Feb 28, 2011

The 2011 Academy Awards: after thoughts

Commentators are falling over themselves to proclaim this the worst Oscar show ever, as is traditional, and for once they may be right. It was hard to trump last's night's jaw-aching double dose of classlessness and injustice. About the only thing good thing that can be said about it is that it served as a perfect reminder that the Oscars and quality have only the most fleeting and tangential relation to one another. I never bought the whole cahier-du-cinema-reading, finger-snapping hepcat makeover they were supposed to have enjoyed in recent years. So count me happy to limp away from a truly graceless and virtually surprise-free telecast, my identity as a filmgoer, plus my griping capacity, both renewed and replenished.
Most Viewer Hemorrhaging Event: Kirk Douglas's excrutiating hijack of the Best Supporting Actress award, his face frozen in a rictus of desperation as he clung like Grandpa Simpson to his last sliver of limelight, slurring come-ons to the "beautiful women" who were nominated. About as undignified an exit for a Hollywood screen legend as could possibly be imagined. You could feel all the younger viewers attracted by the appointment of Franco and Hathaway turning off with a collective eww.

Most Effective Decimation Of What Remained Of The Under 25 Audience: the random snatches of Hollywood history —a tribute to Gone with the Wind? — inserted into the event at irregular intervals to teach the kids some respect. Or else invoke glamor-by-association. And why did the powers that be at ABC — the one who are so desperate to attract a younger audience — also insist on turning up on stage to talk for two minutes about the recent deal they'd struck with AMPAS? Since when are 'the kids' interested in the fine print of TV scheduling deals?

Most Dismal Admission of Defeat: Bringing on Billy Crystal to remind us of the time when the presenters used to be funny and then having him reminisce about Bob Hope, who was then rescusitated with computers to do some presenting himself, thus creating an Escher-like loop of pure self-emptying hopelessness, in which presenters presented more presenters, and those presenters still more presenters, each better at their job than the one we happen to be stuck with. You know the Oscars are screwed when even the presenters get nostalgia reels. What next? The orchestra? Best speech drown-outs?

Most frequent shout-out: Christopher Nolan. "None of what I did could have been possible without the incredible vision of my master Christopher Nolan," said Wally Pfister. Does anyone who works with the guy sign a contract agreeing to call him their "master" at awards ceremonies in perpetuity? Next year will they all stand up on their seats and call him "captain, my captain"?

Best Joke: Randy Newman's admission that he's been on the show many times "and I slow it down every time."

Second Best Joke: James Franco's “I just got a text message from Charlie Sheen." Otherwise: he looked catatonic throughout, as if radioing in instructions to one of his many Franco clones from an undisclosed location. Hathaway did better once she ditched him.

Best Red Carpet Appearance: Jennifer Lawrence. You could practically feel the envy on her skin.

Most Deserved Win: Trent Reznor's. It took you a while to figure out what was so bizarre about it and then it hit you: innovative creative work, justly rewarded. Fancy. It further hemmed The King's Speech into one of the most cramped Oscar hauls in years. It's increasingly the new norm: the Mr Potato Head Oscars, with all the major awards scattered to the four winds.

Most Unseemly Gesture: the clenched spasm of victory that rippled through Tom Hooper's frame upon hearing his name called. As lonely as the air punch of a rapist.

Worst reverse innovation: the loss of the circle of praise from former winners, seemingly modelled on Krypton's council of justice in the first Superman. About the only recent innovation to actually work, so naturally it's now gone.

Most Transparent Piece of Tokenism: Halle Berry boring on about Lena Horne, the only dead person to get a personal obit on account of being black in a year when the Academy felt bad about its dearth of black nominees.

Worst Car Crash Moment: Christian Bale forgetting his wife's name.

Best Speech: Colin Firth's. Practise makes perfect. "I have a feeling my career just peaked" was a refinement of the rather too candid mid-life crisis comments he made during the Golden Globes. Similarly, with the thanks to Harvey "for taking me on when I was a mere child sensation".

Best Presenter: Sandra Bullock, bringing off a ticklish blend of tribute and teasing the producers would do well to pay close attention to, and Steven Spielberg, reminding the best picture losers of the company they keep — “If you are one of the other nine movies that don’t win, you will be in the company of The Grapes of Wrath, Citizen Kane, The Graduate, and Raging Bull. The timeliest version of that consolation I've come across.

Feb 25, 2011

Academy Award predictions 2011

The question hanging over this year's Oscars, to paraphrase Jeffrey Wells, is whether the Academy are going to go "full fart" or not. My own feeling is that they are going to go three-quarters fart, splitting off 3 Oscars (director, editing, script) for The Social Network but keeping the lion's share for The King's Speech (film, script, actor, art dir., score). Inception cleans up in the technical categories, The Fighter mops up supporting, leaving one apiece for Black Swan, Alice, Toy Story 3, and True Grit, so the $100-million club all go home with something, while The Kids Are Alright, 127 Hours and Winter's Bone get zip. I should add — in the interests of lending my selections at least a patina of on-the-ground legitimacy — that I am writing this from the pink, decoish splendor of the Beverly Hills Hotel, where my efforts to acquire a George Hamilton-like tan are currently being thwarted by low-hanging cloud. My tin foil sun reflectors are at the ready for even a few seconds of sun. My article for The Guardian about the membership of the Academy here.
Best Film: The King's Speech
Best Director: David Fincher
Best Actor: Colin Firth
Actress: Natalie Portman
Supporting Actor: Christian Bale
Supp Actress: Melissa Leo
Best Animated Feature: Toy Story 3
Adapted Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin
Original Screenplay: David Seidler
Cinematography: True Grit
Costumes: The King's Speech
Editing: The Social Network
Make Up: The Wolfman
Sound Mixing: Inception
Sound Editing: Inception
Special Effects: Inception
Score: The King's Speech
Song: We Belong Together
Documentary Short: Strangers No More
Live-action Short: Wish 143
Foreign Language: In A Better World
Animated Short: The Gruffalo
Documentary: Inside Job

Feb 23, 2011

My one-word review of HBO's Mildred Pierce

Evan Rachel Wood as Veda in the Todd Haynes-directed HBO miniseries of Mildred Pierce, which I saw in its entirety today, and about which I am sworn to absolute secrecy except to say: *sigh*

Feb 22, 2011

REVERSIBLE TRUTHS, no. 56*

With just one week to go before the Academy Awards, the Oscar pundits — those poor boggle-eyed souls entrusted with the task of cranking out daily copy about a competition whose results can be predicted with 80% accuracy months in advance by anyone with a working grasp of English — are in the finishing straits of their annual ordeal. In a crowded field, the award for most meaningless prediction goes this year to Sasha Stone of Awards Daily who has decided that the results will be "making history one way or another."
If The King’s Speech wins, it will become the first film in 83 years of Oscar history with a British monarch as the central figure to win Best Picture. If The Social Network wins Screenplay, Editing, Directing but then loses Best Picture it will join the ranks of only two movies in Oscar history to do so.
Note the esoteric handicapping ("as the central figure") to add rarity to an otherwise entirely unremarkable fact (the Academy have always been suckers for royalty); also the lining up of those extra hoops (wins for screenplay, editing and directing no less) in order to obscure an increasingly common phenomenon (a split between best director and best film). In both cases, the analysis actually works against a helpful observation: there is rich precedent for both wins. One senses that Stone means "making history" in the same sense that Wolf Blitzer uses to the phrase, to mean merely "marking time." If David Fincher wins the Best Director oscar it will be the first time that someone with the name "David Fincher" has won, too. If Fincher does not win, on the other hand, it will be the 83rd time that someone with the name "David Fincher" has not won, but only the first time that that loss has coincided with a three-quarters crescent moon. Either way, history will be made.

* An occasional column highlighting that species of error which results when a commentator is not just wrong but so exactly wrong that were you to put their point through 180-degrees you would end up with the truth

Oh to be as blameless as Bates the valet

After an appropriately strict diet of one-episode-per-week, my wife and I finally fell off the wagon in a big way and wolfed down the last three episodes of Downton Abbey in one sitting last night, spurred on — we told ourselves — by the pure adrenaline rush of storytelling with which Julian Fellowes brought his redoubtable saga to a close. We came away from the whole thing dizzy with admiration for the Austen-like astringency of Mary; touched by the Ishiguroish exterior behind which Bates and Anna must keep their passion tamped down; but above all struck by the dexterity with which Fellowes contrives to have Bates's good name repeatedly blackened in episode after episode, only to cleanse it again with a dense weave of extenuating circumstances so extensive that Bates is compelled, if only by modesty alone, to lift not a finger to defend himself, leaving it to others to draw back the veil in an act of dramatic ex-machina vindication which reveals to all and sundry the state of pure blamelessness that forms the bedrock of his character. How strong an impression this made on both my wife and I, reminding us perhaps of the deep reserves of blamelessness that greet us when we gaze into the well of our own goodly souls, so often besmirched by the misunderstandings and outright misreadings of others, yet somehow lacking the third-act vindication on which Bates has come to rely. We try and play that role for one another of course — Anna to the other's Bates — although truth be told, neither of us is possessed of the patience to allow the process to play out in its entirety, the urge to toot our own horn, or defend our actions from the dolts and fools who would dare 'understand' us, cutting in somewhere between breakfast and the front door. We are, like most modern folk, too well defended by the deep moats of irony, the arrow slits of our own postmodern knowingness, to allow the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune much in the way of ingress. It will henceforth be a belated New Year's resolution to allow a much deeper mountain of false charges to accumulate at my door before brushing them to one side, taking care in turn not to incriminate my accusers, but allowing a blush to creep up their cheeks of its own accord, and placing all my faith in the same Jeevesian benificence that rules the roost and keeps the fates in balance at Downton Abbey.

Feb 21, 2011

Such stuff as dreams are made on

“Anna Nicole,” by the British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and the British librettist Richard Thomas, finally had its premiere here at the Royal Opera on Thursday night before a sold-out house with standees everywhere. And it proved a weirdly inspired work, an engrossing, outrageous, entertaining and, ultimately, deeply moving new opera... Turnage and Thomas have given us a tragic operatic heroine, a downtrodden nobody determined to make it, to “rape the American dream,” as she puts it, any way she can. Their Anna Nicole is in the lineage of Bizet’s Carmen, Berg’s Lulu and the Weill-Brecht Jenny... There are flashes of Weill in the clattering cabaretlike scenes in which the reporters, wielding microphones, mutter like a Greek chorus; and jazzy sneering brass writing in the scene with the dancers at the “gentlemen’s club” in Houston... “Anna Nicole” can probably claim to be breaking new ground in the scene in which Anna Nicole receives breast-implant surgery from the fast-talking Doctor Yes (a vibrant Andrew Rees). ... a musically rich, audacious and inexplicably poignant work." — New York Times
Nobody could be happier than I at this show's success. I thought Nicole Smith was hideously treated by the old gentlemen of the press, all of them elbowing and kicking to be first in line to first oggle her and then call her "famous for being famous." Is there a more bonehead phrase? It's got all the sound of sense, while making none. It's only ever applied to women whose lascivious hold on the writer must be avenged in the form of cheap insult dressed up as analysis: "famous for being famous" is another way of saying "bimbo" for those too frightened of being called sexist. Like many who attract the label, Nicole-Smith was famous for perfectly explicable reasons. She was famous for her great beauty, as first showcased in a series of adverts for Guess jeans which made great play of her Vargas-blonde looks and retrofitted chassis, harkening as both did to the great bombshell era of the 1950s. Anyone who doesn't understand why great beauty, allied to nostalgia for America's greatest decade, wouldn't make someone famous need to go back to grad school and reread Daniel Boorstein's The Image. The spectre of undeserved fame is only ever invoked by people who don't understand what fame is. 'Famous just for being famous' describes everyone in the public spotlight, inertia being one of fame's principle properties. All fame is undeserved, in the sense that it bears no intrinsic relation to the reasons for that fame. The people who recognise Albert Einstein's image no more understand relativity theory than the people who recognise Anna Nicole-Smith's image can intuit from it the history of Guess jeans. Einstein's fame is not worth more than hers. His achievements may be, but his fame is worth exactly the same. It's the same substance — the same dumb stuff. Now, some lecherous old newspaperman may wish to diss his own lust and judge theoretical science a more worthy cause than great beauty — not my priorities, you understand, although I hear tell of such people — then so be it, but if Nicole-Smith is "famous for being famous" but then so too is Einstein. That old bimbo, Albie Einstein.

Casting doubt on true Beliebers

The dust plumes in the Middle-East still settling, commentators of this side of the Atlantic have all started asking themselves: could it happen here? Which dictator is most vulnerable? Obama? Palin? Limbaugh? Beck? Maybe you think those trivial examples, a cheapening the very notion of dictatorship — conceptual decadence from the pundit class. In which case, The New York Times has news for you: from precisely such complacency are tyrants bred. Anyone who thinks the United States cannot succumb to the mesmerising flame of fascism need only remind themselves of the latest terrifying mass movement to sweep the nation: "everywhere, a screaming and devoted army, more emotive and compelling than the object of their affection", a tyrant who "holds sway over a certain cross-section of young women... like a cult leader, he rules largely through suggestion and iconography, not direct command." Who is this child emperor? This glazed Hitlerite? Why, Justin Bieber, of course, plotting world domination behind his fringe, according to Jon Caramanica, his tenebrous reach all too apparent
during the Grammys, when Mr. Bieber lost the award for Best New Artist to the relatively unknown jazz musician Esperanza Spalding. Within minutes, her Wikipedia page was crudely defaced, presumably by the viral swarm of Mr. Bieber’s young, Internet-savvy fans, clamoring to defend his honor. It’s not the first time the Beliebers have lashed out in defense of their idol. The last year has seen several outbursts of rage from Beliebers against enemies of the state, be they YouTube users deemed insufficiently respectful of the king, or Kim Kardashian, who claimed on Twitter that she received “death threats” from Mr. Bieber’s jealous fans after being seen with him in public.
You look in vain for some sign of irony to Caramanica's comparison of Bieber fans to totalitarian death squads. Caramanica clearly doesn't much care for Bieber's music, which he brushes aside with the same sniffy pop-sociology once visited on the Beatles:—
"What has Mr. Bieber done for these fans apart from inspire crushes? Does his music speak to their needs and interests as young girls? Is he someone who, a few years from now when they (and he) are all grown up, will appear in retrospect to have been a suitable receptacle of their adulation."
Seriously? Are we really going to do this all over again — the whole you-can't-hear-the-music-for-the-screaming thing? The answer to the first question is "record good pop records," the answer to the second is "yes," and the third shouldn't be answered by anyone serious about their music. Nobody decided whether to buy I Wanna Hold Your Hand by considering whether the Beatles "might appear in retrospect to have been a suitable recepticle for their adulation". (Could the broom be any further up the ass of that phrase?) They bought the record because it sounded like nothing they had heard before. The fact that it was something they could listen to in five years time was a nice bonus, but even if the record had turned out to be a source of lifelong excrutiation for Beatles fans, that, too, is the peculiar power of pop music, which pins you to the present with such power that listening to it many years later can bring a blush to the cheek — like leafing through an old diary. Of course some of Bieber's music is going to embarrass some of his fans in years to come: that's the point. And some of it may do a lot better than that: he has a sculptural grasp of melody, and gifts of phrasing — for divining a path for his voice through a song — as surefooted as Mariah Carey's. U Smile needn't bow to anyone. It doesn't suit Caramanica's purpose to get into a discussion of the merits or demerits of Bieber's music, though. The bulk of the article turns out to be the ill-advised comments on abortion that Bieber recently gave to Rolling Stone.
“I really don’t believe in abortion,” he said. “I think [an embryo] is a human. It’s like killing a baby.” The reporter pushed him, asking if that held true in cases of rape. “Well, I think that’s just really sad, but everything happens for a reason. I don’t know how that would be a reason.” Looking “confused,” in the word of the reporter, he added, “I guess I haven’t been in that position, so I wouldn’t be able to judge that.”

Carmanica adjudicates thusly,

Even if Mr. Bieber is heartfelt in his opposition to abortion (and there’s no reason to think he isn’t), his reply wasn’t the clearest or most sophisticated distillation of that position... like most kids, he no doubt wants to be treated like an adult. That means no minder on hand, presumably, when being asked these questions. He’s treated like an adult in other ways, too. Take the Rolling Stone cover photo, a rough-trade-style shot by the provocateur photographer Terry Richardson — or the recent tabloid photos of him kissing the Disney star Selena Gomez while on vacation in the Caribbean... as Mr. Bieber fills out as a man, he may or may not inspire the devotion that Justin Bieber the boy is capable of generating.

Caramanica isn't buying, but note what he isn't buying: his own crappy goods. First he sidelines the music, so he can accuse Bieber of being more than a musician, then projects onto him a set of aspirations ("he no doubt wants to be treated like an adult") so as to to crunch them cruelly underfoot ("his reply wasn’t the clearest or most sophisticated distillation of that position.") Actually I found Bieber's answer both perfectly clear and admirably nuanced: he is anti abortion but when it comes to rape, concedes that "I haven’t been in that position, so I wouldn’t be able to judge that.” That seems to be about as evolved and compassionate a pro-life attitude as one could hope for. His only mistake was to make his views public, if only because it allows columnists like Caramanica the chance to execute the old commentator switcheroo — accuse a subject of a sententiousness that you have just planted yourself.

Feb 18, 2011



Film Detail have unearthed a 12-hour audio file of Hitchcock/Truffaut, the legendary interview between French critic/filmmaker Francois Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock, translated by Helen Scott.

Feb 16, 2011

REVIEW: Unknown (dir. Collet-Serra)

Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella circle each other warily, like panthers, or movie stars who know they shouldn't occupy the same frame, like Travolta and Willis in Pulp Fiction, or Pacino and De Niro in Heat. They play old cold war warriors picking up the scent again, and their scene together — beginning with a handshake and ending with cyanide — is one of the passing pleasures of the new Neesploitation thriller, Unknown. Most of the pleasures of the film are passing, in fact, from the careening BMWs, to the glide-by acting style of January Jones, to the convolutions of the plot, as jerky and unpredictable as rain on a windshield. It's a crock, to be honest, whose most lasting effect (spoiler alert) is to leave you pondering the strange link between America's trained assassin community and the amnesia epidemic ripping through their ranks, leaving lean, mean fighting machines stranded in cafes all over Europe, staring into their capuccino foam trying to work out what they do for a living and whether it involves karate. It's reminiscent of that wonderful Monty Python sketch in which teams of philosophers play a soccer match, some getting as far as actually kicking the ball before falling into deep Cartesian cogitation as to whether the ball exists or not. It's a wonder America ever manages to get anyone rubbed out with this lot.

The movie can be best recommended for the unimpeded view it offers of its leading man, the chance it offers audiences to ponder the Rodinish planes of his face (the film actually begins with a shot of Neeson in profile, against an aeroplane window, as if to get that out of the way), and marvel anew over the patented Neeson walk: big-shouldered, ball-fisted, rangy and rolling, like Mitchum only pacier. There's a nerve-wracking scene in a hospital involving a poisoned drip and some car chases that are more alarming than exciting, but if I could boil down my complaint about the film down to one irresistable nub it would be that we spend too much time watching Neeson furrow his noble brow over the theft of his wife / identity — those two always going hand in hand, at least since Polanski's Frantic — and not enough time watching him crack skulls and discover knife skills he never knew he had. He gets there in the end, of course, in time for a series of plot twists whose efforts toward making the movie we have just watched cohere seemed sweetly-intentioned but ultimately unnecessary, like a nervous party host fussing over throw cushions. In what is certain to be one of my favorite lines of motivation all year, January Jones at one point insists, "I don't want my face linked to an avoidable explosion". You should have read the script, honey. C+

Feb 14, 2011

REVIEW: The Adjustment Bureau (dir. Nolfi)

George Nolfi's The Adjustment Bureau slips so neatly and silently between it's two prospective audiences it seems almost to have been designed to touch nobody — like that car in Diamonds Are Forever that does a side-wheelie down an alleyway, brushing not a brick. Bourne fans are going to be yawning halfway through the first expository speech in which John Slattery explains the rules of this particular universe to Matt Damon, in scenes that play like Inception without the effects: pure gobbledygook. Nolfi, who here makes his debut as a director, needs to learn that the audience will buy all manner of outlandishness if they can only clap eyes on it; just hearing about it, as we do here, repeatedly, is like hearing a summary of the more exciting film playing on the screen next door. It's not a question of overloading your movie with effects; Nolfi appears to lack the ability to think visually — to dream onscreen. The images here are as lifeless as a slide-show. He appears to have been most excited by the idea of tying Damon to a chair in a disused parking lot, and then have him listen to a lecture on the ironies of human history by Slattery — and later, the same speech from Terence Stamp, one silver fox making way for another, still sleeker, in infinite regress. Are they all white-haired in eternity, or is it the terminal ennui?

Valentine's dates may find themselves enjoying the chemistry Damon rustles up with Emily Blunt, who plays a dancer he's never supposed to have met — those Boston boys work well off the cool of English actresses, and there are shades of the fraternal crackle Damon once enjoyed with Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting — but you may also find yourself wondering why, if the filmmakers really wanted to hook us with star-crossed romance, they went to all the bother of all these men in trilbys waffling on about fate and free will and love not foretold in some phosopherescent book. Nora Ephron covered the same ground with just the Empire State Building and a telephone. After the mess of Green Zone and the drippiness of Hereafter, Damon could do with a hit, but he does not look good in a trilby, and he spends too much of the movie gaping incredulously. I'm a fan of Damon, who has something of Harrison Ford's gift for threading action with just the right amount of perplexity, but he needs to stay away from the metaphysical. Slattery floats through proceedings protected by his Sterling-Cooper-Draper-Pryce-patented irony cloaking device, his delivery so dry you half expect him to pop an olive into his mouth, call in Christina Hendricks and start dictation. D+

Feb 13, 2011

Is this the best British film of all time?

1. Don't Look Now
2. The Third Man
3. Distant Voices, Still Lives
4. Kes
5. The Red Shoes
6. A Matter Of Life And Death
7. Performance
8. Kind Hearts And Coronets
9. If...
10. Trainspotting
I've been trying not to comment on Time Out's list of Best British films but the more I think about it the more perverse their list looks. It's not just that I think Trainspotting is a crock of shit, Distant Voices Still Lives overrated or that both Mike Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock deserve a place in the top ten (as opposed to two Nic Roegs? Two Powells? really?). As for Kes, I'm still in the doghouse with my wife for making us watch in on New Year's Eve having forgotten what happens to the falcon in the final reel. I did try to explain that all animals appearing in a British film in the 1970s come to a bad end but she thinks I've jinxed our entire year. I think the problem stems from the fuzziness that surrounds Time Out's notion of what constitutes a "British film." It's one or other or all of either "director", "funding", "actors", "original book" or "setting" depending on which way the wind is blowing. For most of the entries, it seems to be "directed by a British director with British money in a British setting." So Alexander McKendrick and Hitchcock do fine until they move to America, at which point they become persona non grata. But Kubrick's Barry Lyndon gets in, neither directed by a Brit nor funded by Brits; same with Blow Up — Italian director, international money, London setting. Brazil is in even though it was directed by an American for an American studio and set in South America. The Third Man also gets in, even though Selznick was a financial partner and contributed American stars, in a Viennese setting, reducing that film's Britishness to just it's director. So why no English Patient? Why Brazil but not Blade Runner? Vertigo? Rear Window? City Lights? Modern Times? Point Blank? Midnight Cowboy? Alien? Sweet Smell of Success?

REVIEW: Cedar Rapids (dir. Arteta)

"To be as charmed as I was, you have to enjoy scenes like the one in which insurance agent John C. Reilly plops himself down at the hero’s table in the middle of the ostentatiously holy convention leader’s morning prayer and declares, “I am so hung-over… big-time beer shits… You got a pube on your cheek.” It helps that Reilly is the opposite of a slob-comic. With his hangdog melancholy, he makes even the nonstop cunnilingus allusions poignant—the product of emotional longing. (I hadn’t heard the phrase “Eating tuna from the bottom shelf”—is that native to this movie?)." — David Edelstein, New York
I've been on the fence about Reilly's comic gifts up until now, but all those years languishing in Will Ferrell's shadow seem finally to have paid off, in much the same way that Dudley Moore finally came into his own once sprung from the side of Peter Cook, by then playing Peter Cook in Arthur. Here, after years playing Ferrell's straight man Reilly gets to play the Ferrell role himself and there's something both liberated and liberating about the sight of that vast white belly holding centre court while Reilly lets loose with volleys of filth up above. Edelstein is dead right: it's a performance all about filling another, bigger man's space and out-sized gestures, with the pathos residing in the gap. He ends up in the zone sought by all comic performers: so consistently funny and affecting that all he has to do to is supply little top-ups, little spins on an already-spinning wheel; by the end, your eye seeks him out whenever something happens just to see how he's going to respond. His coarse, mottled flesh — he looks like's he's been pelted with clay by a classroom of kids — is one big, absorbent, ululating sponge. He gets many great moments but my favorite was the sight of him standing in a swimming pool with a trash lid on his head, impersonating R2 D2, simply staring at Ed Helms while he makes out with Ann Heche, too drunk to look away. It's sad and funny and pathetic all at the same time. The whole film is like that. A minor comic gem. B

Feb 12, 2011

What's so funny about reliable narrators?

"Jennifer Egan is our reward for living through the self conscious gimmicks and ironic claptrap of postmodernism," wrote one critic of her new novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad. As prep for meeting Egan, I've been trawling through her reviews and notice that this is very much the theme: she's postmodern, but don't panic. In his review of her previous book, The Keep, Madison Smartt Bell said that Egan "deploys most of the arsenal developed by metafiction writers of the 1960s and refined by more recent authors like William T Vollman and David Foster Wallace, but she can't be counted a sone of them" on account of her "unusually vivid and convincing realism." Now, I'm as allergic of postmodern trickery as the next man but I couldn't help pausing over the following comment by another reviewer of the same book: "In her latest novel, The Keep, Egan prove that postmodern alegory can be fun," they wrote, before noting "her narrator, Ray, is as unreliable as they come, but he's also funny and insightful." What's so fancy-pants — not to mention humor-squashing and insight flattening — about an unreliable narrator? Unreliable narrators didn't dash the insight of Lolita, Money, Heart of Darkness, and The Catcher In The Rye. As for humor, some of the funniest books I have in my possession are narrated unreliably, from Pnin to Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster stories to pretty much all of Alan Bennett. I would go so far as to say that's its one of the more reliable comic motors a book can have, if not the most. I think suspicion of postmodernism has gone too far when it starts to include basic things like jokes. It'll be, "this book is printed on numbered pages, but it's still perfectly readable" next. Or, "it's a book but don't let that put you off..."

Feb 11, 2011

SO GLAD I DON'T HAVE TO LISTEN TO: P J Harvey's 'Let England Shake'*

"It says something that 'Let England Shake' – an opaque exploration of Englishness delivered in a high, keening voice, that contains not one, not two, but three harrowing songs that explicitly reference the 1915 Gallipoli campaign and a further handful that seem more generally informed by the carnage of the first world war – represents one of the more approachable albums in her oeuvre.... its 40 minutes passes without anyone getting anything shoved up their bum... It's more a matter of tone. The music sounds muted, misty and ambiguous, which seems to fit with Harvey's vision of England: "The damp grey filthiness of ages, fog rolling down behind the mountains and on the graveyards and dead sea captains," she sings on The Last Living Rose.... On Written on the Forehead, she performs a similar trick with an even more unlikely source – reggae singer Niney the Observer's Blood and Fire, a deceptively cheery paean to imminent apocalypse. Its weird juxtaposition of subject matter and mood infect the whole song, which is possessed both of a beautiful melody and a lyric about people trying to escape a rioting city and drowning in sewage.... Harvey's voice certainly has its dramatic moments... it's almost blank-eyed as she details The Words That Maketh Murder's battlefield carnage: soldiers falling "like lumps of meat", trees hung with severed limbs... Rock songwriters don't write much about the first world war, but, perhaps understandably, when they do, they have a tendency to lay it on a bit thick: you end up with songs like the Zombies' The Butcher's Tale, so ripe it sounds more like the work of a fromagier. Harvey clearly understands that the horror doesn't really need embellishing: her way sounds infinitely more shocking and affecting than all the machine-gun sound effects in the world." — The Guardian
Ah England, how I miss her so. I was just beginning to wonder if I would ever experience her damp grey filthiness again, or see the fog rolling down across the graves of dead sea captains first hand, and along comes P J Harvey with her opaque exploration of Englishness sung in a high, keening voice to save me the bother. It's great that those sea-captains are dead, by the way. When I left, in 1999, they were burying them while still alive, a nasty business to be sure, but no nastier than the blood and filth and sewage that you have to wade through to get into central London these days. The important thing here, as the Guardian's critic rightly notes, is subtlety. The damp grey filthiness of ages needs no embellishment. Londoners may be drowning in their own filth, but not all of them. Some have clambered to safety. It may be carnage on the battlefield, but not every tree is hung with the severed limbs of England's dead sons. Some merely provide them with shade. And while it is true that the number of people trying to shove stuff up your bum has only grown exponentially over the years, it shows great restraint on P J Harvey's part that she has managed to make an entire album dedicated to my swinish, swill-filled homeland without someone getting something inserted into their arse. When I was living there, it was pretty much the only surefire way you had of knowing that you were indeed residing in England and not, say, France or Poland. Cucumbers, milk cartons, Rhododendrun staulks, the thumbs of passing bobbies — again, not a pleasant business, but a small price to pay for the privelage of living in a nation that wages so many exciting wars, all their violence and futility, their pity and terror, never better expressed than in the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle-eight structure of your classic rock song.

* An occasional column devoted to those books, movies and pieces of music which would, on balance, better serve us by remaining unread, unwatched and unlistened to, based on the principle that the reactions we have to art works in absentia can be every bit as enriching as to those demanding our urgent personal attention

Happy Valentine's weekend, everybody

'They are very much a form unto themselves, a species of fiction, really, wherein wannabe Romeos dash off lightly-fictionalized, Gatsbyesque versions of themselves in a tone halfway between come-hither foxiness and plangent entreaty, as if forever posed in some doorway, blowing smoke rings and delivering unrehearsed zingers, before disappearing into the night to work in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter.

I am an outlaw, a troubadour, a world traveler, a born again romantic. I am grounded yet prone to flights of fancy and / or midnight cupcake hunts. I am athletic yet like oysters and know how to eat them. I am easy-going yet firm in my beliefs (high fibre, good scotch, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. Yes I liked that speech, too). I like to laugh at myself as often as I can and once cooked blue spaghetti for 12 people. I think that road trips can be a transcendental experience, if unplanned. When I say "let's pack our bags and move to a farmhouse in Tuscany" I want someone who will reach for the closet and start packing. A friend and confidante, a partner in crime, a co-pilot in secret explorations. A thinker, a doer, a lover, a fighter, a laurete. Also, must love porridge and power-tools.

The key, it seemed to me upon first entering this strange alternative universe of spontaneous road-trips and brightly colored pasta, where coy exteriors belied deep reserves of untapped silliness and nobody is ever allowed to plan for anything, ever, seemed to lie in those all-important conjunctions “yet,” and “but.” Thus armed, the author could advance an admirable trait (groundedness), then, spotting the possible negative connotations of that trait (dullness), pivot onto its opposite (fanciful), in an act of triangulation that would bring tears to the eyes of Bill Clinton himself launch into a series of Whitmanesque paradoxes: Easy going yet firm. Grounded yet romantic. Shy but adventurous. Athletic but oyster-loving. Everyone seemed to be “easy going” and “down-to-earth” and liked to “laugh a lot,” mostly at themselves. Favorite Books featured a lot of Haruki Murakami and Stieg Larsson, with maybe some Augusten Burroughs thrown in to suggest the liveliness of the author’s Saturday nights, and then something Tibetan to reassure you they weren’t a complete alkie. Favorite Onscreen Sex Scene tended to be a lot of rough, up-against-the-wall number from 9 ½ Weeks or Damage. Celebrity I Most Resemble ellicited a lot of Maggie Gyllenhaals, closely followed by “moi.” If You Could Be Anywhere Right Now, on the other hand, was an opportunity to kick free of the Gradgrindian exactitude demanded of you by the preceding questions and make good on your profile’s nascent kinship with headiest flourishes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Strolling along the cobblestone streets of Prague. Picking berries in Port Townsend. Looking for tortoise in the Galapagos islands. To judge by their personals, a date with your average New Yorker consisted largely of trying to keep up with some pith-helmeted Maggie-Gyllenhaal lookalike, laughing madly to herself as she leapt like a mountain goat from rocky outcrop to cupcake shop, pausing only to have sex in the nearest alleyway before dusting herself down and leaping back into the madcap three-ring circus that was her life, her quest for her own zest-filled quiddity undimmed.'

from my article about online dating for Slate. Photograph by Trine S√łndergaard.

Feb 9, 2011

BOGART: his toughness was an inside job

'Bogart was 37 when he got his break in movies and 41 before he went over big with an audience — already on his second marriage, the death of both parents under his belt, no wunderkind, with his lean smoker’s physique, and receding gums which turned every smile into a grimace, “a map of distress” in Kanfer’s words. In Hollywood faces are destiny; the first real sign that Kanfer is serious as a Bogart scholar — the only qualification, really — is the amount of time he spends scanning that mug, with its fissures and fault-lines, and unexpectedly beautiful mouth. “It was very full, rosy, and perfectly modeled,” noted Louise Brooks, no slacker in that department herself. “To make it completely fascinating, at one corner of his upper lip a scarred quilted piece hung down in a tiny scallop.” The stories vary as to how he got the scar — a blow from his father in a drunken rage, a scuffle with a prisoner during his time in the Navy, a passing U Boat shell — but it lent his voice its trademark lisp, which Bogart kept to a minimum by keeping his volume low.“Bogart was a medium-sized man,” said John Huston. “Not particularly impressive off screen.” Put him on camera, however, and “those lights and shadows organized themselves into another nobler personality, heroic.” His entire film career was to rest on a single, judiciously prolonged piece of miscasting: his stiff, slightly old-fashioned patrician bearing was slightly redundant when deployed in the service of patricians, but transplated into the bodies of toughs, condemned men, and private eyes — the closest the modern world has to the knights of the round table— and the result was a brand of hard-bitten, rueful integrity that fit the times like a glove. Caught between the hardships of the Great Depression and the heroism of the second world war, audiences found both in Bogart, the hardship written on his face, the heroism carefully hidden so they got to find out something for themselves.“We’re wrong in looking forward to death,” said Seneca, “Death is a master of all the years that are behind us.” Nobody came as close to embodying this as Bogart who could literally look back on all the times he had died onscreen, and whose essence, as first Andre Bazin and later Ken Tynan realised, was stoic: he endured. He withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, not in a spirit of masochism, but rather as his due, the price of a man’s course through the world. These days, we measure toughness by the damage dished out to others — by body counts and kill ratios. Bogart’s toughness was an inside job. “When a man is sick, you get to know him,” said the doctor who treated him for the cancer which finally brought him down. “You find out whether he’s made of soft wood or hard wood. I began to get fonder of Bogie with each visit. He was made of very hard wood indeed.” A film likeInception, in so many ways the grand-son of The Maltese Falcon, not least in it’s smoky femme fatale and noirish plotting, remains strangely unfogged by anything that would mess with those pristine snowscapes: blood, emotion, even death, which now becomes something reversible, an optional extra, something to be scrolled through in a menu, and then re-done, as if in some eternal a video game in which the game is never over. What lends singularity to Bogart's films is the sense of irreversible actions, with moral consequences, being bourne by a man standing as if waist-high in a river, braced by events. The action held him in place. Once things happened to him, they didn’t unhappen. He didn’t get a do-over. When he got slugged, he rubbed his jaw like a kid coming away from the dentist. “When he sweated you could have wring his shirt,” said Francois Truffaut, doubtless thinking of the first scene The Big Sleep, where Marlowe comes across Major Sternwood in his hothouse, living off heat like a newborn spider, surrounded by orchids whose flesh so reminds him of the rotten sweetness of corruption. Why did you have to go on?” Lauren Bacall asks him. “Too many people told me to stop,” he replies.'
— from my review of Stefan Kanfer's Tough Without A Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart

Feb 8, 2011

Elvis Mitchell on John Barry: 1933-2011

"Even in Barry’s Wolves music, he doesn’t simply romanticize Kevin Costner’s Vision/Quest, the cinematic version of a dreamcatcher hanging on a pick-up truck’s rearview mirror. Rather, the Wolves score invokes a white-knuckled (I know — a redundancy in Costner’s case) grab for a world that’s dissipating before Costner’s eyes. It’s that etude for the brawny Old World that works for so many of Barry’s guy’s-guy scores, such as the muscularly seductive opening credits music for The Ipcress File... Barry’s elegiac songwriting made him the leading proponent of the dimming-of-the-light subgenre: They Might Be Giants, The Last Valley Monte Walsh andRobin and Marian all belonged to the self-conscious passing of masculinity into myth niche. Barry’s playful, yet mournful Robin and Marian — in which Sean Connery is a spiritually exhausted Robin Hood the same age as Russell Crowe’s in last year’s Robin Hood — has a knowing beauty." — Elvis Mitchell, Movieline
And the best of the Bonds? Diamonds Are Forever (despite being one of the worst of the films). I have never personally destroyed a fully operational oil rig wearing scuba gear and armed with nothing more than a harpoon, but thanks to Barry's music — an impossibly exciting mixture of pounding timpani, briskly skipping snares, muscular horns and thrillingly vertiginous flute-and-glockenspiel glissandos — I have a good idea of what emotions might be best suited to such an occasion. It's one of my favorite pieces of martial exhortation, along with Ron Goodwin's theme for Where Eagles Dare and John Williams' Imperial March. I defy anyone to listen to it and not feel the immediate urge to drop what they are doing, head out the door and enlist.