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

29 October 2012

Cloud Atlas

The new film from the Wachowskis (The Matrix and its sequels, Speed Racer)  is also the new film from Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, The Princess and the Warrior – I somehow skipped his films Perfume and The International).

Cloud Atlas is split up into six separate storylines that do not so much as converge as repeat in odd kind of ways. They reverberate. So, for example, in the 1930s a young composer writes letters to his lover at Cambridge while he attempts to write a symphony before he commits suicide (we find this out in the film's first 5 minutes, so it isn't a spoiler). Those letters are found by a young reporter in the 1970s, who is attempting to write an exposé of a certain nuclear power plant. The mystery novel that the woman writes is read in 2012 by a publisher who goes through a very humorous ordeal as he is locked into a nursing home, and he later makes a movie of his travails. That movie is seen in the 22nd century by a young clone who is being used as slave labor, etc. etc. You get my drift. Cloud Atlas is grand in scale like the Wachowskis' previous movies, and the Wachowskis directed the futuristic sequences of the film; Tykwer's sections were the 1930s, the 1970s and the one in the present day.

Each of the threads is fairly interesting on its own, and each also manages to be a basically different genre of story. Some are more interesting than others; I was not at all, for example, interested in the story that takes place in the distant future on a random island. But here's the thing: all the stories take place at the same time in the movie. Like a hyper-realized version of The Hours where there are six stories instead of three, and where the viewer is asked to connect the stories as best she can.

But they're not connected, or at least they don't work together. In book form, I think they might, and this movie made me really want to read a novel that I suspect works really well, but as for the film, we switch back and forth from time to time and the links between the storylines (that I was waiting for) just never appear.

Worse yet, nearly all of the main actors appear in each of the storylines. I found this head-spinning. Not because I couldn't make sense of it, but because it actually does not make sense. Tom Hanks plays a kind of mountebank quack doctor in the storyline in the 19th century, a blackmailing hotelier in 1930, a nuclear physicist in the 1970s, a gangster/autobiographer in the present day, an actor in the 22nd century, and a kind of Celtic family man in the distant future. All of the actors have these kinds of repeats, and they create additional resonances. Or rather: they are intended to create additional resonances, as though looking into the eyes of a young woman you just met you might see the lover who left you forty years earlier come back into your life serendipitously. I appreciate this sentiment. I think often, in fact, about the ways people come back to us and the ways in which the people remind us of others in our lives. But the actor-doubling doesn't actually have these resonances. It only simulates them. It makes no sense, in fact, that Halle Berry should play the doctor in the 22nd century who helps Bae Doona get free as well as a Jewish woman in 1930 married to a doddering old composer. I mean why? I found myself spending much of the film thinking about why the actors were playing certain characters instead of actually watching the movie. In other words, Cloud Atlas presents its audience with a puzzle that has no solution, and one is invited to solve the puzzle over the duration of the film. Do I think the film would have worked better without all of this doubling? I am pretty sure I still would've disliked it, but I would have disliked it less.

And then there's the movie's politics. The "message" of Cloud Atlas – and make no mistake, this is a "message" film (like The Matrix Revolutions was) – is that our actions have reverberations. The small ethical choices we make in our day-to-day lives have effects that we cannot know until a long time into the future. We must behave ethically now and refuse to make decisions which harm other people, because we are all connected and because we do not know yet what the results of the good we do will be. I am wholly on board with this sentiment. We are all connected. We must work toward being better at who we are.

But the scope of the film as made presents these ethical choices as general: pro-human, anti-slavery, pro-freedom, pro-art, anti-big-business. All of those choices are obvious choices. Should we oppose slavery? Should we fight the plan that a big oil company has to blow up a nuclear power plant? Should we try to stop people from killing our families? Ya think? And yet, Cloud Atlas does not present any instances when such decisions are actually difficult. The world, even centuries from now, is only ever seen Manichaeistically. It's easy to choose when the choices are "good" and "bad."

There are two gorgeous moments in the movie – both from Tykwer – one in which an elderly Jim Broadbent remembers being young and the film swirls around him and he is kissing his girlfriend on a train platform, and another where Ben Whishaw in the 1930s is standing in the bedroom of his beloved in the 1970s, a continent away, and then the vision fades. I would have loved more chiasmatic plays with time like these, but they are, sadly, few. I want also to say that I thought Ben Whishaw was perfect in this: charming, beautiful, and charismatic, and because I liked his storyline best, it might have made me the most angry of all of them. What looks as though it is something that will be lovely ends up being just one more cinematic love affair between men where one of them kills himself. I have seen that enough times, thanks.

I am sorry for being so frustrated with this film. I really did want to like it. But Cloud Atlas is preoccupied with form so much that it can't manage to tell even one straightforward story.

26 October 2012

7 Pyschopaths

The highly anticipated new film from In Bruges director Martin McDonagh is out, y'all. (It's been out, in fact, for two weeks.)

First of all, the eponymous seven are no seven samurai or magnificent seven (and, yes, I know those are the same thing), but rather a collection of disparate psychopaths connected by Los Angeles and a frustrated screenwriter named Martin (any relation to the writer-director of the film presumably intended).

In fact, some of the psychopaths in the title never even meet one another, and I am not actually sure how they all fit in the film. Neither is McDonagh, and I think that he is sort of fine with that. In many ways, Seven Psychopaths reminded me of the total mess that was Woody Allen's most recent film, To Rome with Love. Psychopaths is a much, much better movie than Allen's, but it has a lot of similarities with its absurd conventions, obvious self-referential qualities, and occasionally stilted acting.

Like Allen's film, too, McDonagh's is quite funny. This is worth a lot and I appreciated it. So few films are funny nowadays. But there are many laugh-out-loud moments in Seven Psychopaths, and they are even worth the loads of nonsense through which one is forced to wade in order to get there.

Psychopaths is a sort of collage of stories of psychopaths. Farrell's character is writing a screenplay about these seven psychopaths, but although his movie is not really the movie we're watching as far as I can tell, we get to see these short vignettes which are the movie, or are at least stories about psychopaths. I am not actually sure, in fact, how his movie must've turned out, but, we get pieces of it.

These stories are interesting. The best are Tom Waits's sequences, which seemed designed as a McDonagh-style nod to (the awesome) Jim Jarmusch. There is also a nod to Fincher, as well as a really great story with Harry Dean Stanton.

I want to say, too, that the acting in this film is excellent. Sam Rockwell, whom I have loved for years, is (again) great here. And Woody Harrelson and Colin Farrell are doing their usual excellent work. (It really is a shame that Farrell never got the kind of legitimate recognition that was promised with Tigerland. He really is very good.) But the stand-out is Christopher Walken, who gives what I think is an Academy-Award-worthy performance. I would not be surprised if he is mentioned at year's end. His performance is just beautiful work.

The other notable thing about Seven Psychopaths is the usual McDonagh coupling of gruesome, even grotesque violence with humor. Psychopaths is very funny, as I noted, but like In Bruges and like his plays – The Lonesome West, A Skull at Connemara, and The Pillowman, but particularly The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which I saw recently with Chris Pine – this humor is sort of about violence. McDonagh's characters are often irrational idiots, committing violence for arbitrary or asinine reasons, and thinking little about the consequences of their behavior. McDonagh's world is a one in which characters possess ethics that are inscrutable or absurd, and in which characters have no sense of life itself as sacred in any way.

Now, I am not quite sure that life is sacred, but as always I find McDonagh's own representational ethics baffling.  His work is funny, yes, but what is the point of all this hilarity? Why take the horrific banality of violence as a starting point and then transform that banality into humor as though it were so many episodes of Seinfeld? Frankly, I believe that McDonagh does have a larger project on which he is working, here. (I think Tarantino has a larger project, too.) But I'll be damned if I know what McDonagh's trying to do here. I liked this sprawling, self-reflexive, homage-filled, mess of a movie, but, as always with McDonagh, I wish for more than banality, terror, and severed carotid arteries.

17 October 2012

Introduction to "A Xicana Codex of Changing Consciousness"

On Monday, I got to introduce a talk given by one of my heroes, Cherríe Moraga, at Dartmouth College. The most satisfying thing about something like this, is being able to tell someone whose work I truly admire, just how much I admire it. Getting to say it in front of a lot of people is just a bonus:

The first piece of writing I read by Cherríe Moraga was a play called Watsonville: Some Place Not Here. It is a theatre piece about a group of people fighting to survive in Central California, a workers’ strike in a cannery, and a vision, perhaps of the Virgen de Guadalupe, who appears to the protagonist in the trees. I was assigned the play for a course on documentary theatre and after I finished it, I immediately read another one: this entitled A Circle in the Dirt: el Pueblo de East Palo Alto. As a theatre artist, my connection to the work was immediate: here was a writer who took the forms of U.S. American theatrical realism and pushed them out the window. This theatre took the notion of the Epic that theatre-people call “Brechtian” and told stories about California, about the people who work and make their homes there; this theatre represented these Chicano lives in an epic fashion, the main characters in a history of a land on which great struggles have taken place. Moraga’s plays, which also include Shadow of a Man, Giving Up the Ghost, Heroes and Saints, and the widely anthologized The Hungry Woman: a Mexican Medea, have consistently and relentlessly pushed the limits of the U.S. American theatre: toward ritual, toward pedagogy, toward an acknowledgement of its own colonizing history. But if my excitement for the formal novelty of these dramas was intellectual, their spiritual resonance for me was primarily linguistic. Because I grew up a gringo, I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish at home, but I also grew up in Los Angeles, so I grew up hearing Spanish, or to be more accurate, I grew up hearing Spanish and English fluidly spoken together – as though they were one language whose words were interchangeable. In other words, Cherríe Moraga’s plays felt like home to me, like I was hearing the story of the land where I was grown in the language I knew it spoke.

Moraga insists upon the importance of speaking in her own tongue. “Spanish words,” as she notes in an introduction to her new book, “are neither translated nor italicized” in her writing “in order to reflect a bilingual Xicana sensibility.” This is an insistence on the materiality of presence, a demand for the recognition of a person on her own terms. It is an artistic, as well as a political, strategy – one that fights what Gloria Anzaldúa described as linguistic terrorism. “If a person” she says in Borderlands/La Frontera, “has a low estimation of my native tongue, she also has a low estimation of me.” Moraga’s writings are openly defiant of this linguistic terrorism, combating it with a mouth she once called “too big to close.”

In 1981, the first edition of the groundbreaking anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color appeared. This 250-page volume, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, has become the formative text for countless feminists, queers, and people who wanted radically to reconsider their own nation. I, like many of my friends and colleagues, return to this volume often. And I always find in its pages a set of extraordinary challenges: a call to fight the racism inside myself, inside each of us; a call for me to acknowledge the unearned privilege conferred on me by whiteness; a call for the recognition of the desiring and desired lesbian body; a call for me actively to identify as woman, as queer, as feminist. Moraga’s poetry and prose are filled with challenges such as these: provocations, ruminations, and identifications that declare a fierce lesbian positionality that is bonded to a powerful Chicana spirit, and that, in her more recent writings, have turned toward the recognition of the brevity of life, the difficulties of teaching revolution to a child, and a profound re-vision of earthbound temporalities and chronologies. Her collections Loving in the War Years and The Last Generation are intensely personal: to read them is to feel as though one knows Cherríe Moraga intimately, so bare does she lay her own fears and desires to her readers, so honestly does she report her own pettinesses, her quickness to anger, the silences she wishes she had managed to defeat.

For over a decade, Moraga has served as an Artist in Residence in the Department of Drama at Stanford University, currently sharing a joint appointment with Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity, where she teaches courses in creative writing, Xicana-Indigenous performance, Latino/queer performance, Indigenous identity in Diaspora in the arts, and playwriting. Her pedagogy, as well as her extraordinary body of artistic work, puts into practice the collectivity and community that it espouses politically. Moraga’s essays are liberally peppered with the names of friends, comadres, artists, and students, whom she cites as inspirations or teachers, fellow travelers who were able to give her an outlook or perspective that she hadn’t before seen. In Moraga’s work, these are not academic citations, they are practical acknowledgements that anything that we might call “success” – in activism, art, familia, and even academia – does not happen in a vacuum. Her work makes clear the responsibility that together we share for the world.

And the work of Cherríe Moraga has literally changed the field: of women and gender studies, of critical race theory, of gay and lesbian studies, of queer theory, and of the American theatre. Today’s talk is co-sponsored and made possible with funding and collaboration from: the Leslie Center for the Humanities; the Women & Gender Studies Program; Interdisciplinary Studies; Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies; the Office of the Dean of Humanities; The Department of Theater; the Comparative Literature Program; the Native American Studies Program; the Department of English; the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center: and the Office of the President and the Office of the Provost as part of Dartmouth's Year of the Arts initiative, in collaboration with the Dean of the Faculty.

The range and number of institutions who sponsored today’s event is a testament to the remarkable, lasting, and continuing impact her work has had in all of our disciplines, and I am now both honored and humbled to welcome to the lectern: Cherríe Moraga.

14 October 2012

The Evil Queen

My friend Julie and I chart our personal journey with Snow White and the Huntsman, which we both expected to be bad, but which I rather liked.

Julie: I have candles lit, and my popcorn and beer. I am ready.
Aaron: I'm a litle sad it's PG-13. I love an R movie.
Julie: Well, it has Kristen Stewart. She's not old enough for R-rated films.
Aaron: Truth.
Julie: Just R-rated personal lives (did you hear how she had that affair with that director? Trollop)
Aaron: Don't hate. Slut power.

Julie: This is Beauty and the Beast. They're already stealing shit! That red rose.
Aaron: I think they're stealing from Into the Woods.
Julie: I hope they start singing.

Aaron: This shot stolen from Gladiator. Oh this art direction is pretty.
Julie: Not as pretty as Anonymous.
Aaron: Nonsense.
Julie: Um, that looks like Anonymous. That snow.
Aaron: That Snow! Hahaha. The snow was the best thing about Anonymous. At least this looks like it was shot on location.

Julie: And at Medieval Times.
Aaron: I already like the look of this, though. Even if it does look like Medieval Times. Ooo. This army is spooky. They just STOOD there! They're made of glass!!
Julie: Oooooo! This is not the snow white I know! How festive.
Aaron: I like it. Speaking of sluts. This king!
Julie: Haha.
Aaron: Look at her boobs!
Julie: They are constricted. Let them have some air.
Aaron: This child actor is adorbs! I like her smile.
Julie: She won't last long though. K-slut is coming.
Aaron: $10 says Kristen Stewart never smiles once.
Julie: Oh man. I would lose that bet. Not fair. I love that Charlize wears her crown to bed. During sex.
Aaron: "Men use women". I love it. This is so feminist!
Julie: Oh, it is because she is killing him. Niiiiice. This is like Teeth! Without the killer vagina.
Aaron: OH MY GOD. I love this.
Julie: Oh, that score.
Aaron: This is so campy. She just wears a crown the whole time.
Julie: I would too. Let's be honest.
Aaron: This brother is a new addition to the myth. Who is this Rutger Hauer-like character?
Julie: Well, does the queen actually kill the king in the tale? I thought he just died.  
Aaron: I think so. yeah.
Julie: Riot.
Aaron: When kings die there's always a riot.
Julie: Really? I'm googling that shit. She marries a widowed king who has a daughter called Snow White from his first wife. The Queen envies Snow White's beauty, and so tries to have her killed, setting the story in motion. That's it. That's all Wikipedia will tell me.
Aaron: I love how they managed to put the mirror on the wall just in time for her to say "Mirror, mirror on the wall". 
Julie: Oooo, the terminator! That liquid shit is so James Cameron.
Aaron: So true.
Julie: K-Steewwwwwwwww. Isn't this Cinderella now?
Aaron: My skin would be as white as snow if I never saw fuckin daylight, too.
Julie: What is she doing in those cinders?
Aaron: Girlfriend is cold.
Julie: Girl needs to go to the jersey shore.
Aaron: The Lord's Prayer?
Julie: Uh oh. God stuff.
Aaron: Hahaha
Julie: As in life, her hair goes unwashed.
Julie: I HOPE SO. ICE QUEEN. She is fun.
Aaron: The brother's Dorothy Hammill do is not cute.
Julie: NUDITY. I don't know what you're talking about. Hot.
Aaron: In ancient Rome, the empress Poppaea used to bathe in mik.
Julie: She wears her crown in the bath, too! What the fuck is happening?
Aaron: I do not care. It is just too fabulous.
Julie: And what are those claws? I want.
Aaron: That dress is amazing. And these claws are fantastic.
Julie: OOOOOOO. Girl got stabbed! Her crown could impale someone. Did she just eat his heart by like osmosis or something?
Aaron: I can't tell. She did some chicanery, though.
Aaron: I think we're just getting portraits of how awful she is.
Julie: This dude is my favorite. Creepy albino.
Aaron: Dear heavens let there be some incest.
Julie: Yes, please! A-Jolie style. Lesbianism?
Aaron: It's good for what ails you.
Julie: How is she doing all this? Where did these powers come from? Did I miss something?
Aaron: Wait. Why didn't she kill the boy that way?
Julie: Because she wanted to air-eat his heart?
Aaron: You didn't miss anything. She's, like, super-old or something, but she has magic powers.
Julie: Humph.
Aaron: And only she can see the Terminator?
Julie: It looked like big bro could... right? Or does he just think sis is cray cray?
Aaron: I think he is jells.
Julie: Totes jeals.

Aaron: I think Kristen Stewart might be sort of... smiling.
Julie: Haha. Ewwwwwwww creepy touching. Well done, K-Stew. Badass.
Aaron: I wonder how come the brother doesn't have any magic powers..
Julie: Because he is an albino.

Aaron: This cameraman isn't quite sure how to shoot a running scene, I feel.
Julie: whoa! sewer slide!
Aaron: I like the landscape shots though.
Julie: Yeah, the cinematography leaves a little to be desired at times. No oscar for you... Greig Fraser.
Aaron: Art direction and costumes totes deserve nominations, though, right?
Julie: Art direction is rad.
Aaron: Random white horse.
Julie: I hope he is a unicorn.
Aaron: Why isn't he? I mean, they can make up whatever they want, right? Give me unicorns and dragons.
Julie: I'm still up in the air about costumes. K-Stew needs some new ones. Those sleeves do not work for me. Oooo, dragons! Yes, please.
Aaron: But the Queen's costumes! They are already more interesting than the three costumes the Queen wore in Mirror Mirror.
Julie: I know! Hers are good. But Medieval Times and K-stew need help.You know I did not see that shit.
Aaron: The costumes were by Eiko Ishioka. That's why I went.
Julie: Oh, that is right. So sad she ended on that movie. Julia Roberts. Oy.

Julie: I hope the trees start attacking her à la Wizard of Oz.
Aaron: EW. This is so good.
Julie: They look like they might.
Aaron: I love how imaginative this whole thing is. This is disgusting!! I am loving it. It's like she's hallucinating.
Julie: Are we in Harry Potter now?
Aaron: I. LOVE. THIS.
Julie: You. Are. Drunk.

Aaron: This costume is fabulous, too!
Julie: Ooo, I like that neck-crown thing. That outfit looks like it was in Wonderland. Yeah, that's right: I just referenced Frank Wildhorn. She is CRAY. And violent! look at those eyes! He loves her. It's kind of sweet.
Aaron: Have I not given you all? she said. Incest. Clearly. That's what that means.
Julie: Hellooooo, sailor. Or huntsman, I guess. This should be called The Evil Queen. I don't know why they think we care about those two.
Aaron: I only care about the Queen and how fabulous she is.
Julie: Is he Irish? Why is he the only one with an accent? Wait, does he have an accent? What is going on with his voice?
Aaron: He does have one.
Julie: (Am I drunk?)
Aaron: But Charlize has an accent too. She is vaguely British or something.
Julie: By the way, where are we? Did they say? I mean, we should be in Germany, but that's clearly not happening.
Aaron: Things look vaguely medieval. Which could be anywhere, right?
Julie: Yes... but Snow White is a German fairy tale. K-Stew should have an accent! Wouldn't that be festive?
Aaron: Has she said anything yet?
Julie: Ha. Just a few lines. To albino. When he tried to rape her. Sort of. I need more beer.
Aaron: This movie is not nearly as bad as Anonymous. I kind of like it. She does have an accent.
Julie: She is annoying.
Aaron: She's just sort of helpless so far.
Julie: You're right. This is not nearly as bad as Anonymous. Which means it's not as fun.
Aaron: This is so gross!! I am into it.
Julie: Yet you don't watch horror movies. I don't get it. Oh, she is British. But she is not "valuable". That is a lie.
Aaron: She is totally doing an accent. It is no good.
Julie: Truth. She isn't very attractive either.
Aaron: I mean, what makes this girl so damn special? That's what I don't get. Kristen Stewart aside.
Julie: Seriously. Just because she was born a Princess?
Aaron: Oh yeah. That's what it is. Nobility.
Julie: Glad I could clear that up.
Aaron: Ah the value of the rich. This demands a materialist analysis.

Julie: Snakes in a forest! Where is Sam J when you need him? I'm going to have some gummy worms now.

Aaron: This guy is a cutie!
Julie: Who?
Aaron: The son of the Duke who was her boyfriend when they were kids.
Julie: Oooo. And here I thought she would get with the Huntsman. But I guess he wants his dead wife, eh?
Aaron: Are you Canadian?
Julie: For tonight.
Aaron: That's a new accent for this film.
Julie: HAHA. I'm just trying to keep it diverse. Oh, they're gettin' it on later.
Aaron: She has four expressions.
Julie: Oh, Aaron. You're way too generous. She has one. Dour and dour.

Julie: Nice fur!
Aaron: I love that the queen has so many different crowns, too.

Aaron: Such effects.
Julie: Oooooh, trolls! Visual effects oscar??
Aaron: This director loves Guillermo Del Toro. Right? I mean, this film is basically a GDT homage.
Julie: This visual effects guy has done Tim Burton and Pirates of the Caribbean. And Clash of the Titans. Haha.
Aaron: She has, like, feelings or something. She just tamed the wild troll. By looking at it.
Julie: The troll is kind of cute. He needs a hug.
Aaron: Oh it's like how the birds love Snow White in Disney's movie.
For the ONE I love.
To FIND me.
Julie: HAHA. Who is this bitch?
Aaron: New character. Another woman. This film is so feminist. I love it.
Julie: Just because women are the main characters does not make it feminist, A-ron.
Aaron: Yes it does. Most Hollywood films have 0 women. Or one woman.
Julie: K-Stew is depending on a man right now.
Aaron: No. She is finding her own power.
Julie: Yeah, ok.

Julie: How is she wearing eyeshadow? She was in prison for years and just ran through a forest!
Aaron: She is magically beautiful and white.
Julie: That girl in prison. What was the point of her? She was like that sickly girl in Jane Eyre. Who loved god.
Aaron: She gave her youth to Charlize.
Julie: She did? How silly of her.
Aaron: Haha.

Julie: Nudity!
Aaron: Naked Charlize. Oo! Girl is a mess.
Julie: Girl needs a cheeseburger. Those ribs. Oy. She is a vampire! Drinkin' the blood.
Aaron: Drinking blood is always related to eternal youth. Or anthropophagia in general.
Julie: Anthro what?
Aaron: Cannibalism keeps you young!

Aaron: We should never have beeeeeen there. Her accent! The best. But Chris Hemsworth is Scottish. Dwarves! About time.
Julie: Scottish! yes. I am bad with accents. That dude has orange hair.
Aaron: Oh they're not really dwarves. They didn't hire dwarves!? It's all CG.
Julie: Is Julie Taymor involved? What is with that bird mask?
Aaron: Eyes Wide Shut?
Julie: Hahahaha. Where is Tom then? He is kind of a dwarf.
Aaron: Who? Oh. Tom Cruise. I forget about him sometimes.

Aaron: Finally a person of color! The first one.
Julie: Are you keeping count? Are you sure one of those medieval knights wasn't Latino or something?
Aaron: Hahaha. The movie is all about how white her skin is. I always keep count about how many people of color I see. Don't you?

Julie: Sanctuaaaaaary! Like Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Aaron: God help the outcasts.
Julie: She kind of smiled again. Ha. Indeed. God help them.
Aaron: Notice now that we are in fairyland, she ain't sayin' the Lord's prayer.
Julie: She gave up her faith so easily.
Aaron: This music is totes a Jim Cameron thing, too.
Julie: Titanic.
Aaron: Right? It is exactly the same.
Julie: Love. So. Much. And like Kate Winslet, she needs to wash her hair. I'm sorry, I just can't look at that grease for much longer.
Aaron: I mean, miss thing was imprisoned.
Julie: I do not give a shit. She is in the forest by some stream. Hop to it.
Aaron: Ooo true. I think that is the first thing I would do. Run some soap through my filthy mane.
Julie: Right? I hate feeling dirty. But K-stew likes it.

Julie: Gollum!
Aaron: Ooo Gollum! I like that all these beasts are around. What is going on??
Julie: Is she making friends with the forest?
Aaron: I don't understand. I think we are supposed to know, but I don't quite get it.
Julie: Gollum 1 and 2! Yes, those animals love her. It'd be better if they sang though.
Aaron: Please tell me GDT is the voice of this deer.
Julie: HAHA
Aaron: Ew.
Julie: Ewww, wash those fingernails
Aaron: So nasty. She has magic powers. She is the ONE. Like Harry Potter.
Julie: According to whom? The albino deer? Why are there so many albinos in this film?
Aaron: This is traumatic!
Julie: Oh, the gollums are faeries. I just realized.
Aaron: They couldn't have saved the fucking stag?
Julie: No. Sacrifice.
Aaron: Like Aslan.
Julie: They are trying to kill the one man of color! This film is racist.
Aaron: This film has been racist.
Julie: Well yes, but now it is obvious.
Aaron: I miss the evil queen.
Julie: me too. I hope she is shopping.
Aaron: Another fabulous outfit.
Julie: She is feeling him dying.
Aaron: That brother of hers must've been like part of her or something. I love Charlize Theron in this.
Julie: she is getting old!
Aaron: Poor thing.
Julie: Ooooo. I'll miss albino brother.
Aaron: I will not.
Julie: I don't know how you can't miss that wig.

Aaron: Singing dwarves. It's a preview of The Hobbit.
Julie: Hi-ho, hi-ho...
Aaron: HAHA.
Julie: This is very Lord of the Rings, you are correct.

Aaron: The look of this film is constantly changing. It is a relief. A smile?
Julie: These two are quite possibly the most boring people alive. I don't understand how anyone has hired her. She has no talent whatsoever. Her range is non-existent. Hopefully he will die.
Aaron: He is cute. Hush your mouth.
Julie: He needs to shave.
Aaron: Not to get into my bed he doesn't.
Julie: Well, into mine, he does.
Aaron: She needs to liven up. And wash her hands.

Aaron: IT'S NOT HIM. This is great.
Julie: Yesssssssssss. That fucker. He just got more interesting.
Aaron: It's her in disguise.
Julie: Wake up, huntsman!!
Aaron: I want the Queen to win.
Julie: ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Creeptastic!
Julie: (He remains boring.) Ooooo love the bird cape! Boring boyfriend is back. Time to put her ass in a glass coffin.
Aaron: Haha. Huntsman has lots of feelings
Julie: He is the only one.

Aaron: OH MY GOD. These birds.
Julie: Ewwwwwwwwwwww
Aaron: This is so grotesque. I fucking love it.
Julie: That sludge is cool. She is a hot mess.
Aaron: Everything related to this queen is cool. The hottest. Of messes.
Julie: Sad boyfriend.
Aaron: More fur. They love fur.
Julie: Fur instead of glass? I do not approve
Aaron: Neither does PETA.
Julie: Haha.
Aaron: She has the same expression as when she was alive. Who can tell the difference?
Julie: Why is he drunk and crying? Why does he care so much? This is his big monologue. His big moment!
Aaron: He is lovely. I love how he sort of is slurring too. Because he is drunk. He is good. I like him: Thor.
Julie: I KNEW HE HAD A THING FOR HER. Poor dude.
Aaron: Sherlock fuckin' Holmes. The movie is called Snow White and the Huntsman.
Julie: Yeah, but he coulda been a father figure to her. It didn't have to go there, A-ron. She has a boyfriend after all. Why is she alive? How did that even happen? I am missing everything.
Aaron: True Love's Kiss. Or something?
Julie: I thought this wasn't Disney? Zombie K-Stew is trying to inspire the troops!
Aaron: "I'd rather die today than live another day of this death." What the hell is she talking about? Ooooooh. It's Henry V.
Julie: Ha. I do not know.

Julie: She is young again!
Aaron: Another new crown. I love Charlize Theron in this.
Julie: I love her in everything. Even that Young Adult mess.
Aaron: She is so good in that!

Aaron: Uh oh. Dwarves used for comic relief. Just the same as every other Snow White movie. Ugh.
Julie: You knew it had to  happen.
Aaron: I hate that shit. Ableist nonsense: They're so funny! Their bodies are different from ours.
Julie: I mean, this movie is racist. Did you really think it would have a politically correct view of dwarves?
Aaron: Touché.
Julie: If this movie had more plot to go with all these effects, it wouldn't be half bad.
Aaron: I think it's pretty good as is, really. Sometimes effects are enough for me.
Julie: No, my eyes start to glaze over. That's why I can't watch all those fast/furious movies. Too many action sequences just bore me.
Aaron: But these effects are like magical and shit. I am into that. Like black oil pouring onto people. That's cool. If I were this queen right about now, I'd be like "You're coming back to me?" She's been looking for her the whole movie. And now K-Stew just runs upstairs like "Sorry I stayed out past curfew!"
Julie: She is just asking for it

Aaron: Badass!
Julie: This is pretty cool
Aaron: YES
Julie: Ooo that father reference made her angry. As though we care about the father who was in the movie for all of 5 seconds.
Aaron: So true.
Julie: I like that metallic shrug she's rockin'

Aaron: Kristen Stewart is so boring. She says "you can't have my heart" without moving her mouth.
Julie: Because I don't have one! Too much Botox. You know how those Hollywood kids are, A-ron.
Aaron: She's like 22. She's younger than we are.
Julie: Whatever, she started that shit in the womb
Aaron: She looks like she's had 50 years of misery, though.
Julie: Hahahaha Ooo, they put some blush on her! not so pale.
Aaron: Art direction's looking sort of Flemish now.
Julie: It's like the EPCOT of art direction
Julie: That dress is Ug. Ly.
Aaron: Yeah it is. Don't they know their previous queen was way more fabulous?
Aaron: I am on tinterhooks.
Julie: She smiled again!
Aaron: She vaguely smiled again.
Julie: But they aren't going to tell us!! CLIFFHANGER.
Aaron: It's like The Hunger Games.
Julie: That was dumb. As is this music.
Aaron: I thought it was totally cool. The plot was non existent. And Kristen Stewart is a black hole of feelings. Having her at the center of a movie is like the kiss of death.
Julie: There weren't enough effects to make up for the lack in plot or in acting.
Aaron: Charlize was AMAZING. She was the CAMPIEST.
Julie: Charlize was super-fun. This was my first K-Stew experience, and I think it must be my last. She is god-awful.
Aaron: It won't be.
Julie: Yes, it will. Unless she is in a film that is Oscar-nominated, I can avoid her.
Aaron: She will be.
Julie: Don't even kid about something like that.

Aaron: Good night.
Julie: Night! Sleep well. Dream of K-Stew's greasy hair.

13 October 2012

Jason and the Argonauts

Argo is really good.

I'm going to assume that you're all planning on seeing this movie anyway, right? I mean, the trailer is excellent, and this is the same guy who directed The Town two years ago. At the very least, Argo delivers on all of the things that you know you are going to get from Affleck: the pacing is absolutely excellent. He knows when to build tension, when to let the audience in on a bit of irony, when to relieve a series of fast-paced sequences with something more contemplative, and he is expert at relieving tension with a good joke. He did this in both of his previous movies, and it works here just as well.

The story is a great one. Utterly preposterous and also based on a true story. The story is, in fact, so good that the film doesn't need to give its audience the usual twists and feints that we are so used to seeing in the movies these days. Instead, Affleck tells it in a straightforward manner, throwing up only a few obstacles at the end, but even these seem less important than the inevitability of the story itself.

For me, though, this film is all about its incredible supporting players. The supporting cast in Argo is just the best. Affleck is wonderful in the central role, a lovely anchor to the film, but what makes this film work from start to finish is the great performances that an entire series of undersung supporting players in Hollywood give in small roles. Clea DuVall, Bryan Cranston, Tate Donovan, Chris Messina, Farshad Farahat, and Željko Ivanek, were my personal favorites, but there is excellent work all around.

John Goodman and Alan Arkin are mostly here for laughs. They get almost all the good lines, and their respective deliveries of these gems are easily worth Argo's price of admission.

I do think that Affleck's sentimental side tends to kick in as he tries to end his films. I felt frustrated with the oh-so-romantic ending to The Town, and I felt just as frustrated with the pat ending of Argo. These kinds of endings feel easy, almost obligatory, as though the brain of everyone working on the film stopped working in the film's last five minutes and everyone turned into Steven Spielberg circa 1982.

One more note about nostalgia. Sometimes I complain when films sentimentalize an earlier period in movie history. Argo does this blatantly. There's this great sequence where people quote Sidney Lumet's Network and then someone onscreen references it explicitly. The entire idea for Argo comes from Don Taylor's Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and Affleck ends the film with a shot of miniature versions of the Star Wars characters. Even more (and I laughed out loud when I saw this), the logo that Affleck uses for the distributor's credit at the very beginning of Argo is Warner Bros' logo from the late 1970s. It's a great in-joke that immediately set the tone for the picture. This Warner Bros image, too, is not a nostalgic one per se. In fact, let me be kind and say that it isn't exactly the best logo Warner has ever had. Affleck isn't romanticizing the 1970s so much as he is revisiting them, warts and all.

I want to say just one more thing, and that is that I am told there is Oscar buzz about Argo, and while I think that is good news for Affleck's career (he deserves it), and good for the movie in general. I really hope that no one starts acting like Argo is the frontrunner for Best Picture. I don't think the movie's got the legs for that. And it doesn't need them. Behaving as though this movie should win Best Picture is asking more than ought to be asked of Argo. It's a very strong tongue-in-cheek spy movie that happens to be a true story.
Let's all just sit back and enjoy it. It's a good movie.

09 October 2012

What Is This?

Oh, it's nothing. Just a link to some good poetry. When I Wrote It Down, I Wrote It Down Dirty by Jameson Fitzpatrick (and you can click a link to hear the poem read by Alex Dimitrov).

08 October 2012

As Regards The Master

I have been delaying a post about The Master for a while.

Often, when I feel like a film is a little smarter than I am, or when a film overwhelms me, I just avoid posting altogether. Sometimes, I feel like a film is just too good, and I don't have anything to say except the (rather boring) oh-my-god-I-loved-it. Films like Biutiful and The Reader and The Wrestler left me without words at the time, though, for the record, I could now probably regale anyone with numerous reasons why I love those films.

But I haven't been avoiding discussion of The Master because it's too good. It is, rather, that The Master left me feeling very conflicted. I didn't love The Master, and this isn't because it is not excellent. It is excellent. But I found The Master also to be deeply flawed.

In many ways, The Master is a kind of continuation of Anderson's previous masterpiece There Will Be Blood. If you remember, Blood was a kind of giant metaphoric battle of wills that pitted (evil) capitalism against (evil) religion. There Will Be Blood is a morality tale dressed up as a personal drama. It uses dual character studies as a cover for an exploration of what Anderson (via Upton Sinclair, who wrote the source material) sees as competing sets of lies that trap human beings and blind them to their own lives and the lives of others. I found it difficult not to see Anderson's big-picture metaphors in There Will Be Blood, but they didn't bother me even a little bit, so taken in was I by the story, the character studies, and the sheer audacity of Anderson's filmmaking.

(Further, There Will Be Blood was an enormous departure for the director, whose previous films had been stories of late-twentieth-century life, saturated with color, filled with urban ennui, but possessing an underlying faith in the good intentions of his characters.)

The Master is also a battle of wills between two characters, each of whom symbolizes a way of life or a system of lies that traps human beings. Joaquin Phoenix (who is just absolutely genius in this movie) is a wayward alcoholic, who can't keep a job down, who has no direction in his life, who is impulsively and dangerously violent, and who mixes his own unique brands of hooch using shall we say unconventional ingredients (in the first few minutes of the film he uses – in different brews – jet fuel, paint thinner, and what looked to me like acetic acid).

His foil is the eponymous Master himself, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman (with his usual obstreperousness), an L. Ron Hubbard-type figure who believes in past lives and who performs something called "processing" on people willing to undergo his pseudo-psychoanalytic treatments.

Both characters are very, very interesting, and it is a testament to how convincing both characters are that my companion and I both considered the self-destructive alcoholic to be the one to have gotten in with the dangerous crowd and not the other way around. There are also some absolutely phenomenal sequences. Joaquin Phoenix's first processing session is easily some of the bravest, best acting he's ever done. It's incredible, actually. Anderson's direction of actors is flawless. His eye for detail is extraordinary. The Master is breathtakingly shot (by Francis Ford Coppola's cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.), and Johnny Greenwood's score is haunting, intelligent, and engaging.

But... The Master outstays its welcome. Anderson is not satisfied with the film's first ending, and tacks on two or three more (depending on how you count). And the larger evils for which his (admittedly fascinating) characters stand in – alcoholism and religion – come to seem simple, trite, obviously flawed. Too soon I sensed my own feelings of superiority for these characters – one an aimless, disaffected alcoholic, the other an unapologetic, destructive charlatan. It felt easy to say Well why can't he simply get his life together? and How dare this man behave with such shameless arrogance?

If The Master is complicated, rich filmmaking – and it undoubtedly is – it also settles for answers that seemed to me too easy, and its moral compass is less complex than the intricate, humane storytelling that Anderson is able to achieve.

06 October 2012

The Sign of the Cross

I watched the ridiculous Cecil B. De Mille picture The Sign of the Cross the other day.

The picture is pretty much a mess for most of its running time. It unfortunately manages to do several really stupid things.

First, it conflates 20th-century Christianity with 1st-century Christianity, which – let's be honest – makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Also, The Sign of the Cross's version of Christianity mostly involves singing hymns, as far as I can tell. The idea here was just idiotic. And the film actually needs its version of Christianity to make sense, because The Sign of the Cross is a film about the Roman emperor Nero's persecution of ancient Roman Christians. As it is, the Christians all just sort of go to their deaths, but I couldn't quite figure out why they did.

All of the good stuff in the film is related to De Mille's normal predilections: ostentation, expense, costumes, gorgeous cinematography, and excellent direction of supernumeraries.

For example, Claudette Colbert takes a bath in a swimming pool of milk:
So that's fabulous.

The last 25 minutes of the film are dedicated to a pageant of gladiatorial games that are an absolute delight, though they have absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell, to do with the actual plot of The Sign of the Cross. Still, they are nearly the best thing in the picture, so I was glad they were there because the love plot (which is ostensibly the film's focus) between Fredric March (cute) and Elissa Landi (who?) is completely boring from its first minutes.

Here's a pair of elephants eating some guys at the Coliseum.

And here's half-a-dozen crocodiles about to devour a girl wearing only garlands of flowers:

And this is a tiger eating a girl:

There is all other manner of decadence. A small army of "pygmies" fights a group of "Amazons". And whenever the camera finds Nero (Charles Laughton, queening it out), he is applauding stupidly and being served grapes by this naked man:

My favorite images, though, are the lions that are released to kill the Christians at the very end of the movie. We don't see any of the Christians meet their deaths (thankfully), but check out this shot of lions running up a staircase to the main floor of the Coliseum:

And this one of a lion leaping over a bunch of his fellows:

Such great photography! I couldn't help but think of the lions in all of those amazing ancient Assyrian reliefs of King Ashurbanipal II.

Anyway, you can feel free to skip this.

03 October 2012

Interview #4: Justin Abarca

It's been a while since I did an artist interview, but my friend, comedian, improvisor, actor, and writer Justin Abarca, and I both had a great time discussing comedy, art, and inspiration for Tea to Pour's fourth artist interview.

ACT: I think of you primarily as a comedian, although you are a talented actor as well as a designer, but this interview series is really a series about art, so I thought I might begin by asking how you see comedy and art as linked. Is comedy an art?

JA: Most definitely comedy is an art. Aristophanes? Ever heard of him? (pats himself on back for remembering something from college) What is comedy, though? I think it is something intentional to make another person laugh/think. I say think because you'll often watch or hear something and say That's funny without laughing, but it has made you think in a certain way. I also say intentional because that's what makes it work, and art is work. That is why comedy comes in so many forms, from stand-up to cartoon strips to movies, TV, etc. Yet, like all art, there are tiers of it. Arrested Development is a masterpiece, According to Jim not so much.

Tell me about art as work. You stressed the importance of that, but what do you mean by art is work?

Like any field or profession, the only way one gets better is to work at it. People think that artists are born artists, that they are brought into this world with their skills already honed. While that may be true of talent, it doesn't necessarily mean that success is around the corner. How many super-talented people do we know that did nothing with said talent? That's what I mean by art is work. It's why mediocre talent can rise to success, which is what I'm hoping for.

Do you think of the effect of laughter as, perhaps, something akin to the sublimity an audience might get from a great piece of theatre or a great painting? Am I going too far?

You're not going far enough. All great plays have moments of levity. People still love the Mona Lisa because of its enigmatic quality, its cleverness, her "smile". I am not a stand-up, but I can see how certain shows would be cathartic to an audience. Someone on stage saying the things they wish they could and being funny about it, making them feel at ease and not alone.

How does the labor of invention function for you? Are you always simply coming up with ideas for things?

I wish it were that simple. Here's my writing process:

Step 1 - Wake up.
Step 2 - No, really, wake up.
Step 3 - Facebook.
Step 4 - Coffee.
Step 5 - Open script.
Step 6 - Check what's up with Miley and Lindsey.
Step 7 - Eat.
Step 8 - Try to focus on an idea.
Step 9 - Miley nip slip?
Step 10- Decide that today is a wash and start again tomorrow.
Step 11- Awake in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea; promptly forget it.
Step 12- Repeat the next day.

But you have spent many years as an improviser, so part of your entire comedic repertoire is forgotten in the middle of the night – even designed as such – right? How does improvisation (as a form and as a theoretical model) inform your work?

Not being a trained writer, I am basically making all this up as I go along. I don't have an English degree; I've never taken a screenwriting class. I am horrible about outlining a story and barely remember the three-act structure from the one directing class I took in college. What I can draw on is my years of experience as an improvisor. So when I start to write a script or story outline I just... well, write. I improvise the entire thing from beginning to end, surprising myself on where the story is going just like in improv. Callbacks naturally happen, characters and themes weave in and out, and in the end something resembling a script is formed. If I tried to do it the "classic" way I'd be screwed; my brain doesn't think that way.

Let's talk about popular culture and creativity for a bit. This is not new, but a lot of comedy (and art in general) uses punchlines that twist things we already know very well in our culture into something else – essentially puns. I see hipster culture as an extended, endless series of puns (which I sort of love). What are your thoughts on this self-referential quality that is so popular?

Does it give me a ton of glee that this happens? No. Most people lack that certain x-factor to really affect anyone; you don't have to be Sherlock to see that. As our modern families grow we may need bigger houses in bigger communities, but that's life. Cereal. Serial Killers. The Killers. Mr. Brightside? Side of bacon. Kevin Bacon.

I guess I asked for that. Perhaps comedy itself is made to be sort of ephemeral?

Yes and no. The heart of a good joke can last forever even if the context changes. However, if the joke or premise is all context, it's pretty much dead on arrival (I'm looking at you Scary Movie franchise).

Is there anything that is off-limits? Anything you won't joke about? Do you have a philosophy about this?

There is nothing I won't joke about given the context. I'm not going to write off-colored jokes for a kids' show or tell the old lady in the checkout line my hilarious observations about the Kardashians' beautiful, bulbous butts. That's why I have you, my gay, gay friend.

But are certain jokes not good for certain people simply because they won't create pleasure? I mean, isn't that comedy's whole purpose?

I don't think that comedy's main purpose is pleasure. Ideally, without sounding too pedantic, it should reflect the human condition. The best stand-ups and the best comedy writers make us look at ourselves, warts and all. The "pleasure" you speak of, I feel, is the realization that when something makes you laugh you know you are not alone.

So do you primarily consider yourself a writer now?

Yes. Or as e.e. cummings would say:



You can check out some of Justin's writing and acting by visiting the website of The Clubhouse of Dickheads, or you can watch episodes of Hulu's original comedy series Battleground (which is excellent), and you can follow Justin on tumblr.

02 October 2012

Le Havre

I just don't understand Aki Kaurismäki. I know other people like his work. In fact, it might be fair to say that pretty much everybody loves Kaurismäki. But I just don't get it.

Granted, I haven't seen a lot of his work – so this judgment is perhaps unfair – but I didn't understand The Man without a Past and I didn't understand Le Havre.

The film is unprepossessing enough: a simple tale about an older Norman who helps a small boy who is a refugee from somewhere in Francophone Africa trying to make his way to London to be with his mother.

But Kaurismäki's filmmaking has this strange, stilted quality that I cannot seem to move past. The movie is a fairy tale, yes, but the filmmaker's style does not eschew realism altogether, and attempts (perhaps) to address the important issue of immigration and legal restrictions on it. And so what I get seems confused.

In truth, the issue is comedy, and that's why I say that I don't get Kaurismäki. Le Havre is a comedy, but it is a comedy where the jokes don't often land with me and so I simply feel that I have no access to his work.

So this is my Kaurismäki pity-party. I wish that I thought his films were funny, but I just don't.