Sunday, July 10, 2011

Summertime Movie Viewing Report

The last couple weeks have been a good example of the kinds of films I seem to be driven to lately. Mid-level Hollywood comedies, (I've never been so desperate to pay money for something like Transformers, or the Hangover, for that matter) and amiable documentaries, that maybe belong on TV. This is not exactly a bad thing - the films are generally edifying in some way - but they do seem like a lot of filler. There aren't enough movie movies to see. When one comes along - a revival of The Leopard, say - what bliss!

Anyway - what have I seen lately? Well - start with Pianomania -a fascinating and lovely look at the backstage of concert music, through the eyes of a high end piano tuner, Stefan Knupfer. We see him working with a variety iof musicians - Lang Lang, Alfred Brendel, etc. - we see him working with Steinway to buy a new piano (for the Vienna Concert House), and overseeing the sale of another piano. Much of the film is devoted to a recording session with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard - Aimard is recording Bach, and wants to use different kinds of sounds from his piano - tuned like a harpsichord, a clavichord, an organ, etc. - he and Knupfer work on that for a year. It's quite a fascinating film, showing the details of piano tuning, the manipulation of sound - and quite entertaining. Knupfer is a witty, amiable fellow - "I think I'll have a very sportive day" he says, in the midst of running up and down stairs between Aimard and his piano, and the room where the recording engineers are set up. What's best about it, though, is probably that it shows something I know nothing about, and teaches me something about it.

That's also true of Buck - a nice doc about Buck Brannaman, a horse trainer and trick roper and cowboy, who runs clinics on training horses - he had a hard childhood, which has somehow left him almost saintly seeming, and utterly devoted to training horses gently - and people too... It's a nice story, and Buck and his family and other associates are nice people to spend a couple hours with though there isn't much more to the film. Except, again, showing me something I don't know anything about, and leaving me knowing more about it - not a bad thing...

Page One:Inside the New York Times - In a way, I'm not sure this is all that much different from previous two - it is, as subtitled, a year inside the New York Times, specifically the media desk (editor Bruce Headlam, reporters Tim Arango, Brian Stetler, and most of all, reporter and columnist, David Carr.) It is, basically, a fly on the wall type film, put together after the fact - it's not quite pure hagiography (of the institution, let's say) - but close, and certainly, one imagines the Times was able to exercise a good deal of control over what ended up in the film. Though like the films above - it shows us the day to day workings of a big newspaper (the big newspaper, at least in the US) - and that too is inherently fascinating stuff. But as a film - maybe just a nice look at something....

But it feels like more than that. A lot of it, I have to admit, is just that there is something so exhilarating about newsroom films - I am a sucker for that stuff. Hecht and Hawks and Capra - and this is right in that tradition. I get twinges watching these guys working the phones, typing away on their laptops, pitching stories, walking the halls looking for that last paragraph, waiting for the lawyers to call back - even just the simple stuff, watching how fast and easy they type - great stuff. It's a great genre, because newspapers are a great setting, and this is a ,ore than worthy entry in the tradition. But I suppose, there is more than that - there is, after all, the Big Question, whatever that is - here, it takes the form - will the New York Times survive? - and spreads out from there. Whither journalism? Whither print? Whither the web? Etc. And how will these changes change society? the body politic? etc. etc.

I don’t know. The issues raised are, undeniably, vital questions, and they are given something of an airing here. And their importance gives the film heft - though in the end I'm left a bit unsatisfied. I don't know if that is the film's problem, or if it's broader - I am not sure I have ever been all that happy with the debates I've seen over these issues (the whole Whither Media stuff). It's hard to say why - here, a lot of my dissatisfaction seems to come from the way the discussions always seem to get sidetracked, bogged down, or how single issues come to take over for the whole range of issues. As an example here - there is a panel where Markos Moulitsas and David Carr get into a discussion about the place of the Mainstream Media - which Kos turns into a discussion of Judith Miller and Jayson Blair, and the failures of the New York Times, a position Carr routs mainly by pointing to the rest of the paper. But really - both seem to be evasions - Kos of the general value of the paper (and other papers), Carr of the fact that the authority he claims relies completely on not fucking up like that.

Now - I have opinions on the subject. In fact, I think the problem for print newspapers (and not necessarily just print) is driven by two things - 1) the big one is the advertising crisis - I mentioned this last year, days where I could not find a classified section in my local paper. (At least not in print.) That trumps everything else, since the daily paper lives on its ads. (Monthly publications, books, I think, will find ways to continue to make money through sales - I don't think daily papers can do that enough to survive.) 2) The digitization of information - and the web - which makes bits easy and cheap to exchange. ("Free" - or - free as far as the information goes - the cost revolves around the connections and servers - you get on the web and then do what you do, and it doesn't much matter what....) This changes the economy - it's one thing to charge for objects - something else to charge for information that can be reproduced for almost nothing. I can hold these opinions, and a variety of opinions based on them (that you can't control the flow of information enough to charge for it like you could for a piece of paper, things like that) - but... I hold other opinions too - that nothing on the web except web-based newspapers can do what newspapers can do. That without all the things newspapers have - the departments and bureaus, reporters and editors, people doing the legwork, the cold calling, grinding through the archives, interpreting the data - you cannot provide the real service newspapers provide. And this opinion collides with the ramifications of the first 2 - because I don't know how newspapers can survive in their current form with the current models of revenue. I don't think you can afford to put out a daily edition on the revenues you can get from ads, now - and I don't think (the Times' attempts to the contrary) you will be able to maintain much headway charging for online content. It's too easy for the information to get out of the paywall. And maybe more importantly - even if the Times and a couple others survive - having one or two or a dozen great papers in the whole country is not much better than having none. Someone will have to work something out. And - someone will work something out. That is not "optimism" it's just a fact - news and information will circulate in the future. But I don't know how, who will pay for it, what it will look like, what kinds of (valuable) things will be lost (or gained) - or who will be ruined getting to that point. We are kind of stuck in limbo for a while. There was someone in the movie, testifying before Congress, who said, we are early in the process - John Kerry took the opportunity to pontificate about the people who have lost their jobs - but she was simply right. Things have not worked themselves out in the least yet - the process is just starting....

Okay - crap - that went on longer than I expected. Well - what of the fiction?

Well - there's Bad Teacher - Cameron Diaz as a bad teacher, who plans to quit to marry a rich kid - when his mother intervenes, she's got to go back to work, and does so, with all the enthusiasm we might expect. She shows films every day in class; she smokes pot in the parking lot; she steals money from the class car wash to fund her breast enhancement surgery. She's surrounded by loons - Lucy Punch as Amy Squirrel, the probably mad do gooder neighbor; Jason Segal as a randy gym teacher; Justin Timberlake as a rich goofy christian (not stated, but the "pro-choice" joke, and a dry-humping scene make it clear enough); John Michael Higgins as a dolphin obsessed principal; Phyllis Smith as a nice old lady who's up for anything... All this rolls along amusingly enough - the jokes are good, the performers on their game, the story manages not to turn sappy - or gratuitously nasty - I mean, of course people sort of change, and things sort of get better for people, that's what stories do, they change people... to do this without lapsing into life lessons (beyond obvious stuff like don't be a[ny more of a] dick [than you have to be]) is a small triumph, and I'd say it gets there.

Larry Crowne, on the other hand - not so much. It's a likable enough film, I guess, but not a very good one. I have to blame Glenn Kenny and Sam Adams for this one - Kenny kind of liked it; Sam Adams - abetted, I think, by the Most Interesting Man in the World - played a great role the day before in making me miss an 11 AM screening of the African Queen - The Larry Crowne Affair turned out to be a bit more convenient... So what do we have? Tom Hanks is a master criminal laid off from his job at Goldman Sachs and is pursued by Faye Dunaway, or Julia Roberts, as Elizabeth Warren - no, wait, no, that's wishful thinking... Larry Crowne is laid off from UMart because he lacks a college education. He goes to community college, where he has classes with Julia Roberts (another Bad Teacher, though she already has a lousy husband, so isn't looking for another) and George Takai (being very strange). Also in the latter class is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (in the person of Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who rides a scooter (like Crowne) and so orchestrates his midlife crisis makeover. The potential for age inappropriate sex does not materialize, and Hanks and Roberts pair up in the end. He gets A's in his class, but the MPDG drops out (and Crowne doesn't repay her generosity to him by telling her to see Bridesmaids for a lesson on what happens when you start a quirky new retail store in the middle of a fucking recession. Jesus lady! get the degree, so at least in 10 years you can get temp work for an outsourcing firm!) Where was I?

The truth is - there's an interesting story lurking in the shadows here. The MPDG who revivifies poor middle aged Tom Hanks - and Tom Hanks who revivifies mopey Julia Roberts. The little side step - where someone wakes him up and he wakes up someone else - is a cool twist. And some of it is played with some wit and grace. Just not enough. Or really anything beyond the actors pouring on the charm and treating it all like a lark. There's a good idea there - but it's just an idea. Even the idea that Hanks saves Roberts - the film tells us that she saved him (that is, he says that to her), but - we've seen the film - seen her class, which is atrocious, we know she's mailing it in, but his enthusiasm, and his ability to engage his classmates, wakes her up. It would have been nice to have the filmmakers notice this - they might have gotten around to writing a decent film if they had... Instead - it plays like a very sketchy first draft.

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