Thursday, July 30, 2009

Notable film and media links (July 30, 2009)

---Chris Anderson doesn't use the words "media" or "journalism" anymore in this interview with Salon.

---Boing Boing's video interview with digital photo collage artist Cassandra C. Jones.

---Recent trailers: Dark Country (wannabe noir/horror film?), A Serious Man (an academic variation on Burn After Reading? The Coen brothers seem to have much contempt for their characters). Meanwhile, Baader Meinhof Complex intrigues.

---Remembering Tim Burton in his prime: Scott Tobias considers Beetlejuice.

---Dennis Cozzalio interviews Stephanie Zacharek, Salon's senior film critic:

SZ: "Charlie [Zacharek's film critic husband Charles Taylor] and I share a sensibility. We often tend to like the same things, even though we often don’t like them for the same reasons. That’s one thing that has sometimes been kind of difficult during the course of our relationship and our professional lives. You always hear, `Oh, they always like the same things. Their 10-best lists are always identical.' And often I feel it’s a kind of sexist way of reacting, like saying I can’t think for myself, I take my cues from him—that always seems to be the subtext, and don’t even get me started on that. But we do disagree. For example, recently we went to the screening of Public Enemies, and because there were so many people there we couldn’t sit together. I pretty much liked the movie, aside from some misgivings. Afterward I went out to the lobby and I find Charlie, and he’s kind of fuming and he says, `Somebody needs to kick Michael Mann’s ass!' `So you didn’t like it?' And he starts explaining to me why he didn’t like it. `The camera’s all shaky, and I’m so sick of the shaky camera thing--' `I know, I’m sick of it too.' But it’s interesting—if I’m sitting with him, I can tell whether or not he’s with something. So the fact that we were sitting apart was interesting, because I really didn’t know until afterward. But at this point we’ve known each other so long, disagreements on movies are like anything else—you just talk it out: `I think you’re full of shit,' or whatever. But the deal-breaker question is an interesting one. I do have a friend who had a girlfriend at one point, and we were out for drinks and talking, and he said, `I showed her The Lady Eve and she didn’t like it.' And I just looked at him said, `Are you sure about this girl?' (Laughs)"

---From Sociological Images, a fascinating video with Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Christina Applegate, Jane Krakowski, and Mary Louise-Parker discussing what it's like to be a woman getting older in Hollywood.

---David Cairns interviews Gerald Peary, critic and director of For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism:

GP: "One of the many ways that the film changed form over the years is that eight years ago, film criticism still seemed a viable profession. Even then, obviously I want more people to read criticism and take it seriously, so that’s always been an objective, but I had no idea then that everybody in America was going to lose their job; by now, there are over fifty critics who are “made redundant” as you say over here — we say “fired” in the States. So the movie has an urgency that it didn’t have when it was conceived. I guess dramatically that helps the film. Or melodramatically. But it’s not a happy melodrama, because I’d rather critics were employed and doing well."

---postmodern gesture of the day: Sally Forth quotes Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

---Jonah Weiner of Slate speculates as to why music magazines are dying.

---For The New York Times, Mike Hale explains the contemporary importance of Cary Grant:

"[Grant's] in-on-the-joke sincerity, his not-quite-throwaway lines, the bits of physical business — the dancing way in which he kicks a door in Holiday or his graceful glide across the terrace as the gendarmes approach at the beginning of To Catch a Thief — serve less to glorify him than to flatter the intelligence of the women who can’t do without him.

That might be the best reason to watch Grant today. Kael noted in 1975, during his lifetime, that it was impossible to imagine Grant in the macho action and crime films that were beginning to dominate Hollywood. It’s equally impossible to imagine him in the soggy, misogynistic, stealth-macho geekfests that pass for romantic comedy now. Watching him is to be reminded of a time when intelligence, grace and self-containment were their own rewards. The 21st century, so far, hasn’t deserved him."

---For Commentary, Stephen Hunter looks at the history behind Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde.

---Thanks to Metafilter, a "whole freaking bunch of classic rock performance videos."

---Lastly, Movie City Indie shows how the British promote mumblecore.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Stripmining the 80s: Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer (1998)

[To honor the release of Funny People this week, the Film Doctor dug up his first Adam Sandler review. For more discussion of Sandler's earlier movies, see Dawn Taylor's post in Cinematical.]

To each his own. The Wedding Singer specializes in fat jokes, vomit jokes, and especially lewd humor. For example, as Robbie the wedding singer (Sandler) gradually gets over getting jilted by his girlfriend on the altar, he discovers a plump young man, approximately 12 years old, who is sad because some girl just jilted him during a bar mitzvah. Robbie kindly arranges for Julia (Drew Barrymore) to dance with the young man, and wouldn't you know it, the kid gleefully gropes her on the rear. Then everyone else follows suit and gropes each other as they dance, young and old couples alike. What fun! Julia looks bug-eyed for a moment, and then laughs and goes along with the boy's lechery.

Welcome to the drunken gaudy world of The Wedding Singer, a kind of shotgun marriage between Dumb and Dumber, My Best Friend's Wedding, and America's Funniest Home Videos.

I confess I've never seen Adam Sandler before in anything, not having watched much of Saturday Night Live since it went downhill long ago. He comes off as a slacker blend of Seinfeld and Pauly Shore, constantly mumbling and slurring his lines with an (I guess) endearing incompetence. Late in the movie, he has to say "I love you" on a jet, and I seriously expected the jet to crash in reaction to the giant thud of his line reading. He can't sing either, but he can pout and yell out petulant lyrics of the J. Geils Band's "Love Stinks" humorously. His depressive rendition of Madonna's "Holiday" is masterful shtick. I kept expecting him to imitate Bill Murray's lounge lizard act up on stage with a microphone, but instead he quits singing at weddings early on in the plot--one act of mercy for the audience.

Meanwhile, Drew Barrymore carries much of the movie with her role as a plain-Jane waitress with a Swedish dairymaid bob. In the tradition of romantic comedy wallflowers, she gets better looking as the film goes on, gradually wearing more make-up as she decides between her brutish junk bonds cheating fiance and her (incomprehensible to me) dawning love for Robbie. You see, Robbie's not materialistic in the material girl age. He knows how to get good deals on wedding pictures, and he sings cute songs that he wrote about lost love. Basically, Barrymore plays an oddly innocent character more out of the 50s than the 80s, a kind of Doris Day type amongst Madonna wannabes, but at least she can act.

The movie makes constant references to 198os culture, most notably in the soundtrack (Flock of Seagulls, the Flying Lizards), but also in the Mtv-influenced fashion choices (Michael Jackson's white glove, Madonna's crucifixes, a Boy George lookalike). You also get to witness the arrival of CD players, New Coke, breakdancing, hip hop, Rubik's cubes, you name it. The jokes on the era are sometimes funny, but while other movies like Boogie Nights try to turn 70s nostalgia into something more, The Wedding Singer strip-mines a time when America had already begun cannibalizing the 50s, 60s, and 70s for some sense of youth-marketing-oriented generation identity. The film trades on our yearning for an earlier, more innocent age, but there's nothing innocent about mechanically exploiting our nostalgia throughout. Without the 80s gags, there would be painful little left over to watch--another romantic comedy intent on telegraphing every emotional curve.

Saddest of all, Billy Idol appears in a brief cameo to try to rejuvenate his career. Back then he was a "star," and now he's a cartoon, with grey washed out eyes and a jaded expression reminiscent of Aerosmith's lead singer Steven Tyler's recent look. He pretends that he hasn't changed since then, but he has, and his appearance turns him into a parody of his pretty punk Mtv persona.

Fate can scarcely be crueller to an aging rocker than to find him 13 years later appearing in such mainstream lowest-common-denominator comedic fodder as The Wedding Singer.

Monday, July 27, 2009

"Trouble has a way of finding her": the pleasures of Jaume Collet-Serra's Orphan

A pregnant woman and her husband, Kate and John Coleman, enter a hospital. Already in labor, Kate groans as her husband places her in a wheelchair and starts to guide her inside. Then she notices blood dripping between her legs, leaving a trail on the floor. Suddenly lying on the operating table, she finds that the contractions have stopped, so she asks what's happened. The nurse tells her she's sorry for her loss. The woman is confused. Her husband's there to videotape. Then, as he congratulates her, the doctor hands her a bloody corpse of a baby. She screams, and wakes up.

So begins Orphan, part of a new breed of horror films that, according to the recent July 31st Entertainment Weekly, are increasingly made with the female audience in mind. As Christine Spines writes in "Horror Films and the Women Who Love Them,"

"The latest is Orphan, which stars Vera Farmiga (The Departed) as a grieving mom forced to defend her family from her newly adopted child. The actress is a jolt junkie herself. `I grew up loving to scare and be scared,' says Farmiga. `It elicits this surge of adrenaline you don't get from any other genre. Maybe women are so drawn to it because we're more emotional creatures and it's such a visceral experience.'"

Aside from the psychological nuances of Farmiga's character, I liked Orphan for its references to Hitchcock and Kubrick, its skillful acting, and for the hilarious way it shows how modern dithering parenting techniques fall apart when up against a smart evil brat. The movie doesn't mind lifting from Kubrick's The Shining.

For example, dark-haired Esther's old fashioned dresses resemble the ones worn by the Grady twins that Danny encounters on one of his Hot Wheels rides around the Overlook hotel. Both movies share a recovering alcoholic, a parent who messes up a child's arm when he or she lifts it in anger (kind of), an African American who attempts to save the family, and a wintry snowed-in setting that makes desperate, last-second driving at night difficult.

When it comes to borrowing from Hitchcock, director Collet-Saura likes to make a scene disorienting by the way he places the camera. He often shows Kate in profile to distance the viewer from her perspective. He also alludes to Marion Crane's freaking when her boss sees her in the car at the beginning of Psycho. In Orphan, Kate distractedly pulls out into traffic to almost crash into a speeding semi. At another time, when Kate realizes something's wrong, the camera moves up over her head in a fated way similar to the "This matter is best disposed of over a great height--over water" moment in Hitchcock's North by Northwest.

To compound her longstanding grief over the stillborn baby, Kate has a drinking problem (although she has stopped for a year), and she lost her job at Yale. So even though they already have two children--Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and Max (a younger deaf sister played by Aryana Engineer)--Kate and her husband attempt to replace the lost child with Russian Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), who they find serenely painting upstairs in an orphanage. Esther smiles and talks a good game about "taking bad things that happen and turning them into good things," but she has some telling oddities. For instance, in public she must always wear antiquated dresses and ribbons around her neck and her wrists. I spent much of the movie thinking her head would roll off if someone undid the one around her neck. Also, Esther has a bad tendency to resort to extreme measures if someone slights her or proves a possible adversary.

Esther's delightfully sneaky and manipulative, and she proves adept at playing one parent against another, or a psychiatrist against them both. If poor Kate tries to defy the girl, John (Peter Sarsgaard) takes them both to Dr. Browning (Margot Martindale), who turns against Kate for projecting her "feelings of inadequacy as a mother." When Kate tries to answer, Dr. Browning says "You're blocking her attempts to bond. She just needs a little patience and understanding."

As Kate and John's other children Daniel and Max get involved in Esther's vicious machinations, one realizes how quickly a child could get accustomed to violence. Their experience with Esther is not that different from the old fairy tales before they got sanitized by Disney, where Cinderella would arrange for her two stepsisters to chop up their feet with an ax so they can fit in the glass slipper. In the same way, Max and Daniel acknowledge the menace in their house long before their parents do. It's only our adult sense of decorum and civilization that makes violence seem that unusual an occurrence.

In comparison to other film genres, horror films still strike me as more potentially realistic, because they reflect the Darwinian struggle for survival, and they call attention to sides of our nature that, say, a romantic comedy would just as soon gloss over. In an earlier scene, Daniel is in the midst of shooting a paint gun at action figures in the woods when a bird hops down within his sights. Without thinking much, he shoots and stuns the bird, which lies twitching on the ground. Esther walks up and says matter-of-factly "Are you going to put it out of its misery?" When, confused, he says no, she replies "It is in great pain. It will starve to death. Is that what you want?" Then, exasperated, she picks up a rock and crushes the bird. So it is with Esther's behavior around people who threaten her. Her methods are primitive, but they do make sense.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Notable film and media links--July 26, 2009

---Humphrey Bogart says "I can't think of the goddamn line."--great classic Hollywood bloopers (with a tip of the hat to Nathaniel R).

---A. O. Scott affectionately revisits Mad Max.

---As the old media declines, we can watch Rolling Stone shrink, the Sunday newspaper disappear, and the end of traditional advertising. This transition will get bloody. Daniel Lyons of Newsweek thinks that "good Web sites shouldn't be free." David Simon proposes that The New York Times and The Washington Post could work together to set up a "paywall business model." Sharon Waxman has noticed a consensus among the "leaders of the digital media industry":

"-- The world of content is beginning to be divided into two parts -- the broad, `commoditized' stuff that you can find anywhere (celebrity shots, the bloggerhead in his pajamas commenting on events) and premium content that people will pay for.

-- `You’re seeing the world split into a premium world, and a broader attentionally-monetized world,' said Miller.

-- People will tolerate ads to get quality content they want to watch for free. (Hulu!)
And it’s not killing subscription competitors, says Iger. `There was a fear that a cord cutting was going on…because they are getting everything online and didn’t need it anymore.' They didn’t. Now Disney is considering a website that would charge a subscription fee."

---For The New York Review of Books, Michael Massing analyzes the larger media picture:

"For all these problems, the Web is currently home to all kinds of intriguing experiments. YouTube recently introduced a Reporters' Center offering tips from established reporters on how to cover international news. The Huffington Post has set up an investigative fund to support journalistic research. The Boston-based GlobalPost has arranged with dozens of independent reporters around the world to find outlets for their work. Sites like Minn Post in Minneapolis and Voice of San Diego are testing whether metro reporting can be done on the Internet. Among the more notable recent developments are the sharply edited book section at The Daily Beast; the brisk video-debate unit; and the conservative blogging collective, set up by David Frum after he broke with National Review.

Taken together, such initiatives suggest a fundamental change taking place in the world of news. As the Pew Project for Journalistic Excellence put it in its 2009 "State of the News Media" report:

Power is shifting to the individual journalist and away, by degrees, from journalistic institutions.... Through search, e-mail, blogs, social media and more, consumers are gravitating to the work of individual writers and voices, and away somewhat from institutional brand. Journalists who have left legacy news organizations are attracting funding to create their own websites.... Experiments like GlobalPost are testing whether individual journalists can become independent contractors offering reporting to various sites, in much the way photographers have operated for years at magazines.

In a much-circulated essay, Clay Shirky, an Internet consultant and professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, compares the current turbulence in the news business to the disorder brought about by the invention of the printing press, when old forms of transmitting information were breaking down and new ones had yet to cohere—a transition accompanied by much confusion and uncertainty. The historical analogy can be taken a step further: just as the advent of printing helped break the medieval Church's hold on the flow of information, so is the rise of the Internet loosening the grip of the corporate-owned mass media. A profound if unsettling process of decentralization and democratization is taking place.

Needless to say, traditional news organizations continue to play a critical part in keeping the public informed. But can they adapt to the rapidly changing news environment? And who is going to pay for quality news and information in the future?"

---Meanwhile, Matt Bors takes on the future of news, and David Horsey notes how "The Daily Planet is being sold to Lex Luthor."

---A study finds that "Americans watch screens 8.5 hours a day."

---Scott Rosenberg considers the "fad" of blogging.

---In The Book of Eli trailer, Denzel Washington looks mysterious even though we know he is Denzel Washington.

---Andrew Sullivan shares an artful music video by Monogrenade.

---Lastly, The Morning News compiles their favorite crappy movies.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Ugly Truth of the voyeuristic crowd

Since when did romantic comedies have anything to do with truth? They have swooping bird's-eye-view shots of colorful dewy Hallmark card landscapes, gruff men like Rochester or Clark Gable who will be tamed, lovelorn maidens like Katherine Heigl who would not seem to need romantic advice, and a plot structure as rigid and formalized as Kabuki theater, so I've been a bit surprised by the virulently negative critical reaction to to The Ugly Truth. Yes, it is mediocre and more vulgar than the wedding porn of 27 Dresses, but not as bad as Bride Wars or Confessions of a Shopaholic. The two leads of The Ugly Truth strike me as plausible if not quite fully realized stars (stars with potential), and the film is uneven but occasionally amusing.

In comparison to the pretty boy leads of films like Elizabethtown, Gerald Butler is sufficiently masculine for his role as Mike, a local television network "talent" who dares to say what men really want (trashy lingerie, twins in a bath full of jello, etc.) on his Ugly Truth show (and, of course, the conclusion of the movie undermines everything he says).

His beard stubble reminded me of the facial hair of Luke (Scott Patterson) in Gilmore Girls, since he's more a sanitized stand-in for loutish manhood than anything else, but Mike does make occasional good points about seduction techniques and how women sometimes abuse their power over men. Like a more articulate media-friendly Bluto from Animal House, he represents the id, and his wisecracks liven up the Mary Tyler Moore-esque KSXP TV station where he gets a job as the guest commentator who works under anal "psycho control freak" producer Abby (Katherine Heigl).

Having seen Heigl in the more classy 27 Dresses, I was surprised to see her willingness here to simulate a lewd act twice in one baseball game scene, strap on a mechanically arousing pair of panties for some heavy breathing in a crowded restaurant (somewhat like Meg Ryan's famous orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally), and otherwise allow herself to be besmirched by the filmmakers' smutty gross-out humor agenda designed for the guys taking their dates to see this chick flick.

There seems to be a competition to see how raunchy R-rated films can get by innuendo these days, a kind of snickering naughtiness found in films like Sex and the City (and overwhelmingly apparent in Bruno), but I was mostly bothered by the emotional voyeurism on display in The Ugly Truth. In 27 Dresses, characters frequently proclaim their love in front of a crowd as if expressions of passion are not enough in private. The emotion has become so banal, you need a bunch of people looking on to make the scene dramatic. In The Ugly Truth, this need for display extends itself to the camera and the TV audience.

When Mike confronts married couple/newscasters Georgia and Larry (Cheryl Hines and John Michael Higgins) with the problems in their sex life on air, saying that Larry hates her for "screwing with his manhood," Larry immediately opens up and says "It's not my fault!" Laying bare their intimate sex secrets becomes the film's definition of "great TV," just like Abby's visit to a baseball game only begins to register when she appears on the big screen by the scoreboard. I was just reading about Hal Niedzviecki's new book The Peep Diaries, and it seems to describe what's going on exactly. To quote from Amanda Fortini's Salon review:

"Peep culture involves watching and being watched, snooping and spying, gawking and gossiping; it means exposing our intimacies with an eye toward bonding with others and growing comfortable with the increasingly common slippage between public and private. Peep culture, like pop culture, informs the atmosphere — it is the atmosphere — in which we live. Writes Niedzviecki, `It’s like that famous line about pornography: you know it when you see it. And you do see it. All the time, everyday, everywhere.'”

In its peep show way, in the climax of this film, in their moment of greatest emotional vulnerability, Mike and Abby don't even know that they are on camera, but they are, and for some reason that heightens the scene. That may be the real ugly truth--romantic comedies increasingly need a large built-in voyeuristic audience to make love matter at all.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Notable film and media links--July 23, 2009

---How do businesses and journalists adjust to the ongoing changes in the media? Disney plans on setting up a "subscription-based product." The New York Times might resort to "metering" and "membership strategies." According to Politico, Huffington Post gets much of its traffic from "entertainment and sex" and the "mainstream media" (which isn't surprising). Tina Brown of the not-yet-profitable Daily Beast has this to say to Phil Rosenthal of Chicago Tribune:

"We're in a transitional period that I think will only last another few years in which [journalists are] not paid the way they were. That's the scary part," she said. "If you're up to seeing the opportunity and recognize it as a transition, or you have enough put away to ride this wave, it's going to be fantastic. I think it's a big liberation of every kind of talent. . . . "

"People who decide, 'I'm going to wait around until [media are] fully transitioned and hope I don't get laid off,' " do so at their own peril, Brown said. "Obviously everyone has their responsibilities and has to make their own decisions. But as night follows day, things are really tipping, and it's better to have that training early rather than late."

---Meanwhile, at Conde Nast, ad page numbers have dropped precipitously, leaving magazine journalists "speculating, worried." Jeffrey Goldberg has some ironic recommendations about what they should do about it.

---I didn't know that Michael Jackson taught Fred Astaire how to moonwalk, or that they both danced out of "anger" (according to Astaire). The Self-Styled Siren found some oddly appropriate footage of Astaire "drunkenly" dancing and breaking glass in a bar.

---Michael Guillen of The Evening Class shares some fascinating vintage music videos.

---Intriguing new books--The Art of Harvey Kurtzman:the Mad Genius of Comics (because he helped invent Mad magazine), Alex Cox's X Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, and the exceedingly timely Reinventing Cinema: Movies in the Age of Media Convergence by Chuck Tryon of Chutry Experiment.

---As much as I would like to make fun of Twitter, the social media tool does help small businesses promote themselves.

---Total Film lays out "The Story Behind American Psycho" (back when I used to like Christian Bale).

---Whiteout looks a little silly.

---While I had mixed feelings for Watchmen on DVD, I enjoy Alan Moore's distaste for contemporary films:

"I find film in its modern form to be quite bullying... It spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination. It is as if we are freshly hatched birds looking up with our mouths open waiting for Hollywood to feed us more regurgitated worms. The Watchmen film sounds like more regurgitated worms. I for one am sick of worms. Can't we get something else? Perhaps some takeout? Even Chinese worms would be a nice change."

---Allan Fish of Wonders in the Dark celebrates one of my favorite horror films--Don't Look Now.

---Lastly, Jim Emerson provides a thought-provoking analysis of the cranking speeds of Buster Keaton's Cops.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Notable film and media links--July 20, 2009

---Chris Anderson wrote an intriguing book called Free: the Future of a Radical Price, so the obvious thing to do is read the free version on the internet. Also, here's Chris explaining his book.

---Jonathan Rosenbaum meditates on what dope has done to movies:

". . . contemplate the hallucinatory special effects and the screwy changes of tone in Joe Dante movies like Gremlins (1984), Matinee (1993), or Small Soldiers (1998), the wide-angle distortions and fantasy premises of films like Bob Balaban’s Parents and Raul Ruiz’s Three Lives and Only One Death (1996), or the ambiguous netherworld between thoughts and realities comprising Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999).

All of these experiences have something to do with dope. None of them would look or sound or play the same way today if marijuana hadn’t seized and transformed the style of pop movies thirty years ago. This isn’t to say that the filmmakers in question are necessarily teaheads, or that the people in the audience have to be wigged-out in order to appreciate these efforts. Stoned consciousness by now is a historical fact, which means that the experiences of people high on grass have profoundly affected the aesthetics of movies for everyone: filmmakers and spectators, smokers and smokers alike."

---Speaking of dope, or in this case a dope dealer, the new trailer for Bernard Rose's Mr. Nice looks of interest.

---For Wired, Inglourious Basterd Brad Pitt explains the new rules of behavior.

---Matthew Robson, a 15 year old, describes the media habits of kids for Morgan Stanley:

"The rapid surge of interest in social networking and messaging sites has prompted speculation that sites such as Twitter or Facebook could be taken over. But Robson's report, which was sent to Morgan Stanley's clients as a research note last Friday, suggested that such a move could be folly. He said teenagers were using more and more media, but they were unwilling to pay for it.

`Teenagers do not use Twitter,' he wrote. `Most have signed up to the service, but then just leave it as they realise that they are not going to update it (mostly because texting Twitter uses up credit, and they would rather text friends with that credit). They realise that no one is viewing their profile, so their tweets are pointless.'

He warned that traditional media – television, radio and newspapers – are losing ground.

No teenager Robson knew reads a newspaper regularly since most `cannot be bothered to read pages and pages of text while they could watch the news summarised on the internet or on TV'. The only newspapers that are read are the cheaper tabloids and freesheets.

His peers are also put off by intrusive advertising so they prefer listening to advert-free music on websites such as to traditional radio. Teens see adverts on websites - pop ups, banner ads - as `extremely annoying and pointless,' Robson said. However, `most teenagers enjoy and support viral marketing, as often it creates humorous and interesting content'."

---The Cut's slashing review of Lindsay Lohan's Labor Pains gets poignant after awhile:

"It's a shame, because in the film Lohan does try. Lindsay's problem has never been lack of talent — just lack of judgment — and in fact, she's probably the best thing about the movie (except maybe the part where it ended and we turned it off). But at this point, her best isn't enough: She alone can't elevate a movie if the script is a dud, and looking this hard up for work never helps rehabilitate a career. For the Great Labor Pains Catastrophe of 2009 to be remembered as a glitch instead of one of the final nails in her coffin, Lindsay’s best bet actually may be to stop trying altogether. Seriously, Linds, do nothing. Don’t even leave the house. Just be patient and let the world miss you while you hunt for a project that's worth all that effort. Otherwise, in ten years we may be watching you on TV hawking bail bonds as we tell our kids we knew you when. And then the mean girls will have won, after all."

---For those of you in the midst of reading Wallace's Infinite Jest, here is some advice on how to read it and a NYT profile of Wallace written right after the book was published.

---Proof that Twitter will kill you.

---Have you seen the new FilminFocus Media Room? I like their apocalyptic exhibit.

---Jacob Weisberg reflects on massive changes in media:

"DIA: We've seen the media landscape change so much over the past decade. What do you think it will look like five or ten years from now?

Mr Weisberg: More different than it did five or ten years ago. We'll be much further along in the separation of reading and printing. Convergence of all forms of media will take place on mobile devices. The question is whether Apple, Amazon or someone else will build the universal media appliance that lets you read, watch, or listen to anything, anytime, anywhere."

---I enjoyed Shooting Down Picture's liveblog reactions to Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown.

---Lastly, Scott Rosenberg shows off Michael Wesch's thought-provoking Web 2.0 video "The Machine is Us/ing Us."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Giddy Hogwarts: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

How does one evaluate a reasonably good section of a franchise that one cannot stand in principle? Such has been my conflicted response to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. To review the sixth film of those insufferable preening Hogwarts urchins struck me as equivalent to critiquing a new McDonalds on the edge of town. Wasn't the wand-waving, special effects-laden climax of the Order of the Phoenix unbelievably long? Isn't Voldemort Ralph Fiennes' dullest role? When it comes to today's youth and their reading habits, should their main diet consist of this endless forced preppy wish-fulfillment in the guise of a black-robed geek with his Lennonesque round glasses and rebaked Merlin headmaster? (One can find the pernicious influence of this franchise at the local MagiQuest amusement castle, where whole families can "use their magic wands and earn powers to achieve increasing levels of success as they venture into their chosen quest through role-playing, intellect, teamwork, and imagination!" I've seen the MagiQuest billboards where even smiling Dad holds his wand aloft as he attempts to look dignified.) Even trying to think of the endless Harry Potter films and their many awkward compressions from the J. K. Rowling books makes my brain hurt.

Having said all of that, and having suffered an acquaintance who kept smugly telling me that Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie a hefty 98% approval rating just before we went to see it (it is now down to a more earthbound 87%), I reluctantly found that this chapter of the franchise has five good points after all.

1) The film begins with a fun point of view shot that falls toward London, swoops around, and ends up with Death Eaters wrecking the Millenium Bridge right near my favorite Tate Modern museum.

2) The Half-Blood Prince seems much more pleasantly self-aware than the other Potter movies. Early on, we see Harry blinded by the flashbulb lights of the press. A waitress asks him if he is actually Harry Potter, and he says no, but he knows him. When Harry runs into other characters, they tend to acknowledge his fame as the possible "Chosen One" (like Neo's quandary in The Matrix). After one adventure, Ginny Weasley asks, "Why is he [Harry] always covered in blood?" In another scene, Prof. McGonogall (Maggie Smith) asks Harry, Ron, and Hermione, "Why is it that whenever someone's in trouble, it is always you three?" At least this film acknowledges its many conventions as it indulges in them.

3) Where Hermione and Ron largely stood around for the last few films, this time they have real roles since Ron has to contend with the amusing mad-groupie affection of Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) and Hermione finds herself inexplicably jealous. Ron's sister Ginnie (Bonnie Wright) also has a strong interest in Harry, which makes Ron feel brotherly and protective, at odds with his friend. Some may say that all of this adolescent hoorah might be beside the point in the grand overarching narrative of the Potter/Voldemort confrontation, but I found the film more humorous and engaging as a result, even though bland Ginnie is a cipher compared to the others.

4) The potions are more fun this time. Ron goes completely love-silly on some love potion, and even Potter gets noticeably high when he drinks some "Liquid Luck." Between him and the already dotty Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent), the movie gets giddy for awhile, which helped alleviate the grim maneuvres of bad guys like Draco Malfoy.

5) In part due to the inside jokes, the Half-Blood Prince has a more lived-in, offhand quality. It no longer needs to overwhelm us with its whimsy. Instead of hippogriffs, we get introduced to one large dead spider. Instead of reptilian Ralph Fiennes without a nose, we get a younger Voldemart known as Tom Riddle (Hero Fiennes-Tiffin, hired due to resemblance to his uncle Ralph). Tom disdainfully enjoys bossing around snakes when he's not sneaking information from his professors. Even though you need to read the book to fully understand the overblown conclusion, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is more easygoing about its magic and its myth. It has an uncommonly light touch--a neat trick when so much money rides on the continued success of the franchise.

Notable film and media links--July 16, 2009

---Newest sign of the apocalypse--the Royal Family has just joined Twitter.

---Alicia Silverstone and Alanis Morissette's new weepy road movie mock trailer--My Mother's Red Hat.

---The Elegant Variation interviews Joseph O'Neill, the author of perhaps the best novel of 2008--Netherland.

---For The Guardian, director Steven Soderbergh discusses how he's happy he's not still shooting Che.

---Movieman0283 of The Dancing Image compiles all of the influential film books of his Reading the Movies meme.

---Scott Macauley of Filmmaker Magazine looks carefully at the prospects of making a living as a film journalist:

"It's hard to know what to say to people who are intent on making film journalism their means of employment right now simply because most forms of journalism, particularly niche-content ones, are difficult to make a living at right now! In a time marked by increasing disintermediation in the content industry, the perhaps neurobiological lure of non-print forms of delivery, and expanded content offerings (games, social media, etc.) competing for a reader's finite amount of free time, anyone hoping to make a living by writing about things must figure out new ways of working and getting paid for that work. Like I said, this isn't just the province of niche-content creators. (Here's a list of some two dozen articles dealing with journalism and monetization just from the last three weeks.) But it seems to be hitting many niche-content creators the hardest because their audiences were smaller to begin with and their institutions less able to survive a sustained economic downturn."

---Meanwhile, Pradnya Joshi of NYT explores the ambiguities of bloggers sponsoring products for money:

". . . in many ways, the hypercommercialism of the Web is changing too quickly for consumers and regulators to keep up. Product placements are landing on so-called status updates on Facebook, companies are sponsoring messages on Twitter and bloggers are defining their own parameters of what constitutes independent work versus advertising."

---T.S. of Screen Savour takes on Fritz Lang's classic Metropolis (1927).

---The One-Line Review presents "The 50 Greatest Films," and Culture Snob finds it a bit "ossified" and "ordinary" (although he also made suggestions for the list).

---The Pipeline shows how to get shot by Scott Schuman for the influential Sartorialist.

---Check out Mary Ellen Mark's photographs of movie stars behind the scenes for Vanity Fair.

---Lastly, the Film Doctor' s instant trailer reactions: Under the Mountain looks terrible; An Education juxtaposes a life of scholarship with hedonism in Paris; we should all live like No Impact Man, but that doesn't stop the movie from appearing smug; and Drew Barrymore directs Ellen Page in Whip It.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Year 2003: Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation

Ibetolis of Film for the Soul has once again graciously allowed me to review a film for his Counting Down the Zeroes celebration. For the year 2003, I chose Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation. Here's the link.

And here's the post:

A mood piece of a movie, a study of urban alienation, jet lag, the disorienting effects of fame, and the amount of angst one can feel while staying at the luxury Shinjuju Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo, Lost in Translation (2003) earned Sofia Coppola an Oscar for her screenplay and the first nomination of an American woman as Best Director. The plot seems too simple. Film actor Bob Harris (Bill Murray) spends a few days in Tokyo earning 2 million dollars shilling Suntory whisky and getting to know recent Yale graduate Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). He can’t sleep at night, so he whiles away much of his time in the hotel bar. His passive aggressive wife sends faxes reminding him that he has forgotten his son’s birthday. He feels trapped even amidst all of this luxury, a sensation that culminates in a scene where Japanese photographers endlessly shoot pictures of him as he holds a whisky glass by his face and grimaces in exasperation at the camera. The scene is both funny and poignant, although the viewer cannot feel too sorry for him, because he chose to sell out. The Hyatt Hotel has become a glittering luxury cage where nothing has any connection to who he is, and, thus, he feels lost.

Meanwhile, newly married Charlotte decides to tag along to Tokyo with her photographer husband John (Giovanni Ribisi). John keeps busy elswhere, so Charlotte listens to motivational tapes in their room, passively stares out at the Tokyo skyline, and smokes cigarettes. She majored in philosophy at Yale, but now she finds she can’t stand John’s superficial movie star friend Kelly (a hilarious Anna Faris), so she begins to see Bob (still lingering at the bar) as a possible ally. As the third major character in the film, Tokyo is freaky, jarring, and beautifully atmospheric in part thanks to the cinematography of Lance Acord. If the film ever threatens to grow too solemn, Coppola brings in a bizarre dancing talk show host (“Japan’s Johnny Carson”), or channel surfing TV images that include a much younger Bill Murray from Saturday Night Live, or mod Japanese teenagers playing video games as they posture like some distant reflection of American rebels. Some critics have claimed the film caricatures the Japanese, and it might, some, but I think Coppola balances her portrait of the impersonal cityscape with scenes of traditional Japan—a Buddhist monastery, a meditation garden, and flower-arranging.

Murray is an inspired choice to play Bob, one of the few stars capable of conveying both the depth and the humor necessary for the part. Coppola reportedly left hundreds of messages on his answering machine to eventually cajole him into taking the role. When asked how she got Murray to join the production, Sofia answered “Perseverance.” In fact, in the “`Lost’ on Location” behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD of Lost in Translation, Sofia shows every indication of being smitten with Murray, which perhaps encouraged his performance. In regards to Johansson, Coppola used much of her own tastes and interests to form her character. People have noted how Charlotte dresses much like Coppola with her restrained preppy chic sweaters, pants, and sneakers, and she also shares with Sofia an interest in photography and philosophy. After her unfortunate reception as a last-second replacement for Wynona Ryder in The Godfather III, Coppola spent a good portion of her young life not knowing what she would do, but she combined many of her interests (including music and writing) in her work as a director. Charlotte is in this sense a composite self-portrait of Sofia before she crystallized into the creator of this film.

To get a sense of Sofia Coppola’s understated talent as a director, again one can learn from the behind the scene documentary about how she differs from the cliched image of a loud exasperated male director shouting his orders to his crew. Coppola is very calm on the set. One actor likened working with her as being in the quiet of a submarine. As she says, “I’m used to people not expecting much from me. But then as soon as I start working, that drops away. I don’t yell. I’m petite. I don’t turn into a tyrant. Being underestimated is, in a way, kind of an advantage, because people are usually pleasantly surprised as a result.” Sofia’s more intuitive, nuanced approach gives her actors the opportunity to blend the tragic, the alienated, and the comic, making some scenes so multivalent, they are hard to classify.

About a third of the way into the movie, during one evening in the hotel bar, Bob says to Charlotte, “Can you keep a secret? I’m trying to organize a prison break. I’m looking for, like, an accomplice. We have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in or you out?” Charlotte promptly replies “I’m in. I’ll go pack my stuff.” From that point on, they manage to forge a relationship that again defies any easy summary. Eventually more than friends, they find they cannot consummate their relationship, perhaps because sex would reduce it to the level of Bob’s one night stand with the bar singer with dyed red hair, or his encounter with the Premium Fantasy woman who enters his suite one evening to ask him to “lip” her stockings. Given the age difference between Bob and Charlotte, sex would become a mere symptom of his midlife crisis and her need for attention. Instead, during one night out with Charlotte’s Tokyo bohemian friends, Charlotte places her head on Bob’s shoulder in between karaoke songs as they both smoke.

Naturally, there are moments when Bob considers making a move on her, but he treats her much as he plays golf, with great restraint and artful deference. At another time, late at night after watching Fellini’s La Dolce Vita on the hotel television, Charlotte despairs when she says “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be.” Bob considers for a moment, and says “You’ll figure that out. The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you.” As they spend time together, these scenes of intimacy and understanding somehow invert the significance of all of the images of alienation. Charlotte and Bob make a connection that seems more substantial than their marriages. Faced with the return flight to the states and the likelihood of never seeing her again, Bob says to Charlotte, “I don’t want to leave,” and she replies “So don’t. Stay here with me. We’ll start a jazz band.” Thanks to Lost in Translation's improvisational alchemy, Charlotte’s suggestion sounds exactly right.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The pitter patter of Harry Potter blather (circa 2007)

For those interested in the last installment of those magical wand-wielding teenage wizards, here's my preblogging review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007).

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hype, the void, and the design to appall: notes on Bruno

"What but design of darkness to appall?" --Robert Frost

1) I mostly felt suckered after watching Bruno. I did laugh in places, but I agree with Ramin Setoodeh of Newsweek: the film is depressing and it leaves a nasty aftertaste. Once one gets beyond the extensive media blitz, all of the magazine covers, Bruno's appearances on many talk shows, etc., and actually watch the movie, one realizes how little is actually there: a brief series of vignettes designed to appall. Bruno is an elaborate stunt, a good example of how we crave distraction, anything in the face of the void. It makes sense in a way that Bruno promoted his film on David Letterman by calling it "It's like Transformers, but not as gay," because both films' extremity call attention to the special quality of modern-day 2009 media boredom. The larger the robots get, the louder the explosions, the greater the hype around a fundamentally empty movie, the more one gets a sense of the void encroaching on all of this fury. Wasn't it in Mike Judge's Idiocracy that people of the future will spend an entire movie looking at a sustained shot of someone's butt? Well, Bruno moves us a little closer to that culmination. As he arranges to make other people look like jackasses, Sacha Baron Cohen makes himself the biggest jackass, and the biggest jackass earns the most attention. By earning the most attention, the biggest jackass wins.

2) Insofar as regular people participate in Bruno, willingly or unwillingly, the film left me wondering about the human cost involved. Comedy often dwells on people's lewd body parts and animalistic functions, but Sacha Baron Cohen's work also emphasizes how the camera lens can function like a petri dish in which anything or anyone can twitch, flinch, or flounder about trapped under the microscope of an audience's attention. Anyone who finds him or herself unwillingly broadcast on YouTube knows what this is like, and as surveillance cameras and paparazzi proliferate, the potential for greater and greater abuse of this technology grows daily. Accustomed to being in front of the camera lens, movie stars know all about this (so there was some pleasure in watching Harrison Ford simply shout "Fuck off!" and walk away from Bruno in one brief scene), but the more the movie stars back away, the more the average American with his or her ordinary looks actually wants to appear in a major Hollywood movie. So, in effect, Bruno celebrates the Jerry Springerification of postmodern life, where your average Joe debases himself for his fifteen seconds of fame. In some cases, these people don't want to appear, so someone cajoles them into it, and then, once they see what Cohen has done with this international media-sized mockery over and over, they may sue. There's no telling the human wreckage that a film like Bruno leaves behind, but audiences don't care because it is funny. Bruno is like Roman gladiatorial fights of human debasement. Sometimes, the targets seem worthy of the scorn, such as in the case of the men committed to converting Bruno to heterosexuality, but after awhile, it might seem that everyone and everything in this kind of film deserves scorn. So we can laugh at Bono and Sting (both looking their age) and Elton John (sitting on a Mexican) and Slash and Snoop Dog. By wanting to appear in the movie, everyone, including celebrities, becomes another butt of the joke.

3) In a way, it seems perfect that I first saw Cohen as Ali G in Madonna's "Music" video. Like Madonna, Cohen uses different personas, the media, and sexual "pushing people's buttons" tactics to gain attention. His tactics are just more extreme.

4) If you'd like to be exempt from this hellish cycle of mockery, Cohen makes it difficult because he includes several examples of audience reactions in this movie, and by doing so he mocks audience's feelings of dismay, horror, shock, and so on. This is the peculiar jiu jitsu of his technique. By arranging it so that we have already laughed at the more prudish people on screen, he blackmails the viewer into approval. Many do not want to appear homophobic or square or repressed. Those people are not in on the joke. So the only thing is to guiltily laugh along in a mean-spirited way at all of the people being used, like Eminem after the MTV music awards show, and then feel besmirched afterward.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Film Doctor's favorite books about blogging

As a person who has plenty of doubts and hesitations about blogging, I confess that I like to read books on the subject, in part because they tend to reaffirm one's choice to blog in spite of all of the good reasons to not do so. These books remind me of the Writer's Market series in the way they can promote what is for many people a questionable enterprise (the recent Writer's Market spends quite a few stunning pages recommending a career in the newspaper biz).

1) With Say Everything, co-founder of Scott Rosenberg covers the history of blogging. He profiles many of the major players (including Justin Hall, Josh Marshall, Robert Scoble, Nick Denton, Heather Armstrong, Jason Calacanis, the creators of Boing Boing) and their ups and downs of blogging. Some notes from this book:

a) on page 102, Peter Merholz coins the word "blog" and notes how this "hideous" word is "roughly onomatopoeic of vomiting."

b) on page 114, Rosenberg takes pleasure in quoting from Greg Knauss's 1999 article "My Ass is a Weblog":

"Weblogs are a `revolution,' They're `journalism.' They're `art.' They're, again and again, the next New Thing. To which the only possible response can be: come on, people . . . . how can you not boggle at the level of self-delusion, of self-infatuation, it takes to declare that . . . the concept will be alive and well a decade from now? That weblog readership will increase a hundredfold in that time?"

c) on page 129, Knauss admits that he was "profoundly, spectacularly, epically wrong."

d) on page 174 Rosenberg quotes my favorite line from Samuel Johnson, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money," and then wonders "What was wrong with these bloggers--this army of blockheads?"

e) on page 288, some journalists' anger about bloggers: "Their volunteer rivals, they felt, were more than just suckers; they were tantamount to scabs, undermining secure high-paying jobs by choosing to labor under unfair conditions."

f) on page 317, Rosenberg notes that Nicholas "Carr has been building a thoughtful case against blogging since 2005--mostly on his own blog."

g) on page 318, to critics who claim that the internet negatively affects our ability to read longer articles, Rosenberg replies: "If you have read this far in this book, then you seem to have retained a good portion of your ability to read long-form prose"

h) on page 337, Nicholas Carr notes, "Shall no fart pass without a tweet?"

i) on page 345, Rosenberg claims that "the act of blogging is fundamentally literary."

2) The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, pieced together by the editors of The Huffington Post, is a little cheesy, name-dropping, and self-serving since it can easily sound like marketing for the website, but I enjoy its relentless cheerfulness. When they ask "Why blog?", they immediately answer "Why not blog?" I also like their "rules for great blogging":

"1) Blog often
2) Perfect is the enemy of done
3) Write like you speak
4) Focus on specific details
5) Own your topic
6) Know your audience
7) Write short
8) Become part of the conversation with like-minded blogs"

3. With Problogger: Secrets for Blogging Your Way to a Six-Figure Income, Darren Rowse and Christ Garrett appeal to one's desire to monetize. I got the impression that Rowse drinks an awful lot of coffee, but the book is full of practical advice, and I especially liked his discussion of the 20 types of blog posts--"instructional, informational, reviews, lists, interviews, case studies, profiles, link posts, problem posts, comparison posts, rants, inspirational, research, collation posts, prediction and review posts, critique posts, debate, hypothetical posts, satirical posts, and memes and projects."

4) In comparison to Blogging for Dummies (which I confess I did read without buying a copy at the local Barnes & Noble), Bob Walsh's Clear Blogging: How People Blogging Are Changing the World and How You Can Join Them is perhaps the fanciest how-to guide for blogging that I know of. He looks at LiveJournal and Vox. He interviews the CEOs of Technorati and Feedburner for information about how their services can help bloggers. This book is a little too technical for my taste (or knowledge), but it is very readable and thorough.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Notable film and media links--July 9, 2009

---As McLuhan said, "The medium is the message." I've been surprised by the new permutations of the media these days, from Mediaite, the new website devoted to all things media, to the difficulties of programming TV with all of the changes taking place, to churchgoers tweeting, not to mention movies and books about blogging, websites replacing magazines, and people trusting a Google search over the evening news. One positive development--Anne Trubek believes that "We are all writers now":

"The conversational arts may be suffering (despite their enduring rules), but like it or not, we are all writers now. Perhaps this explains the loud clamouring over the questionable authority of online authorship. With traditional media feeling the pain, many professional writers worry that they have become dispensable. So they unfairly degrade the prose of amateurs in order to guard the ramparts.

True, much of what is written online is quotidian, informational, ephemeral. But writing has always been so: traditional newspapers line bird-cages a day later; lab reports describe methodology in tedious detail; the founding fathers wrote what they ate for lunch. And the quality of many blogs is high, indistinguishable in eloquence and intellect from many traditionally published works.

Our new forms of writing—blogs, Facebook, Twitter—all have precedents, analogue analogues: a notebook, a postcard, a jotting on the back of an envelope. They are exceedingly accessible. That it is easier to cultivate a wide audience for tossed off thoughts has meant a superfluity of mundane musings, to be sure. But it has also generated a democracy of ideas and quite a few rising stars, whose work we might never have been exposed to were we limited to conventional publishing channels."

---Viral marketing of the future: is it possible for 500 Days of Summer to live up to this video of Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Sid and Nancy?

---For Sociological Images, Dina Goldstein places Disney princesses in uncomfortably modern contexts.

---The exemplary House Next Door features an on-going conversation between Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard, this time about documentarian Errol Morris (of the amazing Gates of Heaven). I also liked Matthew Poland's discussion of the campy ("milkshake") ending of There Will Be Blood:

"It is the theatricality of the final scene—Plainview shuffling back-and-forth on a lane to maintain balance, Plainview bellowing “DRAINAGE!” as he froths saliva, Plainview hurling bowling balls at Eli as he madly lumbers toward him—that places it squarely in the category of camp. Anderson remains coolly detached with the camera, filming in the same crisp, classical style he uses in earlier scenes; consequently, we find ourselves at an aesthetic distance from the action. Sontag speaks about distinguishing "between naïve and deliberate Camp," i.e., inadvertent and self-aware camp. Innocent (and thereby effortless), the former provides the greater pleasure, she contends; the latter is too slick, too calculated to participate in naïve camp’s ebullience. TWBB’s finale, however, brilliantly upends her assertion. The scene is unabashedly outlandish, but whereas deliberate camp typically aims toward shallow parody, here the goal is more akin to alienation. The scene’s lunacy is secondary to its aesthetic function; camp defamiliarizes the film we thought we knew."

---As part of Cinema Styles' ongoing Ed Wood blogathon, Alexander Villalba examines how Tim Burton's problems with his Batman films may have led to the creation of Ed Wood.

---Times Online lines up "The 50 Best Movie Villains." The Hunter in Bambi? Also, the Times shows how tweens are taking over Hollywood.

---Andrew Sullivan found a pleasantly innovative music video by Sour.

---For Esquire, Francis Ford Coppola shares what he has learned: "The ending was clear and Michael has corrupted himself — it was over. So I didn't understand why they wanted to make another Godfather."

---Lastly, to prepare us for Julie & Julia, Laura Jacobs profiles Julia Child:

"For Julia’s first meal on French soil, Paul ordered sole meunière, that simplest, purest, most implicitly French preparation of fresh fish. All it required was butter, flour, parsley, lemon, precision, history, and heat. `It was heaven to eat,' Julia wrote in From Julia Child’s Kitchen—`a dining experience,' she remembered in My Life in France, `of a higher order than any I’d ever had before.' One could say it was another shaft of light, not angled upward as from a signal mirror, but piercing inward—an annunciation. `Paul and I floated out the door into the brilliant sunshine and cool air. Our first lunch together in France had been absolute perfection. It was the most exciting meal of my life.' Mrs. Child had received her vocation, her crown."

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The charm of a gangster: 10 notes on Public Enemies

When it came to Public Enemies disappointing critics, perhaps the major problem was the lack of character development which can leave the film feeling, in David Denby's words, "emotionally neutered":

"In Bonnie and Clyde, we were clearly meant to warm up to the outlaws—not just to the two lovers but to the entire group, who became an extended, quarrelling family, and also folk heroes, in a Depression-era country both bored and broke. But Dillinger’s popularity is only hinted at in a couple of scenes, and Mann, as he did in Heat, divides his admiration evenly between criminals and cops. Both are risking everything. The movie is structured around repeated scenes of wounded men (agents as well as criminals) dying as they look into the eyes of their friends. Yet some of the dying men are barely known to us, and the device, though beautifully staged in each case, doesn’t have the power it should have had. The movie is emotionally neutered."

While I liked the movie more than Denby did, I could see his point, so I looked into Bryan Burrough's nonfiction book that inspired the film entitled Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34. I enjoyed the book very much, and one can learn more of Burrough's mostly positive thoughts about the movie adaptation in his article in Los Angeles Times. Reading the book does help one begin to decipher the pros and cons of Michael Mann's re-creation (he cowrote the movie with Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman). Mann is extremely faithful to the details of place. Frequently whole scenes are accurate, but aspects of the larger arc of the story are not clear, and Mann makes major changes in the narrative to help balance the drama between John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis.

Here are my notes:

1) The title itself is misleading because Burrough focuses on the entire crime wave that encompasses the St. Paul Yeggs ("Yegg" is a term for bankrobber), Pretty Boy Floyd, the Barrow Gang, and others who do not get mentioned in the movie. In his scathing review of the film Public Enemies for Time, Richard Corliss wonders if the title refers not only to Dillinger, but also to FBI director John Edgar Hoover, but I would guess that Mann was being loyal to Bryan Burrough's title. The book itself has enough narrative for an entire mini-series, but there's really only one Public Enemy explored in much depth in the movie.

2) Bonnie and Clyde's exploits run roughly parallel to Dillinger's (they died a little earlier), but Burrough writes of the famous couple with disdain as unwashed, smelly, white trash gangsters who mostly robbed gas stations instead of banks. In one exploit, Clyde tried to imitate Dillinger's charm for the media, but, as Burrough puts it:

"[The 1967 movie version] has now done for Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow something they could never achieve in life: it has taken a shark-eyed multiple murderer and his deluded girlfriend and transformed them into sympathetic characters, imbuing them with a cuddly likeability they did not possess, and a cultural significance they do not deserve."

The Arthur Penn movie turns out to be mostly accurate in two scenes: the death of Buck Barrow and the final massacre of Bonnie and Clyde.

3) John Dillinger began his life of crime by mugging a local Mooresville, Indiana grocer and then serving nine years in jail, where he learned about robbing banks. In the film Public Enemies, Dillinger explains his background a little during an interview, but Mann mostly relies upon images of a row of Indiana prisoners marching in lockstep with their arms over each others' shoulders to convey a sense of the world that Dillinger wants to get away from. Mann basically just throws the viewer into the scene where Dillinger frees several friends/prisoners from a jail, a disorienting strategy he uses repeatedly in the film.

4) Also, early on, Mann introduces Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) to the viewer as he expertly shoots Pretty Boy Floyd from a great distance across an apple orchard. According to the book, Purvis was one of several agents who shot at Floyd across a field, but that took place sometime after Dillinger's death. Even though he suffers some setbacks, Christian Bale's version of Purvis is generally much more successful than the one in the book. Public Enemies' setpiece scene out at the Little Bohemia lodge in Wisconsin was much more embarrassing for the real life FBI. Dillinger and his gang escaped the lodge in the first few seconds as Purvis and his men shot at a car, killing an innocent man inside. The actual raid was much more of a fiasco than it appears in the movie.

5) The film is most accurate when it comes to certain scenes. For instance, the courtroom scene where Dillinger's lawyer asks to have the shackles removed from the prisoner is pretty much word for word accurate. Mann skillfully depicts Dillinger's later Indiana jailbreak when he used a piece of wood as a gun (although Mann never explains it. He does, however, have a close-up of the makeshift gun so the audience can tell it's not real). Also, Mann neatly conveys a key scene from the real Dillinger's life as he jokes with the reporters inside the Lake County jail. Here, Dillinger shows off why he became the media darling of the early Depression crime wave, a man with "star quality." As a Daily News reporter put it at the time, "[Dillinger] rates in the eyes of calloused observers as the most amazing specimen of his kind ever seen outside of a wildly imaginative motion picture." In the movie, Mann gets this point across perfectly, with the added irony of Depp, a movie star, acting like a man who has just attained his own level of media stardom. From that interview with the press on, Dillinger had many Americans rooting for him as the charming underdog fighting the evil banks.

6) Whereas one of the most delightful scenes in the film has Dillinger stroll into the Chicago Bureau of Investigation--Dillinger Division once without anyone knowing who he is, the actual Dillinger did it four times. According to Burrough, as a kind of Robin Hood of the popular imagination, Dillinger could pop up anywhere, and he often made little myth-reinforcing symbolic gestures to random people, such as when he threw a blanket over a sick woman, or insisted that a bank customer keep his money in the midst of a robbery. Dillinger got to be so famous, he seemed hard to recognize as a result. One gas attendant "thought he recognized Dillinger but refrained from calling the local sheriff because he felt it couldn't be true." In part because of this, Dillinger kept eluding the FBI agents even as he went to baseball games, movies, and amusement parks.

7) Mann also does not explain Baby Face Nelson all that well. We gather that he was a psychopath when he impulsively shoots a policeman through a bank window during a robbery. In the book version, Nelson was prone to shooting people just for looking at him with a smile or for cutting him off in traffic. In the movie, he dies soon after the Little Bohemia raid, but in real life, he didn't get killed until after Dillinger's death. It makes sense that Mann has Nelson (Stephen Graham) imitating James Cagney. He was the unreliable hot head of the bunch.

8) When it came to Dillinger's death, Mann meticulously restored several blocks of Chicago to stage the scene in front of the Biograph theater. Even though Melvin Purvis did participate in the shooting, Hoover had already demoted him for his mistakes in Little Bohemia and elsewhere. While I think the movie's core emotion arises from the love affair between Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) and Dillinger, in reality Dillinger had moved on once Frechette was placed in jail. He was dating Polly Hamilton by that time, and she was his date that evening.

9) One thing you don't see in the movie: after Purvis and his men shot Dillinger on the sidewalk, and after his body was taken away, dozens of people dipped their handkerchiefs in his blood to take home to their families as souvenirs.

10) So, why did Mann leave so many questions in the movie unanswered? One can assume that he disliked the conventional ways of tying his story strands together. Instead, he takes many of the best scenes of the book and fashions a surprisingly raw experience. He immerses the viewer in a world where the genre is familiar, even if the actual circumstances are not, and lets the viewer piece together a coherence as he or she will. While Mann is interested in unifying the movie around a love affair, a milieu, and a central character, he's not inclined toward explanations. While this may leave Roger Ebert annoyed because of the film's lack of closure, I like the way Mann leaves in ambiguities that might more accurately reflect the gangster's speed-driven lifestyle and his need for self-creation in defiance of any provincial backstory. As Manohla Dargis wrote for The New York Times:

Public Enemies doesn’t look like the usual gangster picture, not only because it’s been shot in digital, but also because Mr. Mann is searching for a new kind of gangster story to fit the times, one that makes room for greater ambivalence, and lawmen and outlaws who are closer to one another in temperament and deed. If he doesn’t fully succeed, it’s because he knows that the gangster’s rakish smile is at once a fiction of cinema and one of its great, irresistible lies."