Sunday, March 30, 2008

Network: The Most Overrated Movie, Ever

Network is a film with a sterling reputation. It is on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest American films, it is generally deemed a culturally significant film that foretold the rise of ratings-driven, sensationalistic cable news, and it won a number of Academy Awards in 1976, including three of the acting awards. Upon my initial viewing I disliked the film, then came to like it, and now I find it to be rather grating. Here's my take on this "classic" movie.

is a movie of nearly incomparable prestige and esteem in the current day and age--a film that is still referenced in popular culture, that is often cited as having been extraordinarily predictive of how the news media developed in America, and so on. Blah. The movie, truth be told, is terrible. Terrible. If only there was some English word that could fully encompass the awfulness--it would be necessary to employ some twenty-syllable German word to do the trick. Suffice it to say, it's bad. The much-vaunted acting is overamped and atrocious, the characters are thinly-written and fall into the Randian ideal of sentient position papers as characters rather than real people, the satire is self-righteous and hamfisted, and the story is so ludicrous and unbelievable that it doesn't even really work as allegory. It doesn't work on its own merits, either, and the result is a turgid piece of crap that has been exalted largely because eminences grises like to namecheck the film as shorthand for its vision of a corporate-owned, profit-driven media that was, truth be told, not all that hard to see coming to pass. In short, Network is a waste of space whose cleverness is appreciated only by people whose own cleverness is, like the film's, entirely superficial.

For one thing, the characters are a profoundly uninteresting lot, and can each be summarized with one sentence: there's the mad news anchor, there's the young network executive who has no problem destroying lives (including her own) for ratings and is "television incarnate", there's the old newsman who finds himself muscled out in the new order and has a midlife crisis, and so on. None of them have any subtext or nuance: it's all right there on the screen, and what you see is what you get. They all come off as less than human: they're all chess pieces, allegorical personages meant to make a point about what is going on in the media, and they're supposed to be extreme. Or so we might think. The film otherwise tries to cultivate an intense sense of "you are there" realism which is undercut by the broadness of the caricatures that anchor this film. They're not real people, and as allegories they're not particularly artful. It's not quite as much of a sledgehammer production as your typical Oliver Stone film, but it's in that ballpark. I suppose it is possible that the characters are so intentionally shallow in the film to make a point about how the media creates hollow people (in other words, to go meta), but one never senses an indictment of any sort of the film industry (of course) and even if the point is not meta--that is to say, if the movie is trying to show that exposure to the television industry has the same hollowing effects as television itself--it doesn't make sense to make the hero of the film (the old-school newsman) as hollow and uninteresting as the villain (the new-school executive). There just isn't enough of a contrast between the characterizations here--they're both pretty cliched and uninteresting, and although their worldviews diverge the lack of nuance in these characters seems less like an artistic decision and more like the work of a limited imagination.

And as for the plot: it can be neatly summarized as follows. Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is a depressed, suicidal anchorman who, after promising to kill himself on the air, instead becomes a "mad prophet" of the airwaves and tries to channel the frustration and anger of the public into a ratings booster for a network exec (played by Faye Dunaway). Bill Holden plays another exec who is ambivalent about the stunt, gets fired, then starts having an affair with Dunaway. In the end, Beale turns against his masters, starts losing ratings, and is assassinated by network fiat at the end of the movie. Aside from one or two minor subplots, this is the film. It's rather high-concept, as one can see. One can easily extract the main ideas of the film from this outline: that Dunaway's executive is a cynical, stop-at-nothing-for-ratings executive that typifies the new generation of the media, that Holden is the old-school newsman who actually cares about other people, and that Finch is just caught in the middle. And if you didn't get the point from this summary, you would get them from the endless speeches that the movie contains to try to reinforce these points. It's a film that is constantly shaking you and yelling, "GET IT?!" There is a tension between the idea of satirically undercutting the very foundation of new media by showing the most extreme case of how this model of media stewardship plays out on the one hand, and on the other trying to be good old-fashioned agitprop to try to rouse the people into action. The first necessarily needs to be tongue in cheek, observational, witty, subtle, and funny in a biting way. The second needs to be bombastic, loud, angry, and totally unambiguous. Network does not seem to get that there is a tension between these approaches, and instead tries to have it both ways. The tone of the movie, unsurprisingly, is rather schizophrenic. On balance, the movie leans more toward the first approach and tries to satirize new media, but the bits in which it tries to summon righteous outrage are by far more effective. After all, agitprop needn't be artful or clever, it just needs to arouse the people. Had the movie been straight-up agitprop many of its faults would have been forgivable. Then again, it probably would not be held in nearly the esteem it currently holds.

The acting of the film is often (unjustly) praised--Peter Finch's Oscar-winning performance is an exercise in excess--his version of a raving madman is pretty much everyone's idea of a raving madman. He doesn't really show us anything new. Faye Dunaway's performance is better, but still pretty bad. It doesn't help that her character is so abstract, so high-concept that it seems that all she does is hit her marks. She doesn't really delve deep into the character's consciousness because the character really isn't that deep, and the performance, like Finch's, eventually becomes an exercise in trying to make the character as ostentatiously insane (albeit in a slightly different fashion) as possible. The standards for acting have fallen, although it is common knowledge that Dunaway's Oscar was merely past due for her great performance in Chinatown. The third Oscar winner, Beatrice Straight, appears in the film for about three minutes. Literally. This is obviously an aberration, and the less said about it the better. Robert Duvall's character, which has gone heretofore unmentioned, can be summarized as "ladder-climbing yuppie scum" and is similar in tone to the rest of the performances mentioned here. About the only saving grace here is the performance of Bill Holden, whose unaffected and naturalistic performance does show us a little something about the man he portrays that the rest of the operatic pretensions of the rest of the cast. It is surprising that so many talented actors all managed to produce such dreadful performances, especially since the director, Sidney Lumet, has a reasonably good track record with directing actors. It makes more sense to blame the source material: just how much substance can you bring to a character whose only purpose is to represent TELEVISION INCARNATE? And this is the problem: by setting up the film's central allegory, writer Paddy Chayevsky created characters that didn't really work as people, but since he was unable to commit to setting the action in a tweaked universe the movie really isn't an allegory. It doesn't work as drama intrinsically or as allegory. In the end, the film is kneecapped by its anything-but-protean cast of characters, as well as the rest of the things that have been discussed.

Still, few people praise the movie for any of this stuff: it's always about how the movie is so prophetic, man! It totally got all that stuff about the media down, man! Ultimately, though, it is hard to see how a media that focuses more on profits (and uses sensationalism to generate them) than on correctly reporting the news counts as a profound notion in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. The scandal was very lucrative for the Washington Post, and corporations tend to like to make money. Woodward and Bernstein managed to make the news into a profitable industry. In any event, the idea of large news corporations dominating the news market is not a new one--William Randolph Hearst had his empire, after all. What the film posits that hadn't really been posited before isn't that big corporations would take control of the media--indeed, the TV station within the movie is owned by a large conglomerate. The film basically asserts that news will become more sensationalistic since the corporations that own the news media will see a new cash cow in their midst. Considering the nature of the corporation and the lessons learned from Watergate, this is not much different from predicting that adding two apples to an existing two apples will produce four apples. That the film turned out to be generally correct is incidental--a small child might select the correct answer on a multiple-choice test of quantum mechanics without understanding a word. It's called a lucky guess, and considering the lack of knowledge of the real world that characterizes the rest of the film I'm not inclined to give the production team the benefit of the doubt.

All in all, Network is a movie that we need to stop exalting. We need to stop recommending it, we need to stop buying it, and we need to stop talking about it. It is a didactic turd that exists for no other reason than to be alluded to every time a writer wants to evoke explosive anger about the state of the nation with respect to the media. We all know the problems we face with today's media, and this movie does not do a damn thing to illuminate them. I didn't like the movie, and I didn't like it when they remade it to be about race relations and called it Crash.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Nature's newest, most astounding discovery: a great romantic comedy!

Years ago, in the golden age of Hollywood, romantic comedies were frequently the apex of cleverness, sophistication, and humor. Just rent The Philadelphia Story, or any of the Hepburn/Tracy films to see what I mean. In recent years, though, romantic comedy has become the bane of the film industry: it is a genre based entirely on stoking the unrealistic expectations of women viz. relationships and marriage, and such films are almost entirely devoid of wit or warmth. "Originality" in these films seemingly only results from slight rearrangements of the established cliches: make the woman the repressed, mechanical one instead of the man who has to be taught some important life lessons about loosening up and just having fun, for example. And every once in a while, one sees some hope for the genre (Eternal Sunshine, or perhaps Knocked Up) right before the inertia of this genre reverts back into the same pre-fab plot and storytelling conventions we've seen a million times. Boy meets girl, loses girl, blah blah blah. We get it. It's not so much that the popularity of such films bespeaks poorly of women in general, but rather to the utter banality of the desires of some nontrivial segment of the female contingent in this country. And why is Matthew McConaghey, like, a sex god for so much of the female population of this country? Sure, I guess he's good looking, but he looks like he'd take about thirty minutes to figure five percent of the check for a tip before heading back to the trailer park to catch the newest episode of Gladiators. Well, whatever floats one's boat. Men also tend to find plenty of stupid women appealing, it's true. But men do not, in general, construct elaborate fantasies about meeting "Miss Right" before settling for someone who is perfectly acceptable and despising said man for his imperfections. Men fall in love. It's all on a case by case basis--there's no list of written attributes that a spouse has to have for them to be happy. This might be why every survey I've ever seen shows that men are happier in their marriages than women are. My opinion is that women are taught, from day one, to have unrealistic expectations of what is possible, whether through the media or society--and that settling is the worst possible fate that could befall a woman. I disagree completely, but that's me. I think that all the fairytale wedding stuff (that includes many rom-coms in general) tends to breed a mindset that keeps lots of good relationships from happening and that also ends lots of good ones: women, to a far greater degree than men, are judged by how good a match they make. I feel enormous sympathy for women in this country, although I think that feminism in general needs to get on this shit if they want to regain their former relevance.

So this is where I'm coming from: I'm not opposed to the idea of the romantic comedy, but the execution in recent years has been abysmal. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to recently see a romantic comedy that I felt was excellent: it's called I Could Never Be Your Woman, and it was written and directed by Amy Heckerling, whose previous credits include Clueless and Fast Times At Ridgemont High. The movie is a near-masterpiece: it provides a realistic portrait of a relationship between two people that never induces queasiness, it provides some significant insight into the mind of the middle-aged woman in America, and it features a talented cast (Michelle Pfeiffer, Paul Rudd, Jon Lovitz, and Fred Willard, for starters). It's also one of those "inside Hollywood" movies that actually has a few things to say about showbusiness and that takes a fresh approach to the topic. Plus, it's pretty funny. So, naturally, this would not be a movie that Hollywood would be interested in releasing. In fact, it is the kind of movie that Hollywood would be interested in releasing direct to DVD with no fanfare. Such behavior is more than just disheartening--it cannot help but make a person believe that Hollywood is actively opposed to releasing any film with even a modicum of intelligence for fear of alienating the all-important dumbass demographic. So it goes.

The movie, though, is great. Pfeiffer plays a fortysomething television producer who falls for one of her much-younger show-inside-the-movie stars. Heckerling's Hollywood for middle-aged women seems to consist of lots of bored contempt--at the end of the movie, Pfeiffer's own secretary asks why she doesn't just go away and make opportunities for people like her. It's a movie where Pfeiffer is all too aware of the double standards and closed doors that a woman of her age has to deal with: her not-much-of-a-catch ex-husband (a hilarious Jon Lovitz) nevertheless has an unseen hot young wife, while Pfeiffer finds dating Rudd almost inconceivable, even while it's going on, and she tries to sabotage the relationship early because the idea of her dating a younger man simply doesn't seem right. It's reminiscent of Scorsese's little-seen classic The Age of Innocence, which also starred Pfeiffer, and also explores just how deep societal mores really penetrate, even if they're not mores we like.

All this is true despite Pfeiffer's character being enormously appealing. She's grounded and good at what she does. The film doesn't go too far into the area explored by The T.V. Set or that episode of The Larry Sanders Show where Phil's show about a band in Seattle turns into a show about a Baltimore DJ who solves a murder every week (starring Dave Chappelle)--which is to say that it doesn't feel the need to make a statement about how Ideas Are Dumbed Down, and that's to its credit (though the episode of Larry Sanders was pretty hilarious). We've heard that story before, and the story behind the film speaks far more to that idea anyway. However, this is a movie about showbusiness that shows us what the business is like for a woman like Pfeiffer (and, by extension, Heckerling) and it's not exactly Entourage. Talking heads often discuss how hard it is for women to succeed and advance once the bloom comes off the rose, but it's one thing to hear that and another thing to see the dismissive looks of younger women when Pfeiffer enters a nightclub. Sure, it a little Ally McBeal-ish at times, but the film is undeniably effective at getting inside it's protagonist's head. Pfeiffer isn't exactly a crusader for the "there's nothing wrong with old" camp--her character in the film is flawed, to be sure, and she still tries to chase the youth angle--but her struggles are immensely endearing, and that she ends up with Rudd (as per rom-com canon) is not really that bothersome since it's earned at every step. Plus, the movie is pretty darn funny--witness Paul Rudd's spit-take after he is told that his acting is too broad, or his parting line of, "I don't need to be a real man. I'm an actor!" to Fred Willard's television executive.

"Romantic comedy" has almost come to be a pejorative in today's society, and not for nothing. If more of these movies were like I Could Never Be Your Woman, though, maybe the idea of a "chick flick" wouldn't be something that elicits an eye roll. I greatly enjoyed the film and I highly recommend it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Ten Reasons Why I Love Val Kilmer

Val Kilmer is more than just an intensely watchable actor. He is one of the greatest actors of his generation. No, more than that--he is a god. Well, his awesomeness status has dipped a bit since agreeing to appear on the remake of the original Hasselhoff vehicle (get it! GET IT!!!!) Knight Rider. So, it is worth remembering just what the guy did that was so memorable that the guy did in the first place. Here's ten of my favorite Kilmer performances.

  1. Spartan

    It's a shame that this David Mamet movie was so little seen that many people seem to think that Spartan was a direct-to-video affair. It's far more than that for a few reasons, the first among them being the intense lead performance by Val Kilmer as a U.S. government agent known simply as "Scott". The movie involves a kidnapping--of the President's daughter, played by Kristen Bell(!)--and since it's a Mamet movie there's just got to be a con in there somewhere. What's most interesting about the movie is that the character development is kept to a minimum. Instead, we just learn more about the characters as the movie goes on, and our impressions of the characters are continually challenged by Mamet's script. I've only seen that done effectively in the first season of The Wire, but Mamet gives us a series of people who aren't what they appear, and slowly lets us discover who they are along with him. Sure, the movie's third act is a little weak (though not as weak as some would have us believe), but this is one of Mamet's better films: it's accessible and even moving, and with Kilmer's character we see a character that's not like the many other federal agents portrayed on screen. His motives for much of the film are opaque, and his struggles are internal, but he comes up exceeding expectations, and this is just a fun performance to watch Kilmer beat up, stab, and shoot lots of bad guys. He certainly seems to be having fun, and so are we.

  2. The Salton Sea

    Another intense Kilmer film. This one places Kilmer squarely in the world of speed freaks. He plays a man who seeks revenge on a pair of dirty cops that killed his wife by insinuating himself into their beat as a speed freak. Not only does the movie feature the always-enjoyable Adam Goldberg and Peter Sarsgaard as fellow tweakers, but it allows Kilmer to play a character who has lost himself in his quest for revenge that, even if successful, will not bring back the old days. It's nihilistic, but then so is the movie itself. Still, it's pretty creative in its approach to the standard old revenge plot, and Kilmer really nails the drugged-up thing, too. Once again, one senses an attempt to actually create some new characters and a new kind of look and feel. The ending could have been stronger, but the film stays with you in a way movies usually do not, like Sin City, for example: it's almost as though they impact different centers of the brain that movies usually do not hit.

  3. Top Secret

    Kilmer stars as a young rock god (who is so popular that he headlines concerts at Radio City that will, time permitting, feature Frank Sinatra) who agrees to perform a concert in Nazi East Germany (yes, a contradiction, but it's part of the joke), quickly finds himself in the middle of a plot to overthrow the government. It's a comedy film (my favorite part is when he fires a machine gun into a group of resistance and Nazi fighters alike and only the Nazis fall down), but Kilmer shows that he can be funny and that he can pull off the role of a vapid but savant-like rocker like nobody's business. Supposedly he sang all the lightly-modified Elvis and Beach Boys numbers in the film, but we all knew that he could sing, right?

  4. The Island of Doctor Moreau

    This is where things get tricky. "Island" was a pretty bad film: the acting, by Brando in particular, was silly and out of control. The "humanimals" are more silly than frightening, especially Brando's mini-me (which was the inspiration for Dr. Evil's mini-me in Austin Powers), and the message about, like, not messing with nature and shit (as Kilmer's character might put it) is hopelessly muddled. Still, Kilmer almost saves the movie with a performance that is so odd it has to be seen to be believed. Kilmer acts as though stoned in almost every scene, until Brando's character departs the film, when he effectively takes the place of Brando and the movie really kicks into overdrive. He dons Brando's pancake makeup, delivers an uncanny Brando impersonation, and generally acts even more batshit crazy than Brando did until he (spoiler alert) too gets killed by the humanimals, but only after saying "I wanna go to dog heaven," which is not a bad final line, only it's not his final line. Still, he steals the movie, and the stories of Kilmer making veteran director John Frankenheimer cry are simply too amusing.

  5. The Doors

    Okay, so let's get a few things straight. I loathe Oliver Stone. His best film, Platoon, was competent and personal but not really original--there's half a dozen war films that do similar things to Platoon just as well as Stone's film does. And once you move into the 1990s, you get stuff like Nixon--prestige-y and unwatchable--and stuff like Natural Born Killers that are just hamfisted, didactic crap. Supposedly, Stone was originally on tap to direct American Psycho, which would have been another terrible, hamfisted statement about the greed of the 1980s rather than the modern classic we all know that it is. Let's just put it this way: Ollie Stone just doesn't do "subtle." Or, more recently, he doesn't seem to do "good" either, as one of the literally dozens of people who saw Alexander can no doubt attest (I never saw it, though I shall some day). However, The Doors remains interesting in many ways. Stone tackles 60's counterculture in his own special way (i.e. showing it to almost comic levels of excess) and it surely integrates slickly with his politics, but it works as a showcase for Val Kilmer's legendary channeling of frontman Jim Morrison. Morrison's a singularly interesting character, and Kilmer's performance goes beyond the mimetic performances that have been all the rage in recent years by actually trying to get at why Morrison was the way he was. Was he a shaman in modern times? Stone and Kilmer, to their credit, aren't content to just make a movie of Kilmer covering Doors songs, and even if the film doesn't really get into Morrison's head, it does contribute something to the conversation.

  6. Tombstone

    It's a genre exercise from a decade ago, but Tombstone reaches a bit higher than just that, thanks to Val Kilmer's scene-stealing performance. It's a career milestone for Kilmer--the performance is pitch-perfect throughout--there's no false moment to be found--and his Doc Holliday knows exactly when to lay on the charm and when to reach for the gun. He received no Oscar nomination for his role, which really is the definitive treatment of the character on film, and perhaps the finest performance Kilmer has delivered to date. Oh well.

  7. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang

    It's a postmodern experiment on film, but it's less a mindfuck as a movie that delights in pulling everthing together into a cohesive plot that features a bunch of exciting twists and turns, with a little bit of fourth-wall breaking along the way. Kiss Kiss also happens to feature three of the most appealing actors out there: Kilmer, who is funny, manic, and short-tempered as a gay private detective; Robert Downey, Jr., who is funny and neurotic as a thief-turned-actor who helps Kilmer crack a murder mystery; and Michelle Monaghan, who plays Downey Jr.'s lost love and is also funny. The chemistry is really exceptional, and the action is more played for laughs than in earnest, which is fine since the comedy generally hits its targets. At times it feels a little too much like showbiz inside baseball, but it's still a pretty effective genre exercise. I'm just not that sure what the genre is, or if that's a question that matters. At the very least it's an entertainingly original movie.

  8. Heat

    Kilmer's supporting role in Heat is often overlooked next to career turns for both Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, but his role is critical. Both Pacino and De Niro play professionals on opposite sides of the law who have similar temperaments and personalities. They're not both "different sides of the same coin," or any other cliche like that, but they're driven by similar things and they're hell-bent on getting what they want, and they are destroyed by their respective natures to varying degrees. Kilmer, however, is the counterpoint to this battle of wills. He plays De Niro's sidekick, and unlike De Niro, he is able to change when the situation requires it, and his mutability saves him at the end of the movie.

  9. Top Gun

    Yeah, I never much liked Top Gun. Still, Kilmer's hammy but still amusing performance as Tom "The Iceman" Kanzansky is worth the price of admission (i.e. it's worth watching on TNT if you're bored). It's kind of a braindead, testosterone-charged movie, so I really don't have much to say, except that Kilmer steals every scene he's in away from Tom Cruise, and that he and Cruise evidently developed an intense rivalry and hate each other to this day. Considering how nutty Tom Cruise has become, one can only suspect that Kilmer was just ahead of the curve.

  10. Batman Forever

    It is with some trepidation that I put this movie on the list, because it is a pretty terrible movie altogether. Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey redefine "over the top" by giving two of the most grating, one-note, over-exuberant performances ever committed to film, and Nicole Kidman and Chris O'Donnell fare little better. It's not Batman and Robin-level bad, but Joel Schumaker's first foray into the Batman franchise certainly laid the seeds for that cluster-you know what that its predecessor was. However, Kilmer's performance is pretty good, and it stands out for its refresing lack of theatrics. Some have commented that Kilmer's performance in the movie is too restrained and wooden (how could it not compared to Tommy Lee Jones's hysterical Two-Face?), but it fits in well with the idea that Wayne/Batman is having an identity crisis and doesn't know which world he belongs in, and that he might be faking it in both worlds. Kilmer's performance is, at least, recognizable as a human being--Jones and Carrey act as though they were taught to act by a wizard from the sixth dimension. Val Kilmer had previously found himself as a headlining lead actor, as an elevator of otherwise iffy material (as in Tombstone) and with Batman Forever he showed that he can redeem terrible movies so as to almost make them watchable. He's a man for all seasons--way more so than that pervert St. Sir Thomas More.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Ricky Gervais Show

The Ricky Gervais Show is a semi-frequent podcast that features Gervais, Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington. The first two are notable from their roles in the original BBC version of The Office and the subsequent series Extras, as well as from other small roles here and there. In between all of this, throughout 2006 and occasionally in 2007, the trio recorded over a dozen hours of what might very well be some of the most consistently hilarious drivel you've ever heard. And drivel here is not used pejoratively. Mel Brooks often took the "insult" that his movies were in bad taste as a compliment. That was the point of them. And, ultimately, the point of the Gervais podcasts is to provide a showcase for the crazy rantings of Pilkington, a former radio producer who is fond of thinking of ways that the human race can be "improved". It's usually the obvious things--you know, like solving population control by having everybody implanted with a fetus that is born at the same time as you die, or making death less worrisome by reversing the aging process such that everyone dies when they return to nothingness, but they don't know what's going on because they're babies, and so on. Better still are the stories of his upbringing, such as one in which he talks about his first girlfriend from when he was seven. Pilkington talks about accidentally tearing her dress, then being confronted when in the bathroom by another seven year old who tells Karl, "You're out of order," to which Pilkington asks, "Why are you getting involved?" The subsequent brawl ends with the other boy's tooth getting chipped on the sink, and Gervais declaims the absurdity of the entire spectacle, thinking it an episode right out of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

Such is the stuff of Gervais's podcast. Performing an inventory of the most memorable bits of the podcast does little service to anyone, and such an inventory has just been placed on iTunes for free download. Suffice it to say that the setup for the podcast is little like anything else out there right now. Most of Pilkington's interests--nature, evolution, freaks, and the terrible plight of the overabundance of words in the English language--are not exactly the most "commercial" material out there, and it's hard to imagine an American equivalent of the podcast. Nevertheless, the show is terribly funny, particularly in the interplay between Gervais, Pilkington, and Merchant. Pilkington's role is apparent: he is the fool, the jester, the ignoramus who continually proves just how much danger a little knowledge can bring about. Gervais, contrary to the role he played in The Office, turns out to be a rather urbane and sophisticated man whose constant amusement with Pilkington's antics is equally balanced with his infuriation at Pilkington's ludicrous ideas. His indignation is often amusing, but it fulfills another important function: it gives us permission to laugh. Gervais often gets less laughs than the other participants in the podcast--which he freely acknowledges--but his attitude allows us to laugh at Pilkington's antics without feeling guilty about it, or without feeling stupid for finding his idiocy funny. He lends gravitas to the proceedings. And Merchant's role is critical as well: he often plays the superego to Pilkington's id and Gervais's ego, mediating between the two. He is often the most quick-witted of the three, frequently chiming in with a perfectly-timed wisecrack. At one point, when Karl is describing a film he wants to make about a woman who agrees to have half her lover's brain implanted in her head, he remarks that he made this up all on his own. Merchant responds, "So it's not based on a true story then?" And Merchant occasionally tells stories about his travels, love life, childhood, etc., that usually turn out to be utterly hilarious. This is no solo act, but rather a perfectly balanced group, each of which plays an indispensable role that contributes to the whole. There is a rhythm here, an interplay, that is at once combustible and stable, smart and stupid, friendly and angry. These three man have managed to do something that most artists struggle to do all their lives: they have created something unique. It's not at all like the self-humiliation comedy of Ricky Gervais's other works, for one. In fact, I am hard-pressed to find any other work that even remotely resembles the Gervais podcasts. Perhaps there is such a thing, in minstrelsy or something else. Nevertheless, in a world where everything these days seems to be a copy of a copy of a copy, the show is both reasonably original and something else, something even more rare--it's alive. The show often just seems like we're listening to life happen, which is also very difficult to pull off in the context of art and entertainment. Put simply, there is something really novel about this podcast in a way that is often difficult to articulate, aside from that it's funny, which is apparent. There is, as it turns out, something more to it than that.

All in all, these podcasts have brought me many hours of joy, and I strongly encourage that everyone give them a shot.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Films of Scorsese, Part Two: The Age of Innocence

It seems that stories about forbidden love are still popular here in 21st century America, despite such a scenario having been a fantasy for generations of Americans. The Age of Innocence is one such movie with quite a bit to recommend it. For one thing, it's got the always-awesome Daniel Day Lewis playing conflicted man-about-town Newland Archer, a man of liberal opinions but conservative temperament who learns too late that he's married a woman he can barely stand, and spends much of the rest of the film falling in love with a woman he cannot have. Even before he goes off the market, Countess Ellen Olenska is simply not an option to Archer, a man who embodies the conflict between a head that rejects all the bullshit that his society peddles while his heart can never stray from his society's edicts, even after that society is long gone. What's more, Ellen has him pegged from early on in the movie. At one point, after she asks if he wants her to become his mistress, he remarks about how he wants to go somewhere where such terms don't exist. She retorts that she's been there all along, and that he isn't. And yet she prods the affair along. Newland and Ellen manage to destroy each other's chances for happiness, spend much of their lives apart in what can only be thought to be a pair of very dreary existences (she with a monstrous Polish nobleman, and he with the pretty but utterly conventional and boring May Welland Archer, played by Winona Ryder). They are both eventually liberated from their travails, but he still cannot pull the trigger on a relationship, despite both of their spouses being dead, despite the society he once stood a frenemy to having long since fallen apart--those unspoken rules run deeper than all that. They are inside him. It is an almost religious conviction: Archer's adherence to the societal code in which he was raised seems to go even deeper than religion, although the work in general is steeped in the sort of Calvinist, predestination-centric ethic that no doubt so infuriated Edith Wharton, who wrote the novel upon which the film is based, back in her day.

The Age of Innocence is, needless to say, a pretty intense love story. It is often regarded as one of Wharton's greatest books, and deservedly so. What is so striking about the film is how faithful the translation from book to screen is--much of Wharton's prose survives intact, hardly any plot point or character is excised. As far as I can tell, only a single change from the book was made (aside from the necessary cutting and so forth): one scene is set in a law office in the book, and in the film it is set in Archer's home. This is the only significant difference that I can see. And yet, Scorsese manages to bring the film to life without even a single false moment. Every detail feels right, every color appropriate, every glance and smile with a hidden meaning. Scorsese creates a film that adapts the book less than embodies it, and adds countless touches that enhance the experience.

This gets into a discussion of how to best adapt a book for the screen--a topic fraught with difficulty. Fans of a given novel will probably be annoyed with the movie regardless of how it turns out--they'll cry out about how "the book was better" when that was obviously not the case (no, I have never read The Shining, although I'm pretty sure the Kubrick film was far superior to the book). Adaptations are fraught with difficulty, as the limitations of film, in terms of time and of just what can be shown on screen, come into play in a serious way. Lots of stuff is going to have to be cut out, and new detail will have to be added, particularly in the visual area.

So, the tradeoff comes down to this: do I want a director who decides to take some source material and try to faithfully reproduce it on the screen, or do I want a director who takes a risk and puts his own spin on things? Ideally, I want both, right? With The Age of Innocence, we get more of the former, and that seems to be what most people prefer. Hence the popularity of the Harry Potter movies, of which I have seen none, though they are notorious for being heavily reliant on the books.

I find it very interesting that people would read through an enormous book, go and buy tickets to the movie based upon the book, and then want to experience the same exact story, down to a tee, recapitulated back to them. Perhaps they merely want to relive a book that they enjoyed reading, and I suppose that's understandable. Still, I generally prefer something with a bit more imagination to it--one's creative vision shouldn't be subservient to that of the author of the source material. I like to see adaptations that respect the source while showing us things we wouldn't have noticed from the book. A good adaptation is, in a word, a synthesis: a combination of two different imaginations and worldviews. It's a grafting of someone's sensibility onto someone else's. It might work out well or work out poorly, but I'd just as soon take the chance to see where it leads.

And yet I adore The Age of Innocence. It is just about as good as the book, although I highly recommend reading the book first: getting lost in Wharton's world is easy, and her prose sparkles throughout her novels. But it takes quite a while to get through The Age of Innocence, and the movie distills the book quite effectively, preserving not only the essence but the entire body of the book. It is, in short, a film which does justice to its source material, and one which is highly recommended.

Magnolia: The Movie Where Paul Thomas Anderson Got It Wrong

In the wake of the smashing success of There Will Be Blood, many people have decided to start writing P. T. Anderson's hagiography. Not so fast! Anderson certainly has the capability of making great films, but he also has the capability of making terrible films. One of these (really, the most egregious of these) is his film Magnolia, better known as the movie where Tom Cruise plays the sex guy based on Neil Strauss, author of the famous (infamous, really) book The Game, which is basically about finding sneaky ways to fuck women. Anyway, here's my take on the aforementioned motion picture.

In the motion picture Magnolia, Tom Cruise plays a sex guru by the name of Frank Mackey. It is one of Cruise's all-time best performances, and it is often surprising just how much Cruise dedicates himself to the role. Boundless self-confidence, outsized personality, rugged charisma--the character is unforgettable. In the film, we first hear his self-mythologizing take on himself while he is talking to a reporter: he talks about how his father is dead, how he keeps close to his mother, who is alleged to support his activities. As it turns out, the converse is true: Mackey's father is alive but not well, his mother is long dead of ovarian cancer. His father abandoned him many years earlier, and when the reporter brings this information up in the context of the interview, Mackey gets angry, then sulks like, if you'll pardon the expression, a little girl. He sits silently until the interview ends.

The scene is compelling, until you realize something: it's complete, utter bullshit. Bull. Shit. The psychology makes no intuitive sense: why would a man whose father walked out on him, who was raised by a single mother with, I believe, a few sisters, wind up becoming an overt misogynist and champion of the exploitation of women, fond of blurting out chauvinistic nonsense like, "Respect the Cock! Tame the Cunt!" without seeming ridiculous? It is, actually, quite ridiculous. And this is the central problem with Magnolia--despite impressive production values and incredible acting, virtually nothing in the movie makes much sense, and virtually nothing shares much of a resemblance to anything that might map onto the real world. Hardly any of the characters are recognizable as human beings, few are sympathetic, and we get to understand the inner lives of, well, none, aside from perhaps the moral-but-inept cop played by John C. Reilly. Him we get, and that's not nothing. But it's not enough in a three-plus hour film that demands intense audience concentration but rewards it not at all through a two-and-a-half-hour-long second act, followed by a nonsensical denouement that is so unbelievably stupid and anticlimactic, and ended by a postscript that wraps everything up as neatly as imaginable, dispenses a little "everybody's OK" bullshit, then mercifully ends to Aimee Mann's "Save Me", a very good song in search of a better movie.

But another interesting aspect that proves a different point in Anderson's turkey is a child abuse scandal. Philip Baker Hall plays an elderly, not at all library cop-like game show host with a tortured relationship with his daughter and, recently, terminal cancer. Right before the film's "climax" Hall's character is speaking with his (presumably long-suffering) wife. It gets heated. She asks him if he ever abused their daughter sexually. It's a tense scene. His rebuttal is, "I don't remember." Really? I find it hard to believe that somebody who fucked his own daughter would not remember that, and innocent men don't say that they don't remember. The wife, creditably, figures he's bullshitting and splits. He decides to try to kill himself. But he never actually admits anything! Is it true, can he not live in the penumbra of shame not knowing if it's true? Now, admittedly, illuminating the inner lives of people is more the purview of novels than of films. It's difficult to get grief and angst and whatever else, ennui across on the screen. Surely, though, it's not too much to ask that we be given some context for a character's actions? But then again, who gives a damn, there are giant frogs falling from the sky!

Yeah, that happens as well in this movie. No shit. Giant frogs, like some sort of biblical plague sent down by God to deliver P. T. Anderson from his boxed-in screenplay! It dovetails with the first scene in the movie, in which three Ripley's Believe It Or Not-style stories are relayed by narrator Ricky Jay. It's a pretty kick-ass way to open the movie, and one expects lots of crazy coincidences and such. The movie, unfortunately, delivers merely a bunch of contrivances and unrealistic characters. It is the climax, though, that takes the cake for the stupidest fucking thing I've ever seen in a movie. Giant frogs start falling from the sky. Why? We do not know. We are not meant to know. We are meant to merely believe. Believe in people who stubbornly refuse to act like people. Believe that a random group of people, geographically distributed all throughout Los Angeles, of all walks of life and backgrounds and presumably different tastes in music would all happen to be singing the same song at the same time. Now, I'll admit the possibility that the movie is trying to make some sort of statement about how unrealistic movies are, but I don't think that the best way to make that point is by making an incredibly un-self aware and unrealistic movie where much the action just doesn't make any sense. After a three-plus hour investment--most of which is just rising, gut-churning tension with no release--to have a filmmaker just yank a viewer's chain like that turns the proceedings into a mockery. No wonder the film bombed.

We see, time and again, in this movie a sincere urge to show us something we've never seen before, and that's admirable. But, ultimately, that's not that hard to do if you don't make any attempt to actually ground it in reality. And the film's central conceit--you know, how all of the characters' lives are, like, linked together and shit--was done far better in Robert Altman's masterpiece Short Cuts. Altman's film was also a fairly loose look at a bunch of Los Angelinos who did generally terrible things (and it also had Julianne Moore in it!) but Altman's film was full of poignant, painful observations about how people interact with one another. That's why it was a great film. Neither Magnolia nor Short Cuts are message movies, they aren't about something and that comes with good and bad. If you're not going to be about something, though, you at least need to make damn sure that you get the human element right. That's an imperative, and Anderson screwed that up. No wonder the movie blows more than a wind carrying the morning dew of tadpoles after a nice, cleansing evening rain of frogs.

In the end, what we see in this movie is a film that tries to wring the maximum emotional effect out of its material, but it is material that evinces little knowledge of man as he actually is, or for that matter woman as she actually is, and that cannot help but expose its own bankruptcy of imagination with a denouement that comes second only to "it was only a dream!" Anderson's other films have their merits and demerits, but this work shows a second-rate intellect feeling his way through earnest melodrama (and I mean that in the most pejorative way imaginable). Was it a blip or the indicator of deeper flaws in the director himself? H. L. Mencken once explained Beethoven's great art as having been the inevitable output of a man who had within him the temperament, emotion, and intellect of a god, and that great artists who have such exalted inner lives cannot help but produce brilliant art--it radiates through them. I don't mean to be flip, but based on the evidence I've seen, this description does not exactly fit Mr. Anderson.