation as any other addiction. For me, the piece's finest scenes feature a writer who needs the waves and the wind and the longboards and the friends almost as much as he needs to be alone.

So surfing and writing both abandon us with our fears, which I'd never guessed from my hours sitting on the beach, watching guys line up across the tide.

12 July 2010

Irreversible and The Killer Inside Me

My review of Michael Winterbottom's new film The Killer Inside Me is up on the City Arts Blog today and I wanted to further examine it next to Gaspar Noé's Irreversible, to which it has been widely compared.

The biggest difference I can find is the polar editing choices made in the films. While Winterbottom uses fast cuts to the point of distraction, Noé cuts as little as he can, trying to give the appearance of long, continuous shots wherever possible. For me this deflects a criticism I had of The Killer Inside Me: when Winterbottom lingers on Lou Ford's brutality towards women, it stands out. While the infamous 9 minute long rape of Monica Bellucci is excruciating, one can argue that Noé is following the internal logic of his own film, where all takes are extended. In actuality, if not in our emotional memory, Noé spends equal time on a scene of violence as he does on a sequence of his characters' everyday discussion.

And most of those discussions touch on anal sex, which is key to his project. I found the frequency of the comments somewhat distracting but the point is clear: violation is always on the minds of the "regular" guys, not just the sadistic rapist. With The Killer Inside Me, it is simpler to watch and say, "well, these horrifying beatings are just the actions of a psychopath." This mental distinction (and the fact that Casey Affleck is still Ben's little brother) made it much easier for me to get to sleep.

On top of the superior editing choices, Irreversible also has an advantage over The Killer Inside Me in cinematography. The latter has a pleasant enough small-town-Texas-in-the-50's look but Noé is audacious enough to use a color palette from hell. Many reviewers argued that the redness was overdone (and it probably wasn't politically correct to start off all the hell/devil/tunnel metaphors in a gay bondage club called Rectum) but I thought the look fit the subject at hand. When the story unwinds backwards to the beginning and spring greens and pinks begin to appear, the colors are as refreshing as they've ever been.

11 July 2010

Reasons Not to Walk to the Rose Garden

It's getting dark. The clouds along the horizon are grey enough to hold rain. My eyeglasses are the wrong prescription. I don't know whether to wear a long or short sleeved shirt. Some people continue to use vuvuzelas for the purpose of evil. My shoes make to much noise on the gravel path. The garden is lousy with bees. The roses aren't as good as they used to be before they switched to natural pesticides. I don't like the way different roses on the same bush can be different shades and textures of the same color. I used to walk through the garden with people who are gone. Some roses are the wrong shade or brightness for the celebrity after which they're named (e.g. Cary Grant). Many hybrids don't even smell like roses. "Rose people" might be there with maps open making overly detailed comments. I should spend the time reading my friend's manuscript or watching a challenging film. The walk is eight blocks, uphill.

Reasons to Walk to the Rose Garden

For a few minutes looking through the backs of rose petals, the light might be just perfect. And it was.

(Altissimo, climber.)