Dec 31, 2009
REVIEW: It's Complicated
Best Songs of 2008: Viva la Vida by Coldplay
1. Viva La Vida — Coldplay
2. On A Day Like This — Elbow
3. Clowns — Goldfrapp
4. Lump Sum — Bon Iver
4. Falling Down (Chemical Brothers remix) — Oasis
5. New York — Cat Power
8. Smile — Janelle Monae
9. A Brand New Song — John Mellencamp
10. For Your Love — Marching Band
Dec 30, 2009
Deconstructing the Dude
"In another of this book’s essays, “Professor Dude: An Inquiry Into the Appeal of His Dudeness for Contemporary College Students,” a bearded, longhaired and rather Dude-like associate professor of English at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., named Richard Gaughran asks this question about his students: “What is it that they see in the Dude that they find so desirable?” One of Mr. Gaughran’s students came up with this summary: “He doesn’t stand for what everybody thinks he should stand for, but he has his values. He just does it. He lives in a very disjointed society, but he’s gonna take things as they come, he’s gonna care about his friends, he’s gonna go to somebody’s recital, and that’s it. That’s how you respond."
— Dwight Garner, reviewing “The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies,” an essay collection edited by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe (Indiana University Press, $24.95).
My Favorite Film Scores of the Decade 2000-2009
The Nutcracker Suite as rewritten by Philip Glass, clicking into the slipstream of this film as elegantly as a cyclist. From the operatic swell of Nicole Kidman's love to the eerie tick-tock of her dawning realisation, this is a soundtrack beating out accompaniment to the human heart.
2. Catch Me If You Can (2002) — John Williams
Williams faced quite a challenge here: get with the foxy crystal-chandelier vibe of the film, but still find room to rouse and stir. His solution is an ingenious ice palace of a score — urgent and glittering, the sort of thing Prokofiev might have come up if asked to score a Bond film. Dog-sledding music. Mush!
3. Milk (2008) — Danny Elfmann
Like Elfman's score for Good Will Hunting this one nudges a tune around, cyclically, in round robin fashion, from instrument to instrument, until it seems to have loosed itself from the constraints of sequence altogether. It's like a mobile, just hanging there, catching the light as it turns.
4. Brokeback Mountain (2006) — Gustavo Santaolalla
A simple plucked guitar with symphonic backing: sometimes the oldies are oldies for a reason. If it worked for The Godfather, The Way We Were, the Deerhunter and Unforgiven, it can't be all bad. Santaolla's guitarwork is achingly sad and sweet, the kind of refrain that could underscore either love's fruition or frustration, depending.
5. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) — Various
Wes Anderson has something of Scorsese's ability to use pop songs in a movie, slipping them under its skin so they weld to the images. This Nico song is no more and no less than the thing playing inside Margot Tenenbaum's head — a thought balloon, a valentine, private humming.
6. Up (2009) — Michael Giacchino
Up could be the title of all Pixar's films, of course, but here the uplift is literal: it's built into the vaulting intervals of Giachino's score, a sumptuous throwback to the Golden Age of Hollywood, when romance and adventure were two sides of the same coin, flipping through the air. Exactly the kind of music Carl and Elly first heard in movie theatres when they were young.
7. WALL-E (2008) — Thomas Newman
If you've ever wondered what music should accompany this sight of two robots dancing through space using fire extinguishers for propulsion, wonder no more. Newman's score is like a mixture of mathematics and skywriting — airy, sinuous, weaving, purposeful.
8. Marie Antionette (2007) — Various
There were a few things wrong with Coppola's movie but the decision to use a contemporary rock-pop soundtrack was a bold experiment that paid off. This Bow Wow Wow song, remixed by Kevin Shields and played as Marie Antoinette rides home from a party, is an example of what Roland Barthes would have called "jouissance" but which you and I know as "music to play with your head out the car window."
9. Moon (2009) — Clint Mansell
The best off-key note in a film since that bum piano note in Betty Blue. Creepy, hypnotic, dusted with melancholy and undeniably lunar. If you have to lose your mind to one piece of music this year, lose it to this.
10. Cold Mountain (2003) — Gabriel Yared
A score which surpassed its movie. Minghella's romance only really caught light in Yared's symphonic score, which starts as one of those Victorian piano pieces for polite gentlewomen and slowly unfurls to fill a whole landscape.
Dec 29, 2009
Please can we bomb Yemen? Please?
'In the wake of the latest failed terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines, one can smell the excitement in the air -- that all-too-familiar, giddy, bipartisan climate that emerges in American media discourse whenever there's a new country we get to learn about so that we can explain why we're morally and strategically justified in bombing it some more. "Yemen" is suddenly on every Serious Person's lips. We spent the last month centrally involved to some secret degree in waging air attacks on that country -- including some that resulted in numerous civilian deaths -- but everyone now knows that this isn't enough and it's time to Get Really Serious and Do More.' — Glenn Greenwald, SalonMost experts agree that Al Qaeda's chances of defeating the United States range from zero to precisely zero. Their only hope lies in American over-reaction — if America can be coaxed into treating every failed terrorism attempt and crotch-bomber as if its very existence were at stake, then it will eventually exhaust itself. That is certainly the game that seems to be playing out, with each link in the chain not pausing to see where the chain is leading. Each congressmen wants only re-election. Desperate not to seem "weak" on terrorism, they repeatedly commit themselves to actions that feed the very problem they are trying to eradicate, which is to say: invading countries in the middle-east and killing muslims. As a strategy to combat terrorism emanating from the muslim middle-east, this course of action is self-evidently flawed, at least to anyone standing outside the continental Unites States.
The overwhelming consensus amongst counterterrorism scholars, experts and practitioners is that intelligence and law enforcement are the most effective tools available in terms of implementing effective counterterrorism policy, and, thus, these options should be relied on primarily. Not only does the military approach and attendant "war" rhetoric play to the advantage of transnational, stateless terror groups like al-Qaeda, but so too does that approach feed the overinflated, romantic sense of importance that is so appealing to potential recruits and members.When I hear someone like Joe Lieberman suggesting we bomb Yemen some more, I hear someone preaching defeat. He might as well be saying "Let's give away American power now. Let's not wait until it is taken away from us. We're not losing it fast enough. Let's just give it away..."
What does Avatar do to the Oscar race?
Song for the day: 'Brand New Song' by John Mellencamp
The Princess Brides
'Highlights of the Kelly wardrobe are now on display in Rome. They include some of her most famous outfits, if you know the movies, yet without her inflection they are dead shells; in the Kelly universe, the soul needs the body as the body needs Edith Head, who dressed her for “Rear Window” and “To Catch a Thief.” They also demonstrate, beyond doubt, that nothing about Kelly was more stylish than her decision to quit the movies just in time, before the gods of fashion lost the plot—or, at any rate, the reliance on line and structure that had flattered and fortified her particular poise... If you want to see Hollywood at the last gasp of its otherworldliness, before the old glory gave way, consult the photograph of Kelly and her fellow-presenter, Audrey Hepburn, backstage at the Academy Awards in 1956. (Kelly had returned to present an award.) Both are in profile, gazing in expectation, and both wear white gloves. They could be at their first Communion.'
— Anthony Lane, reviewing “Gli Anni di Grace Kelly, Principessa di Monaco”, at the Fondazione Memmo in Rome, for The New Yorker
How can something that feels so right be wrong?
I bet a friend £18 I’d find a woman here and have sex with her. Reply and have sex with me, I’ll cut you in at 37%. English Professor, 63.Via The Second Pass
I’m placing an ad in this column. Things are worse than I thought. Not as bad as they are for you, F, reading this and about to reply. M, 34.
The celebrity I resemble the most is Potsie from Happy Days. What feels so right can’t be wrong. Man, 46. Box no. 2480.
F,45. Ready to begin again with M willing to provide time-sheets/supporting documentary evidence for every minute spent out of the house.
There’s enough lithium in my medicine cabinet to power three electric cars across a sizeable desert. Man, 33. Officially Three Cars Crazy.
Many people carry scars from past relationships. Not me: mine come from Chinese buffets. Clumsy, argumentative dim sum enthusiast (M, 45).
I grazed my knee writing this advert. Accident prone F, 35. Box no. 4311.
There are 289 species of octopus. I can, and will, name them all during the act of love. M, 58. Box no. 6759.
Dec 28, 2009
The year of Obama: how's he doing so far?
America's blitz spirit
"the swiftness with which our popular culture has made light of the episode. “Fruit of the Loon,” blared the front page of the New York Daily News, in a play on the name of an underwear brand... People are asking when the last time it was that a Dutchman tackled a Nigerian outside a soccer field, and making quips about an Islamist “boxer rebellion,” a terrorist “brotherhood of the traveling pants,” a “jock-strap jihad,” and a “new Y-front in the war on terror.”Excellent news, surely: evidence not just of the nation's sense of humor but of precisely the spirit that got Britain through the Blitz and which saw off the threat of terrorism — by refusing to be terrified. All wrong, says Varadarajan. Such larkiness offers "telling commentary on our state of mind—a commentary, in truth, on the extent to which we have become inured to threats of terrorism." Fair enough, I guess, if a little grumpy. We mustn't rest on our laurels. We are a nation at war after all. Maybe we should be asked to sacrifice more than just a few minutes waiting time at the airport. But no. The security measures, too, are at fault:—
Instead of denying my 10-year-old boy the right to take a pee when his destination is a whole hour away, why can’t we be radically more careful about those we let on board our planes? Abdulmutallab’s name was not on the terrorist “no-fly” list, which has fewer than 4,000 names in total. It was, however, on a larger database of some 550,000 individuals, called TIDE (Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment)—and it was inserted there, it seems, only last month. Why is anyone on this list allowed to board a plane to the United States? Why not convert TIDE into a “no-fly” list?"What he is advocating is a system wherein Abdulmutallab’s father could have barred his own son from ever flying, purely on his say-so: effective for the 1% of genuine terrorists it catches, not so much for the 99% of people using it to settle family arguments or conduct grudge matches with their neighbours.
Let anyone on that list who believes his name is there erroneously, or undeservedly, appeal—through legal channels—for removal. If he has a case, it will surely be heard, and yield a just, airborne outcome.Ah. How well that would work. Now he's the one joking, surely.
Song of the day: 'Woke Up This Morning' by Roman Candle
"Some bands deal with heroin or coke habits while they’re playing shows and that’s it’s own obstacle. We have children, which is very different than a heroin habit."
REVIEW: The Hangover
Quote of the day: Sarah Palin
'Though Nancy Pelosi and friends have tried to call “death panels” the “lie of the year,” this type of rationing – what the CBO calls “reduc[ed] access to care” and “diminish[ed] quality of care” – is precisely what I meant when I used that metaphor.' — Sarah PalinExcept it's not a metaphor either. 'All the world's a stage' is a metaphor because a stage is something you can point to, whose attributes can therefore be borrowed. 'All the world's a death panel' cannot be because death panels do not in actuality exist. The word she is groping for, but is understandably reluctant to use, is, I believe, "imaginary." Keep wowing 'em, sister.
Dec 27, 2009
What do you mean 'what do I mean'?
Compiling a top ten European films of the decade is a tricky business—what do we mean by "European", by "film", or even by "decade"?' — The AuteursThat level of scepticism surely creates problems for more than just the writing of a 'best of decade' list. "Getting" up in the "morning" would also be pretty hard to interpret. As would "going" to "bed" at "night." Having "lunch", "going" to the "john" and "taking" a "dump" could also prove highly problematic, for what do any of these things mean?
Dec 26, 2009
Best Albums of 2008
1. For Emma, Forever — Bon IverBest Songs of 2008
2. The Trails of Occupanther — Midlake
3. In Ghost Colours — Cut Copy
4. Bring Me Your Love – City and Colour
5. Shine — Estelle
6. Seventh Tree — Goldfrapp
7. The Seldom Seen Kid — Elbow
8. Dig Out Your Soul – Oasis
9. Spark Large — Marching Band
10. Freddie and the Trojan Horse — The Radio Dept.
1. One Day Like This — Elbow
2. Magic — University of Chicago Voice in My Head
3. I Remember - Dedmau5 & Kaskade
4. Blindsided — Bon Iver
5. Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa — Vampire Weekend
6. D.A.N.C.E — Justice
7. The Shock of the Lightning — Oasis
8. Great DJ — The Ting Tings
9. Can't Take It In — Imogen Heap
10. Furr – Blitzen Trapper
Dec 24, 2009
Best films of 2008: The Wrestler
1. The Wrestler
2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
3. Iron Man
6. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
7. Shine a Light
9. Man on Wire
10. Frozen River
Dec 23, 2009
The year in review: the spirit of adventure
Best Picture: Avatar
Best Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Best Actor: Viggo Mortensen
Best Actress: Carey Mulligan
Best Supporting Actor: Stanley Tucci (J&J)
Best Supporting Actress: Vera Farmiga
Best Score: Michael Giacchino (Up)
Best Animated Film: Up
Best Documentary: Anvil! The Story of Anvil!
Best Adapted Screenplay: Nick Hornby
Best Original Screenplay: Mark Boal (HL)
Best Cinematography: Greig Fraser (BS)
Best Costumes: Janet Patterson (BS)
Best Editing: Bob Murawski (HL)
Original Song: Ryan Bingham & T Bone Burnett (CH)
Best Sound Editing: Alan Rankin (Star Trek)
Best Sound Effects: Ken Fischer (Avatar)
Dec 22, 2009
Ripley Redux: Alien's 30th anniversary
“Alien is to Star Wars what the Rolling Stones were to the Beatles,” said producer David Giler, “Its a nasty Star Wars.” Produced by the same studio, Fox, still under the management of Alan Ladd, the Alien script had been sitting on the desk as Fox for almost a year without so much as a flutter of interest, according to screenwriter Dan O’ Bannon: “They wanted to follow through on Star Wars, and they wanted to follow through fast and the only spaceship script they had sitting on their desk was Alien, so they greenlighted it, wham.” It almost certainly couldn’t have been the quality of O’Bannon’s script. A hardcore sci-fi nut and neophyte screenwriter, fresh from USC, O’ Bannon had written something called Starbeast, and it came crammed with clichés from sci-fi movies of the fifties like Forbidden Planet and It! Terror From Beyond Space. There were pyramids, and holograms, and an all-male cast, who spoke at length about “what should be done” in stiff, officer-class locutions, but never got around to doing very much:STANDARD steps forward and slaps ROBY across the face.It read like The Last Days of the British Raj — all curt nods, hard stares and stiff upper lips in space. “It had not even B-picture merit,” said producer Walter Hill. “Nobody could take it seriously. It had a ‘Jesus gadzooks’ quality about it”. Hill had just set up a production company, Brandywine films, with his partner David Giler, and landed a production deal at Fox, when a friend passed them O Bannon’s script, and while they both hated it, they admired what Hill called the “low cunning” of its set-up — “you had a monster that could not be killed without destroying your own life-support system”. Giler sensed that the key to the film would be to treat it like an A-movie, with full production values, and so he and Hill sat down and rewrote the script, in just under three days. Hill was the writer / director behind such films as The Warriors and The Driver, and he wrote scenes that played out like a one-liner competition at a tough-guy convention. “Character is action,” he once said. “In my films, when somebody puts a gun in your face, character is how many times you blink.” He dropped the pyramids, introduced a computer called mother, made two of the characters women, introduced a note of discord between the officers and the working class crew, and streamlined the whole thing with his headlong, hard-boiled style — somewhere between “staccato and blank verse”, said Giler, and it went something like this:
The others are shocked.
HUNTER: Hey now, what is this?
STANDARD: Ask him.
ROBY: I understood why you did that.
After a hard stare at Roby, Standard give him a curt nod and turns
his attention to the machinery.A red stain.Halloween Haiku. It is to Hill, then, that we owe much of Alien — its rhino-charged momentum, its oil-besmirched air of class war, the character and sex of Ripley — and it was his script that hooked Scott. It took him forty minutes to read: “It usually takes about four days. It was just Bang! Whoompf! Straight through. It was unpretentious, very violent, yet a lot of character painting came through, and I just thought it was an amazing piece of entertainment. Also to me it was more than just a horror film, its a film about terror.” He sensed that it would play even faster than it read. The rough cut of the film was ready 8 days after shooting wrapped, and ran to 3 hours and 12 minutes. Ladd remembers it as “the most tense movie I’ve ever seen in my entire life. My wife and I went for lunch afterwards and some of the people who were there weren’t able to eat.” Scott admits he took it too far; he’d been watching Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and was aiming for the same bone-at-breaking-point tone. “Our rough cut was just too intense. Originally, there was a stronger degree of terror. Just subtle things, half seen, half heard things earlier in the picture. Consequently you have the audience holding on from the beginning. That’s no good.” He and editor Terry Rawlings went back and let a little more air into the movie, a bit more in the way of breathing space. “The whole thing was an exercise in seeing how far back you could cock the pistol before you had to release the trigger,” says Rawlings, “It was finding that moment. How long can you wait? How long can you go along those air shafts before it all gets too much for the audience. Now, of course, things are frantic from the word go but with Alien it was a waiting game.”
Then a smear of blood blossoms on his chest.
The fabric of his tunic is ripped open.
A small head the size of a man’s fist pushes out.
The tiny head lunges forward, comes spurting out
of Dallas’s chest trailing a thick body.
Spatters fluids and blood in its wake.
Lands in the middle of the dishes and food.
Wriggles away while the crew scatters.
How long was the wait? How long has the Nostromo been drifting through space before its crew are woken up? We never find out. All we know is how long what wakes them up to then polish them off: just over 40 minutes. As for how long they have been travelling, we hear only that they are still several ten years away from earth — a quietly devastating figure — and we hear them bickering with one another “Quite griping,” snaps Kane (John Hurt). “I like griping” snaps back Lambert (Veronica Cartwright). That long. To anyone fresh from the bright-eyed camaraderie of Star Wars, the fug of fatigue and cigarette smoke that hung over the cramped cabins of the Nostromo was a revelation: not just griping in space, but smoking. And after they’d gone to all the trouble of taking all that oxygen up there, too. We’d never seen anything like it. Nobody ever lit up during 2001: A Space Odyssey, despite its tedium, and you never got any bickering over pay in Star Wars, but then, for all the reach of Lucas’s empire, you never got to see any real work. As Kevin Smith pointed out in his 1997 comedy, Clerks, the death star appears to have built itself. “A construction job of that magnitude would require a helluva lot more manpower than the Imperial army had to offer. I'll bet there were independent contractors working on that thing: plumbers, aluminium siders, roofers...”
In Alien you got to see the work. You got to see the empire’s plumbers, siders and roofers, its engineers and worker ants, all mortgaging off years of their life to trawl the inky backwaters of space, in a ship that was just that: a dank and rattling freighter, named the Nostromo, after another Conrad novel, and not just any Conrad novel but his “masterpiece” i.e. his least read. This was serious. Generally speaking, blockbuster films until then weren’t in the habit of name-dropping great unread books — Jaws got by perfectly well without invoking Moby Dick, or Star Wars without quoting Joseph Campbell, although if you really want to know how grown-up the whole thing felt, here was the killer: we couldn’t even see the bloody thing. Released with an 18-certificate in the US and an X in the UK, Alien was one last wave from Hollywood’s pre-teen-market era, although at the time it felt horribly unjust: adults had stolen our blockbuster. What was rightfuly ours — it had spaceships and aliens, and everything — was being held against its will, until it came out on video, and we could persuade our local video store clerk to turn a blind eye. It didn’t stop us, of course. Thanks to a number of spin-off books released that summer, including a complete shot-by-shot set of storyboards, I was, by the time I got to see the film, immaculately prepped for everything the film had to throw at me — all the stomach-bursts and face-grabs, body snatches, head-smashes and skull crushes. Everything except the sex. That, the storyboards hadn’t prepared me for.
So that was why they’d kept this film under wraps. Star Wars had pretty much been a pre-pubescant’s paradise, with Lucas taping down Carrie Fisher’s bosom with gaffer tape, in case his audience got ideas; “no breasts bounce in space, there’s no jiggling in the Empire” remarked Fisher, with characteristic waspishness. But sex was everywhere in Alien, from its gynaecological corridors and vulvic doorways to its crabby, post-coital atmosphere — everywhere, that is, except where you might normally expect to have found it, which is to say, between the characters. Originally, there was to have been a scene showing Ripley sharing a cuddle with her captain, but as Scott realised, it came just after the alien had gotten onboard, slowing down the action, and besides, by that time the film had already notched up its big sex scene, involving something wet, and slimy, with its eye on John Hurt. The exact implications of what happens to Hurt have engendered more fevered analysis than any single scene in any blockbuster, even more than the Tony Curtis-Lawrence Olivier bath scene in Spartacus. What happens next is that Hurt gives birth to the alien, or “chest-burster” as it was affectionately called by Scott and his crew, although in truth, the alien doesn’t burst through Hurt’s chest, so much as gently push through, like a puppy nuzzling through wet tissue, and then bolts, sending the cutlery flying, and launching more graduate theses than a month of Jean Baudrillard lectures. A “particularly horrifying confusion of the sexual-gyneacological with the gastro-intestinal” decided James Kavenagh, in his seminal essay ‘Son Of A Bitch: Feminism Humanism and Science in Alien’ (October no 13, 1980) for Science Fiction Studios, which devoted an entire symposium to Scott’s film.
The shock waves of blockbuster movies were now travelling further afield than just Wall street; they were reaching the leafy groves of academe, which would soon be spilling over with essays with vaguely terrifying titles like “Being Keanu” and “Totally Recalling Arnold: Sex and Violence in the New Bad Future.” Alien was, though, the first — the newest, baddest future on the block, and siring a small cottage industry of academic analysis devoted to its subtextual nooks and semiological crannies. Feminists warmed to the fact that all the white males become dead white males at a faster rate than the non-white males. Marxists nodded approval of the film’s grimy, Conradian take on late-capitalism. And Freudians, needless to say, had a field day, for a film more in need of a trip to the analyst would be harder to find. Even Jones the cat received his own diagram:—
As Kavenagh explained: “The founding term in the film is human (S), represented by the image of Ripley as the strong woman. The anti-human (-S), is, of course, the Alien, and the not human (S) is Ash, the robot. The cat, then functions in the slot of the not anti-human (-S), and indispensable role in this drama.” The world of alien studies was not all neatly drawn diagrams and smoothly-processed deconstructions, however, and was soon to be ripped asunder by a bitter and acrimonious debate, one pitting sister against sister, brother against brother, comrade against comrade. It is with due caution and some trepidation that we therefore approach the singular, divisive issue of Lieutenant Ellen Ripley’s knickers.
For some, the sight of Ripley stripped to her undies at the end of the film, as she prepares to do final battle with the alien, undid all the film’s good work. Judith Newton found the third-act survival of the two woman and one black character “especially promising”; but bikinis, she noted sternly are “not standard gear for space duty.... Ripley, though in many ways a fine and thrilling hero, is robbed of radical thrust.” To the rescue came Kavenagh, who in ‘Feminism and Anxiety In Alien’ (Science Fiction Studies, vol 7, no 3, 1980) wrote: “I would disagree with an ideological denunciation of the film as simply another exercise in conventional sexism on the basis of the scene in which Ripley removes her uniform to appear in T-shirt and panties. Such criticism would be hard-pressed to avoid repressive and self-defeating assumptions about what constitutes sexism, and irrelevant assumption about what constitutes the film and its ideological discourse.” A cunning move — the panties weren’t sexist; the accusation that the panties were sexist was sexist — but maybe a trifle over-defensive? It was left to Barbara Creed to arbitrate, with an air of weary summary: “Much has been written about the final scene, in which Ripley undresses before the camera, on the grounds that its voyeurism undermines her role as successful heroine....” She proposed a diplomatic solution, designed to unite both pro-panties and anti-panties camps: What if the panties “signify an acceptable and in this context reassuring fetish object of the normal woman?” Then, “the final sequence works, not only to dispose of the alien, but also to repress the nightmare image of the monstrous-feminine with the text of patriarchal discourses.” Voila. Easy when you know how.
Fun as it always is to see academics getting their knickers in a twist, it is perhaps too easy to laugh at this stuff: Popular film has always attracted a certain amount of academic attention, the dominant model being those tweedy articles in the fifties examining the Godzilla and UFO invasion movies for signs of nuclear-age anxiety, or Cold War nerves. It is a model buttressed by a clear sense of intellectual superiority — the academic plumbs the innocent pop-culture artefact for meanings it didn’t even know it had — but it doesn’t get you very far with the modern blockbuster, since it fails to countenance the possibility that the meaning might be there because someone — the filmmakers — put it there. This rather alarming possibility would continue to flummox blockbuster exegeticists — in 2003, one Matrix fan asked the Wachowski’s whether the religious subtext of their trilogy was “intentional”, as if a skein of religious references were something that just happened to a movie by accident, on its way to the theatre — and the same goes for much of the analysis that enveloped Alien. On the one hand there is nothing very academic about a film in which an alien repeatedly plunges its jaw into the cerebrum of its victims — ”it has absolutely no message,” insisted Scott, it works on a very visceral level and its only point is terror, and more terror” — but there is no denying that Alien is a studious film, so full of details that cry out for parsinh — the dipping bird, the Hawaiian shirts, the Farrah-era pin-ups — that you wish Scott would slow down a little to let you pore over it. On the other hand, look where that gets science officer Ash (Ian Holm), hunched over his microscope like an art restorer sizing up varnish strengths. When it comes to the burgeoning field of post-doctorate Alien study, Ash graduates with full honours, summa cum lauda. Study is all he wants to do, eyeing up the alien for its possibilities in the company’s weapons division. “Its a perfect organism, its structural perfection matched only by its hostility” he says. “You admire it,” says an incredulous Ripley. “I admire its purity,” replies Ash, “a survivor, unclouded by notions of remorse, morality. You have my.... sympathies”.
The real question, of course, is not whether they had Ash’s sympathies, but whether they had their director’s. “I found it very pure,” said Scott of the script’s clean lines, echoing Ash’s rather creepy wording. Did Weaver detect something of Ash’s slightly inhuman connoisseurship in Scott’s continual fussing over his ship’s design and decor? At times, certainly, Alien seems to have been directed by an intelligence you would hesitate to call human. Look at the clinical, Kubrickian tracking shots of the empty spaceship at the start — Scott seems to prefer it that way, all neat and unmessed — or the shot of Jones the cat which punctuates Harry Dean Stanton’s death: irises narrowing coolly, while the poor human fights for its life. Scott clearly has a thing for irises, for we would see that look again in the basilisk gaze of his replicants in Blade Runner, a movie too becalmed by its own beauty to be bothered with moving its plot along. Alien, too, is a beautiful film, most obviously when it alights on the alien planet, with its Piranesian vistas, but once the film down-shifts into the Nostromo’s airshafts, it moves too fast to admire itself, with Scott keeping shots of his creature down to a bare minimum — a glimpse of plunging jaw, or shining skull, and that is it. Then there is Weaver, in whom the movie’s lack of vanity comes, quite literally, to a head: bony and beautiful, hair pinned back to reveal that fascinatingly multi-planed face. Did Scott realise the subtle visual rhyme he had established between his heroine and her antagonist? The third film would nail it — having Ripley shave her hair, and then bring her quite literally head to head with the alien, one skull against another — but back in 1979, there was very little else to hint at Ripley's eventual survival, for like Star Wars and Jaws before it, Alien benefited enormously from the non-starriness of its casting, setting its crew out before us with a poker face, to let us guess who would come up trumps.
That there would be sequels was never in any doubt. Wasn’t replication what the movie was about? When Ash praised the alien for being a “perfect organism, its structural perfection matched only by its hostility” it sparked off an echo of Richard Dreyfuss’s speech in Jaws about the shark being “a perfect engine” and all it wanting to do being “swim, eat and make little shark”, which in turn triggered a complex set of synapses in the audience’s brain which said, essentially “He’s Coming Back For Seconds,” and caused them to cancel all social engagements the following summer. Whereas the shark of the Jaws sequels was, as the years went by, forced to snack on a diet of ever-more indistinguishable teens, the Alien films had two reasons to continue — its beauty and its beast. The curious thing was that it took 7 summers, with the release of Aliens in 1986, for anyone to get around to realising this. These days, a movie like XXX is barely past its opening weekend, before Sony takes out full-page ads in variety congratulating itself on the birth of a new superhero franchise. So what happened with Alien?
Despite breaking Star Wars opening-week records, taking $8.5 million, it slowed down quickly, eventually taking $40.3 million — enough to make it the number five hit film of that year, but not enough to lift the movie out of the red. Partly this was down to old-fashioned Hollywood accounting, but also because Fox had spent so much on advertising. The ads for Alien were devised by Stephen Frankfurt, the advertising maven who had marketed Rosemary’s Baby with a ground-breaking trailer, featuring a slowly-advancing shot of a pram, and the words, “Pray for Rosemary's baby” — the progenitor, in other words, of the sort of soft-drop pay-off line that would come to play so well off the blockbuster, in the years to come. For Alien, Frankfurt came up with the line “in space no-one can hear you scream” and a stunning series of trailers — elliptical, and quick as a lizard — but Fox spent $16 million, all told, on marketing the movie, and by the end of the year, were still showing a net loss of $2.4 million, prompting a legal wrangle over the disbursement of profits that would, together with a series of management changes at Fox, keep any thoughts of a sequel safely buried for the next seven years. Ripley could sleep a little longer.
— reprinted from my book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (2004)
Avatar: critics reax
"Avatar fails in one rather important respect. By common consent, its story's rubbish. James Cameron seems to have lifted Avatar's story from the movie-maker's trashcan... The film is mere spectacle, about as emotionally engaging as the associated videogame. Certainly, thinking like this seems pretty pervasive in Hollywood. In 2009, films such as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Terminator Salvation and Fast & Furious have all seemed to reflect the assumption that emotional interaction is dispensable. Of course, movies like these do well at the box office, and so will Avatar." — David Cox, The Guardian
There are two arguments here, each contradicting one another: 1) Avatar's story is rubbish, and 2) Avatar's story is non-existent. People use "story" to mean all sorts of things, of course — "I didn't like the story" can turn out to mean everything from plot to mood. I suspect that what Cox means to fault is not that the narrative, which felt solid to me, but the dialogue, which contains a succession of howlers, as is always the case with Cameron, whose movies are like Vegas mansions: strong construction, lousy interior decoration. He may, in fact, have the worst taste of any working director. But the proportion of care taken over the story in Avatar compared to that taken in Transformers or Terminator: Salvation is approximately a 1000 to one. Cameron's narrative instincts are deep and unfakeable, such that they render the inadequacies of his scriptwriting largely moot: he tells the story with his camera, as does every great director from Griffith to Lynch.
The New Yorker's Richard Brody writes:—
The experience was surely exciting, and inspired, as Manohla Dargis says in the Times, “awe” (though not shock). What it didn’t engender was joy—the near-laughter at visual inventions that are so extravagant as to seem borderline ridiculous and that, at the same time, actually pack a new idea.Brody is fast turning into the 'Time Out' of film writers*: the guy whose opinions I can safely invert to get something close to my own reaction. It's very helpful. What he describes is exactly the reaction I did have. I felt myself close to laughter for much of the movie — the laughter born of pure flabberghast, like the delighted gurgling of a child. Critical reaction to the movie can be divided into two camps: those who have felt this and those who have not. If you have, you'll forgive the film anything and if you have not, well, there's always the theatre.
* I mean the London Time Out, not the New York one.
Appearing in the photographs of strangers
'Jessie Catherine Fuller and Peyton Brodnax DeWitt Rodgers were married Saturday at the Players in Manhattan... The bridegroom, 28, is known as Buck. He is a production assistant on the film “The Other Guys,” with Will Ferrell (who made a cameo appearance in the couple’s photo) and Mark Wahlberg, which is shooting in New York.' — New York TimesWill Ferrell's cameo in a wedding announcement in the New York Times made me laugh. It also sparked a pet thought of mine, which is: how many photo albums am I in accidentally? I was photographed in the background of a Japanese family's tourist shot of 5th avenue just the other day. I must have walked into view of dozens, maybe hundreds, of photographs in the course of my life, which if reconstructed, Zelig-fashion, would amount to a flickering, faltering record of my life. That skinny chap on the beach. That passing blur in the street. That guy pointing at the pigeon poop on the Eiffel Tower. Right now, as I write this, a couple is cooing over they honeymoon pictures, pausing only to puzzle over the man in the corduroy jacket, beetling past. "Who's that?" That's me!
My Top Ten Songs of the Decade
1. Wake Up, by The Arcade Fire
2. Poses, by Rufus Wainwright
3. Digital Love, by Daft Punk
4. Simple (2002), by k d lang
5. One Day Like This, by Elbow
6. 1901, by Phoenix
7. Hide and Seek by Imogen Heap
8. Blindsided, by Bon Iver
9. Sweet Disposition, by The Temper Trap
10. Clocks by Coldplay
Honorable mentions here.
I am nothing if not a windsock caught in the hot thermals of popular musical taste. It's very rare that I find myself muttering "I can't believe they're not better known." I rarely curse the fickleness of the multitude. The qualities that make something successful are also qualities I happen to like. If there is an album of cool, angular and faintly unlikeable indie music, with one song on it that is destined to end up in a movie, I will pick out that one that ends up in the movie, every time. I am most definitely not a child of punk. My cousin Dave used to sing me that Undertones song, My Perfect Cousin, the one about the kid of does his homework and listens to the Human League and wears a sheepskin jacket. That was me. I didn't listen to a band who used guitars until I was 15. The first live concert ever went to was Kraftwerk. I know how to program a Roland TR 808 and can call out a Linn Drum at 200 paces. It was a huge relief to me when synthesisers became cool again. I once had a Carpenters phase. I prefer McCartney to Lennon. I bought Stop by the Spice Girls. I like George Michael (and not just Everything She Wants either). I once walked into Tower on Sunset Boulevard, heard Vanessa' Carlton's A Thousand Miles playing, thought it sounded catchy and went up to the cashier to ask him what it was. With a look of faint incredulity, he pointed to the Billboard chart, where it sat at number one, a place it had occupied for God knows how many weeks. All of which is a way of forestalling the possibility that anyone might mistake me for some kind of expert when it comes to music or this list as having any pretensions towards definitiveness. Its just a list of the songs I listened to the most, fell in love with the most, and think I will be listening to for a long time to come.
Dec 21, 2009
R.I.P. Dan O' Bannon, Alien screenwriter (reputedly)
STANDARD steps forward and slaps ROBY across the face.The others are shocked.HUNTER: Hey now, what is this?STANDARD: Ask him.ROBY: I understood why you did that.STANDARD: Good...After a hard stare at Roby, Standard give him a curt nod andturns his attention to the machinery.
A red stain.Halloween Haiku. It is to Hill, then, that we owe much of Alien.
Then a smear of blood blossoms on his chest.
The fabric of his tunic is ripped open.
A small head the size of a man’s fist pushes out.
The tiny head lunges forward, comes spurting out
of Dallas’s chest trailing a thick body.
Spatters fluids and blood in its wake.
Lands in the middle of the dishes and food.
Wriggles away while the crew scatters.
From Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned To Stop Worrying And
Love The Summer by Yours Truly
Top Ten TV Shows of the Decade
1. The WireThe Wire is the best thing I've ever seen on TV — a fully-formed world, novelistically dense, compellingly populated. The Daily Show kept me sane. The writing on the West Wing made intelligence seem intoxicating. 30 Rock gave us a second round with Alec Baldwin, for which we should all be grateful. The Office was brilliant in a bullying kind of way. Curb Your Enthusiasm grew on me. Project Runway and Top Chef are reality TV shows starring actual humans. Mad Men has genuine flair, even as it rattles around aimlessly. And The Sopranos was a little too superior for my tastes but compulsory nonetheless.
2. The Daily Show
3. The West Wing
4. Curb Your Enthusiasm
5. 30 Rock
6. The Office (UK)
7. Project Runway
8. Top Chef
9. The Sopranos
10. Mad Men
Dec 20, 2009
Favorite Films of the Decade: 1. Brokeback Mountain
1. Brokeback Mountain (2005)Brokeback Mountain because it was both heartbreaking and tough — you felt massive, impacted emotions moving beneath its surface. Ang Lee was the decade's most interesting director — inventive, curious, playful, scrupulous. Birth was a magical and mysterious picture, operatic and strange. I chose Eternal Sunshine over, say, Memento, or Traffic, because its smart intricate structure connected with something more heartfelt. The Royal Tenenbaums gives off this amber glow that just seems to grow stronger as time goes by, like all family albums should. Avatar has just blown me away, so maybe I'm too close, but the middle hour is a rolling, diving, tumbling, dolphin-backed delight. Knocked Up for all the obvious reasons — its painful, honest, and sharply observed without losing any warmth. I've gone back and forth on the Pixar movies, but today I'm going for Finding Nemo: it completes me. Mulholland Drive is close to David Lynch's best.
2. Birth (2004)
3. The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2003)
5. Mulholland Drive (2001)
6. Knocked Up (2007)
7. United 93 (2007)
8. Avatar (2009)
9. You Can Count On Me (2000)
10. Eastern Promises (2000)
From a long-list that includes:— The Wrestler, United 93, The Incredibles, Up, Catch Me if You Can, Memento, Downfall, An Education, Traffic, The Hurt Locker, In The Mood For Love, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Michael Clayton, The Squid and the Whale, The Deep End, WALL-E, Milk, Anvil! The Story of Anvil! Casino Royale, High Fidelity, Traffic, Ratatouille, Million Dollar Baby, No Country For Old Men, The Queen, The Bourne Ultimatum, Sideways, Elf, Mystic River, Lost in Translation, Once, Narc, The Hurt Locker, Zodiac, Borat, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon