25 August 2010

Late Summer Graham Greene

"The rollers came in from the Atlantic and smashed over the sea-wall. The spray drove across the road, over the four traffic lanes, and beat like rain under the pock-marked pillars where they walked. The clouds came racing from the east, and he felt himself to be part of the slow erosion of Havana." --Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana

I'm in love with all romantic descriptions of places I've never been and the above is just one Greene dispenses effortlessly in Our Man in Havana. I'm pleased to have picked such an appropriate title for the end of summer (it sure seemed well over in Seattle today). The characters, from Wormold the reluctant agent turned fabulist spy to Capt. Segura the wooer of Milly (Wormold's daughter) and unapologetic torturer, are so humorously drawn together that one can believe that the nuclear threat is really no more than a few sketches of vacuum cleaner attachments. Huzzahs also for Dr. Hasselbacher, an old timer who spends a great evening out, certain that he's won the lottery before the numbers are drawn: "Tonight I have won....Tomorrow I may have lost, but nothing can rob me of my victory tonight."

Throughout, I was reminded of Robert Polidori's photographs of Cuba, a wide book of which I would often flip through in my salad days as a part time independent bookseller. In his Havana, we see how the revolution has frozen Cuba, at least spatially, in the colonial era that Greene captures so well.

Now that all the painful reading is over I get to watch the film version. With Alec Guinness starring and Greene BFF Carol Reed directing, my hopes are high.

24 August 2010

Hello Time Waster

If you happen to have a job that involves hours of slow time, I can't recommend enough clicking through the entire 166 page thread of fake Criterion Collection covers on mubi.com. Start at the end and go backwards until fired.

There are cool designs:

Hilarious film choices:

And art so inspired you can't believe the DVD isn't already available for purchase:

If this thread is any indication, Stanley Kubrick remains the most fanboyed auteur (though he must be hearing Christopher Nolan's footsteps already).

Overall, it's amazing how important font is. Even the best designs are undone by font that doesn't look believable. But when the right combination hits the cover is instantly definitive.

If you wanted another thing to think about when watching films, now you can ponder which images would inspire the finest Criterion cover. Now if someone would just start a thread on booklet art...

15 August 2010

Michiko, Surely You Jest?

Surely surely surely Michiko Kakutani read this smackdown before writing her review of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom? Either way, the piece is hilarious.

Compare Shivani's key claim:

Every good book is Chekhovian or Jamesian or Forsterian or Updikean--she has mastered the technique of saying nothing in a review by comparing books to an author's previous books and to classics which have nothing to do with the book at hand.

To the first sentence of Kakutani's review:

Jonathan Franzen's galvanic new novel, “Freedom,” showcases his impressive literary toolkit — every essential storytelling skill, plus plenty of bells and whistles — and his ability to throw open a big, Updikean picture window on American middle-class life.

And, in case that wasn't enough, a partial list of others to whom Franzen is compared in the review (which is about 1100 words):

David Foster Wallace

If only she had capped it off by saying that Franzen was in the ballpark of her all time fave Gary Shteyngart...

13 August 2010

Clear Eyes, Full Hearts

Sometimes in life you fall into a relationship of convenience and then, just when you realize it was all a mistake, you can't get out of your rut. This summer, my rut is Friday Night Lights (the overrated TV, not the overrated book).

It started innocently enough--I missed college football and had blown through all the episodes of the Big Ten's Greatest Games that didn't involve my Michigan State Spartans suffering a terrible defeat. Why not watch a little of the most football-related show streaming on Netflix?

I've also been playing co-ed softball doubleheaders which, for me, results in more or less continuously pulled quads. (WTT PSA: Mommas don't let your babies grow up to be softball players. I'm only on my team because a previous member broke her ankle at first base and, last Tuesday, we won a game by forfeit when an opposing player slid into second base and wound up with a kneecap 90 degrees out of alignment. Better to participate in a low-risk sport, like boxing or base jumping.) And so, with my ice packs firmly in place for at least 43 minutes, I slink into the variable Texas accents of the Taylors, the Garritys, the Collettes, the Williamses, the Rigginses, the Saracens, the Clarkes and all their attendant Latinos.

The main reason to watch the show is the charming, even plausible, relationship between Coach Taylor, his wife Tami and their unfortunately-banged daughter, Julie. It's fun to watch to see two people who use the word "y'all" as much as Coach and Tami get into it with each other, their eyes glowering and affectionate. There's lots of nice scenes where Coach just wants to watch football on the couch and the ladies make him talk about some silly lady business but then, in spite of himself, he gets all worked up about the silly lady business.

Of course I also have some natural affection for (Sex) Panther Tim Riggins, as he shares with WTT a similar hair style (though, it should be noted, I'm much better looking). He draws the most attention for his lack of guile and the way he wears his rumpled cowboy shirts just so. If only he weren't saddled with an absurd long-term affection for the insufferable Lyla Garrity (the girl full of kindness and goodness that you hope gets it first in a slasher flick).

I have less use for Smash Williams, who is ineffective in pulling off the third person voice. I did enjoy the period where he was dating the preacher's daughter though. I loved Waverly because the sure sign that she had bipolar disorder was her dinnertable recitation of a Robert Hayden poem. Poetry memorization: only for the insane.

Matt Saracen's best feature is his tentativeness, the way his eyes never lock on to anyone. That and the fact that got over his break up with Julie by balling his grandmother's live-in Guatemalan maid.

Tyra Collette is sexy in a way that makes me think of a frecklier, elongated version of Kristin Cavalleri from Laguna Beach. She's perfect when sleeping around and callously torturing Landry Clarke in Season 1 but, lamentably, the writers seem intent of giving her a heart in Season 2. It was truer to my personal experience when Landry (in a shocking turn, the writers give the ugly nerd all the funniest lines!) just stared at Tyra and made aimless jokes about algebra.

Speaking of Season 2--remember when Landry killed a guy with a lead pipe?!? This points to the largest problem with the series (more so than the horrifically conceived and executed football footage): way, way too many big plot points. Having watched mostly HBO productions the last few years, I was unprepared for the amount of story that has to be squeezed into each episode of FNL. Every time you think a twist might be coming, it comes, and usually it comes within one commercial break of when you have the thought.

I probably won't continue on with the show after the second season because it has so many problems. Maybe I'll just watch the first bit of Season 3, just to see what's happened over the summer...

09 August 2010


Writing my City Arts Blog review on Restrepo it was hard not to fall into arguments like "as an American, you need to see this to understand why we need to get the fuck out of Afghanistan." In spite of certain realities, I don't like to consider myself a shrill liberal bedwetter and the film really does do a good job of skirting the politics around the war.

But it's so disheartening watch a man who really cares about proper counterinsurgency, Capt. Kearney, undo his own laborious attempts at diplomacy with rash (if justifiable) assaults on villages that may or may not be providing material support to the Taliban. And to see in long take, close up young men who will never be the same for the things they've seen and done in the Korengal has upset me for days in a way that reading the daily New York Times stories never has.

08 August 2010

Wender's Ripley

When Dennis Hopper kicked the bucket I read the obituaries carefully trying to pinpoint some films that I could watch with the "good" Hopper, as I actively dislike his performances in every film I can think of besides Blue Velvet (and even then, it's Lynch who deserves the credit for lassoing the absurdity into usefulness).

Many critics complemented Wim Wender's The American Friend and that was first up, given my desire to see more Wenders and passion for all things Ripley. To cut to the chase: it's the same old menacing ferret routine from Hopper and he bored me. But Wenders' direction, and Bruno Ganz's character Jonathan Zimmermann, the true star of the film, make it worth a Netflixing.

Hopper's Ripley is less a tasteless, obsessive compulsive murderer (as portrayed by Matt Damon, John Malkovich, Alain Delon, et al) than an addled Eli Cash figure who tangles the terminally ill Zimmermann (a picture framer who's being framed!) in an assassination plot. Ganz is wonderfully wracked as a man caught between morality and the kind of money that could set up his wife and son after his death. It's fascinating to see how the act of murder charges Zimmermann with a new vitality, the adrenaline coursing through him as he makes his escapes. One moving scene has him slinking home to present a gyroscope to his son in the bathtub, moments before his wife chews him out for, you know, killing people for money.

Wenders makes all kinds of idiosyncratic choices with The American Friend. To fill the roles of two old criminals, he picks the directors Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller, both satisfyingly salty. He drenches some exterior shots with so much primary color that I have to wonder if Mr. Beatty had seen the film before directing Dick Tracy. Ripley is provided with the only car he could possibly drive through Hamburg: a white Ford Thunderbird with red interior. And, for a thriller, Wenders gives a lot of screen time to small moments, like a staredown between Zimmerman and a lapdog on a train and a conversation between art dealers on whether the shade of blue gives away one of Ripley's forgeries (they decide the painting will sell in New York regardless). By establishing such a textured backdrop, Wenders ensured my commitment to the characters as they careened towards their deranged ends.

From the Talented Bastard Dept.

I keep seeing these awesome posters for the Rolling Roadshow but today I looked at who designed them: one Olly Moss.

Somehow the Rolling Roadshow does not hit Seattle (presumably because Olly couldn't design a cool enough Heathers poster).

But there's still his website where, luckily, I can't find a way to purchase posters or t-shirts. A sampling of things I need to have, right now:

06 August 2010

Disagreeing with Pauline Kael

Because my education in real film criticism has to start somewhere, I've been reading Pauline Kael's Reeling and enjoying the frequency with which I disagree with the last unanimously lauded film writer. Sometimes, as with her harshness towards Sam Peckinpah and Peter Bogdanovich, I can see her points and would probably lose an argument with her on his merits as a filmmaker. Elsewhere, I feel more combative to her opinions and approach.

And so, Badlands. She begins with a discussion of how Malick made the film at the same age (29) that Godard made Breathless and that Badlands is not as good. Not to set too high a bar or anything...

After establishing to her satisfaction that Malick is a lesser light than the greatest filmmaker of all time, she continues, "The film is a succession of art touches. Malick is a gifted student, and Badlands is an art thing, all right, but I didn't admire it, I didn't enjoy it, and I don't like it."

Even though I think a "succession of art touches" is kind of how you define a film, I'm actually impressed that she was willing to set something so petulant to print. Reading these lines were my first indication that the lady might be protesting too much. Kael returns over and over to the idea of the character's (and by extension their director's) emptiness. Her laughable take on Sissy Spacek: "She's just blah." I would argue it's brilliant to watch Spacek show the accumulating cracks in Holly's facade of adolescent love cliches. As the character puts it, "At this moment, I didn't feel shame or fear, but just kind of blah, like when you're sitting there and all the water's run out of the bathtub."

In another strong statement, Kael writes that she found the "cold detachment" of Badlands offensive. I guess I can't be offended by Malick, who explores his detachment so beautifully. He has always pushed man far out into nature and explored the cruelty of each in turn (think of the scene in The Thin Red Line when, amidst a hail of Japanese bullets, the American soldiers also have to navigate around a viper lunging at them as they crawl uphill). Kit and Holly roll through the Badlands in wide angles that emphasize the smallness of humans on that western landscape where we've always projected our ideas of freedom. Instead of focusing on the plight of two characters blowing around the countryside, I think of the countryside itself, before and after. Kit's violence takes its place in the continuum of bloodshed in movie Westerns the just as real-life Charles Starkweather entered the history books with all the other murderers in the American West.

I should note that it's much easier for me to praise a film that I first watched after it had been canonized as an American classic than it was for Kael to write a review in its original theatrical run (she didn't get to take into account all the fabulous Bruce Springsteen music it inspired!). Perhaps, after Christopher Nolan has been anointed a greater director than Hitchcock and Fellini combined, I'll be ridiculed for napalming his crowning masterpiece, Inception.