May 31, 2011
May 30, 2011
On the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Raiders of the Lost Ark, first released on June 12th, 1981, an excerpt from my book Blockbuster How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer :—
Indiana Jones is not a very good archaeologist. His sprinting has pace, his whip-handling real snap, and his classes in archaeology are unusually well-attended, but as a practitioner, Dr. Jones is, one regrets to say, singularly unproductive. In the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark we see him recover a Peruvian statuette from a booby-trapped cave, only to deliver it to the feet of his rival Belloq (Paul Freeman). Never one to miss a beat, Indy fixes his sights instead on the ark of the Covenant, only to lose that, too, to Belloq, who crows, “Once again, what once was yours is now mine.” He recovers it one more time, only to lose it, finally, to the American government, who stash it at the film’s end in a cavernous, Kane-style vault. A quick glance forward to the other films in the series confirms that his luck does not improve much. Of the three Ankara stones which he spends so much of Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom trying to retrieve, two he loses into a ravine and the third he gives away to a crowd of deserving villagers. The same with the Holy Grail in the third movie, which according to Jones “belongs in a museum” although what he obviously meant to say is that it belongs at the bottom of a deep lava-spitting crevasse. The trilogy records a massive strike out. Indiana Jones’s contributions to the the sum total of archaeological findings is precisely, zero. One hopes that Marcus Brody’s museum has a large and profitable gift shop. “He's not very good at what he does," says Spielberg. " Everything that hapopens with Indian Jones becomes soemthign he learns that will sreve him in his next adventure but he brings back no spoils. He saves the girl, he saves himself, but he doesnt bring enough back to Marcus Brody to really earn him tenure. It's something that George and I joked about a lot.”
A fault in an archaeologist is, however, a major plus in the hero of a blockbuster film franchise, for it is precisely Indy’s failure to acquire any baggage that allows each film to reset its bean counter and begin again: the women are different every time; all he takes with him are his hat and his whip, snatched from the under closing doors, in the nick of time. Everything else returns to zero, cancels out, comes full circle. In this, he is very much a George Lucas creation, for there is no thriftier imagination in modern movies; just as Star Wars had shaped up as a sort of intergalactic rag-and-bone-shop of floating junk, endlessly recycled and reused, so too with the Rube Goldbergish world of Raiders, a world abhorrent of waste, in which economy and equilibrium rule, in which the junk is just that little bit older, and even old testament caskets double up as a handy “telephone to God.” If you were 12 years-old — or thereabouts — when Raiders came out, you probably left the theatre, floating lightly about a foot above the sidewalk, thinking: right, that’s it. Everyone can go home now. Someone has finally cracked it. They’ve broken the sound barrier, worked out what the formula is. E equals MC2. The secret is out. Soon, a brave new world of movie excitement will be upon us, and your next thought was to feel a little sorry for Spielberg and Lucas, who would surely, you felt, be left behind, as one unbeatably exciting action-adventure gave way to the next — a little like Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, breaking the sound barrier all on his own, scoring his own quiet victory, while the astronauts jet off into space. Well. The era of non-stop action adventures did arrive, but not in the form we imagined. It was certainly non-stop, but the pace of Raiders would easily turn punishing, in film after film, while the “action comedy” would turn into Hollywood great graveyard genre, swallowing such blushing debutantes as Ishtar, Hudson Hawk, and Last Action Hero, in which the action and the comedy, far from engaging in sylph-like dance, sat in opposite corners of the theatre, sulking. The fusion turned out to be harder to achieve than we thought. E did equal MC2, but nobody else understood why.
It helped matters that the competition in 1981 was creaky as a zimmer-frame, of course. The other action-adventurers that year were for the most part a procession of over-the-hill eyebrows: Burt Reynolds’, frowning over the conundrum of his own sexiness in The Cannonball Run; Sean Connery’s, furrowed with the task of figuring out the differences between Outland and Alien; and Roger Moore’s, arched with amusement at the thought of his 12th outing as Bond in For Your Eyes Only. Here was one offer made by Jaws and Star Wars that Hollywood was happy enough to refuse: their disavowal of stars, and the same goes for Raiders, for while it made Ford a star, it wouldn’t have worked had he been one already: Indy needed to arrive under his own steam. Despite two outings as Han Solo, Ford had followed through with roles in such uber-dreck as Hanover Street and Force Ten From Navarone, and in 1980 was working as a carpenter to make ends meet, which fed perfectly into Indy’s weary fatigue, his air of a man who while perfectly happy to leap across ravines would be altogether happier at home putting up bookshelves. Raiders had its debt to Bond, of course, not least in its pre-credit sequence, bowling Indy along in front of that giant boulder before you’d even had a chance to take you seat, like someone greeting you with a tap of their watch, but Ford’s ability to turn a stumble into a run, and to grope for rope with a blind man’s fingers — all his gifts for conveying physical extremity — work to keep Indy subtly off-balance throughout. Bond was this stirred but never this shaken.
Nor did you get from the Bond movies anything like the careful daisy-chaining with which Spielberg links up his action: the truly exhilarating thing about Indy escaping that boulder is that he escapes it only to land right at the feet of Belloq — the solution to one conundrum proving the set-up for the next, the film batting Indy from one danger to the next with the lightness of a badminton ball. It was these powers of concision — all the stuff that had been chopped out from beneath Indy’s feet — as much as the speed, that left you breathless, giving the film its distinctive weightlessness, and pushing its tone outwards towards giddy comedy. “I’m making this up as I go along,” says Ford, not itself an unscripted line, but it rings true to the picture’s feel of goosy, light-fingered opportunism: when Nazis plug a casket of liquor in Marion’s bar, she stops briefly to grab a mouthful before getting on with the fight. Lucas would never have shot that, or if he did he would have cut it, but for Spielberg, such touches are, you feel, almost the reason for shooting the film. While speed excites Lucas — because it seals him off from what blurs past — it seems almost to relax Spielberg, loosening him up for his most debonair dabs of characterisation and his best gags: it is Raiders, rather than 1941, that is Spielberg’s true homage to the art of slapstick, to the finely-callibrated chaos of Mack Sennett and Buster Keaton, and most of it plays perfectly well with its sound down. The moment when Indy shoots the swordsman is funny precisely because Indy says nothing, turns on his heel and gets on with the chase. Bond wouldn’t have been able to resist a wisecrack — a bit of comic relief, to lighten up the action — but Spielberg works on the assumption that action is already inherently comic, and in no need of relief: when Indy spins like a top when punched, or uses an Nazi’s gun, still in the dead man’s hand, to shoot down another as he advances, the choreography of thrills and laughs is so tight, it is difficult to tell when the action stops and the gag starts, exactly — a twinned-tone caught perfectly in Ford’s lopsided grin, which could go either way, up or down, depending on the proximity of the nearest ravine.
“Theres a lot of slapstick in Raiders," says Spielberg. "which is why one of the great lines in Last Crusade is Sean Connery turning to Indy, talking about the grail diaries saying, ‘I should have mailed it to the Marx brothers’. I have a lot more courage with comedy when Im selling action, adventure and drama than when I'm selling a comedy. I've never made a movie that was intended to be funny. E.T. has a lot of funny things in it but the premise of E.T. is about divorce. As long as I know I’m not making a comedy I can be brave about my humour.”
Here’s one thing that Raiders didn’t do: it didn’t ‘open’ big, taking just $8,305,823 on its opening weekend, June 12th. Spielberg remembers the look of disappointment on the face of Paramount’s head of distribution, although today it would have resulted in someone losing their job, not just their composure. Nobody at Paramount knew how to sell the film. “Steven had an idea for the teaser trailer,” says Sid Ganis, then Paramount’s head of marketing. ‘Somewhere in the deepest desert there was an artefact, nobody knew its power, nobody understood its value...’ then you saw sand blowing in desert and the ark opening up to reveal the title of the movie. George said, ‘no, no, no, no, no, no no’.” So they shot another trailer, this emphasizing that it was a throwback to another kind of movie, a cliffhanger; and this time it was Barry Diller that put his foot down. So: the marketing was a mess, and while the film would eventually take $209 million, more than any film in Paramount’s history until that point, it did so under its own steam and in its own time, chugging around at the one-and-a-half-million-a-week mark for the best part of the next year, so that by March of 1982 it was still taking $1,362,289. In other words, Raiders arrived with little fanfare, punched above its weight, fought for its fingerhold, and then held on for dear life. Sounds like Indy.
May 29, 2011
May 28, 2011
"There is not a writer, currently producing work in English, who can match Doyle for the fluency with which he tacks back and forth between the hilarious and the heartbreaking. “Sad and good had become the same thing,” thinks a mourner who has attended one too many funerals in another of the stories — and in Bullfighting Doyle hits that sweetspot again and again. “He’d be Robin Williams in half an hour,” thinks an English teacher fighting off the urge to drink between classes in ‘Teaching’. “One of those Seize-the-Day classes. The way he used to be all day.” When a pupil’s inquiry jolts loose a jumble of memories — the teacher’s near misses with various women over the years, the sexual abuse he suffered as a kid and which possibly explains that life of near misses — he finds himself completely unmanned. “He wished that kid was his. It was ridiculous — the thought just rolled through him.” That “rolled” is beautifully chosen, very Doyle, with its sad echo of the gales that ripped through the Barrytown books — “They roared”, “a giggle ran through her and out.” Doyle’s high spirits have over the years proved a bone of contention with those critics who prefer their literature a little more blanched of cheer. The argument risks ingratitude, also inaccuracy — the inhabitants of Barrytown may blaze across the page, talking a blue streak, but there’s no missing the pain nipping at their heels, whether the shame of teenage pregnancy in The Snapper, or the penny-pinching humiliations of unemployment in The Van. But where Jimmy Rabbit sr remained firmly ensconced in the bosom of his family, happily shouted down by the hubbub at the breakfast table, Doyle is now roughly the same age as Jimmy and the view from over the hill is not nearly so convivial."
May 25, 2011
'A Buckingham Palace spokesman said Her Majesty has been intimately involved in the planning of the Obamas' State Visit; she hosts only two State Visits a year. "Very warm words have been spoken between the royal family and the Obamas," he said. "There is a genuine, genuine - and I really mean this - a genuine warmth between the two families."' — The Daily Telegraph
"Break out your Madeleines, the summer blockbuster is experiencing a Proustian rush. If the movement of last year’s movies was solipsistically inward, probing such deep epistemological matters as whether we are, or are not, a figment of Leonardo Di Caprio’s imagination, this year’s crop jump backward, their plots o’ercast with the amber hue of retrospect. On June 3rd, we have X-Men:_First_Class, an origins story set in 1962; Magneto and Professor X are in college, duking it out over who gets top bunk while the Cuban Missile Crisis plays out in the background. This is followed a week later by Super 8, J J Abrams touching ode to being ten in 1979, when aliens from another planet were greeted with Spielbergian wonder and not a full pat-down and cavity search. On July 22 we have Captain America: The First Avenger, in which a 90-pound weakling steps into a science lab and emerges big enough to bounce Nazis off his bicep. A week after that we have Cowboys and Aliens, which pretty much speaks for itself. If this keeps up we can presumably look forward to a new Superman movie in which the caped crusader is returned to his Depression-era roots to do battle with moonshine bootleggers, and the new Terminator movie, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger travels back to the roaring twenties to protect Zelda Fitzgerald from character assassination by future biographers of her husband.
What the deuce — or blue blazes, depending on period — is going on? The summer is not traditionally the time when Merchant Ivory trot out their picnic hampers and cucumber sandwiches. Not that you could mistake any of these films for latest Henry James adaptation, exactly — no film called Cowboys and Aliens is intent on cleaving too hard to the historical record. On the contrary, the anachronism is the point, just as the appearance of blackberries in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes was designed to send the pince-nez flying from the noses of Conan Doyle fans. We live in the era of the movie mash-up; in the salad bar that is the head of the modern movie executive the past is ripe for tossing. In some ways, pictures like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter constitute the sweetest of compliments, there being no greater attribute we can bestow on historical personages than an ability to smush the undead. Even Roland Emmerich, king of the disaster-zone, is making a picture about Shakespeare, for heaven’s sake, which tells you something about the shifting loyalties of today’s audiences: we’ve seen how the world ends, and, frankly, it’s getting a little samey.
Have you been back to the future recently? If the last installment of the Terminator franchise was anything to go by, the future has long since succumbed to terminal rust. That film, like so many others, gave us a darkened, battle-scarred plainland of mud browns and post-apocalyptic taupes, in which the haggard bark orders at the hoarse beneath skies the color of vengeance. Buck Rogers would fall into a dead faint. The present is scarcely much brighter. Ever since Chris Nolan turned The Dark Knight into a scowling disquisition on Bush-era justice, no self-respecting piece of popcorn cinema has felt complete without a salting of war-on-terror subtext, whether it be the responsibilities that beset a lone superpower (Spiderman), the threat of the illegal arms trade (Iron Man), or the virtues of diplomacy versus boots on the ground (Transformers 2). Even the last Harry Potter sank beneath to a profound, late-stage Imperial gloom. “These are dark times, there is no denying it," intoned Bill Nighy, while the forces of darkness encircled our heroes, shivering, in a tent. I always thought pop culture was supposed to be about fake uplift—a draft of Leithian forgetfulness to ease the pain of our cramped late-capitalist existences with a cheerful blast of false consciousness?"
— from my article about retro blockbusters for Slate
May 23, 2011
May 22, 2011
"The obvious question to ask about Ockham’s razor is: why? On what basis are we justified to think that, as a matter of general practice, the simplest hypothesis is the most likely one to be true? Setting aside the surprisingly difficult task of operationally defining “simpler” in the context of scientific hypotheses (it can be done, but only in certain domains, and it ain’t straightforward), there doesn’t seem to be any particular logical or metaphysical reason to believe that the universe is a simple as it could be. Indeed, we know it’s not. The history of science is replete with examples of simpler (“more elegant,” if you are aesthetically inclined) hypotheses that had to yield to more clumsy and complicated ones. The Keplerian idea of elliptical planetary orbits is demonstrably more complicated than the Copernican one of circular orbits (because it takes more parameters to define an ellipse than a circle), and yet, planets do in fact run around the gravitational center of the solar system in ellipses, not circles." — Massimo Pigliucci
May 18, 2011
"Women in the comedy world have long been smeared as, in the words of the late comedian John Belushi, "just fundamentally not funny." And if you believe his Saturday Night Live colleagues like Jane Curtin, Belushi made a commitment to sabotaging his women colleagues in an effort to prove himself prophetic. So while the characters in particular might not be particularly feminist, the film is a step forward in the sense that it proves a lingering stereotype utterly false." — Adam Serwer on Bridesmaids
May 17, 2011
“In this Wild West gold rush even industry insiders can’t keep track of what’s what or who’s who,” writes Lowe his new memoir, Stories I Only Tell My Friends. It’s unusually well written: smart and self-aware, with a great account of the Darwinian death match that was the audition-process for The Outsiders in 1983: Lowe’s breakout role, opposite a young Tom Cruise, already on the phone to his agent (“Paula they are making us share…”), Patrick Swayze howling like a wolf in tight-t-shirt and jeans (“he makes Cruise look lobotomized”) and, best of all, Matt Dillon, sauntering through with a boombox on his shoulder, a Marlboro drooping from his lip, and a girl lodged in his armpit, beaming like she had won the lottery after being plucked from the crowd. “Matt yawns and the elevator door closes,” writes Lowe. “The entire transaction takes less than 45 seconds.”
He sounds like he was taking notes. “I was taking notes,” says Lowe. “I was like: you have to be fucking kidding me! It was like: ‘here let me show you what I do. I need some money, I’m going to go to this bank, I’m going to say hey I’d like some money, they’re going to give it to me and I’m going to walk out.’ It was as if that was the lesson. Wow. I couldn’t get a girl to look at me in the fucking lunchroom in the Santa Monica [High School]. I didn’t know how fame worked. And I had never seen anybody exercise it in that way. You give me five or six years and I’m gonna’ learn by God.'
Lowe adopts a variety of tones when addressing his sexual history, both in the book and in person, as if caught between the warring impulses of telling a good story, and staying true to the studly spirit of his 24-year-old self, while inking in the deeper understanding of his behaviour that has come with marriage and 20 years of sobriety. “Believe me, I really, really get the whole, ‘oh you poor guy, it must have been hard to have women throwing themselves at you.’ For a long time I was happy to live my life without digging into why I was the way I was but after a while, you can’t just say ‘oh yeah I’m the kind of guy who comes home on any given night and girls have broken into my house and are naked in my bed wearing my underwear. That’s just the way it is.’ When you start digging into that stuff you find that it isn’t funny or sexy or weird. It’s a lot of other things…. that are hard for people to understand and justifiably so.”
Actually, it’s not too hard to understand: take one dazzlingly beautiful 24-year-old male, arrest his development at 18, when he still thought himself the class nerd at Santa Monica High School (“I was the acting fag. That’s what they called me”), so he’s still playing catch-up in his head, stir in a lurking resentment towards his piece-of-meat treatment by some of his female fans, provide an inexhaustible supply of the world’s most beautiful women and — voila! That is not a recipe for a Trappist monk.”
— from my interview with Rob Lowe for The Daily Telegraph
May 16, 2011
"The Bush administration offered formal legal opinions that the “enhanced interrogation techniques” it authorized were not torture under United States law. The Times adopted the view that labeling these as “torture” in news articles could create the appearance of taking sides... The editorial department had the easier path: it could just weigh in with an opinion. In the newsroom, though, taking sides was the wrong thing to do." — NYTAs good an example of bogus neutrality as money can buy. There was only one 'side' who thought that what the Bush administration got up to did not constitute torture — the Bush administration. The Times agreed with them. They took Bush's side, although understandably enough would prefer not to think of it that way. They would prefer to see 'taking the government's side' as not taking any side at all. The key phrase here — the one explaining the whole mess — is "could create the appearance of taking sides" (my itals). Now this is true. They did indeed avoid the appearance of taking sides. But appearances and reality — it is my embarrassing duty to report — are not the same thing.
May 15, 2011
"... If that sounds like the kind of Inspirational Coach movie that Hollywood trots out every year to keep Dennis Quaid in work, you are reckoning without the warm, flinty idiosyncrasy of McCarthy’s writing, and the bruised flesh tones of the film’s performances: not just from Giamatti, dog-paddling like crazy to keep his law practice afloat, but also from Amy Ryan as his Bon Jovi-loving wife and Bobby Cannavale as the best friend who attaches himself to the wrestling team to escape his disintegrating marriage. We hear indie comedies praised all the time for extracting laughs from dark material, but rarely has the uplifting and the downbeat been as beautifully married as they are here. Shot in his childhood home of New Providence, New Jersey, the film started life as a conversation between McCarthy and an old friend, Joe Tiboni, who used to be on the high school wrestling team with him. They started reminiscing and McCarthy thought: there’s a movie in this, and asked Tiboni to help him write it. “Now if Joe and I weren’t as close as we were I might look at him and go 'what’s interesting there?’. Because I know him, and I love him, I’m totally invested in him. If I look at him as this middle-class lawyer guy who never left his home town, then who cares? It has to come back to character.” It’s as close to a vision statement as you’ll get from McCarthy who, in his conversation as much as in his films, steers clear of grand pronouncements in favour of the nuts-and-bolts of his craft. To wit: the art of making fictional people matter to an audience as much as to their closest friends. It’s how he is in person, chatting as if picking up an old conversation. It’s also the theme of his films, which draw disparate strangers into proximity: the unlikely friendship between a dwarf, a mother in mourning and a hot dog vendor in The Station Agent; between an economics professor and his Senegalese squatters in The Visitor, or between a geriatric, a scout and a talking dog in Up" — from my interview with Tom McCarthy in The Daily Telegraph
May 9, 2011
May 5, 2011
"The number of Americans saying President Obama was born in another country has been sliced in half, according to a new Washington Post poll... We do not live in a post-factual world. And producing valid proof of contested or queried claims is not pointless. The biggest shift in opinion? Among conservative Republicans. If journalists spent more time getting information rather than preening about which information should be dispersed, we'd have fewer conspiracy theories, not more." — Andrew Sullivan
"Somewhere, according to one of his five wives, was a man who loved sunflowers, and eating yogurt with honey; who took his children to the beach, and let them sleep under the stars; who enjoyed the BBC World Service and would go hunting with friends each Friday, sometimes mounted, like the Prophet, on a white horse."
May 4, 2011
"As we report in a story in Tuesday's Times, the movie business is in a bind. Executives and filmmakers sense an opportunity -- the Bin Laden killing is one of the few post-9/11 military tales with a satisfying conclusion for American audiences. But it's also tough to make a story suspenseful when everyone on the planet knows how it ends." — LA Times
"Partisanship had a significant role in a prognosticator’s overall accuracy. Our scale measured it from 1 (most conservative) to 9 (most liberal,) and as partisanship “went up” one level (a person was rated more liberal) there was a moderate increase in their predictive capacity...Democrats seem to be better at predicting than Republicans, but we are cautious in claiming that this is a generalizable conclusion outside of our time period. There may be underlying factors in the 2008 elections that might not occur in other time periods. It’s also plausible that partisan strategies may lead to inaccurate predictions by Republicans--Republicans, unlike Democrats, may hope to face who they see as the weaker candidate from the opposing party in November. This may mean that some predictions are not really meant to be predictive--rather, they hope to shape the debate. Of course, it is certainly possible that Democrats really are better predictors." — Are Talking Heads Blowing Hot Air?An Analysis of the Accuracy of Forecasts in the Political Media
In others words: Republicans are either a) whistling to keep their spirits up, b) are in possession of a genuinely less empirical world view, or c) some mixture of the two. The results:—
Paul Krugman 8.23
Maureen Dowd 7.27
Carl Levin 7.2
Ed Rendell 7.0
Chuck Shumer 6.92
Nancy Pelosi 6.3
David Brooks 5.55
Eugene Robinson 5.45
Mick Huckabee 3.36
John Kerry 2.5
Newt Gingrich 2.5
Bob Herbert 2.22
Thomas Friedman 2.0
Hillary Clinton 0.0
George Will -0.04
Joe Lieberman -1.1
Lindsay Graham -3.26