Sunday, February 28, 2010

The lady with the ax: Anna Wintour in The September Issue

One can sense that Vogue editor-in-chief Anne Wintour did not relish or especially welcome R. J. Cutler's documentary cameras into her world. She probably did it as a practical business decision just as she foresaw how celebrities such as Sienna Miller (and currently Tina Fey) would take over the covers of Vogue. It proved a savvy means to temporarily offset the inevitable decline in the magazine's circulation (as far as I know, the September Issue of 2007, with 644 pages, was its largest issue, and it has shrunk since then).

"It's always going to be Anna's point of view. Vogue is Anna's magazine. That's who signs it off. We know that." --an employee at Vogue

Of course, with her offices above Times Square, Wintour's rarefied fashion world was the chief inspiration for The Devil Wears Prada and its many rom com imitators such as Confessions of a Shopaholic, so I enjoyed comparing the documentary with the Prada variation. Next to Meryl Streep's quiet steely voice, Anna sounds clipped, almost passive and unassuming with her slight British accent. Anna doesn't mind looking almost girlish with her frosted brown bobbed hair, high heels, and colorful print dresses. In comparison to Miranda Priestly, Anna comes across as very introverted, her gestures restrained. Whereas the creative director Grace Coddington enjoys confiding with Butler's crew as a way to gain leverage with Anna, Wintour rules by saying no, by never finding anything that her underlings show her to be quite good enough for inclusion in Vogue. Anna dislikes black and she's great with her withering putdowns like "Where's the glamour?" and, while looking at a model in a photo, "She looks pregnant." In order to maintain high standards for Vogue, she carries around the ax that forces photographers, art directors, and assistant editors to try harder.

I especially liked one shot of Anna getting into her limousine on the way to work. As the New York landscape slides by, she just sits there, suffering the camera's gaze on her necklace, her dress, and the cell phone in her lap. It's this tension between her autocratic celebrity side (with distant photographers yelling Anna! Anna! as she walks by a barricade in Paris) and her occasional more human moments that makes the film work. Cue the electronica music and the montage of models walking in their peculiar hip-slung way (as if they lounge back on their pelvis as they move); Anna watches and keeps her own counsel.

"We have had a famine of beauty. My eyes are starving for beauty!" --Andre Leon Talley, Vogue's editor-at-large

As someone not living in New York City, I am often surrounded with much indifference to fashion and personal appearance (although I have noticed that Americans tend to dress more colorfully than Europeans), so I enjoy a documentary where most everyone wants to make an aesthetic statement every time they dress (Andre even brings designer accessories to tennis practice). Yet, there are times when the Vogue gang get a bit fed up with so much beauty. Anna's daughter Bee Shaffer, for instance, refuses to pursue a career in fashion editing. She would prefer to study law. As she says, "Fashion is a weird industry for me. It takes itself too seriously. People believe that fashion is life, but for me there are other things." At one point, as if in revenge, Vogue turns its cameras on Cutler's cameraman, asking him to jump up in the air for a color blocking reshoot (Vogue, I've noticed, likes to have its models hop to enliven a shot). When the resulting photograph emphasized his paunch, Anna wanted the image photoshopped to make him thinner, but Grace Coddington said no. She wanted his pudgy gut in the September issue, saying with some resignation "It's enough that the models are perfect."

Ultimately, I liked The September Issue because Anna Wintour does not have to break down and cry to humanize herself as Miranda Priestly does late in The Devil Wears Prada. Wintour does not need to get very dramatic at all. As a subject of a documentary, she gives very little away. She lets Vogue speak for itself.

Ambiguities of war: 8 questions about The Hurt Locker

"The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug."
---from Chris Hedge's War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning

1) What do Iraqis think of The Hurt Locker?

2) How is the thunderingly enthusiastic critical response to The Hurt Locker, its many awards, Oscar nominations, etc., related to American ambivalence concerning our role in the war? How does The Hurt Locker square with American media treatment of the war?

3) What are the political implications of The Hurt Locker? Does the movie, as Kathryn Bigelow hopes, bring "closure" to the war?

4) What, exactly, does Sergeant William James' bombsuit or Blast Suit evoke? The Pillsbury Dough Boy? Delusional American attempts to protect themselves from the consequences of war? The Michelin Man?

5) Why did Ralph Fiennes have a small role as the Contractor Team Leader? His celebrity presence threw me out of the movie.

6) Why is the film's most effective scene when William James stands before an immense aisle of breakfast cereals back in the states?

7) How much is Kathryn Bigelow's portrayal of William James both an affirmation and a critique of swaggering American military machismo?

8) How much should the film's realism or the lack of it affect our critical reactions to the movie?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Apocalyptic links

---the end of anonymity:

"TAT built the augmented ID demo, called Recognizr, to work on a phone that has a five-megapixel camera and runs the Android operating system. A user opens the application and points the phone's camera at someone nearby. Software created by Swedish computer-vision firm Polar Rose then detects the subject's face and creates a unique signature by combining measurements of facial features and building a 3-D model. This signature is sent to a server where it's compared to others stored in a database. Providing the subject has opted in to the service and uploaded a photo and profile of themselves, the server then sends back that person's name along with links to her profile on several social networking sites, including Twitter or Facebook."

---also, cell phone tracking without a warrant

---the global debt crisis is the new cold war

---the best comics of the decade

---seeking a graduate humanities degree?

"Most undergraduates don’t realize that there is a shrinking percentage of positions in the humanities that offer job security, benefits, and a livable salary (though it is generally much lower than salaries in other fields requiring as many years of training). They don’t know that you probably will have to accept living almost anywhere, and that you must also go through a six-year probationary period at the end of which you may be fired for any number of reasons and find yourself exiled from the profession. They seem to think becoming a humanities professor is a reliable prospect…and, as a result, they don’t make any fallback plans until it is too late…The completion of graduate school seems impossibly far away, so their concerns are mostly focused on the present…."

---poetry overkill:

"Doesn't the test of time always separate the silver and gold from the dross so that great poetry can emerge, if not for current readers, then for future ones?

My answer is that time has never been asked to test the astounding number of poems being published today, let alone what promises to be published in the future. To truly survey 21st-century poetry, future English professors will have to limit the scope of their courses so severely as to invite laughter. Professor X might specialize in the month of May 2049 while Professor Y concentrates on the first week of September 2098."

---how much longer can shopping malls survive?

"A side effect of the securitization of real estate was the commoditization and standardization of place. Banks were only willing to underwrite what they knew, and what they were confident could be traded in large commodities. They didn't know much--Leinberger identifies only "nineteen standard real estate product types" Wall Street is willing to deal with. That covers everything: home, office, retail and industrial. The list was liable to change at any moment as some types became overbuilt and were replaced with other, formerly nonviable ones. If your project didn't conform to the one of the nineteen types, "you either did not get financing, or if you did, it was far more expensive."

This is how every place began to look like every place else. The landscape became liquid. As Tom Wolfe described the exurbs of Atlanta in A Man in Full, "The only way you could tell you are leaving one community and entering another is when the franchise chains start repeating."

---Luke Wilson gone to seed

---economic growth and ecological bankruptcy

---David Cronenberg's disembodied cinema (with thanks to Catherine Grant):

"Cronenberg goes where few other filmmakers dare in seeing us, like every other living creature, as essentially mutants, freaks of evolution—and what’s to say we can’t evolve or mutate further? Why limit our biological destiny? He is able to enfold the specific human dramas of illness, divorce, psychosis, sex addiction or whatever, into the question of what further states of being might be implied or unlocked by these conditions. For Cronenberg, if no one else, a disease-of-the-week movie is ripe with potential—imagine if sickness, rather than just a grim fact of existence, could be seen as a kind of reproductive activity between our own cells and those of a hungry alien life form."

---planet war

---Lady Gaga and social media

---Wall Street's bailout hustle

---bloopers from 1936

---postmillenial tension

---the long-term unemployed

---riot grrrl revolution

---lastly, live-blogging the Friskies ad

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"What can such a sign mean?": the schlemiel and inscrutable judgment in A Serious Man

"Our laws are not generally known; they are kept secret by the small group of nobles who rule us. We are convinced that these ancient laws are scrupulously administered; nevertheless it is an extremely painful thing to be ruled by laws that one does not know." --Franz Kafka

"The uncertainty principle. It proves we can never really know what's going on."--Larry Gopnik

"So, an epistemological comedy as well as an existential one, "A Serious Man" is a relentless inquiry into how we think we know what we think we know, and then asks where the knowing (or not knowing) gets us." --Jim Emerson's "A Serious Man: Kafka in Minneapolis"

[Note: major spoilers]

With A Serious Man, the Coen brothers partake in the Jewish exegetical tradition of interpreting the burdens of life in terms of God's mysterious providence. As physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuklbarg) suffers his wife leaving him, the need to move to a local hotel, the possibility of not getting tenure, health problems and so on, he goes on a quest for answers by visiting rabbis to ask questions like "What does it all mean?" The short answer is that he's a creation of exceptionally cruel gods, the Coen brothers, and one need only turn to the hellish world of Burn Before Reading to see how remorseless their view of middle-aged characters can be. Yet whereas Burn has characters twitching like electrified frogs' legs in their anxieties over growing old, A Serious Man is the first Coen film that I can think of that is built around a quest for meaning. Some notes:

1) At first I wondered: why does Larry have to be such a schlemiel? Richard Corliss points out that "Larry is a familiar figure from Jewish literature that dates back to the Old Testament and up to Bruce Jay Friedman's 1962 novel Stern, about a Jew who moves to the suburbs and endures a plague of abuse from neighbors and nature," but I get tired of seeing so many men in movies play such poltroons, such hapless toys of fate. Even when Larry finds out that his wife Judith's new paramour Sy Ableman died in a car crash, something that one might consider good news, his wife (Sari Lenneck) forces pitiful Larry to pay for Sy's funeral. As the scenes involving grown men crying accumulate, I got annoyed with all of the masculine debasement on display. It reminded me of a similarly mysterious movie centered around a putz: Synechdoche, New York. In The Big Lebowski, by contrast, the Dude is a schlemiel too, but the Coen brothers grant his cluelessness a kind of Taoist cool. Jeff Bridge's Dude is something like Charlie Brown or Pooh, the everyman that everyone can relate to. Instead of dwelling on his failures, the Dude shrugs off his unemployed stoner status by listening to soothing whale cries as he soaks in his bathtub. Larry, however, is mostly the butt of various cosmic shaggy dog jokes at his expense. Whereas Larry suffers pointlessly, the Dude abides.

2) At any rate, I liked the way Larry strives for a transcendental view of his plight. Quite literally, he attempts to rise above his 1967 suburban perspective by standing on his roof and surveying the land around him (although even here he gets sunburnt). The rabbis he visits form a kind of hierarchy that moves from the youthful rabbi, Scott (Simon Helberg) to the more substantial rabbi, Nachtner (George Wyner) to the most unavailable rabbi, Marshak (Alan Mandell). Rabbi Scott exhorts Larry to try to see Hashem or God in the parking lot outside of his office window. The second rabbi tells a fun story of a Jewish dentist who stumbles upon a mysterious message "Help me save me" in Hebrew written on a goy's teeth. In the story, the dentist gets all caught up in deciphering the mystery. Is God speaking directly to him? What does "Help me save me" mean? When the dentist asks the rabbi what to do, should he view the teeth as a sign to help others, the rabbi answers nonchalantly, "Helping others? Couldn't hurt." When, after hearing the story, Larry gets exasperated with the rabbi's disinterest in the teeth's meaning, he asks what happened to the goy? He answers, "The goy? Who cares?"

3) The problem with getting caught up in the significance of a man's set of teeth as if they were tablets brought down from the mountain with the 10 commandments engraved on them is that that line of thinking can quickly drive you crazy. Yet critics indulge in this line of inquiry all of the time. The scene reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov's short story "Signs and Symbols" where a young man suffers from "Referential Mania." He imagines that "everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. . . . Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees." Nabokov wrote the story so that this manner of "signs and symbols" thinking starts to rub off on the reader by the end. At the conclusion of the story, a phone rings, and we are led to believe that the young man has committed suicide even though the story cuts off before anyone answers the phone. Similarly, A Serious Man ends with an ominous phone call where, just after Larry has learned that he has likely earned tenure, Larry's doctor informs him that he needs to see him about some x-rays. Again, as in the case of "Signs and Symbols," the Coen brothers tease the viewer with multiple interpretations. Larry had just decided to accept a bribe and change a grade. Will Larry die from a freak illness because he allowed himself to be bribed? Soon after, Larry's son Danny encounters a tornado outside of school. Does the tornado have something to do with Larry's bribe?

4) I happened upon this point in the IMDB trivia page for A Serious Man:

"In his argument with the Columbia House records employee over the phone, Larry Gopnik repeatedly rejects the album Abraxas by Santana, in a variety of ways. He did not order Abraxas, he doesn't want Abraxas, he won't listen to Abraxas. Abraxas is a Gnostic term for God, particularly a God who is encompasses all things from Creator of the Universe to the Devil, and an etymological root for "abracadabra". It is thus implied that Larry Gopnik is vehemently rejecting God and magic."

5) Then there's Larry's brother Uncle Arthur (Richard Kind), another hapless fellow who continually drains a sebaceous cyst on his neck and gets busted for gambling. He has been writing/drawing a book called Mentaculus that Larry finds to be an inscrutable mishmash of lines and figures that somewhat resembles Larry's own exaggeratedly large chalkboard filled with physics equations. These inscrutable texts, images of the inscrutable forces that torment Larry, reminded me of a scene in Kafka's short story "In the Penal Colony." "The Penal Colony" features a ghastly torture machine that reflects the way one can suffer judgment for one's crimes on one's body. The machine "writes" its judgment on the condemned until he "deciphers it with his wounds" (As Larry says, "Why does He make us feel the questions if He's never going to give us any answers?") When an explorer investigating the machine asks to see the plans behind this evil contraption, "all he could see was a labyrinth of lines crossing and recrossing each other, which covered the paper so thickly that it was difficult to discern the blank spaces between them," again much like the inscrutable texts in A Serious Man.

6) When, in his quest for meaning, Larry moves on to the third oldest and most prestigious rabbi named Marshak, he's not even allowed to talk to the man, even though we get a tantalizing glimpse of the old sage sitting in the distance of his huge office. The secretary sits like a gatekeeper of Kafka's "Before the Law" parable in The Trial, not allowing Larry entrance. When Larry asks why, we get this dialogue:
"He is busy."
"He didn't look busy!"
"He's thinking."
Larry is never allowed in, although his son Danny (Aaron Wolff) does get to talk to Marshak by the end of the film. In his last novel The Castle, Kafka explores the nature of power in the way Castle officials exclude access to them, a tactic which of course tantalizes the reader and the protagonist K with the continual hopeless hope of gaining access to them (K never does get any). At one point, however, K does get a glimpse of the Castle official Klamm sitting serenely at a desk and doing nothing, much like Marshak. Power asserts itself through absolute exclusion. When Danny does get access to Marshak after his stoned Bar Mitzvah, he notices some teeth mounted on something in the office (suggesting that Marshak knows the answer to the riddle of the goy's teeth). Marshak's wise words turn out to be "`When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies,' what then?" Then he says, "Be a good boy." What are we to make of this? Yes, Larry has found that much of the truth (his marriage, his happy family, job security, etc.) of his life has become lies, and one can see that he could suffer from anhedonia, the "inability to experience pleasure." But, once again, in shaggy dog fashion, we get bromides, Jefferson Airplane lyrics, and jokes when led to expect words of wisdom.

7) Still, I find it compelling that A Serious Man ends with both the whiplash judgment wherein Larry may die for accepting a bribe, and his son, Danny, may get blown away by a tornado. Is the tornado an ironic variation on the rainbow, a sign of God's wrath instead of God's covenant? For all of the cosmic joking of the movie, the Coen brothers show how, even given the unknowability of fate, judgment can still be swift and deadly. Sy Ableman's absurd car crash testifies to that.

Links

---10 rules for writing fiction:

"You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished." --Will Self

"The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying "Faire et se taire" (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as "Shut up and get on with it." --Helen Simpson

"Do not search amazon.co.uk for the book you haven't written yet." --Roddy Doyle

"Don't romanticise your "vocation". You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no "writer's lifestyle". All that matters is what you leave on the page." --Zadie Smith

---Walker Percy and the alienated self

---the pleasures of boredom:

"There’s something exquisite about boredom. Like melancholy and its darker cousin sadness, boredom is related to emptiness and meaninglessness, but in a perfectly enjoyable way. It’s like wandering though the National Gallery, being surrounded by all those great works of art, and deciding not to look at them because it’s a pleasure just walking from room to room enjoying the squeak of your soles on the polished floor. Boredom is the no-signal sound on a blank television, the closed-down monotone of a radio in the middle of the night. It’s an uninterrupted straight line.

Actually, my idea of boredom has little to do with wealthy surroundings. It’s about a certain mindset. Perfect boredom is the enjoyment of the moment of stasis that comes between slowing down and speeding up – like sitting at a traffic light for a particularly long time. It’s at the cusp of action, because however enjoyable it may be, boredom is really not a long-term aspiration. It’s for an afternoon before a sociable evening. It marks that point in a holiday when you’ve shrugged off all the concerns of work and home, explored the hotel and got used to the swimming pool, and everything has become totally familiar. ‘I’m bored’ just pops into your mind one morning as you’re laying your towel over the sunlounger before breakfast, and then you think ‘How lovely.’ It’s about the stillness and familiarity of that precise moment before the inevitable anxiety about packing up and heading back to God-knows-what."

---what beer would Jesus drink?

---what slums can teach us and the one billion squatters

---neuromarketing Campbell's Soup

---rock 'n roll links

---Howard and Bellamy converse about Altman's Nashville:

"EH: What I love about Altman's approach to this subject is how thoroughly he strips away those illusions about celebrity, how completely he tears down the ideas about glamor and happiness and "extraordinary" lives—and not in a trashy behind-the-scenes tabloid way, either, but with a casual acknowledgement that celebrities are merely human. When Delbert (Ned Beatty) realizes thatElliott Gould is "somebody," he falls all over himself apologizing for not treating him better; Del hadn't actually been rude to Gould when he thought he was just some guy, but he hadn't given him the red carpet treatment either. He's apologizing for not treating Gould like a king, and Gould mumbles an embarrassed demurral: "I'm just like anybody else." And that's the point. That's the point, also, of Barbara Jean's breakdown, and of the scene where she sits in a darkened hospital room with Barnett, painting her toenails and getting angry at the radio when Connie comes on. It's an intimate scene, stripped down, far away from the bustle of the Grand Ole Opry and the constant celebrity buzz that usually surrounds Barbara Jean even in the hospital. Instead, it's simply a human moment, a moment of disconnection between a depressed wife and a callous husband, a moment of prosaic activity. When she's not on stage—and often, even when she is—Barbara Jean is just like anybody else. That's arguably what sets her apart from the other performers in the film, like Haven and Connie, who are constantly at least trying to maintain a persona."

---the bleak aspects of virtual life:

"Social Networking Sites (SNSs) promise limitless, boundless friendship – a phenomenon that should make us happier than ever. But our optimism over connectivity has gradually morphed into cynicism and resentment. It turns out virtual life is less about connectivity than self-branding. SNSs entice us to divulge and update, stroking our fragile egos with filtered ads that utilize our personal information to reap huge profits, as our hundreds of “friends” perpetually rate our online popularity. Paranoid about how we’ll be perceived, we spend hour after hour trying to avoid the virtual consequences of being deemed uncool. We have more to worry about than our online acquaintances deleting us after we’re tagged in an unflattering photo. Sites like Lamebook, devoted to reposting cliché status updates and socially awkward wall exchanges, humiliate those virtual personas who are unfamiliar with the web’s mores and codes."

---on the other hand, this demo of Wired's tablet looks good.

---younger George Clooney

---when actors disagree with a director

---Quentin Tarantino claims his movies are "achingly personal." He also points out some of the movie influences on Inglourious Basterds, inviting Chuck Tryon's thoughts on how crowdsourcing and social media have affected out reactions to Tarantino's work.

---a history of the MacGuffin

---comic book heroes behind the scenes

---lastly, the fun of visiting Battleship Island

Friday, February 19, 2010

Would Cleopatra vlog? and other questions about history and social media

Would Jesus tweet? If so, who would he follow?

Would Flaubert blog? If so, would he favor Blogger or Wordpress?

Would Moses compose a link list in the desert?

Would Homer sing of the new iPad?

Would Aristotle pan The Werewolf on his cell phone?

Would Thoreau renew his status updates?

Would Melville poke Hawthorne?

Would Emily Dickinson check the privacy features on her Facebook page?

Would Ralph Ellison have his invisible man comment anonymously?

Would Shakespeare text?

Would James Joyce check his traffic stats?

Would Cleopatra vlog?

Would Genghis Khan troll?

Would Hercules clean out his temporary files?

Would Mona Lisa ; )

Would Ulysses S. Grant keep checking Robert E. Lee's twitter feed?

Would Buddha zone out with his screen saver on?

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The pleasures of shooting the bull: Bulworth starring Warren Beatty and Halle Berry (1998)

[Note: In his new biography of Warren Beatty entitled Star, Peter Biskind wrote: "A razor-sharp commentary on contemporary American politics, it [Bulworth] is one of his best pictures, but it never got the business nor the recognition it deserves." I'm not sure if I entirely agree with that, but I dusted off my of-the-period (June 4, 1998) review of the movie. I wonder how Bulworth would differ if Beatty wrote it today?]

There are things you don't expect to see or hear in a movie anymore, like an eloquent defense for employing 7 year old kids to sell crack in South Central Los Angeles (it's the only growth industry they can join, and their age keeps them out of jail). Reporters keep asking Senator Bulworth, "So you're saying the Democrats don't care about what happens to African Americans?" And he answers, "Isn't it obvious?"

You don't expect a political comedy about a manic, suicidal 60 year old senator to consistently attack the greed of medical insurers. You don't expect baby boomer Warren Beatty to embrace hard core rap music and rap culture throughout the movie, and he does, very much at the risk of making himself look like a complete buffoon when he dresses up in homeboy shorts, tennis shoes, a red long-sleeved t-shirt, wrap-around sunglasses (to be worn at night), and a black ski cap.

Because of Beatty's willingness to take risks, Bulworth turns out to be one of the most bracingly thought-provoking and surprising films I've seen this spring. Even if you don't agree with its politics, you can't deny writer/director/producer Beatty's devil-may-care attitude, his urge to confront the complacencies of his audience. Bulworth makes Primary Colors look like bromide, and it really makes Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer a bland self-referential Reaganesque cake of Ivory Soap.

Written in the tradition of Tim Robbin's Bob Roberts, Bulworth is all the more barbed and satirical because of its prevailing sense of hopelessness. It's structured like Network; Bulworth can generate excitement by claiming he's mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, but Beatty knows that any real dissent gets immediately commodified and rendered neutral by the media. He can't win, but you find yourself admiring his anti-PC chutzpah.

The movie begins with Jay Bulworth, senator of California seeking reelection, weeping over his TV political ads that he loops repeatedly on videotape in his Washington DC office. He suffers a breakdown as he watches himself walking the dog and serving potato salad to his family while his cliche-ridden voiceover appeals to voters about the "new millenium." He hasn't slept or eaten in days, and so he contracts out a Mafia hit man on himself as he arranges for a new 10 millions dollar life insurance policy for his daughter.

Suddenly quite free to say whatever he likes in the face of imminent death, he flies to California and immediately tells a congregation of African Americans that they're never going to get anywhere if they support O.J. Simpson. When they ask why a government program hasn't helped them with social programs, Bulworth cheerfully admits that they don't pay enough to his reelection campaigns, and so he's been pandering to the power elite--the insurance industry, the banks, oil conglomerates, etc.

Pretty soon, he joins Halle Berry and spends the rest of the movie dodging the mafia bullet, rapping during debates and fundraisers, and hiding out in a crime-ridden area in South Central LA, a world of police helicopters hovering overhead with searchlights, bars on the windows, graffitied walls, and kids selling vials of crack on street corners. You sense after awhile that Beatty's looking for a new form of political and artistic legitimacy in rap culture. He wants to win over Halle Berry's character, the beautiful streetwise Nina, and it's hard to say whether she's using him for her own ends or gradually learning to like his "phat" speeches.

You could say that Beatty's suffering from a severe midlife crisis, the aging movie star once known for bedding half the women in LA in Shampoo now using hip hop to prop up his potency, cinematic vision, and liberal idealism. Fortunately, he makes fun of himself in the process. After one of Bulworth's performances, "Little Gangsta" asks his dealer boss, "Is that how white people rap?" At another point, Bulworth takes a blunt from a huge bouncer in a nightclub and cheerfully blows smoke into his campaign advisor's face. You can either laugh or get ticked off. Beatty genuinely doesn't seem to care.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Luc Besson, From Paris with Love, and the cheerful American mucker

"It's no coincidence that we have muckers. Background: `mucker' is an Anglicization of `amok.' Don't believe anyone who says it's a shifted pronunciation of `mugger.' You can survive a mugger, but if you want to survive a mucker the best way is not to be there when it happens."

"You're a predatory beast shut up in a cage of which the bars aren't fixed, solid objects you can gnaw at or in despair batter against with your head until your get punch-drunk and stop worrying. No, those bars are the competing members of your own species, at least as cunning as you on average, forever shifting around so you can't pin them down, liable to get in your way without warning disorienting your personal environment until you want to grab a gun or an axe and turn mucker."
---from John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar

"Three faculty members at the University of Alabama in Huntsville were shot to death, and three other people were seriously wounded at a biology faculty meeting on Friday afternoon, university officials said. The Associated Press reported that a biology professor, identified as Amy Bishop, was charged with murder. According to a faculty member, the professor had applied for tenure, been turned down, and appealed the decision. She learned on Friday that she had been denied once again."
---"Professor Said to Be Charged After 3 Are Killed in Alabama" from this morning's The New York Times

In John Brunner's 1968 science fiction novel exploring an over-populated future, "muckers" become a common problem. Biologically fed up with the pressure of competing for food, space, and privacy, people routinely go berserk and start killing everyone around them until they are killed or subdued. Given the recent tendency of people, especially Americans, to act similarly (although they usually shoot themselves before the police can apprehend them), I find myself thinking back to Brunner's prediction.

I also thought of muckers when watching the otherwise forgettable Luc Besson-produced action thriller From Paris with Love. Besson has been responsible from some excellent films, notably The Fifth Element and Leon, but he appears to have long since settled into writing or producing stylish B-movies like District 13 or Angel-A. I enjoyed the first two Transporter films, but not so much the third (although Dennis Cozzalio liked it). Besson has flair and style, although one wonders about his increasing tendency to cynically cater to the prejudices of American male audience members.

With From Paris with Love, that cynicism is outright disturbing. After a lengthy opening sequence that's basically an ad for a Cadillac Escalade, we learn that James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers with a fey mustache) reports to the CIA undercover as he works as a personal aide for an Ambassador at the Embassy in Paris. He has a beautiful girlfriend Caroline (Kasia Smutniak) who likes to model fashionable clothes and fix rooftop dinners looking out on the Parisian skyline, but here's the rub: the CIA wants James to partner with a special agent named Charlie Wax (John Travolta) and assist him with indiscriminately massacring legions of Chinese drug traffickers and other suspicious-looking people for much of the rest of the movie. Gradually, we learn that Wax has a terrorist ring in mind, but mostly he just shoots up a Chinese restaurant and various underworld lairs when he isn't blowing up various cars with a bazooka or whatever. In the course of the movie, the more conscientious Reece learns to shoot people in turn, until he too attains trigger-happy bliss.

Now, I understand the need for action in a film, but in From Paris with Love, any real pretext for a reason to shoot anyone vanishes as soon as Wax appears, and we are continually exhorted to think of his gun-slinging, cursing, chortling, hair-piece-free character as cool. In fact, at one point two men hand Wax a paper bag with some Royales with Cheese (Quarter Pounders from McDonalds) to sadly remind us of how far Travolta has fallen since his glory days as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction. Vincent wouldn't need to shoot scores of nameless drug traffickers to feel cool, but apparently now Travolta does. I don't even want to think about how Besson's story hints at French contempt for belligerent cowboy American foreign policy.

I wonder how much upcoming muckers get their ideas from the cheerful consequence-free slaughters of films like From Paris with Love?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Notable links du jour

---Rejected

---The evolution of remix culture and the birth of the mashup known as Apocalypse Pooh

---Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, and Angel Face

---The zero point of systemic collapse and the problems with the new online collectivism

---Manvertising the Super Bowl (with thanks to Anne Petersen), also artvertising and Logorama

---Photograph of Jesus

---Slumburbia and comparative insolvencies (via Harper's)

---Charlie Chaplin's first movie

---Rick Baker and his monster mash

---Herzog kind of reads Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel

---The African American history of the Oscars

---The 50 best blogs for filmmakers

---Mocking the MPAA Hayes Code

---Blogging is for the old

---Welcome to your augmented reality future

---Hitchcock's cameos

---Lastly, animated zombies

Monday, February 8, 2010

"And so live ever--or else swoon to death"--the pleasures of Jane Campion's Bright Star

"John Keats
John Keats
John
Please put your scarf on."
---J. D. Salinger

With Bright Star, Jane Campion has taken the real-life account of John Keats' last 3 year romance with Fanny Brawne, and fashioned a remarkably controlled and nuanced film. Some notes:

1) Bright Star nicely balances the verbal and the visual, as well as the feminist and the masculine given the film's setting in 1818 England. Fanny (Abbie Cornish) announces her skill as a seamstress and a creator of fashion in the first scene. Her high-waisted dresses of diaphanous textures and daring color coordinations keep complementing the many poems and quotes from Keats' letters incorporated into Campion's screenplay. Campion even finds ways to color coordinate the nature scenes and the interiors to match Fanny's outfits. It is to all of the actors' credit that they don't allow the costume design or the poetry to overwhelm their performances.

2) The wispy stubbled Keats, as played by Ben Whishaw, looks like a disheveled young Keith Richards who always seems ready to dissolve into nature like his nightingale. As the original Keats wrote, "I might drink, and leave the world unseen, / And with thee fade away into the forest dim: / Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget . . . " Indeed, Keats claims that the poet is the most unpoetical of creatures, because he so often loses his identity in other things, specifically nature. This elusive quality of Keats perhaps makes him the most slippery of the English romantic poets to try to recreate in film, but Campion succeeds because she cast such an unassuming actor. Whishaw is noticeably thinner than Abbie Cornish, and he makes for the most retiring of lovers for Fanny to take care of.

3) Fortunately, Keats' nature-oriented aesthetic suits Campion's purposes well, because Fanny can always turn to the outdoors to make up partially for Keats' absences and eventual death. In one striking shot, after she falls in love, Fanny lies back on a bed as a breeze ruffles everything in the room. If Keats spends too much time with his writing pal Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) elsewhere, Fanny waits on his letters, and really, which is better? Seeing the man or receiving his letters? In a Nabokovian moment, Keats suggests that they both should have been butterflies. In turn, Fanny raises a bunch of butterflies in her room. Nature ends up being a good solace for both Keats and Fanny, serving as a medium for their romance.

4) At times, this romantic emphasis on nature gets a bit silly. When Charles sends Fanny a valentine, Keats jealously stomps around in her yard in the rain, acting "odd," and the three of them have to settle their difference out in the wet woods. In a bizarre form of overdoing the dissolving-into-nature shtick, Keats suffers a severe chill out in the cold rain that leads somehow to his first coughing of blood. At another time, he randomly appears under a bush of the Brawne household after an extended absence in the city. Under a bush? As the Brawnes carry the frail bedraggled Keats into the house, I was reminded of how Mozart looked shortly before his death in Amadeus. What is it about Hollywood's portrayals of genius as people frail and sickly unto death?

5) As for the annoyingly less talented but protective Charles Brown, he provides the film with a romantic triangle of a sort (you can tell he's something of a villain due to this goofy green outfit he usually wears). Charles resents Keats' affair with Fanny because he wants him to write and not risk being trapped in a bourgeois marriage. Charles also represents every brutish masculine attribute that Keats lacks. For instance, Charles knocks up a maid named Abigail for no particular reason except that he can. Meanwhile, Fanny gets so devoted to the increasingly consumptive Keats, she freely admits that she would do anything with him, but Keats nobly replies "I have a conscience." Charles is both a foil to Keats and an impediment to Fanny. He keeps them apart. In the grand tradition of films like The Age of Innocence, Campion finds numerous reasons to keep the two lovers separate. After all, Keats has no money and no prospects, so he can't marry her. He also happens at times to live in the same building in a different wing so that he and Fanny can communicate by knocking on a wall between them.

6) When I first saw Bright Star, I was bothered by the way Fanny became such a groupie over the droopy poet. She seemed to lose her artistic integrity in the process. Their grand love affair gets a bit too operatic for Keats' persona, but that is a minor quibble. Ultimately, Bright Star is masterfully shot, with an impressive sense of color, fashion, and period detail that keeps the viewer off-balance due to Campion's ability to steer from Masterpiece Theater period piece cliches. At one point, Fanny asks Keats, "Shall we awake and find all this a dream?", but Bright Star struck me as remarkably grounded and dry-eyed for a period romance. Fanny Brawne's fierce maternal solicitude makes sure of that.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bright Star, An Education, and the cult of the book

"As Garry Trudeau (who is not on Twitter) has his Washington “journotwit” Roland Hedley tweet at the end of “My Shorts R Bunching. Thoughts?,” “The time you spend reading this tweet is gone, lost forever, carrying you closer to death. Am trying not to abuse the privilege.”

---George Packer

1) One of the main things that struck me while watching Jane Campion's excellent Bright Star is just how undistracted the characters are in 1818 England. To occupy their time, Keats (Ben Whishaw), Fanny (Abbie Cornish), and Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) have books, letters, and nature to read (Fanny also has a strong interest in fashion). When they talk, no one is checking his or her cell phone, no screens call them away, and when they go buy a book, it is hard bound and carefully wrapped with paper and string. I never entirely believed that Ben Whishaw was really writing Keats' poetry, but I liked the technology-free milieu enhanced by Greig Fraser's impressive cinematography. The characters appear unencumbered, focused, and more aware as a result.

2) Then I watched An Education, and again I was surprised by the way the film ultimately privileged a bookish education. Even as Jenny (Carey Mulligan) enjoys breaking free from her prep school to experience night clubs, Paris, dog racing, and such with David (Peter Sarsgaard) and his gang of rogues, she ultimately (minor spoiler alert) returns to books and her English major interests. She criticizes her educators for being boring (she could also characterize the world of Bright Star as boring), but later she embraces Oxford. Does An Education ultimately pander to the conservative instincts of its audience after treating it to a fun subversive ride earlier on? Doesn't the cinematic form privilege the night life and adult transgressions even as it snaps back to the safe virtues of a bookish restraint?

3) Both films left me wondering about this increasing nostalgia for a former culture that celebrates longer texts amidst all of our fragmented technologically scattered forms of communication, a split nicely exemplified in Julie and Julia where Julie Powell's blog looks pitiful compared to the gravitas of Julia Child's book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. With the proliferation of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc. competing for my attention and splitting my concentration, I notice how I might link instead of write, skim instead of read, and absorb images instead of think. How much are the fetishizing of books in Bright Star and An Education symptomatic of this trend?

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Notable film and media links--February 3, 2010--nearly Oscar nomination-free edition

---Betty Davis blooper reel

---Steven Poster shares the secrets of his cinematography in films that include Donnie Darko:

"A turning point in his understanding came in Charles Potts’ photography course, when Potts began the semester by announcing softly, “Light is a law.” Steven’s talk for us, he explained modestly, was a “profoundly simple subset” of Potts’ course. Put it another way: In the Bauhaus spirit, he showed how simple principles yield subtle results. Armed with only a white ball, a white cube, and a white cylinder, he gave us a tutorial in the delicate modulations of vision.

There are, Steven suggested, basically only two kinds of light: direct and indirect (or diffuse). Sunshine yields direct light; a cloudy day yields diffuse light. And when light falls on an object, the encounter has five components. The object gains a highlight, the bright region that suggests the direction of the light source. The object also acquires a shadow area. Between the highlight and the shadow is the boundary, or core—an important hint about the quality of the source light. (If the core has a crisp edge, the light is hard; if the core is a mild transition, the light is softer.) The fourth component is the shadow that the object casts on another surface. Finally, there is the specular or incident highlight, a spot of reflected light within the lit region."

---the existential nihilism of Bill Murray

---Thanks to an unexpected best picture nomination, Neill Blomkamp's thoughts are of interest again

---13 blogs that became books

---Hokahey's difficulties when producing a high school stage production

---8 videos of Wes Anderson discussing Fantastic Mr. Fox and 1 of Scorsese directing the much anticipated Shutter Island

---Ann Hathaway talks of Alice in Wonderland

---Roger Ebert writes of how to read a movie using Giannetti's Understanding Movies:

"In simplistic terms: Right is more positive, left more negative. Movement to the right seems more favorable; to the left, less so. The future seems to live on the right, the past on the left. The top is dominant over the bottom. The foreground is stronger than the background. Symmetrical compositions seem at rest. Diagonals in a composition seem to "move" in the direction of the sharpest angle they form, even though of course they may not move at all. Therefore, a composition could lead us into a background that becomes dominant over a foreground. Tilt shots of course put everything on a diagonal, implying the world is out of balance. I have the impression that more tilts are down to the right than to the left, perhaps suggesting the characters are sliding perilously into their futures. Left tilts to me suggest helplessness, sadness, resignation. Few tilts feel positive. Movement is dominant over things that are still. A POV above a character's eyeline reduces him; below the eyeline, enhances him. Extreme high angle shots make characters into pawns; low angles make them into gods. Brighter areas tend to be dominant over darker areas, but far from always: Within the context, you can seek the "dominant contrast," which is the area we are drawn toward. Sometimes it will be darker, further back, lower, and so on. It can be as effective to go against intrinsic weightings as to follow them."

---Anne Petersen explains how to make a Valentine's Day movie

---pictures of abandoned Soviet military bases

---gaming Dante's Inferno

---processing words instead of writing them. Multitasking instead of reasoning:

"Nass is skeptical. In a recent unpublished study, he and his colleagues found that chronic media multitaskers—people who spent several hours a day juggling multiple screen tasks—performed worse than otherwise similar peers on analytic questions drawn from the LSAT. He isn't sure which way the causation runs here: It might be that media multitaskers are hyperdistractible people who always would have done poorly on LSAT questions, even in the pre-Internet era. But he worries that media multitasking might actually be destroying students' capacity for reasoning.

"One of the deepest questions in this field," Nass says, "is whether media multitasking is driven by a desire for new information or by an avoidance of existing information. Are people in these settings multitasking because the other media are alluring—that is, they're really dying to play Freecell or read Facebook or shop on eBay—or is it just an aversion to the task at hand?"

When Nass was a high-school student, decades ago, his parents were fond of an old quotation from Sir Joshua Reynolds: "There is no expedient to which man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking." That is the conundrum that has animated much of his career.

"I don't think that law students in classrooms are sitting there thinking, Boy, I'd rather play Freecell than learn the law," Nass says. "I don't think that's the case. What happens is that there's a moment that comes when you say, Boy, I can do something really easy, or I can do something really hard."

---the disappearance of silence

---a virtual jam session

---lastly, the fan-made Technotise trailer