Saturday, March 21, 2009

MOVIES- Synecdoche, NY

Spoilers? Oh yeah.

We love a competition. Winners, losers, that makes simple enough to understand. Takes all the complexity and difficulty out of things. A bunch of amateurish tone-deaf singers who if they were performing in a bar you’d walk out on ‘em. But call it American Idol and make it a competition… A bunch of assholes that would make you ask for a new table in the restaurant if you were sitting close enough to hear their inane blather while waiting for their meal, but call it Big Brother… Watching people eat bugs is entertainment for kindergartners, but call it Survivor… So to try to entice you into a challenging film that is well worth your time even if there are no car chases or explosions, I’ll mention that the Rotten Tomatoes score for this movie is 62 and that two of the first half dozen blurbs include one from Chris Carpenter of the Orange County and Long Beach Blade which says “one of the worst films of 2008” and Robert Roten from the Laramie Movie Scope who writes, “This might be the best film of 2008”. Any time you have that kind of disagreement among critics, the movie is almost always worth seeing.

SYNECDOCHE, NY is about a middle-aged writer-director trying to make sense of the existential issues of being a human being through his art as the clock both winds down and speeds up. That’s also the plot of the movie. Charlie Kaufman builds a wildly complex artificial world in which we see everyone from both the outside, inside, and in the interpretation of the other characters. That’s also what the protagonist does. The movie is about a play within a play. The play in the movie is too. The movie is an attempt by an artist to make something real and true through his art. That’s also the background for the story of the movie. SYNECDOCHE, NY is the movie equivalent of both a hall of mirrors and a Russian nesting doll. It is simply the most demanding and rewarding and deep movie made in the last several years.

If you finish this movie and don’t immediately want to watch it again then you’ve missed the boat. If a movie has ever demanded repeated viewing to mine its depths, this one does. This isn’t new territory for Kaufman. Every one of his movies throws so many unexpected twists at the audience that, like a good book, they can’t all be digested in one sitting. The movie follows the life of a man, who could be any man or woman, through the last half of his life. To begin to follow what is happening you have to face both the idea that the second half of a life is profoundly affected by the reality that you have less time ahead of you than you have behind you and that, as my high school band director once warned us when we were far to young to understand, every summer is shorter. Over the hill is an apt metaphor because not only are you past the mid-point, but things are accelerating in an uncontrollable fashion. So you start with the abandonment of the classic three act structure in favor of the kind of subjective time sense that causes you to say “my god, is it Thursday already?” and leads to “my god, are you already 50?” and then add the juxtaposition of objective reality, subjective reality, memory, real people, your perception of people, your perception of events, how your memory differs from actual events. This is a movie where looking away from the screen for a couple of minutes might cause you to lose the momentum of the story the same way waking in the middle of the night causes you to lose contact with the dream you were living in just a moment before.

“Knowing you don’t know is the most essential step to knowing, you know?”

The first scene in the movie sets the tone and tries to ease you in to what is about to happen. Caden Cotard wakes to his clock radio telling him that it’s the first day of fall. On the radio a literature professor is being interviewed about the melancholy of autumn. She quotes part of Rilke’s poem, Autumn Day:

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters into the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

The scene continues, superficially having the slice-of-life feeling of many independent films. But little things are happening on the periphery that tell us what is really going on. Caden wanders downstairs to get his first cup of coffee. His wife passes him in the hall. We see his daughter and wife discuss her morning bowel movement. Something has changed with it- it’s green. Perhaps it is a symptom that there is something wrong. The phone rings. Caden doesn’t answer and his wife leaves his daughter to talk to her friend as he gets his coffee. The radio, which continues to play in the background as we eavesdrop on the wife’s telephone conversation, tells us it is October 8. Caden mentions that he doesn’t feel well as he goes out to get the morning paper. As Caden fetches the paper we see a man watching him from the other side of the street. We don’t know it at the time but this is Caden’s alter-ego, watching him from a slight distance in the same way you watch yourself in dreams, apart yet connected. Along with the morning paper, Caden gets the mail, which includes a magazine called “Attending to Your Illness”. He seems puzzled why he has a subscription to this. As he opens the newspaper at the breakfast table we see that the date is October 14 at the same time the radio tells us that it is October 15. Time continues to compress. The newspaper, now dated Oct. 15, 2005, says famous American Playwright Harold Pinter is dead. However, Pinter did not die on that date. The “mistake” does mirror Pinter’s own obsession with ambiguity and the unreliability of personal memory, which further leads us to believe this narrative is subjective and perhaps a memory rather than any kind of objective set of events. On the television (again a background item touched only briefly by the camera) is a cartoon where two talking farm animals are discussing viruses. All of these clues occur in the first five minutes of the movie.

SYNECDOCHE, NY is so dense that it requires a lot from the viewer but that attention is rewarded with the kind of real insight into the human condition that only the best books can provide and few movies even attempt. Everyone’s perception of the world is forced through the funnel of their understanding, and, like Jorge Luis Borges realization that any truly accurate map would require that the map be the same size as the area it represents, we realize that our understanding of events around us is basically reductionist to the point of uselessness. In perhaps one of the most poignant and troubling scenes in the movie, Caden Cotard finds the daughter than was taken from him at five years old. She was taken to Germany when her mother left Caden with a female friend who would later becomes the daughter’s lover. Caden sees his daughter again when she is ten years old, featured in an art magazine, naked and tattooed from head to foot. But in spite of searching for years he only is rejoined with her as she lies in her death bed, dying from an infection caused by the tattoos that had outraged him years before. When he finally meets her she asks him to beg for forgiveness for him abandoning her and being homosexual. He tries to explain that he isn’t homosexual and that he didn’t abandon her, she was taken from him. Her reply is that the lover that she shared with her mother said that he would say that. Trapped in a situation where he has no choice but to put his daughter’s needs ahead of his own, he asks for forgiveness for leaving her (which he didn’t) and for being homosexual (which he isn’t). Then, she refuses to forgive him with her dying breath. It’s a powerful scene and disturbing in a number of ways.

Which is the bottom line on the whole movie- powerful and disturbing. I can’t actually say it’s a great movie because it is so relentlessly unhappy. There are funny turns of phrase and funny situations but they are small and things never stop being uncomfortable. I realize this is what Kaufman was going for, but it’s hard on the audience. I don’t know what the feel good movie of 2008 was, but I’m pretty sure this was it’s antithesis. Yet, it is so unique and affecting that is simply must be seen by any fan of film.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

POLITICS- The Court Jester (still not Danny Kaye) part two

As I said in the previous post, last night Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart was the scene of the best television interview on the boob tube perhaps since Frost sat down with Nixon. The Blogosphere has been buzzing, a few of the large corporate news outlets have mentioned it (Moneyweek, for instance had an article that missed the point so far that you would think it was a NASA Mars shot), and the television media completely ignored it. The last is especially telling about the corporate media and their love of whoring themselves out when a story means nothing
but their complete timidity to report any story where us dumb old Americans might actually hear a little truth. As the TVNEWSER article linked above mentions, one of the foremost apologists for anyone with money and power, Joe Scarborough, was happy enough to play “lets you and him fight” when he thought that Stewart was going to be nice and funny. But when our national Court Jester said what so many of us have been thinking (no matter which side of the aisle you sit on), that the national media is nothing but a conglomeration of whores who will say anything as long as it pleases the people leaving money on the nightstand, he literally proved the point by not mentioning the conclusion of something he had been yapping like the dog he is about for the past week.

So, goodbye, NBC networks. You have showed your true colors and spent your credibility for the sake of a quick buck. Joe Scarburough needs to go on his show Monday morning and felaciate a goat as a visual representation of his “journalistic integrity”. ABC is owned by Disney (the biggest purveyor of child porn in the history of the world- fifty years of enabling middle aged men to ogle pubescent girls since Annette Funicello through Brittany Spears to their current sex slave Miley Cirus. (And Billy Ray, I never believed that people should burn in hell for their mistakes but selling your daughter into sex slavery for another lousey 15 minutes of fame sure qualifies your more that a thousand lifetimes of consensual sex with the same gender ever could. And that excuses you for writing and singing that shitty Achey Breaky Heart song.) CBS emasculated the story that our previous president dodged the war in Vietnam and didn’t even fulfil his National Guard service by doing such a crappy job of investigation that they missed the fact that the documents they “exposed” used laser printer fonts rather than typewriter fonts which would have been time appropriate (and crucified their news reader, Dan Rather, making their penance a joke). And now, finally, NBC has laid to rest any concept of journalistic integrity by being caught with their pants down, in bed with the very Wall Street theives that have literally wrecked the world’s economy, and then hoping nobody noticed rather than facing their shame. They say their job is to report the news. Instead they have all made it obvious that their job is to be the propaganda arm of the plutocracy that runs this country.

Take it from Memphisto, Hell's gonna be packed with so many "journalists" that you won't have to worry when the coffee break is over.

Friday, March 13, 2009

POLITICS- The Court Jester (not Danny Kaye)

The court jester, or court fool, was a unique character in the medieval royal administration. Perhaps this is best evidenced in Shakespeare’s plays where often the role of the fool was exemplified as the one person able to comment on the action, on the follies of the characters around him that were driving the drama with their own seriousness and failure. Only the character of the fool could say what everybody in the audience was thinking. Only he had liberty to speak the truth because no one had to take him seriously. After all, he was just a clown, meant only for amusement.

In a world where everyone is participating in the drama by saying whatever they think is to their advantage and all proclamations must be parsed for the actual aims of those making them, it’s easy to question whether you have been overwhelmed by cynicism (which is ABSOLUTELY NOT pessimism, as I often hear it mis-described). The professional cynics in a free society are supposed to be the news media. The “fourth estate” as Thomas Carlyle put it in his book On Heroes and Hero Worship. Since then it has come to mean almost a fourth branch of government. The one without civil power but with ultimate oversight on the other three. The final check and balance of power in a system where, ultimately, the people are expected to rule. But since our democracy has become a plutocracy the actually government has been bought and paid for by the rich and the fourth estate is outright owned by them, the only people left to tell the actual truth are the fools, the jesters.

Witness this last night.

Part one

Part two

Part three

Those three videos, in a form only slightly longer than the actual program as aired, are perhaps the most shocking news interview I’ve seen in the last decade if not longer. And that’s saying a lot when you consider how often the GOP vice-presidential candidate was allowed to show her true colors on network TV over the last several months. But it’s one thing to turn on the camera and have someone show themselves as an idiot in response to a few innocuous questions. Republicans chided the “media” for attacking Sarah Palin when in fact they hardly asked a question harder than “has your stupid ass even heard of any Supreme Court decisions other than Roe v. Wade?” Last night we saw what the press might be like if they took their adversarial role with the government seriously. And it wasn’t from some bloviating anacephalic bully’s self proclaimed “No-Spin Zone”, or from some pretentious Edward R. Murrow wannabe’s “Special Comments”. It wasn’t from a nightly network news broadcast or a (gag) serious newsmagazine. It was a simple case of a court jester asking an expert who claims to be a journalist why he didn’t say anything about a situation that anybody with half a brain saw coming. I’ve mentioned several times on this blog before that if you think people can own homes that cost half a million dollars with a mean family income of a tenth of that, you aren’t a financial expert, you are an idiot. And I’m sure as hell no expert. I just had basic math in school.

Thank you, Jon Stewart. You’re gonna get heat for this. The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes has a fake ending. If it had been truthful it would have ended with the loud-mouthed child beaten to death by the crowd for being unpatriotic. A few years ago you called out Tucker Carlson for being a lying, fatuous douchbag and if it hadn’t been for the internet no one would have known. So far I haven’t seen the reaction from the media but it’s going to be even more telling than your one man stand for speaking the obvious truth. (I don’t watch Joe Scarburough in the mornings because I have better ways to start my day that to have fat, rich, white guys wake me up by screaming at me about how fat rich white guys aren’t the problem. And I think that Mika Cadillac, daughter of Zibignew Cadillac, doesn’t even have the qualifications for being a woman who reads aloud on TV in the morning. If I wanted a horse-faced idiot to greet me every morning with a combination of superiority and stupidity I wouldn’t have thrown my ex-wife out of the house a couple of years ago.)

But thank you, Jon Stewart, you motley fool. Here is one insignificant Diogenese who appreciates that there is at least one honest man left.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

MOVIES- Watch the Watchmen

This is what it might have been...

Thirty years of comic book evolution in one year of superhero films. Unbelievable.

In the 1960s, Stan Lee decided to take the ridiculous idea of superheroes and try to give them a little more veracity by having them live in real places, like New York, and deal with real problems, like having to pay rent or getting the flu. Last spring IRON MAN was perhaps the perfect cinema translation of that idea. It was fun and funny and had just enough veracity to keep you from being reminded every minute that it was patently impossible.

In the 1970s, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams upped the ante on realism by making superheroes deal with the limitations of the actual world. They turned Batman from a campy joke into a criminologist, gymnast, and marshal artist. They had two second tier heroes, Green Lantern and Green Arrow, deal with problems like race relations, Native American angst, Appalachian poverty, women's issues, and overpopulation. Believable politics and social situations entered the world of superheroes for the first time. Last summer THE DARK KNIGHT showed us that a man might dress up in a costume and fight for justice and it was so layered with psychology, sociology, politics, and terrorism that it never occurred to you that this man wasn’t affected by the world around him.

In the 1980s, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons finally wrote an actual novel in comic book form that centered around superheroes. Not only did they interact realistically with a realistic world, they had all the complexity of characters in a novel- moral ambiguity, self-deception, motivations such as lust, hunger for power, greed, cynicism, obsession. These superheroes were anything but paragons of virtue. They were the kind of people who were screwed up and egomaniacal enough to think that they should change the world to suit themselves. Or they were just sadists. Or they were just crazy. And the world they populated was just as complex, with societal decay, threats of nuclear war, government interference, and popular opinion all affecting their self endowed missions. In addition to these important pieces of verisimilitude, the novel had complex structure, layered narratives, allegory and metaphor, and not a small amount of science fiction. It was widely considered the best superhero comic book ever made. It’s still widely considered the best superhero comic ever made over twenty years later.

And in the late winter of 2009 the cinematic adaptation of WATCHMEN hit theaters. Unlike IRON MAN and THE DARK KNIGHT, this movie is a straight adaptation. And considering the place the source material holds in the history of the genre it is perhaps one of the most literal adaptations of a book into a film ever made by Hollywood.

And it may be the best superhero movie ever made.

Zach Snyder has followed his last comic book movie, the literal adaptation of Frank Miller’s superficial and stylized 300, with a film noir with superheroes in it. The movie is complex, sexy, exciting, cynical, and incredibly violent at times. The movie is almost three hours long and never slows down for a minute. I can only imagine how overwhelmed any viewer must feel if they expected Superman or Iron Man, or even the Dark Knight. Many of the best scenes are lifted directly from panels of the comic. Much of the best dialog is verbatim from Alan Moore’s original work.

Of course, there are going to be detractors. Some will be like this critic for The Hollywood Reporter who seems to think the movie’s financial prospects have something to do with it’s artistic accomplishment (to be sure, it seems to be The Hollywood Reporter’s editorial policy to equate artistic success with profitability). The real irony in the review is that at one point he says, “It's all very complicated but not impenetrable” apparently unaware that his review has at least a dozen mistakes in it relating to either the movie or source material. He doesn’t even get the name of the group right. This isn’t completely unexpected. Many a comic fan has given a copy of Watchmen to someone as an example of the best of the format, only to have them be completely unable to understand the complexity of the story.

The other side of the coin is the fatuous fanboys who will pick the movie apart because it isn’t their biblical interpretation of the source material. There is a legitimate complaint that the ending of the story has been changed, but even the author has said that the original ending was weak and, while I won’t give anything away, the new conclusion is logical and flows from the story. In fact, for fans of the original story it may be the only point of suspense in the whole film. Needless to say, while I loved the original graphic novel, my opinion is that anyone who thinks this isn’t a reverent and excellent adaptation is missing a real opportunity to love something that has turned a fan favorite that almost everyone agreed was unfilmable into an enjoyable and exciting cinema experience.

In addition to Snyder’s obvious reverence for the original story and art, there are several other aspects of the movie that rise to the level of excellence that even rabid fans should be able to find no fault with. Casting comes immediately to mind. There simply isn’t a discordant piece of casting or a bad performance in the bunch. In fact, the performances are amazingly spot on. I was going to wax poetic about each actor and how much they were dead ringers for their comic counterparts, but every single one is so outstanding that it would just be a laundry list. If you could cast Rock Hudson as Superman or Clint Eastwood as Batman from the Dark Knight Returns then you might approach the bulls-eye that this movie hits with every single role. The special effects are just as seamless. I can’t remember a single scene where my (admittedly obsessive-compulsively cynical) willing suspension of disbelief was challenged.

Even the music is impressive. Dylan, Hendrix, and the inspired use of an abridged version of Phillip Glass’ score for Koyaanisqatsi during the section that covers my favorite of the original twelve comic series (a look into Dr. Manhattan’s Einsteinian POV) makes the movie one of the best to use popular music since American Graffiti.

Yes, even at close to three hours there is a whole lot left out. But to call that a fault of the movie is almost on the same level of criticism as saying the movie is flawed because the characters don't have heavy black ink lines around them and that you can't see the color dots from the original printing if you look closely.

There’s nothing left to say. Comic book fans have been gifted with a remarkable adaptation of the most exceptional and complex work ever done in the genre. We should all go to our graves knowing that nothing we’ve ever done in our lives is worthy of the last year in comic cinema.

Go see this movie. Take everyone you can drag to the theater. Give it a standing ovation when the credits roll. Thank God that you were lucky enough to live to see it. Nobody thought it could be done.

UPDATE: The line from the Hollywood Reporter review that originally read " The opening murder happens to a character called the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who was once a member of a now-banished team of superheroes called the Masks." now had been corrected to " The opening murder happens to a character called the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who was once a member of a now-banished team of superheroes called the Watchmen." And the chocolate ration has been increased too!

Friday, March 6, 2009

MOVIES- Mamma Mia

While I watched MAMMA MIA I couldn’t help but think of THE LORD OF THE RINGS and STAR WARS. They all fall into the same genre- fantasy. They’re just gender specific. There is nothing less implausible about Hobbits, Jedi, Elves, and space battles than there is about 60 year old women with 20 year old daughters they had 40 years ago finding true love with ancient boyfriends while whole villages or people break into spontaneous choreographed dance numbers and sing in perfect harmony. Hell, there are even magic rings in two out of the three.

I have to say that MAMMA MIA is a fitting tribute to the music of Abba. In case you don’t know, Abba was a Swedish pop band in the 1970’s that had several hits in America. They didn’t speak English, so all their songs had to be learned phonetically, and the artistry and production was top notch for the disco era. An era that replaced wood with woodgrain plastic, sugar with high-fructose corn syrup, and music with highly produced plastic high-fructose corn syrup. Compared with Abba, the Monkeys were musical geniuses on par with Beethoven and Mozart. Likewise, MAMMA MIA is a classical musical the same way that the band on the Free-Credit Report dot Com commercials are a driving force in music today. (With the exception that the Free-Credit band is a whole lot better.)

The first problem is the plot. A twenty year old girl is getting married and she uses the occasion to steal and read her 60 year old mother's diary, only to discover that mom apparently slept with every boy who could find his way to their secluded Greek island home during the summer of love. Not being too bright, she assumes she is the product of one of these many liaisons rather than the far more probable likelihood that she is the bastard child of one of the smelly sponge fishermen that are indigenous to the island. Pretending to be her mother, she sends a letter to every man mentioned in her slutty mom’s diary inviting them to the wedding. Of course, none of these men have been able to find happiness since visiting her mother’s well trod cooze in the forty years hence, so each of them drop what they are doing to rush to the island in an attempt to revisit their long lost teenage lives (since everybody knows that the joys of career, marriage, child-rearing, and emotional stability are just a sham that replaces the true joy of momentary teenage sexual fumbling). In addition to these three male infants, her mother invites her two childhood girlfriends to the island for the wedding. These two old friends have found happiness in the intervening four decades through pursuing a succession of vapid but rich male Peter Pan syndrome types, and have learned that the true fulfillment is measured by the bulge in a man’s pants. Not the one in the front, but the one over his wallet. All female reunions are measured by how many bats are driven to fly into the rocky cliffs of the Greek isle in acts of self destruction by the ultrasonic shrieks the women use to express joy when meeting. Then we are treated to a soap-opera where everybody judges every event in terms of what they find the most flattering to their own egos, interspersed with absolutely ghastly covers of songs that were at best forgettable thirty years ago and at worst poor commercial jingles merchandised as popular music. The absolute low point is letting Peirce Brosnan’s weak voice fill the soundtrack with inane warbling. The musical equivalent of a million fingers scraping down a quarter of a million blackboards. Truly, he makes me long for Richard Harris to talk his way though the soundtrack of Camelot one more time. Meryl Streep fares a little better, but honestly the only people who can actually sing among all the primaries are Christine Baranski, here reprising her role as the template for cougars everywhere, and Julie Walters as the short, fat friend. When these two sing together the audience is given a brief taste of what the movie might have been if the casting and merchandising departments had not run the show. Otherwise, this remains a fantasy movie, not so much like the sublime Lord of the Rings trilogy brought to life by Peter Jackson as like the abysmal DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS movie. The songs are insipid, the dance numbers are ruined by having “Hollywood stars” rather than real dancers front them, and the plot is recklessly stupid. If you liked this movie, or more importantly, it you are a woman who dragged your male partner to see it, you should spend a weekend playing Magic the Gathering dressed like a slave girl as penance. And the next time you want to go all high and mighty on your significant other just remember, he’s no sillier than you are.

Maybe a whole lot less.

Monday, March 2, 2009

MOVIES- Vacant Strangers

(My drawing of Hitchcock may never have been more appropriate or inappropriate as the banner for the subject of movies.)

I’ve never really been a fan of horror movies. In fact it may be the only genre that I don’t like. Not that I can’t appreciate a good horror movie, it’s just that so many of them are so predictable and repetitive that I don’t find anything worthwhile in them. See if you’ve heard this one before- a small group of people take a holiday in a secluded spot and then when darkness falls they start to suspect that someone is trying to kill them. They attempt to deal with the situation by taking several incomprehensibly stupid actions which only cause them to start to disappear one at a time. Eventually only one of them are left and that one either escapes by single-handedly defeating the person or persons who have exterminated the entire group without breaking a sweat. During this process several things will dependably occur- someone will lose one or several articles of clothing, someone will be startled by one of their companions and kill or almost kill them thinking they are the villain, someone will have sex, many loud noises will happen at unexpected moments, and things will jump out at people.

Remember, snuff films are illegal only because of the murder involved, not because they have any different appeal than any other horror movie.

Now, to be clear, I’m probably not talking about actual horror films. I’m talking about that sub-genre commonly referred to as slasher films. Actual horror builds psychological suspense and a sense of dread through canny manipulation of ancient fears buried deep in the human psyche. These films have the same relationship to that kind of horror that jumping out from behind a corner and yelling BOO has to telling a well crafted ghost story. In fact, that’s probably the best description of them. Jumping out and yelling BOO cinematically.

The best thing on the whole disk of THE STRANGERS is the first thing director Brian Bertino says on the documentary about the making of the film. “This is something that’s never been done before.” I laughed out loud. Had he watched a movie called VACANCY, released the year before, perhaps he would have been more aware of the irony. The movies are virtually identical. Both involve a couple having relationship problems who wind up in a secluded area and are beset by a group of masked people who intend to kill them. Apparently not being married is the 21st century’s equivalent of what having teenage sex was in the eighties.

Both of the movies are reasonably acted and directed. Things go bang, people enter stray light beams slowly from dark backgrounds behind the main characters, people hide in closets, phones ring and there is no one on the other end. Both movies are completely devoid of an original idea but if I had to make a choice I’d probably give a slight edge to VACANCY simply because it spends a little more time setting up a plausible scenario and building tension. And because neither of the protagonists take off their shoes at any point. That’s important to me. If you are being attacked by a group of killers, put on your shoes so you can run. If you don’t have that much brain then I have a hard time believing you deserve to get away in the first place.