Friday, February 27, 2009

Trapped in a California zoo: notes on Mike Nichols' The Graduate

[warning: spoilers]

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our descent into Los Angeles."

So says the pilot at the start of The Graduate (1967). I have studied this film multiple times with students, and the more I watch it, the more I've learned to appreciate the subtleties of a movie that has been much debated amongst critics. For instance, Pauline Kael announced that "The Graduate is not a bad movie, it's entertaining, though in a fairly slick way," but she mocks anyone who might want to take the film seriously. As Mark Harris points out in his book Pictures at a Revolution, The Graduate initially earned quite a few bad reviews, with Time pronouncing the movie "alarmingly derivative and . . . secondhand." Others were offended by the movie's satirical treatment of the older "plastics" generation. Ironically, one of the few positive reviewers was Bosley Crowther of The New York Times just before Kael used his pan of Bonnie and Clyde as a way to launch her career at The New Yorker.

At any rate, I've gotten in the habit of analyzing The Graduate, looking for the influence of the French New Wave on its camera technique, as Jonathan Rosenbaum discusses. In class, we talk about Mike Nichol's heavy use of glass and water imagery to create a sense of Benjamin's entrapment inside the aquarium and/or the swimming pool of his upper middle-class life in Los Angeles. The film opens with Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman) looking alienated in a close-up on his head as the pilot says the aforementioned words that calls to mind the jaded perspective of Bret Easton Ellis' Less Than Zero ("People are afraid to merge on freeways of Los Angeles."). Then, as the camera zooms back to show a bunch of passengers in a jet, we see that Ben's head is one of many in the jet compartment. He's another pea in a pod, a victim of his passivity. The scene cuts to Ben stepping onto a conveyor belt in the airport as Simon and Garfunkle's "The Sound of Silence" plays during the credits. Like the image of Norman Bates at the end of Psycho, Ben is up against a wall, with the belt moving him blankly to the left (the wrong direction). Interspersed with the music, one hears repeatedly "Please hold the hand rail and stand to the right. If you wish to pass, please do so to the left." Dressed in his 1950s conformist coat and tie, Ben obeys the announced orders, standing to the far right of the screen (thus emphasizing his lack of importance). Then Nichols cuts to Ben's suitcase in the exact same position on another conveyor belt, implying that Ben in his desire to please his parents is little more than a package. As the suitcase works its way down to the concourse, a sign says "Do they match?" which suggests how difficult it is to distinguish Ben from anyone else. Then he walks out of the airport, but we first see him through two glass doors that read "Do Not Enter." He's smiling at someone (presumably his parents), but he looks slightly absurd since we don't know the context. He looks timid, obedient, and eager to please. Yet another announcer says "Do not leave your car unattended." Ben will do exactly that in the last scene of the film. Also, his violent exit from the glass church doors with Elaine in her wedding gown will contrast heavily with this shot.

As the film goes on, Nichols will often use a tightly framed shot on Ben's head to convey his imprisonment. When he starts to break free from his parents, the shots become correspondingly more loosely framed. When we see the world through glass, most famously when Ben views his parents' friends laughing and gesturing with no sound but his breathing in the wetsuit, often the view is absurd until late in the film when Ben bangs on the glass and yells to Elaine inside the church. I've wondered why Nichols has one later scene in the San Francisco zoo, but it makes sense if you think of how often one sees Ben stuck anxiously in front of the lens, or stuck inside of a phone booth or viewed underneath Mrs. Robinson's leg, clearly looking uncomfortable with his environment.

Even though the film has a comedic happy ending, I like to dwell in class on the grim implications of its vision. How can Ben break free? By becoming an action hero by the end and eloping with Elaine? When asked what happens to Ben and Elaine after the end of the film, Nichols is rumored to have replied, "They become their parents."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Academy Awards burnout: one man's media overload

The Academy Awards. I can't take it anymore. I realize that I am at fault for checking my Google Reader for film blog posts about the changes in the Oscar ceremony, the cheat sheets for those who haven't seen the nominated films, the survival statistics of Oscar winners, the Vanity Fair after party, the acceptance speeches drowned out by the orchestra, the battles for the underdog nominations, the battle for the Best Actress Oscar, the red carpet lineup, Oscar winner leakage, the possible Slumdog Millionaire sweep, and the Marlon Brando-style possible return-from-box-office-poison triumph of Mickey Rourke. Will host Hugh Jackman be able to persuade the audience to forget Australia? In the past, I used to co-write an Oscar prediction article with Dr. K, but this year I'm burned out on the whole glutinous mass of news coverage, previews, studio promotions, commentaries, commentaries on commentaries, and all of it swirling about in a sheer constellation of hype. No more! I may go live in a cave until Monday. I may hide in a soundproofed room and listen to whale sound tapes. I may regret it later, but whatever happens, I will try to get far far away from the Oscars.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Notable film and media links--February 18, 2009

---This has been a pleasant week for Godard enthusiasts. First, Alexander Coleman reviewed A Woman is a Woman. And then, Allan Fish followed that with his discussion of A Bout de Souffle in Wonders in the Dark. As Allan writes,

"the real star of the show is Godard, who makes this exercise in Parisian chic spellbinding from the opening hotwire to the final killing in the streets. His later films such as Pierrot le Fou, Deux ou Trois Choses que je sais d’elle and Weekend may have made bigger statements and be more appreciated by the intelligentsia, but for sheer enjoyment, there’s nothing to match his debut in his resume."

---Writing for Vanity Fair, Mark Seal explains the tangled genesis of The Godfather:

"Peter Bart pushed to hire Francis Ford Coppola, a 31-year-old Italian-American who had directed a handful of films, including the musical Finian’s Rainbow, but had never had a hit. He felt that Coppola would not be expensive and would work with a small budget. Coppola passed on the project, confessing that he had tried to read Puzo’s book but, repulsed by its graphic sex scenes, had stopped at page 50. He had a problem, however: he was broke. His San Francisco–based independent film company, American Zoetrope, owed $600,000 to Warner Bros., and his partners, especially George Lucas, urged him to accept. “Go ahead, Francis,” Lucas said. “We really need the money. What have you got to lose?” Coppola went to the San Francisco library, checked out books on the Mafia, and found a deeper theme for the material. He decided it should be not a film about organized crime but a family chronicle, a metaphor for capitalism in America."

---For The House Next Door, Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard share their dialectical musings on David Lynch's Mulholland Drive as part of their Conversations monthly feature. When challenged about the inscrutability of the film, Ed responds:

"All I can say is, no matter how confounding and inscrutable Lynch's films can be—and this one is by no means his most inscrutable—I have never been repelled by them, never tempted to "give up." This is because Lynch's filmmaking is very modular: he thinks as much in terms of crafting individual moments as he does of the whole film. There's a reason that he was able to salvage Mulholland Dr. from a rejected television pilot by adding new material and making it seem like the film was always meant to be like this. There's a reason that INLAND EMPIRE is able to incorporate ideas and images from Lynch's digital shorts and experiments (like the absurd Rabbits) and fluidly blend it all into the whole. Individual scenes, like the audition or Club Silencio or the conversation with the cowboy or the creepy Robert Blake phone call sequence in Lost Highway, can stand on their own as self-contained modules, separate from the films that contain them."

---For Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies, Kevin J. Olson examines the genre-bending evolution of noir with films like Blue Velvet and Blade Runner (Hat tip to T. S. of Screen Savour):

"These films were representations of how the genre was moving outside the boundaries of noir only being films about seedy gangsters, femme fatales, and cops and robbers; these classic elements of the genre were now being replaced by greedy water companies, and corrupt politicians or policemen who were representations of the evil America never thought could exist in the people they trusted."

---Looking for signs of our recent economic woes in the film industry? Vadim Risov explains why films have such difficulty reflecting what's going on the real world in his essay "The New Depression Cinema" in GreenCine Daily. I like his concluding sentence: "As always, we'll get the movies and times we've enabled and deserve."

---Have you seen the newly shrunk Rolling Stone magazine? In the same vein, Tom Tomorrow has a sardonic take on Newsweek's recent makeover as part of his Media Meltdown Watch.

---Lastly, the critics at The New Yorker posted three love scenes from films such as The Big Sleep.

---And A. O. Scott shows off his video review skills with this tribute to Woody Allen's Annie Hall.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

How do I not love Confessions of a Shopaholic? Let me count the ways--a Film Doctor review

1) First there's the romantic comedy-homogenization of Isla Fisher. As Rebecca Bloomwood, Manhattan journalist and shopaholic, Isla is perky, quirky, ditsy, and lively in the tradition of Katherine Hepburn's character in Bringing Up Baby. Rebecca may spill food all over a bunch of dinner guests. She may run into a glass wall, and she may blithely pile up mountains of debt (funny!), but one just can't help falling for such an unorthodox bundle of joy. Unfortunately, though, she was far more memorable as Vince Vaughn's psycho-girlfriend in Wedding Crashers than she is here, in part because the former role gave her more of an edge.

2) As the male lead, Luke Brandon, editor of Successful Savings, a financial magazine, the perpetually stubbled Hugh Dancy comes off as a watered down version of Orlando Bloom, and Bloom is already watered down enough already.

3) Confessions of a Shopaholic leaves one feeling sorry for actors in supporting roles. For instance, we just saw John Goodman play the avuncular daddy in Speed Racer. As much as I applaud his work in the Coen brothers' films, he's losing his hipster cred here. At one point, he attempts to break dance as his wife, played by poor Joan Cusack, drags his large carcass around the floor. Ha, ha.

4) To adapt a phrase from Senator Lloyd Bentsen, "I knew The Devil Wears Prada. The Devil Wears Prada was a friend of mine. Confessions of a Shopaholic, you are no The Devil Wears Prada." Rebecca has ambitions of writing for Alette (read Vogue) magazine which has a high-powered editor, Alette Naylor, played by Kristin Scott Thomas with a French accent. Yet, while Meryl Streep raises that otherwise light confection into film glory (and profit) with her unforgettable soft-voiced evocation of editorial power, Thomas simply made me feel sad. How far her star power has fallen since The English Patient.

5) Shopaholic has the most grating soundtrack. With songs like "Accessory" by Jordyn Taylor and "Bad Girl" by the Pussycat Dolls, the film scarcely has a mood swing before some LOUD female singer starts to articulate the emotion in some drippy generic song. I kept thinking the music lyrics were part of the dialogue.

6) As the film goes on, Rebecca Bloomwood develops an imaginary relationship with department store mannequins. One sells her a diaphanous green scarf that later becomes very important once she becomes a publishing sensation as "The Girl in the Green Scarf." Other mannequins wink and try to lure her into stores. Eventually, a bunch of mannequins give her a standing ovation. All of this forced whimsy was just . . . ick.

7) Even though Rebecca works as a journalist in more than one job, the film never acknowledges the dire straits of publishing circles these days. Nor does the film ever really grapple with the darker implications of debt. At one point, John Goodman makes a comment about the US government getting into billions of dollars of debt. I wonder if they recently added on that scene. Of course, movies supply escape in times of trouble, but Confessions of a Shopaholic touches on so many cultural concerns (shopping addiction, clutter issues, extreme consumer debt, the meltdown of the print media) without really dealing with any of them. Rebecca is just too perky and the genre of the film is too rigidly formulaic for any of these things to matter at all.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Film Doctor receives the Premio Dardos Award

“The Dardos Award is given for recognition of cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values transmitted in the form of creative and original writing. These stamps were created with the intention of promoting fraternization between bloggers, a way of showing affection and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.”

Over the weekend, I was pleased and honored to learn that Ibetolis of Film for the Soul awarded me the Premio Dardos Award. Later, Jason Bellamy of The Cooler did the same.

I humbly and gratefully accept this award and now pass it on to some of my favorite film bloggers (some of whom have already won a Dardos):

1) T.S. of Screen Savour, a graceful blog specializing in Hitchcock's oeuvre.

2) Dan North of Spectacular Attractions, always an impressive blog, both in terms of design and scholarship.

3) Alexander Coleman of Coleman's Corner in Cinema, one of the best written, period.

4) Movieman of The Dancing Image, one of those intimidatingly good blogs.

5) Ed Howard of Only the Cinema, an ever-thoughtful and thorough blog that sets the standard for excellence.

Recipients are supposed to do the following (if they haven't done so already):

1) Accept the award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person who has granted the award and a link to his/her blog.

2) Pass the award to another five blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgment, remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award.

Lastly, much thanks to Wendymoon of Movie Viewing Girl, who honored me as part of her post "Do awards matter?" over the weekend.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Notable film and media links---February 8, 2009

---In The House Next Door, Ali Arikan's "Imagining Sisyphus Happy: A Groundhog Day Retrospective" instantly struck me as one of the best posts I've read in a while:

"For 16 years, Groundhog Day has been hailed as a meditation on self-redemption. But to pigeonhole it into one overarching theme would be an insult to the layered precision, and perfection, of Harold Ramis’s 1993 masterpiece, which ventures into the heart of darkness and despair to ultimately emerge unharmed, but not unmarked. This story of a man doomed to relive the same day over and over again is not concerned about tomorrow. A true absurdist triumph, it cares not what the destination might be, for it knows that the pursuit of meaning is itself meaningful whether or not that pursuit is eventually rewarded. Life might very well lack purpose, and it might very well be a struggle. But that doesn’t mean you have to be an asshole about it."

---Kevin Kelly's video-filled "Geekbomb: Telekinetic Powers on the Big (and small) Screen," written for /film, not only gets us ready for Push, it also allows us to meditate on strangely compelling scenes in which people explode. I especially enjoyed the scene where Amy Irving blows up John Cassevetes in Brian de Palma's The Fury (1978).

---Slumdog Millionaire's influence continues to spread. Today Huffington Post leads off with a Frank Rich New York Times op-ed column entitled "Slumdogs Unite!" Rich finds there is a "tsunami of populist rage" sweeping the US, rejecting Tom Daschle:

"The public’s revulsion isn’t mindless class hatred. As Obama said on Wednesday of his fellow citizens: `We don’t disparage wealth. We don’t begrudge anybody for achieving success.' But we do know that the system has been fixed for too long. The gaping income inequality of the past decade — the top 1 percent of America’s earners received more than 20 percent of the total national income — has not been seen since the run-up to the Great Depression.

This is why Slumdog Millionaire, which pits a hard-working young man in Mumbai against a corrupt nexus of money and privilege, has become America’s movie of the year. As Robert Reich, the former Clinton labor secretary, wrote after Daschle’s fall, Americans `resent people who appear to be living high off a system dominated by insiders with the right connections.'”

---For a brilliant scholarly analysis of the film, check out David Bordwell's discussion of how "long-standing cinematic traditions" shaped Slumdog Millionaire.

--- The New York Times Magazine put together an excellent portfolio of Oscar best performance contenders (tip of the hat to Nathaniel R. of Film Experience Blog)

---Ever feel like you are working too hard? Do you dislike the way the internet allows us to work 24/7 wherever we may happen to be? If so, you may be interested in Dalton Conley's examination of our workaholic culture in his new sociological book Elsewhere, USA. For an interview with Dalton, check out this Salon article. Note: I haven't read the entire book (I mostly just sympathize with his premise):

"What drives us to work harder and harder?

I don't think it's something innate in our national character. If you go back to the early '60s, we had an increasing and large amount of leisure. We worked less than the Germans, the British, even the French or Italians, which are held up now as the layabouts, compared to industrious Americans.

There was even a presidential commission that worried: How are we going to have identity and meaning in this world, where we work so few hours? What are we going to do? Play bridge and golf the whole time? We've got to think of something that is more meaningful than that. That seems laughable now that we've exceeded almost any other nation in terms of work hours."

---For those who like their "February 2009 Movie Preview" concise and snide, check out Dave Thomas's summary in FREEwilliamsburg.

---Time points out that the internet is not making as much money for companies as they had hoped:

"Recent figures from media companies show that their online businesses are performing poorly as the recession worsens. The job of making money from premium content becomes even more difficult. There may be a simple reason for this. Almost everything on the intenet is free, even The New York Times . People get used to that. If those consumers coming online to see free content aren't substantially more appealing to advertisers than people who read magazines or watch TV, the entire system that has been created to make money on the next generation of content delivery won't work."

---For Godfather fans, Maggie Van Ostrand compiled some juicy stories about the classic film for FilmSchoolRejects:

"One of the most beloved characters in the movie, Luca Brasi, was played by world wrestling champion, Lenny Montana, the six-foot-six-inch, 320-pound moonlighting bodyguard of a real-life young don who came around one day to see Godfather producer (and all-around mob buddy), Al Ruddy. He was perfect for the part. `Luca Brasi rehearsing his wedding wishes for Don Corleone as he waits outside the Don’s office is actually Lenny Montana rehearsing his lines, and his classic, stammering homage to the Don (`And I hope that their first child be a masculine child') is actually the result of the wrestler’s blowing his lines,' says Vanity Fair."

---Movie City Indie treats us to a fun musical sample of Andy Warhol's screen tests. It leaves one wondering--what drugs are they on?

---Lastly, Twitch found a video teaser for an intriguing Peak Oil Kafkaesque animated film entitled Metropia.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Blindness with a needle and thread: the delightful menace of Coraline

Others can talk about the genuine feel of 3-D stop-motion animation, but what I liked most about Coraline was its sustained air of menace. Forced to live in a rundown house converted into apartments on the edge of nowhere, blue-haired Coraline already has to contend with parents too wrapped up in their writing on the computer (a pitch-perfect satire of obsessive bloggeritis) to have any time for her. The apartment complex is full of decaying showbiz queens and Mr. Bobinski, a European emigree trying to set up a mouse circus when he's not doing calisthenics on the roof, so one can scarcely blame Coraline for wanting to escape.

When she happens upon a Secret Garden-style doorway that leads to an alternate, more cheerful variation on her house one evening, things start to become strange. She stumbles upon a sit-com mom fixing a much better turkey dinner for her and a more fun-loving version of her dad. After they eat, her "dad" leads her out to the garden where the flowers perform for her. Later, she sees a perfectly choreographed mouse circus. Everything is a show, but something is wrong. Everyone in this universe has buttons in place of eyes, and they would love for her to stay if she would just substitute her own eyes with buttons ("Black is traditional" says the new mom). When she resists, the new "mom" places the small box containing the buttons and a needle and thread reproachfully on the dining table. Even more, she never fully explains what Coraline is supposed to do. Tear her eyes out Oedipus-style? Sew her eyes shut? Other questions also arise. Why can't the alternate version of her friend Wybie talk? Why does he wear that fixed, ghastly smile? Did the alternate mother just say she had to have him "fixed"?

Not since Pinocchio got lost on Pleasure Island has a character been thrust into such a falsely chirpy world where all of the "delights" increasingly hint of puppets living in despair under a puppeteer's lash. Coraline sets its mood brilliantly in the opening credits when two metallic hands grab a doll from the night sky and quickly dismember it, take off its button eyes, unstitch its mouth, throw out its innards, and then refashion it into a reasonably close variation of Coraline, complete with blue hair. The metallic needle hands have a fierce, practiced air to them, suggesting that they are used to killing children and then manufacturing artificial copies of them stripped of all personality or individual resistance. With nightmare logic, the film shifts from neglectful, work-obsessed parents straight out of Dalton Conley's new book Elsewhere USA to new "parents" who prefer forced affection in the midst of Disneyfied happiness to anything genuine. Ever wonder how it might feel to be obliged to smile all day as an employee at Disney World? When Coraline starts to resist her new "mother," she's thrown into a haunted closet, where she hears her new "mom" saying "You may come out when you learn to be a loving daughter!"

When it's not exploring the concept of the family as trap, Coraline calls attention to its own participation in socially-engineered, pseudo-happy, mediated worlds of endless distraction, all of it designed for children who will grow up to become equally distracted adults who inhabit grotesquely mediated worlds of their own. We all run the risk of going blind, the film suggests, and become "fixed" with age, losing our identities in the process. In its playful way, Coraline strikes me as grimly accurate.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Steve Martin slums: notes on Born Standing Up and The Pink Panther (2006)

Steve Martin. The man, the legend, the star of mediocre Pink Panther movies. For Hitsville, Bill Wyman notes how The New York Times has been kind enough to ignore the upcoming sequel to 2006's Pink Panther and promote Steve's new banjo cd instead. Bill also points out that the film, due out on Friday, "scored an extraordinarily low 38 on Metacritic."

All of this guided me back to Steve's 2007 biography of his stand-up career entitled Born Standing Up. I find the book fascinating, in part because Mr. Martin lays out the theoretical underpinnings of his phenomenally succcessful stand-up career between 1975 and 1981. It took him over a thousand performances to reach that level of stadium-filled success, and I enjoyed reading about his insights into the process. For instance, one day he decided that his act had to be absolutely original. On another day, he took a cue from Lewis Carroll's nonsense syllogisms to write things like "I'm not going home tonight; I'm going to Bananaland, a place where only two things are true, only two things: One, all chairs are green; and two, no chairs are green." Later still, he determined that an act may work better if there are no punchlines. Furthermore, he learned how to apply the mysteriously e. e. cummings' quote "Like the burlesque comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement." As you read the book, you get to witness Martin take apart his act and reassemble it into something highly conceptual, brilliant, and also very funny.

Where does that leave us with this weekend's dreaded sequel? I don't really presume to know, but I thought I'd use this opportunity to recycle a 2006 pre-blogging review of the previous The Pink Panther, which was originally entitled "Martin Slums in Paris":

With the immortal Peter Sellers, the Pink Panther series went through an untold number of sequels. With its Henry Mancini signature song and its pleasing cartoon credit sequences, one could always be assured a reasonably humorous time as Inspector Clouseau absurdly and self-confidently bumbled his way into solving the crime, usually involving a pink panther thief and an endlessly aggravated Chief Inspector Dreyfus. The series creator, Blake Edwards, had a shameless love for the visual gag--the broader the better. The films combined picture-postcard versions of Paris with the light mockery of a British actor playing an idiot Frenchman. One could always claim that Sellers was wasting his talent, but who cared when the films were funny? In this way, comedy has a way of shutting down all criticism in advance.

Now, in an era when Hollywood strip mines familiar storylines to squeeze out its last assured dollar (Final Destination 3 anyone?), Steve Martin has taken a break from starring in Cheaper by the Dozen films to assume the mantle of Clouseau. Admittedly, the film is funny much of the time. This Pink Panther was originally slated to be released in September of 2005, but MGM thought it needed tweaking, so now it appears four months later to coincide roughly with Valentine’s Day. One can imagine Steve Martin carefully revising and refining every pratfall, poot joke, and silly outfit. As Inspector Clouseau, he wears high water pants, striped socks, and a pencil moustache. His contemporary version of Paris is like a shiny theme park, with the Eiffel Tower twinkling like a Christmas tree over the Seine. Kevin Kline takes over the role of the self-important Dreyfus who intentionally hires the most incompetent man he can think of (Clouseau) to solve the crime of the murder of a prominent soccer coach. Dreyfus does this so that he can solve the crime on his own, and therefore win the French Medal of Honor.

So how much does Steve Martin slum his way through this prefab concoction directed by Shawn Levy? He has a ridiculous French accent that implies a lisp, pronouncing France as “Fwance.” One is struck by how often in this expensive production the best jokes are very simple. Clouseau has difficulty pronouncing the word hamburger, and that scene with a speech coach works better in its way than his accidental flooding and burning of a hotel room. When it comes to the crime in question, one gets a ridiculously hyped scene involving Jason Statham presiding over a stadium full of screaming fans. After his soccer team wins in overtime with a dramatic butterfly kick to the goal, he kisses the “international pop star” Beyonce Knowles, and then abruptly keels over dead with a poison dart in his neck. As the crowd gasps, we notice that his massively gaudy Pink Panther ring has been stolen too.

Working in the rapid-fire comic vein of the Naked Gun films and with obvious allusions to Austin Powers, Martin keeps one kind of amused. Beyonce Knowles doesn’t seem to mind playing a decorative female bauble who sings occasionally, just as she did in Goldmember. Steve Martin even slightly lampoons his own tendency to bed disproportionately young starlets in recent movies when his character loses his Viagra pill down the hotel sink. The perpetually sad-eyed French film star Jean Reno plays a good straight man and sidekick. He looks on bemused by all these Americans and their feeble mockery of the more cultured French. The film works on its low level, but I miss Steve Martin’s more original and edgier work in films like LA Story and Roxanne. With its endlessly recycled gags, The Pink Panther encourages a cultural amnesia of the safe, the bland, and the mass-marketed, a kind of fast food for the eyes. In one scene, Clouseau asks a casino owner if he can look at his “big brass bowls,” but with his accent it sounds like something else. That’s about as edgy as this film gets.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Notable film and media links--February 1, 2009

---After hearing of John Updike's death, I realized that I took his presence in the literary landscape for granted. He was always one of my favorite writers. I especially liked seeing Lorrie Moore and Richard Ford (not to mention Zadie Smith, Joyce Carol Oates, Dr. K, and Movieman) pay tribute to his talent and good influence on the world of letters. To give a sense of Updike's devotion to his craft, here's a passage from his preface to The Early Stories: 1953-1975:

"[These stories] were written on a manual typewriter and, beginning in the early Sixties, in a one-room office I rented in Ipswich, between a lawyer and a beautician, above a cozy corner restaurant. Around noon the smell of food would start to rise through the floor, but I tried to hold out another hour before I tumbled downstairs, dizzy with cigarettes, to order a sandwich. After I gave up cigarettes, I smoked nickel cigarillos to allay my nervousness at the majesty of my calling and the intricacy of my craft; the empty boxes, with their comforting image of another writer, Robert Burns, piled up. Not only were the boxes useful for storing little things like foreign coins and cufflinks, but the caustic aura of cigars discouraged visitors. I felt that I was packaging something as delicately pervasive as smoke, one box after another, in that room, where my only duty was to describe reality as it had come to me--to give the mundane its beautiful due."

---For Spectacular Attractions, Dan North explores the way the special effects industry keeps coming up with virtual actors that threaten to become indistinguishable from real ones. As he writes:

"Look at the Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The stated aims of the film, in which Brad Pitt’s character ages “backwards”, might be to integrate visual effects so seamlessly that they don’t distract from the character-driven, Oscar-baiting emotional truth of it all, but there’s no getting away from the fact that, by centralising the concept of a spectacular body like Benjamin’s, a magnet for diegetic and extra-diegetic curiosity, the film can’t help but draw attention to the visual effects used to achieve the concept’s visualisation. Pitt’s body becomes a laboratory for all kinds of tricksy bits of CG animation and performance capture, and there’s a complex connection between the fascinated gaze that attaches to the character’s condition, and the one that fixes on the image of a movie star transformed into a recognisable but fundamentally changed series of physiques by means of cinematic tricks. When Benjamin strikes muscleman poses in the mirror, it’s as much about technological display as it is about his own narcissistic enjoyment."

---For TechNewsWorld, Renay San Miguel wrote about journalists switching over to online media, including Sharon Waxman of The

"Waxman's reasons for leaving The New York Times were personal and professional. She was supposed to move her family back to New York last year, but `I looked around at the landscape, the signs we're seeing -- very obvious now -- but all of us in our business have seen the signs for two years now. Newsrooms and newspapers have become very unhappy places to work. I had to think very carefully about whether I wanted to move my family across the country at this stage of my career, or whether I wanted to pursue something challenging and exciting and join the digital age.'

She says since TheWrap's launch she's fielded a lot of calls from professional journalists -- employed and recently unemployed -- wondering about job opportunities, so she knows she's made the right decision for her. `I believe there is a need for professional journalists to transform themselves in the age of the Web, and become the kind of reporters and writers that the Web demands and that people demand. There are some reporters who won't adapt, but there's a remarkable number of journalists who want to change, who want to transform themselves. But they're stuck in organizations that are not able to be flexible, small, like us. We all know what our job is and we're pulling in the same direction.'"

---I also liked CEO Mort Zuckerman's comment that "The print publishing business is an oxymoron. It is no longer a business. It is an advertising-driven business and advertisers have driven elsewhere."

---How much is The Reader, (an excellent film, by the way), part of Kate Winslett's cynical agenda to use Nazi pathos to get an Oscar?--"I don't think we need another film about the Holocaust, do we? How many have there been? We get it. It was grim. Let's move on. I'm doing it because I've noticed that if you do a film about the Holocaust, you're guaranteed an Oscar. I've been nominated 4 times. Never won. The whole world is going--Why hasn't Winslett won one? That's why I'm doing it. Schindler's bloody List. " Thanks to Nick Schager of Lessons of Darkness.

---Finally, somebody came to the defense of Wanted, one of my favorite summer films. Thanks, Flickhead.

---T.S. of Screen Savour continues to share his expertise with Hitchcock in this week's Vertigo post. I especially liked the way Hitchcock's strange working relationship with Kim Novak found its parallels in the film:

"Most production accounts of the shooting of Vertigo make clear that Novak and Hitchcock never got along. She disagreed with many of his decisions (most notably, she didn't want to wear grey), and she sought counsel and advice from Stewart regularly because she didn't receive the feedback she wanted from Hitchcock. Years later, she said wasn't sure he really liked her. Those on the set with Hitchcock in other productions knew how much he could dote on the men and women he loved, and accounts indicate that attitude was not present for Novak. But her performance in Vertigo is one of the chilliest from a Hitchcock woman: she is a world-class example of restraint, broken and tormented just below the surface. Perhaps not surprisingly, Hitchcock worked her to this successful degree, and in a great coincidence of life-reflecting-art, for the role of Madeleine, Novak was dressed against her will and forced to carry herself in a certain way. If there ever proof needed that Hitchcock thrived on a sordid vicariousness of what the men in his films did, and what the camera was able to capture, it was on the set of Vertigo, where his own treatment of Novak eerily mirrors Scottie's treatment of Madeleine."

---Erik Davis of Cinematical found a fun stop-motion music video entitled Her Morning Elegance by Oren Lavie.

---Lastly, I'm looking forward to Coraline's release later this month, in part due to this pleasantly sinister trailer starring the original book's author Neil Gaiman.