Friday, March 31, 2006

Musical Diversion

Randomly arrayed, blah blah blah.

1. Ghost - Hazy Paradise
2. Butthole Surfers - Pepper
3. Six Organs of Admittance - They fixed the Broken Mirror Today
4. Charlie Parker - Moose the Mooche
5. Rod Stewart - Tomorrow is Such a Long time [when songs from this record come up - I remember how good old Rod could be.]
6. Rocket From the Tombs - Life Stinks [I can't wink, I can't blink... love that cheesy organ...]
7. Tom Waits - Gun Street Girl
8. Adverts - Quickstep (live)
9. Jay Farrar - Damn Shame (live)
10. Velvet Underground - European Son [you spit on those under 21]

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Baseball - NL

There was a time I was really more of a national league fan than an American league fan. No DH - more pitching, defense, interesting rosters - all that stuff. These days, not so much. And one reason is - I don't think the NL is as good as the AL. The fact that they haven't won a game in the world series since 2003 provides some evidence there. The fact is, only 2 teams (Cards, Stros) seem really strong here (compared to the AL - Boston, NY. Toronto, Chicago, Cleveland, Oakland, California and possibly Minnesota, all of whom have both potent offenses [not the Twins, maybe] and at least 3 solid starters), and only a couple others even in the Twins range (San Diego, maybe the Brewers, the Braves, Mets, Phils). So - who knows. Anyway, here we are. Make of it what you will.

1. Atlanta - until someone beats them... they should score some runs, they still have Smoltz - the rest is increasingly up on the air though.
2. NY - blah. Pedro's hurt already. The rest? Blah. They have talent but - I think this team inherited the curse of the Bambino. The curse of Bill Buckner - you win like that and you have used up all your karma for the next 86 years.
3. Philadelphia - not a bad team, but nothing to write home about. Lots of promising hitters, but the pitching does not inspire confidence.
4. Washington - with a break or two, they could finish 2nd. Without, they could lose 100. Split the difference. I'm not optimistic.
5. Florida - I don't know if they have any major leaguers left other than Cabrera and Willis, but odds are that's enough to beat the Nats. If Hermidia is ready? who knows.

NL Central:
1. St. Louis - don't look as strong as they've been, but still the best in the league. Especially if Rolen is back.
2. Houston - if Roger re-ups, they'll be back in the series, odds on. Without him they have a nice team - there's risk - Pettitte could get hurt, Ensburg could slip - but I think they will stay pretty strong.
3. Milwaukee - this is not a bad team. Sheets and Davis and a bvunch of more than adaquate fillers in the rotation; some good looking relievers; young guys like Hardy and Weeks and Fielder - they could be hanging around the wild card pretty easily.
4. Chicago - Lee, Zambrano, Ramirez keep them sort of respectable - with Prior and Wood hurt again, they aren't winning anything.
5. Cincinatti - a bunch of okay #4 starters in a bad park; plenty of offense, no defense; no hope.
6. Pittsburgh - might surprise. Doubt it. Jason Bay is a hell of a player, though, isn't he.

1. San Diego - safer bet than Barry's knees.
2. San Francisco - on the other hand... the likes of Cain and Lowry are where they will really rise or fall, and Jason Schmidt's health (almost as much as Bonds').
3. LA - not be all that bad. Gagne is key. Fewer people will care that Grady Little doesn't speak any english on the west coast.
4. Arizona - I don't know why I would pick them ahead of the Rockies. Anyone know? Jose Velverde maybe?
5. Colorado - bet they score a lot of runs, but give up more.

Playoffs - Atlanta - St. Louis - San Diego - Houston
Winner: With Roger? Houston; no Roger? St. Louis.
MVP - Pujols, of course.
Cy Young - since Clemens won't be picthing until May, even if he does pitch - I'll say Oswalt. Have I mentioned how awful last year's 2 cy young winners were? nice pitchers and all, but how can you take Colon over Santana or Carpenter over Clemens or Oswalt - or even Peavy? or Pettitte? Zambrano? hell - over Pedro! terrible choices.
Rookie - they all say Hermidia in Florida. Or Zimmerman in Washington. I'll be perverse and say Cain in San Francisco, for no good reason.

Baseball! Predictions! (AL)

I have to do this. Here goes. Predictions and comments. Who knows what they're worth...

American League East:
1. Boston - I am morally obligated to choose them to win. One of these years the Yankees have to lose - the Sox have had better teams the last couple years, so one of these years they'll win the division. Both teams this year are hard to predict, though. Both have very old pitching staffs that had major problems last year - both have done a nice job stocking up on arms for the pen (which is more important than people think. Seasons, and especially post-seasons, are won, probably, by the third starter and the third guy out of the pen - Derek Lowe and Freddy Garcia, Alan Embree and Neil Cotts - as much as by the stars), but the Sox did a better job of improving the rotation (adding Beckett), and they are getting younger at the same time (with Beckett, Papelbon, Hanson, etc.) In fact, with Crisp and Pena and maybe Youkilis playing, the Sox have gotten younger across the board - not a lot, the core is still old (though not as old as NY) - but they seem to be doing a better job of moving to the next generation - replacing older useful mediocrities like Millar with younger useful mediocrities like Pena and Youkilis. The Yankees just keep getting older and more likely to see every single member of the team (except Alex Rodriguez) go on the DL at the same time.
2. NY - they're still going to win 95, unless every single member of the team (except Alex Rodriguez) goes on the DL at the same time... (or if Alex Rodriguez goes on the DL. Without him, they're toast.)
3. Toronto - and if Father Time arrives in Boston and or New York in fighting trim - Toronto is good enough to step into any openings afforded. But it's probably safer to bet on aged but Proven (that has to be capitalized) folks like Schilling or Johnson than on younger arms who can't stay on the field all year, like Burnett.
4. Tampa Bay - another team that can't stay awful forever. They were hitting the hell out fo the ball by the end of last yearm and could get better, if Baldelli is back, when Young and Upton are ready.... They need some more pitchers to emerge, but Kazmir is a good start.
5. Baltimore - everyone hates this team - with good reason. But - this is where we learn just how good Leo Mazzone is. The arms they have can't be any worse than John Thomsen and Jorge Sosa can they? We'll soon find out.

AL Central:
1. Chicago - I suppose I have to pick them. They are 6 deep at starting pitcher; they have a deep pen; they have a decent offense, with some guys who could get better (Iguchi) and Jim Thome... they were, legitimately, the best team in baseball last year, so they could be this year again.
2. Cleveland - I think they're going to be okay. They lost Millwood, but got Byrd, who is okay; the rest of the rotation is solid - the pen is respectable (though Wickman is scary); they have a ton of offense. So why not? They'd need some breaks, I think, to catch Chicago, or the wild card contenders in the other two divisions.
3. Minnesota - plenty of pitching. No offense. But they catch the ball and play the game right, so they will hang around.
4. Detroit - if the pitching continues to develop, if Bonderman and company can improve, which is very possible - they might be into a modest sort of contention. They have some nice young position players, though I don't think they have enough to push Cleveland. Minnesota? with a couple breaks, why not?
5. Kansas City - no. Going nowhere. Deserve the failure they get - a horrible organization. Take Zach Greinke - they monkeyed with him, screwed him up, gave him no runs, and turned him into a basket case.... I'll lay dollars to donuts in a year or two after they release him or trade him to Atlanta, maybe Baltimore if Mazzone is Mazzone, maybe Oakland or St. Louis, he'll blossom. I'd say Boston or NY, because those organizations know what to do with pitchers - but those are tough tough tough places to play... but somewhere...

AL West:
1. Oakland - the pitching is as good as ever; Swisher and Johnson are a year older; Crosby should be healthy - they came close last year... I suspect they'll be back on top.
2. California - I can't keep track of what they're calling themselves, so screw it - let's go old school! They are a pretty darned good team - plenty of pitching, some nice players coming up, Vlad. I think Oakland's better though - a year older, and that should make a lot of difference with all their youth (Swisher, Johnson, Crosby, Harden, Haren, Blanton, Street, etc.)
3. Texas - ho hum. Outslug everyone but Boston and NY, get out pitched by everyone but KC. added a bunch of innings eaters, but the likes of Adam Eaton in their ballpark doesn't inspire confidence.
4. Seattle - do they still have a team? Can Jamie Moyer collect social security checks? Why don't they just bring in the Japanese national team? Along with Felix Hernandez, of course (who's younger than Jamie Moyer has big league experience.)

Good Lord. I think I may have to break this into multiple posts.

So boring stuff:
Playoffs - Boston - Chicago - Oakland + NY (oh, but don't I hope this is Cleveland, or even Toronto)
Winner: No idea. I'll say Boston, simply because I don't intend to pick against them.
MVP - friggin' A Rod again. (He deserved it last year. Quite handily, much as I hate to say it.)
Cy Young - Santana wins three in a row - or would if the voters were sane.
Rookie of the Year - lord; I haven't thought about this. Francisco Liriano sounds reasonable.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Stanislas Lem

I read this afternoon that Stanislas Lem, one of the world's great writers, not inconceivably it's greatest, has died, at age 84. My science fiction reading has always tended to be rather hit or miss, and to come in bunches - discovering Lem, back in the late 80s, set off a particularly significant strand of reading, as he led me not only to his own work, but to Philip K. Dick as well. Lem was a magisterial presence, writer of philosophical science fiction, of excellent criticism, of brilliant and very funny intellectual games (see Imaginary Magnitude, his book of introductions, to such marvels as Reginald Gulliver's Eruntics, an account of "a philosopher-dilittante and amateur bacteriologist who one day eighteen years ago decided to teach bacteria English", and succeeded so well that they began to predict the future, and the content of yet unwritten books.) He was a giant, and will be missed.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Coupla Movies

...briefly noted. No full reviews here. One final note re the stars: I don't know why I bother, but I do.... I have changed the value again. Consider ** to be a solid, good film - a "B" - an Ebert "***". Consider even one star to be a passing grade, basically. If I see crappy films I will find more eloquent ways to abuse them than merely depriving them of a star or so. I like having more variation among the better than good films, rather than the less than good films.

Thank You for Smoking ** - funny film about tobacco lobbyist who has a kind of crisis of conscience. What makes it good? - a series of great set pieces, the confidence of the acting, the overall solid writing. What keeps it from being great" - it sags in the middle, quite badly - the obligatory down period is completely botched... and the story in general tends to turn into a series of vignettes. But - it's pretty good, amusing, clever, well written in places, generally a reasonably intelligent mainstream satire - an almost extinct breed.

Don't Come Knocking ** - new Wim Wenders film, starring Sam Shepard, with Jessica Lange, Sarah Polley, Tim Roth and more. Shepherd plays an aging cowboy actor named Howard Spence (we are apparently in an alternative universe where people are still making generic cowboy pictures like they are in fact making bad cop thrillers or dumb horror pictures). One day he leaves the set and heads for his mothers place where he hasn't been in 30 years. She tells him after a day or so of odd back and forth that he has a son in Butte so off he goes. Jessica Lange is the kid's mother - Tom Roth is tracking him for the bond company - Sarah Polley is hauling her mother's ashes around... The film wavers between a kind of contemplative handsomeness, a strange, loose, wit, and some forced comedy. There's also some forced emoting, but it actually comes off. The comedy does not. The whimsy - a bit better. Mirrored cadillacs; Shepard's excessive, rather ridiculous, laconicness; his mother's scrapbook of his failures.... It's odd - more appealing than it has reason to be, I guess, but never quite connecting. But likeable enough in the end.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Blogity Blog

Fun day on the blogs. What do these two stories have in common?

1. Britney Spears "Pro-Life" statue.
2. Ben Domenech, erstwhile Washington Post blogger, resigns.

Nothing? Probably. The first is comical - quite a few blogs had links that took it (kind of) seriously - Pandagon, Pharyngula, Digby - though it turned out to be satire. There's a lesson in there somewhere about the right or the left - that someone could hesitate about whether that ridiculous thing was parody or not...

But meanwhile - Ben Domenech. Set up by the Washington Post as a blogger, more or less explicitly to provide a conservative voice - he wasted no time getting hammered by the left - see the Poorman's response to his first post. See Steve Gillard for the more serious issues - Domenech's race baiting. See - anyone you want.

What got him, though, was plagiarism. He swiped jokes from P. J. O'Rourke; he swiped movie reviews, starting in college and still doing it years later, for the NRO. He swiped news stories - he even swiped a top ten records list, though that turned out to be stealing from himself (on Crosswalk). This is very hard to believe - I guess people do it, but how could he not think he was going to get caught? Domenech responds here, whining about the rough and tumble of politics (which he's part and parcel of), then explaining away all those plagiarism accusations. Some of them - like the Crosswalk story - he's obviously right about - but really. Take a look at the Corner's comments again - they aren't out to get him, and they're coming up with stuff all over the place. "Put alongside other pieces that we're looking at and that have been linked to elsewhere in the blogosphere, it's hard not to conclude there was something amiss." There's so damn much - it's too much to believe that he would have dishonest editors at his college newspaper, the New York Press, and the NRO, isn't it? Is there anything more to his defense?

There's not much doubt the left went after him - bloggers go after one another all the time, and his appointment was very suspicious from the start. Domenech of course acts as if this is somehow the other bloggers fault... Meanwhile, some say that this is typical of the right - Oliver Willis, for instance: "This once again proves my point about conservatism being unable to exist outside of its self-created echo chamber" - I don't believe that. I think most of the big bloggers, on either side, could survive this kind of attack. Domenech did bad things - and did things that were bad professionally. I can't imagine that Glen Reynolds or Atrios or Charles Johnson or Ezra Klein would do something like Domenech - most people really do know better.

UPDATE: I do want to add something. First - that the kid (Domenech) probably got this job because of his connections in Washington - his father, his own job as a speech writer for John Cornyn (where he may have provided the culture with one of its great laugh lines - "It does not affect your daily life very much if your neighbor marries a box turtle." It's one of the things this story does have in common with the Britney statue story - if you notice that the artist is from Williamsburg - if you notice that Domenech's father had connections to Jack Abramoff - the rest follows.

I also want to add that plenty of people on the web have suggested - joking or not - that the Post picked this kid knowing he would flame out, knowing he was a clown. And in the end - how would we know the difference? He turned out to be such a perfect disaster...

Friday Randomism

1. Minutemen - Nature Without Man
2. Frank Sinatra - Nice Work if You Can Get It (from A Swingin' Affair)
3. Yo La Tengo - Orange Song
4. Yes - Clap
5. American Movie Club - Goodbye to Love (from I wish I were a Carpenter)
6. Traffic - Light Up or Leave me Alone
7. Sun Ra - Images
8. Neko Case - John Saw That Number
9. Marvin Gaye - What's Goin' On
10. Sonny & Linda Sharrock - Gary's Step

A very nice selection, I must say. Some new stuff, plenty of old stuff, jazz, Frank Sinatra, Carpenters' covers, Yes (though inoffensive, non-wanking Yes, acoustic guitar, a nice piece.) Minutemen... It's got everything.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Weekly Films

Not a lot of films on this, and most of the detail on V For Vendetta will end up in it's own post. It's odd - Innocence is a truly outstanding and important film, much better than V..., but V... has got a bit of buzz in the zeitgeist. Of course, who gets to see Innocence? Anyway....

Innocence **** - vision of girl's school as hell. Starts with a coffin being opened by little girls - out pops another little girl, 6 year old Iris. She is brought into the society - there are 5 houses, 7 girls each, one per year, 6-12, it seems, wearing ribbons denoting their ages. They go to classes (science and dance) - they swim and play - they hang around. They are served by downcast old women and taught by two elegant young women who may have secrets of their own. They can't leave, they have no contact with anyone outside, some of them do mysterious things at night. They pine, they adjust, they are bullied by the teachers and each other and mysterious outsiders. All of this is shot in in long, still takes, with low cameras, odd noises, etc. - the film creates a palpable sense of dread, but dread that isn't quite justified. Terrible things are hinted at, but don't materialize (though sometimes they do).... The tone - the dread, the camera creeping around the old buildings, the hints of something nasty just around the corner - is quite reminiscent of Suspiria, of all things - though without the mayhem. The director was present for the screening - during the Q&A, I was gratified to hear her name Argento as one of her inspirations. The beauty, unease, the dancing... It has a strong specifically female point of view, partly expressed in the emphasis on bodies, dealing with the social construction of their identities - but it's also remarkably effective at getting at what it feels like to be a child. The utter strangeness of things, the strange demands made by adults, their strange pronouncements on life, on how we should act. It's a great film.

V for Vendetta **: it's the future, though it's a lot like today. A fat stupid twit raves on TV (looking and sounding like Christopher Hitchens, with a dose of Rush, Bill O'Reilly, and the usual suspects) - meanwhile, a girl goes out after curfew. She's quickly harrassed by cops - and rescued by a guy in a Guy Fawkes mask. He takes her and shows her the Old Bailey being blown up. The next day, she goes to work at a TV station - he shows up and causes trouble, makes a speech promising to blow up Parliament in a year, then leaves, as she saves him from a cop. He has an underground lair. He watches The Count of Monte Christo and occasionally goes out to kill people who deserve it. The cops look for him. The government rails. Backstory gets filled in - then more backstory - meanwhile Stephen Rea is a cop. The government is incompetent - none of the cops can even spy on each other, the TV station doesn't have the wit to turn off the girl's ID when she's wanted for terrorism, cabinet level (or whatever would pass for a cabinet in this world) people prowl around alleyways looking for clues and lead raids on dissidents. Natalie Portman gets her head shaved. Strange twists occur. Months pass and nothing happens. Things blow up.... When you get right down to it, though, it's nonsense, with some nice visuals and highfalutin' quotes. It isn't that bad, but it's not very good either. It's slow and awkward and plays like a very long trailer, as everything is skimmed through without much time to develop. Portman does her job, Hugo Weaving sounds good and moves well under his mask. Stephen Fry is criminally underused. Stephen Rea acts all decent and stuff, but doesn't have anything to do. For all that, it is packed full of ideas, though scattered around, like piles of books in a nerd's bedroom. And thus, I may have mopre to say about it in coming days - it has engendered a certain amount of controversy, and offers many chances to philosophize.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Happy St. iPodrick's Day!

Now if anyone ever forgives me for that pun, I won't forgive them... anyway, here's to it!

1. Ramones - I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend (live)
2. The Brian Jonestown Massacre - Malela
3. Bishop Allen - Things are what you Make them
4. Nick Cave - Supernaturally
5. The Replacements - Here Comes a Regular
6. Six Organs of Admittance - Harmonice Mundi II
7.Rush - The Camera Eye
8. Fire Theft - Carry You
9. Andrey Kirichentko - Scope of My Perception
10. John Cale - Rollaroll

Well - the iPod did not do it's duty re. the holiday there - an Aussie, canucks, a Welshman - but nothing from the auld sod. We'll have to take matters into our own hands here:

They take away your freedom in the name of liberty... great to see that songs about the troubles can fit so nicely here in 21st century USA.... don't believe them, don't believe them, don't be bitten twice...

Thursday, March 16, 2006


I have been remiss - for 2-3 weeks almost. Where are the reviews? My public* hangs, breathlessly, on reviews!** Um - okay then...

The President's Last Bang ***1/2 - Korean film about the assassination of President Park Chun-hee in 1979 by the head of the Korean CIA, told in a strange, dark comic style. A parade of nincompoops - the president, his oafish bodyguard, the KCIA man with a bad liver and worse breath, various underlings, some competent, most not, whores and singers and actresses looking for a break, unflappable waiters, drivers pressed into emergency service as assassins, cowardly generals, dim-witted politicians, and more, enact the sordid tale. It builds to dinner at a KCIA safehouse with the president, an actress and a Japanese singer, the bodyguard (who isn't armed), an obsequious secretary, and the KCIA man - who somewhere in the middle decides, apparently on the spot, to stage a coup. Mayhem and screwups of all sorts follow. For a fuller review, I defer to Filmbrain, who wrote about it last year - it is a very good film.

Music From the Inside Out - **1/2 - documentary about the Philadelphia orchestra, about the musicians, their interests, etc. It is very good at geting across the beauty of the music and the feelings it evokes in the musicians. First rate sound design, blending the music into the noises of the world around it. It's rather slight, for all its merits - enjoyable and respectable, but not terribly deep. But it is enjoyable and intelligent, and worth seeing.

Clay Pigeons - why? well - someone loaned me the DVD... Vince Vaughan, I must say, is wonderful - very funny, compelling and all - just - who wants him to be a villain? Makes me want to see the Wedding Crashers again. Not this though.

The Libertine - **1/2 - somewhere down the line I may have to run up more of a review of this. Not for the film, which while it has merits, has more than its share of problems as well - but for Johnny Depp, who is really on top of his game here. The beginning - he faces the camera, in a dimly lit room, and tells the audience we will not like him - then proceeds, in the film, to play a character that we should hate, but we can't, because it is Johnny Depp, and he is on top of his game. And he plays a character who is a bastard, but has the same beauty and charisma and brilliance Johnny Depp has, and so, whether we should like him or not, we have to love him. The character is John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, a poet and playwright and libertine, who drank and fucked himself to death at the auspicious age of 33, and has apparently come down through history primarily for his deathbed confession. That and some fine, and nasty, poetry... Depp plays him, though, both better than anyone around him, and miserable - disappointed in life - always the life of the party, but with a harsh edge of bile... yet...

Battle in Heaven - *** - in which we move from the cheery, generous spirit of The Libertine to something really nasty... Well - maybe not... This is the new film from Carlos Reygadas - it's about a man named Marcos who is a driver for a general (played by a man named Marcos, who is a driver, apparently, for a government agency where Reygadas' father worked.) We don't see any generals - we see Marcos driving the general's daughter around. We see him riding trains, talking to his wife, visiting the country as well. And - oh yeah - we see him fucking the girl, and his wife. Indeed, the film is notorious mostly for the sex - quite graphic, quite unfeigned, and notable as well for the fact that Marcos and his wife are both quite fat and middle aged.... The actors are all amateurs - and the sex and the strange, robotic acting gives it an odd offensiveness, but there's no doubt that Marcos, especially, has a definite sweetness, as does the spoiled girl, and at times even his wife. There is a plot, involving a kidnapping gone wrong - which leads to other crimes, and then to rather extreme attempts at expatiation of those crimes, that gives it a truly tragic grandeur.... Meanwhile - the film's politics are quite biting: emohasizing the vast gap between classes, between races, the condescenscion and cruelty the rich and powerful show toward the poor. It's a very odd, moving film - much of it shot guerrilla style on the streets (and in the subways and so on) of Mexico City, giving it a powerful look... It is reminiscent (with its graphic sex, amateur actors, and mythic crime & punishment plot) of Bruno Dumont, and almost as good.

Winter Passing - ** - meanwhile, back in the states - a vehicle for Zooey Deschanel, who should be the star of every film... she plays the rather fucked up daughter of a reclusive, very fucked up writer played by Ed Harris. Her mom is dead and she is miserable, so she goes home to look for some letters she has a chance to sell - at home, she finds Will Farrell, in the person of an odd duck, and Amelia Warner as a young,pretty, ex-student who has Suffered... etc. Unfortunately, it sinks into a mix of twee weirdness (the indoor golfing) and sentimental revelations and reconciliations - but it's better than it probably has a right to be, because the actors are so very very good. Deschanel is about as good as it gets - and Will Farrell is superb - watching them is worth the price of admission alone. (Harris can be - but he's also rather overdoing it here - still, he's got enough screen presence he can afford to ham it up a bit.)

* I have a public?
** Good lord, I hope not.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


A couple housekeeping notes - I suppose I've accepted that this is mainly a film blog, whatever else it is - and moved the links to film blogs to the top. I added a few more in the middle - it's still a much shorter list than the list of film blogs I visit regularly, and one of these days I should impose some order on it (even if just alphabetical) - for now it suffices. I also added links to a couple posts collecting links to my film posts - as much for my use as anyone else's: 2006 - 2005... I wish blogger had categories, but I don't think it does, so this will have to suffice.

New blogs on the sidebar:

  • Dave Kehr's Blog
  • Wiley Wiggins
  • Anthony Kaufman
  • Matt Zoller Seitz
  • Elusive Lucidity

    Enjoy them. I need to try to update those links more often, or add some information about them. I'm not sure how to go about that though.
  • Tuesday, March 14, 2006

    Differing Opinions

    So we have: Annie Proulx vs. Roger Ebert on Crash, Brokeback Mountain, and sour grapes. Proulx is mad because her film didn't win - I can understand that, and she is hardly alone in her contempt for Crash. Ebert, on the other hand, won, and is whining, it seems, because of that contempt for Crash, which he mistakes for, um - anti-homophobia. Or something. Ebert plays politics with it - "The nature of the attacks on "Crash" by the supporters of "Brokeback Mountain" seem to proceed from the other position: "Brokeback" is better not only because of its artistry but because of its subject matter, and those who disagree hate homosexuals." I suppose that's a comfort, but in fact, the attacks on Crash are usually based on the fact that it was a simplistic and badly written film. The words of David Edelstein in Slate carry the day: "It might even have been a landmark film about race relations had its aura of blunt realism not been dispelled by a toxic cloud of dramaturgical pixie dust." Some variation on that opinion was shared by many.

    Meanwhile, on a more elevated (maybe) plane, there has been something of a to do about Terence Malick's Pocahontas movie lately. Take a look at Dave Kehr's blog, where his citation of J. Hoberman's comments on the cult of Malick drew said cult (mainly the very able advocate, Matt Zoller Seitz) to refute... Kehr answered - much prose followed, and then some name calling, and now, Moderation in the Comment Thread. For all that, it's an interesting conversation - raising interesting questions about the film, about film styles, about the role of critics, and so on.

    The New World is gone from the local theaters, so it's going to be awhile before I see it again. I don't think it's all that good a film - it's gorgeous to look at, it's interesting to look at and think about, but it seems a bit empty to me. I know I have to recheck the thing itself to say that definitively - I don't know if it the longer cuts of it work better - we'll see, someday. For the moment though, I have some thoughts.... One of the commentators on Kehr's site (Kehr himself, in cold fact) compared it to 2001 and 2046 - "striving to induce a kind of hypnotic trance in the viewer, through endless repetition and a heavy reliance on music." Kehr resists - "I want to interact with it as an adult, not as a passive, blissed-out child", quothe he. [I recall that I have promised a review of 2046 one of these years - sad... though I think it appeals at a rather more adult level. The repetition has a direct relationship with the character of Chow - his attempts to keep reliving the past; his misreading of his affairs as being repetitive, when in fact, the situations (the women) are very different, reacting to him very differently - and so on... Someday, I swear it...]

    Right now - thinking about The New World, especially in relationship to 2046 - the film that comes to my mind is Ashes of Time. There's a lot of talk about how new and unusual Malick's style here is - but it doesn't seem all that different from Wong Kar-wei's. With any comparison going to Wong, hands down. Not just style, but apparently method - shooting lots of stuff, on the fly, putting the film together later. Wong Kar-wei. These films compare on other levels as well - they are set in the deep past, a kind of mythic past (though Malick makes certain gestures toward the real past.) They are also both dealing with rather adolescent genres - flying swordsmen (who don’t do much flying) in the Wong; Pocahontas and John Smith (and the whole run away and join the Noble Red Man plot) in the Malick - but Wong takes a more critical and ironic approach to the tale. Malick’s film looks loose and unstructured, but in fact is quite conventional - it tells its story coherently enough, without any particular disruption of the narrative, concentrating for the most part on the main characters in the story, their actions and perceptions and so on. What it does, which is admirable, is tell all of this obliquely at times - to fill the actual moments of the film with a kind of flow of images that move the story forward, but rather the way a river moves a boat forward. There's nothing strange about the boat.... It is told in an interesting way, but since the story is so conventional, the impact is lost - the style starts to seem decorative. Certainly compared to Ashes of Time, which is as disruptive at the level of plot and character as it is in style. Malick does shift characters around a bit, starting with Smith and switching to Pocahontas in the middle, but that's not that unusual - compare to the doubles and parallels and transformations of characters in Ashes of Time, let alone the loops and repetitions and so on of the plot itself. For me, Ashes of Time actually earns the kind of consideration Malick's fans are giving The New World - maybe it isn't a world changing film, but it is an endlessly fascinating one. I don't get that from The New World. Maybe I will on subsequent viewing, but the odds have to be against it.

    Film Posts, 2006

    For my own convenience as much as anyone else's, I have created this post to hold links to all my film posts. If blogger can do categories*, I will turn to that more elegant solution; but for now, this will have to do. These are roughly chronological, within the categories.
    [* And as of November 06, roughly, blogger does have a more elegant solution. But this has merits anyway, especially for review posts, since it offers more information.]

    Special Posts (essays, lists, etc.):

    Altman I: Autobio
    Altman II: McCabe and Mrs. Miller
    Barbara Stanwyck: (4/13) Baby Face and Night Nurse
    Imamura Obit
    Altman Obit

    Best of 2005 - released films
    2005 Lists: Acting, Directing, Scripts, DP
    2000s Top Tens by Year
    Andy Horbal's Poll - And Results (including my top 10)
    No More Marriages Blogathon posts: Near and Dear; Addendum -12/3&4

    Reviews and comments:

    Reviews: Lawrence of Arabia; Shall We Dance & Follow the Fleet; Breakfast on Pluto; Fun With Dick and Jane; Casanova; Cafe Lumiere; Meatballs & Stripes; Marx Brothers
    The Town Hall Memo (Ben Shapiro on politics and the Oscars)
    Reviews: Cache; Good Morning, Night; The Passenger; The Matador; The Wild Blue Yonder; Mrs. Henderson Presents
    Reviews: Bubble, L'Intrus, The New World
    Academy Award Speculation: best film since Annie Hall? and political twittery
    Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (briefly)
    Semi-reviews: 9 Songs, Why We Fight
    Reviews (2/19/06): Tristram Shandy, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, Charisma
    Reviews: Pulse, CSA, Nightwatch, Springtime in a Small Town
    Oscar Comments
    Comments on Crash vs. Brokeback and The New World on the blogs (with comparison to Ashes of Time)
    Reviews (3/16): The President's Last Bang, Music from the Inside Out, Clay Pigeons, The Libertine, Battle in Heaven, Winter Passing
    Reviews (3/22): Innocence, V for Vendetta
    Reviews (short): (3/26): Thank You for Smoking, Don't Come Knocking
    Broken Down Film/Osamu Tezuka link
    Reviews (4/13/2006): Breaking News, Friends With Money, Lucky Number Slevin, Pitfall, 3 Laura Mulvery short films
    Reviews (4/17): L'Enfant, Stoned, Kelly's Heroes
    Reviews (5/14): Three Times, I AM A Sex Addict, Art School Confidential, Badlands, Days of Heaven
    DVD Notes (5/16): Secret Honor, Mr Jealousy, The Apartment, Marie and Julien, Oasis, 40 Guns, Broadway Melody
    Art School Confidential - comments
    Older Films Seen (6/2) - Spirit of the Beehive, Top Hat, Shall We Dance, Royal Wedding and Gay Divorcee
    Reviews - Recent Films (6/3) - Puffy Chair, Somersault, The Proposition, Stolen (with comments on art)
    Reviews (6/13) - Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, Clean, Prairie Home Companion
    Briefly - Banlieue 13 and a link to David Lynch's Lumiere film
    Roundup (7/30): brief comments on Rossellini double feature and documentary; Nacho Libre; Leonard Cohen; Withnail & I/Big Leboswki double bill; Scanner Darkly
    Death of Mr. Lazarescu - longer review, 7/31
    Reviews: Snakes on a Plane, Little Miss Sunshine, The Oh in Ohio (8/26)
    Ozu Train Clips
    Movie Catchup: Talledega Nights, Half Nelson, Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles, Something Like Happiness, Lucnacy, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown
    Reviews (9/23): This Film is Not Yet Rated, Science of Sleep, plus Murder by Numbers
    15 Horror Films Blogathon (10/28)
    Reviews (11/06) - Borat and Babel
    Reviews (11/13) - Stranger than Fiction; Scream of the Ants
    Reviews (11/19) - Fast Food Nation; For Your Consideration
    Reviews (12/5) - Ten Items or Less, Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, Enthusiasm
    Reviews (12/11) - History Boys and F*ck.
    Inland Empire (12/11) - at length

    Film Posts 2005

    These are movie posts from 2005. Sorted somewhat, and listed chronologically.

    Special (essays, lists, series', etc.):

    2005 Top 10 (tucked in at the bottom of a post)
    80s Top Ten
    Top ten of the 00's so far
    Guardian's 40 Contemporary Directors
    20 Best Directors List
    Top 15 in 15 Years - also, 15 directors since 1990

    Busby Berkeley 1: outline of coming attractions
    Berkeley 2: evaluative overview of the films I've seen
    Berkeley 3: Types of musicals
    Berkeley 4: Stage and screen
    Berkeley 5: Welcome to the Machine
    Berkeley 6: Politics

    Naruse 1 (week 1): When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Mother, Flunky! Work Hard!, Every Night's Dream, Wife be Like a Rose, The Traveling Actors, Tale of Archery at the Sanjusangendo, Song Lantern,
    Naruse 2 (week 2): Late Chrysanthemums, Repast, Summer Clouds, Floating Clouds, Lightning, The Whole Family Works, Flowing, The Sound of the Mountain, The Wanderer's Notebook

    Reviews, comments, etc.:

    Goodbye Dragon Inn
    Passion of the Christ
    Coming Soon, and Semi-reviews: Oldboy, Kung-fu Hustle, Wong Kar-wei, and Eros
    Reviews: Oldboy and Memories of Murder
    Reviews: Cowards Bend at the Knees, The Man Who Left his Will on Film, Bad Guy (at length)
    Reviews: Howl's Moving Castle, The Girl From Monday, Tell them who you are, Crash
    Movie Stars (inspired by Lance Mannion's post)
    Harold Lloyd 1 - just noting the series
    Reviews (mostly in brief): Murderball, Youth of the Beast, The Beat My Heart Skipped, Batman and Robin, 2046 (DVD), Happily Ever After, Batman Forever, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Mysterious Skin
    Reviews: 5x2, Wedding Crashers, The Merry Widow, 42nd Street, Showgirls, Zabriskie Point
    Reviews: Elevator to the Gallows, Broken Flowers, The Son, East of Borneo
    Reviews: Grizzly Man, The Aristocrats, Last Days, Love Me Tonight
    Reviews 8/21: Junebug (first of several so far unfulfilled promises of a 2046 review)
    In memory of George Fasel, of A Girl and a Gun - plus list of film blogs
    Reviews (8/28): Batman Begins, The World, The 40 Year Old Virgin
    Reviews (9/25): Brothers Grimm, If Lucy Fell, The Baxter, The Conformist,
    Reviews (10/3): My Sex Life (or How I Got Into an Argument), Mutual Admiration, Dial M For Murder, Keane
    Reviews (10/13): History of Violence, The Corpse Bride, Good Night and Good Luck
    Reviews (10/16): Countess From Hong Kong, Wife Be Like a Rose, Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Wererabbit, Thumbsucker
    Reviews (10/23): Capote, Burden of Dreams, Pistol Opera, Scattered Clouds, Little Fugitive
    Reviews (10/30): Mother, Late Chrysanthemums (briefly recapped), Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Three Extremes, Mouchette, Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
    Complaining - attendance at Korean films, Memoirs of a Geisha, etc...
    Reviews (11/4): Doppelganger, Where the Truth Lies, The Squid and the Whale & Samurai Cinema: Kill, Sword of Doom, Yojimbo and Sanjuro
    Reviews (11/13): Three Outlaw Samurai, Samurai Rebellion, Hara-kiri, 20th Century, The Passenger, Bad News Bears, 40 Shades of Blue
    Reviews (11/20): Walk the Line, Smile, Top Hat, Squid and the Whale
    Reviews (12/05): Jesus is Magic, Ballet Russes, Seven Men From Now, The Tall T, History of Violence (again), Darwin's Nightmare, Lost Skeleton of Cadavra
    Reviews 12/12: Aeon Flux, The Wide Blue Road, Pride and Prjudice, Be Here to Love me: A Film About Townes Van Sant
    Reviews (12/20): 2 Wong Kar Wei films (Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, 2046 - more vain promises of comments to come); Alles Auf Zucker, A Day at the Races and A Night at the Opera, Brokeback Mountain, Talent Given Us, Rushmore and Royal Tennenbaums (on projected DVD, unfortunately)

    Friday, March 10, 2006

    Friday Music X

    Late in the day, but here goes....

    1. Son Volt - Ten Second News
    2. Cab - Future Days
    3. Danielson Famille - Good News for the Pus Pickers
    4. Leonard Cohen - Sisters of Mercy
    5. REM - Radio Free Europe
    6. Boogie Down Production - Ghetto Music
    7. Edith Piaf - La Vie en Rose
    8. John Cale - Bring it on Up
    9. White Stripes - The Denial Twist
    10. Dr. Nerve - Not Everyone's as Rich as Your Parents

    Monday, March 06, 2006

    Post Oscar Something

    I actually watched the benighted thing last night, so I suppose I have to comment. Had to see Altman get his, though I also had some reading I had to do but didn't really want to do, so guessing there would be a lot of dead time, I figured I could go back and forth between Jon Stewart and commodity fetishism and keep sane. Worked pretty well. So then - the Oscars....

    1) Crash winning is a travesty, though not all that surprising - the Academy has a nose for picking the worst available film. The odd thing is that the last couple years, the nominations have not been embarrassing at all. Not the best bunch of films, but respectable - maybe a turd here or there... they managed to step in one.... What's odder, actually, is that if you hadn't seen Crash, it doesn't sound half bad. Oh, the potential for disaster was always there (especially if you're familiar with Paul Haggis, the rotten script he wrote for Million Dollar Baby, say), but so was the potential for something good. Without seeing it - it sounds like a challenging, socially conscious, humanistic. serious film about race in America - it sounds edgy and thoughtful, maybe more serious than the old style romance with a twist that Brokeback Mountain was. (None of the other three films seemed to have a chance, even if they might have been better than those two.) But you see Crash - and I fail to see how you can not see what a lame, hackneyed, contrived, false piece of pablum it is.

    2) It doesn't matter though. It will be forgotten before the week is out. It was forgotten before it got nominated for the Oscar, and will be forgotten now, except as a cautionary tale. Probably not the run screaming type of cautionary tale Dances With Wolves or Forest Gump are, but the kind that people just shake their heads and marvel at - what could they have been thinking?

    3) On a happier note - Altman was amusing and charming and modest, in an arrogant way - the way he hinted that they were taking him away from his work, interrupting his play in London, his promotion of his new movie, the little hints that they were telling him to go sit in the corner and be quiet, old geezerm and he wasn't about to do it.... Nice. The intro, Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep clowning Altmanesquely [yellow card from the adverb police!] was - odd. Actually kind of nice - maybe a silly conceit, but it was fun watching them.

    4) Ben Stiller's bit was an odd conceit too, but he sold it, doing his clueless dipshit routine. Likewise, the attack ads were very amusing.

    5) I spent half the day with that damned pimp song running through my head.

    6) Altman should have said, "now I'm tied with the 3 6 mafia!" Or did he go on before they won? I can't remember. Nevertheless...

    7) Memoirs of a Geisha served a useful purpose, finally - something to cheer against through all the technical awards, way too many of which it own. It can't have deserved any of them.

    8) Finally - I kept thinking about what could have been. The films actually nominated for the big awards weren't bad - nothing outstanding, but not bad (except Crash, of course, and again - in theory, it isn't half bad.) Think of what could have been - Memoirs winning all those technical awards - a few years ago, it would have been up for the big ones, too. What if Cinderella Man had been nominated for something? (I haven't seen it, but it's a Ron Howard film - who needs to see Ron Howard films?) If Hollywood is really moving away from rewarding that type of shit, we are all better off.

    At the same time, I'd get a reminder, every now and then, of what was on the other side. An original screenplay here - an adapted screenplay there - a cinematography nomination yonder... What if - 1, 2 or 3 of those films (The Squid and the Whale, History of Violence, The New World) had gotten a best picture nomination? a best director nomination? There's a kind of shadow Oscars - the genuinely good, even great, films, nominated here or there, but staying at the margins....

    Thinking thus, I had a small epiphany. Something I probably knew, but tried not to think about. I've taken some shots at the Malick film - I wasn't hugely enthusiastic about the Cronenburg. But the fact is, I have seen History of Violence twice (and The Squid and the Whale, but I loved that without reservation) - and with some reservations, probably want to see The New World again. In fact - I'd rather see any of those films again than see any of the best picture nominations again, even if most of the best picture nominees are, maybe, better than the Malick film. It's just that The New World, whatever it's flaws, is interesting - I wish people would talk about that instead of Crash and Brokeback Mountain. Good bad or indifferent - it's alive.

    Saturday, March 04, 2006

    On McCabe and Mrs. Miller, at Length

    McCabe and Mrs. Miller is a film with three endings*. In one, the town puts out the fire in the church and celebrates. In another, McCabe dies alone, while the snow drifts over him. In the third, Mrs. Miller lies stoned in Chinatown, staring at a marble egg. Altman doesn’t really resolve these endings, they play out in parallel, they don't cohere. They represent three incompatible interpretations of the story, none of which Altman favors over the others. Is McCabe a tragic hero, a small timer up against a heartless vicious corporation, a man who makes a mistake and pays for it with his life? That is how he sees himself. The way Altman shows his death - from his surprising, and heroic, killing of Butler, to his end, disappearing under the drifting snow - supports this feeling. Or is he a fool? A man who badly miscalculated his situation, and then insisted on playing the martyr instead of heading for the hills? This seems to be how Mrs. Miller sees him - more or less admirable for that heroism, but still a fool. Or is he simply irrelevant? As far as the town is concerned, his troubles pose a much less immediate threat than the fire in the church. They put the fire out, acting together, as a community, and celebrate, oblivious to McCabe’s death or Mrs. Miller’s absence.

    Altman does not force us to choose an ending, or an interpretation. He might lean toward Mrs. Miller's point of view (the films ends with her literal point of view, after all), but that doesn't cancel the other endings. He undermines all three. The town may have come together to put out the fire, and the celebration reflects that, but after all, McCabe or Mrs. Miller are not there - nor are any of the Chinese (who have no part in any of this), and the last shot of the celebration is of the Washington’s (the black barber and his wife) walking away, alone again. We can believe that the town has been brought together by the crisis of the fire - but not long enough for the embers to cool. McCabe’s ending is tragic on the face of it - he dies, heroically, in a sense, but completely alone, forgotten by everyone, and the last we see of him he is being buried by the snow. Even Mrs. Miller’s ending is a barren one. She is stoned, after all - mindlessly absorbed in the blankness of the egg. The same wind that blows over McCabe’s ending blows in hers. Altman’s last shots of both McCabe and Mrs. Miller are long slow zoom-ins, and they are similarly unresponsive - she is as good as dead.

    The whole film is like that. Altman consistently presents multiple perspectives on the story, showing the story (the world of the film) as it is experienced by different people, as they interpret it. He sticks mostly to McCabe's story, but the life of the town around him, and of other people, are always present.

    Some years back, I wrote a paper** about this film for a class - the only requirement for the paper was to bring in the writings of one of the filmmakers covered in the class. I applied a bit from Godard's writings (an outline of his approach to making Two or Three Things I Know About Her) to the Altman film. Godard's comments on that film seemed quite applicable to many of his films - and to those of other filmmakers, such as Altman. Godard's four movements:

    1) He will describe things and people from outside - as objects.
    2) He will describe things and people from inside - as subjects. With people, this means showing their thoughts and feelings - “scenes more or less well written or acted.” Objects can be shown from inside, especially inside looking out.
    3) He will describe “structures” - not, Godard writes, “a generalized overall truth” but “laws one must discover and apply in order to live in society.” He also notes (an important concept for understanding Altman) that there is no harmonious society. Godard speaks of consumer values; Altman, similarly refers to capitalist values in general.
    4) Through these first three, Godard hopes to arrive at “life” - that is, a sense of how an individual experiences living in the world.

    Those comments were written specifically about Two or Three Things I Know About Her, but I think they are generally applicable to Godard’s work, and might be even more generally applicable to Altman’s. Altman returns throughout his career to stories involving large numbers of people interacting within a specific milieu - a place, an industry, a charged moment, in which he does try to do justice to the “world” of that milieu, to individuals in the “world,” and the ways they interact with each other and the “world.” He does so in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, showing us people, telling us their stories, probing their ideas and feelings - while placing them in a society and showing us how that society functions, where they fit (or more commonly, don’t fit.)

    He emphasizes the physical world around the characters - the town, the mountains and trees and rivers, the snow that falls on them. He moves back and forth between showing the world (and people) objectively, and showing the characters' perception of the world, as well as investing objects and places with his own meanings. This often takes the form of quite literally moving the camera in and out of spaces - shooting the outdoors from inside and indoors from outside. He places a great stress on transitional spaces - bridges, stairways, doors, he shoots through doors and windows and railings, as well as trees, through clouds of smoke or snow or rain and light and dark, all ways to hide people from one another. We see the town from outside, we see it being built, we see it filling up - we see the objects brought in, furniture, machinery, food, bottles, cards, lamps. Altman's documentary experience must be relevant here - objects are emphasized, the color of the unpainted wood, the way people wear their hair, their clothes, the type of guns people carry. At the same time, we understand these things "subjectively" - we see these things as physical objects, but also for the meanings they are given, both by the characters themselves, and by Altman. Guns and lamps say - are invested with significance. Guns carry fairly conventional, phallic significance (as in the over-the-top contrast between McCabe's derringer and Butler's blunderbuss), but it's undercut - size is no guarantee of victory, and indeed, reliance on the gun is usually disastrous. Or lamps - throughout the film, Altman contrasts golden lamp light with cold exterior light. Lamplight often seems to promise warmth and shelter, but this can be deceptive - the preacher’s lamp starts the fire at the church, and lamps are associated with Mrs. Miller's opium smoking. Locations are important - the church, the bathhouse, the bridge, Sheehan's saloon. We see them from outside, we see them from inside.

    This is true of the people as well - we see them from inside and outside, and in relation to the whole. Much of the film takes place in public places: Sheehan’s saloon, McCabe’s saloon, the ante-room of the whorehouse, the street, where people come and go, interact,. but usually only superficially. Altman observes people, takes time with marginal characters (a conversation between Smalley and Sheehan’s bartender; the interplay between Mrs. Miller’s women and their customers; the women and customers spying on each other) without explaining what is going on. Altman also shows people subjectively. He shows them when they are alone, especially McCabe. He shows them as they are seen by others, sometimes with literal point of view shots, sometimes by showing people looking at others (Lil watching the Seattle women bathing, for instance.) He frequently picks out the people on the margins of the film and the town - the preacher, the town drunk, the man with the braids. These people seldom, if ever, speak - but they are present at significant moments, at the edge of the scene, observing, being observed - and sometimes oblivious, lost. The drunk appears first in Sheehan’s, when McCabe gives him a drink to finish - he appears a few times later - standing alone in front of the fire while the other men work on the bathhouse; standing at the bar in McCabe’s place when Smalley tells Robby about Bart’s injury and McCabe that the men from the mining company have left. The preacher is visible in a few scenes, usually whenever anyone comes in or out of the town (the church, after all, is the gateway to the town), and he passes through the shot during the fight that kills Bart. In some scenes - that fight for example - other townspeople are shown watching the scene, without getting involved, or without being able to do anything about it.

    Altman brings all of this together, but in a way that mirrors what Godard called the "complex" - the ways people try to live together. He tends to do this through discourse - through the ways people talk to one another. Or, usually, fail to talk effectively. Altman’s films are famous for their murky dialogue, the ambient noise that makes it hard to hear, the overlapping conversations interfering with each other, the low recording levels - that is a factor here. But even when they can hear each other, they can't understand each other. People speak differently. People don’t listen. McCabe gets along well among the men of the town with his gnomic style, his jokes and riddles and bluster, but when he comes up against others he gets in trouble. He can’t get a word in edgewise with Mrs. Miller, who sweeps him away with her practical plans, her competence, her plain speaking. McCabe’s meeting with the lawyer goes the same way - the lawyer postures away, spouting political slogans, and McCabe sits like a schoolboy, hat in hand, utterly taken in.

    The most important instances of this are the talks between McCabe and the men from the mining company. McCabe starts out with his characteristic patter, telling jokes, reciting riddles, and so on. It doesn’t help that he is stinking drunk, but the alcohol is less a factor than his style - he acted the same way sober with Sheehan at the beginning of the film. Sears and Hollander are not impressed, though Sears, at least, tries. He laughs at his frog and eagle joke, he offers to buy McCabe a drink, while Hollander just glowers in the background. Sears drops hints that there is violence behind their offer - McCabe doesn’t catch any of it. Their next meeting goes a little better, but still they talk past each other. The mining men don't take McCabe's gifts. McCabe barely listens to Hollander’s smooth, patently insincere pitch (“I have a son named John”), and doesn’t register his implied threats (even though by this time he had been warned by Mrs. Miller.) They think his demands - $14, 15,000 - are ridiculous, but he doesn’t give them time to try to talk him down. Through it all, McCabe thinks they are negotiating and he can talk them up; Sears, for that matter, thinks that McCabe is negotiating, and he can talk him down. They come close to talking the same language for a while - but Hollander doesn't care. He thinks that McCabe is too much of a fool to come down - or, more likely, he does not care one way or another and just wants to get back to civilization as soon as possible. And that is that.

    The limits of what we know of other people is one of the strongest themes in the film. It's part of the difficulty of communicating - we don't understand other people, we don't try. McCabe is repeatedly shown paying no attention to a conversation he is having. He gets away with not listening to Berg ramble on about paperwork, but when it's Hollander threatening him, it matters. Even when he listens, he doesn't hear what he should. He misses the threats in Sears’ and Hollander’s words; later, when Mrs. Miller begs him to leave, he hears nothing but the subtext. He hears her concern for him, but not her words, her warning. Not that anyone else is better at it - Mrs. Miller, for all her practicality, does not understand how to deal with McCabe except by bullying him. When he thinks he hears love in her words, she promptly puts up her best materialistic defenses. There is also the notable example of Butler, who makes the same mistake about McCabe that McCabe makes about others. McCabe stutters and stammers and squirms when they meet, and Butler thinks he knows him. "That man never shot anyone in his life," says he - but in the end, he gets what Bill Roundtree got. We can't even dismiss McCabe, you know.

    What we have, then, is this - a film about a town, about the people in the town - especially about 2 of those people. We see the town, from outside - we see its land and houses and streets, we see these things as objects, in some detail, and see them as they are used by the people in the town. We see the people - interacting, trying to connect to one another and usually doing it badly. And we see McCabe and Mrs. Miller, in particular - we see them as they see themselves, but also, as they see each other, and as others see them - and as we see them, from outside the story. We see things as they are, and as they are seen; we see the meanings given to things and places and people by the people in the story - and we see meanings given to things and places and people from Altman's perspective. We see these meanings overlap, change, contradict each other. We see communities forming and dissolving at the same time. We see a world and the people in it, never quite in synch.

    * Obviously, with a beginning like that, you shouldn't need spoiler warnings.
    ** The source of most of this post, in fact. There's no end of things to write about this film - which stands as one of the short list of all time greats. Shorter than that even. An almost infinitely dense and complex film - I could write all day about it, cutting down to something manageable is not easy.

    Friday, March 03, 2006

    Altman and Me

    The great moment has arrived - the Robert Altman blogathon, in honor of his receiving an honorary Oscar from the Academy. See Matt Zoller Seitz for a round up... On this humble blog, I shall aim for 2 or 3 posts - starting with autobiography, later, moving on to analysis, I hope. Here goes.

    Robert Altman made me a movie geek. That’s basically true. In 1992, the Brattle Theater ran a series of his films, probably inspired by the release of The Player, and I went to most of them. It was the first film series I ever attended, at least the first time I'd seen more than one or two films in a series. It changed me. The simplest change, I suppose, was that it got me in the habit of going to films - going to series’ of films, new films, old films and so on. It’s a habit that took a while to develop, but it started there. When the Altman series ended, I didn't just start going to the next series at the Brattle - but I kept thinking about it. I read their schedules - I kicked myself for missing stuff. And eventually went to another one, and more after that, and so on. It took a couple years, but eventually it was a real habit.

    The second change was intellectual. Seeing all those Altman films changed how I saw movies. It changed the specific movies I liked, made me suspicious of the Eisenstein and Kubrick and Scorsese and Lynch films I'd have sworn by before. The reason that happened, I think, is that Altman's films fit very well with the books I was reading at the time. It is probably not pure coincidence that I was reading Joseph McElroy's Lookout Cartridge during that Altman series. Altman clicked with those kinds of books - McElroy, Gaddis, Faulkner, Henry Miller - dense, complex novels, that required a good deal of interpretive work to grasp. Altman's films had the same qualities, the same multivalence, moral complexity, and many of the same devices - multiple perspectives, stories told through dialogue, itself fragmented and overlapping. (Films like Nashville struck me as being very similar to William Gaddis' later books, JR especially). It's odd, and hard to explain, but this affinity with literature (specific types of literature) made me more sensitive to the films as films - at least, to films as narrative art. Maybe because those books were already making me think about narrative and structure, I thought about Altman in terms of narrative and structure - how to tell stories, how to convey meaning. At the time, I still thought about this mostly in literary terms (how he told stories, how he revealed his themes and ideas, the ways he structured information in his films), but once I'd started thinking about form, it was only a matter of working through it to the more cinematic aspects of the films. Starting with the obvious things - the way his films looked like someone had just left a camera running in a room, and come back later to pick out what was interesting; the way scenes relate to the plot - the way he decentered the plot, the way he used plot as a device driving the selection of what you see, rather than a motivation for what you see; the way people talk, and its relationship to the meanings of the films. Once I started thinking about how films worked, I didn't stop.

    It also changed the types of movies I liked. I started to paying more attention to different kinds of films - in place of the macho angst of the Scorseses and Kubricks of the world, I turned to melodramas and comedies, to old Hollywood films, to genre pictures (kung-fu movies, westerns, noir). I became something of a conventional auteurist, post-Altman - looking at old Hollywood films and seeing the signs of the director. This was probably driven more by the books than by Altman himself - but he was the first filmmaker who embodied the values I saw in those books. His films taught me to look at films like novels.

    There is an important distinction here that is a bit hard to get at. It is important that I was never an "innocent" filmgoer. I didn't go to films at all until college (for reasons I share with Paul Schrader and Mohsen Makhlabaf), though I watched films on TV. When I did start seeing films in theaters, I looked at them as glorified television, at least until grad school. That’s when I saw other films that made me take films seriously. I saw Ivan The Terrible on PBS, saw Blue Velvet and Full Metal Jacket in the theaters, saw a couple old films, like Alexander Nevsky, M, Alphaville. I was very inspired - I started reading about films, thinking about films, writing a lot about films. But - looking at what I wrote back then - there's almost nothing about the films as films - nothing about form. Everything is about what themes, meanings, about things like whether Full Metal Jacket is a "humanist" myth or not. I can probably blame that on grad school, and being steeped in Foucault and Barthes and Freud and Nietzsche at the time (all of it applied to history, nominally at least) - but there it is. I looked at those films as illustrations of their ideas - and, rather pointedly, I valued films that illustrated the ideas I thought were important.

    It didn’t last. At the end of the 80s, my reading and interests took a major swerve - I stopped reading philosophy and started reading novels, basically. When that happened, some of my interest in films waned. I think this is related to the way I was looking at films. Reading novels (especially reading novels through Bakhtin) instead of philosophy made me interested in form - because novels do whatever they do, say whatever they say, in a very concrete way. Fiction undoes the hierarchy of ideas and expression - the words and stories do not simply point to the themes - they embody the themes. But I still looked at films as if they were means of illustrating ideas - I tended to like films than fit my ideas. I couldn't reconcile that approach to my new interest in fiction - I could reconcile Altman to my interest in fiction.

    And from there - I passed on to classic films, to noir and screwballs and silent comedies and melodramas, and most of all films that (rather like Altman's films) combined these modes - Frank Capra, Godard, Cassavetes. Especially films that made the form apparent, made the means of telling the story crucial to the ideas. Eventually, I got back to the films I liked in the 80s - Lynch, especially - but seeing them in a more complete way. I could write a very similar essay about Blue Velvet - the film that did as much as anything to make me notice what films could do. But it was Robert Altman that provided the real epiphany, the real understanding of how form and content relate in films.

    The Blogosphere Trembles...

    I tremble anyway. I have come across a couple stories lately, in the Phoenix for example, suggesting that there is a groundswell of support for Crash for the best picture Oscar. How could such a thing be? Something about the more conservative members of the academy having vapors about the kissing cowboys movie. Quel horreur! This can't be good. Can the academy really end up rewarding the one really bad film in the 5 they nominated? One fears...

    Here is Matt Zoller Seitz, from a couple days ago, in a high dudgeon on this subject. I myself would have loved to see it on Mystery Science Theater 3000 - it is a science fiction film, as far as I can tell (if I'm not mistaken, the city of LA has only 20-30 residents, per this film), and would be greatly improved by the added commentary...

    Thursday, March 02, 2006

    Self-congratulation and Very Bad News

    Nice to see one's theories, formed in the vacuum of one's head [um - is that the image I wish to convey? - ed.], repeated in the World at Large. In this case, my notion about the evolution of "Oscar films" seems also to be held by Dave Kehr:

    Back in the 1980s, the Weinsteins were among the first distributors to recognize and exploit the shortage of middle-brow movies created by the studios’ decision to concentrate on mass-release popcorn pictures at the expense of adult dramas. By the mid-’90s, Miramax had grown into the contemporary equivalent of the Samuel Goldwyn Studio, turning out the prestige pictures — with Anthony Minghella standing in for William Wyler — that the majors were no longer interested in producing.

    That was what I was referring to.

    The more serious point of the post is the end of Wellspring as an independent film distributor. The Weinsteins have bought it and gutted it and appear to be hanging it on a wall. This is a very grim development - especially since they're keeping Wellspring's film library (as far as I can tell). Given the Weinstein's track record, that might be the last we see of any of those films anytime soon. That's very depressing.