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)
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 difference between my wife and me
Aug 22, 2011
Aug 21, 2011
REVIEW: Drive (dir. Refn)
When pop culture turns exclusive
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)
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."
"mise-en-scene also concerns the transition between one frame and the next, whether the shot remains the same or cuts to another".
"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."
"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."
"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."
"Oddly, I remember learning that mis-en-scene specifically referred to everything that wasn't camera or actor movement---production design, lighting, costume, color."
"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
Aug 18, 2011
Fall Movie screengrab: Actresses
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
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
"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 MonthlyYou 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
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'.
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
What kind of election is 2012 going to be?
Aug 8, 2011
SO GLAD I DON'T HAVE TO SEE: The Future
"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
QUOTE OF THE DAY: David Lynch
“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
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." — HUFFPOHas 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." — NYTBut 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.