31 December 2012

Film in Venice

While trying to write a short story set in Venice (or to pass the time while not writing a short story set in Venice) I've watched the films I'd yet seen on some click-generating "Best Films of Venice" slideshow. To save your time, I'll start with the judgment and proceed from there.

Summertime>The Wings of the Dove>Don't Look Now>Death in Venice

But you needn't see any of the films, though I would only classify Death in Venice as unwatchable (strange how one cannot argue the pedigree of the writers bringing us these depraved visions: Henry James, Daphne du Maurier and Thomas Mann). It's notable how Venice is, repeatedly, a cesspool of vice and decay where romance and beauty are secondary to simply making it out of the city alive.

In the four films, the only scene I'm taking with me is Katharine Hepburn's anxiety alone on her first evening in Venice, the romance and light all around her as she turns this way and that, trapped by Midwestern ignorance and good manners. The horror of a life lived in Akron, Ohio stretches her face into a permanent grimace, her hard voice scratching over the placid Italian of Isa Miranda and Rossano Brazzi.

The Wings of the Dove is dour, leaden with Iain Softley's sub-Merchant Ivory opulence. Helena Bonham Carter plays Kate Croy as a blackhearted schemer, trapping the lame, unattractive Merton and Millie into a game not worth playing. Carter makes an average matador, capering through the black and red bacchanals, crisscrossing the drunk canals. 

Nicolas "How Lurid Can I Get" Roeg (the director of, most recently, Puffball: The Devil's Eyeball) authors what reviews indicate is the finest Venetian film: Don't Look Now. What I got was Donald Sutherland's terrifying curly wig following a red slicker through a Venice as empty as a horror film. And Roeg's facile reliance on forward and backward jump cutting is better done in, say, Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway, shot the year before. The only curiosity is the old parlor game of freeze-framing Sutherland's sex scene with Julie Christie and deciding whether, at a given moment, his p is actually in her v (as a sidenote, it seems the appropriate time to mention that Donald has a son, born in 1974, named Roeg Sutherland).

The folly of chasing beautiful blonde creatures continues in Death in Venice, a film so appalling it makes me reassess my affection for some of Visconti's other work. Dirk Bogarde's Gustav von Aschenbach seems less interested in the "ideal beauty" of Tadzio than in finding out exactly how much white makeup he can pile on his face and how heavily he can sigh into his mustache. After a long two hours of watching everyone's complexion shift from healthy to Ronald McDonald I was hissing, "Die! Die already!"

For palette cleansing, I turned to The Talented Mr. Ripley, with Tom's sumptuous, canal-side rooms a more indelible setting than anything in the aforementioned films and the blood from the razor blade darkening the waffle knit of his robe as he murmurs, "Marge..."

There's also the sweetest third in The Tales of Hoffman, when Powell and Pressburger slither through Venice, dripping with creativity. The vision is noxious: gas-green waters studded with pier pilings silhouetted to resemble gondoliers. It has magic, as black as it is, with the evil maestro casting emeralds and rubies and diamonds from wax.

So the WTT Travel Advisory is to not visit Venice though, one imagines, there might be more worthwhile films made by actual Venetians.

30 November 2012

Silent Bond

I'll start with the thesis for a Skyfall post other than the one I'm writing presently: The Daniel Craig Bond era has been a disappointment given the promise of Casino Royale. Perhaps it's because he hasn't found anyone to engage his interest as thoroughly as the viper-eyed Eva Green or perhaps it's because I haven't had again the same fashion boner as I did for the grey suit in his first Caribbean adventure.

My memories of the Bond franchise are wrapped up with my father--we must have seen the entire canon together. We reveled in the Connery (Goldfinger is the correct answer to best Bond ever and not just because it has a scene at KFC), despised the Moore, accepted the Dalton and suffered the Brosnan in theaters. With this Sam Mendes iteration, I'm reminded of a line in one of my dad's favorite Sinatra songs--"All My Tomorrows"--we're drifting and the laughs are few. In Skyfall, Craig does his best I'm-adjusting-my-cufflinks-as-the-end-of-this-train-car-is-being-torn-off-because-I'm-Bond-James-Bond thing but the script could really use some actual jokes rather than flatly-delivered rhetorical remarks.

On the other hand...I think the early, silent Shanghai sequence best action sequence ever in Bond. As MI:4 showed us, skyscrapers are better action venues than roadways these days (Tom Cruise IS Jack Reacher). Bond follows another superassassin through the undulant streets and up a glass tower surrounded by neon in every direction. There is a blue and green cast on the floor where the killers stalk each other, the reflected lights doubled and tripled over their bodies, a hall of mirrors like The Lady from Shanghai. The hand-to-hand combat on the precipice is less gripping than the constant advertisements gliding like jellyfish across the screen. Bond manages to dispatch his rival into the digital matrix out the window but not soon enough to save a gentleman who was sniped before he got a chance to enjoy a private art show in an adjacent building. In extreme long shot, we see the shimmering Bérénice Marlohe, like a latter day Tia Carrere, step away from the dead man unperturbed. Behind her is a stolen Modigliani face staring cockeyed back at Bond--it's painting as a hopeless anachronism.

It's increasingly rare to see a Bond set piece and find it so full of ideas.

The continuation of the Asian tour in Macau is lovely but less original (it borrows the fireworks scene, if not the chemistry, from To Catch a Thief). Still, the sea of leonine dragon heads match M's recursive bulldog tchotchke and the bowlegged, Bardem-esque (Bardemian?) komodo dragons are a nice touch. When Javier Bardem arrives in the flesh as good-agent-gone-bad Silva we immediately wonder: couldn't he have just been Anton Chigurh? Was Cormac even reached by telegraph in New Mexico to ask for the rights? We coulda had a franchise...

But the work of DP Richard Deakins' and the film climax at Skyfall manor, its signage topped with Baratheonian (certainly not Baratheon-esque) stags. Here is the country to match Mr. Craig at 43--he's older, more of a topcoat man, greyed as 007's old Aston Martin. There's a fabulous tracking shot where his silvered stubble shimmers continuous to the frosted moor (the three-quarter profile works best to minimize the jug ears that have an odd prominence in the heavily-silhouetted early passages of the film). Deakins captures rocky outcrops studded with moss like cactus fruit, so reminiscent of that No Country for Old Men desert scrub.

Albert Finney (certainly in the winter of the year) is rustled up and he helps Bond with some inspired, Home Alone-style booby-trapping for the inevitable final standoff with Bardem. (The revelation that Bond hid in a secret panel after his parents died was an unnecessary bit of back fill. Sean Connery didn't have any back story--he was too busy boozing, fucking babes and shooting people in the face, you know?) After the requisite explosions and casualties, Bond stumbles away from his Manderley, blasted into even starker lunarscape than where we started, hoping that next time around MGM finds a writer to match the cinematographer. 

16 November 2012


The Master is, at best, the second best buddy picture of the season, delivering far less than End of Watch (and also Looper, depending on whether you can be buddies with a future version of yourself, as Bruce Willis is to Joseph Gordon-Levitt). You might quibble with how I define buddy picture--Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell is theoretically a disciple of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd--but I think they're more ill-matched, liver-abusing pals than anything else.

Paul Thomas Anderson will always win a competition in filmmaking virtuosity. As with the opening scenes of There Will Be Blood, I had the feeling that The Master might be an unqualified masterpiece. The department store sequence is a tawdry story told magisterially, with its gleaming marble, tinkling Waterford and bread-filtered dark room beverages. Anderson moves through the building once left to right, following the elegant movements of a fire-breathing fur coat model. A couple of minutes later, Quell slips and thrashes his way out of the store from right to left, a trail of broken crystal behind him. He escapes to the most beautiful shot of dewy, dawn cabbages you'll ever see.

But the narrative loses its way, as Anderson has allowed his films to do far too often, leaving things in The Master in even further disarray than in There Will Be Blood. And without even the salve of instant icon Daniel (Day-Lewis) Plainview and a stronger Jonny Greenwood score.

I wanted Anderson to give me a moment or two of cultish chills on a level with John Hawkes' acoustic "She's Just a Picture" in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Dodd is a funnier, less-Koreshy zealot, with laughter as the surprising (and unsatisfying) key to his Split-Sabered salvation. (I do have to single out for praise the half moment where caballero Dodd pauses for effect in the desert with Quell dragging his treasure chest to the light.) Minutes of screen time pass in the seemingly crucial passage where Dodd exhorts Quell to make short peregrinations between the window and the wall but the vague resolution of this exercise proves less affecting than the formulation in "Get Low" (by renowned auteur Lil Jon). 

As with TWBB, there's a jarring dislocation and truncated third act. Quell nods off in a movie house and is awoken by an overseas call from Dodd, who would like some Kool cigarettes to be hand delivered. This is sub-Lynchian is-it-a-dream? stuff and I only wish someone had murmured a menacing "Silencio." Quell finds Dodd in London, sitting before an absurdly large (Kane-sized, really) set of windows.  

Sitting to one side of the principal actors, who attack their roles like competitive eaters hitting 36 oz. porterhouses, is Amy Adams, the best thing in the film. She gives a white-tank-topped Dodd a savage sinkside masturbating, changes her eye color to an alluring black and delivers the best line of the show: "this is something you do for a billion years or not at all."

David Ayer is a name I can't seem to retain. I just had to look it up again to confirm he directed the superb cop film End of Watch. It doesn't have Paul Thomas Anderson visuals, Joaquin Phoenix Method transformation or Philip Seymour Hoffman howling at the moon. The film is powered by Jake Gyllenhaal, in easily my favorite post-Darko performance (full disclosure: I have not seen Prince of Persia: Sands of Time), and his remarkable chemistry with Michael Peña. In a sense, with the "you look like the guys outside Home Depot," "oh, the baristas are excellent...enjoy your white people shit," ball-busting banter, their relationship mirrors the Schrader-Gomez friendship in Breaking Bad, but Ayer's lines are consistently funnier, and the love between Brian and Mike is palpable (Gyllenhaal has not been this compelling since philosophizing on The Smurfs and I can't think of Peña in another good film (Hollywood feels a breakout coming though: his next film is Chavez, in which he plays Cesar Chavez, who probably features prominently)).

End of Watch is a work drama and the office is a cop car. Large chunks of time away from patrol are elided and the crucial developments in Brian and Mike's professional lives dictate the plot more than their travails outside the Crown Vic. It's a very Californian film, with hyper-aggressive groups forever in cars swooping through the streets and alleys of the Newton division in south L.A. The cops are shadowed by Sinaloa cartel foot soldiers in a minivan that seems incongruous until they slide open the side door for semiautomatic weapons fire.

Ayer avoids the "woman problem" I often find in cop movies. Without enough time to fully draw female characters some (almost exclusively male) directors will make the girlfriends/wives outlandish scenery chewers to compensate. My personal choice for most rewatchable cable film, Michael Mann's Heat, features the greatest action set piece of all time but gets bogged down by non-work relationships (Pacino's wife Diane Venora is a below replacement level Demi Moore and every time Ashley Judd appears it's time to get something from the other room). And it takes some restraint to limit Anna Kendrick's End of Watch screen time--she is as adorable as you'd imagine as Brian's love interest: removing a handwritten list of fuck buddies from his wallet, displaying instant rapport with Mike's wife (played by Natalie Martinez) and singing along to Cam'ron's delightful "Hey Ma". You could make a smaller buddy movie with other two cops in the division, the tight-bunned America Ferrara and Cody Horn (the latter is often shouting at handcuffed people in stern Spanish, if you're into that kind of thing...ahem). The women in End of Watch are compelling but their roles are concise.

Back in the patrol car Mike gives Brian the best marriage advice I've heard. He asks, "can you live without her?" when Brian says he thinking of proposing, and says that if he can he has to be man enough walk away. No one could possibly live without Anna Kendrick but, for the rest of us schmoes, it's wise counsel. We have to wonder how long our police are going to live as they begin, as one officer describes it, pulling on the tail of the cartel beast. They pull over a tricked-out pickup and discover Liberace's AK-47, bedazzled with the telltale opulence of drug cartel associates. Their keen observation of some trash bags uncover a human trafficking way station and suddenly they're on a hit list. 

My notes trailed off in the last act of the movie as I was too stressed out by what I was watching too make proper ironic commentary. Brian and Mike are ambushed by their fatalistic cartel shadows--trapped in a warren of apartments where the LAPD "calvary" can't penetrate. It becomes clear that this isn't one of those action films where everyone walks away unscathed and End of Watch has the real stakes that are missing from the climax (if there is one) of The Master.

30 September 2012

This Summer

That was about the best summer of film I can remember. I can probably only remember the last two summers but I can state with certainty that this year was better than the last (yes, I'm still bitter about The Tree of Life).

Let's say the start of summer was Moonrise Kingdom the first week in June and the end was Lawless over Labor Day weekend. This improves my best summer argument because May offerings ranged from the sucky (The Avengers) to the unspeakable (Battleship). Just so you don't think I'm infallible in my seasonal moviegoing, I'll first address...


Savages. With this film I walk away from Oliver Stone. I've been able to accept him as a so-bad-it's-good trashmaster with Wall Street and U-Turn but after Wall Street 2 and Savages I'm done. If longtime WTT-favorite Shea Whigham as Bud Fox-cum-Kurtz slicing sashimi can't save your film, nothing can. Let's also have a moment of silence for Taylor Kitsch--with Savages, Battleship and John Carter, he has produced one of the most concise and spectacular leading man flameouts in history. But, of course, Texas Forever. It's impressively symmetrical the way Kitsch's 2012 is the opposite of Ryan Gosling's 2011.

Beasts of the Southern Wild. This film made me feel the way the Dolphins made Nathan Lane feel in The Birdcage. Trusted reviewers and friends told me to see this great movie; I saw a longish advertisement for distressed jeans and lives, valorizing alcoholism and stupidity in the face of natural disaster. I second Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's takedown.

The Bourne Legacy. I think there was an interesting premise for a film here: lonely super-chemist Rachel Weiss injects mind-altering drugs into mildly-retarded ex-soldier Jeremy Renner in her massive haunted house. The film we got is not nearly as intriguing and did not have an ending, only a credits sequence.

Small Pleasures:

Prometheus. While I found Ridley Scott's Alien full of ideas and this film rather short on them, there was some joy in the look of Prometheus. Michael Fassbender's android predictably stole the show--my favorite sequence was his David puttering about the ship getting ready to wake everyone up. Beyond Fassbender's Lawrence of Arabia dye job, there's a Benjamin Buttoned Guy Pearce, the so-close-to-Tom-Hardy-you-can-taste-it Logan Marshall-Green and the smooth Idris Elba, who can captain my spacecraft any day.

Ted. A buddy comedy that overcomes a lot of obstacles. Mark Wahlberg is still a little bland as a leading man. Mila Kunis is a one-pitch pitcher: smoky-eyed hotness. Giovanni Ribisi has apparently decided to stalk Wahlberg through his films with twitches and odd facial hair. But then there's that hilarious talking bear! Too many lines to quote but my favorite has stayed with me all summer: "well, you're never alone when you're with Christ." And congratulations to Seth MacFarlane for getting to film his Fenway Park climax--it's just like Hitchcock getting Mount Rushmore for North by Northwest

To Rome with Love. We find four versions of Woody here and I'll ignore the actual Woody, the Italian Woody (Roberto Benigni), and the young Italian Woody (Alessandro Tiberi) to focus on the most successful quarter of the film, with the young American Woody (Jesse Eisenberg). Jesse is tempted away from his girlfriend Greta Gerwig (possibly because she's always dressed like a watered-down Annie Hall) by freelance temptress Ellen Page. The juice of To Rome with Love is Alec Baldwin's masterful over-the-shoulder insights into Juno's bullshit, the young woman who knows one line by every famous poet. He exclaims, "and she's neurotic--it's like filling an inside straight." Eisenberg eventually comes around to Baldwin's pessimism and Allen the director ends our time with Alec in an affecting close up. The last view out to sea from those creased eyes (and everything they've seen) had stunning weight in a sketch of a film.

The Campaign. It's surprising that Will Ferrell and Zach Galifiniakis would star in a piece of documentary-style realism about the American political process but there it was. Say and do anything to win and serve the wishes of behind-the-scenes billionaires. Preferably while wearing pleated blue jeans and sporting ever-larger American flag lapel pins.   

Celeste and Jesse Forever. I'll be straight with you: this film is never as funny as the "Snake Juice" episode of Parks & Rec. But we can't hold it to such a high standard--it's still a beautiful blue movie. Rashida Jones works in a blue office, wakes up on blue mornings, flies to blue weddings. Andy Samberg makes a surprisingly effective melancholic as well. There's a moment when he helps Rashida reimagine a recalcitrant Ikea chest as a chunky robot. It's great to have made art but Celeste and Jesse teach us that, at some point, we need to build the furniture too.

Lawless. Despite missing the full promise of The Wettest County in the World and the whole wait-where-did-Gary-Oldman-go? mystery, this was another step in the Tom Hardy breakout. Jessica Chastain was naked; Tom Hardy was sexy. An Oscar nom for costume design is in order for Margot Wilson for her crucial work in cardigan resurrection. If only John Hillcoat hadn't wasted so much time showing Mia Wasikowska leaving her co-star Shia ReBuffed...har har har.

Large Pleasures:

Moonrise Kingdom. I've posted on how Wes Anderson makes me happy. And now I've moved on to hoping that Anderson settles into a great mid-career run, cranking out signature films like Powell & Pressburger or Douglas Sirk. I'm sure even his most vehement detractors will be won over by the presence of Angela Lansbury in his newest picture...

Oslo, August 31. I tumbled all over myself when it came out. It's thick with the details of mental illness. The laceless shoes of the patients at the facility from which you escape on a day pass. The voicemail boxes of people you call to see if they can make it better. The sister who's been hurt too badly to even eat lunch with you. The return to your empty childhood home (not unlike the one in Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours) where there's nothing left but the inevitable. Troubling, but worth the time for Anders Danielsen Lie, who would be in all kinds of Oscar contention if anyone had seen this film (maybe we'll get an American version with Ryan Gosling).

Magic Mike. Exiting the packed theater after whooping my way through Magic Mike, a couple of cool film dudes were discussing the "screwed up" shot where waves appear to pass through the protagonists on a Tampa sandbar. Because they knew much better than Steven Soderbergh how to make a movie. His relaxed lighting and breezy angles work much better here than in his previous film, Haywire. Cody Horn may not prove to be a great actress but she nails "look of disapproval" and that carries her through most of the film. The finest sequence is her first visit to Matthew "Dallas" McConaughey's teak-tanned club, impermanent as the vinyl sign tacked to the stucco outside. We see her voyeuristic pacing from a distance, feeling the same trepidation we do about how simultaneously tasteless and fucking hot the whole "It's Raining Men" production is. Mike approaches after the show wanting to know if she liked it. She cannot admit what we can--we liked it, we liked him especially. She has to ask against his relentless enthusiasm, "are you calling me like a dog?" Mike is so wonderful that I look forward to the sequel C. Tates is said to be directing. It strikes me that many of us sitting in theaters this summer (without even the benefit of prefect pecs) were looking for an escape as much as Magic Mike was, saying to ourselves, "I'm not my lifestyle."

11 September 2012

Out Walking #3

Out walking this time of night means I'm not in Seattle anymore. Though I've just seen Zoe Muth & the Lost High Rollers, the venue is not Tractor Tavern in the formerly autonomous township of Ballard, WA. I've left the Starry Plough which is, from the name down, just about Berkeley enough for me. There's about a quarter as many people in the place as there were for an open mic I attended last winter, which devolved into a regrettable level of hipsterism. Impersonating gifted singer/songwriters is apparently more appealing than listening to gifted singer/songwriters.

I keep Zoe in mind, the motivation for staying out so far past my bedtime. She looked much the same as she did when last I saw her, shrugging off a flannel jacket, her Danskos moving in time with the bass (it's possible I'm being harsh, they might have been cloggy boots).

I've Instagramed her for more orange, a color of romance since Fish Tank, one that follows me down the sodium lamplight on Telegraph. In her finest moment onstage Zoe sang "Before the Night Is Gone" in a hush not completely undone by the chatter of onlookers. I'll follow her advice here to stay inside the lines and mind the sideways wind.

For moral support I compelled my roommate to attend the show with me. With the infallible buddy system we wouldn't have any unplanned incidents with one or two of the late night hijackers whose robberies and home invasions have put Rockridge on edge. Or as on edge as you get in the least edgy Oakland neighborhood. My roommate suggested I might wear a jacket with shoulder pads, to cut a more intimidating silhouette. I scoffed and said I'd bring my Glock (har har har), as if the way my extra small, slim fit dress shirt threatened to rend at the seams over my thick trapezius muscles wasn't intimidating enough. Even besides her roughneck sartorial suggestions, her insights were invaluable. She sweetly pointed out that when I described the Lost High Roller playing the fiddle I meant to say the Lost High Roller playing the mandolin.  

My Raskolnikov coat does not (yet) exist and the roommate had to leave early, so I'm swiveling my way home alone. I try to focus on the recurrences and rhymes that please me on the near empty streets. That dirty and American grill smoke fading into the smell of that potent Ethiopian bread (its name an arrangement of consonants I'm always uncomfortable pronouncing). The discarded foil of single serving pseudophedrine and the steel of razor blades.

I like to believe that my life is not completely run by fear and anxiety. So I revert to childhood. 

I remember the temporally-appropriate Patsy Cline "Walking After Midnight" commercial. Alex Mack (well, Larisa Oleynick), at the apex of adorable girl-next-door-ness, has a then revelatory but now quaint "AT&T WorldNet" online flirtation with her fluffy-haired boyfriend. The ad reveals just how laborious sexting would have been in '97, given the need to scan in pictures and the swaths of baggy clothes everyone was wearing (such distance in volume and connotation from the PINK sleepwear preferred by present-day maidens). Sadly, Oleynick's recent life has been touched by tragedy--she will next appear in Atlas Shrugged: Part II.

This evening strikes me as close to the redheaded night in Julio Cortazar's formulation From the Observatory. A strawberry-blonde night at least. Immaculate slabs of the prose poem wander through my mind. I wonder whether the swirl of stars is likewise invisible in Jaipur, sunk in summer cloudcover and city lights.

For months that sea foam Archipelago book has been on my bedside table underneath Swann's Way, which I keep close for when I need to reach over for the word. I'm crossing the sidewalk adjacent to St. Augustine Church, frequently tagged and repainted beige in unevenly sun-lightened sections. An excuse to say the word palimpsest. Now there are fresh tendrils of hot pink spray paint on the playground wall like Proust's violet-cheeked fuchsias pressed against Combray's blackened churchfront. Made holy or not?

In Seattle I would have driven this mile home, at a time of night that required many circuits of tiny roundabouts in search of a parking place. To the denizens of the weekly (and hourly) motels a couple of blocks from my place, this circling movement also resembled the desire for late night companionship. 
One confused midnight I found myself pursued by a woman, platinum-haired with inch-long roots, her heels clicking like press-on nails over Formica. It was not until she pushed her face meth-disheveled face into my passenger side window that it occurred to me she was a prostitute. And did I want a date?

No, sorry, that's not what I want, no. Though a parking spot would be useful.

The saddest thing about the incident was that she was wearing eyeglasses. Most of the places she would have stayed are gone now, or were gone by the time I was.

That woman's face was like something I'd find in Cindy Sherman's SFMOMA retrospective. Her near-life-sized portraits satirizing reality television--the housewives and mob wives and hoarders and fiends--all seem redundant. The show suffers terribly in comparison to the brilliant one it followed, by Francesca Woodman. Both photographers are relentlessly their own subjects but where Sherman comes forward in caricature against K-Mart backdrops, Woodman recedes into her surroundings: the cabinetry, the wallpaper, the trees.

Sherman is nevertheless worthwhile for the uncanny resemblances in her Untitled Film Stills series, where she is perfectly Monica Vitti or Janet Leigh. Or Ari Graynor in the trailer For a Good Time Call....

I need an iteration of myself as a trenchcoated Bogart, a small man puffed like the black lizard on the spine of those noir paperbacks. Thieves are unlikely to be intimidated by the small "Imported from Detroit" logo on my sweatshirt (my murder mitten t-shirt was in the wash).

I'm thinking I'm almost home and I wish Zoe had played "Starlight Hotel" and I'd heard my favorite of all her lyrics "you turned my heart a lighter shade of blue" when some distance down Alcatraz I spy what, in post-race Rockridge, Oakland, CA, would be described as two "young males in hoodies," the description given for the gentlemen stealing cell phones out of strollers and holding up au pairs on their way home from BART. 

I do not have the trenchcoat with shoulder pads or the Glock or the ease of a local. I have only a burst of adrenaline and what my father describes as congenital chicken legs.

I've been highly amused by the Olympian controversy over racewalking. High speed cameras see what the eye cannot--top walkers do in fact lift both feet off the ground for milliseconds, though it's against the rules. I wonder how fast I can move without appearing to run. Probably not as fast as I'm going.

05 August 2012

Not Polled by Sight & Sound

It's the season for the greatest greatest film list...and I love lists. Making this list was on my list of things to do today. In any case, a list for which no one asked but I'm happy to provide:

#1 Contempt (Godard, 1963)
#2 Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)
#3 La Jetée (Marker, 1962)
#4 The Rules of the Game (Renoir, 1939)
#5 The Godfather Epic (Coppola, 1977)
#6 The Thin Red Line (Malick, 1998)
#7 Persona (Bergman, 1966)
#8 The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, 1928)
#9 L’Avventura (Antonioni, 1960)
#10 The Red Shoes (Powell & Pressburger, 1948)

Other than the relative placement of Contempt and the inclusion of The Thin Red Line, this is a rather chalk list (with an unintended and perhaps unfortunate bias towards diffident blonde actresses and against women directors entirely). It seems best to opt for variety (of white males) or else Breathless and Pierrot le fou might have made it as well. We can't let Godard win everything. By choosing ten (well, 11) different men, this lineup could almost double as my top 10 directors (if you cut out Coppola). Comedy is sacrificed, though The Rules of the Game is mostly funny and The Red Shoes is a musical, an equal genre to comedy according to the Golden Globes.

Compared to some lists I've seen (that are predominantly silent films and never progress past black and white), my list is practically new releases, with The Thin Red Line 14 years young. Other contemporary films that knock on the door are Desplechin's Kings & Queen and Reygadas' Silent Light.

And I don't think it's wrong for films to wait to make the list. There are many recent films, especially one like Certified Copy, that really must wait and linger on our minds for a few years before we "know" whether they belong in a top 10 or not. Consider Mulholland Dr., which we spent the last dozen years untangling and, lo, it made a serious move up the BFI list.

My previous top 100 list, while not completely embarrassing, has many flaws (a full reload is on the WTT calendar for March 2013, five years after the first list, with an eye toward logical 25 to 30 year old progression). I've decided The Philadelphia Story and 2046 are better consigned to a list of my favorites, my comfort cinema, rather than my best. Perhaps with some added maturity Ozu and Tarkovsky will cease making me so sleepy and can push their way into this top 10 free for all...other than #1, all the spots are in play every time I see a new film.

29 July 2012

Mile 2.3 Tidal Inlet

In all poetry, one phrase runs through my mind most frequently: desire is full of endless distance. Okay, number one is probably the falcon cannot hear the falconer but, for the purposes of this post about Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, let's focus on how desire is full of endless distance (The Royal Tenenbaums is the one with the falcon).

The season of the film, late summer 1965, is distant from us. And its protagonists, Sam (Jared Gilman, with eyes often split by black glasses forever slipping down his nose) and Suzy (Kara Heyward, her eyelids drooping under the blue weight of her mascara) start the film impossibly far apart, on opposite ends of New Penzance Island. Impossibly far if they were 12-year-olds the way that the author of WTT was a 12-year-old. But with brief missives in crayon and marker (not to mention original watercolors of telephone poles) Sam and Suzy are drawn together within an aching inevitability. In shot after shot they are on opposite sides of the Andersonian proscenium. Until they aren't.

As always, I exclaimed over the objects in the film--love him or hate him, Anderson is the ultimate director of detail. I loved the Khaki Scoutmaster Swiss Army knife that rhymed with Dirk's gift to Max in Rushmore. I loved the lefty scissors Suzy wields at her attackers--I had that exact pair. I loved the cat in the wicker basket on the beach, the same year Belmondo and Karina were on the run in Pierrot le fou. And so, like The Dark Knight Rises fanboys, my hackles went up over Kartina Richardson's odd MK put down. Which led to a backlash to the backlash that included just a few little harsh words. Richardson, who was so helpful on a film like Certified Copy, complains of Anderson's smallness of scope. I find it small the way Romeo and Juliet is a small, fairly unbelievable tale. As someone else said, the lack of minority presence is like complaining about the dearth of coal miners in Proust. I'd take to Twitter to point out that at least he dedicates the film to a minority but I don't want to invite too much abuse.

While many reviews have struggled to find new ways to say Anderson's up to his old tricks again, I found his departure to 16mm filmstock significant. The extended couple on the run segment had a nostalgic, Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom wobble. The long vistas along the Chickchaw trail were not as crystalline as the cemetery views in Rushmore, for instance.

The ensemble cast is a more familiar pleasure. Bruce Willis in an unexpected Hank Williams phase, Bill Murray raging in madras, Frances McDormand washing first her hair then her daughter's, Ed Norton overwhelmed and speechless in his scoutmaster's log, Tilda Swinton's Social Services another piece of swooping androgyny, Jason Schwartzman's impeccably officious Falcon Scout Legionnaire (as fabulous as Bob Balaban's Prarie Home Companion-esque narration was, the only thing I really missed was Owen Wilson's voice).

Moonrise Kingdom has all the giggles you'd expect with unexpected reserves of pain, as in this exchange between co-counselors McDormand and Murray:

"Stop feeling sorry for yourself."
"We're all they've got Walt."
"That's not enough."

Perhaps you can't get past the visuals: swirls of heirloom quilt and perfectly complementary flannel pajamas in separate twin beds. Or you can say that it's a remarkably forthright scene, struck through with truth, beyond aesthetics.

Sam and Suzy are at their most indelible at a place with the least romantic name, Mile 2.3 Tidal Inlet, coming together from opposite rocky outcrops on the beach of their found kingdom. There's Sam's gentle rejoinder to Suzy, "I love you but you don't know what you're talking about," and that fabulous streak of blood from the beetle back earrings, exotic as peacock feathers, that he fishhooks into her pale ears.

The yellows, browns and greens that dominate the film fall away at the climax, as Sam and Suzy flee to the roof in rain-blue night streaked with white lightning. This is the realization of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde and the payoff for the flashing "Moonrise Kingdom" title card at the end of the opening credits. On the rooftop they drop their failed disguises, two tiger masks fluttering to the ground on opposite sides of the sign to St. Jack's Church. Hanging off the side of the steeple they become themselves again.

24 June 2012

Out Walking #2

Out walking, I'm struck by the quickness of that teenage season between prom and grad parties, the girls I'd seen piling in or out of towncars a few weeks ago, all mandarin nails and strapless fuchsia, even now prying open those slim cards crisp with cash or check. I try to remember myself those long afternoons but am distracted by the plastic pink of certain flowering iceplants in sidewalk gardens.

I match music to my first task of the day--purchasing a present for my cousin's high school graduation fête--Ciara explains with her peculiar, one hit emphasis, "but I'm not just a young girl." I choose to stop by the more ridiculous of my bookstore options, a Virginia Woolf-themed garden and Literature store. I'm always careful not to start any conversations there, afraid someone will start rhapsodizing about Meryl Streep in The Hours.

I'm predisposed to purchase a copy of Salinger's Nine Lives. I think my sweet cousin will find it less boring than my other pick, W.G. Sebald's Rings of Saturn. Sure the collection includes "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" but perhaps she'll move past the suicide and just see it as perfect object, as I do. We've shared several cruises and for that reason she might enjoy "Teddy." And there's a little Esmé (with love and squalor) in her as well. I feel all right about the purchase and in any case it's lightweight.

I smile remembering my mother's recent remark that our young graduate has an aunt on her father's side who looks just like Rawhide in Redford's adaptation of A River Runs Through It. It's the sort of observation that once given is unshakeable. To feel less consumerist and more Montanan I'm seeking a scenic lookout in Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve. 

Claremont Avenue turns rustic as soon as you pass the employee parking lot at Claremont Resort and Spa. I'm tightroping the fogline as Porsches swerve around Audis, no doubt driven by dueling surgeons rushing towards a heart transplant patient in the hills. It's unclear to me on which side of the road I ought to be walking. I picture my gravestone when I'm killed crossing the street: "It Was His Indecisiveness That Did Him In."

With no sidewalk or shoulder, it seems I should walk on the left side, so I see the closet traffic coming around the bend. But one never really wishes to see it coming.

I've had this discussion once before. Some Umbro-shorted, mid-90's summer dusk, in one of the classier suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan, I took a walk with my then stepmother. She said we should walk beside the ditch against traffic, the cars returning from afternoons at Grand Haven, people not quite admitting they needed their lights.

This stepmother's face widens and recedes from my memory, leaving the impression of blood pink lipstick on the edge of a Waterford rocks glass filled with neverending box Chablis. I wonder what combination of boredom and terror conspired for me to intentionally spend time alone with her. After perhaps a half mile stroll (quite a distance without cigarettes or liquor), we turned back and didn't move to the other side of the quiet street. I asked, in perhaps the tone that people describe with alarming frequency as "condescending," if we shouldn't cross back over, to follow the logic of the trip out. I do not remember her replying.

I quickstep to the other side of Claremont because that's what my second of four stepmothers would have wanted. Also: it's shadier.

On the one hand, it's better to have worn pants so I'm not exposing the world to my pasty chicken legs and because the denim is absorbing a lot of detritus from roadside stickerbushes. On the other, it's warmish climbing straight uphill and the sweat that normally beads on my forehead is now sheeting down my face.

The issue is finding a trail, any trail, preferably one with "vista" right in the name. As a navigator I'm 100% dependent on iPhone directions and without reception, I look vainly at park signage that gives no information beyond the exhortation: NO DUMPING.

After a half hour of failure my GPS finally connects my blue dot to a map. I'm three quarters of a mile past my intended trailhead. I allow myself one quick, "son of a WHORE!" and press on. Up, north, ahead, wherever. I find something called the Willow Trail which feels appropriately weepy.

I'm at least as much of a naturalist as Norman Maclean's hated brother-in-law-to-be Neal (Rawhide's paramour and, in the film, a dead ringer for current Euro 2012 star Mario Gomez), who stepped off a train in Missoula, "trying to remember what a Davis Cup tennis player looked like." If I had a white cable sweater tied over my shoulders this is where I'd fussily adjust it. Instead of a trout basket, I wrestle my man bag, its strap making a red bend sinister across my chest.

Steps from the road I feel a telltale tingling up my legs. My fear of snakebites is perhaps out of proportion to the likelihood of meeting a rattler but, nevertheless, existent. I change the playlist to Steve Earle for courage, his two pack habit and motel tan, gettin' tough. I'll listen to early Earle only, not post-rehab Steve, with enough regrets to send me into the scrub looking for venom.

A medium brown lizard squiggles across the trail. I don't have enough air in my lungs to shriek but I flex into what I know, thanks to John Jeremiah Sullivan's Michael Jackson piece, is an en pointe.

While I pause a moment for adrenaline dissipation, I run through the questions all rugged outdoorsmen must answer when confronted with a serpent: Do I make myself big and scream, or is that only if I encounter a puma? Will a diamondback only attack if I'm near her snake pups? Or does she strike out of pure snaky meanness?

As I look for landmarks should I become lost (let's not forget Gerry), I notice a profusion of orange ribbons tied to branches. If I had Google I'd check to see if orange is the color used to commemorate dead snakebite victims. 

Bent at the waist, nowhere near a vista and trying not to inhale the gnats clouding a stagnant puddle of what might sometimes be a creek, I have a breakthrough: I prefer to hike with other people so they can be decoys for predators and, if necessary, carry me sobbing down a mountain.

Trying to channel Sam Shakusky, I take inventory of my comestibles: half a bottle of water, five Pepto Bismol tablets (chewable), a full bottle of ibuprofen, Nordic Mint Altoids, Fresh Mint breathstrips and UP2U gum (berry watermelon AND fresh mint flavors IN THE SAME PACK). So I'll die with fresh breath and a settled stomach, which is nice.

One recalls a similar predicament in Adalbert Stifter's Rock Crystal. Those impeccable children weren't sweaty at all because they were stuck in a mountain pass on Christmas Eve trying not to freeze to death (they stay animated all night with coffee extract). Their evening under the luminescent stars is as close as I've ever come to seeing god (God?) on the page. Plus the novella is so suspenseful that I want to have kids just to terrify them with it every Christmas.

Passing through a portal between crossed trees and their shadows I return to Brad Pitt's Paul Maclean, impossibly handsome by the Blackfoot River, and say to no one, "Oh I'll never leave Claremont Canyon, brother."

But I do.

06 June 2012


Here's what you do. Hold on to this link for Anne Carson's "The Glass Essay" (the whole dang thing is on the Poetry Foundation site--good work Poetry Foundation site!). Wait until a few hours before Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights opens in your town. Read the poem then go see the film.

Both address the textures that make Emily Bronte's novel linger on the WTT brain much longer than others from the period. They're punishing, inescapable dreams of thwarted love and bitter chill. With disconcerting pileups of hanged puppies (it's one thing to read that puppies are hanged on the page but even a coldhearted cinephile might get a little squirmy watching it onscreen). 

On the whole, however, humans prove less violent than nature. Carson writes "spring opens like a blade" and Arnold's nature is daggers of wind, cutting through any shelter. Even the mud of the moors seems to breathe, sucking down and threatening to swallow young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave, a boy essentially without language) and Catherine (a spot-on Shannon Beer).

Arnold snaps a tremendous cut from luggage being dropped off a wagon to a coffin thunking in the ground. The funeral features some of the only sunlight seen in the picture and when I reread "The Glass Essay" it resonated with the description "wooden sky carved with knives of light."

The director works in a square frame with enough rack-focused blurring that she could be using Instagram functions to dictate the look of the film. She's probably not though. It's probably more her representation of the enclosed wooziness of the Earnshaw house, groaning like a ship at sea.  And she doesn't eschew with her now trademark slow motion shots. Heathcliff trails Catherine, petting her horse, her curled behind like gorse.

Youth ends and Heathcliff (now a somewhat less affecting James Howson) comes back home. The results are as disastrous as we might expect if Mia had returned to Mardyke Estates in Fish Tank. Heathcliff moves from the "bluish dusk like a sea slid back" to Thrushcross Grange, dappled in pink and white light. He ignores Catherine's husband (whatever his name is--it's especially irrelevant in this adaptation) and returns to crushing on Catherine (now a significantly less affecting Kaya Scodelario).

Heathcliff waits for her to reappear in the unfamiliar shadows of bird cage and crystal. Arnold inserts enough flashbacks that we know his position is hopeless, that the girl with whom he wrestled in the mud is not walking through those ornate doors.

I saw the film a month ago at SFIFF and I've grown more convinced that this story is the worst kind of horror. Heathcliff comes in to Wuthering Heights for the light and the fire and the humanity and is worse for it. Better to have been merely stripped to his bones in the cold. As he sees it, life is bitter but bitterer without Catherine. So he waits out his prison sentence of grey mornings and still the hope that a pair of lapwings will rise over the moor.

10 May 2012

Where Would You Rather Vacation?

Recent theatrical experiences have shown me two places I would not like to visit with my next bit of time off. Julia Loktev's The Loneliest Planet is a muted travelogue full of the unpleasantries one might encounter in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and Drew Goddard's The Cabin in the Woods is about how everything that could go wrong will go wrong at a certain abandoned, rural cabin in, let's say for the sake of argument, Georgia (the one south of South Carolina).

The Loneliest Planet opens with a deceptively exciting frame around extreme ginger pixie Nica (Hani Furstenberg). She's taking what appears to be an unintentionally cold shower--strands of wet hair clump like the tentacles of a pacific octopus (I'm not speaking of her pubic hair here but that's also en vue). She's rescued by her boyfriend Alex and his pitcherfull of hot water. The gentleman is played by Gael Garcia Bernal, who badly needs to find a good film and hasn't done it here. Though I see what Loktev was thinking when she cast him--he has a great face for bullshitting along and that's what he'll do for the next 90 minutes.

Alex and Nica successfully search a dusty town for a guide whose name is also a trochee. Dato (Bidzine Gujabidze) is dude who can be counted on to understand the little things: "goat is smart, sheep is stupid." He wears a worn camouflage jacket, he's seen some things, he's heard some jokes about the draconian manner in which the Chinese control their population. It's possible he's even read "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber" or Jennifer Egan's "Safari".

The film is good in some small details, giving us lingering looks at a rock faces patterned like Cezanne or snakebacks. And, as Nica and Alex demonstrate in their lessons, the preterit tense is the toughest to conjugate in Spanish. But this is very much a short story lengthened. The director disguises her lack of ideas as subtlety. Is that crackling in the distance gunfire, a factory, a road? The most significant piece of dialogue in the film, where Dato discusses Nica with a peasant bearing an automatic weapon and malicious nose, is unsubtitled. There's a deliberate contextual opacity that, combined with a plot that features exactly noteworthy event, made me a little sleepy.

The only thing that might hold interest (the underlying reasons that would possess two people to go on this unnecessary trip (Bryce Canyon's nice!)) is not addressed at all. It's just people out walking.

You are unlikely to fall asleep watching The Cabin in the Woods. As a hilariously energetic California Theatre staffperson asked us before the screening, "Are there any Joss Whedon fans in the heezy?" There were several. And the first five minutes have more juice than all of The Loneliest Planet.

While the doomed kids are attractively archetypal lot (in contrast to some reviewers I would say the true categories represented are Whore, Jock, Virgin, Nerd (Stoner) and Nerd (Non-Stoner)), the catalysts are Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford as two quasi-governmental officials who serve as MCs for the chaos in the cabin. To keep the world safe from "a great evil" they help maintain a billion dollar black site where young blood is harvested. They have at their disposal more wonderful tricks than I imagine at Gitmo, like pheromone mist (which is little predictable) and brain leeching hair dye (which is not).

The brain leeched Whore figure, played by Anna Hutchison, really does some wonderful work in toplessness, taxidermy makeout and Stanwyck-in-Double-Indemnity anklet channeling before her soul departs. We were prepared for her hasty demise because the control center revealed that "Zombie Redneck Torture Family" was the winner of the human sacrifice lottery this time. I had a huge belly laugh when Whitford lamented "I'm never gonna see a Merman."

(I hope that my handful of readers are already aware that my reviews contain spoilers but I perhaps, since this film is so good and still in theaters, I should throw an alert in here.)

As you do, the group tries to escape the undead rednecks. Things follow the standard horror film escape scenario until the Jock (Chris Hemsworth, surely disappointed to have a varsity jacket covering those Asgardian pecs) decides to leave the group and bring back men with guns. Coincidentally, his leaving involves jumping a crevasse on a motorcycle. He gives what I believe to be the best ever film speech interrupted by disintegration against an invisible electric force field.

This is all good fun for the first two acts but it's the last 20 minutes that raise it to near classic status. The Virgin and the Nerd (Stoner) (played by new to me actors Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz) find their way past the last redneck zombie and descend in a mysteriously modern elevator under the cabin. At bottom is, of course, the bunker full of their tormentors, both the human and supernatural beasts...and as it turns out all of their cages can be opened at once. The giddy free-for-all that results reminded me of nothing so much as the climax of The Wild Bunch, even if Whedon's shade of blood and viscera is a darker red than Peckinpah's. With each new creature released (I was a big fan of the giant cobra) it's more apparent that The Cabin in the Woods is large and contains multitudes of other films in the horror genre.

I'm impressed enough to see Whedon's Avengers this weekend and absorb Hemsworth in more luxuriant coif.

06 May 2012

Remembering GATZ

I saw the Elevator Repair Service's GATZ two weeks ago today and I've been turning it over in my mind ever since. One thing I've been turning over in my mind is how you will want to read here my friend Katherine's definitive account of watching the play. It really is a fraught moment when Nick (Scott Shepherd) opens that Rolodex, starts reading those familiar words and you think this is happening for the next eight hours. To my ears Shepherd's voice sounded strange, a bit querulous as he labored over the opening paragraphs. By the end, hanging on every word, I realized I'll never be able to read the book again without hearing that inflection.

As a staunch Fitzgeraldian, it surprised me to recall I haven't read The Great Gatsby since I was an undergraduate about eight years ago (Tender Is the Night being my tonic of choice). With the drab office setting of the play all too reminiscent of my career in the intervening years since my last visit with James Gatz, much of the book struck me as more melancholy than I remembered. I'm always keen to notice color and the palette of this production was subdued. Beyond the dingy stage props, much of the novel's action is in a "velvet dusk" with a lavender cab and Daisy's lavender hat and Gatsby's lavender suit (in which he drinks chartreuse). The dissolution of the dog biscuit left all afternoon in a dish of milk. The clouds are made greyer by the ashes blown into them and even Gatsby's gold and silver slippers shuffle through dust.

When I heard "the silver pepper of the stars" I left the play for a moment to recollect the first time I read The Great Gatsby, sitting on a green leather couch. My family's living room got a lot of afternoon light and it was warm that afternoon after school. Now I wouldn't even put the line in the top ten Fitzgerald metaphors but then that silver pepper helped convince me I was finally reading something great in 10th grade English. Back then I hadn't spent years in writing workshops to make me sweat every adverb so I was scandalized afresh by the volume of -ly words Fitzgerald tacks on to the he saids and she saids.

If I had a problem with GATZ it was with Jordan (played by Susie Sokol). It's not just that she lacked gray, sun-strained eyes (a phrase Fitzgerald liked so much he used it twice in the novel)--it's that I could never put my finger on her role in the office. Was she an indolent cleaning lady with a passion for Golf Magazine? And I didn't love the way she flatlined Jordan's reckless driving declaration that other people could be careful for her, my favorite line in the book.

Jim Fletcher's Gatsby will never be confused with Redford or DiCaprio but in the hair left on his balding head one could sense a bit of that rubbed-in champagne. Victoria Vazquez's Daisy was excellent as well, capturing the character's air of slightly overdone glamor made to seem casual. Gary Wilmes' Tom was best of all--certainly the most commanding vocal presence of the bunch. Though consideration of the play always comes back to Shepherd's wry unreliability.

Like Katherine I felt something shift when Nick puts down the book halfway through the last chapter and begins reciting from memory (Shepherd can apparently recite Gatsby straight through if given any three consecutive words). There's probably a different section for every reader that inspires high emotion. For me it's a passage just before that boat is borne back ceaselessly into the past: Nick's college homecoming. Here we understand how Shepherd's notable lack of gravitas is a strength of the play--our emotions are allowed to swell on their own.

After eight hours of overcaffeination, drenching walks in NYC rain and peregrinations about the hurricane fenced, under renovation Public Theater lobby, I teared up for the trains going back to the Middle West from New York, Princeton, New Haven. My eyes blurred in time with the passing boxcars, flashing as yellow rectangles across that stage of life.

08 April 2012

Out Walking

I'm reading Open City, that overpraised, Sebald Lite book by Teju Cole. It makes me want to reread Sebald and to walk around remembering.

One of the not terribly many things that I miss about Seattle is the saunter from my apartment in Fremont down to Green Lake and back. It was dance music on my headphones, pretty dogs out strolling and just the right stretch for my legs--a near certain activity on a nice weekend afternoon. Here in Oakland the sunny days are more numerous and the best walks are unknown. 

Given my strong preference to travel in loops rather than straight back the way I came, I have to decide how to travel to Lake Temescal (the appropriate theme music "Circle in My Hand" has been downloaded). Such decisions are immediately cast in the light of the Méséglise and Guermantes Ways that are so crucial to Proust's Swann's Way. Do I take the direct but freeway-adjacent Broadway or the windier, longer, but more appealingly named Broadway Terrace? Which route will have the most water lilies?

You'll note I've already put down Cole and approved of Sebald and Proust, so you may now call me an elitist snob (and be correct) but I absolutely think of the Méséglise Way and Guermantes Way each time I start on a constitutional. So there. And it turns out that, to better match the Third Republic era of In Search of Lost Time, neither path I take is entirely paved. 

I decide to save "the Terrace Way" for the second leg. The purpose of my trip to the lake is to find out if this is the kind of park with sprightly children playing soccer or the kind of park with different ethnic groups sport drinking and throwing firecrackers at each other's faces. This Sunday it's the former. I've decided to rename Temescal Brown Lake, as its color is better suited to a river.

Around the bend from charred hot dog picnic and some browsing white beaked geese is a wonderful scene. There's a girl with black hair flat-ironed to a high gloss picking up her feet like a pony and sinking her heels in the lakeside mud. The boy determined to kiss her moves like a shorter boxer who gets inside his opponent's reach and works from below. He sneaks in one peck and smiles to the oiled ends of his grown out, two-toned fauxhawk. As I pass I can't help myself from smiling at them, and I can almost always help myself.

To help the moment last I take the next available seat on a highbacked stone bench. Mr. Cole, take us away with some unrepentant cliché from the beginning of Chapter 17:

In the spring, life came back into the earth's body. I went to a picnic in Central Park with friends, and we sat under magnolias that had already lost their white flowers. Nearby were the cherry trees, which, leaning across the wire fence behind us, were aflame with pink blossom. Nature is infinitely patient, one thing lives after another has given way; the magnolia's blooms die just as the cherry's come to life.

You can give me the "Cole is just writing the thoughts of a straightforward Nigerian doctor" excuse but I don't buy it. There's nothing original there in imagery, diction or sentiment (that this passage comes directly after an unoriginal meditation on gold Buddhas doesn't help). And the "aflame" is unpardonable. 

As a palette cleanser I read an essay in n+1 (by Mark Grief no less! (about Stanley Clavell no less!)). I find it such slow going that I start to worry about how pink my forehead is getting. The only thing that I really enjoy about the piece is the fact that a 17-year-old Grief found the frozen stones at the entrance of a Harvard lecture hall quite slippery. I coast away from the lake having decided it's too small--I went twice around too quickly.

I'd compare the flowers on my walk back to Proust's hawthorns if I knew exactly what hawthorns looked like. The most stimulating colors are the orange poppy blossoms and red-orange toyon berries that lend curb appeal to Spanish-style houses executed with varying degrees of success across this neighborhood and thousands of others in the state.

California poppies make me chortle because, as an elementary school student kicking my way through a landscaped embankment, a school administrator told me it was illegal to kill a poppy because it was the state flower. Though I was never arrested.

I'm forced into the street to navigate around a substantial broken branch. I think of a man whom I'd met a couple of times at literary occasions in Seattle who was struck and killed by a tree limb while walking his dog in a windstorm. A man taken by what you could only call the hand of god. It seems to me more disturbing than a murder--nothing to lock away. Just the thought that if he'd only stepped out two seconds later...

At the bottom of the hill is a bicyclist collapsed on the ground, her lime green helmet set to the side of her head. A group of riders forms a semi-circle around her, dealing hard looks to every passing driver besides the gentleman who pulls the ambulance alongside them in the eucalyptus shade.

It's better to admire the pastels and putts at the Claremont Country Club. At one time I spent enough time golfing that I could shoot as reliably in the low 90s as my father could shoot in the high 70s.

Late in the last August I was compelled to spend with him I set up in the number 10 tee box of our regular course. I would most often hit a semi-controlled hook that I would, at best, start towards the righthand rough and pull all the way over to the left. But when I really caught a drive it would shoot straight, fading right only at the last. I pounded one of these grownup drives almost to the green of the short, doglegged par 4 and exhaled with too much satisfaction for my dad. He stood over his ball, flexing his shoulders and waggling his wooden-headed driver (even then it was almost inconceivable to see a serious golfer swinging such an old-fashioned club but he liked the superior control of steel shafts and wood heads). He flushed it, of course, his Slazenger bouncing a few yards past mine as he met my eyes.

"Not yet."

As I round the last corners home I listen to "Mama's Eyes" by Justin Townes Earle: "I went down the same road as my old man / but I was younger then." He's 60 this week. Which means I'm just about 30.

27 March 2012

What Poem Was that Anyway?

I've read Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station and there's something I have to get off my chest before I can begin discussing the work itself. In an era where gorgeous books open my wallet all over town, it's unconscionable that Coffee House continues to put out such a relentless parade of ugliness. The most offensive part is that the books look cheap, like galleys. They need to put on an extra turtleneck for those chilly Minnesota winters and sort this shit out.

Moving right along...Lerner's book is one more brick in the likable, 3.5 star wall of contemporary American fiction that is recommended to the WTT. Perhaps that's not enough of a compliment. While slight in areas like love or the American expat experience, the novel is quite wonderful when addressing language acquisition.

Early in the book I nodded along to several bits that elegantly described the disconnect between knowledge of words and fluency. Like me, I sensed that our protagonist Adam was excellent in Spanish class without having any idea of how to absorb the language aurally:

She paused for a long moment and then began to speak; something about a home, but whether she meant a household or the literal structure, I couldn't tell; I heard the names of streets and months; a list of things I thought were books or songs, hard times or hard weather, epoch, uncle, change, an analogy involving summer, something about buying and/or crashing a red car. I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of worlds.

That's a great passage, exactly the understanding I could get from a Madrileño speaking to me at the conclusion of my minor in Spanish. Or the effect I get sometimes drifting off to sleep while watching a subtitled French film.

I made it through the novel thinking the title referred to a completely different poem than it actually does. As any poetry MFA worth his salt could tell you, "Leaving the Atocha Station" is the blab of arctic honey in John Ashbery's second book, The Tennis Court Oath. If, hypothetically, one were a blogger looking for something intelligent to say about the poem and turned to the internet for help, he'd only find people using terms like "Pollock," and "obscure," and summarizing the poem thusly: "it just is." It just is the frustration of what Lyn Hejinian would say is my rage to know. I would venture that Lerner selected for his title a poem that matches his narrator's deliberately obscure verse, another writer who wished to push his readers further from narrative. Also a rather large plot detail in Leaving the Atocha Station occurs at Atocha Station.

The poem actually on my mind while reading the novel is from Houseboat Days (really the only Ashbery book I consider mine ("The Other Tradition," is the first Ashbery poem I can remember reading (that "Emblazoned" is now a word I can only associate with t-shirts))). I'll have you know that in my misremembering I at least got the train part of the station correct. "Melodic Trains" begins with a girl's toy wristwatch, its painted hands, presumably, right twice a day. Observing the anxiousness of his fellow travelers our speaker says wisely: "any stop before the final one creates / Clouds of anxiety, of sad, regretful impatience." Here I am now, waiting in a terrible hurry for trains almost every day, sometimes coming back to the lines: "there is so little / Panic and disorder in the world, and so much unhappiness."  

12 March 2012

The Black Tank Top (Rampart)

In Oren Moverman's Rampart, Woody Harrelson plays LAPD officer Dave Brown, a black tank top kind of guy if there ever was one.

But his performance in the film's trailer got me in the theater. Between Zombieland, The Messenger, Transsiberian, No Country for Old Men (and The Thin Red Line and all the way back to White Men Can't Jump) the Woodman is one of my favorite working actors, so often oscillating between sweet dude and insufferable prick in the same role.

Just from his character's nickname ("Date-Rape"), you can sense this film will push Woody pretty far to the prick side (his aggressive loner persona is underscored by recurring shots of bettas in fishbowls). Brown's own container is the patrol car that ceaselessly cruises less savory sections of Los Angeles, the windshield and his aviators reflecting the greenish "jungle" that he sees (many comparisons have been made between Brown and Keitel or Cage's Bad Lieutenant, but Harrelson's physical performance is closer to Brando's Col. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now). As Ned Beatty, Dave's retired LAPD battleaxe pal, says wistfully, "this used to be a soldier's department."

Moverman strikes me as a director who lets his talent lead him through filming. He does well to alternate Brown's boozing, sexing, wholly impulsive nights with bright concrete mornings on the job. His eyes are so accustomed to darkness that he puts a pillow case over head while smoking in bed. My favorite sequence begins with Brown walking in extreme long shot along rough stucco storefronts of Echo Park. The camera follows him past his destination, to a point where he can observe the Crystal Palace card game he's angling to rip off. Things do not go as planned. Brown is eventually compelled to fire a series of gunshots into the air to (partially) cover his tracks (the police firing guns for dead suspects is a favorite tactic for the screenwriter here, James Ellroy).

But Rampart is almost undone by two terrible sequences. The first is an irregularly revolving shot of a meeting between Brown and two law enforcement higher ups. A constantly circling camera could be an interesting choice over a very short stretch but this was more nauseating than anything. We don't pause on certain points (like the people who are speaking) along the circumference. And we don't get to move at a consistent speed either (for a Tilt-a-Whirl effect?). The second misstep is a woozy sex club scene that makes the gay hookup sequence in Shame looks restrained in cinematography. It's a full on cliche of mauve coloration, freeze frames and techno pulses. I wrinkled my noise in disappointment--twice in a half hour I just wanted a sequence to finish.

The film is stuffed with so many brief appearances by recognizable faces it becomes a distracting game of "Name That Guest Star." There's the matted hobo Ben Foster, an older Robin Wright (the pain of losing that Penn showing on her face) who receives Brown's best pickup line: "you are the most beautiful woman I've ever seen...in this bar," Bunny Colvin from The Wire, singer/stage actress Audra McDonald getting her toes sucked, Steve Buscemi being "Blago," Ice Cube in a Hawaiian shirt and poorly chosen wraparound Oakleys and on and on...

I'd be remiss to conclude this review without a personal revelation. I was a huge James Ellroy fan between the ages of 16 and 18. I tore through every one of his books my allowance afforded me, particularly loving American Tabloid. Of course, the onscreen results of his work have varied. There's L.A. Confidential (one of the best films of the 90's (thank you Brian Helgeland)) on one end and Black Dahlia (one of the five worst films I've ever seen) on the other. Unfortunately his Rampart dialogue reminds me of late-period Mamet: hard-bitten dialogue that 60% of the time works every time. The other 40% is distractingly false.

Ellroy loves to sink his teeth into systemic corruption so I'm shocked that the frequently mentioned, allegedly widespread Rampart Division scandal is not fleshed out in the narrative. In L.A. Confidential we felt exactly how fucked up the LAPD was in the 50s. In Rampart we feel exactly how fucked up one man was in 1999. (If you get nothing else from this post, read Ellroy's delusional, brash Art of Fiction posturing.)

It's all a letdown after Moverman's impeccably controlled The Messenger (as I recall, my first review for Seattle's City Arts). As a director he's taken a step back but can recover. In this way he is not Dave Brown. Or James Ellroy.

06 February 2012

What Did I Just Watch? (Haywire)

"You agree that that was a terrible movie, right?"

This was the first thing I heard exiting the theatre that had just screened Haywire and I felt all kinds of defensive. This film was directed by the excellent Steven Soderbergh (who once politely acknowledged my reverent stare at the Bellagio Hotel!). It was praised by legitimate critics. It features a lead performance by Gina Carano that Richard Brody and Glenn Kenny defended on Twitter!

But after a stunningly flat 93 minutes I had to agree: "Yeah, I'm sorry. That was pretty bad."

The only drama is watching Soderbergh, as director-cameraman-editor, try to come up with compositions so beautiful that they overcome the incredible affectlessness of Carano. (Let's settle one thing right here: Ryan Gosling in Drive, Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past--that's laconic. Carano is flat.) And he's so talented that sometimes you can't tell how she's delivering lines. The sky reflecting blue windows after her first escape, the almost washed out yellow-white light for Barcelona plotting, the magic hour sherbet of San Diego for sand fighting...all lovely. And it's not like I found Carano herself unattractive in charcoaled camo and cornrows (like fellow Midwesterner Nelly, "I'm a sucker for cornrows and manicured toes"). It's just that Carano's biggest line of the film ("YOU BETTER RUN!") had a laugh track after it, in my audience anyway.

Aside from the undercooked heroine, Haywire lacks the spicy supporting cast of a film like Drive. No traction from neckless Channing Tatum, not-Puss-in-Boots-enough Antonio Banderas, or quickly-smothered Michael Fassbender. Ewan McGregor and his bizarre little boy haircut fail completely--at some point we need to admit he isn't any good (perhaps fucking Salmon Fishing in the Yemen will do it). Only Michael Douglas properly taps into his own sliminess.

To the watch the film is to wait for the quiet of the hand to hand combat, done with no bombastic sound effects and longish gaps between cuts (compared to the sonic and visual pummel of Bourne 3, for instance). I particularly admire the way Carano's evening gown is torn to resemble a pair of Muay Thai trunks while she thigh chokes Fassbender.

All I can think is how Haywire just hints at the heights of Soderbergh. Douglas projects as blue and greasy as he is in Traffic but the rest of the film lacks a color palette with such narrative function. There's not the flashing structure or sharpness of The Limey (Terence Stamp is another who badly out-laconics Carano). I missed the micro-budget tightness of The Girlfriend Experience, where Sasha Grey is clearly more comfortable in front of a camera.

When I saw the shot of a thick rocks glass and heard two people guessing their professions I could only giggle at how distant Carano and Fassbender in Irelend seemed from Lopez and Clooney in Detroit in  Out of Sight. Soderbergh must be making a joke about knowing when it's time to retire.

If I remember Haywire it will be for things like the Top Gun-riffing, silhouetted showdown between Carano and Douglas. It's got great lighting, a technically perfect circling camera...and a tumbleweed blowing past.

28 January 2012

Who Will Judge Us? (A Separation)

I'm violently opposed to judging films by their plots. I'm full of obnoxious comments like, "I don't care what the story is, I care how it is." While there is much more to Asghar Farhadi's A Separation than its plot, the storyline is one of the richest I've ever encountered. So I'm providing the summary that I often skip.

It all starts so simply...Nader (a fluctuating, brilliant performance by Peyman Moadi) seeks a divorce from Simin (Leila Hatami, with hair that doesn't want to be under a scarf all the time) because she wishes to use a visa to leave Iran. He cannot countenance abandoning his rapidly declining father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) and, after Simin moves to her mother's house, he must find a daytime nurse for the old man. He hires Razieh (Sareh Bayat, with eyes that rear back like a horse's) who brings a young daughter and, crucially, an unborn child with her to work. An argument over missing money and shoddy caretaking causes Nader to push Razieh out of the apartment and the implications of those moments fill the rest of the film. Razieh's husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) arrives in a headbutting fury after learning his wife has miscarried but his presence is almost comforting, as his constant rage (at losing a child, at being underemployed, at being powerless) shows on a surface level. Every other character seems somehow more pained, their injuries muffled, too deeply embedded to reveal.

The events of the film, the particulars of the plot's intricate circularity, are weighed by a battery of judges. In the first post-credits shot, the camera sits in the unseen magistrate's chair listening to the bitter testimony of Nader and Simin. A visible but unnamed interrogator later dispenses more rulings, patient with Nader and Hodjat but terribly overworked. These officials are less important to the central couples than two other figures. For Razieh and Hodjat, the ultimate judge is God, and they are constantly swearing on or having others swear on the Koran (the physical book proves to be Razieh's undoing at a moment of truth). For Simin and Nader, the ultimate judge is their daughter, Termeh (the astounding Sarina Farhadi), who observes proceedings behind frameless glasses, quiet and omniscient as a security camera. By the end, Nader is frankly terrified by how little escapes her gaze, how many of his half-truths she's caught.

This is not a picture of life in the public spaces of Iran. It's an intimacy with Nader's apartment, a familiarity with the way the front door handle cuts a small semi circle into the doorjamb, as if we've lived there for years. People come and go through the space, often separated by frames within frames: walls, doorways, frosted glass. Conversations are cut off then restarted in different groups, rejiggered to just the family, just the adults, just the men. The unease at home comes across in an early shot of a print of the painting you think of when you hear the name Andrew Wyeth. Acts in this private space are so definitive that Farhadi cuts directly from a reenactment of Razieh being pushed to official testimony about the same. The film sits on my chest, heavy and dusty as one of the carpets in that vortex of an apartment.

As we're in an epoch of totally laughable Oscar selections, A Separation is one film for which I can root come February.