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

30 November 2011

Whitman Whednesday

Starting from Paumanok - §19

O Camerado close! O you and me at last, and us two only.
O a word to clear one's path ahead endlessly!
O something ecstatic and undemonstrable! O music wild!
O now I triumph—and you shall also;
O hand in hand—O wholesome pleasure—O one more desirer and lover!
O to haste firm holding—to haste, haste on with me.

(I love it when he talks sexy.)

Citing My Sources

While writing my dissertation I am making it a point to always go back to the original source. I am quoting hearsay, viewers' experiences of certain pieces of theatre, that sort of thing, and reviews are paraphrased and taken out of context and made to appear more positive than they originally were – all sorts of things. Biographers and other writers are trying to tell their own stories, so it makes sense that they would place things in a certain light.

Which is why it's always good to go back to the source. (Plus, the Chicago Manual of Style says to.) I've always thought, incidentally, that when authors used the old parenthetical phrase "quoted in..." that it betrayed a kind of laziness on their parts, and I am interested, generally, in always projecting my own hyperproductivity. (Just keepin' it real, y'all.)


When Pamela E. Barnett quoted Amiri Baraka in her book Dangerous Desire: Literature of Sexual Freedom and Sexual Violence since the Sixties, which is a fascinating read, I looked up her source. She is quoting Baraka's essay "American Sexual Reference: Black Male," which begins (provocatively) "Most American white men are trained to be fags. For this reason it is no wonder their faces are weak and blank, left without the hurt that reality makes—anytime. That red flush, those silk blue faggot eyes." Etcetera.

Silk blue faggot eyes. I've got to read the rest of this.

Except that this is what Barnett's source looks like.
Aside from the fact that Sidney J. Lemelle spells his name with an m and not an n and that both he and Robin D.G. Kelley are usually cited with their middle initials, their book does not include Baraka's essay – under the name LeRoi Jones or any other name. And anyway Baraka's essay is not from 1994; it's from the mid-1960s: an enormous difference.

I cannot tell you how many times this same thing has happened while I have been working on this dissertation. And I have only been working for a couple months so far. Issues of journals are dated incorrectly. Pages numbered wrong. Titles wrongly reported. It happens all the time.
Last month I came across a quote about John Osborne where the author had inserted into the quote the brackets [African-American playwright] John Osborne. Osborne is neither African nor black nor even American.
And a book that has impacted me in a huge way cites an essay by Warren Beatty Warner from Diacritics 13.4. I always thought it was weird that this guy was named Warren Beatty Warner and it wasn't until I looked it up that I realized that that isn't his name at all. It's William Beatty Warner. (P.S. I love Warren Beatty.)

I am not sure where this post is headed, really, but, well, all of this inaccuracy sort of bowls me over. I clearly do not want to write this chapter on which I am working. Instead I am posting about other people's bad record-keeping.

This post is absurd. I'll stop now.

27 November 2011

Hope, Whiteness, and James Earl Jones

I watched this a while ago, and I just wanted to share how much I really loved The Great White Hope. It's an old movie made from an even older play, but it's really excellent.

The Great White Hope also boasts some superb performances. James Earl Jones is just outstanding, and his later fame in other roles is completely obvious when looking at his work in this. He was already a master in 1970. The performance is big and brave and powerful.

I have to admit to being a little baffled as to why they didn't just call the character in the movie Jack Johnson. The Great White Hope is so clearly based on Johnson's life-story that it seems odd to provide any subterfuge. The film calls him Jack Jefferson, which makes the subterfuge seem even sillier to me.

One thing the fake name did do for me is that I kept asking "Did that really happen?" "They didn't do that to him, did they?" "They couldn't have ended up in Budapest performing in a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin could they have?" That's probably not all bad. I mean, I ended up looking Johnson up and spending an hour reading about him after the movie was over.

The Great White Hope is a boxing movie only partially. Much of the boxing happens off screen – a choice that would probably never be made by a filmmaker working today and probably a formal device left over from the original play – and instead the focus is on the ingenious methods these racist jackasses in the United States invented as a way of punishing Jack Johnson for being a powerful pugilist and for loving a white woman.

But TGWH is, even more than that, one of those 1970s lonely-man films of which I am so fond, where the protagonist's morals are questionable and when the film ends he goes off into an uncertain, confusing future, but faces that future with a characteristic unflappability and fortitude. TGWH is a character study and an absolutely fascinating one. The writing is also excellent, though as I noted above, it's often a little too stage-y.

Jane Alexander is also great in the movie, and TGWH also boasts a fierce performance by Network actress Marlene Warfield (god I love her) and an appearance from the amazing Beah Richards.

One more thing. I have watched two James Earl Jones movies recently (the other was 1974's Claudine, which I loved), and both appear in this hilarious mashup, which my friend Walt showed me this summer. Enjoy:

26 November 2011

Grad School

I'm reading James Dickey a lot lately (for chapter 2 of the dissertation), and so tonight I was reading an interview he did with Playboy in 1973.

I really was reading Playboy just for the articles.

So Dickey is a ridiculous liar for the most part, but the interview is pretty great and about midway he gets to talking about graduate school. This is what he says:

"In my little bit of graduate work in American literature twenty years ago at Vanderbilt, I was a kind of two-bit Melville scholar. That was my only claim to fame after a year or so of working in graduate school, in those dark satanic mills."

Graduate school has been good to me, sure, but I do often think of graduate school as a dark, satanic mill. Strong work, JD, strong work.

Time Out, Please

Andrew Niccol's In Time is, frankly, a bunch of cheez whiz.

I didn't dislike this movie so much as I was bored by it.
And I didn't object to the film so much as I thought that it wore out its welcome.

The premise starts out rather interestingly, I must admit. In the very distant future (a future which looks, frankly, exactly 2011, although it has to be many, many years in the future because) humans have been genetically modified to stop ageing at age 25. From age 25, they have one year on their clocks. This year of time is a life-clock as well as currency. So if you have only a half hour on your clock, you will be literally dead if your time runs out. But, see, everything also costs time, so you have to spend your own lifeline in order to get things: coffee, a ride on the bus, a shot of tequila, you get the idea.

So when a small girl says to Justin early in the film: You got a minute? She means, Brother, can you spare a dime? And time zones are really class sectors. Most importantly – and this might be the film's only real insight – working-class people run places and wealthy people walk. Some of us have time to spare. Others only have just enough time to make more time.

The movie looks pretty (you will recall that Niccol's Gattaca also had a gorgeous look to it), and it is exciting at times – there is a poker game that is really fun to watch and an arm-wrestling match that is equally bracing – but mostly the film is filled with half-baked political theories about where money goes and who has it and how rich people keep poor people poor.

It's not that I object to social equality – I do not – it's that I object to generic notions of what that equality might mean. I also object to any political theory about capital that does not also include a political theory of labor. In Time stretches any question of its believability and loses itself in abstract notions of universality that argue that we all should die and no one should live forever and rich people upset the balance of things by making some people die younger and living longer themselves. Except that this isn't the problem with the world. The problem is not that rich people ought to die as well as poor people. The problem is that rich people are rich and poor people are not.

It seemed to me as I was watching the movie that perhaps quality was the real problem instead of quantity, but In Time wasn't really interested in that either, frankly ignoring people's working lives and focusing instead on trying to stay alive. The movie is smart to equate the two, perhaps, but In Time is short on analysis and long on moral abstractions. The whole thing is rather stupid.

Still, it had redeeming qualities. Colleen Atwood's costumes are gorgeous if not at all futuristic, and Justin Timberlake is, as always, fun to watch. Amanda Seyfried runs at full speed for half of the movie and does every bit of this running in heels. I admired both her speed and her commitment to fashion. A lesser woman would surely have ditched those fabulous shoes in order to pick up the pace. It just goes to show you that even when time is money and even when running out of time means losing your life, there are some sacrifices that just ought never to be made.

23 November 2011

Whitman Whednesday

Starting from Paumanok

What do you seek so pensive and silent?
What do you need camerado?
Dear son do you think it is love?

Listen dear son—listen America, daughter or son,
It is a painful thing to love a man or woman to excess, and yet it satisfies, it is great,
But there is something else very great, it makes the whole coincide,
It, magnificent, beyond materials, with continuous hands sweeps and provides for all.

I will make the true poem of riches,
To earn for the body and the mind whatever adheres and goes forward and is not dropt by death;
I will effuse egotism and show it underlying all, and I will be the bard of personality,
And I will show of male and female that either is but the equal of the other,
And sexual organs and acts! so you concentrate in me, for I am determin'd to tell you with courageous clear voice to prove you illustrious,
And I will show that there is no imperfection in the present, and can be none in the future,
And I will show that whatever happens to anybody it may be turn'd to beautiful results,
And I will show that nothing can happen more beautiful than death,
And I will thread a thread through my poems that time and events are compact,
And that all the things of the universe are perfect miracles, each as profound as any.

I will not make poems with reference to parts,
But I will make poems, songs, thoughts, with reference to ensemble,
And I will not sing with reference to a day, but with reference to all days.
And I will not make a poem nor the least part of a poem but has reference to the soul.
Because having look'd at the objects of the universe, I find there is no one nor any particle of one but has reference to the soul.

Was somebody asking to see the soul?
See, your own shape and countenance, persons, substances, beasts, the trees, the running rivers, the rocks and sands.
All hold spiritual joys and afterwards loosen them;
How can the real body ever die and be buried?
Behold, the body includes and is the meaning, the main concern, and includes and is the soul;
Whoever you are, how superb and how divine is your body, or any part of it!

With me firm holding, yet haste, haste on.

For your life adhere to me,
(I have to be persuaded many times before I consent to give myself really to you, but what of that?
Must not Nature be persuaded many times?)

No dainty dolce affettuoso I,
Bearded, sun-burnt, gray-neck'd, forbidding, I have arrived,
To be wrestled with as I pass for the solid prizes of the universe,
For such I afford whoever can persevere to win them.

Spotlight Seven

I did this interview for a new interview series on the School of Theatre website at FSU. The interviews are only up for a week, so mine has been replaced now by someone else, and I figured I'd post the interview here.

Name: Aaron C. Thomas
Position in School of Theatre: PhD Candidate in Theatre Studies
Hometown: Los Angeles CA

1. How did you get your start in theatre?
Well, in high school, the drama class met at zero period, which was, I think, at some god-awful hour like 7.00a or somesuch. I was having none of that. And anyway I was already a big ol’ nerd, so hanging out with drama kids wasn’t exactly going to make me look any cooler. So I didn’t take classes in theatre in high school. But when I was a junior this very attractive senior (his name was Ali if you must know), told me that he was auditioning for the Christian drama club and that I should too. I obviously auditioned. I got in, but of course Ali never auditioned; so I ended up performing Everyman in Lutheran churches (seriously) and my dreams of spending time with my attractive friend were dashed. In college I was an Accounting major for two years, but transferred to Theatre Arts because I found it to be much more difficult than Business Administration.

2. What is the best performance you have ever seen OR what is the craziest thing that has happened to you during a performance?
Best performance I’ve ever seen? How can anyone even answer this? I have a couple, I guess. I saw Faye Dunaway play Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s Master Class in 1996 and we just kept applauding. We clapped through seven curtain calls. No lie. It was a brilliant performance. I’ll also never forget Julie Taymor’s production of Flying Dutchman at Los Angeles Opera. And… we did The Rocky Horror Show here a couple years ago and I might’ve gone three times.

3. If you could have any career outside of theatre, what would it be and why?
I’d be doing humanitarian work. Advocating for imprisoned populations seems particularly attractive to me right now. The amount of injustice that surrounds the prison system in this country especially when it comes to the treatment of men of color is extraordinary to me. Actually, I sometimes think about leaving everything and going and doing humanitarian work anyway. But I admit: I’m old and bourgeois and have a mortgage and things now. I may yet…

4. What inspires you in your free time/ what do you do for fun?
I watch movies. As many as possible. Before I came to graduate school I used to watch something like six or seven movies a week. I watch a lot fewer now, but I keep a movie-blog, and I am obsessed with the Oscars – I’ve memorized all kinds of useless trivia about them. Also, I’m all about cooking.

5. What brought you to Florida State?
FSU is a Research One university, and when I got accepted here I immediately decided I would go. Because I had been a fairly lazy undergraduate student (most of my students now are way better than I ever was as an undergrad) I felt excited that FSU even accepted me. I have to give credit to Mary Karen Dahl for seeing past my ridiculous record and believing in me despite it.

6. If you could give an aspiring theatre artist any piece of advice, what would it be?
Jeff Calhoun once said to me that “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.” I’ve always kept this in my mind. No one should be producing theatre just to do it. Really though, I probably don’t know anything. I was saying to a friend the other day that my only goals when making art are to try to avoid clichés and to remember that I am not there to teach anybody anything: I do not believe that the theatre is a classroom.

7. Wild Card Question: If you were a super hero, who would would you be and why?
I would definitely be one of the X-Men. I tend to be a little psychic, so I’d probably be some kind of telepath. Jean Grey? She was kinda fierce.

22 November 2011

From The Castle

I read this today in Howard Barker's The Castle. I feel like I don't remember this from before, but there it was staring me in the face when I read it today:

I do not know how we will win! 
It is not a failing not to know the end at the beginning. 
Our power comes out of our love. 
Love is also a weapon.

21 November 2011

And This

Via a Blabbeando piece about really great LGBTQ-positive ads in Argentina:

Four (Easy) Pieces about Sex for Your Monday!

From Gawker, How to Tell If Your Son Is Gay by Richard Lawson which lampoons the silly iPhone app that tells you if your son is gay. Lawson offers:

If you come home from work and you hear noises upstairs and you go up to investigate and your son's door is open and you catch him "hooking up" (as kids call it today) with his friend Michael, and you quickly turn around and walk back downstairs and later that night over dinner you say "You know, honey, if there's ever anything you need to tell me..." and he says "Mom, I'm gay," then your son is gay.

Also from Gawker, the delightful article In Praise of Queens by Brian Moylan, which includes a phrase I feel I am constantly using against homophobic homosexuals:

Those on the masculine side of the spectrum need to can it with the "no fems" bullshit. When it comes down to it, no matter how many sports they play, how much beer they drink, or how much Madonna they hate, they still suck dick just like the rest of us, and there are certain parts of the mainstream that will despise you for that, no matter how well you hide.

And then there is this fabulous piece on Slate by J. Bryan Lowder about a male porn star that women love. His name is James Deen and the piece is called Porn That Women Like: Why Does It Make Men So Uncomfortable? and is a great read, including:

Men (who largely control the porn industry) imagine that women want everything big—“Big arms. Big abs. Big dicks,” [...]—when what they really want is something a little less overwrought.

Anyone who describes porn stars as overwrought has, in my book, figured a few things out about the world.

Lastly, I want to share this blog post called The H-Word: “Make Your Own Porn” via BitchMedia. It's by a female porn star named Dylan Ryan who identifies as queer and at one point uses the phrase:

when I'm having sex with a cis gendered man on camera...

The transpositive and queer implications of this phrase are extraordinary to me, and I've decided that I am going to begin all sentences at Thanksgiving dinner with the phrase, "Well, when I'm having sex with a cis gendered man..."

17 November 2011


I got exactly what I expected from Immortals. Well... that might be a little too kind.

Let's do a little math. For me, Immortals breaks down like this:

Immortals > Alexander (what isn't?)
Immortals < The Fall
Immortals > 300
Immortals = Troy

I liked Immortals well enough. It was exciting and for the most part quite enjoyable as a film. Immortals is also über-violent. Like, crazy violent. And I have to say after the milquetoast Rum Diary that I really was pleased to see violence have an actual effect on bodies in space. I find PG-13 violence in movies quite offensive. But Immortals is insanely violent, actually. Bodies are smashed to bits and there were times while watching this film when my friend George and I cringed and crossed our legs and covered our eyes and all the rest of the horrible reactions people tend to have while watching truly grotesque violence on screen.

The most important thing to note about Immortals, if you ask me, is the costumes. I really hope designer Eiko Ishioka (Tarsem's usual designer) gets recognized by the Academy for her stunning work. I also want to note the performance by Luke Evans as Zeus. Evans was in the Musketeers movie earlier this fall, as well, and he is less interesting there, but in Immortals, he is fascinating. His Zeus is a tortured, troubled figure filled with equal parts hope and regret, and Evans manages to convey all of this wearing next to nothing and spouting inane dialogue.

A couple other thoughts. It's easy to object to the use of violence in a film. The standard logic here is that by giving us so much violence to see, we become desensitized to it, and violence seems to mean less to us. That may be true – probably is – but I think the horses have left the barn on this one. So it isn't violence per se to which I object here. What Immortals does that I find really troubling is the way that it justifies violent action by constantly utilizing ideological buzzwords like courage and freedom and honor and glory. For me, the mobilization of these words is much, much worse than representing grotesque violence onscreen. Words like courage and honor work to justify violence by behaving as though murder and rape and torture and brutality are equivalent to courage and honor and freedom and justice. If they are not equivalent (and they are not) Immortals behaves as though violence is the only way to achieve honor and the only method for demonstrating courage. To my mind, this ideological nonsense is infinitely more damaging than showing what happens to the human body when it is doused in alcohol and set on fire or when someone cuts his tongue out with a pair of rusty, ancient scissors.

Also: this movie is not The Fall. It is definitely a Tarsem Singh movie. It's gorgeous and feels like it takes place in the middle of nowhere even though we are constantly being told exactly where we are. But... well it just doesn't have the kind of emotional center that The Fall had. Instead, Immortals has beautiful costumes and gorgeous bodies and lots and lots of blood. I object to none of those things categorically, of course (I appreciate all of them, in fact), but at the center of Immortals there is no compelling relationship or powerful theme. In fact, there is not much at all at the center of Immortals.

16 November 2011

Whitman Whednesday

To a Certain Cantatrice

Here, take this gift,
I was reserving it for some hero, speaker, or general,
One who should serve the good old cause, the great idea,
the progress and freedom of the race,

Some brave confronter of despots, some daring rebel;
But I see that what I was reserving belongs to you just as much as to any.

15 November 2011

Fairy Dust

I'm sort of reading Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's A Dialogue on Love. In small spurts before I go to sleep.

I've been reading so much literature about Deliverance lately, however, that I gave myself a break and sat down and read a large chunk of A Dialogue on Love last night. I was rewarded with the following discussion about the way EKS sees her friends:

They do seem so glamorous and numinous to me. I always see the light shaking out of their wings. It does shock me when anyone views them in an ordinary light—or worse, when they see each other that way.
It's as though I want to start out powdering people with fairy dust when I first know them—like there's a working hypothesis that I'll trust them, we're playing the same exciting game, that they're radiant, kind, mysteriously talented, spiritually powerful. With lots of people the sequins naturally drop off soon, quite without melodrama or, really, embitterment. But if people stay numinous to me for a while, then there they are—in the pantheon.

I love this. And I think it is how I am when I first meet people, as well.

Many, many people in my life are simply magical to me.
And I always think it is so strange when other people in my life view the ones I love the most as though they are not luminous.

14 November 2011

I Thought That Movie Was Called...

I keep thinking that Hugo and The Adventures of Tintin are the same movie. And I realized today, when my friend George and I got out of seeing 300 Immortals, that the reason I think they're the same movie is because they're being sold as though they're the same movie.

Why are these posters exactly the same? A vague blue mist, implying some sort of magical aura, gold lettering implying (what does that imply? Christmas?)

And then there's the gold light behind each of the young male figures which are the posters' centers. The light hits these boys just so. These both appear to be chase films more than anything else. They are running from something, each of these boys, and running toward us, toward adventure. And we can join them...

I shouldn't make fun. By all accounts, both movies are quite good. But a little imagination for the marketing campaigns, it seems to me, is in order.

13 November 2011

Hoover's Tale

Well, I really wanted to like Clint Eastwood's new film J. Edgar. I obviously think the story is interesting, and I have noted before how I am actively interested in what I see as Clint Eastwood's larger project of examining Americanism as a concept. I see him as taking apart pieces of iconic American historical moments and re-interrogating these time periods that so many of us see as nation-forming. So, I don't see his films as about nostalgia at all (though many have accused them of exactly that), but as reinvigorations of history, anti-nostalgic, and restless.

...But J. Edgar is a misstep for me, and not because I don't think Eastwood's project is still a valid one, but because I just don't think the film works.

For starters, the film's structure is off from the beginning. It has this frame where Hoover is telling his side of the story to these various agents who type up what he says. I know I am not one to advocate for a film to trick its audience a little, but J. Edgar starts off by telling us that what we are seeing is a lopsided version of what happened – Hoover's own version of facts most of us understand very differently from the way he understands them. There is a big emotional moment in the film's third act where all of these so-called facts are called into question, but this moment rings completely hollow, because as an audience, we've been skeptical of Hoover's version since the beginning.

J. Edgar is filmed in the style of an old Hollywood flick, sumptuous and without – for the most part – flashy camera work. Tom Stern's cinematography is a little too washed out for my taste (nothing wrong with a little color – especially in a film about the thirties and forties), but I think that's a sort of standard look for pictures about law-enforcement these days, as though there were only grayscale movies in the thirties and forties. More importantly, the film's sequences are scripted as though we are watching an old Hollywood flick. I'm gonna come right out and say that I thought J. Edgar was a really conservative film. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (an interview with him at Towleroad is worth reading) has chosen mostly scenes that he feels like he can verify publicly, but the problem here is this means that J. Edgar does not break enough ground in exploring Hoover's personal life.

And I'm not just talking about the gay thing.

The idea that Hoover was terrified of socializing with women and was terrified that he was homosexual is so much a part of the film that it feels like it is in the movie too much on occasion (especially since the film's perspective is allegedly Hoover's own spin on things). But for me the movie botches all the queer stuff too. It looks like J. Edgar is building up to some sort of sexual release for most of the movie. Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer (dear lord he is gorgeous) look longingly at each other for the film's entire second act, but then the film never defines what is actually going on. And, okay, okay, I understand that we don't know what happened and that Hoover probably didn't understand himself as a homosexual, and that the filmmakers clearly want us to imagine what went on. But that makes J. Edgar the kind of movie that would have been made about the queerness of a famous figure in, say, the early 1970s, where we would understand that a character was gay because the film created silences that we could read as homosexuality.

I am not sure if I was simply bored with the film, but all of this talking to the side of sexuality is boring to me. If you're gonna present Hoover's sexuality (or lack of such) as this defining force in his life, then you also need to flesh it out a little more, and who cares if it is mostly imagined by a screenwriter.

I didn't hate this film (it was no Good Shepherd) but I found myself constantly pulled out of it. I don't think it ever hit its stride, and I was constantly wanting it to move in directions in which it refused to move. And even more importantly, I never really thought any of it seemed very real. The makeup was obviously a big problem – many in the blogosphere have commented that it does not look realistic – but the entire film felt to me like these actors were playing dress-up. Hammer and Naomi Watts looked comfortable in their skin, but I felt like most of the other performers looked slightly stilted for the film's entire running time, as though they were hoping no one noticed that they weren't really those characters.

You will all probably have different reactions to this movie than I did, and I expect that it will pick up at least a few Oscar nominations come January, so I am interested in what you all think.

Viola Davis

I know this was making the rounds a month or so ago, but I wanted to share it again. If The Help is dumb about race (and it is) the actress who anchors the film is certainly not, and the clarity and hope that she shares about representation and roles for people of color on film are communicated beautifully in this speech.

Love her.

09 November 2011

The Briefest of Reviews from 1973

Well this is a little weird. I don't know if you know this, but Sony Pictures is releasing films on DVD-R on a manufacture-on-demand basis. These are movies that the studio cannot really afford to release on DVD to the general public (there is not enough of a demand for these films). So what they are doing instead is allowing people to order the DVD for around $20 and then they burn the movie onto a DVD-R and send it to you. Universal is doing this too. They're calling it the Universal Vault Series. You can actually buy these movies via, so the whole thing is very very easy. And we all have better (if a little expensive) access to hard-to-find films. And if you really want to see these movies, $20 is not so bad.

So I ordered Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams a few months ago when I was watching all of those movies from 1973. But I only watched it a couple days ago.

The movie is odd – a smallish sort of melodrama about a woman who is emotionally disturbed and can't seem to find her way in the world, her relationship with her husband, her children's lives, her mother's death, etc. I was interested in this film because I love Joanne Woodward and because it is about her dealing with her son being gay (evidently a big deal in 1973, oh yeah, it still is in 2011).

I don't know. It is not a film to get excited about, really. The acting is wonderful from all involved, and it is interesting in a museum-piece kind of way. I am glad I saw it, but that's about it, I think.

The weird thing is that after keeping this flick on my shelf for a few months and then finally watching it, the film's director (who was also the producer of the Academy Awards show for many many years) died suddenly. So strange how the universe is: I watch my first Gil Cates movie (no one watches his movies anymore) a few days before he dies. It's all just such a fluke.

Whitman Whednesday

For Him I Sing

For him I sing,
I raise the present on the past,
(As some perennial tree out of its roots, the present on the past,)
With time and space I him dilate and fuse the immortal laws,
To make himself by them the law unto himself.

When I Read the Book

When I read the book, the biography famous,
And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man's life?
And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?
(As if any man really knew aught of my life,
Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life,
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections
I seek for my own use to trace out here.)

06 November 2011

Welcome to Puerto Rico

What the hell?

Seriously: I don't get it.

The Rum Diary is a disaster. I can't say I totally hated it, but it was almost unbearably boring. The imdb synopsis of this film says that "American journalist Paul Kemp takes on a freelance job in Puerto Rico for a local newspaper during the 1950s and struggles to find a balance between island culture and the expatriates who live there." Okay. Sure. Sometimes the movie is that.

Mostly the movie is simply a collection of nonsensical scenarios, grotesque characters, and slow-motion photography. The Rum Diary is (it seems to me) attempting to find a productive tension between a fun drug-trip movie and a film about a man who comes to political awareness in a colonized land (something like, say, The Year of Living Dangerously), but mostly The Rum Diary can only achieve silliness.

The film is filled with silly and unique characters, none of whom is particularly fun, and then there are the villains, of which there are quite a few, who all have decided to play their roles with a sort of stock-villainous flair. And Johnny Depp gets drunk a lot and plays drunk a lot, mugging around the movie with the same faces we've seen in other drunk Johnny Depp movies.

And then the movie turns and wants to be a film about the exploitation of Puerto Rico and other northern Caribbean islands by greedy capitalists in the 1950s. And we are all supposed to immediately understand (though the film has been mum on the topic for at least its first sixty minutes) that Paul Kemp is really struggling to help the exploited islanders (not one of whom is a character with more than one line) and speak for a free Puerto Rico.

But the drunken haze with which with the film began cannot be shaken, and The Rum Diary remains a film for teenage boys who've never had more than a few drinks and never had sex with a woman (and endlessly fantasize about both). If the movie is never a movie about a political cause (and it is not), neither does it ever manage to be a fun movie about drunken debauchery or hallucinogenic trips. My companion Jon and I had a debate after The Rum Diary was over because I thought it must've been a PG-13-rated film since it was so tame. Jon said (correctly) that the film was rated R, but that we had the debate at all should tell you plenty. The Rum Diary has no nudity (None. Seriously.), very little drug use, and a single scene with a computer-generated tongue extending too far out of a guy's mouth.

The bottom line here, is that The Rum Diary is a cartoon version of an early Hunter S. Thompson novel. And it is not a film for grown-up people. It is a movie for adolescent boys that only looks like a movie for adults.

05 November 2011

Such a Win

I have to admit that when I saw the trailer for Thomas McCarthy's Win Win I was highly skeptical.

I tend to be skeptical of Paul Giamatti in general these days. His brand of schlubby but lovable, difficult but ultimately charming heroes has begun to wear thin with me. Last year's truly awkward Barney's Version is a perfect example. (He does historical dramas a lot too, I've noticed: Cinderella Man, I liked, but The Last Station and The Illusionist? I dunno. To me he seems sort of out of place in these.)

But Win Win is something else altogether.

First, and I want to stress this because I don't think it's an all-that-common occurrence, Win Win is a really funny comedy. By this I mean that I laughed, many times, at jokes that the film told well and that absolutely landed.

Second, the film knows that it's a genre picture. It's totally aware that it's a movie about a white, bourgeois, middle-aged man learning a lesson about his middle-aged manhood. Win Win always knows that it's riffing on a theme that's been played before, and it never pretends to be doing anything else. This makes Win Win smart. It avoids all the typical ways that those films work and does its own thing.

Third, Bobby Cannavale (who is fabulous in McCarthy's first film The Station Agent) is a genius. The man is a genius. He is simply one of the most skilled actors working today. I don't feel the need for any equivocation here. His performance in Win Win is excellent. It's brave and self-effacing and also manages to be absolutely hilarious. And it's one of Cannavale's typical side-man movie roles, one he could have easily phoned in. Instead he plays the part with a nuance that make his version of this rather stock character feel almost revelatory at times. Like we might want to look again at all of those good-for-a-laugh side-men in buddy comedies. The performance is just extraordinary.

I loved everyone else in the film, too. The little kid (Alex Shaffer) is great. Giamatti is great. And so are Amy Ryan and Burt Young and Margo Martindale (who is understated in a way I never see her).

Even more, the film is never schmaltzy. It doesn't get bogged down in the kind of sentiment that the trailer appears to promise, and it treats the film's relationships realistically and respectfully.

If you're looking for something light, and you want to see some excellent performances all around, check out Win Win. This is the comedy that everyone should be renting. Step away from the Kate Hudson movies and pick this one instead. You won't be disappointed. I promise.

(P.S. I have loved all three of Thomas McCarthy's movies, but I just want to note that I hate hate hate his character on The Wire. I think I just wanted to punch him in every single episode. Shall we chalk it up to good acting...?)

02 November 2011

Whitman Whednesday

Two today.

To Foreign Lands

I heard that you ask'd for something to prove this puzzle the New World,
And to define America, her athletic Democracy,
Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.

To a Historian

You who celebrate bygones,
Who have explored the outward, the surfaces of the races, the life that has exhibited itself,
Who have treated of man as the creature of politics, aggregates, rulers and priests,
I, habitan of the Alleghanies, treating of him as he is in himself in his own rights,
Pressing the pulse of the life that has seldom exhibited itself, (the great pride of man in himself,)
Chanter of Personality, outlining what is yet to be,
I project the history of the future.