Thursday, November 29, 2012

"I CAN MAKE THE PAIN GO AWAY": TALAASH

(credit: Reliance Big Pictures)

Of all the genres most impacted by cultural tenability, the one I miss the most in this cynical age is the whodunit. We're sharp enough by now that when sitting down to watch a murder mystery, we have our mental checklist at the ready, full of things like, “The most obvious suspect is going to disappear and/or die a third of the way through at the latest” on down the line to a bunch of things I won't get into here because they'd telegraph what happens in Talaash, the latest Aamir Khan picture, co-starring Rani Mukerji and Kareena Kapoor, directed by Reema Kagti.

Talaash (roughly “Search” in English, appropriately) stylishly, and at its own pace, presents the audience with a real head-scratcher of a whodunit: beloved movie star Armaan Kapoor (because of course his name's Kapoor, he's a movie star, and this is Mumbai) inexplicably drives his car off the road into the ocean and drowns, right by Mumbai's red light district. Inspector Surjan Singh Shekhawat (Aamir Khan) heads up the investigation, which reaches from the movie business to the criminal underworld, to Inspector Shekhawat's own home, where he and his wife Roshni (Rani Mukerji) struggle with the death—by drowning, quelle coincidence—of their young son, Karan. The investigation leads to a mysterious prostitute who gives her name as Rosie (Kareena Kapoor), who despite appearing to be at the center of the murder conspiracy, helps the cops, specifically Inspector Shekhawat. In the mix are pimps, blackmailers, long-suffering sex workers, born losers looking to hit it big, red herrings, everything a good crime yarn needs.

Director Reema Kagti and co-writer Zoya Akhtar end up using the familiarity of the material to their advantage, crafting an impeccably structured mystery yarn that, in tipping a few answers early on, only deepens the surprise of the ultimate resolution. Going into any detail about what that resolution is would ruin the immensely satisfying surprise, so I'll put it this way: it's something that a) only an Indian movie could pull off this awesomely, and b) pursuant to point a) sticks the landing as smoothly as it does in large part through the transcendent power of movie stars.

Aamir Khan's performance in the lead is its own bit of misdirection. Aamir is not only sporting a mustache of epic mustachely epicness (seriously, Aamir's 'stache in this is FUCKING AMAZING) but the ferocity of his charisma and the absolutely unimpeachable craft of his acting—in the complete service of the movie rather than making himself look good—obscure the fact that this story is really driven by its two heroines.

Rani Mukerji is less Aamir's wife in this than Aamir is Rani Mukerji's husband; that's not just semantics, Aamir's one of the fucking Three Khans, for fuck's sake, no one's that big. Well, so you'd think until you see the scene when Rani has enough of Aamir's moodiness and just fucking breaks him off some. She takes one of the biggest movie stars in the goddamn galaxy and just flat out “motherfucker please”s him. That scene is but one highlight; she doesn't have a huge part but when she's on screen she is on screen.

Now, Kareena Kapoor. Okay. There's a limit to how specific we can get about Bebo's role in all this without giving up the whole movie, so this paragraph's going to be a little short on proper nouns and a little long on vaguely allusive language. Let's try this: Bebo's performance and the way Kagti films her throughout intertwine seamlessly, each perfectly defining her role in the grand scheme of things. In the moment, some of her beats seem a little awkward, and her motivation really cloudy even by femme fatale standards, but in the end it all retroactively makes sense.

(credit: Reliance Big Pictures)

However, rather than continue on with Bebo-worship, let's talk about what a great goddamn job Reema Kagti does directing this her second feature. The cinematics are polished, if nothing extraordinary, but the pacing is exquisite, and there's something to be said for the fact that Aamir and Bebo—both of whom have extremely high bars—are even better than normal and Rani shiiiiiiines. Yeah, they're movie stars, but there's more to it than just casting someone charismatic and turning the camera on: when everyone's a notch above their standard the director did a good job. And, not that it has any bearing on the movie itself, but it's always nice to see young women directors making movies, especially when the chances are good that they'll crack the hallowed 100 Crore Club (long story short for Western readers: 100 crore is a billion rupees, grossing which means it's a big-ass hit; only 16 movies have yet crossed that threshold, out of approximately zillions of releases.)

Talaash is not uncommon in recent Hindi cinema in that it takes its formal and structural cues more from Hollywood and Western cinema than it does traditional masala, which prides itself (and I mean this in the most ardently supportive way possible) on stories that make emotional rather than logical sense, feature extravagant, brightly-colored song picturizations, and treat subtlety as though it was something that was overthrown along with British colonial rule. Talaash, conversely, is a narrative constructed with mathematical precision that certainly doesn't slack on emotion and emotional pay-off, but still assembles the pieces of its puzzle in a way much more Western than one would customarily see in a Hindi picture even five years ago. “More” shouldn't be read as “completely,” however. Talaash takes the best of both 'woods, Holly and Bolly, and crafts an eminently satisfying crowd-pleaser of a crime drama that requires some leaps of faith on the part of the audience, but rewards those leaps of faith with a seamless ride. What answers it provides are not the ones you think you're going to get, but they're the right ones. It's a damn good time at the movies.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

THE SYMBOL LIVES ON


Christopher Nolan's movies may have some problems—wonky framing and the odd woeful line of dialogue being the two biggies in strictly cinematic/dramatic terms, though both are more occasional than they used to be—but the man himself seems like a fascinating person to kick it with. Read this interview Scott Foundas did with him for Film Comment, and behold an extremely intelligent and thoughtful filmmaker reflect on the Batman series.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

CLOTHED IN IMMENSE FILMMAKING: LINCOLN


This is probably going to piss a lot of people off, but I can't help but think of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln as a really, really upmarket superhero movie. The nature of the thing means instead of derpy CGI battle scenes our hero uses things like rhetoric and leadership and the problem he's dealing with is actual shit instead of the tesseract or whatever, but Lincoln is still presented more as an icon than a human being. In tableaux recreating famous paintings and photos, saying stuff he's famous for saying. All in all, the fan service to Doris Kearns Goodwin fanboys/girls is immaculate; alas, no Lincoln/Seward slash, but hey, there's no room for silliness here, this shit is fucking SERIOUS, people.

All bullshit aside, Lincoln is a work of immense skill. Steven Spielberg is one of the great American directors, with a career that is simply miraculous. The dissolution of the studio system that once allowed guys like John Ford and Howard Hawks to work for 40-50 years not only predated Spielberg's career, it was one of the major contributing factors to that career's inception. For most of the time Spielberg has been working, directors have needed to prove themselves each time out, with the wrong kind of flop amounting to a professional death sentence. And while some of his pictures are better than others, Spielberg has not only hung around for fully 40 years now, he's been the biggest, most successful, and best-known director for that entire time, which when you think about it is absolutely fucking crazy. It's not like he's been cheating, either: Steven Spielberg's command over the medium of cinema is as a normal person's command over an arm or leg. It's an extension of his body. When you also factor in the resources at his disposal after having been STEVEN SPIELBERG for this long, Steven Spielberg deciding “I want to make a really good movie about Abraham Lincoln” is essentially a fait accompli: unless a meteor or something intervenes, that movie's going to happen.

And it'll be written by Tony Kushner, the author of the last consensus Great American Play, Angels In America. Kushner's script for Lincoln draws in large part on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which dealt with Lincoln's attempts to pass the 13th Amendment, which codified the emancipation of slaves as Constitutional law, in the late stages of the Civil War. It thus makes the wise choice to narrow the focus from Lincoln's entire life, or even entire presidency, on one specific episode. It spares us the origin story, in other words. Kushner has a perfect feel for a well-crafted scene, and writes beautiful text that sounds amazing when spoken by good actors. Structurally . . . let's just say he crafts scenes and writes text well. More on this in a bit, as what I have to say about Daniel Day-Lewis leads back into that.

Daniel Day-Lewis is this generation's preeminent Method actor, only working about once every five years, at which point he unleashes a towering, larger-than-life performance on the movie-going public. His turn as Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York was easily the most memorable thing in the movie, and one of the great villains in recent memory. Then there's his now-legendary embodiment of Daniel Plainview, antihero of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, which was, again, unassailable; in the hands of as gifted an actor as DDL the Method is some truly powerful shit. What both of those performances, and movies, had in common was that one didn't need to like DDL particularly for it to work, respect for the craft was sufficient, because one was an outright villain and the other a total fucking asshole. There Will Be Blood is a better analogy to Lincoln, in terms of DDL being the lead in both and thus tasked with carrying the picture. The former is also an absolute refutation of the assumption that audiences need to be able to identify with a movie's characters.

The issue with DDL's performance in the latter as Abraham Lincoln is that the movie Spielberg and Kushner are making is one where we're supposed to be in awe of Lincoln and—especially in the parts Spielberg is responsible for—totally on Lincoln's side. The character has a clearly defined goal—to abolish slavery—that just about anyone in the audience would agree is the right thing to do. We see people occasionally get frustrated with Lincoln, but always (the three Confederate muckety-mucks aside) with respect and/or love. But Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln keeps the audience at arm's length throughout. It's a performance more in the service of calling attention to the immense amount and immaculate precision of work involved in it than in the movie at large. In an actor not possessed of DDL's skill, this would be absolutely insufferable. As it is, it's merely alienating. But the issue remains that his performance feels drawn more from paintings and read from the pages of history books than it feels lived. Not every performance needs to feel that way, but one in this particular movie, especially in contrast to the beautifully organic work people like Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field turn in, should.

This is not the problem with the structure of the script. Kushner's writing is empathetic, with wonderful character moments and text for a staggering array of characters, but therein lies the catch. There's too much going on in Lincoln, which contains a good half-dozen subplots that would each be a fully-realized movie unto themselves. The most intriguing pair would definitely be: a) the story of David Oyelowo's Corporal Ira Clark, the black soldier in the opening scene who openly challenges Lincoln to his face about the untenable racial conditions of the day, and b) the spinoff ribald comedy about James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson running around going apeshit bribing people into voting yes on the amendment. The first because, minus Gloria Reuben's character and the odd servant here and there, the narrative is dangerously close to being another Great White Savior movie. It isn't that, but on the other hand, it might not be the greatest idea to whitesplain to black people why they should be more excited about Lincoln. Telling this same story through Oyelowo's character maybe means the exposition would be a little forced, but on the upside, you get to spend a whole movie with David Oyelowo, which is a net gain no matter how you cut it. As for the Spader/Hawkes/Nelson picture, as long as you don't fuck up and try and make Spader learn something by the end or give Hawkes a love interest or anything dumb and irrelevant like that, that movie fucking rocks. Still, the fact that either of those subplots would be a complete movie, and there are a few others (the Tommy Lee Jones one being a standout as far as being the material for a really bitchin poignant meditation on moral rectitude) that would be too, speaks to a problem with focus in Kushner's script. As does the fact that in a movie called Lincoln, most of the hypothetical script fixes involve losing the Lincoln character. It's not like it's a bad script as is, it's just a little caffeinated and gets distracted, trying to fit in as much stuff as it can.

That last is perfectly forgivable when the stuff is as cool as this, though. Abraham Lincoln ending fucking slavery is a good story. And for all the above bitching, Spielberg and Kushner deserve a toast for making a movie about the legislative process that's this entertaining. Spielberg's direction forgoes flash in favor of a more classical style—John Ford's been getting name-checked a lot, not because Spielberg's ripping him off but because he directs this material very similarly to the way one could see Ford doing it—without losing much if any of his customary energy. It also bears mentioning that the same tableaux I was kind of complaining about earlier are without exception absolutely gorgeous, composed and lit magnificently by Janusz Kaminski. And, speaking of those DDL complaints (keeping it real, it's a good performance, just not good enough for him to be the apparent case-closed, mark-it-in-ink Best Actor winner he apparently is), the entire rest of the cast, consisting of what feels like every single actor on Earth at times, is tremendous. It might be the first cast in history in which the number of people who're going to get robbed at the Oscars reaches double figures, which achievement is easily in range even if it wins all four acting awards. There are simply that many actors in the damn picture who are all that good. David Straithairn in particular, as William Seward, turns in the definitive David Straithairn performance: FUCKING AWESOME, never pulls focus, does exactly what's necessary for every scene he's in to make the movie better, exquisitely perfect down to the last detail. But that lack of focus-pulling doesn't win awards, Daniel Day-Lewis' “it took me six months of research with art historians, a séance with the ghost of Vsevolod Meyerhold, and the surgical removal of two inches of my left shinbone to deliver this three-word line reading . . . AND I WILL MAKE SURE YOU NOTICE” trip is what's necessary for that. And, look. DDL does do that better than anybody else. But sometimes just watching the fucking guy is exhausting. Also, as an actor from a broadly ecumenical theatrical background, I get cranky about the Method because it's just a method, not the method, but that's my baggage, not DDL's fault.

Anyway, Lincoln. It's good, even intermittently great—DDL nails the fucking fuck out of that “I AM THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, CLOTHED IN IMMENSE POWER” line, which is even better in the context of the scene—and takes little enough dramatic license as to be a serviceable introduction to the history and politics of its period to the uninitiated. It takes enough that you're going to want to follow it up with a book or five afterward for more details and background, but it's virtually certain that no one involved in the making of this movie would mind at all if their efforts inspired people to read more. Lincoln's best feature as a movie is its deft balance between having no illusions about the way public policy is made and somehow simultaneously avoiding cynicism.

In that sense, being a little fucky structurally and not being as good as it wants to be while still being pretty damn good actually makes Lincoln formally suited to its subject matter. That's America, right there, and that's Lincoln: not perfect, but plenty good enough, and authored by some very smart and talented people. Kind of a superhero movie. But in a way that's flattering both to Lincoln and superhero movies.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

A SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: A NEW OSCAR BLOG!


It is my great pleasure to announce that I, on spur of the moment, decided to start a new blog specially to discuss the Oscars! It's called The Oscar Grouch (which I'm shocked no one thought of already), and will in short order become the definitive word on the Oscar race. Yeah. Motherfucker.

Anyway, for all your Oscar-related grouching, that's the destination. Peace, and happy Thanksgiving (or happy weekend for non-US readers).

Saturday, November 17, 2012

DEAREST MARILYN; SHE WAS ONLY MADE OF FLESH AND BLOOD

source: Sunset GunShots

So this new Marilyn Monroe issue of Playboy. You all should pick it up, you know, for the articles (with all due respect to Ebert and Updike, the Kim Morgan essay is the keeper there; the couple thousand words that follow here will surely pale in comparison). I'm not shilling for Playboy, though I was a happy subscriber from 1992 to 2001, nor am I particularly a Marilyn cultist. A lot of the literary hyperbole she inspired, particularly from a certain brand of white writer dude who was young in the 50s, seems a little excessive at first glance. People like Updike (and Norman Mailer; fuckin' hell, Norman Mailer....) have always seemed like they were in some kind of Purple Proselympics to see who could come up with the best zinger about her rather than getting to the core truth of the appeal of the actress Norma Jeane Mortenson, nom de guerre Marilyn Monroe. It's easy to thus jump to the conclusion, a half century after her death, that this was all a big deal made by old people over nothing. This conclusion would be wrong. She was a very big deal indeed.


First, let us start with a fact that will seem, to the Internet generation, like the invention of fire or the wheel: Marilyn Monroe was the first movie star civilians ever got to see naked. Compared to the verbal flights one is accustomed to on the subject, that seems crudely reductive, and however gifted an actress she was (spoiler alert: very), the cultural significance of Marilyn Monroe's career is tied completely to sexuality. This is no minor feat either: she wrote the language for the way American pop culture thinks about, discusses, and depicts female sexuality. Thus, annoying though Updike, Mailer et al might be (I'm exempting Ebert from this because he gets into her relevance to cinema in a much more substantive way than they do) when writing about double-M, she is a subject worthy of lofty statements. No other American actor has ever had as profound, resonant, and lingering effect on the culture.

Of course, America (and, let's be real, Earth) being what it is, a woman who would however inadvertently end up being the Prometheus who stole titties from the gods to give to humanity was always going to end up being a tragic figure as well. Having fucked her way into the business—any judgments to be made about that strategy are to be made against the business that makes it necessary, not the strategist willing to do the necessary fucking—she ended up desperately insecure that the only thing she'd ever be remembered for was her sex appeal. However hard she tried, and however definitively she proved, that she was a terrifically skilled actor and brilliant light comedian, the doubts remained. Whether she died at 36 by her own hand, by accident, or whatever, she was never going to live to be old. She'd internalized society's standards for judging women, even as she was the vanguard by which they would change. And, ultimately, dying far too young cemented her legend, as it did for James Dean, a figure of almost as much importance for the evolution of male sexuality.

Marilyn Monroe and Playboy reciprocally “made” the other. This has led, in the time-honored one-thing-to-another fashion, to a culture where the explicitness of sexuality and the expression of (particularly male) desire is a mixed blessing (at best). Ours is a culture where women in entertainment are never terribly far from their nude photos or even video being uploaded to the Internet, to the salutation of tens of millions of fapping hands. For those who didn't sign up for that, that really sucks. Even if you did it on purpose, the thought of being reduced empirically to an object being fapped to is probably kind of a bleak thing to ponder in the wrong mood. But, it must be said that while Playboy is by no means the end game in the road to sexual freedom—it is, a priori, specifically a prism for the male gaze in intent—the loosening of the cultural belt it inspired led, both directly and indirectly, to countless unambiguous social goods. The Pill. Actual discussions of sexuality and gender specific cultural depictions thereof. The USO scene in Apocalypse Now. Ad infinitum. This is not to dismiss the shittiness of objectification. It's more to illustrate that things are rarely as simple as an either/or good/bad dichotomy. As a wise (if fictional) woman once said, sometimes things just gotta play hard.

And did they ever play hard for Marilyn Monroe. As much as the deck was stacked against her, she still managed to fuck things up for herself by being chronically late and occasionally a bit of an asshole to co-stars. Even that, though, is not only understandable, but a common thing, and not even one that derives from meanness. As much of a mistake as it is, potentially, to psychoanalyze one person on the basis of something derived from another, I think this example fits: I recently met an actress (whom I won't name) who was performing at a show where I was working. I had been a bit nervous about meeting her, because she was, in a way, to me and other like-minded dudes of my generation what Marilyn Monroe had been to John Updike. She arrived after the show had started—there was a backup plan in place in case she didn't show—and well after everyone had given up, in any real sense, on the thought of her showing up. But, she did show up. Absolutely terrified. Not of being late (as someone who is chronically five minutes late to everything, I can tell you: the fear is not of being late) but of something else, something very familiar. What I think this anonymous actress (and Marilyn) were really afraid of was rejection. The fucked up thing is, being rejected and told to fuck off and that you'd never have lunch in this town again and all that shit would validate the little emotional kamikaze pilot lurking in the back of your psyche that secretly wants to check out of this whole shit into oblivion. So, when you fear rejection, you end up compulsively setting yourself up for circumstances where someone could decide to flip out and shitcan you, all the while absolutely terrified that that's going to happen because you don't actually want to get rejected. (See above “sometimes things just gotta play hard,” note the universality of that statement's applicability.) Long story short, once the anonymous actress showed up at the gig and I saw how scared she was I said reassuring things to her and immediately walked her over to the show's producer, who was more than glad to talk her down from the fear and prepare her for the show. That's the best case scenario when you have the fear. The worst, that Marilyn Monroe had to deal with, was high-stress Hollywood types with the screaming mimis because of how much money the delays have to cost, not giving two fucks what the blonde with the tits was feeling. And once she'd pissed off enough people, and had committed the capital felony of not staying 25 in perpetuity, eventually she was alone. And then she was no more.

As unavoidable as it is to remember the tragic parts of her story, the way I prefer to remember her is cutting through Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Jane Russell on some “we the only ones on this level” shit. Or painstakingly playing every scene in the silly How To Marry A Millionaire with warmth and humanity. Or throwing down the gauntlet in Bus Stop and making it unambiguously clear that she was a real dramatic actor whether civilians noticed it or not. Or the way in that tiny part in All About Eve when George Sanders pointed her in the direction of Gregory Ratoff and told her to go impress him and she flicks the switch and BECOMES a star (and not just in the celebrity sense, I mean like the fucking sun). Or, most especially, in Some Like It Hot, very near the end, when she was thoroughly who she was and ever would be and knew exactly what she was and ever would be and gives a performance with supreme self-awareness, perfect timing, and just the right balance between self-satire and the thing being satirized. You want her to be happy. And the movie ends in just the right place that you think she can be, which is the great advantage movies have over reality: you can call “cut” in the former.

Friday, November 16, 2012

ROBERT PATTINSON, MAN OF ABSOLUTE CANDOR



Heheheheheheh oh man the Twilight PR people must have gargled Vicodin-laced Scotch whenever this guy opened his mouth.

The thing is, if he was just some jagoff who fancied himself A Serious Artist without having done anything other than Twilight, this would seem a lot more douche-y. But I saw Cosmopolis. He is actually a really good actor, who was actually slumming playing Sparkly McEmoVamp. And I gotta say, he may not have gotten to bite enough necks in those movies, but he sure does make up for it with those fang marks he left on the hand that feeds him.

Good on ya, Rob. Godspeed.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

UNPOPULAR OPINION ALERT: IN PRAISE OF TWILIGHT



Man, that joke just never gets old. Even though old, as above, is cool.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

GOING TO THE WHINE CELLAR FOR A BOTTLE OF AMERICAN BEAUTY


Oscar season looms yet again, with all its many splendors. I promised myself after last year I wouldn't get as bent out of shape this time, and it looks like that should be a fairly easy promise to keep. Of course, I say that now: nomination morning I could very well be on some “woe betide these motherfuckers for their heathenry” and shit but unless it's something really bad, I plan to just shrug and go about my day. But, you know, the Oscars do exist, and I am going to mention them now and again. This prologue is all to explain why I recently re-watched American Beauty, the great champion of the 72nd Academy Awards.

When it first came out, in September 1999, I was all over American Beauty. I saw it three times in theaters, and a bunch more on video. I remember many lengthy arguments about whether it, Fight Club, or The Matrix was the year's preeminent critique of our soulless, commercialized culture. It was the end of the 20th century, where nothing was so painful as the numbness of mainstream society, where no president could ever possibly be worse than Bill Clinton, with all his corruption and sex scandals. Clearly, we were full of shit. And high. And hadn't any idea how much worse the next president would be. But the fact remains, full of shit though we and our popular culture at large may have been, the jittery fin de siecle moodiness was a real thing (particularly among young people), and American Beauty captured that lightning in the bottle. I wasn't on the hook at the time to compile a top 10 list for the year, but if I had—being brutally honest with myself, not trying to make myself look better after the fact—it would have looked like this:

1—Fight Club
2—Magnolia
3—American Beauty
4—The Matrix
5—Being John Malkovich
6—South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut
7—The Talented Mr. Ripley
8—The Sixth Sense
9— The Insider
10—Eyes Wide Shut

And there was a whole bunch of other stuff that year, too (Boys Don't Cry, The Iron Giant, Election, and on and on). The point is, American Beauty being the Oscar frontrunner and taking home a bunch of them was fine by me and fine by my friends I watched the ceremony with that year. The worst fight was when I had to explain to one friend that Conrad Hall wasn't “a conservative Republican asshole” for calling the characters in American Beauty “strange” in his acceptance speech for Best Cinematography and that was over in two seconds and only because we were all drunk. All in all, over the years, I regarded that year's Oscars as a pretty good one. Sure, the triumphant victor wasn't my favorite movie of the year, but even then I knew the game was the game and the Oscar winner wasn't necessarily the best picture of the year, merely the best Oscar picture of the year. By that yardstick (with me doing the measuring at any rate), American Beauty actually did quite well.

It wasn't until recently, when, because I was writing it and needed to know more about it the amount of film crit I read on a regular basis expanded beyond the New York papers and the AV Club, I realized there was a heavily prevailing sentiment that American Beauty was one of the worst Oscar winners of all time. Rather than get on my high horse and tell all these sticks in the mud that, like, they didn't even know, man, I stopped to think. Because I'm me, and thinking is my favorite indoor sport. I thought, “Are they right? Was I wrong?” Partly just to be a fucking showoff, morally, but also because it had been like ten years since I'd seen the movie or had any urge to and I had no idea whether I'd still like it. I recently decided—completely coincidental to Sam Mendes' new picture being out in theaters—to revisit American Beauty and see who was right.....and who was fucked.

As it turns out, it's not so much that American Beauty was shitty and me and my college stoner suburban refugee friends were wrong. The movie itself is shot handsomely and directed well, with the performances taking on a more stylized, stagy quality than I'd remembered—natural, considering Mendes' theater background—with excellent work across the board. Really, the only Oscar I'd revoke at this point is Alan Ball's Original Screenplay one, because the dialogue's almost universally too on-the-nose and has massive focus issues, veering around pretending practically everyone in it is the lead, while giving Annette Bening and Chris Cooper fucking nothing to work with at all. Not to mention the fact that Kevin Spacey's journey to enlightenment centers around standing up to and asserting dominance over the women in his life is a little “cool story bro” these days; yeah, you show those broads, privileged white dude.

The larger issue with the script is something that I believe Alan Ball did on purpose (though I could be wrong, natch), which is that because suburban anomie as a symptom of the American condition was not yet a major theme in mainstream cinema and because it needed to be addressed because the most serious problem America would ever have to face was feeling dead inside (ahem) there needed to be no bones about the script coming right out and saying everything it needed to say, so that there would be no ambiguity. Thus, as frequently happens, writing specifically for an exact, finite cultural moment makes for writing that does not age well.

The America in which American Beauty takes place ceased to exist shortly thereafter, and the concerns of the characters in the movie trivialized. The two other movies that figured so prominently in those long-ago discussions, that I've ever since thought of as companion pieces, Fight Club and The Matrix, tapped into different strains of the late 20th century collective angst of which American Beauty represented the genteel side (Kevin Spacey getting shot in the head at the end notwithstanding). With their more overtly violent and apocalyptic perspectives (to say nothing of the skyscrapers collapsing at the end of Fight Club), Fincher and the Wachowskis did a better job of making movies that held up after the violent apocalyptic events of Dubya's first term. People not liking their jobs or spouses or parents kind of seemed like drama queens in a world where you could wake up and see lower Manhattan on fucking fire at any given moment. And thus what was once an incisive look behind a door rarely opened took on a permanent waft of “who gives a fuck” in the meaner and darker decade that followed.

Now, American Beauty is like a cuneiform tablet its culture spent years encoding with its every last core truth. But, in accordance with the “shit happens” principle of history, the language of that people went extinct. So, many millennia later, archaeologists rolled up their sleeves, fastened their bullwhips to their belts, fucked a couple blondes and painstakingly reconstructed that language. Alas, after all that work, and all those car-motorcycle-boat chases, the archaeologists discovered that people's entire culture was based on sitting around moping about shit. And this, after a thrilling death-defying escape from Nazis, really pissed those archaeologists off, because those cuneiform-ass motherfuckers didn't know how good they had it.

But however much the picture might make one cringe now, it was named the best picture of 1999 for a good reason. And that is that it was the best picture of 1999, in the sense of being a snapshot. An immaculately framed, perfectly lit snapshot. But of someone who really needed to lighten the fuck up.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

WHAT IT MEANS TO BE A MODERN MAN: SKYFALL


(Note: the following may contain those things that, whether or not the term fits, are commonly called “spoilers,” for Skyfall and other select Daniel Craig movies. Proceed at will if you've already seen the movie(s) or don't give a shit.)


I've tried not to start too many sentences with “when I interviewed Barbara Broccoli” because the problem with excessive name-dropping is eventually something will shatter, but when I interviewed Barbara Broccoli one of the things she attributed the longevity and resilience of the Bond movies as a cultural presence is their ability to adapt to the prevailing current cultural climate. This is not the deepest insight—a smart producer with an eye on the long game will regard it as going without saying—but the Bond franchise, however iffy some of the movies may be, is notable for not only intending to do this, but knowing how.

The longest-running Bonds (Lazenby and Dalton are outliers here, not forgotten) all reflected their time and the desires of the audience to varying degrees. Bad motherfucker Sean Connery was an icon in the short-hair 60s. Roger Moore reflected back the decadent 70s. Pierce Brosnan was the perfect Bond for the 90s when we were deconstructing everything and being ironic about shit all the time, being both the kiss kiss bang bang blow shit up dude with all the attendant morality and objectification issues and totally a commentary on it, man, just watch it baked, you'll see levels and shit. Daniel Craig's Bond, starting in Casino Royale and continuing in Skyfall (Quantum of Solace is unusable data because the camera never stopped fucking shaking long enough for anyone to see anything the hummingbird editing didn't obscure; fuck Marc Forster) has had to face the challenge of delivering all the elements that make the character “Bond; James Bond” while still making sense emotionally as a character in an age when masculinity is a markedly different thing than it was 50 years ago when the series began.

This is something Daniel Craig has been doing often enough in enough different roles that it's starting to look deliberate. His breakthrough role as a leading man, 2004's Layer Cake, was on the surface a bit of a dude fantasy: he was a drug dealer who managed to make shitloads of money and nail Sienna Miller and so forth but with clean hands because he did it all with brains, not brawn. Best of all possible worlds, right? You getta  the money, you getta the power, you getta the woo-muhn (© Scarface) without moral compromise. Every hetero alpha manque bro on Earth reads that and is like fuck ya bro. Only what happens at the end? Daniel Craig gets lit up by that weaselly little dickface from whom he stole Sienna Miller. Kinda puts the damper on the whole bro fantasy. Then there's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, where he essentially bottoms for Salander, until he has this attack of derp aphasia and breaks her heart with one of those “Oh no! My dick acted of its own accord and ended up inside another woman!” things where dudes absolve themselves of any responsibility because “that's how men are,” only we see it from Salander's perspective so he looks like a fucking jerkoff, even though he's supposed to be the lead. Then as Bond, we repeatedly (and often jarringly) see Daniel Craig wielding what the AV Club's Zack Handlen called, when we were chatting on Twitter (NOT NAME-DROPPING! ATTRIBUTION!), “the dick of death.” With prior Bonds, the fact that women died within femtoseconds of Bond ejaculating in them was regarded in blithe “all in the game, dawg” terms, or at most something for Bond to derive a little cheap temporary motivation from. With Daniel Craig, he still mates, and he still kills, but there's at once more of a critique present within the movie—put another way, it's less clear that we're supposed to be sitting there going “fuck ya bro” whenever he pulls a cold-blooded sex trip—and a sense that the emotional blankness he affects in the first act of Casino Royale (for example) is an affectation. Craig's Bond is not an emotionless killer, cool customer though he is, and he's far more at ease with women colleagues and even superiors than his predecessors; such a thing would have been unthinkable until Brosnan, and even his Bond was always bristling at taking orders from Judi Dench. Daniel Craig, on the other hand, regards Judi Dench being the fuckin bawss as any civilized person should: the natural fucking order. Sure he talks a little shit, but he regards her as a clear superior, with not just fondness but respect.

This abandonment of archaic notions of masculinity—I swear I'll get to Skyfall in a minute, I just need to mention this first, as it's central to what makes the movie so good—is one of the more welcome trends of the early 21st century. It's not, as some whine, anti-male. I'm fully on board with gender progressivism, with neither ownage nor empathy being the province of any one set of birth genitals, all that good stuff, but I'm a guy and have no guilt about finding that awesome, because it's all I've got. I just don't expect to be handed the world for having been born with a dick, that's all. That time, not that it was ever right, is gone. Daniel Craig's Bond, the Bond of the now, is one who still kicks ass and takes names....but isn't perfect, does have his confidence shaken, can have his heart broken, and comes closer to being a flat-out “necessary evil” than any other Bond. He's still “Bond; James Bond” but he is that thing in this world. And without any further ado, Skyfall:

Opening with a grand-scale car-motorcycle-train race with some eye-popping stunts and where James Bond uses a fucking earth-mover to rip open a train car that he then jumps into and adjusts his cufflinks, Skyfall announces its intent immediately and with clarity: this is a fucking James Bond movie. But then, right when Bond is fighting with the baddie who's stolen one of those lists of undercover operatives that keeps getting stolen in computer-age spy movies, fellow agent Naomie Harris (whose name we don't catch until the right moment for it to be awesome) accidentally shoots Bond with a sniper rifle and sends him plummeting off the train into a conveniently-located body of water. Cue awesome title sequence replete with Adele's “Shirley Bassey nouveau” swag.

So M (Judi Dench, boss) is in deep shit with the suits for not only not getting the list of spies back but for accidentally icing James Bond—he's presumed dead; hahahahaha—and, indeed, informed that she is expected to take early retirement by Minister of Running Shit Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes). M storms out in “fuck this shit” mode but then whatever asshole stole the spy list hacks into her office computer while she's on her way back from the meeting and then, in true movie hacker fashion, blows up MI6 with just his computer.

At this point, Bond “surprises” everyone by showing back up after spending an undisclosed amount of time getting angry drunk and moody laid, which prompts M to get him back out into the field. Before he does, he takes a meeting with geek fashion plate Q (Ben Whishaw), who supplies decidedly more practical gadgets than Desmond Llewellyn or even John Cleese. At that point, Bond heads out to Shanghai to catch up with the dude with whom he had the train fight in Turkey. The meeting, as usually does in Bond movies, goes badly for the other guy, leaving Bond to follow a trail of clues leading to, first, a casino in Macau where komodo dragons saunter around eating people stupid enough to start shit with James Bond, then the mysterious, beautiful, in-over-her-head Severine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), and finally a deserted island on which dwells an apeshit bleached-blonde computer hacker ex-MI6 agent by the name of Javier Goodgodalmighty Bardem. Turns out M was a little less than nice to him once (relating to his being ex-MI6) and he wants him some revenge. The rest of the movie, not to be reductive as it is an apt way to put it, is concerned with Bond's attempts to thwart that revenge.

Weirdly, one of the best things about Skyfall is how often (and badly) Bond fucks up. His diminished post-brush-with-death (speaking of the first fuckup) aim gets Severine killed. After Bond activates ownage mode, kills all Javier Bardem's dudes, and shleps him and all his computer shit back to England for Q to make sense of, when Q is trying to reroute the encryptions on the asymmetric algorithm and put the lime in the coconut or whatever the fuck it is he's doing, Bond sees this glaringly obvious thing in the swirling data graphic thing and tells Q to use it as a password. Boom, it's a trap, the computer goes blooey (technical term) and Javier Bardem goes free. That's the point in the narrative when the hero, in any picture, gets his shit together, and Bond does get his shit together, but man, that's three huge-time upfucks (though, arguably, Q should have told Bond to fuck off with the computer one: Q handles the tech stuff, Bond handles the ownage, that's the division of labor, and that's that).

None of the above paragraph should be read as reflecting negatively on the movie itself. All that shit is fine (“people make mistakes” covers the first two, however brutally the movie dispatches of Severine post-Bond-coitus, and as for the third, Q is young enough and nervous enough that hey, why not listen to Bond) and ties into the idea of the modern Bond as being a fallible human being. That alone makes Skyfall a far better movie than a lot of the Bond-as-Superman ones, and for a story compelling for reasons other than “what's Bond gonna do next” and stunts and ownage and all that.

On the other hand, whoa daddy are the stunts and ownage and all that great in this fucking movie. Sam Mendes is a better candidate to direct this kind of thing than one might immediately think, because movie people hear Sam Mendes and think American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Revolutionary Road, the kind of thing that'll get nominated for an Oscar or two, get enthusiastic reviews from print critics, and that your civilian friends might consent to see. But prior to branching out into film Mendes directed a lot of big-budget commercial theater, and successfully. The idea of Mendes directing a big studio action movie makes a lot more sense in that context, and his theater background, specifically with having to block actors in physical space on stage, actually comes in quite handy with film: the action and physical geography in general are always clean (enough, at the very least) in his movies. That ability to place actors physically makes for good, crisp visuals.

What also helps—and is another benefit of a theater background: learning to delegate to your tech and design team—is hiring the best cinematographers in the world. Mendes' first two features were shot by the legendary Conrad Hall, and Away We Go by the terrific Ellen Kuras, but the rest of them (including the not-yet-mentioned because it has nothing to do with anything Jarhead) have been by Roger Deakins, who is responsible for Skyfall being one of the most lushly gorgeous movies of this or any other year. One particular standout is the Shanghai sequence where Bond creeps up on the train dude, watches him assassinate some rich fuck in the skyscraper across the way in front of a Modigliani painting (and Bérénice Marlohe, who's blocked in parallel to the painting), then fights with the guy before inadvertently Hans Gruber-ing him out the window. The colors (particularly the blues and ambers) and lighting are the kind of thing you can really only do with digital, to an extent I haven't seen since Dion Beebe's crazy night sky post-hurricane greens in Michael Mann's Miami Vice. Now, film vs. digital isn't an either-or. We still need to do everything we can to preserve 35mm prints, as damn near the entire first century of the medium is 35mm, and there are still things analog film can do that digital video simply can't. All I'm saying is, Roger Deakins proves in Skyfall that the digital future is one in which beauty will not only survive but thrive. As long as it's not to the extinction of film, we straight.

SPEAKING OF WHICH one thing I wanted to bring up because people have been discussing it is The Gay Thing. To wit, the scene when Daniel Craig walks right into Javier Bardem's trap—technically not a fuckup on Bond's part; swaggering insouciantly right into the villain's clutches is something Sean Connery invented because his dick was simply too big for anything to ever go permanently wrong—and Bardem slowly walks into frame while delivering a villain-oquy and then proceeds to totally feel him up while he's handcuffed to a chair. And rather than get all gay panic-y like a fucking asshole Daniel Craig gets saucy right back. And it's AWESOME. Whether or not Javier Bardem was actually making a gay pass at Daniel Craig and whether Daniel Craig was actually alluding to having fucked some dude sometime, dorm room, boarding school, just to explore, whatevs, is completely irrelevant. The whole point is our he-man god among men piss on a tree male lead did not succumb to gay panic. Baby steps, but fuck yeah. (While we're on the subject, that Ben Whishaw sure is pretty. Second sexiest supporting player in the whole cast, a distant second to Bérénice Marlohe but edging out Naomie Harris in a shocking upset, as Naomie Harris glows in this movie and every single scene she has with Daniel Craig it just sounds like they're saying “Sexsexsexsexsex.” “Sexsexsex? Sexsex.” “Sexsexsexsexsex.” “Sex [wink].” “[meaningful glance, eyes half-lidded in arousal].” Yeah, sounds about right for Moneypenny 3.0.)

Another, larger-scale thing that struck me, is the way in which the particulars of the climactic ownage sequence assemble into a gigantic metaphor for transcending personal trauma. Yes, I'm serious. When Bond gets M the hell out of London before Javier Bardem can assassinate her, he takes her to his (previously mentioned once, mysteriously, to a very hostile reaction from Bond) family estate, Skyfall, where with the help of caretaker Albert Finney (I love movies where Albert Finney just randomly shows up because it's like “Yay! Albert Finney!”) Bond and M rig the entire goddamn place with bombs and blow all but two of Javier Bardem's dudes and his fucking helicopter straight to hell. Because it's not the kind of movie where people bring their metaphor glasses, Bond mutters, “I always hated this place” before blowing up the whole house and the helicopter. Let's recap: Bond's parents tragically killed when he was a kid. Trauma makes him ripe for M's borderline-Dickensian “fuck yeah orphans” recruitment policy. Leaves him emotionally damaged enough to kill the fuck out of everyone (or kill them by fucking them, if they're pan-racial ladies with pretty accents and too few degrees of separation from the local bad guy). But, before any of that happens, he's a kid in that house in the boonies in Scotland. Blowing it the fuck up might could be a bit cathartic. Add in M's role in that trauma, the bow with which the sequence is tied up is her hanging on just long enough to affectionately bust Bond's balls one last time before succumbing to the bullet wound that she, with fierce Britishness, denies even taking.

The fundamental, reciprocal relationship between character and action is what what sets Skyfall a cut above all the other large-scale action movies of 2012, and of all but a tiny elite within the Bond canon. The requirements of a Bond movie are such that to explore the depths of the character is to do so within a distinct set of parameters; tying that in with the conclusive action set piece is a brilliant choice. And, in a way, the fact that what we learn about Bond we already know or easily could have inferred is perfect as well. The whole point to Bond, after 50 years, is that we know him. But rather than worship or even admire someone who, from a certain and frankly dominant angle, is a deeply fucked-up violent icicle, Skyfall gets us to empathize with him. And that, frankly, makes the ownage own that much more. Kiss kiss. Bang bang.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

THE DREAM FACTORY, AND THE NIGHTMARES THAT SOMETIMES ISSUE FORTH

Faults? Why does John Wayne hate America? 

Hollywood—the industry, not the neighborhood—used to be referred to as “the dream factory,” with the movies themselves and all the magic contained therein being the dream, obviously. But the playacting and theatricality isn't limited to the movies themselves: the assembly line workers, foremen, and managers themselves indulge to varying degrees in making their own fantasies come to fruition in life as well. The doors that money and power open (which is to say, nearly all of them) hold behind them multitudes of things and people to do and be, in all possible permutations. One of the more risible aspects of the entertainment business is the tendency for agents and executives to talk and act like gangsters; this tendency was sent up sublimely in True Romance when Saul Rubinek's producer Lee Donowitz hollers at some asshole in another car, “DON'T GIVE ME THE FINGER! I'LL FUCKIN' HAVE YOU KILLED!” A lot of this is the kind of overcompensation one finds in many other white-collar industries, lines of work that require no actual toughness or brute strength or balls to do properly, so rich (almost exclusively white) dudes reassure themselves that their dicks are in fact bigger than the next guy's, their balls require shoe horns to fit in their trousers, that they are men, and they are tough. Grr. Kill. Meow.

Pat Dollard was the younger brother of Steven Soderbergh's first agent, Anne, who died suddenly and tragically in a horseback riding accident in 1989, when Soderbergh was rising to fame with his first feature, sex, lies, and videotape. Taking over from his sister, Pat became Soderbergh's agent and later manager, their relationship lasting until Soderbergh abruptly terminated their arrangement in 2006. Over that time, Pat Dollard became very rich and enjoyed considerable power in the entertainment industry, and had a wildly flamboyant drug problem, which served in no small part to inform what details in Soderbergh's Traffic screenwriter Steven Gaghan's own drug exploits did not. The split between Dollard and Soderbergh was apparently not due to Dollard's drug problem, as he did eventually stop using, but to Dollard's increasing right-wing political activism. Although Dollard would occasionally rant about being a pariah in largely left-leaning Hollywood by daring to nobly hold rightist views, there are plenty of conservatives in Hollywood who work consistently and don't exactly keep quiet. The problem, to editorialize, is that Pat Dollard is a fucking asshole, and a dangerous combination of stupid and crazy.

In his largely self-imposed industry exile, Dollard made documentaries, and became part of the late Andrew Breitbart's orbit of howling right-wing dipshittery, standing out as one of the loudest howlers and dippiest of shits. In an age when the entertainment industry in general and, by extension as one part thereof, the movie industry are governed first, second, third et cetera ad infinitum by the the market with any political considerations completely subordinate to what will sell tickets, Breitbart and his ilk railed (and continue to rail in Breitbart's absence) about Hollywood liberal conspiracies and all manner of pie in the sky fuckery because movie audiences don't buy enough tickets to doctrinaire right-wing bullshit for their liking. And, it's true, there aren't many overtly right-wing movies. There was Mel Gibson's Jesus picture, which made a ton of money.  Conservative audiences fucking loved it, even though the movie was apolitical, just passionate, intensely personal (insane, anti-Semitic) filmmaking. Also, Jesus had 2004 years of pre-release marketing that made the build-up to The Avengers look like amateur hour in terms of character profile. Even movies where the military or cops are good guys and portrayed heroically don't tend to be overtly political because the military and cops are the good guys (except when they're not, but I'm talking about when they fulfill the requirements of the job they're supposed to do, which is defend the rest of us). This is because most movies, when it comes to political content, are deliberately left a bit vague and Rorschach-blotty to reach the widest possible audience, to make money, which conservatives are supposed to like. Right-wingers giving themselves perforated ulcers over leftist propaganda in movies are almost without exception torturing themselves with flimsy extrapolations and would do better to calm the fuck down.

Now, in the realm of actual politics, reading political implications into things is fair game. But there's still a tremendous disconnect between the kind of things right-wingers bark at the moon about and the way things actually are. Barack Obama was re-elected president the other day, following a horrendously contentious and long campaign against the Republican challenger Mitt Romney. As any number of disgruntled leftists pointed out, there was little qualitative difference between the policies of President Obama and those held by Romney during the 1990s and later during his days as the governor of Massachussetts, because Obama, by any reasonable metric, is a centrist, and had to be to become the first black president in the history of this country. Romney, on the other hand, drifted rightward to appeal to the Republican base, abandoning his support of reproductive rights and for healthcare and all the stuff that actually made him something other than an Evil White Guy In A Suit in the first fucking place. Right-wing hysteria, deriving in no small part to racism but not exclusively, led to Obama being called a socialist, a foreign national, an agent bent on the destruction of the entire American way of life. What he, and the fact that America elected him, actually represented was the end of the default status of white men as the gatekeepers of power and the institutions thereof; read David Simon's customarily brilliant expounding on this idea. This societal shift has driven a lot of people absolutely fucking insane, and if your definition of “the American way of life” was white people running everything, the Obama presidency is the equivalent of the lights being turned up at the end of the night at the bar. Time for the drunks to tip on out and get the fuck gone so we can clean up.

If the 2008 election led to the (assisted with large sums of money by people like the Koch brothers) rise of the Tea Party, one can only imagine that Obama's re-election would drive the right wing even more crazy. And oh boy, lemme tell ya. All day today listening to right-wing shitheads whine was one of the most glorious days of schadenfreude in my living memory. That is, up until Pat Dollard started melting down on Twitter and his blog. While most of the right wing has been kvelling harmlessly—Karl Rove's tantrum on Fox about Ohio being called too early for his liking, Donald Trump queefing through his toupee about how the rest of the world is laughing at us (when really, they're tremendously relieved that we didn't fuck the election up), a plethora of dummies hammering Romney for not being not enough of an Evil White Guy In A Suit, when that was his whole problem—Pat Dollard has crossed the line into the legitimately dangerous. He is, quite literally, advocating everything from civil war to violence against media members and institutions.

Most of the shit Dollard's been talking is, while inflammatory, the kind of thing a good lawyer could argue out of a conviction for sedition. But this comment thread, started by Dollard's psychotically petulant appropriation of Thomas Jefferson's quote about resistance against legitimate tyranny, contains multiple people openly advocating criminal acts. This is not freedom of speech. This is a group of angry, delusional people so enraged by a wholly imaginary conception of President Obama as a socialist—when tax rates are at historic lows, private industry is making money hand over fist, Wall Street is virtually unregulated and faced no consequences for almost destroying the global economy through dickwaving—that they are openly talking about taking up arms against the government, on the Internet. This is not okay, and these flames are having gasoline ejaculated all over them by Pat Dollard.

Movies did not create Pat Dollard. The movie industry, the white-collar culture of pretend gangsters, phony tough guys, and ersatz revolutionaries, did. Thrust by tragic circumstances into a position of immediate and unearned power, he proceeded to profit immensely, all while never having to engage with reality in any real way. He has now driven himself to a point of frothing madness based on the fantasia that our centrist president is a despot who, the democratic process having failed, must now be dealt with by other means. Impressionable, angry people seeking some grand, unifying cause around which to rally, are on the verge of letting this lunatic asshole talk them into committing nothing short of terrorism against the United States of America and our president. This is disgusting. This is not a movie, where the plucky underdogs battle gamely against the mustache-twirling villains and prevail to the strains of orchestral string music, with the firm-jawed hero and doe-eyed heroine kissing as we fade to black. There are real consequences to this shit. Not to mention the absurdity of destroying the country you claim to love on the basis that it has transcended the hypocrisy of its early claims to be a land of freedom by extending individual liberty to those previously ignored or openly oppressed.

I sincerely hope that Pat Dollard is howling into a right-wing echo chamber, that all of those people talking all fucking tough in his comment section are just posturing shitheads who'll sleep on it, wake up and decide they don't want to go to federal prison for conspiring violently against the United States of America. Because that is the reality of what they're discussing. Clint Eastwood is not going to show up and blow away the Obamau Maus with a .44. Chuck Norris is not going to woodenly ruin some line of dialogue and then kick an extra. This is not that pigshit stupid Red Dawn remake. Life is not a movie. These assholes, if they do what they're talking about doing, are going to fucking federal prison. And history will remember them with John Wilkes Booth, Leon Czolgosz, James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, Timothy McVeigh. They don't even get to be Lee Harvey Oswald, however much they may be patsies for racist billionaires terrified of paying regular people income tax rates. Oswald got a whole Don DeLillo novel, and a whole three-hour Oliver Stone movie where even then he was pushed to the side. No one will make a movie about their little dipshit rebellion against fairness, individual rights, marriage equality, and social justice. If they are mentioned at all, it will be with a shiver and a muttered, “those fucking idiots.” Choose your fate, right-wing shitheads. And choose wisely.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A CHAT ABOUT AMITABH BACHCHAN'S 1979 THE GREAT GAMBLER

That's right. Amitabh Bachchan can light a cigarette with nothing but manliness.

Sunday evening, the Wall Street Journal's Beth Watkins and I watched The Great Gambler on Youtube (legally, natch) while trying to figure out what the fuck was going on on Gchat. The next day we were still trying to figure out what was going on. (Note: this conversation can be found on both my blog and hers, so read it twice.)

Beth: So, as relative newbie to 70s masala, did this blow your mind at all?
Danny: A bit, though not as badly as it would have if I didn't have a cursory background
Beth: And what's in that cursory background? I know you've seen Sholay but I can't imagine that would help too much other than for general Amitabh awesomeness?
Danny: Yeah, I have a solid introductory grounding in Amitabh being awesome, and with little details like the plot never making any logical sense and the clothes and tunes
All of which are relevant here.
Beth: And it was your first film for Zeenat Aman, right? Wait, why am I talking like this is an actual interview?
Danny: Yeah, why so formal? But yes, it is my intro to Zeenat Aman, a real nice first impression too.
Beth: I am not convinced she's the greatest actress ever. I often debate with myself whether I find her or Parveen Babi more fantastic overall (among the shiny-haired 70s bombshell ladies) and lately I keep coming down in favor of Parveen. But as you said yesterday, one can have both, so why worry.
Danny: Yes, in slightly different context, but that is a fairly universal philosophy, and not even as "seriously, dude, grow up" as it sounds. Either/or choices are rarely actually that thing, especially in the arts.
Beth: I think about it with these two because to me the places they appear seem almost interchangeable, so I enjoy thinking about how they are in fact different.
Danny: I know nothing about Parveen Babi, alas. Though the idea of there being two Zeenats is not ungood.
Beth: All in good time.

Danny: So one thing I'm curious about, structure-wise and sort of big picture-y, is: how common is The Great Gambler's globe-trotting intrigue with gangsters and undercover cops type stuff in 70s B'wood? After a certain point it reminded me a ton of Western 60s Mod spy things.
Beth: There are a handful of Bolly spins on Euro spy films, though not a ton, to my understanding. And off the top of my head I would say that the globetrotting in this one is trotty-er - more extensive in terms of number of places/countries - than usual. I really do think they blew the budget on the airfare and...well I was about to say shooting permits, but HAHAHA to that.There's a fantastic Dharmendra one called Charas in which he does stuff like this and a lot of the action is centered in...Malta, of all places. (And "charas" apparently means "drugs," so you can already tell how awesome this is.) Mithun has some spy films (his character is called Gunmaster G9) and they only PRETEND to go to Egypt. 
Danny: Ha nice. But the reason I asked about how prevalent that kind of thing is in 70s Bolly is because I've noticed a lot more of that thing in the 90s and post-90s Bolly I've seen.
Beth: They are fantastic. What do you mean, a lot more?
Danny: Well keep in mind my frame of reference is more limited than yours, by several orders of magnitude, but I always got the impression that jetting around all over creation to "exotic" locales was a thing SRK brought into fashion
Beth: Ah I see. No, it's longer ago than that. Raj Kapoor was the first to go to Switzerland, for example - in the 60s. Aad while I have not seen that film, what I've seen suggests that the foreign locales are for song teleports or to show a hero coming back to India from somewhere, not for actual stretches of plot.
Danny: I just realized also that could be a function of SRK's unparalleled ability to pull focus and make everything seem like it's about him hahaha
Beth: Yes that too, and the NRI audience of course gets bigger and bigger and bigger so it was discussed more and more as the years go by.

Danny: So enough about him, back to the 70s :D
Beth: To me, The Great Gambler has a lot of great hallmarks of the 70s stuff I enjoy most: fun costumes, fun interiors, running around, the big huge all-in brawl at the end, some fun dances, disguises, someone who is "bad" becoming much less bad by the end, a smidge of patriotism…. But this film is not really over the top, in retrospect.
Danny: AND TWINS. No, it's pretty restrained.
Beth: It's kind of complicated, but it's, yeah, restrained, which is an interesting combination.
Danny: i.e. no Rishi Kapoor rollerskating around on top of a giant record player in a spangly jumpsuit
Beth: HAHAH right. No robots, nothing under water.
Danny: No supernatural stuff.
Beth: No religion either. I notice it came from a novel, which I do not recall encountering before in something so masala-y. 
Danny: Yeah, that does seem a bit less prevalent.
Beth: I've seen at least one other 70s action-y film from a novel (Inkaar, which was based on King's Ransom by way of Kurosawa's High and Low) but it's more serious in tone than this and is all set in Bombay, as I recall. And Vinod Khanna does not get any truly ridiculous costumes like Amitabh's blonde afro "hippie," though someone does put a radio transmitter in a watermelon.

Danny: Let's talk about Amitabh as the hippie for a second because holy shit that was hilarious.
Beth: It really was.
Danny: He looked like he'd been dipped in gold paint after putting on Samuel L.'s wig from Pulp Fiction and then did a really hilarious Peter Fonda impression.
Beth: THAT is exactly why I like this era of films - you know there will be disguises with bad wigs but you never know exactly what. Plus the patchwork pants on him are just insane - that strip of patchwork running all the way up both legs.
Danny: Oh the costumes were amazing, all the more so for being comparatively restrained. Well, except those ladies with the three-foot diamonds on their heads and the twelve-layer skirts in the opening credit scene.
Beth: All those dancing girls in the title sequence, the ones with the sort of colorful circus tent/lantern/onion hats? Why didn't we get more of them? I feel misled.
Danny: Some lumpen exec at Warner Bros told George Lucas, when he was editing THX 1138, to "put the freaks up front", i.e. hook the audience early, et voilà. But yeah, the whole rest of the movie most of the craziness was in the sets and props.
Beth: Let us pause to remember the awesome bleep bloop computers.
Danny: YES. OLD SCHOOL COMPUTERS FTW.
Beth: And the animation of the top sikrit weapons. On the technology front, this film is in good form. Though it was missing the shoe phone.

Beth: Here is a place where the film could maybe have used MORE: the bad guys.
Danny: Yeah, the baddies were a little drab
Beth: They were just...I dunno, kind of bad. But not DEBAUCHED in that way that leads to excellent lairs and dancing girls and stuff.
Danny: In other words, the good stuff. Yeah they really were just a bunch of dudes in suits with mustaches. And they were totally down to murk a cop, but while that's certainly bad that's not "fun" bad.
Beth: Though that one pair did have the coordinating outfits with medallions.
Danny: Ha yeah in the disco sequence.
Beth: And any time we get to say "disco sequence" we know we're happy.
Danny: What the fuck was that, in like five minutes we had KC & The Sunshine Band and then that bizarro disco cover of "No Woman No Cry."
Beth: In…Venice? Or were we in Lisbon by then?
Danny: No we were still in Rome, I'm pretty sure, because they framed Amitabh for that murder in the Colosseum like two minutes prior, I think.
Beth: It's the kind of film where those details don't really matter and certainly aren't memorable. What's memorable is the disco cover of "No Woman No Cry."
Danny: Sure, moments are more important than narrative arcs and stuff. And that cover of "No Woman No Cry" sure was....memorable.... Probably made Bob Marley roll over in his grave and he wasn't even dead yet.

Beth: So the director of this, Shakti Samanta, has done some big films [Aradhana, Kati Patang, An Evening in Paris, Kashmir Ki Kali, China Town] and I'm kind of surprised he didn't go for MORE in this. 
Danny: He did a pretty good job holding all that insanity together
Beth: But maybe the full-tilt masala version of MORE isn't his thing.
Danny: Because as convoluted as it was it totally moved.
Beth: Definitely did a perfectly respectable job. And he had fun with the foreign locales, which is always a plus. I think my favorite was Amitabh waking up in the desert outside Cairo in his tux going "WTF?!?" with the pyramids in the background. That looked painful. And stylish.
Danny: Ha, well the Pyramids ARE right there. Some of 'em anyway.

Beth: Can we discuss the characters a bit? Like, Neetu Singh's character was fairly pointless, as were her dad (IFTEKHAR!) and Amitabh's sister.
Danny: Yeah, she really was, sadly
Beth: I hate perfunctory love interest women.
Danny: I do too. Like, come on.
Beth: I know both heroes have to have one, but why not give her something to do?
Danny: Exactly
Beth: And it's not like it's hard to toss in another small plot line in a movie like this.  Make her the sister of a baddie or something. Or she can at least drive the getaway car. Man. 
Danny: Yeah, you have no excuse for not tossing in an extra subplot in Bolly
Beth: Heehee.
Danny: More subplots, more songs - two things there are never too many of.
Beth: Unless one of them is the odious comic relief plot, in which case BUHBYE.
Danny: "I am so vi-ir-irginal.....I am the go-oo-ood girl" ching-a ching-a ching-a
Beth: You know, they didn't even do THAT with her much. There was no good girl/bad girl comparison, let alone tension or interaction.
Danny: That's what I'm saying. Give her more purpose. Sure, that's an easy contrast, against Hottie McBadgirl, but I mean do SOMETHING. 
Beth: ANYthing, really. What a waste of Neetu. This film also committed the heinous crime of under-using Helen quite significantly. MORE HELEN. Give her a WHOLE song.
Danny: Yeah, Helen was there and gone so quick I was like "was that Helen?"
Beth: Though including her in what I understood to be some kind of spy or military equipment was awesome.
Danny: No one should ever have to ask "was that Helen?"
Beth: Haha no, unless it is for wig-related reasons.
Danny: yeah, then it's Helen-cognito, which is fun.

Beth: What else? There's not really a ton to say about this film, in some ways. It is fun but not amazing, and it's kind of confusing without being absurd. I think the joy of this film is the details, really. The barrels of Steve. Utpal Dutt with a welding torch.
Top: Barrels of Steve (look close) Bottom: Utpal Dutt with a welding torch, obv.
Danny: I think this is why neither of us wanted to write a proper review
Beth: Heehee yessss.
Danny: It's fun, but it's not like "Well this film is illustrative of blah blah blah tendency within nya nya nya paradigm." 
Beth: Timepass, as they say.
Danny: But oh man, those barrels of Steve. Yeah, good breezy entertainer, for sure
Beth: I sent a screen grab to my friend Steve and demanded to know what was in them. He said the international regulations on selling that had been utterly ridiculous.
Danny: I should send them to MY friend Steve and see what he has to say.
Beth: All Steves should weigh in.
Danny: HERE's a conspiracy theory for you. Amitabh was, by most conventional measures, the alpha badass of 70s B'wood, yeah?
Beth: Yep.
Danny: And Steve McQueen was, roughly, his American counterpart in roughly the same era, yeah? OK. CHECK THIS OUT. The barrels of Steve are Amitabh being like, "Pssh, yeah, that's what I think of HIM." /end
Beth: EXCELLENT
Danny: Heh I won't be able to top that hahahaha
Beth: Though - and not to be a traitor to my adopted people - there is no way Steve McQueen would not win that fight.
Danny: Hmm.
Beth: If there are two Amitabhs, as in this film, then it's much more interesting.
Danny: And that's the thing: there could never be two Steve McQueens. Well, unless you count the director of Hunger and Shame, but he ain't gonna be much use in a fight. 
Beth: I do love that about mainstream Hindi cinema: MORE IS MORE. I enjoyed watching you try to come to terms with the dual role. I have made peace with the idea that OF COURSE there are two of them.
Danny: Might be nearly done.
Beth: True story. To close, pick one outfit from The Great Gambler for your next big date. 
Danny: Oof, damn. Umm. All of them....?
Beth: Hehe.
Danny: Hahaha
Beth: How about the gondola one with the pink print shirt open down to there? And yes we're talking about men's clothes, people.
Danny: No no no. Dude in the disco with the gold medallion, boosh. My next date will be selected by sense of humor, clearly.Okay, you, Again, not drag.
Beth: I will go with that theme as well and take Zeenat's gold jumpsuit with the cinched ankles. 

Danny: Nice.
Beth: I also liked Neetu's red...I don't know if it was trousers and blouse or what, but it had a huge bow. 
Danny: Oh yeah, I remember that one. Barely. BECAUSE NEETU WAS BARELY IN THE MOVIE.
Beth: * sob * Is that it? That is probably it. There's not much to say.
Danny: Yeah, I think we're good. But the gambler was great.

Monday, November 5, 2012

REMEMBER, REMEMBER: V THINGS THAT KEEP V FOR VENDETTA FROM BEING GOOD


Like a lot of young people, I saw the Wachowski-siblings-adjunct movie version of Alan Moore's V For Vendetta in 2005 and was like, “Farrrrr out.” I had read part of Moore's comic some years before, and thought I didn't get it until I read my friend Isaac Butler's brilliant, scathing demolition of it. The movie was an improvement in a number of ways over the comic, and I was right on board with its whole “death to Fascism” trip, especially since Bush was still president. On the other hand, I was a little old to not see through the movie's bullshit (some of which it shares with the source material, some of which is new) at the time, which disappoints me, as there's a considerable amount of sight-obscuring bullshit to be found. To wit:


—There's a fundamental story problem here, and it's one I hesitated to bring up before thinking through because of the “why don't they just loop guys into the middle of the ocean” thing, where nitpicking about things one would have done differently in the characters' shoes negate the entire dramatic premise of the movie—hat-tip to Film Crit Hulk for the formulation, though it's an idea I'd raised on these pages as well—but in V For Vendetta, the argument “because that's what the movie needs to work” won't fly. The problem here is a paradox: for the movie to work, the authoritarian government needs to have absolute control at every level of society, except when it has no fucking idea whatsoever what one guy, who's carrying out an unbelievably complicated plan with an unfathomable number of moving parts, is up to. This is where fans are like “You just don't get it, do you?” and start yammering about how anyone could be V, eventually even claiming that everything he does the whole movie—blowing up the Old Bailey, hacking the government-run TV station to talk shit, kidnapping and torturing Natalie Portman, finally finishing what Guy Fawkes started and blowing up Parliament—is symbolic. Yeah, okay. Then why is the symbol so semiotically muddy and even contradictory? Leaving aside the fact that Guy Fawkes would likely be appalled at the end to which his antecedent V sought using Fawkes' means, V is the defender/representation of the masses, yet also a wish-fulfillment fantasy that one man alone with no help from anybody else can single-handedly set everything up so all Natalie Portman—again, one person—has to do is press a button and boom. Sorry, V, you didn't build that.


—On a strictly cinematic level, this movie is fucking boring. The Wachowskis—who wrote but didn't direct, responsibility for which was delegated to James McTeigue, the first AD for the Matrix trilogy—have, in every picture they've ever made (most of which, including their parts of Cloud Atlas, I have liked) shown a huge disconnect between design and composition. Which is to say, they come up with lots of really cool-looking shit, that far too frequently they shoot terribly. But, that said, the important stuff usually looks not only just fine but actually good in their movies. McTeigue, though, has the same problem with a much lower batting average, making V For Vendetta a weirdly shitty-looking movie for one with so many rockin' design elements. (And Natalie Portman.)


—Speaking of the lovely Ms. Portman, her accent didn't bother me as much as it did some people, and I actually think she did a pretty good job doing exactly what she needed to in the movie. Which is, essentially, stand there and look emotional while men threaten to rape her, ostensible good (or “not so bad”) guys pistol-whip her out of sheer frustration, the heroic figure of the movie spends weeks torturing her, etc. etc. Basically, her role is look pretty, get your ass kicked. This isn't objectionable because it's Natalie Portman, precious flower, it's more that a movie about being revolutionary might want to try letting women be people instead of set decoration or plot devices. Just a thought.


—Okay, Stephen Fry. Stephen Fry's fucking awesome, as he is in all he does, and his character (who's basically an original creation for the movie) has a very interesting role (that of a would-be subversive media insider) in the grand scheme of things, that the movie never lets him fully realize. The biggest thing they blow with him—and this isn't about what I would have done differently, this is simple cause and effect—is that when he unleashes that gigantic fuck you to the Fascists on his TV show, brutally lampooning John Hurt and using the music from Benny Hill and all that shit, he has seemingly no conception that this could be dangerous. This is in direct contradiction to his openly talking about being subversive with Natalie Portman, for one, and for another, it renders his surprise that the Fascists come to kill him utterly fucking ridiculous. The movie wouldn't have to have him calmly usher the Fascists into his living room in a velvet smoking jacket and wittily zing them in an insouciant defiance of impending death, but come on. Having him be surprised is stupid. The whole goddamn point of openly defying the government like that is that to do so is to risk certain death.


—In treating the text as a movable entity, changing the political context of the allegory from Thatcher's England to Bush's America, the Wachowskis made a movie that would politically resonate in that particular time and place but no further. The fear of encroaching fascism, which was a palpable thing for a while in the mid-00s, has lessened among reasonable Americans (and yes, let's be explicit, anyone who thinks Barack Obama is or ever will be a dictator is not a reasonable person) to the point where a movie that leans on pre-existing anxieties its audience no longer has to carry some or all of its dramatic weight, as V For Vendetta does, fails as text. This leaves its cinematic assets as its sole worth, and those are weak, as above.


So, what we're left with is a movie that while not as bad as some, is not good either. There are many other far better rallying cries for freedom. Leave the Guy Fawkes masks at home, unless you're a really esoteric English Catholic on his way to be obnoxious at a costume party.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

10 RANDOM-ISH REACTIONS TO PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE



Here are ten reactions of various size to Brian de Palma's 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise:

1—holy shit

2—It very strongly—although the parallel isn't exact—reminds me of the first Velvet Underground album, in that you can see the next several decades of the medium foretold. Brian Eno's famous (apocryphal?) remark that everyone who bought the first Velvet Underground album formed a band feels like it applies to Phantom of the Paradise—a commercial non-entity upon first release; even the version I watched Friday night was a (gorgeous) French import Blu-Ray—in terms of cinematic influence. Other directors had been futzing with quick cutting, but de Palma's melding that with flamboyant theatricality directly prefigured the MTV of a decade later. His “is it an homage or is it outright theft?” nods to things like the Touch of Evil tracking shot (not to be outdone by like Orson Welles or anybody, de Palma did it in two immaculately blocked shots in split screen just to flex his nuts because Brian de Palma fucking rules) anticipate the post-modern 90s. And hey, the fact that Quentin Tarantino was spearheading that particular tendency just adds layers to layers. If you wanted to be glib, you could say Quentin Tarantino stole being Quentin Tarantino from Brian de Palma, who stole every shot, camera move, and cut that wasn't bolted down his own self. Of course, pastiche is a lot more complicated than that, but still. Further in keeping with the Velvet Underground & Nico parallel is the dark humor and sexiness than pervade, not to mention the drugs. Oh, drugs.

3—I want to go back in time, make a t-shirt that says “I can tell drug-real from real-real!” and wear it from the ages of 16 to about 26.

4—A friend, who shall remain nameless to protect his good name as a cinephile, identified Jessica Harper as “a 19 year old Karen Allen; that's Karen Allen in her first movie!” upon her first appearance. Now, to be fair, we were a liiiiittle drunk at this point. My reaction was, “Whoa, she must have done a lot of fucking drugs between this and Animal House, damn.” And for the rest of the movie, whenever Jessica Harper would be in a shot, I'd focus on her really intently. What this meant, of course, was that I spent a lot of really intense energy watching Jessica Harper, which is a net win because goddamn. She fits right into that Debra Winger/Barbara Hershey/Carla Gugino “fuck yeah brunettes” continuum. And she's good! Her singing's perfect for what it needs to be, and her dancing is just lovely.

5—Expanding on that last: Women in the 70s were haaaawwwwwwt. Ridonkulous threads and hair, and it was before the establishment of the Skinniness Fiat. Good times.

6—While we're talking about the music, holy shit Paul Williams. Homes is about four-foot-two, as far as I can tell, and looks like a Muppet (maybe I'm just projecting because of the whole Rainbow Connection thing, but barely), and he is fucking awwwwwwwwwwwwwesome in this. His first line in the movie is, referring to William Finley, who's at the bottom of a pile of girls, “Get this fag outta here.” Delivered perfectly. It's one of the great “all right hold up pause it a second so I can laugh til I start crying” lines ever. Then later, “You know I abhor perfection in anyone but myself” is just heavenly villainous preening narcissism. Paul Williams's Swan is one of the great villains in cinema, a fabulously 70s creep with dashes of various figures of literary evil and vanity.

7—Of course, Mr. Williams (we need two separate points to talk about how great he was in this) also wrote the songs, which are goddamn fabulous tunes. Just wonderful. Lyrics-wise they're as close as we get in the movie to tying story together in any textual sense, and which elaborate on the the literary themes in at times hilariously on-the-nose fashion.

8—Brian de Palma had one big fuckin stack of books, from which he took this and that because it'd be awesome. And it is. There's the larger story, equal parts Phantom of the Opera and Faust, with a heavy dash of Dorian Gray in Swan. Then there are the movie references: the Touch of Evil dick-swing referenced above, as well as the shower scene in Psycho (before that was played out and because throwing one love to Hitchcock is one of de Palma's signatures as a director, the equivalent of Hitch's cameos in his own pictures), a fucking sweeeeeet shout out to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in the big finale, etc etc etc. One of the reasons Brian de Palma is awesome is that he knows what the fuck “more” means. You can always count on that.

9—I finally get the outpouring, when he passed away earlier this year, of love for William Finley, who played the titular Phantom, a songwriter who gets fucked over royally by the evil Swan, and who kills to get his beloved to sing his songs. William Finley is so gloriously weird in the role of Winslow Leach that to poke holes in his acting ability, calling it rough and so forth, misses the point that that's a large part of what makes his performance so great. He's weird, he's a dork, he's all over the place over the top, and that's why he rules in it. His imperfections are what make him perfect, a statement that could be made of de Palma's filmmaking to a large degree as well.

10—This fragmented, artificial approach, that looks random but is totally on purpose, is exactly what Phantom of the Paradise, formally, is. It makes not one bit of logical sense, instead using image, montage, and sound to create sensations. The continuity in the movie is entirely emotional and sensational, a cinema not in any way beholden to literature or the stage, which is especially weird considering that so much literature and theatricality went into its creation. It's a big, bursting paradox, endearing yet sleazy, erudite yet raving, beautiful and yet fascinated with the grotesque. Phantom of the Paradise is a radioactive neon marquee proclaiming Brian de Palma, auteur. It is an utterly fabulous thing, just absolutely lovely.