Thursday, July 31, 2008

Disney: Writing on the wall

You want to know one thing that nags me about Disney films? How all the written material that appears in the background is so disturbingly legible and cynical. Somewhere deep in space mountain, a grown man or woman is churning out these perfectly shaped letters for sticky-notes and such.

QoS Bond theme

The performers of the next Bond theme song for Quantum of Solace will be ...... Jack White and Alicia Keys. That will either be absolutely brilliant or an absolute disaster. Very different.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Paranoid Park

I watched Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park last night. I haven't really come to a conclusion on it. I think it's Van Sant's most complete rendition of his current aesthetic. Elephant and Last Days seem to swerve between verite observation on the one hand and satire and the occasional genre convention on the other. Paranoid Park has far less, maybe zero, of that discord. A t the same time ... I don't know. Maybe it just feels like I've seen this already. And I liked the story more when David Gordon Green called it George Washington.

Okay, I lied.

I really do want to get away from X-Files, as I'm turning this into the Mulder and Scully blog. But I thought this review, from John Kenneth Muir, a guy with far more published film books than I'll ever have, was too terrific to pass up. I don't quite agree with all of it, as you can see in my comments there. But I will give it the highest compliment that you can give a review .... it makes me like the film more. Or maybe it just makes me more comfortable with my increasingly positive gut feeling. Folks, this is why we write.

The last last X-FIles post, and boy do I mean it this time!

An interesting Entertainment Weekly article from Whitney Pastorek that gives some more insight on a couple things some of us have been discussing about The X-Files. Chris Carter basically says that the point of the film became the Mulder-Scully relationship.

Spotnitz gets the obfuscation gold star for at one point actually answering a question with, ''Well, the truth, the truth. It's out there. What is the truth?'' Luckily, he expands. ''I think the truth is in Mulder and Scully, these two opposites coming together,'' he says. ''This could be the last time we ever visit this world, and we wanted to say something fundamental about it.''

And ...

In the absence of aliens and conspiracies and brain-crushing mythology, The X-Files: I Want to Believe simply comes down to the joy of watching Mulder and Scully together again. We've been given one more chance to revel in the depth of these characters and their commitment to one another. Along with a lesson in patience, that's what Carter was going for all along. ''I want you to take that relationship and imagine it could be real,'' he says, and he admits something I've always secretly suspected: ''Maybe I'm the original shipper.''

I think both quotes point to the primacy of the relationship in the film. Interesting final quote by Carter, as well. I didn't know this until this past week, but "shipper" is the term for X-Files fans who think that Mulder and Scully should be romantically involved. It's a big point of bloodbath among X-Files fans. Apparently, I was a gradualist shipper all along. Apparently, so was Carter.

One last description of the movie: It's a supernatural Nick and Nora adventure re-imagined by Michelangelo Antonioni and/or Ingmar Bergman, but with a happier ending. Nick and Nora for the bantering couple (or usually so with M&S), with an idle retired investigator, supported by a wealthy spouse, brought back into the job for one case. Antonioni, I've touched on in other posts. Bergman for his metaphysical uncertainties, along with things like the dead child.

The key of B

The "B" key on my year-old keyboard is already a little worn. Not a good thing when your name is Bowen.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Saturday night

I went to a Blockbuster for the first time in a while this weekend. I don't think it has ever been as clear to me the number of films that come out nowadays. I see about 100 films a year, and there's still a huge number of films on the shelf that I have no clue about.

I've been thinking about it lately, and I'm not sure the number of entertainment options that we have nowadays is a good thing culturally. In the old days, with three networks, and movies that everyone saw on Fridays, you at least had a common cultural language. Between the number of films that get made, the number of shows that you can watch on television, and the ability to seek out and find information on the Internet that are so specifically geared to your narrow interest, I'm not sure that exists anymore. The Internet was sold as something that would bring us together. You could bond with people in Katmandu. But in doing so, it is diffusing our interests and killing off our common cutural experience.

The other thing about the Blockbuster - even located on a high-traffic intersection, it was near empty at 10 p.m. Saturday night. I used to work at a Blockbuster for awhile when I was young. That was unthinkable. The Netflix age.

The X-Files: The Last Word

After a weekend of thinking and writing about it, I've come to this:

As the small relationship film it wants to be, it succeeds. As the summer blockbuster that it was forced to be, it fails. Is it a good film or a bad film? It is what it is.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The X-FIles: Second thoughts

I think I’m slowly coming around to liking The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Don’t misunderstand me, my observations in my review still stand. But as the disappointment of the thin plot recedes from memory, I feel more intrigued and haunted by the relationship drama and the intellectual levels of the story. This is much more than we get from most films, much less summer releases. It does a lot of interesting things. While the reviews have been mostly negative, this is a thumbs-down film where the positive reviews are the interesting ones.

Here are six key observations about the film. SPOILERS INCLUDED.

The first thing is that the film is, as I mentioned in my review, definitely Scully’s. That means that her arc is the important one. More than that, though, I Want to Believe subtly shifts the narrative perspective to her own. The television show ran on Mulder’s assumptions – he was always trying to drag that wet blanket Scully into believing his explanations for what was in front of her eyes. The movie, though, sees it the other way. Mulder seems like the wide eyed-child, gullibly chasing “monsters in the dark.” The perspective comes from the mixed feelings of Scully, and this is how the whole series must have looked to her. She feels frustrated by his childish obsessions and disapproves on one level. At the same time, she still lives through his wonder and enthusiasm, from which she gets a much-needed spark to her life. At one point, she threatens to leave him, but we all know it’s not going to happen. She needs him out there as much as he needs it. They’re two misfits who would never feel understood by anyone else, and they’re far too mutually dependent to ever depart. Their relationship has that wonderful sense that if the one of them didn’t exist, he or she would have to ask their alien abductors to clone the other in order to feel whole. And I think that's really romantic.

Two, as it always has, the film addresses the Mulder-Scully relationship in admirably subtle ways that are unusual in filmmaking nowadays. In her review, the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis calls them the “Nick and Nora of paranormal freakouts.” Both couples are marked by their under-physical-ified love that finds expression instead through wit, intellectual attraction, mutual respect, and fascination. (Do you ever hear the term “intellectual attraction” anymore?) Even if Mulder and Scully aren’t technically married, both couples make finding the right man or woman to be with look fulfilling and wonderful.

While it’s jarring for X-Files fans to see Mulder and Scully as a couple in bed, there’s still a great deal of subtlety to the rendering. Their love is expressed in small things such as touches of the hand, in Scully’s quiet annoyance while watching Amanda Peet butter Mulder up, in understanding the deepest ways of the other, in the quiet physical and spiritual vocabularies of marriage.

It seems that filmmakers quit making romantic comedies about marriage with the rise of the divorce rate. Nowadays, almost all romantic films are about the rush of finding love. Too few are about the way that successful marriages function. With the divorce rate on the way down, I would hope to see more films that see love in the longer term, as this one does.

Three, I love Gillian Anderson. It’s true she had ten years of practice in the role that other actresses won’t get. But I haven’t seen another actress so own a film so far this year. As I’ve said, after her stunning performance in The House of Mirth in 2000, I really thought she would be thanking the Academy within five years. Instead, she went five year without appearing in a film, finishing The X-Files and working on stage and BBC productions in London. I would love to see a resurgence in her popularity. She has a number of British film projects coming up, as well as How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, a Simon Pegg comedy with some buzz set for release this fall.

Most actresses, unfortunately, run out of time once their looks start to go. But the best stick around. And Anderson appears to have what researchers will one day doutlessly refer to as the Angie Dickinson Chromosome -- she might be more beautiful now at 40 than she was at 25. This is my way of saying she still has time. And with her acting skills, her unique eyes and her lavish lips, let me add her to my Catwoman sweepstakes.

Four, the film reminds me intellectually of a number of very good films. For one, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. (This is one of the things that the shift to Scully’s POV helps illuminate.) Mulder is much like Thomas the photographer. Each character feels the overwhelming urge to ground their uncertain beliefs into objective reality. Meanwhile, Scully is a little like the mimes; the clowns are comfortable living in ambiguity. Scully isn’t quite comfortable there – she still wants to know. But the ending of this film, which frankly is haunting me, gives her a moment of peace with the ambiguity.

The result is that you have an irony – Mulder, the flyboy of wild belief, is actually the one who needs to feel crowned by reality. Scully, the rationalist, feels more comfortably disposed among existence’s unknowns.

Five, the thinness of the plot still bothers me. I think I understand why (perhaps aside from funding) X-Files creator Chris Carter went this direction – by keeping the plot skeletal, it couldn’t overshadow the domestic drama. Yet in doing so, he also sheds the main kindling of the relationship. This probably looks like a better trade-off in his head than it does on screen, and the result is a dour film with dull spots largely shorn of Mulder and Scully’s wisecracking banter. As a result, the wintry film feels almost like The X-Files as directed by Bergman or Antonioni, a too pop-ish concoction sourly contemplating alienation and/or the presence of God.

I think there were two things that Carter could have done to make this work better. He could have gone with an alien plotline, with plenty of black helicopters and special effects. It would give the plot more energy, as well as spark the relationship. We all know that when chasing aliens, Mulder and Scully are at their best. Or he could have done what Hitchcock might have done, ala Vertigo, or what Antonioni did in L’Avventura - just toss the plot aside. Admit that the mystery is only a device (a maguffin) to get things moving and means little to nothing in the end. Why invest so much time and energy into solving a lame crime? Rather than going the potboiler route, it would be better if the mystery were solved by accident, a police officer stumbling onto a clue in the road, or some such. That route would have taken creative guts, and might not have been practical with Hollywood financial considerations. But I think it would have been the right ending for the film on the screen.

Six, I was an X-Files fan from its first season to about 1999, about the time its fan base started to leave the series due to its denseness. That’s fine; every series jumps the shark sooner or later. I have to say, though, the idea that this film might be the end of the line jars me a bit. Carter has planned to make one more film, at least, set for 2012. I hope so. I wish he would have rewarded the characters for their service with a little bit more sun than this film does, and I hope he can still do so. But I’m not sure if this film will earn quite enough for that to happen. (Other than last weekend, could it have a possibly worse release date from a box office perspective?) I worry that this might be the end, and I feel like bits of me and my youth are going with it, into some netherworld of collective memory that slowly fades through the ages. And I think that's partly what may be eating me about this film the past few days.


With Man on Wire coming out this weekend, I ask you, when was the last time that anyone pulled a similar sort of imagination-capturing public stunt, such as Philippe Petit's 1974 wire walk between the World Trade Center towers? The man who parachuted into the Tyson Holyfield fight? There were a few guys several weeks ago who scaled the New York Times building, but that didn't really capture that much notice. Any thoughts? Is this a phenomenon that died out? And if so, isn't that a shame?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I wanted to believe [The X-Files: I Want to Believe]

The X-Files: I Want to Believe [PG-13]
Grade: C
Cast: Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny, Amanda Peet, Xzibit, Billy Connolly
Director: Chris Carter

The unexpected thing about The X-Files: I Want to Believe is that it’s Scully’s picture.

It’s as if all those X-Philes who haven’t exhaled since the series’ 2002 end (and let’s face it - a couple years before that) haven’t been awaiting more spaceships, black helicopters, and oily goo. Rather they’ve been waiting to see Dana Scully perform brain surgery and wrestle with faith.

This should bring the popular nineties television show full circle. It started as FBI agent Fox Mulder dashing into the paranoid and paranormal, as the sensibly-dressed skeptic pulled the leash. Certainly the film’s plot recycles from the series’ crop-circle constellation – a missing FBI agent, a psychic priest, an urban legend. These are manly MacGuffins, making way for a distinctly feminine touch. The result is an unconventional relationship drama in which man and woman argue about epistemology rather than chores.

The female touch has its upside. Scully evolved into the heart of the series, balancing faith, science and the unknown. From an acting perspective, it trades up, too. David Duchovny’s acting appeal has always extended to the exact dimensions of Fox Mulder. But Gillian Anderson is a gifted actress. Her film performances, such as Terrance Davies’ The House of Mirth, attest. Why she didn’t go on to win an Oscar is a Hollywood mystery. Even a little older, Scully remains the smart girl’s role model and the thinking man’s heartthrob.

The show created one of the longest effective will-they-or-won’t–they relationships in television history. The secret was that they already were. The matrimony was their mutual work, care, and fascination. Why wouldn’t it be? When you spend your eternal honeymoon saving each other from vampires, who would settle for the conventional thrill of sex? It’s hard to think of something more romantic.

Yet by denying the fans an alien storyline, the film also denies its key relationship its sauce. Instead, the film’s tone is tender, almost intimate. Amping down the chills, director Chris Carter, the series’ creator, works on familiar X-Files’ themes of paranoia, obsession, the relationship of power, belief, and reality. By including the domestic drama, he adds a question at the heart of his other forgotten show, Millenium. Once you’ve looked into the abyss, how do you come home to an ordinary life? It all makes for an autumnal feel.

In a Roswell-obsessed decade, few television shows so captured the zeitgeist. A UFO-obsessed master FBI agent with startling childhood memories. A wavering Catholic rationalist sent to keep him in line. Little gray men. Men in black. Paranoia and sexual tension in the FBI basement. Mulder and Scully even might have accounted for the unbalanced federal budget. Together, they racked up the largest worker’s comp bill in American labor history. Each hospital in the country should dedicate a Mulder-and-Scully wing.

Due to the show’s quality, any re-visit spurs good memories. For a while they are earned. The first half of the film is darkly energetic and crisply suspenseful, tingling spines in its endless snow. It also has things missing from normal summer entertainment – a character-driven story, a strong female lead, an intellectual bend to its silliness. Often, it reminds you of why the series broke so much new ground. But the bottom line is this – if the story were an episode, it wouldn’t stand out. There’s a better effort for the having. It wouldn’t be fair to allow them to do less.

Oh brother [Stepbrothers]

Stepbrothers [PG-13]
Grade: C
Cast: Will Ferell, John C. Reilly, Mary Steenburgen, Richard Jenkins, Adam Scott
Director: Adam McKay

Funny, but irritating.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Scully, we salute you

Here's a fun little tribute at Salon in celebration of the X-Files' Dana Scully.

"In an entertainment world where women are disappearing from multiplexes, where men bulk up as superheroes while women don't eat but sip pink drinks, we need to remember that there was once a very short heroine who hunted monsters and talked about Einstein, who kicked ass and questioned her faith, who went to work with a man she loved but didn't rip his shirt off over lunch, who didn't want to believe, but opened herself nonetheless to possibility. We need Scully back, even for a moment."

Not to mention that Gillian Anderson is a damn good and underused actress.

The Dark Knight: more politics

Some more political theorizing on The Dark Knight from both right and left.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Whoops, this needs a title

I was going to write up this morning how I think Christian Bale is getting the short end of the stick in analysis of The Dark Knight, how if we were not there, we would probably notice. Instead, we're all talking about how Bale has been arrested on a charge of assault involving two female members of his family. Details are sparse in the reports. An arrest is not an indication of guilt, and all that ...

Gotta wonder how this, if it keeps going, will affect plans for a third film. Whispers about a Batman "curse" should start in 4, 3, 2 ...

UPDATE: A few finer point of British law ... they arrest you first, then they question you, which apparently is what happened. Second, the meaning of assault in this case is the traditional one - verbal assault. Apparently arguing with your relatives is still an area of concern for the British state.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

So who's going to play Catwoman?

Sure, there's already denials from The Dark Knight camp that this is in the works. However, it wouldn't surprise me if Catwoman is the next main villain in the Batman series. Why? Because no actor of quality is going to want to follow in the wake of Heath Ledger's performance. But an actress would give the series a feel different enough to avoid the direct comparisons. Plus, with Rachel dead, Bruce Wayne is on the rebound.

So I was wondering about who would play Catwoman today. Obviously I'm not alone. And since I'm lazy as heck, I'll let them do the the hard write-up labor for me. A lot of their choices crossed my mind.

Three years ago, Angelina Jolie would seem the natural choice. Nowadays, with her veins making regular appearances on the surface of her arms, I'm not so sure. Plus, how good would she be as Catwoman's vulnerable side? I would also worry that she would want to put herself above the project.

Jessica Alba can't act. Next.

Kate Beckinsale is an obvious choice. Looks great kicking ass in leather. Can act when she wants to.

They like Anne Hathaway. Certainly beautiful and athletic enough. Decent actress. Cool enough for the noir feel? I don't know.

Audrey Tautou - She's tiny. But can do both mousy and seductive. International BO.

Rachel Weisz, I could see.

Two choices not on the list:

Saffron Burrows - not vulnerable, but definitely noir cool. Would be in line with the spirits of the reboot.

Marie-Josee Croze - Would love to see it, but doesn't have the BO appeal.

Emily Blunt, definitely a contender.

Well, I guess that was a write-up after all.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Batman = George W. Bush

SPOILER: I'm not the first to raise this idea. In terms of diagramming logic puzzles, I don't think Bush and Batman are perfectly overlapping circles. The Dark Knight is chock full of layers and ideas. If you're only watching it as a political allegory, you're missing a ton. But the idea is intriguing, and I think has merit. The film has a very Hobbesian outlook, and the final decision that Batman makes - the choice to be hated by the public in order to protect the public that hates him - is something that George Bush would see a lot of himself in. Batman Begins is a film many conservatives claim, and I expect that to go doubly for this one. Whether you see the film as a critique or a defense of George W. Bush probably depends on your politics. But in terms of dealing with the past eight years, I think it's a lot more even-handed than what I expect to see in W.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Dark Knight odds and ends

There will be plenty of things to talk about in the coming days regarding The Dark Knight. Here's the first things - some odds and ends that I couldn't fit into the review. SPOILERS are contained, as marked, in items number three and four.

1) The title The Dark Knight strikes me as possibly a pun. "The Dark Night" is certianly a fair description of the mood, as well as possessing a very old-style noir ring to it.

2) Everybody is talking about Heath Ledger, but not enouigh is being said about Aaron Eckhart, who does a wonderful job with the Harvey Dent/Two-Face arc.

3) Maggie Gyllenhaal is about as much of an improvement over Katie Holmes as you would expect Maggie Gyllenhaal to be an improvement over Katie Holmes. SPOILER, SPOILER, MAJOR SPOILER. IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE FILM, PLEASE DO NOT READ THIS. YOU WILL REGRET IT: If they had killed off Katie Holmes, no one would have cared.

4) SPOILER, SPOILER, MAJOR SPOILER. IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE FILM, PLEASE DO NOT READ THIS. YOU WILL REGRET IT: The biggest misfire is the fund-raising scene. When Wayne comes to drag Dent off to safety, why does he leave Rachel out there? This is supposedly his best friend and love of his life. Yet he takes the guy he barely knows to safety and leaves her out there for The Joker. Those looking for homoerotic subtexts will probably have a field day with this one. Certainly there are other suggestions. Still, even if you accept that, Rachel is still his best and only close friend. It makes no sense. And it sets up her death. It seems like very bad character motivation. Ane the error is compounded by the fact that the scene ends without the dangerous situation being resolved. The Joker is still upstairs threatening the guests.

Batman truly begins [The Dark Knight]

The Dark Knight [PG-13]
Grade: A
Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine.
Director: Christopher Nolan

At the beginning of this decade, did anyone foresee that some of the most ambitious American filmmaking would come in the form of action films?

No, I didn’t think so. Not in the heyday of the arthouse craze. Not in the days of Armageddon and Twister. Now, while the arthouse favors vanilla mediocrities like The Visitor, action films grow in sophistication.

The pinnacle might be The Dark Knight, a Batman film that stretches its metaphorical wings in terms of character, relevance, and morality.Despite its comic-book premise, it boasts an allegorical punch that makes it persuasive to the world outside the theater.

The record-breaking number of moviegoers setting alarms for 6 a.m. showings will be glad to know that their red eye will be rewarded. Starting with the most energetic bank heist since Heat, it’s hard to think of a recent summer movie that so thoroughly delivers. If anything, it overdelivers, never dropping in intensity nor the creativity of its madness. It’s all too much. But it’s too much of a good thing.

Picking up where Batman Begins ended, Batman has turned Gotham from a shadowy pool of urban criminality to a sunny metropolis where the law, led by police captain Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and altruistic district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), roots out the remnants of organized crime. Even a set of Batman imitators are getting into the act.

Yet Gotham’s growing virtue, and its nocturnal guardian, are starting to attract even more devious and destructive supervillains. The most lethal yet is The Joker, a psychopathic clown without a past or a heart, who has come to Gotham to make it once again safe for criminals to walk the blackened streets. Full of quips, tricks and mayhem, operating out of chaotic principle rather than personal enrichment, The Joker murderously bedevils the forces of public order.

While The Joker gets into the act, Batman wants to get out of the game. Wayne hopes that the crusading prosecutor Dent can take his place as the public center of virtue. The situation sets up an overt political alliance and covert romantic rivalry between Wayne and Dent. In between is Wayne’s longtime flame Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), as she falls in love with Dent while waiting for Wayne to get over the Batman thing. As things develop, Dent moves toward madness and his eventual rise as the villain Two-Face, giving Batman another Bat-headache.

The Dark Knight plays up the similarities of Batman and the Joker, two vigilantes ready to punch below the waist. Thematically, the film is a modern update of Dirty Harry. It contemplates the civilized limits of behavior when faced with the most extreme and talented threats to modern society. Batman’s mission is less heroic idealism than doing what it takes to maintain a semblance of order.

The critics have created a new dictionary for words used to praise the performance of Heath Ledger. For the most part, it’s deserved. The Joker is not just scary because he’s nuts, not only because he knows 100 lethal ways to use a pencil, but also because he’s smarter than everyone else. Yet as a person living out an appealing non-conformist personal code to its fullest demonic potential, he retains a weird sense of outlaw charisma. Even when igniting a hospital.

Let me admit, I despised Batman Begins, 2005’s origin story re-boot, when leaving the theater three years ago. Largely, the blame fell at the feet of director Christopher Nolan, who was more about vision than execution. He couldn’t shoot or stage an action scene to save his life, and too many of the set pieces, such as the low-speed Batmobile chase, seemed designed only to make a “back to basics” point. This time, the fight scenes are more polished, if not perfect, and Nolan doesn’t get stuck in back story or low-fi fanaticism. He’s helped by the braininess of his novelist brother Jonathan, whose script deals with questions of the public and private faces of heroism, identity, and responsibility. The result is a film that not only thrills but challenges.

While the film spreads its wings to the fullest, it also sows the seeds of the series’ eventual demise. With both The Joker and Two-Face, it’s stage one in Joel Schumacher-style villain overload. The film also loses interest in Batman’s character. Bruce Wayne goes from Begins’ edgy but virtuous anti-hero to a blandly standard gentleman. The day will come when these things no longer pass. But it won’t be today.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Technological Golden Calf: 2001: A Space Odyssey

"Its origin and purpose still a total mystery."

Do you recognize this line?

If I say, "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship," you would say Casablanca. If I say, "Nobody's perfect," you would say Some Like It Hot. But if I were to utter this quote, it's unlikely that you or anyone else would say 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But in fact those are the final words of the film, rendered forgotten by the wordless 20+ minute visit to Jupiter and the Infinite, the most unique and visual ending ever made. The quote appears at the end of the preceding “Daisy” sequence. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) has broken back into the spaceship Discovery One to disconnect the renegade artificially intelligent HAL 9000 computer. HAL has already killed the crew silently and efficiently, cutting off their life support system. As soon as Bowman disables HAL’s last chip, a message from Mission Control pops onto a screen, informing the crew about the nature of their secret mission. The “it” is the monolith, an alien monochromatic black block, the origin of which the crew has been trained to find. The audience has come to understand the monolith represents a supernatural presence – God, the Cosmos, the universe, or what have you.

It is impossible to analyze the meaning of this scene, or the entire meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi masterpiece, without coming to an understanding about HAL. Many of the theories have focused on the human characteristics of the flawless computer that makes its first mistake. This essay certainly recognizes and discusses the importance of this element. However, to find the meaning of the film, I think it is even more important to look at HAL’s god-like features. I’m less interested in what makes him human than I am in what prevents him from being divine.

There are two things to note about HAL. First, he is theoretically a perfect being. The HAL series has never made an error. He can calculate pi to the zillionth decimal in a zillionth of a second. And he has ultimate control over every function of the space craft.

The second thing is that HAL is the ultimate reflection of the society that builds him. Inversely, the elements of HAL's "perfection" give us a sense of the cultural values from which he emerged. The evidence suggests a dispassionate, emotionally dead, authoritarian society, like those found in other Kubrick projects such as A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon. In Lyndon, the top rung is occupied by passionless aristocrats. In 2001, the big cheeses appear to be emotionally-depleted scientists. Detached scientific rationality rules over emotion, passion and humanity.

The largest hint of this comes during the Moon base visit of Dr. Haywood Floyd. He has come to address a meeting of scientists on a secret project to study an unearthed monolith. His manner is detached, rational. In a polite voice, he makes genially veiled threats, kindly instructing the assembled to stick to an undesirable cover story and take an oath of secrecy. Through this example and others, Kubrick subtly paints a techno-authoritarian social structure. Later, HAL’s monotone and calm demeanor will mimick that of Dr. Floyd.

If this society were to manufacture its idea of a perfect being, it would look a lot like HAL. Infinite knowledge and intelligence. Perfect rationality. (Over)confident demeanor. Complete command. Within the confines of the spacecraft, he is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent (or close to it).The irony of the film is that the society has created a perfect being in order to (unwittingly) pursue a real deity.

Pursue he does. To Jupiter, where the monolith has sent a signal. Yet as the ship closes in on Jupiter, a funny thing happens. HAL fails. He chokes. He unaccountably makes an error. The cloak of infallibility disintegrates, as do HAL’s god-like pretensions. How does this happen? I can count three ways.

First, HAL is not perfect. As the product of humans, he is flawed. In fact, the film explicitly suggests HAL has the classic Greek flaw – pride, hubris. Like any Greek hero ascending to God-like status, he gets too big for his britches, and it dooms him and those around him.

Second, HAL has developed emotions. Given his design by a hierarchy of unemotional scientists, this appears to be unanticipated. When a BBC interviewer states that he senses pride, the astronauts stumble through an answer. In developing HAL, emotional development was likely low on the list, overlooked in favor of rational consistency. An emotional base is so unthinkable that it seems unnoticed even by HAL. As he starts his killing spree, HAL thinks he is doing the rational thing. In fact, he is driven by fear (“I’m afraid, Dave,” he laments as his disconnection nears.). This highlights HAL’s artificially created humanity, and often this is the jumping-off point for 2001 analysis.

The most important reason that HAL is not a god is simple – because he isn’t one. He might be a perfect being. Or at least he might be designed to be one. Omniscient? Check. Omnipotent? Check. Omnipresent? Check. According to the human checklist, he should qualify as a deity. Yet we realize that even if we extended HAL’s power from one end of the universe to the other, he still would not be one. The human checklist that describes a god is one thing. The actuality of God is something else entirely. What HAL is, instead, is a technological golden calf, a false idol designed by an emotionless, overly rational techno-authoritarian society, an ersatz deity that reflects its image of itself.

The point of the film, I believe, is the gap between this false idol and the real thing. Ultimately, we see how our concepts of God are malleable to – dependent upon and adjustable to –our cultural beliefs and our flawed human understanding. The film also emphasizes how far short our concepts fall when compared to the vast universal mystery that is God. Its origin and purpose still a total mystery, indeed.

All of this filters into my interpretation of the film’s famous psychedelic ending. First, let me start with the mundane. I believe Dave dies. When is slightly unclear. Most likely after the disconnection of HAL. It is unclear how he will survive. However the way the film is shot, he might also die in the airlock, with the disconnection sequence being a dying fantasy. Either way, the famous light show is the trip to the afterlife. We become a passenger on Bowman’s trip back into the supernatural ether. Yet there’s something else to it. I believe this is a visit to one little corner of the divine consciousness.

Once there, we watch a sequence where Dave Bowman ages quickly, ending on his deathbed. The aging sequence is the way that God – a timeless, eternal being – might see the brevity of a human life, or alternately the short tenure of human existence, among the vastness of his total creation. Personally, I think it is the latter. This is how the entirety of human existence would appear to an infinite being. (This is hinted at by our long viewing of Bowman eating a meal. As an infinite being that doesn’t need to eat, the curious practice of eating might fascinate God, and might be the only human development He considers worthy of prolonged attention.)

Until the last section, 2001 is an artistic representation of human history from a human perspective, from our rise to dominance among the apes to the nadir of our dominance amid the rise of the machines. This story might be how a human being views it, but I would suggest that the last section speculates on how God might view the same stretch of human history. In fact, I would suggest something more. If God were an abstract filmmaker, the final section of 2001 might be the movie He would make from the same material. In the human movie, the monolith is an artistic representation of God. In “God’s movie, ”the situation reverses; Dave Bowman stands as God’s artistic representation of mankind. In essence, Dave Bowman becomes the monolith.

(This premise – this is how God would re-make my movie – is quite funny. Despite its reputation, 2001 contains a great deal of cold, dry Kubrickian humor. In his nasal monotone, HAL’s taunts – “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Dave” – sound like satire of stock movie villains. Dr. Floyd’s banality of evil routine – essentially “Thank you for your cooperation, and have I mentioned the secrecy oaths?” – probably had Kubrick rolling on the floor. Especially when in the next scene a bootlicking bureaucrat tells him what wonders his speech did for morale. Over a ham sandwich on a spaceship.)

While mystery nowadays is what Sherlock Holmes does for a living, its roots are religious. It shares the same root as words like mystical and mysticism. In religious terms, a mystery is a supernatural truth that is beyond the ability of reason to grasp. And while 2001 has an interest in things earthly and spacely, its ultimate goal is to illustrate the distance between us and the heavenly mysteries – those things about God and his universe that we can never understand.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Dark Knight

While attending The Dark Knight press screening today, I was reminded of something that I dislike. Whenever there is a press screening of a high-profile blockbuster release, particularly in summer, suddenly forty new faces that I rarely if ever see show up to the screening. I'm sure that some of those people are entertainment media reporters who don't need to see everything but have a legitimate reason for showing up. Others just strike me as freeloaders, people who might have a blog but who don't write regularly about films except as a means to get in for the big things. How many of those people are going to be at Wednesday's Man on Wire screening? Yeah, exactly.

2001: A Forthcoming Explanation

As I mentioned over on Craig Kennedy's Living in Cinema, this weekend I watched Stanley Kubrick's brilliant 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time in about a decade. While watching it, I had the epiphany. Suddenly, the film completely made sense. Yes, even the ending. Especially the ending. I have a great theory about that.

In addition, the often barren 10-hour drive between El Paso and Dallas offers a wonderful opportunity to work out the details and implications. I was sitting in a restaurant in Van Horn, Texas, a desert town with a population of 300, and I'm pretty sure that I was the only person with the explanation for 2001 sitting in his notebook on the table.

Anyway, I've written up a couple drafts of an essay. I should have the final version up in a day or two.

An American in Paris

Gene Kelly was a fair singer. A weak actor. A sometimes irritating screen presence. But man, could he dance. And choreograph. While he excels in those areas, the real stars of An American in Paris are Vincente Minnelli and his coloful art direction, and George Gershwin, whom I've heard was a pretty decent composer. Yet when the film isn't doing something musical it's painfully stagnant. There's no musical in which I found myself thinking, "Get to the next number!" more often.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


I caught Murderball, the 2005 doc about wheelchair rugby, over the past week. I have to say, I haven't been so disappointed in a film in a while. The praise it earned seems baffling.

First, the film is too strung-together. It doesn't flow. It seems like the filmmakers are doing what journalists call "emptying the notebook," i.e. getting 12 inches any way that you can by unloading every single fact and quote. Did we really need five minutes on the sexual practices of paraplegics? No.

But the killer: A number of the emotional high points seem staged. Not scripted. I trust the emotions are genuine. But after a while, I wondered exactly how much the filmmakers interfered to set up dramatic situations. That sort of lingering suspicion is deadly to a documentary.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Bucked: the rodeo movie

My mother has taken up the curious habit of watching rodeo and bull riding on television. I suppose it's a connection to her country childhood. I would love to see the country-saying-spewing announcers for the bull riding get called in to do Olympic events. It would make them so much more fun to watch.

But it made me wonder - whatever happened to the rodeo movie? In its heyday surrounding Urban Cowboy, it was such a natural source of action, drama, and real-man romance. The stories are pretty simple. Guy rides a bull, attracts girl, pursues girl, feels friction, gets injured riding, girl comes to his side, comes back, wins the rodeo. Perfect 100 minutes of entertainment.

Is there any country that could more use a dose of that sort of masculinity in its film culture today? Can you imagine Jonah Hill in the lead role? I rest my case.

The Chiguhr cut lives

Last night at a race track/casino here in El Paso (or at least across the border in New Mexico) I saw something that I don't think I've ever seen. It was the Anton Chiguhr bowl haircut from No Country for Old Men. Indeed, some people indeed wear it that way. Spooky, to say the least. Particularly for a lonely man betting on televised horse races from far away.

Jellyfish thought (spoiler)

A SPOILER HEAVY thought about Jellyfish ....

One thing I was left to wonder is whether the bride and the writer are the same person at different points in life. Certainly, that seems to be the case with the waitress and the little girl. The final scene suggests a world in which past and present are merged. So the hints - attraction to the same man, the poem - suggested to me that that my theory might be the case. I'm not ready to declare it yet, though.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Life's little stings [Jellyfish]

Jellyfish (Mezudot) [No rating]
Grade: B
Cast: Sarah Adler, Nikol Leidman, Gera Sandler, Noa Knoller, Ma-nenita De Latorre, Zaharira Harifai, Ilanit Ben Yaakov
Director: Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret

How do the critics love thee? Let us count the "waves."

China. Scandinavia. Iran. Mexico. Korea. Romania.

All of these places, in the past two decades, have been said to have had a "new wave" of emerging filmmaking talent. In truth, the definition now of a "New Wave" is anytime that a group of elite critics stumbles across three high-caliber films from the same country. It's a little like stumbling upon a lost Amazonian tribe. What's the big deal? They've been there forever. You're the one who hasn't.

The up-and-coming wave right now is Israeli, with the recent appearance of features such as The Band's Visit and a Cannes award-winner, Jellyfish. With Jellyfish, from husband-and-wife writers-turned-directors Shira Geffen and Etgar Keret, the use of the word "wave" is particularly appropriate. Every character in its interlocking stories is portrayed as figuratively "out to sea." (In fact, the frequency of the sea metaphor will leave your head swimming.) The characters move through the picture like our favorite gelatinous transoceanic journey-fish, tossed about on the waves and stranded on the beaches of fate.

The film tethers a number of disparate characters to its mast. A depressed young waitress with parent issues. A young girl wearing an intertube who walks in from the sea. A Filipino immigrant caregiver in a death struggle with Hebrew. A finicky bride with a broken foot from a bizarre bathroom escape. A run-ragged groom taking refuge in strangers and orange juice. A mysterious writer lurking in the hotel room upstairs. An actress who plays a wonderful corpse and her unsatisfiable mother.

Tel Aviv life here is seen as unmoored. The characters' existences are bathing in Smuckers. The childhood movies of one person replace their absence for someone else. The poetic sentiments of one character become the suicide note for another. Even the past is merging with the present.

There are still bruises on my head from where Jellyfish beat the sea imagery into it. As writers, Geffen and Keret have a tendency to overemphasize symbolism. I think this comes partially from background and perhaps partially from insecurity, because there is very little else holding together its stories. In some ways, the film feels like three or four short films stitched amblingly together. It has the good fortune that all but one of these stories are creative and interesting. (There is a noticeable dip whenever we return to the Filipina's story.)

I'm going out on a limb to say that Geffen and Keret are strongly film literate, because the movie reminds me of many. From Almodovar, the fascination with female bonding. From Kieslowski, the mutliple stories and the vagaries of fate. From Wong Kar-Wai, the youthful longing, the fractured parental relationships, and the eruptions of memory. But whereas Wong uses filters and cinematic techniques to create distance and distortion from the past, Geffen and Keret let the landscape of memory flow in naturally. You don't realize you're in a surreal blend of past, present, and possibly future until it's impossible to avoid the conclusion. That, to me, is what makes Jellyfish unique and (sea-)worthy.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Piano, extended mix

The first observation I want to make is this - a risk of film writing is finding the influence of your favorite movies everywhere in other movies, whether it's there or not. In this discussion of Jane Campion's The Piano, I plan to draw comparisons to Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, without doubt one of my ten favorite films. That said, even if the influence didn't enter Campion's mind (although the preponderance of candlelit scenes in The Piano points to the possibility), I think the example of Barry Lyndon is nonetheless instructive as a point of comparison.

Lyndon follows the up-and-down fortunes of its title character, an 18th Century Irish bloke who through pluck and luck ends up married into the height of British aristocracy. He is a man whose passions often get the best of him and make him seem out of place in his surroundings. What is important for this discussion is the way that Kubrick paints the deadened society that we enter. Through custom, the aristocracy has put a lid on passion and individualism, in fear of its power to disrupt social stability. The social system has gone so far as to ritualize the passions of sex (through arranged marriage) and murder (through dueling). The result is a calcified society that has so discouraged passion and indvidualism that it has become blind to its power. That comes across ironically in the voiceover of the film's aristocrat narrator, a man who is so wedded to the system that he isn't qualified to offer accurate commentary on the life of Lyndon.

A couple of commenters to my first post on The Piano have stated that they find the characters so unlikable as to injure the film. That's certainly a risk with Sam Neill's New Zealand farmer, who has purchased the hand in marriage of Britain's Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter). He has brought the mute mother to New Zealand against her wishes, with the expectation that she will dutifully serve the function of being his wife. Not exactly hero stuff there. It's certainly easy to see why one would dislike the brutish backwoodsman Baines (Harvey Keitel), who acquires Ada's beloved piano from her new husband. Once in his possession, he ransoms the piano to its rightful owner key by key, forcing Ada to perform progressively blatant sexual favors. She succumbs, for passionately playing the piano is her chosen method of communication.

I'm guessing the power dynamic between Baines and Ada sparks the most discomfort, particularly Baines' selfish exploitation of it to force Ada to do what she protests that she is unwilling to do. Even Baines will eventually describe the relationship as "whoring" Ada. It's difficult, obviously, to get behind a character who would do such a thing. And it's difficult to see why Ada would subject herself to such humiliation, and why she would eventually look past it to fall in love with the perpetrator.

But here is the thought that occurred to me. It's important to observe that the story takes place in fundamentally the same sort of society as Lyndon, one that so wholly distrusts female passion that it places rigid social controls upon it, particularly with its marital customs. It's important to remember that while we watch the film from a liberal, romantic, "love conquers all" society, a distance exists to the society in which these characters live, and a difference exists in the way that they are capable of viewing and approaching their world. So here's my theory: They are parroting the tools of the wider system, but re-shaping them in a way that allows them the mental wiggle room to explore their passion in a society that frowns upon it. In short, I think Ada feels constrained by the social expectations. She might hate them, but she performs them. And at first she protests to Baines' assaults upon her marital virtue, even though she doesn't feel that into the marriage. The belief that she is being forced to move might well lend her the mental cover to do what she deeply wants. Which is why she keeps returning to do what she professes to hate. While we might not feel the need for such weird mental calisthenics, I can see why someone in her position would.

Now let's look at the portrayal of Lady Lyndon, the young, wealthy heiress who marries Barry after the the death of the aristocratic old fart to whom we assume she was handed over. The womanizing Barry cheats on her blatantly. From the perspective of the aristocratic narrator, the movie's advocate of the system, this is a blatant violation of his wife's sanctity, and one that, he assumes, she must find deeply unsettling. And yet Lady Lyndon happily takes back the big lug. The narrator presents this as evidence of her saintliness, another example of the heavenly virtue that Barry violates by his unrepentant womanizing. But the narrator, operating from a perspective that devalues passion, cannot understand the dynamic in play. In a passionless society, a woman might well prefer the passion that leads a man to stray, so long as it eventually refocuses its energy upon her. Given a choice between a womanizing Barry and another walking corpse incapable of feeling and incapable of making her feel desired, you might understand why she would choose Barry. (I don't want to mischaracterize my Lyndon observations as plopping from my head. The basics are in this terrific Lyndon essay, and possibly others that I've read but don't recall. I'm pretty sure that is the right one. )

I think Ada is experiencing something similar. In a society discouraging female passion, that barters her hand in marriage away to a bidder, Baines' "whoring" system a) is no different morally from standard operating procedure, and b) at least gives Ada the warmth of feeling passionately desired. And it also gives her a say in things, a power that she has never felt, as symbolized by her refusal to speak. During the play scene, Baines sits next to her, as she sits next to her husband. Unable to bear the seating arrangement, Baines abruptly leaves. Ada curls the slightest grin to her face. It's the first moment where she seems deliciously in charge. The system that at first degrades her and denies her power actually begins to feed it, as opposed to the powerlessness found in her other relationships with men.

For these reasons, upon second viewing, I no longer feel the same hesitation with the plot or the characters.

Top 10 Singers/Actors

Following the lead of the Dallas Morning News, I thought I would go ahead and make my own Top 10 list of musicians/actors of all time. The grading will be based on a balance of popularity, quality, and legacy.

Like the DMN, I'm going to rule out obvious vehicles for selling records. Think Elvis movies. Beatles movies too. I know A Hard Day's Night is considered a classic. But it's not like the Liverpudlians ever acted in non-Beatles movies. Well, I think Paul did. But not anything good. And he's my least favorite Beatle. Yes, including Ringo.

I'm ruling out singing cowboys also. No rational reason. Just something doesn't feel right about including them. Sorry, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Frankie Avalon, no beach-movie sing-alongs, either. As you might be able to tell, the more separate the two careers, the better the rating. Although there might be a sensible exception or two to that rule.

One last rule you should know about this game. Everyone else is playing for second place behind .....

1) Bing Crosby - 41 number one hits. The greatest-selling single of all time - "White Christmas." Best Actor Oscar in 1944 for Going My Way. According to Wikipedia, the number three movie star in motion picture history in terms of tickets sold, behind only Clark Gable and John Wayne. Arguably the only one on this list who was simultaneously the most popular singer and the most popular movie star of his era.

2) Frank Sinatra - Perhaps the most storied singer of the 20th Century. Ol' Blue Eyes' musical career speaks for itself. Had a strong movie career both in and out of musicals, most notably in On the Town, From Here to Eternity, and The Manchurian Candidate. Won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for From Here to Eternity. Was nominated a few other times.

3) Judy Garland - "Over the Rainbow" and her string of classic musicals (The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in Saint Louis, Easter Parade, A Star is Born, etc.) seal the movie end. But she had a numerous top ten hits and albums during those years, featuring music both from and apart from her film career. Her recording career culminated in her 1961 Grammy-award-winning live album from Carnegie Hall.

4) Doris Day - Hardly a hip choice at first glance. But read Allmusic rave about her "sultry" early jazz and swing recordings. She became a major box office draw in the late fifties and early sixties in innocent romantic comedies like Pillow Talk and The Pajama Game. Had a number of number-one hits, plus one that wasn't. That would be "Que Sera Sera," which didn't exactly suffer from failing to reach the top spot.

5) Yves Montand - Along with his ex-flame Edith Piaf, one of the signature French singers of the 20th Century (although he was actually Italian). He starred in gobs of French and international movies, most notably Cluozot's Wages of Fear and Costa-Gavras' Z.

6) Will Smith - The funny thing about Will Smith is that until recently, I have always thought of him more as a rapper doing the movie star thing. But looking at his contributions, I would say that his movie work puts him in better stead on this list. Yes, The Fresh Prince sold albums, but "Parents Just Don't Understand" isn't exactly a standard in the Great American Songbook like recordings previously mentioned here. However, he's been an undeniable box office machine, has enormous screen charisma, and has admirably improved his acting over the years.

7) Kris Kristofferson - "And Kris, he is a movie star/he's moved out to L.A." sings a lamenting Hank Williams Jr. in "All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down." He is talking about his friend Kris Kristofferson. As a songwriter, there are an estimated 450 recorded versions of his songs. Ones you might know include "Me and Bobby McGee,""Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," and "Help Me Make It Through the Night." As an actor, Kristofferson has appeared in plenty of junk, but also in top-shelf films like Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Martin Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, as well as John Sayles' Lone Star and Limbo. Of course, no discussion of Kristofferson's film career is complete without mention of his lead role in the occasionally brilliant disaster Heaven's Gate, the biggest box office bomb of all time.

8) Barbra Streisand - The Morning News chose both Bette Midler and Barbara Streisand. My parents, whom I'm visiting, both insist on Midler. As much as I would like to, I think you have to go with Streisand. Her success is pretty undeniable no matter how unappealing it might be to me.

9) Lena Horne - Lena Horne makes the list as much from bravery as success. Obviously, her exceptional musical career is greater than every person on this list except for Crosby and Sinatra. Less well known is her film career with MGM in the 1940s. She mainly lended her voice to various singing roles that were easy to edit out for distribution in the South. However, she did appear in a lead role in two predominately black films - Stormy Weather and Vincente Minnelli's first feature, Cabin in the Sky. She was a racial pioneer and faced all sorts of racist crap. Read up on her bio. It's really amazing.

10) Dean Martin - Why Dino? 1) My mother recommended him. 2) Of the remaining candidates, he's the one guy who I strongly feel gave a great performance in a great film - as the recovering alcoholic deputy in Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo. A lot of hits, both musically and movie-wise along the way.

Honorable Mention (no particular order): Rudy Vallee, Bette Midler, Cher, Sammy Davis Jr., David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Levon Helm, Magali Noel, Faye Wong, Hoagy Carmichael, Diana Ross, Ann-Margret, Glen Campbell, Ice Cube, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Queen Latifah, Nick Cave, Bjork in Dancer in the Dark, James Taylor and Dennis Wilson in Two-Lane Blacktop, and .............. who else?

The Piano

I have a saying about Jane Campion. There's no great film that Jane Campion can nearly make that her brain can't overthink its way out of. The one greatest exception, of course, is the magnificent The Piano. I watched it again last night. Holly Hunter is every bit as great as you remember, and Campion's heady feminism supports the forward momentum of the story rather than gets in its way (see: the ending of Holy Smoke!). Not only is it a film that gets better with age. It's a film that gets better as you age. That's one of the highest compliments that I can give.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

At the Movies

Saw Michael Phillips' and Richard Roeper's picks for best films of the year so far on At the Movies tonight. Yay, Phillips! I was pleased to see he picked Snow Angels as the best film of the year so far, as would I. Roeper? The less said for his picks, the better. He chose In Bruges, though.

Olympic Trials notes

1) I'll have one less rooting interest in the Olympics this year, as well for the coming years. My childhood friend Alan Culpepper did not compete in the US marathon trial due to injury. Alan ran the 10,000 meters in Sydney in 2000, and ran the marathon in Athens in 2004, where he placed 12th. His best ever finish in a major marthon was at the 2005 Boston Marathon, where he placed fourth. This was his last shot at the Olympics, so it's heartbreaking. Hopefully, he still has a couple of competitive major marathons left in his legs.

Alan lived down the street from me through about the first grade, and we ran in the same birthday party circles until third or fourth, when my family moved into a different school attendance zone. We remained friendly through high school.

And the answer is, yes, he was fast.

2) El Paso lost out on its other best shot at an Olympian today, as Lara Jackson finished third in the 50 freestyle at the Olympic Trials for swimming. She missed it by six hundredths of a second. Of course, that makes her an alternate. Which means maybe not all hope is lost. Why? Because the winner was Dara Torres, the 41-year-old mother with the mistifyingly age-defying Schwarzenegger-esque build. Natural? You tell me.

Top Five singer/actors

I love this topic, the top five most successful actors/singers of all time, posted by Dallas Morning News movies editor Stephen Becker on the DMN's The Screening Room blog. But, man, are there a couple of obvious omissions. I think, for better or worse, it's fair to say that Will Smith would be in the top five. Frank Sinatra might well be number one. But the rest of his choices, in my opinion, are subject to a bit of dispute - Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, and Cher. Not that those aren't fine choices. But consider a few of the unmentioned ones - Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Lena Horne. The first couple speak for themselves. Horne obviously dominates musically, and she was the first African-American to sign a contract with MGM. During World War II, she was for African-American soldiers what Betty Grable was for white soldiers.

So who else is missing? Yves Montand, probably. The French pop singer Magali Noel appeared in Rififi, La Dolce Vita, Satyricon, Amacord, which I'm thinking outdoes The Prince of Tides. I'mk thinking there are others that Godard, Truffaut, and New Wavers must have used.

Ah, David Bowie - things like The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Prestige. Mick Jagger in Performance and Ned Kelly.

UPDATE: A star of several really good films, including one of my ten best westerns - Kris Kristofferson.

Saturday, July 5, 2008


I have retreated to Anti-D Western Command (my hometown El Paso, Texas) for the weekend to visit family. The nice thing about El Paso - it's a pretty big city that hasn't figured that out yet. So on a holiday like the Fourth of July, unlike Dallas, people still defy authority and go out of their way to do things like shoot fireworks off in the desert. So as I was driving into town last night, there were all sorts of family fireworks displays going off left, right, and above Interstate-10. So it was like a welcome home party. Wish I had brought my camera.

Mamma Mia, indeed

You couldn't just have fun, could you, Meryl Streep? You couldn't just say, I chose to do Mamma Mia!, the screen version of the ABBA musical, because it looked like an enjoyable time for me and the audience. No, you had to describe the way that the play cheered people up in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, just so we all know you really did have a serious and meaningful reason when you signed up to sing "Knowing Me, Knowing You."

To my mind, Streep's talent has been done a disservice by her tendency to take only the most serious-minded, usually political roles, while shunning the popular and the truly artistically groundbreaking. As a result, few of her projected signature roles have had legs. Everyone at the time thought Silkwood would last the test of time, but does anyone watch Silkwood now? She's in danger of being remembered only for movies that nobody ever sees.

So given a new lease on relevance in the popular mind with summer counterprogramming fare like The Devil Wears Prada and now Mamma Mia!, she goes and insists that she's doing it for a serious reason. Mamma Mia, indeed.

QoS trailer

I haven't said much about the James Bond Quantum of Solace teaser trailer released a few days ago. There's really only two points to make. The film has a distinct grittier look to it, less fantasy and a little more realistic. Daniel Craig looks like he's going to eat the role alive. Really, that's all that matters. Obviously, it looks like it has a large number of quality action sequences, maybe too many, but I'll leave that determination until I've seen the actual film.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Best Western

Western Writers of America put together a well done (but not perfect) Top 100 Western films of all-time list. Really, the only thing that makes me shake my head in disbelief is the #99 rank for Robert Altman's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which is one of the greatest films ever made. Here would be my top 10 Westerns, no particular order.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
The Searchers
Rio Bravo
The Naked Spur
The Outlaw Josey Wales
Seven Men from Now

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The New World

NOTE: This doesn't feel complete, but I'm tired of working on it, and there's probably something that's hopefully worthwhile in here somewhere, so here it is.


The announcement of a longer cut of Terrence Malick’s The New World offers an excellent opportunity to look back at that remarkable 2005 film and say … what the heck was that again? It was a film that tested audiences and critics alike. Yet it’s a deeply reasoned act of genius, and among the best films of the decade, if you dedicate a few minutes and a few brain cells to its understanding.

The film possesses many of Malick’s consistent areas of musing –mythology, nature, memory, paradises of the mind, the failure of language, subversion of the Western, and references to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. The scenes in which Pocahontas moves through London touching previously unknown animals and people? Heidegger. When being taught Western concepts, she asks, “What is time?” Heidgger. There are great essays out there on this relationship.

But I want to talk about the film briefly as a document of America. Many of the seventies masters primarily were making visions of their homeland. Think Scorsese. Despite his powerful intellectual airiness, it is sometimes missed that Malick does so, as well. And in re-imagining Pocahontas, John Smith, John Rolfe and the Jamestown mythology, he produces a great American film and a great film about America.

The New World dramatizes two visions of America and places them in the lap of the earliest settlers, two views of America that, it is positied have carried through to the modern day. The original Jamestown settlers are portrayed as coming to the New World with an expectation of enrichment, purification, and transcendence. They will escape their tenuous position in the European social constellation. They will make a model society. They will achieve fortune and spiritual resuscitation. They will move beyond the bounds of their known world as renewed and better men. Essentially, the men treat the New World not as a place but as a tentpole revival. The naïve pursuit of this powerful vision, however noble, will leave them blind to the violence they eventually will use to achieve it.

The implications of appreciating this viewpoint are rich during a much misunderstood passage and voiceover. Smith leads a group of men up river to try to regain peace with the natives. As the boat slips quietly up the James River. Farell’s voice reads passages from Smith’s real-life journal. The lines pledge to build a better society, a paradise of brotherhood, of spiritual and economic renewal in this new land. This sequence has been taken by many mistaken critics as a sign of Malick’s alleged roses-and-daisies naivete. But I think those critics are failing to notice the irony, as the utopian wonder is never consistent with the brutalities that surround them.

The idea of America as renewal, it should be pointed out, has echoes in film made in the early seventies, at the time The New World was first bouncing around Malick’s head. That film was Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Lost in the Amazon, the conquistador Aguirre gets lost in a delusion of power, as he tries to declare his own empire. Aguirre, too, has applied a European vision of renewal to the New World. He sees the liberation of distance from the crown as an opportunity to transcend his station in European life. His dedication to this dancing vision will likewise lead to violence in the name of achieving it.

Unlike Aguirre, John Smith is a lover, not a fighter. Still he participates in one clear allusion to Aguirre, fighting a circle of natives in full armor in a dense wilderness. I think that scene indicates a relationship between Aguirre and the nice-guy Aguirre, Smith.

In fact, I think if there were a subtitle to The New World, it would be “Yes, Werner, but … : So what Is the” but?” The “but” arrives in the form of John Rolfe (a brilliant Christian Bale), a farmer who several years later comes to the New World to grow tobacco. He doesn’t have grand dreams of personal transformation. He works the land. He hopes to marry, gain wealth, and raise a family. He courts the heartbroken Pocahontas, who has been left by Smith and told that he is dead. Rolfe’s kindness awakens her, enough to marry and have children, but his affection fails to excite her. She still carries a flame for Smith. Remember this, we’ll come back to it later.

The New World is what I like to call a Rosetta Stone film. By that, I mean that coming to a solid understanding of this film allows you to go back and translate moments in the director’s other films, suggesting ways to solve areas of confusion and thereby giving the director a fresher and deeper understanding. Barry Lyndon is the Rosetta film for Stanley Kubrick. For Malick, The New World adds light to one of the central Malick questions. I like to describe this dilemma in terms of The Thin Red Line. Is Malick more Witt or Welsh? Is his attitude more that of the dreamy transcendental soldier Witt, or the materialistic, practical sergeant, whose admiration for Witt’s innocence is met with a hard-earned skepticism about its viability in a cruel world? Until The New World, I would have said that Malick was more Witt. After it, I’m certain it’s Welsh.

So let’s re-visit the trip upriver with Farell reading from Smith’s idealistic diary. The Witt interpretation, as refracted through the perspective of disapproving Malick critics, is, “There goes Malick again. Portraying the world as a beautiful, natural, idealistic paradise that will eventually crumble. He’s probably going to match it with a goopily innocent love story. Is he really that much of a naïve flake?” (Obviously, there is a more optimistic and admiring version of that interpretation, but I thought I would use the detractor’s perspective for effect.) The Welsh interpretation: “Malick is using an ironic device. He’s underscoring the naïve mythologizing of the New World. He definitely loves filming nature, and he might admire the character’s innocence on some level, the same way that Welsh talks about Witt being “like a magician to me.” But he’s also shaking his head at it. In the end he sees the impracticality of maintaining such a view in the real world. He also will suggest that pursuit of such a naïve mythology of one’s surroundings can lead to violence and a breakdown of the innocent’s myth of harmony.”

I want to talk now, finally, about Pocahontas. In doing so, I want to draw comparisons to Holly, the heroine of Malick’s Midwestern killing spree debut Badlands. The films were conceived around the same time, and I think the comparison is informative. Both young women are in their early to mid teens, dealing with the arrival of love in less than ideal circumstances. Both young women deal with their funky first love by mythologizing the situation. In her journals that make up the film’s voiceover narrative, Holly describes the murder spree romance in the only lingo she knows – imagining the adventures of Kit and Holly as the stars of fifties pop-culture magazines (Malick achieves the effect with an ironic distance.). She re-creates the facts as mythology in an effort to deal with the turmoil. In her voiceovers, Pocahontas similarly mythologizes love as a gift from her deity, and she will apply this interpretation to Smith, treating not just as a boyfriend, but as a Heaven-sent object of transcendence from her station.

But the thing about Holly is that she’s growing and getting wiser throughout the spree. Her diary entries become increasingly desperate and realistic. It leads to one of the great (and funniest) epiphanies in film, “I swore right there and then that never again would I go tagging along with the hell-bent type, no matter how much in love with him I was.” It’s at this point that we know she has exited the myth and started to deal with the reality. Then comes the final voice-over that no one remembers. As the feds fly Kit to the law, and as we see the small plane floating through the clouds, Holly describes what happens to her in the future. She goes to court, gets off relatively lightly, serves her time and then ….. she leaves prison and marries the son of her lawyer. I place a lot of emphasis on that last detail.

Why? Because it suggests that Holly has moved on from a naïve, wild-eyed, mythologized vision of love to a practical version that might not be as exciting but gets done the job of living happily and productively. That’s mirrored in the final choice of Pochontas, when she must choose between her mythologized love for Smith versus her practical marriage to Rolfe. She too will elect to be happy with the practical rather than try to recapture the thrill of the myth.

So finally, on to America. Here’s my theory. Malick is offering up two rival visions of America. There’s America the Mythological, the City on a Hill version, in which American greatness is loudly defined through myths of spiritual and ideological renewal and activism. Then there’s America the Practical, the Yeoman Farmer version, in which American greatness is achieved subtly, unspokenly, by waking up, plowing the fields, milking the cows, intermarrying, and raising children. While both strands still exist, I think what Malick is saying is that America the Myth is more visible but less powerful than America, the Practical, and that American greatness is achieved not ideologically, but through the subtle, practical transcendence of living everyday. Thus, I don’t see Malick as the hippy-dippy flower child of the American cinema. Instead, I see his depictions of innocence as at least partially skeptical.

Wall-E hype alert, No. 2

Not only are the folks over at Box Office Prophets heaping praise on the movie that should be required by law to be viewed on your deathbed, Wall-E. They're wondering if any corporate brand is more reliable than Pixar at consistently giving us great products. I would say Dr Pepper. Except that new chocolate flavor is a mess.