21 November 2013

Three Times: The Counselor

 Three reasons Malkina will be legendary

1. I thought about listing three candidates for the "most over the top" performance in The Counselor but that would be silly. Most over-the-top-ness, thy name is Malkina. The character is introduced as the cheetah-wrangling girlfriend of Javier Bardem's Reiner and object of wonder to Michael Fassbender's Counselor but she proves much more crucial to plot developments than either of them as we move along. As I tweeted immediately after my screening: I want desperately for Cameron Diaz to mount a simultaneous campaign to win both the Razzie for Worst Supporting Actress and the Oscar for Best. I found myself asking, "Did she really just..." at a rate usually reserved for John Waters films. Diaz finds a lascivious strut not seen since her padded bra debut in The Mask. I have more affection for Ms. Diaz than many (due to my uncritical love for her 90's roles in WTT faves She's the One and My Best Friend's Wedding) but it's been a minute and I definitely had a sustained hmmmm when I heard she was to play Malkina. With each off the shoulder dress, however, she owns the character for better or worse or amazing.

The animal print tattooing isn't new to fans of SuicideGirls but Malkina's asymmetrical haircut and intentionally dark roots are more inspired, as is her investment in waterproof mascara to achieve those cheetah tears. Penelope Cruz, whose Laura is a significant character in the screenplay Cormac McCarthy wrote but not so much in this film, is batted around mouse in her cage.

2. Diaz' line recitation so random that I wondered whether she had developed a speech impediment as a coping mechanism for her participation in Knight and Day. Or perhaps she had collagened her lips as part of her method, to get that unnatural rhythm, with those abrupt sentence endings. But no--the oddness can be attributed to her post-dubbing over a Rihanna-style accent! The next generation of film scholars will clamor for the "restored" Malkina voice, per the artist's original intent. Hopefully even now those precious recordings have been secreted away to a Scandinavian mental institution for safekeeping.

3. Okay, let's cut the bullshit preambles and talk about "The Car Scene." If you know nothing else about The Counselor, you know that Cameron Diaz humps the windshield of a convertible. For me, the most shocking element is that director Ridley Scott made this sequence the only flashback in the film, adding to its bizarre power.

Something must be said though: we were 180 degree pan away from a real cultural moment. In his retelling, Reiner uses a catfish metaphor--that's a start but those of us who aren't regular Hillbilly Handfishin' watchers might need a visual aid....Also, was there ever an impulse from Reiner to use windshield wiper fluid? Throughout the film the only thing that seems to scare tough guys is female sexuality (see also Edger Ramirez's priest, who does not care to hear the rest of Malkina's confession).

Three answers to the question "what was Cormac McCarthy thinking?"

1. My answer is "I don't know." But that's not just an admission of ignorance--it must be the most common line of dialogue in this film. The two most frequent I-don't-know-ers are Reiner and Brad Pitt's Westray, but there are also some Spanish language quien sabes. Given that Reiner and Westray are the men who are supposed to counsel the Counselor on his drug deal, "I don't know" is an unsettling answer to hear so often.

Reiner, who rolls around in the phrase as gleefully as Shere Kahn, is like most guys hooked into the cartel--pressured to enjoy as much life as possible in a compressed timeline (he wears rose-colored glasses and a shirt printed with butterflies and double cherries as charms). But one of the things he finds out he didn't know is what would make a good location for his new club. Reiner's grim end is an excellent call back to the gutshot man in No Country for Old Men, who is worried about, of all things, the lobos coming to get him. Well, would you rather be eaten by a rogue cheetah?

Pitt is the best at enlivening the abstractions of the script in his western suit and silver jewelry--Westray even has a Michael Mann "don't have anything in your life you can't walk out on in 30 seconds" ethos. But he still doesn't know. The people who have the answers in this film aren't often onscreen. 

2. However unpleasant, The Counselor is the natural continuation of No Country for Old Men, the jackpot these people have gotten into and from which only death can extricate them. (Aside: one thing I don't know is why everyone keeps saying this is McCarthy's first screenplay. Have you picked up the book No Country for Old Men? That's a screenplay.) Remember in the third act when Llewellyn Moss doesn't get away (like Westray he takes his eyes off the prize (though at least Westray can blame it on that Natalie Dormer's irresistible Tyrellian smirk we know from Game of Thrones)).  Remember the godless violence, the way Chigurh was not brought to justice, the cops too late or already retired? The Counselor is where we've arrived 30 years later--as Devin Faraci suggested his defense, it is Scott's (and McCarthy's) Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

Audiences had a much easier time with No Country because it was much funnier and benefited from the Coen Bros.' exquisite sense of costume and set design. It's rather amusing when Tommy Lee Jones' Ed Tom Bell is moaning sonorously about the end of civilization but he is not incorrect. The American audience for this film does not wish to admit any relation to the narco cultura flourishing in Mexico (El Paso always boasts of its low murder rate) but that doesn't not make it unreal or even exaggerated. If you doubt that, check out the third part of Whore's Glory.

3. Cormac McCarthy does not tease. He shows cracks where people will break and then watches them break. There is an excellent metaphor at the beginning of the film (delivered excellently by Bruno Ganz) about a perfect diamond. Such a stone would be made only of light--only because of the flaws in the gem that we can see it at all. Small fissures emerge everywhere after that, from the crow's feet in the corners of actors' eyes to the spines of the desert cacti.

McCarthy may or may not be an awful misogynist, but this film is about the misogyny (a sexually violent ruthlessness) of cartels. The grotesque peccadilloes of, say, Blood Meridian are outdone by a standard Thursday of business for the Zetas. McCarthy asks the Counselor: Have you ever seen a snuff film? Do you know what a bolito is? You don't know about that? Well you will.

Three guesses at the protagonist of this film

1. The Counselor. Obvious choice, the title of the film, etc. etc. But, then, I've hardly mentioned him. I'm a Fassbender fan but he recedes to peripheral interest in his own film, denied expression of his usual perversions and struggling with a blank slate character (he also has his own, if less pronounced, accent troubles). His odd, dirty-talking relationship with Laura makes zero impression. 

2. Malkina. The poster hints at her centrality. She makes it alive to the last scene of the film and does some reptilian skin-shedding, trading her back-piece-revealing dresses for a king cobra/grim reaper hood. She's on her way to Hong Kong, presumably to exchange her pet cheetahs for dragons and get her tongue forked. I look forward to Diaz going full Kristin-Scott-Thomas-in-Bangkok and trying on a Cantonese accent in the sequel (this movie was box office catnip, right?).

3. The septic truck full of drugs. Or what the septic truck full of drugs represents: the cartel. The truck full of drugs might change hands a couple of times, it might get decorated with some fresh bullet holes, but it is always getting to its destination.

True power The Counselor is represented by Rubén Blades' Jefe, the unnamed head of the unnamed cartel. Blades' purr is especially well-suited for delivering McCarthyisms (and besides, he deserves all his glory because his house is so much better decorated than the Counselor's or Reiner's).  He asks the spent quasi-protagonist about his doomed fiancee: "Would you exchange places with her on the wheel?" The Counselor's affirmative answer is ridiculous, the reason he is so fucked in the first place.

In the end, I can only thank Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy and 20th Century Fox for this fucking weird movie. I wait for the films that score 100/100 AND 0/100 on Metacritic and so this is one of the most fun to consider since Melancholia. The enemy of the WTT is the Hollywood drama that scores 78/100 on 40 critics' scorecards. 

For the all or nothing drug lords, the point is the same. There are no coincidences. The drugs always get through and everyone who takes their eyes off the prize for a moment is dead. The living drink and snort and laugh and pass around a man decomposing in an oil barrel like a Christmas fruitcake. Malkina's cheetah lives in the desert, killing jackrabbits with incomprehensible elegance. It will go on killing until it dies.

10 November 2013

Out of Sight: A Personal Remembrance

Here is the first movie poster I ever coveted.

I would like to claim that when I stepped into the Showcase Cinemas in Grand Rapids, MI the weekend of June 26th, 1998, I wanted to see Out of Sight because of Elmore Leonard (RIP) but at that time I preferred James Ellroy and Walter Mosley and even John D. MacDonald. I would like to say I wanted to see it because of Steven Soderbergh but I had never watched one of his films. I would like to say I wanted to see it because I knew how fabulous all the actors were in its ensemble cast but the gifts of Viola Davis and Don Cheadle and Steve Zahn and Luis Guzman and Isaiah Washington and Albert Brooks and Dennis Farina (RIP again!) were unknown to me.

I wanted to see this movie because of Jennifer Lopez.

The preceding summer I'd had the privilege of watching (twice!) the interesting-for-exactly-one-reason film Selena, which gave a generation of Puerto Ricans the belief that they could one day play Mexican songstresses in endless biopics. Later, I spent a good deal of time rewinding and pausing a specific sequence of U Turn, showing even then the eye for detail that makes me such a thoroughgoing cineaste today (I refer that Oliver Stone bloodbath as "My Basic Instinct"). My thoughtful father even showed me Lopez' back page spread in Vanity Fair explaining, "I feel like I'm showing you pornography." And it did feel that way, though I did not yet have the vocabulary to cope with the image--today I could leave the simplest of Instagram comments: dat ass tho.

While she remains an inspiration to all women with baby hairs along their brows, it would seem that Lopez has never made another good film (full disclosure: I have not seen Jersey Girl or El Cantante or Gigli). Watching Parker earlier this year, it seems all her nerve is gone as well, if not her physics-defying figure. (But I think of the great beauties and how hard it is to be in anything decent. Brigitte Bardot's career after Contempt is a similar wasteland and I would take Out of Sight over anything Ava Gardner or Hedy Lamarr ever did.)

I cannot over-exaggerate my affection for Jennifer Lopez as a teenager--the highest anticipation I have had for any film in my life was Tarsem Singh's The Cell (the only rival might have been The Tree of Life...neither of these opening nights ended happily for me). And so I spent the spring of my freshman year in high school talking about this trailer I'd seen (I could not send a link to my friends, I had to describe it using words!). I explained how great it was when Clooney says, "we'll make it an island..." while wiling away the hour in the back row of a math class whose main purpose was to teach you responsibility: how to not damage and/or lose the very expensive calculator your parents bought you. Out of Sight promised a delicious escape to the Real World: Miami era: rollerblades and Dan Marino jerseys (and the exact same cordless phone I had at my house).

But the film was also enticing because it had scenes in Detroit, where I took occasional trips as a lad. It would show the sexiness and grit and danger I was anxious to embrace from a safe distance across the state. The name of George Clooney's character--Jack Foley--even reminded one of Axel. I still think the Welcome to Detroit montage Soderbergh sets to the Isley Bros.' "It's Your Thing" was the best thing to happen to civic pride until those Chrysler commercials.

Sitting in the middle left of the theatre enjoying the frigid air-conditioning, I quickly discovered that this film was great not just because Lopez looked amazing but because Clooney was so thoroughly charming--starting with their scene in the trunk you can see that he just makes her laugh. She's mad at Clooney for ruining her nine hundred dollar suit (COME ON!) but she can't help batting her eyes, shadowed to match the new Jaguar helmets. I happen to agree with her, that it never made sense how fast Dunaway and Redford got together in Three Days of the Condor.

After they go on their separate ways from that steamy trunk, the film proceeds with messily brilliant interplay between other couples, the draggy Guzman and pre-Holofcentered Catherine Keener, the unhinged Cheadle and Mr. I-wear-my-sunglasses-at-night Zahn, instantly compelling thanks to Leonard's genius dialogue.

But the stars of the show are finally brought back together on a winter night in the D for what is simply one of my favorite five minutes in American cinema (you can tell I feel this way by searching for Out of Sight on this website...there are no fewer than four non sequitur references to that chemistry). Apparently Soderbergh based the sequence on the infamous Don't Look Now love scene which--after I try and fail to push the nightmare fuel of Donald Sutherland's naked body out of my brain--begs the question: does that mean before-she-was-J Lo and Clooney also had on set intercourse?? And forget whichever Venetian hotel held the Christie-Sutherland sheet wrestling--Lopez and Clooney got the Detroit Metro Westin! They're yellow silhouettes inside a snow globe...Frederick Seidel, please describe this for me:
                 If there is
Something else as beautiful
As this snow softly falling outside, say.  

Lopez does a brilliant job of deflecting unwanted male attention throughout the film, whether it's the overzealous tussling of Isaiah Washington's light heavyweight or the unctuous sales bros at the hotel bar and their affection for all things "Hisapanic." When Clooney appears in reflection at the cityscaped window he is all classic tropes: the lighter (he could have smoked indoors!) and the bourbon (pre-hipsterization!) and the cocksure smile (it's a To Have and Have Not for our times!)

At some point--I'm imagining the maturation of a filmgoer--my excitement for potential nudity was replaced with wonder at the editing. By intercutting flash forwards (timed to David Holmes' perfect score), Soderbergh plays with the inevitability of the hookup, of the two leads taking a "time out." Just as Clark Gable practically bankrupted the undershirt industry when it was revealed he didn't wear one, Clooney made me reconsider the potential stylishness of boxy white boxers. I wanted to see them get in bed but just as badly wanted to know what Clooney said to get her back to the room in the first place. It's an excellent surprise when Lopez insists: "Let's get out of here." Yes, let's. To my mind there's nothing more satisfying than a well-earned freeze frame. 

All of this came to me later--on the way out to the car my father and I had a bitter argument about whether that was actually Samuel L. Jackson in the final scene--but a nascent understanding of Soderbergh's brilliance in exceeding genre limitations started that afternoon. Of all my favorite films as a 15-year-old, this one has stayed with me the longest. 

10 October 2013

The American Grandmaster

I'm not interested in kung fu. I am interested in Wong Kar-Wai and, until Terrence Malick makes his own kung fu movie (not inconceivable!), WKW might be my only entree into martial arts films.

I thought my newbie status would make the spectacle fresher but I was not terribly impressed with the opening fight sequence of The Grandmaster--the most charming thing about it is that it was reshot in its entirety because WKW thought Tony Leung's Ip Man ought to be in a white hat (it makes the slow-mo raindrops really pop). 

As an out-and-out WKW cheerleader it saddens me to report that the film is not great, though I might have seen a lesser masterpiece. David Ehrlich does god's work cataloging the changes between the Chinese and American releases of the film--in short, there was no Chinese Harvey Weinstein to ruin everything on the overseas cut. As an ardent maximalist I was startled by all the scenes trimmed for American version, including this:

REMOVED: Everything involving Gong Er’s marriage, including a wonderful Wong Kar-Wai touchstone in which she whispers her most personal secrets into a hole in a wall.

Are you kidding me!? The WTT is enraged. This Slant interview is also dispiriting--WKW says that he felt obligated to cut the American version of The Grandmaster to under two hours...if only every action blockbuster and Oscar drama filmmaker were under the same set of orders we'd save so much time this fall. 

To add my own bit of bile: the title cards are a disgrace. The most hilariously explicit statement comes at the end of the film, where the preternaturally talented boy Ip Man begins training turns out to be Bruce Lee. Who, having read even a two-sentence capsule of The Grandmaster, would be unaware that the kid would go on to star in Enter the Dragon? WKW's wink was not terribly subtle in the first place.

The volume of title cards is astonishing, laying out a North-South history of Chinese martial arts conflict that is never narratively relevant. Their consistently misguided narrative is dwarfed in memory by a single, intentional WKW intertitle following a signature pen-over-the-page freeze frame: "I dream of seeing 64 Hands again in the snow." Man writes these words to Ziyi Zhang's Gong Er, a woman from a rival school of kung fu with whom he has a bitter feud that covers for his intense attraction.

The touchstone in this film is a button from the heavy winter coat Man planned to wear on a visit to Er.
When war intervenes and Man is forced to sell the coat, he keeps a single black button as a talisman of what could have been. While he does not whisper any secrets in its small concavity (at least not in the American version!), when it hangs a mouth-level from a nail on the wall, it's a distant cousin to the aperture in an Angkor Wat tree trunk.

It is well to focus on Leung and Zhang. I found their individual fight scenes far less inspiring than the idea that the two masters might get together and "merge their two styles," if you know what I mean. The slo-mo stylization of their combat only engages me at the level of Leung and Zhang posing for each other, just as ritualized as their arch movements playing the rake and the whore in rooms 2046 and 2047.

WKW casually inserts actors he's used in previous films as practitioners of different martial arts. The Razor (Chen Chang) is recognizable as the metaphorical bird who could not land in 2046 and Happy Together. The director's personal cosmos is extended when Ziyi battles a Japanese collaborator, Ma San (Jin Zhang wearing a pencil mustache that makes him look evil where Leung would look dapper). He is dispatched alongside a very long train that seems to stretch far into the future...

Although it fails to establish any rhythm in the first hour, the American Grandmaster is redeemed by the closing movements where the not-exactly romance between Gong Er and Ip Man is not-exactly consummated. The overexplained historical background falls away and it's Ziyi Zhang and Tony Leung across from each other at a table, not on the successive Christmases of 2046 but on New Year's.

The war has left them exiles in Hong Kong--Zhang is wrenching as a doctor who has given up the fights, Leung placid but also hugely emotional as an estranged father sending money back home to children he hardly knows. They share the feeling between Bergman and Grant in Notorious, the wide damp eyes and the subtlest quiver in the corner of the mouth.

The pair agree that "life without regrets is boring." It's a classic piece of WKW dialogue, somewhat unartful, completely true. Zhang is slightly shaken, a Richter photoportrait. She has turned to opium--her mouth is unfocused, a blood vessel mars the roundness of her iris. Her picture will be in the paper, a speia-tinted freeze frame.

The button goes back across the table, another concave vessel in which Man may speak to her across time. For me, it also represents a relationship that continues between the actors, stretched across films in fevered imagination of WKW. We see Zhang  wending through the snow a final time along with the words: "The tiger never quits the mountain."

At the end of the night, there's only one thing I wish they had done: found a cab together.

01 August 2013

13 Ways of Looking at Only God Forgives

It was difficult to to even hear the sounds of Only God Forgives under the din of mainstream critics retreating from their praise of Drive. To make a analogy that is inappropriately Sheenian: the nose wrinkling of the critical consensus resembles a man who's enthusiastically fucked a whore but kicks her out of bed because he's disgusted by her line of work. The distaste has dripped down to an acquaintance of mine who said he'd never thought Drive was that good, to which I replied, "wait, you saw the film twice in theatres!" (It's curious that one of the only entirely positive reviews comes from a guy who saw OGF in Cannes, before the backlash crested.)

To find my thesis I'll tell a story. When I was a lad I liked to make refreshing beverages from concentrate. Like all amateur juiceologists, I eventually had the thought it's delicious with the recommended amount of water but it would taste even better with half as much! And I wound up with something that hurt my teeth (more so). So it is with Nicholas Winding Refn. The color saturation, the ultraviolence, the impotence, the terseness is always there--and in Pusher 2 or Bronson or Drive the mix is critically delicious, but there's not enough water in Valhalla Rising and Only God Forgives. Perhaps my biggest criticism of his latest film is that Refn sure condensed out all the hot electronica tracks.

Over on Twitter I've had some fun cataloging how often reviewers have been compelled to point out that Refn is DEFINITELY NOT IN ANY WAY as good as the bulletproof David Lynch (for another post: David Lynch is the John Ashbery of filmmakers?). I'm here to provide further below replacement level comparisons.

1. OGF loses out to Apocalypse Now when it comes to overall atmospherics but has the same nuanced portrayal of southeast Asia--where men are men, women are cum dumpsters and the dogs still have their testicles.

2. OGF isn't as well-decorated as The Shining but the hallways are almost as terrifying, with worse floorcoverings but better wallpaper. And all illumination provided by police lights.

3. OGF can't match James Dean swag in Rebel Without a Cause though our protagonist Julian (Ryan Gosling) shares with Jimmy a proclivity for white t-shirts and spinelessness. And Julian's father definitely wore the frilly apron in the relationship with his mother, Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas).

4. OGF is no Irreversible in the blunt head trauma department but even without improperly-deployed fire extinguishers there's still stomach-churning gore, as when Julian's brother meets his end (Tom Burke's "I want to fuck a 14-year-old" Billy is even more repulsive than your average Garret Dillahunt slitherer). Julian responds to the brain-splattered abstraction as you do--by watching a prostitute masturbate.

5. OGF will never be confused with Archer, but when it comes to mother-son affection Julian and Crystal's contentiousness resembles Sterling and Mallory Archer's. Though with fewer jokes and less-admiring references to the size of his penis.

6. OGF lacks the couture appeal of Maggie Cheung's In the Mood for Love dresses but Crystal does her best. She drops her Juicy sweatsuit after arriving in Bangkok and sheaths herself in animal and floral prints (including one number with an unfolding rose just below her waist). Crystal also adapts the heavy eye makeup and bloodred nails of a courtesan to such a dragon lady effect that I can't believe she never blow smoke out of her nose.

7. OGF's meter of justice, Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), doesn't rack up a body count as extensive as Anton Chigurh's in No Country for Old Men and does it with less hair and sense of humanity. When it comes to weapons, Anton has the awesome air gun but Chang has a sword that he pulls straight out of his spine.

8. OGF doesn't have an oily Brits as lobster-colored or linguistically alluring as Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast. Crystal's lackey, Byron, possesses less expat charm and meets his maker after an excruciating interval with an unlicensed oculist employing some flower-arranging sticks that should really be subject to a safety recall.

9. OGF is too quiet to make room for any grandstanding speeches and that's a shame, because Kristin Scott Thomas seemed to be in the same delicious mood as was Lena Headley in that Game of Thrones episode when Cersei thinks everyone is gonna get raped and killed. Crystal is the only possible match for Chang in the film and I would have liked to see her win him over with soliloquy.

10. OGF fight scenes just don't kick as much ass those in Rocky III. But the Julian-Chang matchup works out just about as well for the white dude as Rocky-Lang I. Kudos to Refn's makeup people though--they did an excellent job of adding another bend to Julian's nose.

11. OGF's Bangkok isn't as hot as Tom McGuane's Key West in Ninety-Two in the Shade but shares with the book a vertiginous sense of mutually assured destruction. Early in the film I hoped Julian and Chang would have rival Muay Thai clubs that would function like Skelton and Dance's competing skiff boat operations. It wasn't to be but, as in the book, it's the humidity that gets you in the end.

12. OGF's inclusion of Chang isn't quite as audacious as the physical presence of Death in The Seventh Seal, though the retired police officer has his own surprising talent. Instead of a chess ace, Chang's a great karaoke'r with an affectless Tammy Wynette vibe--all voice and no movement.

13. OGF can't work a clothing metaphor as tight as the increasingly filthy scorpion jacket in Drive. I always figured Gosling's Driver didn't want to change his ensemble because he was so beautiful in white plush (just as Tom Hardy's Bronson preferred not to wear clothes since he looked best without them). Gosling's Julian had more reason to change after his face was Picassoed--there's nothing special about his three-piece boxing suit except the red and blue jacket and vest lining.


It's somewhat embarrassing that a film everyone called awful and terrible and indulgent and stupid generated so many fun notes. All I really know is this: if you leave the theater--in any weather--you'll want to put your hands in your pockets after securing a scarf around your neck.

21 July 2013

Out Walking #4

Out walking because the chickens of straight male responsibility are coming home to roost. I'm to be a groomsman twice over. Before being fitted for tuxedos (one shawl collar, one standard lapel), I'm trying to get that 28 inch waist back. The measuring tape at Men's Wearhouse shows no mercy.

I step off the N Judah when the drowsing hobo's urine has made its way to my left foot--Irving and something way out there. The sea feels near on these short, descending blocks--grey-green and hazy like Diebenkorn's Ocean Park series. When I take my sunglasses off it's still not brilliant.

A Sunday afternoon ghost town of ghost-colored homes. The only sound a pickaxe on concrete, a laborer I can only pick out by the glinting arc of his tool, swinging like an oil pump metronome. A mailman dressed like confederate soldier blows by toting an actual satchel. I refrain from calling out "Saturday delivery!" not because I'm a decent person but because you never know which mailpeople might be ex-military.

The Outer Sunset is less metropolitan than downtown San Francisco but more Californian--a neutral stucco rainbow and 80s Volvos from cream to mustard, rusted around the wheel wells. The neighborhood is the color of a weimaraner and I expect to see one. Even the surf shop is brown.

The blocks between me and sea are wonderfully short--I sail through the 30s. I pass, not without regret, an old couple tottering towards the ocean in teal and royal blue sports clothes. They pause and share a smile as if in amazement that the other is still there beside them.

Walking for the train in SOMA, I'd heard through the Frank Ocean on my headphones the hectoring of a Jesus enthusiast, t-shirt patriot and suspected itinerant. He was screaming at two handsomely-stubbled men in Levi's that fit so well I suspected they were not off the shelf. To his harangues they merely clasped hands and strode away on their longer legs.

It's a tough time for bigots in San Francisco but I hope the man demanding repentance in stained sweatpants could take some solace in the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act. 

I take the headphones off in case the sound of the waves is soon to join the smell of salt. A couple of blocks from the Great Highway, there's a housepainter on break. He'll go back to turning a house from taupe to cream when he's done smoking his cigarette. The tobacco he picks from his tongue is shaped like the flecks just visible on his white jumpsuit. I wonder if he's considered that his Thermos is the perfect green--the color of hipster Tiffany's.

A paradox of Ocean Beach is that approaching it always makes me want to put on more clothes. It's not San Diego or L.A. or the swelter downtown today. This is the place William Finnegan surfed, not so far from Mavericks, the latest species of word being co-opted to irrelevance by Apple.

The Pacific high on the horizon brings me back to Richard Diebenkorn (a friend, who was just married, tied in twine, once helped me be saying, "I've heard it pronounced DEE-benkorn"). Ocean Park sounds less redundant than Ocean Beach and has that pleasant contradiction in the name, even if it is Santa Monican. The quiet splash of the paintings glimpsed together is like undone Prufrock poems and long strolls down the seaside, eyes weak from the sun. I'm sure what draws me to the paintings is the correctness of the colors together with a more organized landscape. There are fewer right angles at the real beach and I prefer to look at my portrait-style magnet. 

Another of my friends getting married this fall described running over the sand to ask for his future bride's hand. I thought it would be a bad plan for speed but a good one for the kneeling. I like that kind of effort--sprinting over an obstacle course into the future--but worry about my heart rate. Shocking that someone could find such consolation in another person instead of art.

At the first sidewinders of sand today the accoutrements of California beach life begin to gather: Winnebagos, ice plants, inexpertly controlled kites, women whose legs aren't what they once were. The sun's been sucked in hazy whirlpool, twists of #cloudporn over a sea like lichen. On clear days Ocean Beach has an austerity that lends itself to greater, #grassporn photo ops.

After one such afternoon at the end of America I went back into the city with my friend and the woman who is going to be his bride. Strolling from their hotel down through Chinatown the street was suddenly ruined by some feral children spitting firecrackers (possibly, but not probably, to celebrate the fact that firecracker is such a wonderful word).

As an inveterate flincher at all loud noises, this made my walk unpleasant and no amount of crossing the street and doleful looks shook the kids from our periphery. And then they started rolling smoke bombs at us--it was like a living nightmare or, worse, a Christopher Nolan film.

My friend stepped into the middle of Stockton, cocked his fist at them and dispensed with a very baleful: "HEY!" The urchins scurried back across the street. Such unvarnished masculinity made me want to shape up, to fly right.

Sometimes I worry that there are crucial inaccuracies in my factual writing. But then I think of James Salter: "Certain things I remember exactly as they were. They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit. Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward. Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important. One alters the past to form the future."

The pennies out here have a green cast, matching the ghostly quality of the fingers that hold them. Or so I assume--who carries change any more?

I follow a hawk away from the shore toward a bus stop, wishing that raptors were better breeders. They could terrorize San Franciscan skies, ripping the throats from sea gulls and pigeons till the gutters ran red with the blood of lesser birds.  

The Safeway across the street has the unlit sign and peeling siding familiar to me as a retired courtesy clerk. Do today's sullen teens still ruin their cuticles opening bales of paper bags? I remember that I made $5.25 an hour, worked mostly 3 PM to midnight and that my time in the eucalyptus and ennui at the Ralph's grocery on de la Vina is already half a life ago. It tastes like a mouthful of salt water.

After a school year of bagging and cart corralling, I took a senior trip to San Francisco for a flurry of consumerism capped by the $77 I spent on a double lobster tail dinner at Scoma's. I've never paid for an entree as expensive again--two days work for dinner--but it was the turn of the century and Fisherman's Wharf...I think of it as my Wolf of Wall Street period. As I strain to complete this circle, it's time to reveal that the two friends with whom I broke sourdough that night are soon to be married (though not to each other).

Stepping aboard an inexplicably crowded bus makes me think this is only a six-mile walk home. Alongside Golden Gate Park the stops are clotted with small children struggling to hold ice cream and plant seedlings and stuffed white alligators. I feel our excitement turning to crankiness all down the throbbing hull of the 5 Fulton.

30 minutes toward forever later, I step off in a humid huff and sit for a moment in Yerba Buena Park. From nowhere, a hummingbird jerks forward and steadies itself at arms-length, eye level. There's no color at her throat. My first thought is that it's a government drone. America in 2013.

22 June 2013

Close to the Sea

James Salter put out a book called All That Is. He was profiled in The New Yorker, reviewed in Harper's and, better than all that, he made me cry (with a little help from Lydia Davis).

His sales figures are the final proof that the American reading public is imbecilic. Nick Paumgarten gives the hard numbers: 3,000 copies of A Sport and a Pastime (and a $3,000 advance!) and 8,000 copies of Light Years. Partially out of disgust that two of the best books of the century were so overlooked, Salter says he wanted to get away from the "great-writer-of-sentences" thing. Outside of James Franco's continued existence it's hard to think of a more depressing facet of the literary world. Perhaps Salter will break through with a makeup Pulitzer or National Book Award and I'll be able to pretend it's been given for his earlier work (much the same way I pretend Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for Winter's Bone and Cary Grant received statues for any of a dozen films).

More than A Sport and a Pastime or Light Years, All That Is is chapters, self-contained and often timestamped (in his work written in the 60s you have to guess the year by the make of the cars, in the new book he tells us when Kennedy was shot). With a more fragmented approach, Salter has joined his contemporaries in the novel form--even in the best new books, I'm reading flashing chapters of greatness. There's Jonathan Dee's opening to The Privileges or Jennifer Egan's "Safari" chapter in A Visit from the Goon Squad.

So All That Is resembles the stories in Dusk and Last Night more than his other novels but it's okay--Salter has written some of his most gorgeous things in short fiction. He's written "Am Strande von Tanger" (how is it that I can read whatever I want from The Paris Review without logging in and nothing from The New Yorker?). The closing paragraph is as good as it gets, the audacious description of Nico is fresh each time:

"She has small breasts and large nipples. Also, as she herself says, a rather large behind. Her father has three secretaries. Hamburg is close to the sea."

Like Dee in the Harper's review, I have a tendency to laugh at Salter's audacity. This paragraph makes me exhale a single "hah!" like a small dog's bark. It's the end of a long run from the third sentence of the story, the great avenues pointing towards the sea. It is a brilliant away goal at the Camp Nou that Cristiano Ronaldo does not care to have scored (he's a little sad). It gives me the pleasure you get from seeing a cliff diver jump from 50 feet in the air and barely ripple the water.

People talk about all the sex in Salter but the movement of the prose is most erotic. In All That Is Salter's great sentences are more measured--at 87 his speech is more breathless than his writing (listen to the quaver in "Break It Down"). The book is mostly Philip Bowman's adventures in publishing and attractive women, with more and less successful chapter-long detours into the lives of secondary characters (I would put the tawdry tales of his co-editor Eddins at the low end and the drunken dinner of Mrs. Armour at the high).

It's a blessing that Salter returns to "España" for a chapter. Bowman's countrywide mistressing begins in Madrid under bright skies, severe shadows and "sun dark workers" (his English lover, Enid, is blessed with one of Salter's classic (by which I mean terrible) character names). He finds more darkness in the Prado and in Lorca, whose banned book must be pulled from the back of a bookstore.

The writing is like black and white photography, sharp even in low light. The couple steps into a cobbled alley of policemen and ominous guitars--ominous for how much you'll love them--and gypsy handclaps like gunshots.

"The woman was singing with even greater intensity amid the relentless chords, the savage, tight beat of the heels, the silver, the black, the man's lean body bent like an S, the dogs trotting in darkness near the houses, the water running, the sound of trees."

Definitive Salter: the whole story--the whole country--in a sentence.

And, of course, a couple of paragraphs later Bowman fucks Enid like one of those running dogs. He says she is not breathing in her sleep, just as Nico wasn't breathing that morning in Barcelona 45 years earlier. "The word for naked in Spanish was desnudo. It was the same in any language, she remarked."

They make their way to Sevilla, Granada, following the paths of bullfighters and landing finally on a house where he might live with her, deeply shadowed under the total sun. But "with some women you are never sure," and a moment later Bowman's on a airplane back to New York, gliding over the white statuary and empty gravel paths of the Retiro.  

In much the same way I ran out of pages in All That Is. I fear James Salter's death, as so many people are here to bury him now. And then: "The destruction of the finest is natural, it confirms them."

21 May 2013

Where Are You Going?

Terrence Malick has exhausted me. It's been difficult watching his last two films, hoping to see a masterpiece then trying to understand why I haven't.

Perhaps it is a lack of thrust. In his first four films--all great--consider this: in Badlands Kit and Holly go rampaging west; in Days of Heaven Bill and Abby and Linda flee west (and south); in The Thin Red Line Charlie Company steams so far west they reach the east, Guadalcanal; in The New World John Smith sails west until he finds this country.

Indeed, Kit and Bill and Pvt. Witt push on until they find death, and John Smith enters a void from which he could hardly expect to return. This reminds me of the fatalism in Liam Rector's "Song Years," they're "Going out west for, I suppose, hope." 

The Tree of Life's Jack (Sean Penn) and To the Wonder's Neil (Ben Affleck), on the other hand, sit in their empty homes and workspaces and brood. The camera circles them; the camera circles their cyclical memories. They are not really named (who can forget the way Sissy Spacek says "Kit"?). I'm almost sure Affleck's character is never called Neil on screen. As I said about The Tree of Life, I'm starting to see only the gestures, however breathless.

I've read that the last two films come from Malick's own life--his childhood in Waco, his first marriage to a Frenchwoman. With my writing I've always found autobiographical stories seem easier to tell but are harder to write. Malick used other texts and historical records to untangle and remake the Western, the Great War Film, the Historical Epic--but The Tree of Life and To the Wonder orbit around Texas and Oklahoma, with occasional excursions to outer space or Mont St. Michel.

I've stopped being awestruck and started wondering what films were left on the editing table. His cuts are Fast and Furious even if his regular audience doesn't suffer from Battleship ADHD. I think back to the fluttering shot of a butterfly landing on Jessica Chastain's hand in The Tree of Life: five seconds of gorgeousness and then we snap back down the street, into the trees. I believe Matt Zoller Seitz tweeted something about Malick just rolling around in several hundred hours of film, from four or five different projects, and cutting together things he likes. I think it was a joke but a plausible one now (the credits indicate he used pieces of The Tree of Life in To the Wonder).

Malick's talent can still overwhelm--he's the greatest maker of match cuts. In To the Wonder I'm thinking of the quick transition from the thin rose in the trodden snow at the castle to the divoted, trampolining sand in the rising tide outside. I could make you scroll for minutes through stunning hi res images from this film and tell you how well they work together but the wisecracks come easily: "In his next film, will the characters be allowed to look at each other?"

We look at Olga Kurylenko even if Ben Affleck won't. Malick infuses her with a Parisian Pocahontas essence and releases her in suburbia, twirling down grocery store aisles composed by Gursky. She has some English but is so remote from Affleck that she fingerwrites her thoughts on his back, an invisible ink. She brings her daughter to live with Gentle Ben for unknown reasons--there's no backstory because it's inconceivable that these two people are together. Things are not perfect in her new, distressingly empty McMansion though we feel that everything could have been prevented if she'd been a better home decorator (in her defense: she is a highly skilled hair braider).

One of my favorite moments in the film is when a Kurylenko voiceover introduces us to Rachel McAdams. Malick has made the latter handsomely blonde for the film--her eyes are cornflower, her attire Carhartt. McAdams is allegedly a childhood friend of Affleck's (of the two she's held up significantly better) and they have a great first date in the buffalo, like a tease for Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. McAdams says sexy things to Affleck like, "I want to be your wife," but she's picked up and discarded with attention you might pay to your weekly living room bouquet.

When Mr. Affleck looks back at this role (shielding his eyes from a mantelfull of Best Director Oscars, no doubt) he might wonder if it would have been better to be cut completely (as Michael Shannon was). Ben could have been the second unit cameraman he got to play in the smart phone photography of the opening section. His role is analogous to Sean Penn's in The Tree of Life, just watching along with us. Affleck is at his most noticeable during a love scene with Kurylenko--he wears a bicep tattoo so bad it distracts from her nudity. The longest statement he makes aloud is something pedantic about the shadow of the earth coloring the sunset, spoken to a 10-year-old French girl who doesn't understand him.

I was pleased that Malick did shoot at a Sonic Drive-In (twice!) and unsurprisingly Affleck doesn't quite know what to order--he's probably torn between All-American Dog or French Toast Sticks.

About Javier Bardem's small town priest (who might as well have been from Mars) I can hardly comment...he is beautifully ugly as always, and looks at ugly people shot beautifully.

Kit wants to see the end of the road, Bill wants to see farmland far away from a steel mill, Pvt. Witt wants to see a Melanesian utopia, Pocahontas and John Smith want to see rituals and landscapes no one in their culture have ever conceived. Affleck and Kurylenko and McAdams and Bardem want to seem themselves in a Terrence Malick film.

This is a phenomenon I've thought about more and more...I recently tweeted about Anne Carson's personal happiness leading to a precipitous dive in my engagement with her writing. And there's the case of Thomas McGuane, whose out-of-control youth gave us the wild and woolly novels The Sporting Club, The Bushwhacked Piano, Ninety-Two in the Shade and Panama. His sobriety has given us complacent novels and stories about the fishing and fucking of middle-aged Montana cattlemen.

And so Malick leaves us at the exterior steps to an Oklahoma motel instead of outside Mont Saint Michel. Oh well.


All this whingeing aside...I'm glad Malick is working. It is far more important that a legendary artist continue working than it is for me to like what he does. I hope that after this series of films he has one more new direction.

31 March 2013

WTT Top 100 Vol. II

Before looking at the new standard of film greatness, check the 2008 WTT Top 100...not utterly embarrassing but improvable (notwithstanding the deplorable laziness of leaving 26-100 in alphabetical rather than ranked order). 

I find it a nice coincidence that these updates will come on my cardinal years, with this being the leap from 25 to 30. 

While there isn't too much movement at the top, with Contempt still winning this race at a canter, the big movers are Claire Denis, Abbas Kiarostami and Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, bursting onto the scene with multiple films. Carlos Reygadas' Silent Light and Kiarostami's Close-Up are the highest ranked newcomers and, in the case of Close-Up, I suspect it might rate even higher than tenth when I am a sage 35-year-old person.

There are a robust 12 (count 'em, twelve!) films directed by non-white males. And they say we only canonize our own...  

1. Contempt
2. Vertigo
3. La jetée
4. The Rules of the Game
5. The Godfather Epic
6. The Thin Red Line
7. Persona
8. The Passion of Joan of Arc
9. The Red Shoes
10. Close-Up
11. Pierrot le fou
12. Breathless
13. Silent Light
14. La Notte
15. Out of the Past
16. Battle of Algiers
17. Kings and Queen
18. 2046
19. In the Mood for Love
20. Raging Bull
21. Mulholland Dr.
22. Certified Copy
23. Badlands
24. The Philadelphia Story
25. L'Avventura
26. The Earrings of Madame de…
27. Citizen Kane
28. His Girl Friday
29. Black Narcissus
30. Carlos
31. Melancholia
32. Beauty and the Beast (1947)
33. The Bicycle Thieves
34. The New World
35. A Special Day
36. Grey Gardens
37. The Last Picture Show
38. Hoop Dreams
39. No Country for Old Men
40. Notorious
41. Casablanca
42. Lost in Translation
43. Elevator to the Gallows
44. Moonrise Kingdom
45. The Night of the Hunter
46. Out of Sight
47. Fanny and Alexander
48. A Christmas Tale
49. Lola Montès 
50. Cache
51. Yi Yi
52. Alien
53. F for Fake
54. 35 Shots of Rum
55. The Piano Teacher
56. L.A. Confidential
57. Fargo
58. Chinatown
59. The Conversation
60. Hiroshima Mon Amour
61. Funny Games (1997)
62. The Intruder
63. Wild Bunch
64. Irreversible
65. The Wages of Fear
66. Five Easy Pieces
67. Talk to Her
68. 3 Women
69. Brief Encounter
70. Our Beloved Month of August
71. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
72. To Have and Have Not
73. Metropolis
74. Rear Window
75. Lola
76. Fitzcarraldo
77. Leaving Las Vegas
78. Rushmore
79. Celine and Julie Go Boating
80. Hannah and Her Sisters
81. A Place in the Sun
82. Summer Hours
83. The Werckmeister Harmonies
84. Casino
85. Heat
86. Taste of Cherry
87. L'Eclisse
88. Dinner at Eight
89. City Lights
90. Do the Right Thing
91. Boogie Nights
92. Chungking Express
93. 8 1/2
94. A Talking Picture
95. All that Heaven Allows
96. Meet Me in St. Louis
97. La Commare Secca
98. Days of Heaven
99. The Kid Stays in the Picture
100. Miami Vice 

Because you deserve it, here's 100 more you should also watch today:

A Man and a Woman, A Separation, A Single Man, Ace in the Hole, All the Pretty Horses, All the Real Girls, Annie Hall, Appaloosa, Autumn Sonata, Bay of Angels, Best in Show, Big Night, Blade Runner, Blood Simple, Bob le Flambeur, Breaking Away, Brick, Bringing Up Baby, California Split, Cat People, Cries and Whispers, Cyclo, Dancer in the Dark, Day for Night, Dogville, Double Indemnity, Drive, Fish Tank, From Here to Eternity, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Gertrud, George Washington, Grizzly Man, Groundhog Day, Half-Nelson, Harlan County, U.S.A., I Know Where I'm Going!, In Another Country, In the Bedroom, Kiss Me, Stupid, L'america, Last Year at Marienbad, Lawrence of Arabia, Leon: The Professional, Let the Right One In, M, Malcolm X, Manhattan, Matewan, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Mildred Pierce, Mr. Arkadin, My Man Godfrey, Nashville, Night and the City, North by Northwest, Oldboy, Paths of Glory, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Primer, Rebecca, Red Desert, Red River, Revanche, Scenes from a Marriage, Sexy Beast, Shane, Shanghai Express, Sorry, Wrong Number, Stagecoach, Sunset Blvd., Syndromes and a Century, Take Shelter, The Big Sleep, The Last Days of Disco, The Leopard, The Limey, The Long Goodbye, The Passenger, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Searchers, The Shining, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Thin Man, The Third Man, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Usual Suspects, Time Out, To Be and to Have, Tropical Malady, Umberto D., Walkabout, Wedding Crashers, White Material, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , Winter's Bone, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Y Tu Mamá También, Yankee Doodle Dandy.

03 March 2013

Rooney Mara's Hair

When it comes to Rooney Mara's hair in Side Effects...


The problem with these images is that they're merely stills--they are not compelling on their own. One must be in the humid grey cloudscape of Steven Soderbergh's film to see what I mean, the way the hair is coiffed and disheveled, brown and less brown, sharp and soft.

I'm the same as any ignorant bourgeoisie--I know Rooney Mara from only two other films: The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Some would argue that one or both of those Fincher joints are better than Side Effects but some day I might forget the eyebrowless, lurid significance of the earlier films in a way I will not forget Rooney Mara's hair under the influence of the wonder drug Ablixa.

Let's put those locks in motion for just a moment. Four second mark:

The bangs Audreyesque, the nod to Kim Novak's Vertigo spiral

This early clip informs the rest of the film: the curious score, the high-class-but-under-glass feel of the images. The cinematography is thick with what Rooney's character calls the "poisonous fog" around her (an elegant, writerly phrase that becomes very important later on). The backgrounds in Side Effects are Rothko abstractions, as if the protagonists are sleepwalking through the cartoon rainclouds of those charmless commercials for SSRIs.

Without deep focus distraction, the eye tries to unpack that hair--I have not seen strands so articulated, so attention-demanding, since Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox, in which the stop-motion fox fur has an artificial luminosity, dancing atop George Clooney's handsome fox face. 

As is often the case, Soderbergh's depressed supporting cast is full of fun faces: there's Scott Shepherd, the star of GATZ, Gale Boetticher from Breaking Bad, Vinessa Shaw, as blonde as GOOP in Two Lovers and subtly recessional as Jude Law's out-of-work wife. Of course there's also Catherine Zeta-Jones as the claw-licking Shere Khan shrink in the pocket of big pharma. It's hard for me to talk about Channing Tatum's fate in this film but the whiteout flashbacks to his white collar criminal in pre-recession splendor would bring a tear to the eye of even the hard-hearted.

The poisonous fog of Side Effects' NYC is just another in a line of Soderbergh's great looking and, more impressively, highly variable films--think of the famous borderland tricolor of Traffic, the inky documentary sequences of Che, the classic noir shadows in The Good German, the sun shot Tampa of Magic Mike...

All of this to say, Soderbergh is getting more creative as he works quickly towards his self-selected exile. I'm rigid with anticipation for his Liberace picture (called Behind the Candelabra, naturally) and refuse to believe he'll really walk away. And Steven doesn't even need to be Soderbergh to be of service to cineplexes--he can direct photography as Peter Andrews, he can edit projects better than The Canyons as Mary Ann Bernard. 

May he be as retired as your average professional boxer.