Aug 27, 2011

My new favorite song of the summer*

*I realise that my enthusiasms are beginning to get the better of my grading system.
I love the Lennonesque glissando he does on "you never even tried to love m-e-e".

Aug 24, 2011

REVIEW: The Ides of March (dir. Clooney)

I've been bored rigid by every movie that George Clooney has directed to date, so the sound of a jazz singer, crooning smokily barely five minutes into the beginning of The Ides of March did not bode well. A jazz number! In the first five minutes! Even Clint Eastwood knows not to do that, saving his jazz numbers until well into a movie, when it has earnt the right to a nap. But the Clooney scene, in which budding polito Ryan Gosling and his boss Philip Seymour Hoffman trade expertise on an upcoming presidential primary election, is supposed to whet our appetite for the oncoming battle. And instead we get the sultry sound of smooth, smooth jazz. That's Clooney all over: so anxious to impress us with his sophistication that he puts the audience to sleep. And by "sophistication" I mean, of course, "absolute, unbending disdain for anything resembling exposition." Clooney is the king of the gnomic. His films are the movie equivalent of the pride he takes, as an actor, in never raising his voice — all matte surfaces, elliptically shorn of background, backstory, build-up, and blurb, because to descend to any of these things would be to "condescend" to the audience, to insult their "intelligence," and so on. It would be no such thing, of course. It just shows basic courtesy. It's what you get paid for, as a dramatist. Not this one. For Clooney, love means never having to say what the hell is going on. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind was almost unintelligible to anyone previously unfamiliar with the strange case of Chuck Barris. Syriana (which Clooney produced) detonated in the desert rather than explain itself. Good Night and Good Luck was so poker-faced you almost forgot it was there, although I have a vague memory of shots of shadowy men whispering knowledgeably in Cognac-scented rooms. The perfect Clooney film would consist entirely of nothing but muttering in darkened rooms — sotto voce aficionados delivering softly-enunciated expertise. That's a pretty good description of The Ides of March, too, but the movie has more life than that, thanks a couple of twists and the crackle of something going on between Ryan Gosling (him again) and Evan Rachel Wood. Gosling plays an idealistic young press secretary working on the campaign of an Obama-like presidential candidate (Clooney, giving one of those twinkly, I'm-not-really-here performances often given by actor/directors appearing in their own films). Wood plays a bouncy, blonde intern. You'll never guess what happens. I've been a little perturbed by Wood recently, the raw vulnerability she showed in Thirteen having long sealed itself up behind a shellac queen-bitch finish, but there's fun to be had seeing these two two go up against one another; Wood get a lovely, nervous moment, the morning after, making a hash of tying his tie. She's just the latest to play gaga for Gosling — a role for which almost every human being on planet earth seems to be auditioning for these days, with the exception of some distant tribespeople in Papua New Guinea. Whether you buy the rest of the movie will depend largely on whether you believe: a) the American public would elect an atheist to the white house; b) Cincinnati residents will ever forgive Clooney for portraying their city as a greying, washed-out dump and c) audiences want to see inspirational political candidates exposed as lying, immoral scumbags. This may get some takers, certainly more than in 2008 when the film was first penned, but the cynicism felt a little rote to me — and more importantly, it seems to give Clooney no joy. From its bleeugh cinematography to its central message — hope sucks, or blows, depending on your sexual peccadillo — this is one seriously depressed movie. I didn't know whether I should watch it or give it some telephone numbers to call. There's no reason why this should be so: a writer like Aaron Sorkin would have brought some brio to proceedings — a delighted, devilish admiration for the humbug on display. Clooney merely wants us to be down in the dumps. C+

Aug 23, 2011

THE BEST OF: Gary Oldman

Meantime (1983): Coxy. Gary Oldman was 25 when he made his debut in this early Mike Leigh film playing a Doc-Marten-clad skinhead who engages in an unlikely, slightly menacing friendship with a nerd named Colin (Tim Roth). The first of Oldman’s Punk Trilogy — the others being Sid And Nancy and Prick Up Your Ears — his performance for Leigh is the most richly comic: belching, gurning, drooling Special Brew, he canters through the shattered concrete of Thatcher’s Britain like one of Kubrick’s droogs draped over a Henry Moore.
Sid And Nancy (1986): Sid Vicious. Alex Cox’s facile movie about the Vicious-Spungen romance is over-impressed with its (negligible) gutter credentials — the actors all seem to be taking part in a Whose Line Is It Anyway sketch in which they’ve been asked to act “disgusting”— but it was the performance that broke Oldman in America and rightly so. Windmilling his bass, eyes rolled back in their sockets, Oldman unearths a princely grace to Vicious’s torpic, junkie-pale frame, and suggests a fascinating reversal: punk as aristocrat.
JFK (1991): Lee Harvey Oswald. He’s only onscreen for a short time but Oldman is so good that he almost the defeats the point of Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-palooza, which aims to exonerate Oswald and cast the net of suspicion over half the Western seaboard of the United States. Oldman is having none of it. He homes in on Oswald’s patented brand of anti-charisma — the quick, birdlike movements, the flat-vowelled insolence — and delivers a perfect thumbnail portrait of damp-palmed pathology. His performance hails from another film entirely — an adaptation of Don De Lillo’s Libra.
Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992): Count Dracula. The acting equivalent of Pete Townsend smashing up his Rickenbackers. Oldman was so indulged by Francis Ford Coppola in this orgiastic uber-embellishment of the Dracula legend that one suspects one of those creative mind-melds between director and star that leave both unclear where the direction stops and the acting starts. Caked in thick white make-up and a Translyvanian accent you could break rocks on, Oldman performs as if in a one-man show, with moments of inspired voodoo. Shaving the neck of Keanu Reeves, he turns to the camera to lick the razor — our little secret.
Nil By Mouth (1997) – Director. It’s no accident that Oldman didn’t appear in his best film of the nineties. After a decade of playing scenery-eating villains in films like True Romance, Leon, The Fifth Element, Airforce One, roles riven with the psychic effects of full-bore alcoholism — he says he cannot remember shooting The Scarlet Letter he was so loaded — Oldman stepped behind the camera to direct this film about Sarf London thugs and their cratered family lives. The film launched the film career of Ray Winstone but Oldman is in every molecule of the film — a scalding exorcism of his family legacy and a muscular act of creative rebirth.

The Contender (2000): Shelley Runyon. In Rod Lurie’s pacy, underrated thriller about Clinton-era sexual McCarthyism, Oldman plays the vulpine Republican congressman leading the witch-hunt against Joan Allen’s VP nominee. Soft-voiced, unyielding, chewing on his steak like a vulture munching on innards, Oldman’s Runyon is a cobra readying himself to strike. He says he took the role because he believed Runyon to be the hero of the piece — a fascinating insight into great movie acting —for in Runyon’s head, an American canyonland of endless self-justification, he is.

Batman Begins (2005): James Gordon. Relatively late his career, Oldman made an important discovery: the stiller and quieter he gets, the better his performances. More particularly: the more disappointed he gets. A strange paradox for an actor who began in such brash high style. By the time of Christopher Nolan’s Batmen reboot, he had learned not to compete with the mayhem of blockbusters, but tack in the opposite direction, towards quietude. Weary and resigned, with that dusting of melancholy that comes from too many years on the force, Oldman’s Jim Gordon is the only human being in Nolan’s film who looks like he might once have solved, you know, an actual crime.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011): George Smiley. One of those moon shots where the right actor meets the right part at the right time. In Tomas Alfredson’s new adaptation of the John Le Carre thriller, Oldman takes on the role of Le Carre’s mild-mannered machiavel, a role first made famous by Alec Guinness in the 1979 BBC miniseries. Ordinarily, you wouldn’t fancy any actor’s ability to outrun that legacy, and at any other point in Oldman’s career the result might have been a mere make-up trick, an acting stunt, but Smiley’s is a fertile shadowland, his sadness and duplicity so close to the actor’s own — Oldman adds his own tinder-spark of menace. Shockingly, he has never been nominated for an Oscar. Expect that to change in January.

— from my appreciation of the actor appearing in the current issue of Intelligent Life

Martin Scorsese + George Harrison = One

The trailer for Scorsese's George Harrison doc Living in the Material World just gave me the chills. Stand-out quote, from Eric Clapton: "I think we shared a lot tastes, in cars, clothes. And women, obviously." (Delivered with delightful Spinal Tappish obliviousness as to where the sentence might be headed.) The more I think about it, the more Harrison and Scorsese make a perfect fit. It starts with the paranoia, which Harrison developed after the Beatles' first American tour, whose screaming hordes prompted fearful fantasies about staulker-assassins that Harrison dealt with by exploring spiritual beliefs designed to prove that neither he, nor anyone else, was God. He also made a film dedicated to that proposition, The Life of Brian. But his fears proved eerily prophetic when Mark Chapman, claiming the Beatles' music as inspiration, took the life of John Lennon. Scorsese has traversed the exact same celebrity vortex. After Taxi Driver won the Palme d'Or, he too developed a fear of crowds which he funnelled into his staulker-comedy, The King Of Comedy, and then attempted to calm with spiritual beliefs in which the ego of the individual is vanquished. He made two films devoted to that proposition, The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. But his fears also proved horribly prophetic when John Hinckley, claiming Taxi Driver as inspiration, tried to murder president Reagan. Ergo: Martin Scorsese + George Harrison = a state of Karmic I-Am-You-And-You-Are-Me oneness.

The difference between my wife and me

Further proof, if proof were needed, of the differences between the way my wife and I watch movies. The other night we were watching Ronin, after careful checking that she hadn't seen it before. "Are you sure you haven't seen this one," I go. "It's the one with Robert De Niro and the car chases." "I don't think so," she goes. "You would remember," I tell her. "These car chases. They're not just your usual car chases. They're pretty extraordinary. They seem to have been shot with..." But she insists we press on and find out. We get to the first heist. "Natasha McElhone's in this," says Kate. "I love her." The first heist backfires, and de Niro and his gang give chase through in the streets of Nice, clipping fruit and veg sellers, at one point ploughing into a table of diners. The chases are holding up well. They are terrifically exciting. I breathe a sigh of relief. "So she betrayed them?" she asks. "Yes," I reply, knowledgeably. On to the second chase, this one at high speed through Paris, de Niro's hands on the steering wheel, body jammed back in his seat as if by sheer g-force. "Holy moly," goes Kate. They're going so fast, the cop's hubcaps come off. At one point McElhone swerves into oncoming traffic, accelerating the wrong way through an underpass. Kate's knuckles are white, I can see, from clenching an imaginary steering wheel. This is great. She's enjoying the movie. De Niro is holding up! He looks so young! And its just 1998! Finally, we get to the climax, where the cast of back-stabbers and betrayers come together at an ice-rink. Suddenly a sequin-clad figure blurs past. "Oh, Katarina Witt," says Kate. "I have seen this." I don't even remember there being an ice-skater in the movie. I'm not one for generalisations about the sexes, having been raised in a family of women who put me so permanently in touch with my feminine side that I once wanted to watch Titanic during the Superbowl. (Kate wanted to watch the Superbowl.) But the Ronin thing did made me feel unexpectedly masculine, and I'm going to go with it. She didn't remember anything else about the film — not the super adrenalised car chases, not de Niro sucking on an unfiltered Galoises or sharing Alain-Delonish apothegms with Jean Reno, not even suchering his own bullet wound, a scene Kate actually has to leave, and make tea, rather than sit through — but the moment we gets to Katarina Witt? Oh that movie. The movie with a 30-second bit-part by some Russian figure skater. Mystifying.

Aug 21, 2011

REVIEW: Drive (dir. Refn)

Drive is something else: a cocktail of candy-colored retro-eighties stylings and convulsive ultra-violence, in which people go around stomping on each other's heads to the sound of airy-smooth synth pop. The other major activity in this film, apart from executing hand-brake u-turns, is a) staring at a moody Ryan Gosling, b) being stared at moodily by Ryan Gosling, and c) staring moodily at Ryan Gosling while he takes you in staring at him, moodily. Boy is this film in love with its star. Gosling plays a getaway driver who chews on toothpicks and wears a satin jacket with a scorpion on the back, and if that isn't iconic enough for you: he's known only as The Driver. I always knew that the grin playing in the corner of Gosling's mouth was a sign that the unimpeachably scuffed naturalism of his performances wasn't entirely to be trusted: there was someone who longed to be a movie star in there, waiting to get out. Together with Crazy Stupid Love, Drive constitues something of a coming-out party for Gosling who here pushes his method-moochiness closer to classic less-is-more movie-star minimalism, channelling Steve McQueen and Rumblefish-era Mickey Rourke, wielding silences and silken sotto voce line deliveries that push the performance close to parody. I half expected a mob of Tigerbeat-reading teens to spill around the corner and mob him, instead of which we have young Carey Mulligan playing a slightly unlikely Los Angelino who needs protection from a violent gang. The film makes great hay with Gosling's gallant streak although I didn't buy his wild swing into psychopathology at the halfway mark. An apt summary of his movie career, which started with The Notebook and then took a sudden left turn for roles in which he got to smoke crack or cross dress. There's a callowness to some of these explorations, to be sure — the sense of ex-Mouseketeer over-correction, trying on more darkness-of-soul than was rightfully his. Gosling is part of a generation of movie stars — including Kirsten Dunst, Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johannson, Justin Timberlake — for whom the term 'child star' means nothing for the simple reason that everyone is a child star these days: 12 is simply when most Hollywood careers get started. The result is radically foreshortened careers, like butterflies: your teens are your hey-day, your twenties the time you experiment and deconstruct your stardom, and if you haven't won your Oscar by the time you're 30 then forget it. The 'method' used to be the way actors in their 30s and 40s fortified their performances with real-life experience, but what have these guys got, in terms of lived experience, other than the experience of being stars? The result if that for all their talent, their performances suffer from an experiental dearth — an empty rattle at their heart. I felt it during last year's Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman jumped through the hoops for Darren Aronofsky, apologising endlessly for her lack of a dark side, trying desperately to get some mileage on her clock. That's what the film was about: a young artist attempting to speed-dial experience into her art. And I felt it watching the Driver who is set up as a sleek escapologist, the kind of guy beloved of Elmore Leonard who casually threads his way to the exit while everyone waves guns around — and then, an hour into the picture, he takes a sudden leftward lurch into violence himself. A big mistake. It's not the violence I disliked — which is instructively shocking — but the mess it makes of his character: an Leonard cool-cat mashed into a Scorsese hothead. I'm not sure that people will notice or care. The picture casts a spell. It's poisoned candy, all sugar and sting, with an acrylic, ersatz kick — with echoes of Michael Mann's Thief, Walter Hill's The Driver and John Hughes's Pretty In Pink. Even the Driver himself works part-time as a movie stunt driver, as if every self-respecting criminal thug dreams of a career in movies. This is their movie — viciously shallow, thoroughly enjoyable, noir lit with a vivid neon glare. B+

When pop culture turns exclusive

David Liss wonders why magic has became elite and inaccessible:—
In the past, people generally believed they could acquire magic in two ways: through learning the craft, either from another practitioner or from books; or through obtaining magic from a powerful being-think Faust or the classic, demonized witch, both of whom get their mojo from Satan. Anyone could learn magic as long as he or she had access to the knowledge or could make a connection with the right supernatural entity. The important point is that in theory, the gates of magic were open to everyone, and what I find most interesting is how that has changed in popular culture. Magic has gone from being an open system to a closed one. Their massive popularity make the Harry Potter novels and films the most glaring example, but it’s everywhere, and has been for decades now: TV shows like Charmed andWizards of Waverly Place, books like those of Laurell K. Hamilton and Charlaine Harris. More often than not, magical practitioners are born, not made. Magic is an exclusive club. You can watch and be envious, but you can’t join.

Alyssa Rosenberg wonders if this "correlates to a sense of unease about how much power we have to impact our lives and to change the world.... Biological conceptions of magic are a way of explaining your own powerlessness." Possibly. But the same thing happened to The Force, remember? Originally a force open to all ("It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together") it devolved, as the sequels wore on, to a matter of merely good breeding. Lucas went into his european-heritage phase, like all self-made millionaires. By the time he reached the prequels, the saga was as stiff with honorifics as Debrett's Peerage: "the princess, your excellency..." It was the Jedi equivalent of Howard Hughes pilfering the Renaissence and Baroque as inspiration for San Simeon. More generally, the gentrification of The Force, like the increasing incestuousness of Harry Potter, corresponds to the first rule of franchise storytelling: it's a family affair.

REVIEW: One Day (dir. Scherfig)

One Day isn't bad, just bitty and listless. About halfway through you realise you haven't even being paying attention to the life-in-a-day conceit, which suggests the film could easily have just pushed free of it altogether. You wait for ages for them to get it together and then, about an hour in, they recollect having slept with one another a few years back. Seriously? Why couldn't they have shown us that year? Anne Hathaway's accent, like some species of cgi effects, seems worse in the trailer, and better once you're immersed in the totality of the thing; but she straddles the frumpy/gorgeous line with slightly mystifying ease (is it those over-drawn features?). The jury is still out on Jim Sturgiss, who could be another Jude Law in the making: he projects too much, doesn't trust the camera come to him, and his character suffers from the scarcity of context: at a certain point everyone, his family included, starts thundering on about his moral turpitude, even though all we've seen him do is take a job on a tacky TV show. But scene by scene, the writing is pungent and vivacious — I loved "all you do is.... fart and watch The Wrath of Khan" — the film is beautifully shot, particularly the skinny-dipping scene, and the guy playing Ian, the loser-comic-boyfriend, is a real find: the audience I was with perked up every time he was onscreen in anticipation of his dippy inflections and his exclamation-point grin. C+

Aug 20, 2011

Everything that is and isn't cinema

Cahiers: "For ten years Cahiers said that mise en scene existed. Now one has to say the opposite instead."

Godard: "Yes, it's true. It doesn't exist. We were wrong." —"Let's Talk About Pierrot," Cahiers du Cinema 171, October 1965, reprinted in Godard by Godard, edited and translated by Tom Milne, 1972

Yippee! Own of my favorite sport is in season, second only to Monty Python's Soccer Tournament for Philosophers. Every so often a bunch of film critics gather in a circle and clunk eggheads over the meaning of the term “mise en scène". I've always had an aversion to the term, which seems to mean everything and nothing, and has found almost zero purchase in the minds and vocabularies of actual cinema-goers. You never hear anyone coming out of a film going "great mise-en-scene!" or "great acting; shame about the mise-en-scene." But those are just people! comes the cry from the teetering ivory tower of film criticism. How dare you view the splendiferous enterprise of criticism through the pinched prism of plebian minds! Here's the thing though. It's not just that I never hear cinema-goers use the term "mise-en-scene". It's that I never even hear them struggle to describe the thing that "mise-en-scene" refers to but which they lack the vocabulary to describe. In other words, it's not a gap in their vocabulary. It's a gap in the world. The referrent doesn't exist. Meaning follows usage, as my old linguistics tutor used to say. If a) "mise-en-scene" really was as central to the soul of cinema as some critics claim and b) millions of people go the movies every day and respond vocally and enthusiastically to what they see, then c) wouldn't at least one of them come out going "wow I really loved the... what's the word for it... I don't have the word for it but that thing that made me feel the way I did when he shot the guy with the whip... something to do with the way they stood.. or the speed of it... the soundtrack.... or something..."? And yet there does not exist the slightest rustle of a breeze of a whisper of a demand plucking the term mise-en-scene from the pages of Cahiers du Cinema and pressing it into common usage.

And so it proves over at Glenn's Kenny's redoubtable blog, Some Came Running, where Glenn kicks of proceedings with the traditional opener for this sporting event: "Mise-en-scene: what does it mean?" As is also customary, the matter is almost immediately settled, sensibly, by the very first commentator on the post. "Can we just call it blocking for the camera?" asks Matt.

"Because that's what I always thought mise-en-scene meant -- the positioning of actors in the frame in a way that communicates their relationships to one another, with camera moves or changes in distance indicating a shift in those relationships."
Clear enough. It means blocking. Done. Or as Jean Luc Godard might say: fin. Not so fast, says Jaime:
"mise-en-scene also concerns the transition between one frame and the next, whether the shot remains the same or cuts to another".
So not blocking but something closer to... editing? Something not spatial but — to take an entirely different tack — temporal? The term is already beginning to lose shape. This fogginess is to be welcomed, embraced and fulsomely inhaled, like unfiltered Gitanes, says Jason Haggstrom.
"In the original French, mise-en-scene means 'putting into the scene,' and it was first applied to the practice of directing plays. Film scholars, extending the term to film direction, use the term to signify the director's control over what appears in the film frame[...] In controlling the mise-en-scene, the director stages the event for the camera."
Hmm. What happens in the film frame. Isn't that dangerously close to just "direction"? Just so, says Hauser Tann:-
"I would add that "mise en scène" is sometimes used simply as a synonym to "direction" (or "réalisation" in French) as understood in its broadest acception. In this usage, the term would certainly encompass the film's soundtrack."
The sound track! Anything else? Simon Abrams:-
"It's the relation of objects with people, with the camera to the objects in the frame, with blocking, with set design, costumes, lighting, etc. It's the over-all effect of how one presents information in any given scene."
At which point the term begins to resemble the menu of my local chinese restaurant in the West Village, whose starters included: soup with egg, soup with corn, soup with vegetables, soup with fish, and — the piece de la resistance — "soup with everything." I always imagined the chef exhaling a weary "fuck it" as he scribbled that last.

Surely that has to be an end to it: everything that might conceivable be included in a motion picture, from shot composition to soundtrack. What could be more inclusive than that? What else might this term possibly be made to mean? Don't be so pinched and pygmyish of vision, says the appropriately named Fuzzy Bastard:-
"Oddly, I remember learning that mis-en-scene specifically referred to everything that wasn't camera or actor movement---production design, lighting, costume, color."
Oh Good Lord. Unsurprisingly, it is this quixotic definition that Richard Brody chooses to expand upon at his New Yorker Blog.

"It’s not a pattern of shots or a habit of framing but the inner life of the filmmaker as it is not shown but conjured; it’s everything that’s implied but not there, or, as Godard called it in “Hélas pour moi,” “seeing the invisible.”Modern criticism labors under an aphoristic misconception—or, rather, the misconception of an aphorism—even more grievous than the fixation of mise en scène: a phrase by Martin Scorsese, “Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.” Scorsese is one of the greatest of modern filmmakers, and his best films are themselves significant works of film criticism, but what this phrase means isn’t obvious. The cinema is indeed a matter of both: what’s in and what’s out, not just what’s in; what’s visible and what’s not visible. In other words, it’s more than framings and visual patterns; it’s overtones, sympathies, hauntings."

If I understand Brody correctly — a hazardous assumption, Brody being one of those bearded sorts who looks as close to a pure thought-cloud as a human being can before people start slipping him leftover cheese — he means not just the footage on the cutting room floor. Nor does he just mean creative choices: unexplored backstories, thematic ellipses, and the like. He means to freight the term 'mise-en-scene' with its fullest metaphysical implications: everything that is both "in", and "not in" the movie we happen to be watching. Overtones, sympathies, and hauntings. Thus, if you happen to be watching Jaws, let's say, the mise-en-scene would include Francis Ford Coppola's shot selection for The Godfather, which haunts Spielberg's film, Ennio Morricone's soundtrack for Days of Heaven, with which it has sympathy, or — quite possibly— my aunt's recipe for Cornish scones, with which it shares an array of dark, raisinish overtones. Perhaps we should bring this debate to a close by detonating the term "mise-en-scene" altogether and suggest a definition that includes not just blocking and editing and the soundtrack and everything else that is both "in" and "outside" of a single given film, but all the other movies not contained within the one we happen to be watching, and not just movies but books and people and soup cans, submarines and sequins, sequels and suncreams, mosquitos and maiden aunts, moths and Cornish scones as well.

Explaining Palin's peregrinations

When we were in Woodstock, my cat Hannah (R.I.P.) had an entire garden to roam around in, bringing me neatly bisected mice and leaving them thoughtfully at the end of the bed. She used to get into the garden through the window behind my computer. Then we moved to the city, and my computer no longer backed onto the garden, but a brick wall. It never quite sunk in. Hannah used to jump up on my desk and circle the computer, heartbreakingly expecting a garden where there was now a brick wall, and then skulk off, to repeat the whole exercise a few hours later. I was reminded of Hannah by Sarah Palin's seemingly aimless peregrinations around the primary circuit. But she's not running, exclaim the pundits. What can she be doing? She hasn't said she isn't running, say her fans. And so Palin journeys on, somewhere between 'not quite running' and 'hasn't said she isn't running' in the same way that Hannah was caught in the Neverland between the back of my computer and the imaginary garden she wanted to be there. What Palin is doing, I believe, is looking for a back-door to the presidency through which she can zip, without having to go via the usual electoral process. It doesn't exist, but on she trundles in her van, unable to quit, nor to admit that the back-door is now a brick wall again. The persistance of the delusion can easily be explained, for think how it must have seemed to her, plucked from Alaska to run for the vice-presidency on the whim of a single senator she had never even met and thrust into the heat and light of all that attention. Imagine the visceral impression that makes, and how easy the route to the white house must have seemed. A mere phone call away! And now, heartbreakingly, gone. It makes you wonder how often she was lied to as a kid.

Aug 18, 2011

Fall Movie screengrab: Actresses

From top: Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea; Felicity Jones in Like Crazy, Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn, Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene, Carey Mulligan in Drive, Evan Rachel Wood in The Ides of March, Jessica Chastain in Take Shelter.

Addiction: five trashcans, four lids

"The new definition leaves no doubt that all addictions—whether to alcohol, heroin or sex, say—are fundamentally the same. Dr. Raju Haleja, former president of the Canadian Society for Addiction Medicine and the chair of the ASAM committee that crafted the new definition, told The Fix, “We are looking at addiction as one disease, as opposed to those who see them as separate diseases. Addiction is addiction. It doesn’t matter what cranks your brain in that direction, once it has changed direction, you’re vulnerable to all addiction." That the society has stamped a diagnosis of sex or gambling or food addiction as every bit as medically valid as addiction to alcohol or heroin or crystal meth may spark more controversy than its subtler but equally far-reaching assertions... When we use alcohol or drugs, Publicker says, the chemical reward—the "high"—is many times more powerful than the natural circuitry’s reward, and the neurological system adapts to the flood of neurotransmitters. “But because we didn’t evolve as a species with OxyContin or crack cocaine, that adaptive mechanism overshoots. So it becomes impossible to experience a normal sense of pleasure,” he continues. “Use of the substance then happens at the expense of what otherwise would promote survival. If you think about it from that standpoint, it begins to account for illness and premature death." The Fix
Takeaway: confirms, broadly, the 'disease' concept but leaves Silkworth's 'allergy' a little bedraggled; Popeye Doyle untouched, as ever.

Aug 16, 2011

David Lynch's solo album of electro-pop featuring the Yeah Yeah Yeahs vocalist Karen O, Crazy Clown Time, is released November 8th by Sunday Best Recordings. Lynch wrote, produced, and performed the album with help from engineer Dean Hurley, who also plays guitar and drums on several songs. Above, "Good Day Today.'

Aug 15, 2011

The trouble with the moral high ground

This is exactly right about Obama, and also exactly what is wrong with Obama's strategy:—
"Obama acts entirely within the tradition of mainstream African American political strategy and tactics. The epitome of that tradition was the non-violence of the Civil Rights Movement, but goes back much further in time. It recognizes the inequality of power between whites and blacks. Number one: maintain your dignity. Number two: call your adversaries to the highest principles they hold. Number three: Seize the moral high ground and Number four: Win by winning over your adversaries, by revealing the contradiction between their own ideals and their actions. It is one way that a oppressed people struggle. I don’t think those students got their sandwiches the first day, but they won in the end... Obama sits at that table, like they did at the counter. Boehner and McConnell and Cantor clown around, mugging for the camera, competing to ritually humiliate Obama, to dump ketchup on his head. Obama is winning. Democrats are uniting behind him, although some white progressives think that they could do the job better. Independents are flocking to him. Even some Republicans are getting disgusted with their Washington leaders." — Steve Benen, Washington Monthly
You can spot where the analogy breaks down, can't you? The battle for civil rights took place over several decades and justice won out in the end — as Obama is fond of quoting 'The arc of history is long but it bends towards justice." The battle between Democrats and Republicans producers no 'winner'. There is no 'end.' America will not one day turn 'Democrat'. There is no 'arc.' Obama's patience gets to work its magic over the course of four years and then his time is up.

Aug 14, 2011

A few of my favorite Things

Rewatching John Carpenter's 1982 version of The Thing last night, I was newly taken with Dean Cundey's beautiful cinematography — and in particular those flares and the rich palette of mauves, magentas, pinks and blues they lend the film. I'm not one for too much aestheticism in a horror movie, believing it one of those rough-n-ready genres that spit in the eye of mere prettiness, but the flares really work on every level: they are the means by which the camp members illuminate their path as they peer around every nook and cranny, while also highlighting their vulnerability — the seeing can now be seen. Because the flares crackle and move, they throw the background into constant, shape-shifting relief, as if the shadows themselves were moving. And finally, with Hawsksian fatalism, they sputter and die — fragile, finite light-sources briefly illuminating the darkness — much like characters in a John Carpenter film, particularly The Thing, where half the characters end up as fireballs — human torches.

Aug 12, 2011

Is evil 'destruction for the hell of it'?

Norm Geras takes on Terry Eagleton's definition of evil as "destruction for the hell of it:"

It follows from this that, for example, someone's torturing an animal to death merely for pleasure might count as evil whereas their torturing hundreds of people to death in order to intimidate a population threatening the oppressive regime they work for wouldn't. And a short and obvious answer to this proposed definitional restriction is: pull the other one. To be persuasive a definition needs to capture the core of our intuitions on how the relevant concept functions, and the suggestion that torturing large numbers of people to death isn't evil provided only there's some end in view would be widely rejected, since extreme cruelty to sentient beings is one of the paradigm meanings of the word 'evil'.
Ah but someone "torturing hundreds of people to death in order to intimidate a population threatening the oppressive regime they work for" may be only kidding themselves that that is the reason they are doing it. In just the same way that Bush's torturer's kidded themselves that there was a 'purpose' to their torture, whereas in fact it answered to more basic psychological needs — for the pleasure of inflicting pain on an enemy. It's still "destruction for the hell of it". They just don't see it that way. Eagleton's definition stands.

Aug 10, 2011

London bridge is burning down

"This is what happens when people don't have anything, when they have their noses constantly rubbed in stuff they can't afford, and they have no reason ever to believe that they will be able to afford it. Hiller takes up this idea: "Consumer society relies on your ability to participate in it. So what we recognise as a consumer now was born out of shorter hours, higher wages and the availability of credit. If you're dealing with a lot of people who don't have the last two, that contract doesn't work. They seem to be targeting the stores selling goods they would normally consume. So perhaps they're rebelling against the system that denies its bounty to them because they can't afford it."Zoe Williams, The Gaurdian

"Those involved – or their ­apologists – can bleat that it is about unemployment, or police violence, or the cuts in public services. But that is all rubbish. The people who are out on our streets robbing, burning, looting, throwing bottles and putting people of the minimum wage out of a job are self-pitying scumbags." Tony Parsons, Daily Mirror
It's strange this opposition Parsons, Boris Johnson et al, seem to want between sociological explanation and their right to judge the rioters as "scumbags." As if you can have one but not both. Explaining something doesn't eliminate one's right to judge it, morally. I can understand how a serial killer's mind works and still find his acts evil. The only real difference is that moral judgments won't help me catch him — in fact, will probably get in the way. Socio-economic explanations of the rioting in London are, at the very least, handy ways of telling us when our society is likely to go up in flames, where and at whose hands. Useful information to have, I would have thought.

What kind of election is 2012 going to be?

Rachel Maddow is still keeping faith in the 'swinging pendulum' model, wherein swing voters react against the last thing they chose. The trouble with this model is the ever-shortening reaction times that come with increased economic panic. Which of their recent decisions are voters reacting against? Those with longer memories are still reacting against 8 years of Bush. But even within that group, some are reacting against the 2 year's worth of democrats chosen in reaction against 8 years of Bush. And within that group, there are some reacting against the one year's worth of Republicans chosen in reaction against the 2 years of Democrats who constituted the reaction against 8 years of Bush. People cannot find a group to become disenchanted with fast enough. We are almost at the point where they will be counter-voting against the incumbency they have yet to vote it. Our pendulum is no longer swinging. It's vibrating, like a tuning fork, caught in a perfect stasis of equal and countervailing forces — a mosquito buzz of pure antsiness. The coming election will not be any kind of 'swing' election, me thinks. It will resemble one of those strange weather systems where the sky goes green, the winds drop away and the birds are left looking at one another nervously across a breezeless void. A crow squawks. A church bell rings. The president coughs to get everyone's attention.

Aug 8, 2011


"And so, the cat... It’s a talking cat, but not really: it’s a puppet-like representation of a cat, and it doesn’t exactly talk, it delivers an interior monologue (voiced by July) that goes beyond living feline experience to express the ideas and emotions that July extracts from the character, and the symbol, of the cat. It’s a lighthearted invention, and it’s deadly serious... Paw Paw, a pure act of imagination, reveals, in its empathy, regret, tenderness, and confrontation with death, July’s own grandeur, polyphony, mordant wit, metaphysical seriousness, and bitter wisdom—and her definition of art in those very terms. Like Sophie and Jason, Paw Paw is waiting; just as their real life, as they see it, is in the future, in a dream of a coming fulfillment, so the cat’s is in its adoption by them. Paw Paw’s voice starts the movie and speaks of despair: “Have you ever been outside?” By which it means homeless, alone, and without any prospects. It begins in anticipation and (spoiler alert) it ends up with nothing left to hope for. It dies (“I died. Really”), a casualty of the couple’s self-absorbed negligence, of Sophie’s choice and Jason’s inability to face it. Paw Paw’s real life hasn’t begun—and it never arrives. But it speaks from the beyond (“No more ‘cat,’ no more ‘I’ ”), bringing to the film a transcendental version of what Sophie and Jason are enduring together, a life that can’t begin until it’s utterly devastated and emptied of hope. The cat is the voice of selflessness, of the infra-human and the super-human, of the shattered identity and the uniting oversoul. (And July joins the cat’s final, otherworldly words to simple yet ecstatic images that match the vast ideas and locate them, latently, as accessible raptures of daily life.)." — Richard Brody, The Front Row, the New Yorker
* An occasional column devoted to the idea that our reaction to unread books, unseen movies and unlistened to albums can be every bit as rewarding as to those demanding our urgent personal attention


“How do you know that? He’s behind her, so he’s fucking her from behind—he’s not fucking her in the behind!!!” — David Lynch, in response to the ratings board panelist who objected that Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune engage in anal sex

Aug 7, 2011

REVIEW: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

"Having modeled the expressions of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Serkis is primed to take a primate to the next evolutionary level, and his thoughts are beautifully articulated. His Caesar rises up, sniffs, takes the measure of the space, and calculates his options in a way that makes you see just how new his neural pathways are. Victimized by the prison’s dominant ape, Caesar concocts a strategy that’s part Chimp 101, part Sun Tzu. And the other apes — orangutans, gorillas — follow him avidly.... It’s Down with People, Up with Apes." - David Edelstein, New York Magazine
What a stunner. Rise of the Planet Of the Apes arrives in cinemas with zero expectations — yet another franchise reboot, starring a listless James Franco, from an English director nobody has heard of — and yet, against all odds, it's the best film of the year so far: majestically-imagined science fiction of genuine moral force. Franco appears not to have any idea of the quality of the film taking shape around him (he appears to be doing his homework in his head) and Freida Pinto registers like melted ice-cream, but the apes — and Andy Serkis's Caesar in particular — are wonderfully realised presences: heavy, mangy, calloused, soulful. Director Rupert Wyatt inverts the sneaky racism of the original films to produce a rousing liberation saga — a primate Spartacus. For once the intimations of Events To Come — the hoses, the horses — carry exactly the right mixture of excitement and dread. You get the chills and urge the apes on at every turn. The film ellicits both full species-awe and a pure, sportsmanlike delight in being outplayed by one's opponents. Magnificent. A-

Aug 4, 2011

Is Palin suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder?

"During an appearance on Fox News' "Hannity" on Tuesday night, Sarah Palin shared her take on a criticism Vice President Joe Biden reportedly directed at the Tea Party earlier this week. According to Politico, Biden suggested that Tea Party-backed lawmakers "acted like terrorists" in contentious debate over raising the debt ceiling in a meeting with House Democrats. "If we were real domestic terrorists," Palin explained to host Sean Hannity, "President Obama would be wanting to pal around with us, wouldn't he? He didn't have a problem palling around with Bill Ayers back in the day when he kicked off his political career." — HUFFPO
Has anyone else noticed how infrequently Palin seems to update her resentment list? She's still harping on about Bill Ayers, three years after the election was called. And just the other day I seem to remember her harping on Obama's lack of experience — surely an issue that lessens with every passing year. It shows you how resistant to new information she is — rocking herself to sleep with these Golden Oldies — but also how seared into her psyche that 2008 loss was. How literally traumatic. HelpGuide.Org:
A normal response to trauma becomes PTSD when you become stuck. After a traumatic experience, the mind and the body are in shock. But as you make sense of what happened and process your emotions, you come out of it. With post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), however, you remain in psychological shock. Your memory of what happened and your feelings about it are disconnected.

Aug 2, 2011

What Popeye tells us about addiction

"But people are not brains in a jar; we are heavily influenced by our environments, too. The world in which Ms. Winehouse traveled appears to have been awash in illicit drugs and alcohol whose use was not just accepted but encouraged. Even people who aren’t wired for addiction can become dependent on drugs and alcohol if they are constantly exposed to them, studies have found. Drug use changes the brain. Primates that aren’t predisposed to addiction will become compulsive users of cocaine as the number of D2 receptors declines in their brains, Dr. Volkow noted. And one way to produce such a decline, she has found, is to place the animals in stressful social situations. A stressful environment in which there is ready access to drugs can trump a low genetic risk of addiction in these animals. The same may be true for humans, too. And that’s a notion many find hard to believe: Just about anyone, regardless of baseline genetic risk, can become an addict under the right circumstances." — NYT
But we knew that. Just ask Popeye Doyle, forced into addiction by his French nemesis in The French Connection II, but not thereafter "an addict," compelled to attend AA meetings for the rest of his adult life. Ergo, if it's a 'disease,' it's a disease you can 'catch' from your environment.