Wednesday, March 30, 2011

bleak links

---World Order "Machine Civilization"

---Through the Middle, a documentary about a barber

---the 20% decline in ticket sales

---Paul Mattick's "Capitalism's Dismal Future":

"In fact, the crisis looming before us is likely to be, if anything, more terrible than the Great Depressions of 1873-93 and 1929-39. The continuing industrialization of agriculture and urbanization of population—by 2010, it is estimated, more than half the earth's inhabitants lived in cities—has made more and more people dependent upon the market to supply them with food and other necessities of life. The existence on or over the edge of survival experienced today by the urban masses of Cairo, Dhaka, São Paulo, and Mexico City will be echoed in the capitalistically advanced nations, as unemployment and government-dictated austerity afflict more and more people, not just in the developed world's Rust Belts but in New York, Los Angeles, London, Madrid, and Prague.

Left to its own devices, capitalism promises economic difficulties for decades to come, with increased assaults on the earnings and working conditions of those who are still lucky enough to be wage earners around the world, waves of bankruptcies and business consolidations for capitalist firms, and increasingly serious conflicts among economic entities and even nations over just who is going to pay for all this. Which automobile companies, in which countries, will survive, while others take over their assets and markets? Which financial institutions will be crushed by uncollectible debts, and which will survive to take over larger chunks of the world market for money? What struggles will develop for control of raw materials, such as oil or water for irrigation and drinking, or agricultural land?

Gloomy though such considerations are, they leave out two paradoxically related factors that promise further dire effects for the future of capitalism: the coming decline of oil—the basis of the whole industrial system at present—as a source of energy, and the global warming caused by the consumption of fossil fuels. Even if continuing stagnation should slow greenhouse gas-caused climate change, the damage already done is extremely serious. Elizabeth Kolbert, a journalist not given to exaggeration, called her soberly informative account Field Notes From a Catastrophe. The melting of glaciers threatens not only Swiss views but the drinking supplies of whole populations in such areas as Pakistan and the Andean watersheds; droughts have ravaged Australian and Chinese agriculture for years now, while floods periodically devastate the low-lying South Asian homes of tens of millions of people. The rolling parade of disasters is, unfortunately, only getting started. It will accompany a stagnant economy and only be exacerbated by the increased greenhouse-gas emissions that a return to true prosperity would bring."

---betrayed by our own data

---"When Things Go Wrong: The Films of Denis Cote" by James Clark

---"Hayao Miyasaki's Prophetic Whimsy":

"I perceive the fragility of our civilization very strongly and talk about it again and again in my films," says Miyazaki. "This certainly has something to do with the war and postwar years, which shaped me, but even more importantly, with the constant threat of earthquakes and tsunamis that we face. We are always walking on eggshells. . . ."

"Everything that is complete can end in ruins at any time," says Miyazaki. "Is man the pinnacle of creation? Probably not. Perhaps we would all be more modest if we occasionally reminded ourselves that we began as amoebas. But mankind has moved so far away from nature that a return is hardly possible anymore."

---Hunter S. Thompson interviews Keith Richards, 1993

---The Big Bang trailer

---the transmedia experience

---The Atomic Cafe, a great film

---ocean acidification and 35 gigatons of CO2

---despair in Camden, New Jersey:

"Good will come of her death," cried the white-haired priest. "Good will come!"

But many in the weeping throng heard only a cry in the dark. What good, people say, can ever come out of this broken city of 80,000 that sits on banks of the Delaware River across from the gleaming skyline of Philadelphia?

What good can rise from this bleak urban landscape of dilapidated row houses, where black-clad drug dealers sell brazenly on street corners, prostitutes just as brazenly sell themselves, and addicts rot in abandoned homes or stumble through a wasteland of vacant lots?

Doyle's church looms above the poorest of these streets, near the massive sewage treatment plant that fouls the air; the concrete crushing plant that, some insist, contributes to the high rate of childhood asthma; the jagged mountains of scrap metal being crushed for export."

---Luc Besson's Adele Blanc-Sec trailer

---"Digital Media: the 21st century education revolution"

---Last Night trailer

---Rob Horning considers the attention economy:

"Relative to the automatic filtering imposed by those analog limits, the ones we are forced to impose on ourselves seem arbitrary. They require self-discipline; they seem theoretically optional, perpetually negotiable. The open-endedness makes us feel the information flow as “overload”—it is never simply settled as what it is, and requires continual decisionmaking from us, continual reaffirmation of the filters we’ve chosen. My RSS feed demands more from me than a newspaper, because I’m responsible at a meta level for what information it brings me; before, my decisionmaking would end with the decision to buy a paper. Now I have to tell myself I have enough, even as the culture tells me that in general, too much is never enough, and “winning” is having more. As a result, I start to feel cheated by time because I can’t amass more of it. I become alienated from it rather inhabiting it, which makes me feel bored in the midst of too many options. The sense of overload is a failure of our focus rather than the fault of information itself or the various media. Calling it “attention” in the contemporary sense and economizing it doesn’t repair focus so much as redefine it as a shorter span, as inherently fickle and ephemeral.

Brokering my own attention span is my attempt to reassert control. I will spend my attention wisely and get the most out of it by investing it wisely in things that will “reward” it. But I fear that expecting to profit from paying attention is a mistake, a kind of category error. Attention seems to me binary—it is engaged or it isn’t; it isn’t amenable to qualitative evalution. If we start assessing the quality of our attention, we get pulled out of what we were paying attention to, and pay attention to attention to some degree, becoming strategic with it, kicking off a reflexive spiral that leads only to further insecurity and disappointment. Attention is never profitable enough, never sufficient.

It seems to me that serendipity is a better attention-management strategy, a more appropriate way to deal with those times when we can no longer focus and become suddenly aware that we need to direct our attention somewhere."

---Pixar's creative process

---Condition ONE: immersive war

---Robert Redford and All the President's Men

---lastly, the first augmented reality movie and cereal box

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Baby Doll and the steampunk zombie Nazis: 9 notes on Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch

1) In Sucker Punch, women in militarized Sailor Moon outfits jump from a helicopter onto an exploding train as it rushes towards an Oz-like city at night. In another scene, Baby Doll twirls in the air and attacks a 30 foot tall Samurai with her sword. Is this third wave post-Madonna feminism in action?

2) When one reads Zack Snyder's promotional comments, one could think so. The March 25th issue of Entertainment Weekly defends the film thus: "Sucker Punch may look like it gets its kicks from women in titillating getups, but Snyder's intention was to explore female objectification. Baby Doll's look is supposed to be `the personification of innocence and vulnerability,' causing the skeevy male characters to target and underestimate her. `The women take control of the sexual trappings foisted upon them, even turn them into weapons,' says Snyder. `The challenge was to confront the concept of the exploitation of women without creative exploitative imagery.'" ---Is Snyder's claim valid or just marketing spin?

3) Except for Scott Glenn, who wisely plays "Wise Man," there are only skeevy male characters in Sucker Punch. Be it an obese cook, a twisted evil stepfather, Jon Hamm as the lobotomizing doctor/high roller, Oscar Isaac as Blue Jones (the murderous pimp who runs the insane asylum), or the grotesque greasy-haired lecherous mayor, every male figure is an extreme obvious creep. As a guy watching Sucker Punch, I felt demeaned. Even in their scanty outfits, the female characters can at least kick butt.

4) Every time Baby Doll is supposed to dance for the men, the film cuts to one of her dreams of military conquest where she kills extra tall Samurai, steampunk zombie Nazis, dragons, killer robots, etc. Apparently, the dance scenes were shot but then deleted except for one inserted into the end credits (but I had left the theater by then).

Meanwhile, characters who watch the dances swoon and look agog, applauding rapturously after each one (we see that). It seemed strange for a film to continually praise scenes that it just skipped over. On the other hand, it seems very American to cut out erotic dance and substitute it with PG-13 violence.

5) Speaking of PG-13 violence, the fantasy-sequence villains of Sucker Punch (the aforementioned tall Samurai, steampunk zombie Nazis, dragons, and killer robots, etc.) are all rendered cartoonish by their obvious lack of humanity. We can't see blood because then the violence would merit an R rating, so the villains sprout flashes of light when wounded, or leak gas, or crumple into piles of CGI metal on a speeding elevated train. It makes all of Baby Doll's and Sweet Pea's and Rocket's (etc.) intensive fighting techniques a little silly. For more about the sinister effects of the MPAA on the film, check out George Russell's article.

6) I still wonder about the fact that both Abbie Cornish (who is amazing in Bright Star) and Jena Malone (of Donnie Darko) have major roles in this movie. As Melissa Silverstein wrote: "The one thought that kept coming into my mind was, what the hell is Abbie Cornish doing in this film?" Still, Abbie defends her choice:

“Throughout my life I had done different forms of martial arts. My mum was the Australian National Karate Champion and I’d learned Capoeira in Brazil. I danced as a teenager, I grew up on a farm, I rode motor bikes, horses…I used to run a lot just out in the country with my dog, so the idea of doing this film was amazing,” Cornish said. “Someone once asked me if you could play any character in a film what would it be, and the first thing that came to my mind was to play ‘The Godfather.’ Imagine that, that would be awesome. Of course there are so many roles that are male roles that as an actor I would love to explore, I would love to play, and then when you get a female role that explores some of those things and you get to be physical, it’s so incredible.”

7) Snyder mentioned somewhere that he drew inspiration from Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest when writing Sucker Punch, and (spoiler alert) the ending of the film certainly bears that out. While one would think that Baby Doll would be the opposite of Randle McMurphy, she isn't. She turns out to be a doll-like variation. Oddly, Sweet Pea's story concludes much like Chief Bromden's.

8) When I first saw the teaser trailer for Sucker Punch way back in July 29, 2010, the movie looked intriguing. Ever since, with every new trailer and marketing tool, it has been steadily becoming more banal. When I learned of the five objects that Baby Doll searches for, I couldn't help thinking of every other quest movie that uses the same device.

9) In a later trailer, as soon as I heard Scott Glenn say "Begin your journey. It will set you free," I groaned. When I watched the film, I enjoyed the fight scenes, the random bombed out cathedral, the trenches, and the burning zeppelins, but I missed the music of the trailers (for instance, Led Zeppelin's "When the Levee Breaks") in comparison to pallid cover songs ("Go Ask Alice") on the film's ponderous soundtrack. I still prefer the rapid-flash incongruous imagery of the trailer to the compromised finished product. Sucker Punch seems better-suited as a logic-free dream vision than a story loaded down with a point and a plot.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

RIP, Elizabeth Taylor.

I don't know what to say (finding out the news was like getting punched in the gut), so I'll quote Nathaniel Rogers:

"Be great. Be beautiful. Ride a horse. Get married. Get divorced. Act like a total diva. Wear something spectacularly sexy, preferably white. Make people want more."

Also, Paul Newman's tribute.

From William J. Mann's biography How to Be a Movie Star:

"When Shirley MacLaine first walked onto the lot on loan-out from Paramount, she was a twenty-three-year-old kid with big red curls and not a lot of experience. She looked around in awe as she stepped into Sydney Guilaroff's hair salon. There was Greer Garson, she recalled `swathed in a turquoise blue robe that set off her carrot-colored hair,' and Deborah Kerr, `thin-hipped and more bawdy than the world ever knew.' In came Audrey Hepburn, `all Dresden,' walking her small poodle and gliding along `as if on roller skates.' Then Debbie Reynolds bounded through the doors, `the pride of Burbank, punching jokes and being cuddly.' Sydney, tall and graceful in his finely woven, skintight linen shirts, would pass up and down his row of ladies, `painting and sculpting the beautiful hairstyles.'

And finally, Elizabeth Taylor made her appearance, `chunky and looking ten years younger with no makeup,' said MacLaine, who watched her with fascination. `She'd flop into any chair that was vacant, eating a cheese Danish and plopping her feet up on the table in front of her.' MacLaine would tease her about her big feet, saying that they looked like a weightlifter's, and Elizabeth would laugh in that high-pitched girlish cackle of hers. Then Sydney would come around to light Elizabeth's cigarette, `and she would draw the smoke long and deep into her lungs with the same low-down basic oral gratification she lavished on the cheese Danish.' Another day at MGM had begun."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Sven Birkerts' "The Mother of Possibility" and other links

---Perspective

---North Korean Haircut

---Sven Birkerts praises idleness:

"I wonder how all this clicking and mouse-nudging impinges on our arts, our literature, and if any of the old ease can survive. I was delighted recently to open Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and hear him announcing, “In Rome I lived in the grand manner of writers. I basically did nothing all day.” But Dyer seems an exception to me, a survival from another era. We are few of us in Rome, and fewer up for the “grand manner.” Who still idles? Sieving with the mind’s own Google I pull up a few names: the late W. G. Sebald, Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson in her reverie-paced scenemaking, Nicholson Baker in The Anthologist…But finally there are few exemplars. Most contemporary prose, I find, agitates; it creates a caffeinated vibration that is all about competing stimuli and the many ways that the world overruns us. Idleness needs atmospheres of indolence to survive. It is an endangered condition that asks for a whole different climate of reading, one that is not about information, or self-betterment, or keeping up with the latest book-club flavor, but exists just for itself, idyllic, intransitive.

I recently heard a commencement speech by critic James Wood in which he lamented the loss of pungency from our lives—so much is now sanitized or hidden away from the public eye—and exhorted would-be writers to search deep in their imaginations for the primary details that animate prose and poetry. On a similar track, I wonder about childhood itself. I worry that in our zeal to plan out and fill up our children’s lives with lessons, play dates, CV-building activities we are stripping them of the chance to experience untrammeled idleness. The mind alert but not shunted along a set track, the impulses not pegged to any productivity. The motionless bobber, the hand trailing in the water, the shifting shapes of the clouds overhead. Idleness is the mother of possibility, which is as much as necessity the mother of inventiveness. Now that our technologies so adeptly bridge the old divide between industriousness and relaxation, work and play, either through oscillation or else a kind of merging, everything being merely digits put to different uses, we ought to ask if we aren’t selling off the site of our greatest possible happiness. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” wrote Thoreau. In idleness, the corollary maxim might run, is the salvaging of the inner life."

---Julian Assange can be rude

---The Bang Bang Club trailer

---a proper Chatroulette proposal

---filmmaking and the American corporate mentality

---Google Earth, the highlights

---David Orr's culture diary:

"10:30 a.m.: Prepare to enter my “writing mode.” Place one hand on a dictionary originally owned by T.S. Eliot (a fortune at auction, but worth it!). Place the other hand on a bathrobe belonging to Hart Crane. Place my feet in a laundry hamper thought to have been briefly in the possession of James Merrill’s dentist. Soak it in.

11:00 a.m.: Begin sketching thoughts about John Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud into moleskin notebook. Ostrich quill? Oui.Oui indeed.

12:30 p.m.: Gaze poetically heavenward while sharing a light lunch of organic pearl onions and filet of local cassowary with James Franco and Harold Bloom at the Yale Club. Franco gets a little tipsy and punches a waiter while shouting something about “Twitter” (possibly “water” or “mother"; his enunciation was suffering). Waiter out cold. I cover waiter with my favorite made-to-measure ascot and flee.

2:35 p.m.: Sex, hastily, then petit-fours."

---a brief history of title design

---the evolution of Naomi Watts

---The Kennedys trailer looks dubious

---the women of Howard Hawks

---The Princess of Montpensier trailer

---17 notoriously prickly interview subjects

---a cure for screenwriters and Jennie Yabroff's "The Writers of Hollywood":

"In movies, writers are only slightly less morally repugnant than serial killers (unless the writer isa serial killer). According to Hollywood, writers are either parasites (Deconstructing Harry,Barton Fink, Capote, Misery); perverts (The Squid and the Whale, Adaptation, Wonder Boys,American Splendor); addicts (Permanent Midnight, Barfly, Leaving Las Vegas, Sideways), or sociopaths (La Piscine, Deathtrap, The Shining). They have monstrous egos and tiny, wizened hearts. Their moral compasses are permanently cracked; their personal relationships are cynically contrived to produce “experience,” which they feed to the insatiable maw of their craft. They are creatively constipated. They practice poor personal hygiene. They are not lovely to look at. It almost goes without saying that they are almost always male."

---Blinky, the evil robot

---Morozov considers the Internet

---"Fear and Loathing at 40" by Michael Bourne

---a tribute to David Fincher

---Tom Brown's "Film Moments: Reading Cinema in Pieces"

---digital Africa

---Keira Knightley sells out

---Bret Easton Ellis likes Charlie Sheen

---lastly, Paul Schrader on Narrative Exhaustion:

"Originality has always been in short supply. Does the proliferation of media mean that it is harder to be original today than it was 50 years ago? Well, yes. Today's viewers live in a biosphere of narrative. Twenty-four-seven, multimedia, all the time. When a storyteller competes for a viewer's attention, he not only competes with simultaneously occurring narratives, he competes with the variations of his own narrative. That's real competition. The bar of originality has been raised. The media marketplace puts a premium on anything "new" or "fresh" and, at the same time, inundates its viewers with continual and competing narratives.

Critics and commentators love to say things like "I love an old-fashioned love story," or a "good old-fashioned murder mystery". But what is their response when they are presented with just that? Adjectives such as "tired", "hackneyed", "unoriginal", "dated" and "prosaic". What's a writer to do? . . .

Storytelling began as ceremony and evolved into ritual. It was commercialised in the middle ages, became big business in the 19th century and an international industry in the 20th. Today it is the ubiquitous wallpaper of the postmodern era. As screenwriters, we struggle with our own success. We have wallpapered our world and now we can't get anyone to notice the picture we just hung. This is not a big deal. Not a crisis. The "exhaustion of narrative" is not a standalone development. It is one of a set of crises that afflict current cinema."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Long Hard Look at Psycho and other links

---making Mildred Pierce and Jane Eyre

---a day made of glass

---Fantastic Mr. Star Fox

---Craig considers Tough Without a Gun and Humphrey Bogart

---"Why Isn't Wall Street in Jail?" by Matt Taibbi:

"[A] veritable mountain of evidence indicates that when it comes to Wall Street, the justice system not only sucks at punishing financial criminals, it has actually evolved into a highly effective mechanism for protecting financial criminals. This institutional reality has absolutely nothing to do with politics or ideology — it takes place no matter who's in office or which party's in power. To understand how the machinery functions, you have to start back at least a decade ago, as case after case of financial malfeasance was pursued too slowly or not at all, fumbled by a government bureaucracy that too often is on a first-name basis with its targets. Indeed, the shocking pattern of nonenforcement with regard to Wall Street is so deeply ingrained in Washington that it raises a profound and difficult question about the very nature of our society: whether we have created a class of people whose misdeeds are no longer perceived as crimes, almost no matter what those misdeeds are. The SEC and the Justice Department have evolved into a bizarre species of social surgeon serving this nonjailable class, expert not at administering punishment and justice, but at finding and removing criminal responsibility from the bodies of the accused.

The systematic lack of regulation has left even the country's top regulators frustrated. Lynn Turner, a former chief accountant for the SEC, laughs darkly at the idea that the criminal justice system is broken when it comes to Wall Street. "I think you've got a wrong assumption — that we even have a law-enforcement agency when it comes to Wall Street," he says.

---Sassy Gay Friend meets Black Swan

---"4chan's Chaos Theory" by Vanessa Gregoriadis

---the tsunami at street level

---Jay Rosen: Bloggers vs. Journalists

---Super 8 trailer

---Roger Lowenstein's "Broke Town, USA":

"Vallejo, a city about 25 miles north of San Francisco, offers a sneak preview of what could be the latest version of economic disaster. When the foreclosure wave hit, local tax revenue evaporated. The city managers couldn’t make their budget and eliminated financing for the local museum, the symphony and the senior center. The city begged the public-employee unions for pay cuts — all to no avail. In May 2008, Vallejo filed for bankruptcy. The filing drew little national attention; most people were too busy watching banks fail to worry about cities.But while the banks have largely recovered, Vallejo is still in bankruptcy. The police force has shrunk from 153 officers to 92. Calls for any but the most serious crimes go unanswered. Residents who complain about prostitutes or vandals are told to fill out a form. Three of the city’s firehouses were closed. Last summer, a fire ravaged a house in one of the city’s better neighborhoods; one of the firetrucks came from another town, 15 miles away. Is this America’s future?"

---"Data Mining" by Joel Stein

---Limitless, another dumb movie about a very smart man? (I hope not)

---Raymond Durgnat's impressively close analysis A Long Hard Look at Psycho:

"FORM NOTES: DYNAMIC INTERVALS

Until the window-blind goes up, the half-dark room accentuates the whiteness (and heat) of flesh, bed-linen, and underwear; afterwards, it’s a drab whitish-grey. Entering the room, the camera passes dark indistinct areas of, presumably, furniture, before settling into the crotch-height shot. (It’s all quite unlike the usual establishing shot – more of a disorienting shot!) The camera perches in odd positions (now groin level, now just beneath the ceiling). The angles are steep, the compositions unstable. The shots include distractions (the window is now blocked by a blind, now shows a vast ornate building with rows of windows like blank eyes – staring at the sleazy lovers?

Or not looking at them – just windows looking at this window – blind reflections?) Between restlessly displaced shots, cuts generate unsettling ‘intervals’. ‘Intervals’ was Dziga Vertov’s term for the graphic differences between adjacent shots. They’re a principal source of visual ‘contrasts’ and ‘collisions’ and a mainspring of Soviet montage theory. Directors should so plan their shots, even before shooting, that strong hard cuts generate subliminal shocks on the spectator’s visual perceptions and, by knock-on effect, on his thoughts and emotions. ‘Dynamic’ cuts are the sine qua non of film art, propaganda and agitprop. ‘Intervals’ include, not only ‘differences of graphic forms’, but also ‘jumps between camera positions’. Normally, Hollywood preferred to minimise collisions, shocks and jumps, and keep cuts as soft and smooth as reasonably possible. Hence the traditional distinction, summarised by Thorold Dickinson, between ‘montage editing’ (aka ‘Russian editing’, ‘dynamic editing’, ‘visible editing’), and ‘continuity editing’ (aka ‘Hollywood editing’, ‘narrative editing’, and ‘invisible editing’). Hitchcock understood both schools, and Psycho achieves some remarkable trade-offs (and syntheses!) between montage kinetics and continuity flowings.(Saul Bass may have something to do with it, for modern graphic design often made a point of juxtaposing strong hard forms – in collage, photomontage, comic strips, etc – and a thoughtful craftsman could switch from juxtaposing static forms side by side in space to juxtaposing moving forms successively in time. But many Hollywood traditionalists were so used to setting up smooth cuts they couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt their ideas of ‘good style’ to achieve a degree of expressive dynamic). A virtuoso segue starts with a close shot of the lovers’ profiles on the bed. A cut to a second close shot, at 90° to the first, favouring the back of Marion’s head, makes an eye-boggling ‘collision’, quite as disruptive as any jump-cut. Its dynamic seems to launch Marion upwards, her back to the camera, which pulls back fast to show her long back as she jack-knifes up to her feet, at the end of the bed, and then turns about to march back beside the bed, on which Sam sits up and swivels around to keep looking at her. The camera, having pulled back and up, is as if perched high up on the wall, looking down at her, as she looks straight ahead, as if into a mirror, and dresses again. While gazing off-screen left, she talks to Sam behind her screen right. Her uncompromising words and posture unnerve him; he crosses behind her and sits beside the window, which is on her left in real space, but on her right in screen space.Both complicated and smooth, it’s highly unsettling – very elegant, very disturbed. Later, when Sam almost agrees to Marion’s terms, comes a very simple effect: their profiles in close two-shot, close behind them, the lowered window-blind. It’s tight, close, stable, but – too brief, close, shallow, perhaps, after the ‘tearing apart’."

---Andrew Sarris chooses 5 books of film criticism

---Stanley Kubrick's 1987 Rolling Stone interview

---Alex Gibney explains how to make a documentary

---"Zooming Out: How Writers Explain Our Visual Grammar" by Rob Goodman

---Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy converse about Last Tango in Paris

---lastly, Hilton Als' "A Pryor Love":

"It is odd to think that Richard Pryor’s period of pronounced popularity and power lasted for only a decade, really—from 1970 to 1980. But comedy is rock and roll, and Pryor had his share of hits. The enormous territory he carved out for himself remains more or less his own. Not that it hasn’t been scavenged by other comedians: Eddie Murphy takes on Pryor’s belligerent side, Martin Lawrence his fearful side, Chris Rock his hysteria, Eddie Griffin his ghoulish goofiness. But none of these comedians approaches Pryor’s fundamental strangeness, vulnerability, or political intensity. Still, their work demonstrates the power of his influence: none of them would exist at all were it not for Richard Pryor. The actor Richard Belzer described him to me as “the ultimate artistic beacon.” “It was like he was the sun and we were planets,” Belzer said. “He was the ultimate. He took socially complex situations and made you think about them, and yet you laughed. He’s so brilliantly funny, it was revelatory. He’s one of those rare people who define a medium.”

According to Lee, Pryor has been approached by a number of artists who see something of themselves in him. Damon Wayans and Chris Rock wanted to star in a film version of Pryor’s life. The Hughes Brothers expressed interest in making a documentary. In 1998, the Kennedy Center gave Pryor its first Mark Twain Prize, and Chevy Chase, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, and others gathered to pay tribute to him. Pryor’s written acceptance of the award, however, shows a somewhat reluctant acknowledgment of his status as an icon: “It is nice to be regarded on par with a great white man—now that’s funny!” he wrote. “Seriously, though, two things people throughout history have had in common are hatred and humor. I am proud that, like Mark Twain, I have been able to use humor to lessen people’s hatred!”


In some ways, Pryor probably realizes that his legendary status has weakened the subversive impact of his work. People are quick to make monuments of anything they live long enough to control. It’s not difficult to see how historians will view him in the future. An edgy comedian. A Mudbone. But will they take into account the rest of his story: that essentially American life, full of contradictions; the life of a comedian who had an excess of both empathy and disdain for his audience, who exhausted himself in his search for love, who was a confusion of female and male, colored and white, and who acted out this internal drama onstage for our entertainment."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

"No man can walk out on his own story": 8 notes on Gore Verbinski's Rango

1) I tend to avoid kiddie movies, or "kidult" features, but I was dragged into seeing Rango after losing two games of rock paper scissors with a colleague. Afterwards, I was stunned. Who is this former punk-rock guitarist Gore Verbinski guy? How did he manage to escape the corrupting effects of the Pirates of the Caribbean juggernaut to make this film?

2) Rango has its weaknesses, mostly because it can't help falling into the usual comforting storytelling conventions (notably, the "maiden in distress" and the "final showdown," even as it evokes High Noon), but the film kept surprising me by selecting distinctly arty, subversive, and adult source materials to allude to (specifically Chinatown, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the book), Apocalypse Now, Raising Arizona (with music), A Fistful of Dollars, Singing in the Rain, a hint of Vertigo, and lots of westerns).

3) If Rango was just an accumulation of cinematic allusions, it still wouldn't necessarily warrant much critical attention, but I also liked Gore Verbinski's apocalyptic emphasis on water depletion, an issue that is very likely to become more important as the world's aquifers run dry, the price of water continues to rise, and fountains dispensing drinkable water become a thing of the past. The documentary Flow (2008) points out how water bottling companies, part of a "400 billion dollar industry," are already "privatizing" once-free water just to sell it back to us. For an example of this insidious marketing campaign, check out Jennifer Aniston's pseudo-hip "viral" video for Glaceau Smart Water. As I watched Rango, I wondered how much can children intuit the implications of resource depletion? Why not give them blockbuster movies that acknowledge there is a problem?

4) What to do, though, about the multiple allusions to Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? (Never mind the inferior Terry Gilliam movie version, even if it does star Johnny Depp.) Does Verbinski mean to send off his youthful audience to read lines like:

"We were someplace around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like 'I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive . . .' And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: 'Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?'"

Later, when Verbinski has a bunch of animals crank up Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries" for a delightful bat aerial assault on a water bottle wagon train, are kids supposed to go see the equivalent scene in Apocalypse Now?

5) And what of the allusions to Chinatown (1974)? I enjoyed how the evil turtle mayor of the movie voiced by Ned Beatty has many correspondences (white hat, suspenders, similar voice) to John Huston's Noah Cross in the former classic. If one thinks about it, Huston does resemble a smug turtle. I liked the way the mayor kept saying things like "Control the water and you control everything." Rango builds up to an image of Las Vegas as the ultimate waste of expensively imported water (thereby merging Chinatown with Fear and Loathing), but it can't embrace the fundamental bleakness of Roman Polanski's and Robert Towne's vision, and therein lies the rub. Why not have something drastic happen like Rango's love interest Beans (voiced by Isla Fisher) getting shot in the eye? As if to make up for the Disneyfied diminishment of the Chinatown theme, one of the bird galoots in the movie has a permanent arrow through one eye.

6) What of Hitchcock's influence? At one point, dangling in the air, Rango pronounces that he has vertigo. Also the "spirit of the west" who resembles a more youthful Clint Eastwood, describes heaven as "eating pop tarts with Kim Novak."

7) What of Rango's emphasis on the construction of identity? As in Toy Story 3, Rango begins with an emphasis on play. Rango, the Hawaiian shirt-wearing chameleon hero of the film, stays in a terrarium acting out various roles with a plastic fish, dead bug, and a mannequin which evokes the "Make 'Em Laugh" scene in Singin' in the Rain. When he's suddenly cast out in the desert to find himself (running briefly into Raoul Duke's windshield in the process), he soon adopts the role of a cowboy hero for a bunch of gullible varmints in the town of Dirt.

Later (spoiler alert), however, when he proves to be a coward before a menacing Lee Van Cleef-esque Rattlesnake (voiced by Bill Nighy and referencing The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), Rango has to wander off into the desert like Jesus to figure himself out. He learns that "No man can walk out on his own story." He must become what he play-acted because the people of Dirt believe in him. He imagines himself a hero, and so he becomes one.

8) Thus Rango hints at themes it can't quite fully develop--how the rich attempt to control what remains of our vanishing resources, how we delude ourselves about the desert we face, how the western as a genre can hint at solutions to these problems, and how heroism can sprout from theatrical postmodern play. Not bad for a gonzo kiddie flick.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Legend of the Fist and other links

---"Under Cover of Darkness" by the Strokes

---the Machete title sequence

---Still Tickin': The Return of A Clockwork Orange

---the evolution of Anonymous

---technical terms of the intelligentsia:

"Promoting Democracy verb (use w/ target country) installing a government friendly to our interests in another country.
Freedom Fighters noun a proxy terrorist army that we support
National Interest noun the interests of the ultra-rich, particularly those in the U.S.A.
Stability noun (used referring to other countries) subordination to US power interests (or "the national interest") -> Usually achieved through war against the population.
Example: "We should promote democracy by supporting the freedom fighters in Nicaragua because it is in America's national interest to promote stability in Central America."
Translation: "We should send weapons to a proxy terrorist army that murders civilians to overthrow the democratically elected government of Nicaragua, for the benefit of U.S investors and to intimidate other countries into doing what we say."

---Super trailer

---Citizens United vs. the FEC

---an interview with The Social Network's editors:

David likes being on the technological forefront of filmmaking—shooting digitally, editing in Final Cut. How does that impact the editing process?

Angus: When I switched to Final Cut, it made me rethink how I work. It forced me to re-invent things. I love it because it’s so flexible. It doesn’t force you into a way of thinking about editing.

Does all this technological change amount to a revolution in filmmaking?Angus: God, yeah! I think having these rigid departments, and this very strict division of labor, is a twentieth century notion. If you talk to people coming out of school these days, they do everything. We as editors try to keep up with that. David shoots digitally, so, unlike with film, we don’t have a lab. There are four or five people in post-production and we do what 25 or 30 people used to do in the film world, which is a huge revolution.

It makes you leaner and meaner?

Kirk: It makes you very fast. Today for example, I got a phone call from Fincher at seven in the morning saying, We’ve got an actress here who needs to go back to France, but I’m not going to release her until I see an edit of the scene we shot yesterday. I’ve got my hands on the footage by 8 o’clock, I’ve put all the selects together while David’s filming, and by 11:30 I’ve got him selects of everything from the day before. He goes, Love it, love it, no, yes, and by 5 o’clock, in between set ups, he’s looking at an edit.

That’s a pretty break-neck pace.

Kirk: The way David shoots, he likes to see the edits as he’s progressing. The assembly process of his movies can be almost as stressful as being on set because it’s always based on time. But we’ve then got 4 months to go through and fine-tune and decompress.

Angus: There’s not as much time as in the old days of, Well, we've got to wait for the machine, let’s go take a coffee break. What it means is the creative process is taking the time, not the logistical process, and that’s the good thing.

Are you nostalgic at all for old methods of cutting on film?

Angus: Honestly? No."

---Detention trailer

---Hokahey of Little Worlds considers John Wayne

---"The Battle for Control, " info-paralysis, and the underlying goal of social media:

"As always with social media, the goal is to get you to invest enough of yourself in someone else’s proprietary network so that you become trapped by it. Then the company can hold that part of yourself hostage if you object to the way they whore it out."


---"Cherchez La Femme Fatale" and @filmstudiessff's "Refashioning the Femme Fatale? Gilda in Motion"

---Legend of the Fist trailer

---the Dardenne Brothers discuss their filmmaking process

---analyzing Dr. Seuss:

"But the real political message of the books concerns family dynamics. Writing in 2002, Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT, asserts that Seuss “reflects a larger current in American progressivism during this period, which saw the home and family as thebirthplace of a more democratic culture.” In the 1950s, the patriarchal, because-I-said-so approach to child rearing was being replaced (at least among the educated) with a different style of interaction, in which parents set boundaries for their kids, but also let them explore and experiment. Dr. Spock explained the theories; Dr. Seuss brought them to life.

“Seuss felt that the best children’s stories acknowledged and worked through children’s anger toward parental rules and that, in doing so, they respected children’s innate sense of justice,” Jenkins notes. “Seuss seems to be getting at the absurdity of adult demands which run counter to children’s natures, parental expectations which transform innocent behavior into misconduct.”

---"A Declaration of Cyber-War" by Michael Joseph Gross

---Source Code and quantum physics

---Rebekah Frumkin explains "Why it's particularly important to read David Foster Wallace"

---lastly, the red band trailer for Rubber

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Say Something: notes on making a romantic comedy

In January, I wrote here about the exploits of an interim filmmaking class. Some of the students decided to continue to make movies into the spring in an independent study. A fine idea, in theory, but some problems have arisen:

A) Our school is extremely rigorous. In the midst of crunch weeks, it's hard to have free time for creative projects.

B) One needs more than an hour's class time to shoot anything.

So, with fits and starts, and rewrites, and much push and pull, the students have put together a screenplay entitled Say Something, the first time anyone in our school has attempted to film a romantic comedy. The story concerns the break-up and reconciliation of Adam and Courtney. To help the class understand the finer points of the form, I show them scenes from It Happened One Night and Cameron Crowe's Say Anything (today we watched the break-up scene in Lloyd's Blue Chevy Malibu, which he describes so well: "I gave her my heart, and she gave me a pen."). As in any filmmaking endeavor, we've been plagued by delays and problems. I've asked the director Ryan to not shoot too fast (his shooting style reminds me of Godard's circa 1964). The crew needs to be careful about weakly lit scenes, awkward shot composition, and not getting enough coverage (expository and reaction shots, especially). As the class gets busier with other assignments, they (understandably) get testier with me, and some of the original fun of filmmaking gets lost in the process.

Today, we also rehearsed one dining room scene in an abandoned junky classroom after watching some earlier footage on a Macbook. The actor playing the "douche" Damien doesn't want to have to "meow" on camera, but I remind him that he doesn't have to cry like Courtney does. The actress playing Courtney isn't sure she can cry on cue. I suggest several retakes.

In the story, when Adam and Courtney break up (due to parental interference), they take new dates to a Thai restaurant before a dance. Once they see each other across the room, they have difficulty not looking at each other. Later that night, after leaving the dance, they reconcile under the stars. Here's a sample of the screenplay (note the Say Anything allusion):

"ADAM spreads the blanket on the ground and COURTNEY lies down on her back. ADAM lies beside her, with his feet facing the opposite way. Both of them gaze upwards. The camera is directly above them, and they are illuminated by a full moon. Music can be heard faintly in the background. The boy looks at the girl who is still gazing at the stars.

ADAM: I changed my mind.

COURTNEY looks at him, then back at the sky.

COURTNEY: Do you think they move?

ADAM is confused.

ADAM: Huh?

COURTNEY: The stars, do you think they’re moving? Oh, I don’t know...

ADAM (pause)

COURTNEY: I think they are.

ADAM: So? So, what?

ADAM: I said I changed my mind. I realized how perfect you are for me.

COURTNEY: I know, I heard you...

ADAM: And...

There is a long pause. A guy with a boombox walks by in the background.

ADAM: Say something...

COURTNEY: I want to get back together too."

This weekend, the class will attempt to shoot the formal dance scene on Saturday (with an actual dance arranged for extras), the scene involving two parents, the dining room scene, and this star-lit scene on Sunday. They could really use a crane for that last shot.

I look forward to the dailies on Monday.