Monday, August 17, 2009

The Time-Traveler's Wife

Given its immense book sales, a movie of "The Time Traveler's Wife" was inevitable, despite its lack of climax, conflict, or drama. The book is actually a pretty good time, despite being chock-full of moments where characters must accommodate the demands of the plot by behaving like completely different, mostly brain-dead people, most prominently in the heroine's out-of-nowhere whining about wanting to be pregnant despite the high likelihood of "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex"-style complications. Though I suppose one could defend this sudden, senseless, self-destructive shift in attitude as quite realistic.

For those who don't know the plot: The book's about a guy who, like Billy Pilgrim, is permanently unstuck in time. Every couple of days, he's suddenly shot into the past for a few hours, but his journeys seem to center around a particular woman. He first appears to her when she's a little girl and he's a man in his thirties, which is about the age he remains for all the visits to her in childhood, as well as when he appears during her horny teenage years (fear not, he remains entirely gentlemanly). When she's in her mid-20s, he tells her that they're going to meet soon---that is, she's going to meet him in his actual linear life, and he won't know her yet. When they do meet, he's actually a few years younger than she is, and much more awkward than the older man she's known up until now. But love blooms, and they have some beautiful years together.

It's all very sweet, and not too badly written. But what really sells the book is its remorsely perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy. Not just the predestined love aspect, though that's certainly no small thing; no, it's the traveler who's a projection of a man too perfect to exist outside of fiction(which makes casting Eric Bana, who's played a lot of too-good-to-be-true men, appropriate, though how I'd love to see him in a remake of "Suspicion"). For the (largely female) readership, the time traveler is both the suave older man who won't fuck you no matter how hard you beg, and he's also the stumbling younger guy you can slyly seduce, and he's the sweet, bumbling hubby who you can mold into the aforementioned suave older man (and he'll happily go along with it, because you're trying to make him into the man he already is/was/will be). The fact that the heroine's actual father is barely-glimpsed and seemingly unlikable only further underscores the time traveler's role as simultaneous daddy and boytoy. And his chronological unreliability gives the story the vital "sisters must do it for themselves" aspect that any successful piece of female-oriented pop fiction needs.

Of course, such wish fulfillment is a vital part of all popular fiction---witness detective novels' endless procession of men who are tough, independent, hard-living, and seemingly irresistible to hot babes who conveniently disappear. But it's sort of rare to see a piece of popular women's fiction so eager to dive into genre devices (and sci-fi devices at that) in the interest of crafting a shamelessly perfect fantasy scenario. It has some of the glassy-eyed intensity of very specific fetish porn, the sense that you're reading something carefully crafted to fit perfectly in the keyhole in someone's brain.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Serial Mom

Flickr gallery for this piece here

I've always liked John Waters' movies without ever thinking he was a particularly good director. Which is fine---the amiable amateurism of his films is much of their appeal. But after massively enjoying Serial Mom, I'm starting to think that Waters, like Wagner, is better than he looks.

Because the thing is, Serial Mom is funny as hell---guffaw-out-loud-in-an-empty-living-room funny. But aside from a handful of quotable lines, the script isn't all that striking. Which has weirdly little impact on the movie's immense hilariousness. Most of the scenes have flatly functional dialogue---"Officer, we don't allow gum in this house." "Sorry, ma'am." ---- but through some strange alchemy, it plays like gangbusters.

That flat functionality is maybe the most defining characteristic of Waters as a filmmaker. Much of the fun of the Waters/Divine pairing was always the discordance of this loud, ferocious creature and the weirdly narcotized world that contained her. From his early films to the present, his compositions have a theatrical, frontal quality. Even at climactic moments, when the screen gets more angled and kinetic, the camera hangs back, arresting momentum.

This is, of course, exactly the opposite of what a director is supposed to do---"keep the audience immersed" is pretty much the filmmaker's first commandment. Serial Mom pays extensive tribute to goremeister Herschell Gordon Lewis, not least in its combination of luridly violent subject matter and bizarrely uninflected visual style. In Lewis, that was just the result of his mild-at-best technical competence---where a great (hell, good) director might have a villain terrify you through commanding movement of the frame, Lewis' baddies just lean into the lens and leer. But Waters has always idolized the accidental Brechtianism of crappy exploitation movies of the 50s and 60s, before ubiquitous film school degrees made even low-budget sleazefests blandly mediocre.

The damned thing is that in Waters' films, it works. The air of campy quotation turns every piece of set dressing into a giggle, and the foursquare framing makes a guy spitting out gum into a weird little gag that isn't really funny, except that it is. His proscenium-oriented direction is definitely distinctive; his auteurist cred is certainly triple-A. But more important, his storytelling voice is incredibly effective at his project of making the whole world look sublimely freaky, turning even the most normal behavior into a too-tight Halloween mask.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Judd Apatow

There's something of a running complaint that Judd Apatow presents a perniciously misogynist view of woman as unfun taskmasters of free-spirited men. The latest manifestation of this misreading is up at Slate's Double-X blog, because if there's one site guaranteed to always get the arts wrong, it's Slate.

It's an understandable misapprehension---Seth Rogen is a lot more fun than Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up (though Heigl seems to be building a solid comedy career out of being the new Margaret Dumont), and Steve Carell's pals in The 40-Year-Old Virgin get a lot more jokes than Catherine Keener. But it seems to fundamentally miss what Apatow's movies are about, which is the need to put away dudehood's childish things. Both Virgin and Knocked Up (and, from what I've heard, Funny People) hammer pretty obsessively on the necessity of putting down the bong and leaving the brahs behind in order to become a functioning adult.

This is, obviously, a pretty common theme in romantic comedy. What makes Apatow different is that he doesn't take the line seen in movies like The Hangover: "Being a dude is totally fun, but you gotta stop doing it 'cause chicks don't like it and dudes like chicks." Instead, Apatow is always very conscious, even when the boys are having their fun, of how hollow that fun is. All the guys in The 40 Year Old Virgin are gradually exposed as liars, hypocrites, and frauds. Even more pointed is the flophouse that Rogen inhabits in Knocked Up---for the first half-hour or so it looks like a great place to hang out, but it gradually seems increasingly purgatorial, culminating in the pinkeye outbreak that leaves everyone looking like zombie junkies. This is where so many of the Apatow-imitators fail---they try to shoehorn all the growing up into the finale, rather than leading us to its necessity.

If anything, the problem with Apatow's movies is their monomaniac focus on a heteronormative family as the only fulfilling life. Though Catherine Keener is a little funkier than most romance objects, there's a real lack of any kind of alternative culture in Apatow's world, and the preachy insistence on showing how anyone who doesn't end up well-scrubbed and properly paired is doomed to a life of chronic masturbation gets not-a-little grating. It's hard to imagine a current Apatow movie providing a moment of subculture pride like the first shot of Freaks & Geeks. Looking back on that show, it seems like it was Paul Feig who provided the identification with the underclass, while Apatow was the talent-spotter (and a helluva spotter, considering how many of the F&G crew ended up comedy stars).

Still, I can't much condemn Apatow for being about as limited in his perspective as almost every other romantic comedy ever made. If anything, much of the criticism of his films misses the extent to which he's simply rewriting classic screwball comedies with the gender roles reversed. Movies like Bringing Up Baby often revolved around a stuffy, career-obsessed male who's transformed by his meeting with a wacky, free-spirited female; if anything, the biggest difference is that the women of screwball comedies were required to change much less than Apatow's males.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Public Enemies

There's a taciturn quality to Michael Mann's Public Enemies that I'm sure he regards as a virtue. Mann's deep love of macho playacting (he's like Scorsese without Scorsese's critical detatchment from his big-dicked poseurs) certainly extends to his own direction, which is at once swoony and brisk. And there's some real virtue to it---his refusal to subject us to what-does-it-all-mean speechifying can be welcome.

It can also leave us sort of unclear on, well, what it all means. Public Enemies is good fun---the clothes are nice, the picture looks good (though some of the gun battles take on a weirdly interlaced, flat quality when the camera moves too much), and it's great fun to see a bunch of actors comport themselves in all those period jackets. But in the end, it's sort of unclear why Mann wanted to tell this story, what he expects us to take from it, what distinguishes this movie from any of the other versions of the tale. Mann obviously assumes we have a fair amount of foreknowledge of Dillinger's fate---every mention of the Biograph theater fairly thrums with foreboding---which makes it all the more important for him to make clear why he's bothering to tell it to us, and he just won't.

There's hints all over the place---sometimes he seems interested in the Heat-like battle of wits between Dillinger and FBI agent Melvin Purvis. Sometimes his attention is grabbed by the gap between Dillinger the celebrity and Dillinger the man, best articulated a scene where Dillinger goes unnoticed in a movie theater full of people searching for John Dillinger, largely because he's just a guy in a hat rather than a 15-foot-high mug shot. Sometimes it seems like the love story is what he wants to tell, signaled by the big music cues that come in whenever Dillinger and his best girl, Billie Frechette, are separated or reunited.

But every time a thematic thread is raised, it's soon dropped---nothing ever sinks in. Purvis is introduced unerringly shooting down Baby Face Nelson with a scoped rifle---as the Fuzzwife noted, Mann seems to be setting up a conflict between Dillinger as a tommy gun (inaccurate but deadly) and Purvis as a rifle (just one shot, but it's a good 'un). But Purvis' shooting skills never come up again, nor does his patience, nor does his accuracy. Dillinger's celebrity is frequently teased, but it never really resolves---Mann certainly doesn't even seize the opportunity to give us a shot of Dillinger dying in front of the movie theater, which would solidify that idea.

Even the love story doesn't really take over, not least because while Frechette gets a little speech about her boring life up until now, Mann's too disdainful of psychologizing to really let us see that as an aspect of her character. Marion Cotillard doesn't get to dig into Frechette as a thrill-seeker, or as a girl from the rez trapped in bad rez choices of bad rez men, or as a country mouse enjoying big-city sophistication---she's just a plot device, placed in the movie to wear clothes, take off clothes, look pretty, get slapped, and cry. Maybe a better actress could have found a way past Mann's disinterest, the way Christina Ricci did in Buffalo '66, but considering Mann's relentless drive to move ahead whether or not a character trait has been established, probably not.

For all Mann's meticulous shooting, the overall impression is one of sloppiness---it's like Mann glued a bunch of scripts together and started shooting without bothering to resolve it into a single draft. This rushed, ramshackle quality extends to the little things as well as the big, as Mann has a terribly bad habit of failing to introduce information until the last possible minute, not as a suspense trick, but because he simply seems to have forgotten what we need to know. An early example is in the scene when Dillinger comes to the coat check where Frechette's working, fights off a customer, and takes her away. Just before Frechette goes from turning him down to leaving with him, there's a moment when she looks at the other girl working the coat check, and that seems to change her mind. Maybe it's because she sees something in the other girl that she doesn't want to become, maybe it's because she sees the girl's admiration for this tough guy who so badly wants to be her boyfriend. But it's almost impossible for us to even think about the question, because we've literally had zero visual indication that there even is a second girl at the counter before the shot where Frechette looks at her---I don't have a disc here, but I don't believe the other girl is even visible in the wide shots.

Another small but telling example---what sends Dillinger to the Biograph Theater is the heat of the Chicago summer, and the Biograph's air conditioning. But one the day he decides to go, after a series of scenes of Dillinger setting up various plans, he comes into the house and, in one shot, runs his wrists under cold water and says "It sure is hot---let's go to the movies." It seems like Directing 101 to establish that it's hot beforehand, so that you don't have to cram cause and effect into a single, clumsy moment like that, but here again Mann seems to be shooting scenes with no awareness of where a scene is going, so he has to carry out this kind of clumsy shuffle whenever the plot demands a reason for action.

Similar directoral sloppiness besets the action scenes. When Purvis and his boys have Dillinger holed up in a rural hotel, there's a lengthy discussion of who's going to approach from the north, who from the south, and what the plan is for closing the exits. But Mann never gives us shots that would make clear which way is north, who's coming from where, or how the plan goes wrong. It's fine if he wants to sacrifice spatial clarity for visceral excitement---I'm not a purist about knowing who's standing where---but it's bizarre to do so after giving us so much setup discussion of the directional plan.

Public Enemies is a perfectly good time at the movies---I went to see Johnny Depp wear cool clothes and shoot guns, and it delivered. But while I don't mind its anemic moral vision, it's narrative messiness borders on real contempt for the audience. Taciturn silence looks great on a western lawman, but on a storyteller, it's more than a little irritating.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

You're Welcome, America

It's no fun to be a racial scold. And it feels pretty ridiculous when I've vociferously defended Resident Evil 5 from charges of racism---maybe more than it deserves. But among the many good things about the end of the Dubya regime, one benefit is that I'll no longer have to watch liberals wandering into genuinely icky minstrel-show territory.

The most recent sample is Will Ferrell's one-man show: "You're Welcome America - A Final Night with George W Bush", which was shot for broadcast on HBO. For the most part, it's a fairly entertaining piece---though the jokes are mostly just recitations from the Harper's Index, Ferrell's Bush impression has always been eerily spot-on. It's not just the accent, though he does do a lovely job of nailing the way Bush's affected drawl slips and slides depending on his self-image. What Ferrell gets is Bush's belligerent confusion, the way his slitted eyes seemed to be looking equally for a brawl or an escape. No matter how much I hated the guy, I always felt a little bad for him too---deep down, he seemed to know how out of his depth he was, and much of his cowboy toughness was a transparent cover for his well-deserved insecurity.

All that's fine, and good, and pretty funny. The problematic part comes about halfway through, as Bush/Ferrell is going through his memories of the members of his cabinet (you already see where this is going, right?). There's fairly standard jokes about Wolfowitz, Rummy, and a pretty funny bit about tickling Richard Perle's jowls to make him giggle. But then he turns to Condoleeza Rice, and things get profoundly icky, as an African-American woman dressed up like Condi comes out and does a music-video lambada with Bush.

Allow me to proffer a suggestion to comedians who would like to not be racist assholes: If your gag involves an African-American woman doing a hoochie-mama dance, think twice. If your gag involves a powerful African-American woman being turned into a white man's sexual fantasy, think three times.

The worst part---what makes it not funny along with racist---is that the tired sex-mammy stereotype doesn't map onto Condi at all. What's striking about Condi is her icy hatred, the way she would always flash the stink-eye when she thought no one was looking. Building jokes around her evil-nun persona could be plenty funny, and you could even get some comedy gold out of the contrast between Bush thinking of her as a warm mammy, and her actual chilly deadliness---like everyone in the Bush administration, she seems to have specialized in carefully manipulating the dauphin.

But presenting her as a gyrating stripper doesn't map onto her as a person---it's simply the most available stereotype of a black woman under 50. That's what makes it racist as well as bad comedy; it's hard to believe a pro like Ferrell could come up with something both less funny and more egregious than the Right's ugly-Chelsa jokes, but he did.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars: Continued

So, I'm slightly less hyped about Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars now that I've, er, finished the entire game in a month of big, big bites; given the game's addictiveness and enjoyability, my complaints should probably be taken with enough salt to pay off a centurion legion. Chinatown Wars pays tribute to the old-school GTA games with its top-down view, but also with its fairly crappy third-person shooting controls, and the last stages of the game involve way too much of this mediocre shooting. GTA games are always strongest in their driving system (the Midnight Club experience really pays off in the series' strong car differentiation), and CW is no exception, so I wish they'd built more of the missions around unusual variations on driving, which the engine does really well, instead of on-foot shooting, which it does really badly.

That said, there's a moment near the end that makes me love the game all over again. SPOILERS AHEAD! if you don't want to see them, but...

When driving around the marvelously-rendered city of Chinatown Wars, you'll sometimes see a little icon indicating an optional side mission. I spotted one around the back of a building I was driving past, so I carefully backed the car up, drove through a narrow alley, and found myself in a standard GTA trash-strewn back lot. Walked up to the optional-mission-giver, a tiny little female sprite. Up pops the cutscene (a series of comic-book illustrations), in which the woman asks me if I "wanna have a good time".

Ah, it's a hooker! Well, hookers are a long-standing tradition in the GTA world, one that I've defended before as an important part of the series' satirical perspective. Now, everyone knows what happens to hookers in GTA games. But this time, said hooker *also* seems to know---just as you start to respond to her, she says (I'm paraphrasing from memory here) "Oh I know your type! Guys like you get me in the car, then shoot me to get your money back! Well we're not going to stand for it any more---get him, girls!"

At which point dozens of prostitutes charge you, Sin City-style, exacting vengeance for all their sisters cut down in previous GTA games. Auto-critique plus violence---that's the good stuff!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Bernstein Would Like to Take You Higher

I finally made it to a River2River event: Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra Plays The Music of Sly & The Family Stone. "Plays the music of" are generally words that strike ennui into the heart of music-lovers, signaling the presence of a---shudder---tribute band, all-too-often with and overenthusiastic singer and embarrassing outfits. And Bernstein is probably overenthusiastic, not infrequently pausing between songs for long, rambling stories about growing up Jewish, Woodstock, and utopian musical hopes. But in fairness, the show was the start of a tribute to Woodstock, and Sly & The Family Stone have been inspiring utopian hopes for a long time.

As part of a Woodstock tribute (seemingly sponsored by the makers of the film The Road To Woodstock, who were out in force passing out fliers to the urban grey-hairs who are pretty much dead center of that biopic's demographic targeting zone), the show focused on the music S&tFS played during their show-stealing performance at Yasgur's farm, which means the hits were well represented. It was a good choice, not least because those songs take very well to the big-band transfer---like the Mingus Big Band, Bernstein's group alternates between brainy deconstructions of a song's musical elements and a full-court press of syncopated volume.

Also on site were a succession of terrific, interesting singers, each determined to bring their own stamp to the classics. Highlights included Shilpa Ray's East Indian punk drone on "Everyday People", Martha Wainwright's god-abandoned gospel keening on "Que Sera Sera", and Dean Bowman busting out his deep-piped cerebral genius freak act all over "Sing a Simple Song". The great Bernie Worrell was on keyboard, and though his instrumental medleys leaned a little heavily towards the jokey, he's a player who's always instinctively understood the jangly jump of the Family Stone's keyboard lines---looking back, the synth that propels The Name of the Band Is Talking Heads sounds not unlike the hyperactive jangling on "I Want to Take You Higher".

Understandably, though, there wasn't much heard from the landmark album "There's a Riot Going On". While we did get the ballad "Family Affair", most of that strange, murky, grim album is pretty much the exact opposite of what you want to hear at an outdoor summer show. It says a lot about my musical tastes that "Riot" is my favorite S&tFS album---it reverses all the principles of funk music, replacing the propulsive crispness that defines the genre with a grim, lurching swirl. Again, the Talking Heads connection---"Riot" was the first album to realize that the tightness of funk tunes could become a prison, and the sound of the singer being buried alive in "Luv 'n' Haight" and "Poet" anticipates the vocalist's paranoid lurking all over "Fear of Music".

Also of note: This was my first time seeing a show at the Castle Clinton space, in Battery Park, and it's quite a charming little venue. It's an enclosed open-air space that seats about 250, and it's a hell of a lot better designed than the average outdoor stage. The ground is well raked, which means that the seats in the back still get good sightlines (better than the seats in front, actually), and although the volume was kept a little on the low side (perhaps out of consideration for the kind of audience drawn to a Tribute to Woodstock show), the enclosure held the sound in nicely. Looks nothing at all like a castle, but 'ey, dis is Amurrica!