Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

30 December 2010

28 December 2010

Monsieur Hulot Est Vivant!

I find myself biased against animated films, generally. This isn't that they aren't good films. There have been some really great animated movies in the last ten years. This year, I really liked Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon, for example, and last year I was a big fan of The Princess and the Frog. I like animated movies, in other words, and I see most of the ones that get good reviews.

They almost never, however, rank very high on my end-of-year film rankings. For a while I have wondered why this is, and I have been given a bit of grief over it before -- this was probably around the time of Les Triplettes de Belleville and Finding Nemo. But I think that my anti-animation bias is mostly due to the subject matter of many animated films. Of course there is Miyazaki, and I love John Lasseter, but even when these films are not about children per se, they frequently feel geared toward children.

All of this rambling is a preface to me telling you that I adored Sylvain Chomet's L'Illusionniste. Absolutely adored. And I didn't feel this way about Les Triplettes; L'Illusionniste is a whole other kettle of fish.

The first thing to say about this movie is that it is a Jacques Tati film. That fact, to me, already makes the film a must-see. If you have loved Tati's films in the past you cannot miss L'Illusionniste. Chomet has adapted a Tati script from the mid-1950s that had never been filmed by Tati himself. The adaptation is lovely! The main character is a down-on-his-luck magician named Tatischeff (Tati's own given name) and though he is an animated character, he possesses the unique gangliness, awkward gait, and seeming obliviousness that easily identified Tati's Monsieur Hulot. In other words the film's star is immediately recognizable and lovable on the instant.

But L'Illusionniste is also a Sylvain Chomet film. It is a comical movie, but it is also deeply sad. Chomet's balance of these two is flat-out masterful. The film manages to juggle a persistent nostalgia (the film's star is, after all a beloved icon who has been deceased many years) and a delightful, often breathtaking sense of whimsy with a rather sad plot about a man with outdated skills looking for work in an unkind economy. This is also a movie about regret: a kind of love-letter to or hopeful vision of a more generous mode of parenthood.

For L'Illusionniste is, at heart, a film about parenting; it is not, however, a film about children.

It's also a film about being poor, about how much things cost, and about how children don't understand the sacrifices parents make.

And it is also a movie about magic: illusions, sure, but also noticing the magic around us all the time. Parenting is itself magical in this movie, and Chomet asks us to see the labor our parents do to support us, the worry they expend for our safety, the dreams they give up to nurture our dreams, as quiet, unacknowledged miracles, little bits of magic that grace our lives every day.

L'Illusionniste displays Chomet's characteristic style. Some of the characters are intentionally (if rather beautifully) grotesque, and there is less dialogue than in a silent film.

Instead of dialogue the movie is filled with powerful standalone images, beautifully choreographed farcical sequences, and delightful non sequiturs; these accumulate to form a whole that is emotionally arresting and whimsically transportive. It is easily one of the best films of the year.

27 December 2010

The Four Big Ones

A couple of quick thoughts about the big four mid-December releases. You may be thinking that you might want to see The Fighter or The King's Speech, but I'm here to try to convince you that your first two choices ought to be Black Swan and 127 Hours.

Black Swan is so far my favorite movie of the year. It's creepy and exciting and basically a thrill a minute. I also found it incredibly sexy and often very, very fun. The best thing about this picture—and I put a high premium on this as a movie-goer so you can take my excitement about Black Swan with a grain of salt if you like—is that I pretty much never knew what the hell was going to happen. I was never ahead of this movie. The acting is great, as well – I was particularly fond of Ms. Portman and Ms. Hershey – both of whom are basically batshit crazy in this film. Darren Aronofsky is the star here, though. Has this man ever made a bad movie? Seriously. He's awesome.

The next movie on your list should be Danny Boyle's 127 Hours. While not quite the Hitchcockian drama that Aronofsky's movie is, 127 Hours is a riveting character study of a truly fascinating guy. It's a Danny Boyle movie, so it's a film about flash and color and, well, general coolness. To be honest, though, Boyle himself is outshined in 127 by the film's actual star James Franco, who gives one of the great performances of the year. The camera is on him nonstop and his desperation, fear, and even his ingenuity, are displayed through tiny nuances, minimal action. A ham in real life (obviously) Franco focuses his energy in this brilliant star turn and only gives away a little at a time. The result is, frankly, devastating. Boyle's filmmaking takes over again as the film's focus by the end, but this is no Slumdog Millionaire. 127 Hours feels deep under all of that flashy exterior in a way that Boyle's big Best Picture-winning extravaganza never did.

The King's Speech is a good movie. And the thing of it is, I just kept thinking that thought while I was watching this picture. In other words, I never really emotionally dropped in to Tom Hooper's movie. This has to do with direction, of course, and with, I think, the subject matter. The King's Speech is, after all, about a king, and, well, I am not sure that a king's problems are really that momentous just because he's the king. Maybe it's just me. The King's Speech feels very invested in the notion of patriotism and national togetherness and big stuff like that. (This is also a rather sex-negative film, to my mind.) It was good, but, well... I had the feeling that Tom Hooper was trying too hard the whole time. The acting is good in this movie except for the bizarre caricature of Winston Churchill, which I found baffling, even in a comedy.

 The Fighter also has really, really good acting. Particularly from star Christian Bale and supporting-actress-of-the-decade Melissa Leo, both of whom give extraordinarily fierce performances, tearing into these roles and never criticizing the people they're playing. The film itself is a little uneven, however. First off, it's like no David O. Russell film I've ever seen. And, then, the center of the movie isn't really the center of the movie. The scenes that need to be in the film in order to make the main character the main character never materialize, and the emotional center of the film doesn't ever quite jell. Because of this, the end of the movie threw me for a bit of a loop. In a way, all of this is because The Fighter, as it turns out, is a boxing movie. It's not an unconventional boxing movie or a new twist on the boxing movie. It's a boxing movie: you know, like Cinderella Man or Rocky or Somebody up There Likes Me or The Champ. I was expecting something... else. So, perhaps if you go in with different expectations than I did, you will come out feeling a bit warmer toward Russell's new flick.

17 December 2010

Fair Game

I am going to try and do a quick movie round-up in a day or two. Maybe tomorrow. I want to see The Fighter first. Not sure if I will have time.
But before I get to the three "important" movies I have seen recently, I wanted to make a quick report on the Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson movie Fair Game, which was directed by former Bourne Identity helmer Doug Liman. This is not to be confused with the Billy Baldwin/Cindy Crawford picture Fair Game from the 1990s.
This movie is a history lesson and a news report and the sermon on the mount all at once. This, as you can imagine, is not a good thing. The movie is fine, serviceable, unremarkable. It's never really gripping or shocking or suspenseful. Everything just seems so inevitable in this movie. Which of course makes a lot of sense since we know everything that is going to happen. Their story is not that old.
We root for the characters, sure: they are up against a superpowerful, mendacious, consciousless behemoth of an antagonist. But we know they are never really going to win. And we know this because we saw it on the news not that long ago.

The film is right, of course, and Plame and Wilson were right, and there is a speech very near the film's end where Wilson tells us we must safeguard our republic and demand transparency and honesty from our elected officials. With all of this I wholeheartedly agree. I also think it decidedly uncinematic.

Good politics. Average movie.

15 December 2010

The New Malick

Finally, finally, finally. The trailer for The Master's new movie is out:

07 December 2010

Summing Up 2010

1. What did you do in 2010 that you'd never done before?
I officiated at a wedding. My dear friends Danny Lampson and Ashley Opstad got married on May 31st of this year and I was honored to be asked to preside as the minister.
Drank an entire gallon of milk in under an hour. For (graphic and unappetizing) evidence, click here.
Worked as a contributing scholar on a show remotely. Two in Chicago, one in New York, one in Virginia.
Went to the ASTR annual meeting.

2. Did you keep your new year's resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
I did. I worked out almost every day, literally. My New Year's resolution for 2011 is to have an approved dissertation prospectus. Or perhaps to actually publish the things I write...

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes. It was a year for boys. My friends Jill and Mike have a little son (after what seems like years of trying) named Henry Michael. My dear friend Ayana and her husband Derek have a little boy named Quincy Harris. And my sister LaTonya and her husband Darrell welcomed a little guy named Darriann Paul LeMar.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
The beloved chair of my undergraduate university's theatre department, professor William Morse II. He was a great man, exceedingly generous, very wise, and appropriately stern. I learned a great deal from him, and I am so grateful he was my teacher for so long. You can read the tribute to him on the Cal Poly Pomona website here; the much smaller Los Angeles Times obit is here.

5. What countries did you visit?
Um, none.

6. What would you like to have in 2011 that you lacked in 2010?
A sensible source of income.

7. What dates from 2010 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
May 31st, see question 1. That might be it.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
I don't feel very achievement-heavy this year. It has however been a fulfilling year for me as a teacher, and, I would say, a year where I have felt very full emotionally.
I was honored to be asked to speak at the FSU School of Theatre's convocation ceremony by the graduating class of 2009. It was very kind of them and I felt proud to do it. Slightly blurry photo below.
I have one more achievement that I want to share, and it is a moment of real pride for me. A couple of days ago at the Fall all-school meeting, a young man and student of mine who is graduating was thanking all of the faculty and staff who had impacted him in some way. He saved me, of all people, for last, and this is what he said: Most of all, thank you Aaron Thomas for teaching me how to think in new ways, challenging me to interpret the absurd, and for showing me that sometimes the most poignant thing you can do is pantomime smoking a cigarette.
I was so moved by this and so proud that I have been able to be a meaningful influence on this young man's life. This kind of thing is what it's all about for me.

9. What was your biggest failure?
Gosh, lots of them. Our lives are filled with mistakes, aren't they? For 2010, the obvious answer to this question is my inability to make my relationship with Kevin work. It's sobering to remember that very frequently love is not enough.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

11. What was the best thing you bought?
I bought a used Honda Accord after my old clunker was totaled on 4 January. It is very nice.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
Nancy Pelosi (most of the time). President Obama (most of the time). My awesome students who graduated in 2010.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
Glenn Beck. Anyone and everyone opposed to equality in this country and elsewhere.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Books for my comprehensive exams.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
Tron: Legacy. My friends Ashley & Danny's wedding. My friend Joe's musical. My trip to Virginia to work for Endstation Theatre Company. My friends Sarah & Chris's wedding.

16. What song will always remind you of 2010?
In the realm of the totally ridiculous: Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You."

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
a) happier or sadder?
b) thinner or fatter? Thinner. So much thinner, actually.
c) richer or poorer? So much poorer, actually.

18. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Watched more movies. Read more on the Dada list. Spent more time in Virginia. Spent more time with my family and my second family in California. Spent more time with my loved ones in New York City.

19. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Wishing I was somewhere other than Tallahassee. And, to be honest, I wish I'd done less reading. It feels really strange to type that, but when one reads 100-150 pages a day and has to do that every day for nine months, it gets a little old.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?
With my family in California. Can't wait!

21. Did you fall in love in 2010?
No, thank you.

22. How many one-night stands?
One. Sadly.

23. What was your favorite TV program?
I am still catching up on The Wire, which is, essentially, the only television I watched, aside from my the paper I wrote on South Park in the Spring.

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?
Oh yes. There is a new crop of students every year. It is inevitable that I hate one or two. I will not be sharing names, of course, because I am polite to these assholes to their faces. To my mind, no matter how rude someone else is, returning that rudeness in public is simply not done.

25. What was the best book you read?
Oh my lord. So many books!
Michel Sanouillet's Dada in Paris, finally in English translation.
Raymond Roussel's Impressions of Africa
Joris-Karl Huysmans's À Rebours (Against Nature)
and the awesome collection I Am a Beautiful Monster by Francis Picabia
I was also really moved by Cherríe Moraga's Loving in the War Years and Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera.

26. What was your greatest musical discovery?
I came back to Michael Nyman this year. And I am becoming more in love with both Arvo Pärt and John Adams.

27. What was the best piece of theatre you saw?
Pina Bausch's final piece Voll Mond at BAM. You can see some (low-quality) clips on YouTube, but it is breathtaking even through a bad home video camera.

28. What did you want and get?
A new car. I needed one after my old, sad, Honda Civic was totaled on January 4.

29. What did you want and not get?
I tried to get my friend Andrés to move into the room upstairs, but he refused. We are both sad about this now.
The truth is, I have nothing to complain about this year. Or, at any rate, nothing really worth complaining about. I am very blessed.

30. What was your favorite film of this year?
So far it is Jacques Audiard's Un Prophète. But there are lots still to see!
Also, I don't rank documentary films, normally, but Catfish is extraordinary and the must-see film of the year as far as I am concerned

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I went out with a bunch of my friends, and then a week and a half later my roommates Mark and Meghan took me out to dinner and then threw me an enormous surprise party. It was very very cool.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
A raise. That's awful to say, I suppose, but it is true. Graduate students get paid nothing. It is very frustrating.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2010?
You can't afford that. But, hey, you have a 30-inch waist now. That's cool, at least.

34. What kept you sane?
Talking to Michael Stablein on the phone.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
Tom Ford.
I mean, my goodness.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
There is a lot to be pissed off about these days. Let's see, I was depressed by the mid-term election, astounded by the willful ignorance of many of the U.S. citizenry, angry at Arizona's ridiculously racist laws, shocked by the Senate's lack of effort to act on repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell (and surprised by the resistance to its repeal - who is that helping?), alternately amused and horrified by the rise of politicians like Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle, (people like Rand Paul make a kind of sense to me, but O'Donnell?) and completely mystified by the continued popularity (I guess) of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

37. Who did you miss?
Too many people to name. So many friends in Seattle, New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., Sarasota, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Pembroke Pines (!), and Austin. And the freeways / They go coast to coast / They've taken away all my good friends...
Also, Kevin. Way more than I would ever tell him.

38. Who was the best new person you met?
Caleb Custer. Does he count? I'm going to count him, anyway.

39. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2010:
This is from something I wrote a little earlier in the year. I'm going to re-use it here because it feels to me like it sums up my 2010 fairly well:
How funny it is that the whole world turns back on itself! The past comes back to meet us in beautiful ways; people we think we don't know any longer turn out to be closer than ever; a heart we think is broken beats in the chest with brand new life.

06 December 2010

The Wahlberg

I dunno how everyone else feels about Mark Wahlberg, but this is how I feel:
I love him. I try to go see every movie he is in. If Wahlberg is in it, I consider it a must-see no matter the picture's genre. Sometimes this makes for bad movie-viewing (I blame Peter Jackson for The Lovely Bones), but mostly it just means that I see movies I wouldn't normally see that have turned out to be good (Shooter, for example). Wahlberg has been recognized as a talented, award-worthy actor now for several years, most recently for The Departed, and I am glad that time has finally come because it is well deserved.

04 December 2010

My Current Read

Right now I am reading from the Atlas Anti-Classics series. The book is called Alfred Jarry: Collected Works I - Adventures in 'Pataphysics. It is unsurpringly morbid, although perhaps a bit more than I was expecting, and surprisingly sexy. He wrote, as it turns out, Symbolist plays, as well as his famed Ubu series. At any rate, I love Jarry, as I am sure you know, and I am finding this reading incredibly informative. It is safe, I think, to say, that not only did he obviously prefigure Theatre of the Absurd and (of course) Dada, but he seems to have been 1) a proficient Symbolist poet and not just a jokester and also 2) seems to have inarguably prefigured Surrealism. His oneiric poetry is easily of a piece with Breton & Soupault's Les Champs Magnétiques.

Fun quote from Jarry for today from Caesar-Antichrist:
Ubu speaks. "When I have taken all the Phynance, I will kill everyone in the world and go away."

02 December 2010

Art, AIDS, and the USAmerican Public Sphere

The Smithsonian Institution announced today that they are removing a video-piece by artist and writer David Wojnarowicz (who, as you probably know, died many years ago) from their landmark exhibition Hide/Seek, currently at the National Portrait Gallery, an exhibition I confess to have been aching to see since it opened at the end of October. You can read or listen to the story from NPR here. New York magazine has the story here. NPR has titled its story "Smithsonian under Fire for Gay Portraiture Exhibit," which is, on the surface, rather a misleading title.

The Smithsonian is under fire - they received threatening letters from Congressmen John Boehner and Eric Cantor - not specifically for so-called gay portraiture (a term the exhibitors themselves have noted is indefinable) but for somehow maligning the Christian faith. The logic is that if taxpayer dollars cannot be used to fund religious practices, than they ought not be allowed to fund anti-religious practices.

The allegedly offensive images (I say allegedly because as far as I can tell no one has actually been offended - none of the complainants actually even saw this video in the National Portrait Gallery) come from, get this, eleven seconds of a thirty-minute video piece commemorating the death of Wojnarowicz's lover from AIDS.

Some thoughts on this topic:
I fail to see how this image in any way maligns Christianity, Christians, or any religious faiths. The decomposing and grotesque image of the body of the dead Christ is a tradition in Western art going back to the Italian Renaissance.

Christianity is most likely the most powerful force in the United States, a power evidenced and demonstrated through the legal power mobilized against this image deemed offensive. Members of the United States Congress have acted in service of this powerful behemoth which quite clearly is not actually vulnerable at all given the amount of state power that has been wielded at its slightest behest. Note that no one in power in the U.S. Congress has come forward to disagree with Congressmen Cantor or Boehner and come out in favor of sacrilege. The power is all on one side, here.

The president of the Catholic League Bill Donahue, who is the main guy protesting here, has said this is about religious intolerance and has called these eleven seconds "hate speech." The logic here is that eleven seconds of video desecrating an icon of Islam would likely not be allowed at the Smithsonian, but they have no problem with images that (allegedly) desecrate the Catholic faith. But hang on a second! Let us not get confused, Mr. Donahue. This isn't actually about Christianity at all, and Donahue's choice of the term hate speech makes this abundantly clear. Make no mistake: this is only nominally about religion and manifestly about deviant sexuality.

Oh yeah. It is one of the bitter ironies that this story breaks on World AIDS Day. Wojnarowicz's piece is intended as a memoir and a portrait of his lover who died of AIDS; that portrait is being removed on a day intended to recognize and spotlight the many men and women who live with AIDS (over 60 million worldwide) and the millions who have died from the disease. The political and legal heft that has been mobilized against these eleven seconds further underscores the United States government's silence and intransigence about AIDS during the first years of the pandemic as well as the responsibility that the institution of Catholicism itself ought to take for its part in the spread of the pandemic. This is a religion that - in 2010! - continues to outspokenly oppose the use of condoms, a stance that has caused incalculable, unconscionable, unforgivable damage in the global fight against AIDS.

So the U.S. government comes to the aid of Catholics who are offended by an alleged desecration of a religious icon? That the alleged desecration is actually an elegiac piece created in memory of a gay man who died of AIDS should surprise none of us. As it turns out, the Catholics and the Republicans still think that a memorial to a gay man who died of AIDS is artistically worthless. Worse, they manage to construe a piece that appears to come from a deep source of pain, from an artist who suffered immensely, as something that needs to be combated rather than appreciated.

The attack on this piece strikes me - more than anything else - as deliberately unkind, an obvious ploy to attack the first exhibition the National Portrait Gallery has ever done that explicitly discusses queer topics. It strikes me that NPR's story is titled correctly. "Smithsonian under Fire for Gay Portraiture Exhibit" describes this perfectly. The Republicans and the Catholics are not angry that Catholicism might possibly have been maligned (Catholicism is, after all, maligned in the Baptist Church nearly every Sunday by some minister or another), they are angry that a portraiture exhibit on queer topics even exists.

You would think that they would console themselves by remembering that Wojnarowicz's partner, and Wojnarowicz himself, are both dead; one might even say that the men died as a result of the U.S. government's refusal to take the threat of AIDS seriously, its inability to act, and its complete disregard for the lives of U.S. citizens who lead so-called sexually deviant lives. If the institution of Catholicism has led to the spread of AIDS, so, surely, has the United States Congress.

The attack on this piece ought to remind us of the tens of thousands of human lives that the U.S. Government still views as less important, less worthy of memorializing, less than other USAmerican citizens. The attack on this piece ought also to reminds us (how could it not) of the furor over Andres Serrano's work in 1987 - i.e. more than twenty years ago. Boy have we not come a long way baby.