Jun 30, 2010

Some thoughts on that 4-1 score

I have to say I'm rather grateful for the margin of Germany's victory. It silences all doubt. What's been fucking England up is not that they lose but they lose by such tiny margins. It's those penalty shoot-outs. They leave you with such a haunting sense of what might have been. Add that to an under-perfoming side and the result is almost permanent heartbreak. But with 4-1, all that goes out the window. It's a clean break. Of course there was that disallowed goal, but even that gets buried beneath 4-1. Even had the goal been allowed, we still would have needed to score again and we didn't even come close. End of story. It's even rather bracing. Andrew Sullivan has a thread going about America embracing football eventually.
"Maybe when Americans realize that World Cup football is not about football, it's about nationalism, they'll like it better."
He's onto something, but he's got it exactly backward. It's the reason America isn't interested in football: they have no need of placebo nationalism when they're too busy practising the real thing. Football is of overwheening importance to nations who've been relegated from world power status (England) or had a shot but blew it (Germany) or are due an upgrade some time soon (Brazil). But if you're actually top dog, as the US is, just, why compete? You have no need for the national catharsis of football.

Jun 28, 2010

REVIEW: I Am Love (dir. Guadagnino)

I Am Love is much as they are saying — a rich, intriguing, swoony art movie about the Milanese upper-class. It passes most of the tests you'd want to throw at a film about the very rich. There's little hint of snobbery to it (the people who insist on calling it by its Italian name are to be resisted utterly). It doesn't fall into the Merchant Ivory of passing off social refinement for the aesthetic kind. It possesses a scrupulous forensic eye for the effect of wealth — which is to say, power — on family relations. The family at the centre of the film, the Recchis, close ranks against as swiftly and smoothly as elevator doors. When a boyfriend or a girlfriend of one of the children gets the elbow, they simply cease to exist: they become ghosts, invisible on the street. Visually, there's a lot of quotation going on — Visconti, Hitchcock (see above) and some others I'm sure to have missed — but amazingly, it doesn't grate. The camerawork is sinuous and stealthy, moving like one of the Recchi's maids as they tend to the family's business while blending into the background. For large sections of this movie, the direction, editing and score contrive to create an effect of utmost import, of something truly momentous afoot, without you knowing precisely what it is. Or even vaguely. It turns out to be an affair — what else? — between Tilda Swinton and one of her son's friends, a chef, presented in a series of torrid ellipses — Lady Chatterly's Lover as choreographed by Antonioni, with walk on parts for the local flora and fauna. The movie gets a little hard to read at its centre. For all the intensity of the affair, the chef all but disappears from the film's final reel, even from a funeral he would almost certainly have attended. The affair is told less as a story between two lovers, in other words, and more solipsistically, as one woman's attempt to break free from the family into which she married. Why? We are not given much in the way of explanation, although the son seems to suffer from a distinctly Russian case of Stultifying Bourgois Disenchantment. It would have been all too easy to suggest a similar tide of dissatisfaction rising in Tilda Swinton's breast, but her character seems graciousness personified, entirely happy with her role as mother and hostess. The violent rapture of the affair comes out of nowhere — with a chance tasting of the chef's food. A lot of the behaviour in the film is like that: poised somewhere between the abstract geometry of the arthouse, itself an elaboration of behaviour first observed by the great 19th century novelists, and the beating hearts of actual people. Swinton's performance is remarkably free of the anguish one might expect of a woman in her position, hovering in that intersection between the spiritually hungry and the sartorially perfect last occupied by Tippi Hedren. It's not quite the occasion for the full-on critical vapors some think but the film is a fascinating, sumptuous oddity — an arthouse movie that already feels like its own collector's edition box-set. They seem to come around so infrequently, it seems, that this one is leaving nothing to chance: it comes pre-mounted, with gilt edging and a ready-to-hang wall hook, for pride of place above your mantlepiece. B

Jun 27, 2010

There's more to it than calling "action!"

"Good action is harder than it looks. This remains true even as the available technology makes it look a little too easy. And as with 3-D and other fast-evolving visual tricks, the more there is — the bigger the fireballs, the more extensive the make-believe damage to architecture, machinery and virtual human bodies — the less impact it has. And impact is, ultimately what movie action aims to convey, as if sight and sound could combine into a physical experience." — A O Scott
I would go further. Action is not just harder than it looks — it's one of the hardest things to do in cinema. The number of director who can shoot an action sequence is a tiny fraction of the directors who make a living shooting action movies. The success rate is roughly the what you might expect if you told every living director to start making musicals, or murder mysteries set in the world of ballet. The difficult thing is not letting the difficult stuff crowd out the simple stuff. It's no good having six cars detonate if the audience doesn't know where they are in relation to the hero: how many steps from disaster he is. It's amazing how few directors remember to convey this basic information — to keep their narrative instincts ticking along within the frame, keep their action threatening. Spielberg does it without thinking; same with Cameron. Walter Hill, John Carpenter — yes, yes, yes. Peter Jackson is okay. Nolan is okay (in the Dark Knight anyway; Batman Begins not so much). John Woo is too busy admiring himself. Sam Raimi is so-so. Tim Burton is straight-out abymsal. Almost everyone else — McG, Michael Bay, both Sctt brothers although Tony is worse than Ridley — is in the obfuscation business. They throw fireballs and flying glass at us in the hope we won't notice how weak their establishing shots are. They crave chaos as a cover. Their action is quite literally bullshit. They give off the flop sweat of a bad liar. And yet here is one of the ironies of Hollywood: these are the very men with reputations as action directors. They are praised for the one thing they cannot do. That's the way of the world: draw attention to your flaws, and then market those flaws as virtues.

Quote of the day: Bill Murray

"Murray was dining at a restaurant in Brooklyn, where he can often be found blending in with the locals. Josh Hartnett, an actor he couldn’t quite place, approached him. 'This guy shakes my hand and says, 'You worked on Lost in Translation with my [then] girlfriend. Was she as much trouble for you as she was for me?' But Scarlett [Johansson] was 17 when I worked with her, so no, she wasn’t,' he says. 'I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but I don’t know who the fuck anyone is. I go through US Weekly, and it’s filled with reality stars I’ve never heard of. I don’t recognize anyone. People? Forget it." — Bill Murray, Blackbook

Film release dates: FALL-WINTER 2010

July 9
- The Kids Are All Right (limited)
- Predators
July 16
- Inception
July 23
- Salt
July 30
- Get Low (limited)

August 27
- Centurion (limited) Fassbender
September 1
- The American
Corbijn
September 17
- The Adjustment Bureau Dick
- The Town Hall
September 22
- You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
September 24
- Buried (limited; wide: Oct. 8)
- Howl (limited) Franco
- Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
October 1
- Never Let Me Go (limited)
- The Social Network Sorkin
October 22
- The Company Men Affleck
- Hereafter

November 12
Morning Glory McAdams, Ford, McKenna
November 24
- Love and Other Drugs Zwick, Hathaway
November 26

- The King's Speech
November TBA

- The Tree of Life

December 10

- The Fighter Russell
December 17

- Everything You've Got
Brooks
- Tron Legacy
December 22

- Somewhere (NY, LA)
December 25

- True Grit Portis
December 29

- Another Year (limited) Leigh
December 31

- Blue Valentine Williams
January 14

- The Green Hornet

Jun 25, 2010

That England-Germany rivalry in full

"Yet the so-called rivalry is quite obviously an illusion, existing only in the minds of those wishful to the point of insanity – which is to say, the English." — Marina Hyde, The Gaurdian
Quite right. It takes two to have a rivalry and the 'rivalry' of England with Germany is a one-sided affair. It's staulker logic. The Germans don't feel it, for the simple reason that they are historically the better team. Nor do the Argentinians, which whom we also have supposed rivalry, also for the simple reason that they are historically the better team. "Rivalry with" here seems to be code for "resentment of", or "extreme wish to beat." Richard Williams insists otherwise — no the Germans really do reciprocate.
Airy suggestions that the significance lies entirely on one side are wide of the mark. Franz Beckenbauer and Philipp Lahm confirmed this week that they and their compatriots also see these as special occasions.
Special! The heart leaps like a deer!

Jun 24, 2010

Out-protegeing the protege

"According to Deadline's Mike Fleming, a soft opening for Knight probably won't mean the cancellation of M:I:4, though it might inspire the studio to "beef up the subplot that introduces a new and younger agent who becomes Ethan Hunt's protege." — Vulture
Has the whole "young protege" plot spruce-up ever worked, to anyone's knowledge? Someone believes so. They've been at using it from Son of Frankenstein through to Die Hard 4. La Beouf has already been its beneficiary twice, once as Harrison Ford's protege in Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull and then as Michael Douglas's protege in Wall Street 2. Cruise, of course, himself did it in The Color of Money, which just goes to show that what goes around comes around — the once protege been out-proteged. Scorsese's film aside, has it ever really worked, though? Which is to say: has this cunning move ever managed to convince the nation's notoriously fickle yoof that they are not being palmed off with some creaky old geezer's franchise? How many of those little pups went on to have their own movies? The whole thing glistens with the flop-sweat of middle-aged movie executives. From what I can remember of youth, the one thing I can remember not being too charmed by was the sweat of old people.

Inception gets 3.5 stars from Peter Travers

"The mind-blowing movie event of the summer... Dive in and drive yourself crazy." – Peter Travers, Rolling Stone ***1/2
The blogs are abuzz with the first largely positive review of Christopher Nolan's forthcoming Inception, while neglecting to point out that the rave comes from Rolling Stone's Peter Travers the most excitable critic in Cristendom. In 2005, his name appeared below 65 movie poster quotes. He has raved about Shaft ("Right On! Brotherman in Charge!") Gladiator ("Glorious! A Colossus of rousing action and ferocious fun!") Me, Myself and Irene ("A hell-raising piece of comedy heaven!"), Syriana ("this fighting-mad film isn't just hot, it's incendiary") Grindhouse ("this babes-and-bullets tour de force gets you high on movies again.") He thought Mission Impossible III "the movie to beat in the race to push your pulse rate past the danger zone," and Shaun of the Dead "a blast of fright and fun! Keeps the blood and the laughs gushing!" And he gave Inception 3.5 stars. Hmm.

Jun 21, 2010

Quote of the day: Nick Hornby on England

"A few years ago, at a big club game, a supporter of the losing team unfurled a huge banner that said "You've Let Us Down Again"—right on the final whistle. He made the banner, rolled it up, and carried it into the stadium, all without knowing the outcome. All he had to go on were his dark suspicions. That's the English mind-set: There's no reason we shouldn't do well in the World Cup, maybe even win it, but nobody really believes that it will happen." — Nick Hornby, GQ

INTERVIEW; Emily Blunt, Betjeman heroine

"She’s little more svelte in real life than on screen: with wide-set blue eyes, cleft chin and a blithe, gung-ho manner that reminds me of one of those morale-boosting girls John Betjeman used to fall in love with: daughter of doctor from Aldershot, sun-kissed in tennis whites, swiping at the rhodendruns with her racket (“lucky rhododedruns”); and yet alone amongst English actresses, she seems the least dependent on bonnets and corsets, and reels off an American accent with trashy brio." — from my Interview with Emily Blunt in The Sunday Times

Jun 19, 2010

Top Ten: film trilogies from Toy Story to L'avventura

1. Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3
2.
The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Godfather Part III
3.
Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi
4. Three Colors: Blue, Three Colors: White, Three Colors: Red
5. Back to the Future, Back to the Future II, Back to the Future III
6. L’Avventura, La Notte, L'Eclisse
7. The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, The Return of the King
8. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, For a Few Dollars More, A Fistful of Dollars
9.
The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum
10. The Naked Gun, The Naked Gun 2 1/2, The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult
Points for: tracking the passage of time; thematic unity; character development; consistency of filmmaking; 'closure'. Obviously, I'd have like to have included the first three Alien films and Indiana Jones movies — they would have slottted in somewhere after Antonioni, but before Bourne, the Alien films just ahead of the Indys— but sensed a whole world of trouble if I made exceptions for just those films. A pox on Crystal Skull and Jean-Pierre Jeunet! The Godfather gets second place because 3 was the weak link, Star Wars third because of Jedi. Back to the Future over Lord of the rings because as time goes on, the LORD films blur into a grey mass of heaving Orc pectorals (same with Bourne and blurry European capitals). Toy Story 3 gets top spot because it is the only trilogy that got better as it went along, with 2 better than 1, and 3 topping 2 — an unparrallelled upward trajectory.

REVIEW: Toy Story 3 (dir. Unkrich)

Toy Story 3 offers as clean a high as can be got at the movies these days. Obviously it pains me to say this. It's deeply embarrassing and runs counter to every narrative we've been taught. I know we're all supposed to be down in the dumps, and staulk around town with a permanent sneer on our faces bemoaning the end of cinema, the dearth of imagination in Hollywood and the soulless purgatory that is franchise filmmaking. I know how disappointing it is to ruin a really good sulk with good news. But what are you going to do? This film completes one of the finest trilogies in the history of movies, one which clicks together, lego-fashion to form a single bright, shiny, plastic-empathic epic about loveable junk. I thought Toy Story 2 was good too — deeply satisfying in the way it teased out implications in the first movie (namely, the stuff about toy longevity) and pushed into into places it turned out we wanted to go all along. You felt freewheeling, improvisatory intelligence that felt ready to go in any direction, whose products nevertheless felt instantly inevitable. That's some trick to pull off — more than a trick. It's the unfakeable sign of a great imagination, or set of imaginations, at work. I felt the same sigh of satisfaction at the news that the new movie was basically Coll Hand Luke set in a daycare centre, at first a very heaven — the longevity problem solved by each fresh year of kids — only to turn into a fresh hell: the kids are toddlers, not age-appropriate, thrashing the toys within an inch of their life. Even more so than in the first two movies, the toys crave being played with properly more than anything — it's their crack, their communion. A large part of the pathos of their position is that they can never communicate with Andy — they can never ask for his love directly. It's not like one of those movies like E.T. or Lassie, where two species communicate. Andy can never know of their secret life.The irony, of course — or logical flaw, depending on your point of view — is that if they ever revealed themselves to him he would probably lay with them non-stop, but that would not suit the Jeevesian stoicism of the series. If he ever gives them the praise they so crave they must accept it mutely, eyes lolling lifelessly. The emotional temperature of the movies is more Brief Encounter than Lassie. It may be why adults like them so much: because they dramatise the distance between the toys' life of thankless service and their hidden world of hurt and longing, between their selfless devotion and their Feudal resentments, as exemplified in this movie a purple bear called Lotso Huggin' Bear, voiced by Ned Beatty. He's one of those genial tyrants from an old Southern prison drama, whose purgatorial backstory is one of the great narrative-within-the-narrative gems of the movie, rivalling the ten-minute opening of Up. Woody meanwhile, finds himself stranded in a new house, with a new owner: a girl. "We do a lot of improvisation here," he is told by a pink tricerotops. "Stay loose and you'll be fine." I laughed out loud at the accuracy of that observation. If you'd asked me, going into the movie whether boys and girls played with toys differently I would probably have just shrugged, and yet the moment it was pointed out to me, I felt that deep chiropractic click that tells you when something is true. How come nobody else has pointed that out? It's hardly uncovered ground, or unimportant. How come this brightly-colored 3-d movie about plastic toys got there first? But then that's the genius of the Toy Story movies, to fasten onto particulars that feel so universal, to point their plots down avenues that feel so grooved with inevitability. Nobody who has ever felt the pleasure of a bright idea can fail to be moved by them. They discard all the hoary myths about childhood that usually get the movies drooling — innocence, cuteness, all that rot — and single out the one thing that is worth something: the playfulness. That's hard to beat. A

Jun 18, 2010

REVIEW: The Kids Are Alright (dir. Cholodenko)

In Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are Alright Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a middle aged lesbian couple — affectionate, bickering, slightly passive-aggressive in that way of new-age couples whose vocabulary outstrips their emotions ("Go easy on the wine honey" Same goes for the micro-managing") — with two teenage kids, played by Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson, who decide to look up their biological sperm-donor dad. He's played by Mark Ruffalo, in a sequel-performance of sorts to his ne'er-do-well brother in You Can Count On Me: a proud college drop out who has opened his own organic restaurant, he oozes casual, unkempt virility. Ruffalo's great at bringing out the charm of immature boy-men, rough at the edges, with possible a skateboard or two in their closet, who can't quite seem to do the right thing. As in his 2002 film, he becomes instantly attractive to the two kids for his rakish ways: his motorcycle, his pride in his drop-out status, his chill attitude to the uptight decision-makers in the adult world. Chodolenko, who wrote the screenplay with Stuart Blumberg, has done something instinctively smart here: she's taken one of those plots in which a foursquare family, loving but repressed, is loosened up by the incursion of a wild card — but she's swapped the roles. The uptight family is represented by the new-age lesbian couple, hiding their emotions behind hen-pecky emo-talk, and the wild card is an unreformed rake. Is such her film is an affectionate satire, of sorts, on the kind of organic-vegetable-eating, compost-mulching uber-liberal Californian lifestyle she clearly knows inside out: Guess Who's Coing to Dinner, a generation later — which is to say, upside down. It's a oasty-looking and immensely likeable film, full of winning performances. It's been a long time since Bening did comedy — her reaction shot in The American President, when she realises she's insulted the president, is a small masterpiece of scrambling recovery, and maybe my favorite such double-take in the last 30 years of movies. Her Nic, here, is a terrific mama bear who drinks too much and clutches too tightly: comic and hurt and fierce and touching, in quick rotation, in practically every scene. Sometimes, that dexterity shows up visibly, in the manner of recent Bening performances — you can see the actress throttling forward, easing back, her touch almost too exquisite — but not often. Ruffalo's role is a little more schematic than it was in You Can Count on Me; he's more of a liberal pin-up here, and sexier than he's ever allowed himself to be, maybe because he knows his character is due to be taken down a peg or two — you can see instantly he's to much of a kid himself to be a proper father to those kids — but I missed the scene that came next: the one re-establishing his basic, muddled decency. The big surprise for me was Julianne Moore. I've been a bit of a Moore Agnostic over the years for largely physiognomic reason — that odalisque mask of a face seems too inexpressive a tool for an actress of her ambitions — but she delivers beautifully limber, ditzy comic riffs here, particularly during the Plot Development I Shall Not Discuss. She plays a woman so swaddled in the gauze of therapy she can't recognise her most basic drives when they come knocking. For the first time, we see behind the mask and what we see is both touching and funny: blind existential panic. (July 7th) B+


Jun 17, 2010

Psycho turns 50? It seems a lot older

"What draws me in is the sheer artistry of its director. That, and those opening scenes with Janet Leigh, her boss and his millionaire sleazebag who get taken for a ride. All of those great scenes with the cop on the road. I love when she brings her money into the bathroom and peels off enough bills to buy her new used car. The film is still good after that – creepy and thrilling. But it is those first moments that make it what it is: a timeless piece of rich, dense, fulfilling cinema. You really don’t get better." — Sasha Stone, Awards Daily

Nyeaah. You don't get any better than Psycho? How about North by Northwest, Rear Window, Strangers on a Train, Notorious, The Trouble With Harry, or To Catch a Thief? I've always thought Psycho one of Hitchcock's weakest films. As Stone rightly says, it basically has the best opening twenty minutes of any Hitchock movie, but there's a reason for that; everyone always praises the radicalism of Hitchcock killing off his heroine in the first reel without mentioning the consequence: the film literally has to start again, halfway through, with a new hero and heroine. It's literally a do-over. The ungainliness of that has never struck me as particularly winning, especially from so beautiful a formalist as Hitchcock. The big clue is that nobody ever gets over this hump without mentioning the "mastery" of Hitchcock, as if the only way to fully appreciate the drama is to be yanked forcibly yanked out of it. (It's the same problem with virtually every frame of Kubrick, but that's another story). Then there's all those cellars and skulls: I've always liked Hitch best when he lets horror unfold in public, in broad daylight — the murder at the U.N. in North by Northwest, or best of all the murder in The Trouble with Harry, which takes place on a crisp fall day — as if to show us that our worst nightmares are waking dreams, from which there is no escape. He practices a rare species of Gothic blanc. Psycho opts for actual dungeons and darkness, as if all the lace-and-candle Gothic accoutrements from Du Maurier's Rebecca had risen to claim him once more. Psycho turns 50? It seems a lot older.

Jun 16, 2010

Britain and the oilspill: fighting the last war

"The British media are mightily offended over what they see as anti-British rhetoric in the administration's attacks on BP. My feeling is that the specifically anti-UK element in the U.S. reaction to the oil spill has so far been impressively slight--and far smaller than would be the anti-US reaction in Britain if the case were reversed. Americans seem no angrier with BP than they would be with one of their own oil companies. I don't think they care one way or the other that the firm is British." — Clive Crook
It's truly bizarre, as a Brit living in the US, to witness the British press whining so. As I've said on this blog, I'm absolutely amazed there wasn't a more nationalist flavor to the debate earlier, and I'm still amazed at how mild it is, if it's even existent at all. There doesn't seem to be any anti-Brit feeling coming out of the Gulf. Imagine the uproar if an American company had fouled the coast of Normandy, or the white cliffs of Dover. I suspect a large part of this is residual anger left over from the Bush administration and the way Blair caved over Iraq. The British press are saying to Cameron: here's your chance. Don't do a Blair. They're fighting the last war, as people always do.

Quote of the day: Thelma Schoonmaker

“Like a lady who has lost weight and she’s just getting to that point where she can fit into that favourite dress, you get the film down to just about the right cut. You can feel it when it happens.” — Thelma Schoonmaker on editing a Martin Scorsese film

Jun 15, 2010

Bret Easton Ellis: Once More, With Feeling

"Alienation. The sweet sound of excess. A generation caught checking out their reflections in each other’s mirror shades. Such have been the themes if Ellis’s career, going back to his 1985 debut, Less Than Zero, which turned him into a literary star at the age of 22. His new book, Imperial Bedrooms, a sequel to that work, catches up with his cast of jaded Los Angelinos some 30 years later to find them still a little sore at their depiction as inarticulate zombies: “[the writer] floated through our lives, and didn’t seem to care how flatly he perceived everyone... showcasing the youthful indifference, the gleaming nihilism, glamorising the horror of it all.” The book has it’s share of horror, not least a series of gangland slayings, but then dead bodies are to a Bret Easton Ellis novel what Aspidistras are to a George Orwell novel: part of the scenery. More noticeable is the misting of melancholy that enshrouds LA’s billboards and boulevards, and the mysterious crying jags that steal over its hero. “Doesn’t sound like you,” says someone going over his emails. “I mean you could be a cold dude sometimes, but these are actually rather heartfelt and sad.” Feelings? In a novel by Bret Easton Ellis? Whatever will his fans say." — from my interview with Bret Easton Ellis in the Sunday Times

So Glad I Don't Have to See: The Killer Inside Me*

"The Killer Inside Me is a particular distillation of male hate, as practised by repulsive and inadequate individuals who have been encouraged to see themselves as essentially decent by virtue of the trappings of authority in which they have wrapped themselves. And Winterbottom is tearing off the mask; like Michael Haneke, he is confronting the audience with the reality of sexual violence and abusive power relations between the sexes that cinema so often glamourises. Here, the movie is saying, here is the denied reality behind every seamy cop show, every sexed-up horror flick, every picturesque Jack the Ripper tourist attraction, every swooning film studies seminar on the Psycho shower scene." — Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian
I've never found the Art card really alters my experience of the movie that much. I get that it alters what you can say the movie is 'saying', but then that's always the least interesting bit of the moviegoing experience. And the experience in this case sounds viscerally unpleasant, whichever way you cut it. It's unpleasant to see a woman getting beaten to death. It's unpleasant when it's shot by a b-movie hack and it's unpleasant when it's shot by an Oscar winning auteur. It's unpleasant when the film is exploitative dreck and it's unpleasant when its artistic credentials are impeccable. I don't care.

*An occasional series devoted to those movies which make me pleased not to be trudging the critical treadmill any more; designed to illustrate the idea that we are all of us reviewing movies, all the time, even the ones we do not see.

Movies I am looking forward to in 2010 part 2

The Kids Are Alright (July 7th). Ruffalo, Bening, Moore. Ruffalo reprising his n'er do well from You Can Count On Me.
Inception (July 16th). Di Caprio, Nolan. The only big movie of 2010 that could conceivably fail and therefore due respect.
Salt (July 23rd). Jolie, Phillip Noyce. Noyce was responsible for the bazooka ambush in Clear and Present Danger.
Get Low (July 30). Murray, Duvall, Spacek. The Bill Murray Oscar, like the England World Cup win, continues to pull us in.
The American (Sept 1). Clooney, Corbjin. Maybe a little to moody and magnificent from the trailer.
The Town (Sept 17), Ben Affleck lightens up with Rebecca Hall
The Social Network (Oct 1). Fincher, Sorkin. The Misanthrope meets Plays-Well-With-Others. I'm all ears.
Hereafter (Oct 22). Clint's potentially daft metaphysical thriller w/ Matt Damon. Curious.
Love and Other Drugs (Nov 24). Hathaway, Gyllenhaal, and Zwick carry my Oscar hopes.
How Do You Know? (Dec 17th). James L Brooks, Nicholson, Witherspoon.
Somewhere (Dec 22). Coppola, Dorff, Faning. Retread of Lost in Translation still looks lovely.
True Grit (Dec 25th). Charles Portis's original novel given new life by the Coens w/ Bridges, Brolin, Damon. Hard to miss.
Blue Valentine (Dec 25), Gosling, Williams, though it looks a little heavy with great acting

Jun 13, 2010

Alice and the mystery of the semi-cloudy day

Finally caught up with Tim Burton's Alice and it is exactly as everyone said it was: soulless crap. I have nothing to add except to ask: when are filmmakers going to learn that they can spend millions of dollars for armies of digital artists to devise lifelike images and textures, and it will all be for aught, if they are not going to pay the slightest bit of attention to light sources? The next time you see a Harry Potter film, or one of the Rings trilogy, or any of the Star Wars prequels, check out the weather: it's always the same semi-overcast day, casting both direct sunlight in one corner of the frame and a more diffuse light over the images that happen to need it. It looks like four-seasons-in-one-day. It's as baroque, in its way, as the gauzy blur through which Garbo used to insist she be glimpsed. Who would have thought that digital images would turn out to be such prima donnas? I'm guessing that with so many elements to integrate, many of them shot against a green screen, inside, it's almost impossible to match the effects of direct sunlight. (Avatar was the rare film that did). The techies prefer the more diffuse light that comes from overcast skies — it's easier to fudge. But no Hollywood film wants to eschew blue skies for cloudy. So instead they chose both. Except they end up with neither. They end up with a mess.

PROFILE: John Cheever

‘I have this nightmare where I push a super-market wagon across River street — macaroni and cold cuts — and am either run down by Roth in his Daimler or buzzed by Updike in a new flying machine,’ confided John Cheever once. When he died of kidney cancer, in 1982, he seemed to have put such fears to rest. Falconer was a bestseller; his Collected Stories had won him a Pulitzer; his obituary garnered front pages everywhere. At his funeral Updike called him the ‘leading fabulist of his generation’, while William Styron giddily proclaimed, ‘John Cheevers’s position in literary history is as immovably fixed as one of those huge granite outcroppings which loom over the green and sunlit terraces in the land of his own magic devising’. These days, the granite is looking a little chipped. Falconer and The Wapshot Chronicle struggle to stay in print, and the Collected Stories sell only 5,000 copies a year — not macaroni and cold cuts and no Daimler either. The writer who once eulogised the Sunday-night blues would seem to be suffering from the canonical equivalent of a hangover.

Blake Bailey’s 770-page John Cheever: A Life is both post-mortem and pick-me-up supper: after all the guests have gone home, a clear-eyed sift through the wreckage, to see what still stands. Bailey has a soft spot for suburban-agoniste writer-alcoholics; his last book was a biography of Richard Yates that helped spearhead a small revival of the Revolutionary Road author and drag him back into print. With his mantlepiece of trophies, Cheever would seem a far less deserving recipient of Bailey’s ministrations, although both writers, bizarrely, lived in the same house in Westchester at different points in their lives and both also provided the punchline to a joke on Seinfeld. In 1990, Yates was the inspiration for the character of Alton Benes, a great but neglected writer who sits stony-jawed through Jerry and George’s antics at dinner (‘Which one is the funny guy?’). A couple of years later, it was Cheever’s turn, for an episode entitled ‘The Cheever Letters’, in which George accidentally uncovers a trove of letters from Cheever to his new girlfriend’s father. (‘Dear Henry, Last night with you was bliss. I fear my orgasm has left me a cripple. I don’t know how I shall ever get back to work. I love you madly, John.’) Whatever else this tells us — that the spectacle of writer-drunks no longer commands the same awe it once did, that Seinfeld’s place in the canon is, at the time of writing, a little more assured than Cheever’s — it testifies to the length and breadth of the shock waves that greeted the publication of Cheever’s Journals. ‘I seem to be one of those singular old men who appear in summery reminiscences,’ he wrote. ‘Kind to dogs and children, jolly mostly, sometimes witty wearing old fashioned clothes with a moth hole here and there. That he hankers for the uncircumcised cock of the 14-year-old farmhand seems to be part of the picture.’ Except that it wasn’t part of the picture, not really, and it split Cheever’s readership neatly into two: those who welcomed this new candor and those who preferred his earlier, more charming stuff about cocktails and croquet mallets. Clearly, Bailey has no need to dish the dirt; what remains is to pull the old clod back together.

He does a magnificent job with the life, but then it would hard to bodge that. Whether ducking into the toilets of the Kremlin to down gin (‘Glug. Glug. Glug’), boasting of a new conquest at the dinner table (‘I suppose it is possible to love two women at once....’) or diving naked into the nearest pool, Cheever barrels through the pages of this book with ferocious, porcine energy. He was always his own greatest character, a glorious self-minted fake whose country squire image and plummy accent (‘Cheevah’) served to obliterate any inadequacy he felt about his humble background. The unwanted second child of a family brought low by the great depression Cheever’s father was a show salesman who went from golf-playing burgher to ‘a bronchitic and routed old man’ in the space of a few years, his mother running her bric-a-brac shop in Quincy Masachussetts with ‘maniacal élan’, in Bailey’s phrase. Like the rest of his family, Cheever was smitten with his athletic older brother, Fred, who would in later life was to develop a disastrous alcohol problem, and an abiding fascination with the Nazis. ‘While [Cheever] and Hitler fell out over the second world war and the holocaust,’ writes Bailey, in a footnote, with beautiful tartness, ‘Fred continued to find a certain validity to the man’s racial theories’.

As his biography of Yates made clear, Bailey is a very fine writer himself, as good as it gets when it comes to literary biography — sympathetic to the creative temperament without being overly-indulgent, keenly critical without being overbearing, and possessed of a sense of irony as delicate as smoke. I particularly liked his description of the origins of Yaddo, the artists’ colony where Cheever found intermittent sustenance over the years, founded by one Katrina Trask:

One day, walking with her husband, the woman had a vision: ‘Here will be a perpetual series of house parties — of literary men, literary women and other artists... look, Spencer, they are walking in the woods, wandering in the garden, sitting under the pine trees — men and women — creating, creating!’ The man saw her point and set up a nonprofit organisation to maintain the estate as a retreat for people usefully engaged in ??‘artistic and creative work’ but before the dream was realised, a freight train ran a red signal near Croton and smashed into Spencer Trask’s private car.

‘The man saw her point’ is the sort of thing to cheer you up on a rainy day, and that pay-off is worthy of Cheever, who for all his dying falls, never shied from the opportunity to bring things to a crisp conclusion (‘She shot him dead’).

An obnoxious, precious student, he dropped out of prep school, wrote up the experience in a story that was published in the New Republic, then pursued his fortunes East to New York, where he was soon winning over the New Yorker with his charcoal sketches of the city’s distaff middle-class, going about their business beneath a series of sooty twilights and the reproachful eyes of doormen. Their air of wan fatigue feels a little secondhand now, a throwback to the pre-Salinger age when writers sought to establish themselves, not as the pre-eminent voice of their generation, but rather by sounding even more fagged out than the previous generation. The stories ushered Cheever into the select band of authors who are called ‘the American Chekhov’ on a biannual basis, but they bear scant relation to the young man then running around lower Manhattan, availing himself of all the city had to offer: ‘I was ravening. I came all over the sheets, the Le Corbusier chair, the Matisse Lithograph and hit him under the chin.’ That’s Walker Evans, receiving a Cheeveresque induction into the twentieth-century hall of fame. Here, though, we encounter the knottiest of plot twists, for Cheever did not want to be a homosexual. He wanted to be a New England Gentleman who knew his way around a scythe and who exhorted his sons to realise they were Cheevahs. Such people were not, so far as he knew, homos; and so, one day, en route to going over some galleys in his agent’s office, he ran into a young woman in the elevator: pretty, about the right size. ‘That’s more or less what I would like,’ he thought. At which point the Cheever story crosses over from the sunny side of the street and trundles, headlong, into a fathomless pit of pain.

In his review of Bailey’s book in the New Yorker, John Updike called the Cheever marriage ‘criminal’. If so, it is hard to tell perp and victim apart, with both sides digging in for a war of attrition that lasted 41 years — less a marriage than an endlessly deferred divorce, with Cheever clinging to Mary as a drowning man clings to a life raft. ‘If I followed my instincts, I would be strangled by some hairy sailor I a public urinal,’ he wrote in his journal. ‘Every comely man, every bank clerk and delivery boy was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol.’ Such subterfuge may have been agony (‘wincing at every mention of homos’, he wrote after one drinks party) but Cheever’s ability to soak up pain is simply astonishing. Throw in the alcoholism and you have a man who, on any given day, gamely withstood the psychic equivalent of two impacted molars. There’s one moment when he tears the ligaments in his leg, and mere physical pain comes as a relief. Similarly, outbreaks of violence in the Cheever household had a strangely calming effect on him — a soothing recalibration of pressure, like an ear pop in a climbing plane. At one point, he drops his trousers to chase one of his daughter’s college friends around the sitting room, only to be apprehended by one of his sons. ‘When did you start wearing a red necktie?’ splutters Cheever. It tells you a lot that his son’s first thought was: ‘Why am I wearing a red necktie?’

In 1951, the family moved to Westchester, just outside New York, a land of rolling manorial lawns, swimming pools and mock-tudor mansions. ‘My God, the suburbs,’ he wrote, ‘They encircled the city’s boundaries like enemy territory and we thought of them as a loss of privacy, a cesspool of conformity and a life of indescribable dreariness in some split level village where the place name appeared in The New York Times when some bored housewife blew off her head with a shotgun.’ He initially planned a thorough ‘excoriation’ of the suburbs à la Sloan Wilson. And the moment he forgot that aim, everything fell into place. Here is the first sentence of his short story ‘O Youth and Beauty’:

At the tag end of nearly every long, large Saturday night party in the suburb of Shady Hill, when almost everybody who was going to play golf or tennis in the morning had gone hours ago and the ten or twelve people remaining seemed powerless to bring the evening to an end although the gin and whiskey were running low, and here and there a woman who was sitting with her husband would have begun to drink milk; when everybody had lost track of time, and the babysitters who were waiting at home for these diehards would have long stretched out on the sofa into a deep sleep, to dream about cooking-contest prizes, ocean voyages, and romance; when the bellicose drunk, the crapshooter, the pianist, and the woman faced with the expiration of her hopes had all expressed themselves; when every proposal — to go to the Farquarsons for breakfast, to go swimming, to go and wake up the Townsends, to go here and go there — died as soon as it was made, then Tracy Bearden would begin to chide Cash Bentley about his age and thinning hair.’

The subject is ennui, but the sentence could not to be more sprightly, winding its way through all those beached house guests before alighting, like a Hitchcock crane shot, on that flash of bared fang. Cheever compared good prose to ‘a walking figure, preferably young’, in which case he had found his feet. His move to the suburbs gave him more than just a subject, a world to explore and make his own, it gave him a tone — ebullient, wry, charming, blunt — like one of those dinner guests that arrive with a bunch of flowers and leaves a few hours later under a light nimbus of disgrace. At first glance, Cheever’s charm can be quite a shock. Few authors are served by their reputations, of course, but in Cheever’s case the disconnect is profound. People have him pegged as a suburban malcontent, sending up anguished howls against the stifling conventions of bourgeois conformity. They did the same thing to Yates, too, even though the harangues against the suburbs in Revolutionary Road were written as examples of Frank Wheeler’s lazy attitudinising. It seems to be one of the great unwritten assumptions of our age that any writer who writes about the suburbs must be against them, on some level, in much the same way that Miss World Contestants are against any meanies in the audience who stand in the way of world peace. You know who you are.

Here, though, is the biggest revelation of Bailey’s biography, not Cheever’s guiltiest secret by a long stretch, but the most interesting one: he was crazy about the suburbs, loved the natural beauty of the Hudson valley, and even — gasp – liked his neighbours. Is there no end to this man’s filth? If you really want to wreck the man’s reputation of course, you can do worse than The Wapshott Chronicle, the kind of book you’d leave out for a grandmother, as long as she doesn’t mind the odd ‘fuck’. Cheever’s first and best novel, a beautiful unicorn of a book, it bears zero resemblance to any book written by an American, within a 50-year radius. It was published in 1957, the same year as Norman Mailer’s The White Negro, although the two men might as well have been on different planets, Mailer swinging his way through the urban jungle, Cheever snugly ensconced in the fictional parish of St Butolph’s, a seeming paradise where the main activities appear to be fishing, sailing, and inhaling deeply of the ‘lemons, woodsmoke, roses and dust’ in the evening air. A few years earlier, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield had thumbed his nose at ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’, yet here was Cheever giving us a full rundown of the Wapshott family tree. In a few years time, Updike and Roth would be strapping on their masks and flippers and diving beneath the bed sheets; and here was crusty old Leander Wapshott, soldiering briskly through his journal: ‘Voided bladder so many times, brushed teeth so many times; visited Chardon street fancy house so many times. Who cares? Much modern fiction distasteful to writer because of above.’

Soon to be ejected from this Eden are two brothers: Moses, a strapping lad ‘with the gift of judicious and tranquil self-admiration’, and his more effeminate brother, Coverley, ‘one of those men who labor under a preternaturally large sense of guilt that, like some enormous bruise, could be carried painlessly until it was touched’. A version of Cheever’s own fond, fractious fraternal jousting, then, with the two brothers in a race to fulfill the terms of their aunt Honora’s will and produce a male heir. It sounds like the sort of thing that put lead in Fielding’s pencil — indeed, we get skinny-dipping, a shipwreck, a bare-assed flight across the ramparts of a castle at night — but it’s Fielding rewritten in the age of Freud, with the sense of fecklessness gone, and in its place all manner of furtive lusts and fleshy regrets: ‘He watched this gleaming Susanna, shamefaced, his dream of simple pleasure replaced by some sadness, some heaviness that seemed to make his mouth taste of blood and his teeth ache.’ And there you have The Wapshott Chronicle, the world’s first guilt-ridden picaresque. The book’s tone is a thing of wonder, catching this earthly paradise at the precise moment it starts to deliquesce, like over-ripe fruit. Two hundred pages later and you’re still not sure if you’ve read one of those chronicles of fondly-forgiven family foible, or been dunked in the Wapshott’s septic tank.

Cheever held that balance for only one full-length work. The sequel, The Wapshott Scandal, published in 1964, would find Aunt Honora hounded by the IRS, while the rest of the family sink into alcoholism, promiscuity and suicide, and the loutish neighbours pick fights over garbage cans. The amber glow that enveloped Cheever’s earlier work had turned radioactive, as missiles launch in the distance. The derangement continued with 1968’s Bullet Park, in which Cheever returned to suburbia to find the garbage spilling onto lawns, the septic tanks backed up, and a plot that is out to lunch: a man named Hammer decides to murder his neighbour, a mouthwash salesman named Nailles. I know, I know: hammer and nails. Things really are that simple, I’m afraid. Hammer is a seething malcontent with a bitch of a wife, who stalks the neighbourhood under his own personal stormcloud (‘Damn their hypocrisy, damn their cant, damn their credit cards’). Nailles, on the other hand, is a happy moron, happy in his work advertising a mouthwash called Spang, and blissfully devoted to his wife: ‘Nailles loved Nellie. If he had a manifest destiny it was to love Nellie. Should Nellie die he might immolate himself on her pyre, although the thought that Nellie might die had never occurred to him.’ This is ugly stuff: the work of a man snarling at sunlight. Other people’s happiness was always as baffling to Cheever as a piece of moonrock to a monkey, of course. There’s an early short story of his, ‘The Worm in the Apple’, about a family so outwardly perfect that the narrator, their neighbour, is forced into ever greater contortions of speculation — is he impotent? Is she frigid? — but no, they remain stubbornly happy and content: ‘they got richer and richer and lived happily, happily happily.’

That note of cosmic facetiousness, is sounded relentlessly in ‘Bullet Park’, which ends ‘Everything was as wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful as it had been’. The self-parody was predictive, as it always is with writer drunks. No one versed in the later output of Hemingway or Faulkner can fail to track the precipitous drop of Cheever’s novels, or read the shorter fiction he produced in the 60s, with its frets, fevers, and liverish sense of doom, and not feel the effects of the two pints of gin Cheever was downing every day. Even Frederick Exley was impressed with Cheever’s intake, which is a bit like The Grim Reaper complimenting you on your scything skills. The two writers were both teaching at Iowa University when one morning, Cheever awoke to find himself suffocating. He tried quaffing scotch and smoking a few cigarettes for relief, and was then rushed to the emergency room where the doctors found his lungs filling with blood — one more drink or cigarette and he would probably have died.

Naturally, he still had another three years of drinking to go. Finally admitted to the Smithers Institute on Manhattan’s upper east side in the summer of 1974, he shared a room with a sailor, a delicatessen owner and a male ballerina, and spent much of his time giggling to himself and correcting everyone’s grammar. His counsellors saw right through the little Lord Fauntleroy act. ‘He dislikes seeing self negatively and seems to have internalized many rather imperious upper class Boston attitudes which he ridicules and embraces at the same time’, they noted, in one of the more damning piecess of literary criticism he ever received. ‘Press him to deal with his own humanity.’

And that is what happened, at least according to one version of events. Cheever got sober, finished his prison-and-addiction novel, Falconer at a gallop, saw it become a surprise bestseller, repaired much of the damage he had done to his family, and lived out his remaining years in relative contentment, watching Poldark, swimming and scything. But he was also chronically lonely and his last book, Oh What A Paradise It Seems, was a wispy, low-wattage affair, soon blown out of the water by the posthumous publication of the Journals, with their portrait of the Artist as Ageing Reptile. The damage done to Cheever was two-fold: for the Book-of-the-month club it was the admissions about his homosexuality. For everyone else, it was the fact that he had so miserably hidden it. American literary reputations can soak up pretty much anything— alcoholism, addiction, barfights, shooting your wife — but furtive, agonised sexual repression is another matter. For one thing, it’s un-American. The one book the Cheever oeuvre most notably lacks, in fact, is one of those big, balls-out, ‘I-am-An-American-Chicago-born’ novels that swings into orbit around a single authorial alter ego — a Rabbit, a Herzog, a Zuckerman, a Holden Caulfield — while the secondary characters run for cover. ‘I lack for only two things,’ Cheever once said, ‘A necktie and a sense of self’. His fiction is probably the least autobiographical of any writer of his generation, his adolescence taking twenty-odd years to show up in The Wapshott Chronicle, and even then with a thick shellac of nostalgia that now cries out to be cracked, like a code. Many of Cheever’s characters are hounded by secrets or nurse guilt over some nameless crime; now that we can put a name to it, the air of velvet intrigue evaporates, like mist. What are we to make, for instance, of the chapter which begins, ‘And now we come to the unsavory or homosexual part of our tale and any disinterested reader is encouraged to skip’? What are we to make of any of the cruel, frigid wives in Cheever’s work, none of whom make the slightest sense until we come across the sight of Mary Cheever, the sheets clamped tight under her armpits in Bailey’s biography.

Cheever has become an author hemmed in by his rosebuds, in other words, his journals more read than his novels, his novels the hunting ground for literary sleuths — an object of our pity, the most poisonous emotion for any author. I’m not sure Bailey does much to change this. He certainly understands him far better than his previous biographer, Scott Donaldson, and certainly better than Cheever himself, although that wouldn’t be hard. ‘He simply never faced himself or when he did he didn’t like what he saw,’ one friend tells Bailey. ‘And nothing relieved him.’ The portrait that emerges is of a man in constant flight from himself, trailing big beautiful vapor clouds of evasion. Little wonder, perhaps, that Bailey is able to make a convincing case for Cheever as more fabulist than realist, ‘disseassembling and reassembling American naturalist fiction, thereby paving the way for the experimentation of the late 60s and 70s’ in the words of Rick Moody. Certainly, its hard to read ‘The Enormous Radio’ (in which a married couple find their radio tuning into the sounds of their neighbours’ apartments) and not realise that Cheever was a far stranger writer than is commonly understood, much preoccupied with obsessive, altered states, and perpendicular plots, like that of The Country Husband, in which a man survives a plane crash, only to find his family too preoccupied to pay attention (“Daddy was in a plane crash this afternoon, Toby. Don’t you want to hear about it?”). Your best bet is still the stories he wrote in the 1950s — ‘Goodbye, My Brother’, ‘O Youth and Beauty!’ ‘The Day the Pig Fell Into the Well’, ‘The House Breaker of Shady Hill’, ‘The Swimmer’ written in the first flush of his move to Westchester, when he was just beginning to let his imagination out after dark, prowling the neighbourhood like a cat-burglar, or a drunken husband finding his way home. I hate to say it but posterity would seem to have him about right. Cheever’s novels are flighty affairs, filmy and opaque, which leave his solipsism cruelly exposed, but turn back to the short stories and you find him merrily lapping himself, like a champ.

— from my review of John Cheever: a Life by Blake Bailey for Arete magazine

Jun 12, 2010

REVIEW: Splice, a movie only a mother could love

So Adrian Brody is boffing his genetically-engineered mutant daughter, and in walks his girlfriend, Sarah Polley. He looks up aghast as she runs from the room. Cut to: their apartment, later in the day and he's trying to explain everything. I forget how the conversation goes exactly but it goes something like "I can explain". "Don't even try. To talk. Your. Way. Out of this." "Things got out of hand, I never meant..." Meant to what?" "We went too far..." etc etc. By which point the audience I was with at the Court Street UA cinema, largely African-American, were convulsed with hoots of laughter, their worst suspicions about white parenting confirmed. The scene got what it deserved: there is no script-writer on earth who could have supplied the lines of dialogue sufficient to the task of mending fences with a partner after you have boffed your genetically-engineered mutant daughter. Particularly not if the actor delivering those lines is Adrien Brody, whose Whistleresque frame seems to stiffen upon contact with anything resembling b-movie material (he was the weak link in Peter Jackson's Kong, and promises more of the same in Predators). And yet I liked and admired Splice. I've a soft spot for transformation movies — anything that approximates the tracking of a life cycle. The daughter-creature is wonderfully imagined, with long, deerlike legs and a big soft cranium, like a cross between Sinead O Conner and an antelope, and she moves a little self consciously at times, like a teenager, embarrassedly tucking her tail under her dress. For much of the movie I was having intense Alien flashbacks, particularly to the third movie, where Ripley and the alien get to spend such quality time together, and flashbacks-within-those-flashbacks to Cronenberg's The Brood, which said all I thought could be said on the darker seams of parental love. Splice finds more wiggle room and worms down further. It's deeply ridiculous at times but it's onto something — its little forehead pulses. C+

Will I support England or the USA? Hmm

"Being Anglo-American is not like being, say, Anglo-German or Russian-American. It's not overtly divisive. Wars between my two nations come along very rarely; there is a probably unhealthy degree of agreement over foreign policy; and sporting events (a proxy for war) are rarely significant enough to cause major trauma. Each country dwells in a sphere of sporting influence (baseball and gridiron; football and cricket) that never really overlaps with the other...I'd like to think I can support both teams, enjoying the spectacle without regressing to the binary thinking that evolutionary biologists have identified as one of the triggers of genocide. I'll be serene and Corinthian about it, like the Queen watching the Commonwealth games. Except I know I won't be. In my heart, I'm 90% certain that I'll end up supporting the losing side, whoever that is. It's going to be hard to love a triumphant Eng-er-lund, and equally hard to feel that the world's last remaining superpower needs success in yet another field.' — Marcel Theroux, The Gaurdian
My friend Marcel in the Gaurdian the other day. I don't feel quite as torn. It would be interesting and chastening to see the US beat England — a fulfillment of morbid expectations — but there's no question in my mind that I don't want it to happen. I've become more patriotic since moving here, at least when it comes to sporting events, and have grown surprisingly fond of Europe: the differences between the French and the Germans and Greeks and the Turks, from this distance, seems like mere Lilliputian squabbling. America has shrunk my distances, highlighted submarine affinities with fellow Euros: I am just as delighted to meet an Italian or a Frenchman in New York as I am a Brit, if not more so; and when it comes to the World Cup, I find it easy to switch sides once England have taken their bow from the tournament, in traditional fashion — on penalties after half an hour of extra time against a technically superior Latin side they have somehow managed to hold to a draw. Holland and Sweden are perennially popular in my house, and I will be happy to cheer on the Italians and the Spanish. I'm not sold, though, on the latest ads they're hoping to beguile American viewers: “It only takes 90 minutes for your world to change". I'd never thought about it before but football does have brevity on its side, being certainly shorter than your average baseball or American football game. Still, that sales pitch can't but sound a little forlorn to me: it'll be over soon.

Jun 8, 2010

REVIEW: Janelle Monae at the Roseland Ballroom

Entering the Roseland Ballroom on 52nd street to see Janelle Monae perform live, I had only one prayer: that if she stage-dived in my direction, I would not be the one to drop her. I've seen her live on Youtube and she always ends her set with a stage dive (one time a man got up and started dancing next to her, and she stage-dived just to get away from him, leaving the poor schmoe dancing alone on stage while she circled the theatre on her back). She's a terrific performer live, with a theatrical, surreal wit, as if James Brown had consulted with Salvador Dali before leaping from his cloak. The best parlor game with Monae, in fact, is guessing her influences: she jitters across the stage like a robotised Little Richard, does the old James Brown I'm-so-electrifying-I've-given-my-own-microphone-a-shock routine, brings off a one-legged walk worthy of Steve Martin, shadow-boxes like Mohammad Ali, and then — yes — stage dives, although the dive was actually the only disappointing thing in the show: one quick loop into the front row and back. Otherwise: stupendous. Miss Monae is small — 5' 7" with an extra six inches supplied by that high-rise rockabilly quiff — but everything she does is big, from that beautiful belter of a voice, to the concept-album megolomania of her songs (her latest album, The Archandroid, is Metropolis-meets-Fundadelic sci-fi allegory: shrinking violet stuff), through to the commanding wit of her stage presence. She is not one of those acts who starts small and then builds. She seems to have been born fully-formed into the world, as if by immaculate conception, while everyone else plays catch up. She's like the biggest pop star from a planet you've never heard of.

Jaws 35th Anniversary: "She was the first"

‘We entered the bicentennial year having survived some of the bitterest times in our brief history. We longed for something to draw us together again’ — America’s Bicentennial report, 1976
‘She was the first...’ — Jaws poster, 1975
What was so different about Jaws? In one sense, nothing at all. “This is Universal’s extraordinary motion picture version of Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel....” intoned the trailers, with the sort of silver-platter flourish that now seems as quaint as three-colour disco lights: they thought Benchley was the attraction? The book? Benchley’s novel was that most curious of seventies artefacts: the misanthropic best-seller, full of such loathing for the common herd, you wonder why on earth the common herd bothered with the thing: “They had no body odour,” notes police chief Benchley of the bathers he watches over. “When they sweated, the girls smelled faintly of perfume; the boys smelled simply clean. None of which is to say that they were either stupid or evil...” Peter Benchley, please step forward and accept the 1975 People’s Friend award! Spielberg cut out the sourpuss posturings and gave the part of Brody to Roy Scheider, telling him “I don’t want to feel that you could ever kill that shark.” Charlton Heston had wanted the part, but as Spielberg’s screenwriter, Carl Gottleib pointed out, Heston had just saved a jetliner in Airport 75 and he was going to save Los Angeles in Earthquake, so “it just didn’t seem right for him to be wasting his time with a little New England community.” The blockbuster would eventually become synonymous with the effortless accomplishments of singular superheroes, but Jaws, from the outset, was an exercise in dramatic downsizing, attuned to the scruffy, low-slung heroism of ordinary men, and engaging in pitched battle with just a single shark, which kills only four people in the entire movie — and not at a single stroke, like an earthquake, but in four separate courses, from soup to nuts. It was, in other words, a repeat offender, in whom Spielberg had found a perfect reflection of his own restlessly kinetic instincts as a director. When the Orca is going at full throttle to catch up with the shark, Richard Dreyfuss’s admiring head shake of disbelief is entirely genuine: “fast fish!”

He should know. Dreyfuss’s reaction times — the flash flood grins that light up his face, the octave-vaulting scat of his line readings — are the second fastest thing in the movie, and from the moment Dreyfuss set foot in Jaws, he told audiences all they needed to know about how different a movie this was going to be. He steps onto the jetty, while all the bounty hunters are heading out in their overcrowded boats to hunt the shark, laughs that Daffy-Duck-on-helium laugh of his, and says to no-one in particular, “they’re all going to die!” — a prognostication of doom sung in the happiest of sing-song lilts. And there you have Jaws, a film buoyed up by more high spirits than any movie about killer sharks ought by rights to be. Barrelling along beneath cloudless skies that are a perfect match for its director’s temperament, Jaws picked up its audience, wiped them out, and deposited them on the sidewalk, two hours later, exhausted but delighted. What stays with you, even today, are less the movie’s big shock moments than the crowning gags, light as air, with which Spielberg gilds his action — Dreyfuss crushing his styrofoam cup, in response to Quint’s crushing of his beercan, or Brody’s son copying his finger-steepling at the dinner-table, both moments silent, as all the best moments in Spielberg are, and both arising from the enforced improv session that arose while he and his crew waited for his shark to work. You simply didn’t get this sort of thing from The Poseidon Adventure: no ironic machismo moments involving Styrofoam cups, no tenderly-observed finger-steeling at the dinner able. This didn’t feel like a disaster movie. It felt like a day at the beach.

To get anything resembling such fillets of improvised characterisation, you normally had to watch something far more boring — some chamber piece about marital disintegration by John Cassettes, say — and yet here were such things, popping up in a movie starring a scary rubber shark. It was nothing short of revolutionary: you could have finger-steepling and scary rubber sharks in the same movie. This seemed like important information. Why had no-one told us this before? Spielberg had completely upended the pyramid of American film, ridding the blockbuster of its rather desperate bids for “prestige” while also visiting on it the sort of filigree dramatic technique normally associated with films much further up the brow. The effect on audiences was properly electric, for now we knew, and we would never go back, willingly, to the old system of cinematic apartheid which had existed before, dictating that popular movies must be dumb, and high-brow films boring. Spielberg had upped the game for everyone. Now, there would be very little excuse for the sort of over-inflated middle-brow ponderings we had accepted in the name of popular entertainment up until this point, and at the other end of the spectrum, even art films would have to have a very good excuse not to try and entertain us just that little bit more. An entertainment revolution was underway.

If you’re going to remodel the entire industry on a single movie, Jaws is, on balance, a pretty good movie to pick: its fast and funny and tender and oblique and exciting in an intriguingly non-macho way, although most critics at the time didn’t see it like that. “A coarse-grained and exploitative work which depends on excess for its impact,” wrote the Los Angeles Times. “You feel like a rat being given shock treatment” said the Village voice. “A mind-numbing repast for sense-sated gluttons,” intoned the critic of Commentary. It’s not too hard to understand their dismay. The upper registers of the box-office had, until 1975, remained completely free of great whites, man-eating or otherwise, for close on a century; the top-ten had been a matter of Biblical mountains, parting seas, the rise and fall of Rome, all supplanting one another with the speed of a glacier; and suddenly here was this rubber shark, devouring all before it. It had to be a fake — an instance of moviemaking voodoo, mass hysteria. “Its symptoms are saucered eyes, blanched faces and a certain tingle anxiety about going near the water”, wrote Newsweek of ‘Jawsmania’, with the tone of concerned doctors at a 1964 Beatles concert. Elsewhere, the cynicism took on more seventies, Watergate-era tinge. “Audiences who think they made Jaws a success are pitifully naive about the mass media,” wrote Stephen Farber, in a New York Times article entitled ‘Jaws and Bug: the Only Difference is the Hype’, a theme later continued by Michael Pye and Linda Myles in their book The Movie Brats, which claimed Jaws effected the “the transformation of film into event through clever manipulation of the media.” For of course, all manipulation of the media is “clever” manipulation of the media, particularly if you happen to work in the media, for what other sort would get past your finely-tuned radar?

What is most striking about ”Jawsmania” today, however, is what a grass-roots operation it was, driven not by the studio but by private profiteers, pirates or just entrepreneurs with a single goofy idea. A Jaws discotheque opened in the Hamptons, complete with with a wooden fake shark; a Georgia fisherman started selling jawbones for $50; a New York ice-cream stand renamed its staple flavours sharklate, finilla and jawberry; a Silver Spring speciality dealer began selling strap-on styrofoam shark fins, for anyone who wanted to start their own scare in the privacy of their own beach. Meanwhile, up and down the coast towns of America, hotels reported a spate of cancelled bookings, as people caught wind of the sudden rise in reported shark attacks: which is to say, commercial interests lost actual money because of the release of Jaws. So much for synergy. In fact, the official Universal merchandising was minimal — t-shirts, beach towels, posters — and when Spielberg proposed a chocolate shark, he was turned down — the first and last time in the career of Steven Spielberg that he would be refused a merchandising opportunity by a studio.

“Jaws opened up a vein in the public consciousness,” says David Brown. “Movies used to be a solitary experience. You sat in the dark, alone, no matter how many people surrounded you. But with Jaws people started to talk back to the screen and applaud shadows. On a screen that couldn’t hear them. The whole notion of applauding a movie would have been ludicrous in the 20s and 30s.... Zanuck and I could walk by a theatre and know what reel was playing by the sounds that came out. That was a new experience. Audience participation. The new word is interactive I guess.” It marked a crucial advance on the decade’s previous blockbusters. Say what you like about Love Story but it was not really an audience participation film, unless you counted the synchronised smooching going on in the back row; nor was The Godfather, which was essentially a study in collective isolation; you left the theatre eyeing your fellow movie-goers with new unease, uncertain whether you would care to share a cinema with them again. But Jaws united its audience in common cause — a shared unwillingness to be served up as lunch — and you came out delivering high-fives to the 600 new best friends you’d just narrowly avoided death with. And then you came back the next day to narrowly avoid it again. Thanks to these repeat viewings, Jaws stayed around all summer, becoming in turn the thing millions of Americans most remember about that summer. A Colt 45 Malt Liquor commercial offered the first of many Jaws parodies; Bob Hope quipped that he was too scared to take a bath: “My rubber duck was circling me”, while political cartoonists seized on the shark as representing — variously — taxes, unemployment, inflation, male chauvinism, Ronald Reagan and the Hawaii Media Responsibility Commission. That’s what America did in the summer of 1975: it watched Jaws.

“One of the wonderful things about Jaws was that was that the cultural impact was greater than you could make today” says Sidney Sheinberg, Spielberg’s mentor at Universal. “Nowadays, the release of movies most resembles a television show: the whole idea is, get all this money, get all the people you can to see it the first weekend. I’m not sure you could make that sort of cultural impact with today’s blockbusters, which everyone sees so quickly and which then disappears from consciousness. Compared to the impact you could make when it sits there all summer, and more and more people are seeing it, and it’s feeding on itself, as Jaws did.” If you went back to the film, in fact, as many were doing that summer, you noticed that it told two stories, only one of which happens to be about a giant shark. The shark eats the girl, then the boy; but then look what happens: the town reacts as if it school was out. It erupts into a boomtown of petty profiteering and casual lawlessness; kids start scrawling graffiti on billboards; bounty hunters head out to sea in a big crazy flotilla, shooting guns into the water, and Spielberg is on fire — hopped-up on the whole crazy spectacle, just as he was by the flotilla of cars in Sugarland Express, and the whole media circus that trailed his outlaw couple. The bounty-hunters come back with a shark that does get their picture in the paper, and the next thing you know, the story has gone national. The national networks arrive, and are soon crawling all over the beach with their cameras, just in time to catch the next shark attack, which turns out to be a hoax: two small boys, wearing a wooden fin, who are pulling, dripping, from the water. If you want a trenchant analysis of Jawsmania, in other words, your best bet has always been to check out Jaws itself. It’s all there, up on the screen — the hysteria bleeding into hoopla, the hoopla into hype and the hype into hoax.

“We need summer dollars”, pleads the Mayor, anxious to play down the threat. “We depend on the summer crowds for our very lives. You yell ‘shark’ and we got a panic on our hands on the fourth of July”. Which is when Dreyfuss delivers his great speech. “What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. Its really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim, eat and make little sharks...” For those who care to see it, there was an allegory there for what all that was about to happen to Hollywood: “Panic on the 4th of July” would, henceforth, be the motto pinned up on the door of every marketing executive, while a “perfect engine” for making more sharks the dream of every producer. The first July 4th movie was also, in some strange moebius-strip way, a prescient allegory for all the other July 4th movies to come. It’s one of the reasons why Jawsmania, with its nods to “Beatlesmania”, was always a bit of a misnomer, unless Newsweek meant mid-period Beatles, around the time of Sergeant Pepper, when Paul McCartney fabricated an ersatz super-group to deflect and channel back into the ether some of the Beatles’ own fame: Jaws is of exactly the same order of self-conscious pop craft. The object of national hysteria; national hysteria was also its subject, its object, its very method. When audiences honked their horns at Drive-Ins, or strapped on their fake shark fins, they weren’t buying into the hype; they were buying into the movie, which contained its own hype within it, like an echo waiting to be born in the summer haze that hovers above Spielberg’s island.

“Inside the movie, its a national media event,” says the director. “I know. And I was the last to have predicted that that was what was going to happen with the film’s release. I had no idea. All of us, including Richard Dreyfuss, who never believed this film would float, we were phoning each other reporting these experiences we were having in all these previews wondering what went right, because for nine months of principal photography, everything went wrong, and we could not believe that some chord was about to be struck. Lew Wasserman was showing the movie in fire-stations and barns — anyplace they could put up a projector. I actually thought Lew had lost his mind when he told me he was going to go out in almost 500 theatres. That hadn’t been done by any Universal film before. Today, art films are released in 409 theatres, and Jaws certainly was not an art film. I never took that story so seriously as to think I was making Melville. I wasn’t.”

— reprinted from my book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (2004)