Archive for November 2010

Black Swan

November 28, 2010

In Black Swan, the new psychodrama directed by Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler), Natalie Portman looks harrowed and anguished even when she’s happy — maybe especially when she’s happy. As Nina Sayers, a young ballerina whose heart is set on dancing the White Swan/Black Swan in an artsy production of Swan Lake, Portman puts on quite an Oscar-baiting show — sobbing, suffering physically and mentally, picking pieces of flesh off of herself. She has the physique for the role, but she doesn’t move like a ballerina; she’s graceful, but even in character as an uptight young woman who has the technique cold but can’t surrender herself to the dance, Portman just seems like a very conscientious actress going through tormented motions. And that’s true of her performance offstage, too.

Black Swan is a high-pitched affair that sometimes risks silliness and sometimes achieves it. The risk is important — the movie is nothing if not impassioned — but overall the film is too rigidly schematic to be truly wild. Underneath the twisted eroticism that slowly gathers, Aronofsky and his writers (Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz, John McLaughlin) find nothing much but an old, tired theme of duality — more tired yet, the Madonna/whore duality. Nina meets a fellow member of the company, Lilly (Mila Kunis), a looser dancer and a looser person in general. Under Lilly’s tutelage, Nina finds it in herself to relax into pleasures of the flesh — the flesh Nina is otherwise too busy neglecting or punishing. For me, Mila Kunis, a heretofore amusing minor actress, took center stage; her Lilly, alive to everything and not sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, is a relief from Nina’s wallowing in despair, her issues with her controlling mother (Barbara Hershey) and on-the-make director (Vincent Cassel). Kunis became what I looked forward to.

But mostly we’re stuck with Nina as she unravels. At times, when Nina starts hallucinating about various self-mutilations and freakish transformations, Aronofsky ventures a few steps too far into David Cronenberg territory. But Cronenberg, the director of such body-conscious horror-dramas as The Fly and Dead Ringers, would have brought a frosty intellectual beauty to Nina’s mad visions; here, it’s just ugly, borderline schlocky. Aronofsky has a fine cinematographer (Matthew Libatique), but most of the movie is drab hand-held business, when it might’ve benefited from a locked-down, classical style. In a handful of scenes, Winona Ryder, as a viciously miserable star ballerina pushed into retirement, throws off enough Joan Crawford camp and legitimately felt pain to shake the movie up. Her scenes opposite Portman have a juicily catty subtext: There was a time when your role — your movie — would have been mine, you bitch. (For all I know, Ryder was warmly supportive of Portman on set and brought her cupcakes every afternoon; but where’s the fun in that?)

A ballerina’s life is no picnic, and the art may draw more than its share of driven, neurotic young women, but past a certain point the central conflict — whether poor little Nina will get her head squared away and rise to greatness — seems kind of remote and rarified. It certainly doesn’t intersect with very many concerns the rest of us have, and it doesn’t have the style or story to pick up the slack. For all its freaky-deaky identity games and weird gore and panting lesbian action, what Black Swan resembles more than anything is one of those tepid movies of the ’70s in which nice white girls, oblivious to common worries of money and life, spent the whole picture moping before finding themselves. It’s a very first-world-problem movie, in which sheltered Nina has the luxury of wigging out and enjoying both the misery of being hated and, at last, the doomed ecstasy of being loved.

The King’s Speech

November 26, 2010

The King’s Speech reminds us how much easier it must have been to be a leader before the advent of audio recording. Decades of biographical films have conditioned us to think of Abraham Lincoln as a booming, sonorous orator, because we have no tapes of him; but the real Lincoln might not have gotten far today, what with his “shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant” voice, as described by his law partner. Prince Albert, Duke of York, who became king in 1936, must also have cursed sound technology; he had a terrible stammer, and he would have to supply a calm yet authoritative voice leading his nation into yet another massive war, this time against a man who was, aside from all else, an excellent speaker.

As Albert (“Bertie” to his family), who becomes George VI, Colin Firth carries himself with elegance and gravitas — Albert was, after all, a man who had fought in the previous war. He looks like a commander. Then he opens his mouth. Listening to Firth here is like listening to a small rusty machine trying haplessly to rev up; it’s a considerable technical feat, and Firth weaves subtle variations into it. The King’s Speech is on one level a tale of English repression: Albert’s frustration at his speech impediment, and his anger at having been mocked and dismissed all his life because of it, form a loop of rage that wraps tightly around his tongue. When he shouts, curses or sings — when he drops his inhibitions — his speech flows much better.

This he learns from Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), the speech therapist who agrees to take Albert on as a patient. Logue, an Australian, acts unimpressed by Albert’s standing, perhaps because he knows his Shakespeare and knows the frailty of royalty. (Perhaps also because, like Albert, he saw ghastly things in the first World War.) The push-pull of this relationship recalls the dynamic between Nigel Hawthorne and Ian Holm in The Madness of King George; like that previous George, Albert must seem a king, not by becoming sane but by speaking clearly. And like Holm’s physician, Logue must sidestep his role as a subject and be a verb, proactively striking at the root of Albert’s problem.

As directed by Tom Hooper (John Adams) from a sleek David Seidler script, The King’s Speech is sturdy entertainment in which, once again, we are asked to sympathize with suffering royalty. I think Madness of King George did it better, but this one — which benefits from a nicely judged supporting turn by Helena Bonham Carter as Albert’s adoring wife Elizabeth — works well enough. And when George VI steps up to make that big speech, declaring war on Germany, Hooper and Seidler have enough sense not to play it as an unqualified triumph. Among the king’s listeners, we see, are young men, in and out of uniform, who will soon die, and mothers who will soon weep for them, and Lionel Logue, his expression torn between pride in his king and friend and despair at what must soon happen.

Public Speaking

November 22, 2010

One New York City icon gives the floor to another in Public Speaking. We may forget that Martin Scorsese, aside from directing some of America’s first-rank narrative films of the last forty years, has spent almost as much time making documentaries. His latest is a showcase for Fran Lebowitz, a writer most famous these days for not writing. After publishing two well-received collections of humor essays, 1979’s Metropolitan Life and 1981’s Social Studies, Lebowitz fell mostly silent. She still files the occasional article, and in 1994 she wrote a children’s book, but the novel she contracted for years ago has yet to materialize.

In other ways, Lebowitz has been far from silent. She makes her living by giving campus lectures, a vocation that appeals to her more than writing does. Why would colleges pay a woman who hasn’t written much of note in thirty years to speak to students too young to know who she is? Because she’s funny. Always has been and, from the sound of it, always will be. In Public Speaking, Scorsese sits across from Lebowitz at a booth at the Waverly Inn, and Lebowitz talks and talks. If she never wrote another word but instead sat for a filmed interview every year or so, holding forth on society’s latest absurdities, society might not be so absurd — but then what would she have to talk about?

Of course, part of Lebowitz’ lament is that there’s no room for the intellectual in popular culture any more. Scorsese shows us vintage TV clips of, on separate occasions, James Baldwin and Gore Vidal both debating William F. Buckley. Now, I’m not Buckley’s biggest fan, but as a conservative voice he was far more eloquent than, say, Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity, which is what we get now. And certainly nobody given significant airtime on today’s TV is near the level of a Baldwin or a Vidal — or a Lebowitz (though appreciators of wit like Letterman and Conan will gladly have her on). Lebowitz opines that everything went downhill when all the best and brightest gay artists and audiences fell to AIDS in the ’80s. Now standards have fallen because the tough, demanding audience for tough, demanding work gets smaller every year, and mediocrity is not only rewarded but lionized. Take a look at any week’s New York Times bestseller list and it’s hard to argue Lebowitz’ point.

Lebowitz is a loner who spends a lot of time observing and judging. As if to underscore this, Scorsese films Lebowitz driving her cherished 1979 Checker cab, in footage that echoes an earlier clip from Scorsese’s own Taxi Driver. Lebowitz briefly worked driving a cab herself when she first got to New York; the weird but somehow appealing implication is that the only difference between Lebowitz and Travis Bickle was that she was female, Jewish, gay, and witty. She wrote pithy observations; he stockpiled guns and went on a rampage. Both tried to make sense of what they saw around them, but whereas Travis was sickened by the “scum” on the streets, Lebowitz these days bemoans the Disneyfication of the once-scuzzy Times Square.

In Scorsese’s hands, the film, propelled along by Lebowitz’ voice, becomes a wistful tribute to the New York City of the ’70s — perhaps the only place at the only time in American history that could have embraced artists as disparate as Scorsese and Lebowitz. The culture there, and everywhere else, is too vanilla now to support a Taxi Driver or a Metropolitan Life. But Scorsese is still directing, of course, and Lebowitz is still talking, if not writing, and the film by its very existence offers some solace.

Skyline

November 14, 2010

Skyline puts me in an odd position: I couldn’t wait for it to be over, but I’d love to see the sequel it promises. The visual-effects veterans who directed it, Greg and Colin Strause, very obviously lay the groundwork for Skyline 2 in the final moments, wherein a character gets his head torn off and his entire brain and nervous system implanted into an alien body. This character apparently survived the process with his human consciousness and conscience intact, and the last shot finds him in a heroically defiant stance, like some insane hybrid of paintings by Frank Frazetta and H.R. Giger. I sort of wished the preceding 95 minutes had been telescoped into five minutes, because the real movie seems to begin here, with Big Ugly Dude ready to fight other Big Ugly Dudes to save mankind. If Skyline were a comic book, it might be an origin story.

As it stands now, Skyline feels like feature-length padding. We spend most of our time with a few people, played by actors familiar from TV (Eric Balfour, Donald Faison), as they try to make sense of what’s happening to Los Angeles. Aliens have come, some looking like biomechanical mollusks, all looking great; they were designed by veteran monster-makers Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr., and they have a slimy, ominous fluidity as they float next to L.A. buildings and scan the windows for any humans inside. The main characters rarely venture outside, so we’re stuck with them inside a few swanky apartments for almost the whole movie. A recent episode of Community that never left the study room knowingly called itself a “bottle episode,” industry slang for a TV segment that saves money by sticking to one location; Skyline, I guess, is a bottle movie.

Illogic abounds here. Donald Faison and his girlfriend try to escape in his car, which gets promptly smashed by a giant alien foot; seconds later, Faison tumbles out of the car without a scratch. The military gets involved, blowing alien spacecraft out of the sky, along with the thousands of still-living people that have been sucked up inside them. The human characters are generally so dumb that one wonders why the aliens are so keen to collect their brains. The dumbness extends to incidental stuff in the script, such as a joke about a same-sex blowjob that’s broadcast, unbeknownst to the participants, via webcam to laughing partygoers pre-invasion. Really? After what happened to Tyler Clementi, you had to leave that joke in, guys?

But then this is a movie in which a character very adamantly feels that the best line of defense against the aliens is bedsheets taped over the windows. I kind of loved that detail, as well as a bit when a pregnant woman stands away from a smoker to protect her baby while all hell breaks loose everywhere in L.A., or when a character gets a gorgeously cheesy final line before blowing up an alien attacker. The only consistent thing about Skyline is its stupidity — sometimes bad, insulting stupidity, sometimes good, entertaining stupidity. Then there’s that ending, which portends the sort of stupidity I’d like to see more of.

Mark Your Calendar: February Is Women in Horror Recognition Month

November 9, 2010

In truth, Women in Horror Recognition Month shouldn’t be necessary. It is necessary, but it shouldn’t be. A human being shouldn’t have to pass up sitting at the horror table just because of what’s between her legs. (Or the sci-fi table, for that matter. Or the western table. Or the superhero table. Or any goddamn table.)

From Wikipedia, I learn that Masters of Horror, in addition to spawning an eponymous cable-TV series, “is an informal social group of international film writers and directors specializing in horror movies.” Most of these Masters are white males. Only two listed on the Wiki page, director Mary Lambert and YA literary editor Kat O’Shea, are female. There may be others, but they are apparently not considered notable enough to include in the Wiki entry.

I do not think, since I can only give them the benefit of the doubt, that the Masters of Horror group is purposely barring women from some He-Men Women-Haters club. The immediate, if not quite accurate, answer is that not many women direct horror movies; in fact, not many women direct any movies. This is true, but only up to a point. If you’re talking multimillion-dollar Hollywood productions, the playing field is by and large XY-chromosome. If you include low-budget indies, the female directors of horror are there if you look. Women in Horror Recognition Month is there in part to help you look.

The consensus is that Nice Girls Don’t Like Horror. Some girls don’t. Some boys don’t, either. Actually, I should rephrase that, given that many female horror fans would choke on being considered Nice Girls. The real consensus is, Women Shouldn’t Like Horror. Horror is gross. Horror is sexist. Horror is about slicing up women. And the weird thing is — like the bipartisan attacks on metal rock in the ’80s — this sort of stupidity comes from the right and the left. As a card-carrying liberal, I’m not proud of some of the leftist objections to popular culture masquerading as protecting women, as if they were fragile little things who might get the vapors. Call it what it is, regardless of political origin: fear of what they like. You know who they are. The poor. The non-Harvard-educated. The non-white. The non-male. It’s elitism.

At the same time, horror is supposed to offend the elite. That’s what it’s there for. (Well, that and being scary.) And what better way for a disenfranchised part of society to get its revenge than to make gutbucket horror films? Women in horror are like a blood-drenched Carrie bringing down the whole rotten contraption that has kept them down. The old sexist joke goes, “I don’t trust anything that bleeds for seven days and doesn’t die.” Well, let’s reclaim and rewrite that for women in horror: who better to make horror films than someone who bleeds for seven days and doesn’t die? Women are very much familiar with gore and death, thanks very much. They have an innate intimacy with the basics of horror that bespeaks great potential for them to shoulder men aside and tell new stories, scare us in new ways, take horror into new neighborhoods.

We’ve known for decades that, musically speaking, women could rock out with their (figurative) cocks out. Back in the ’70s, when all-grrl bands were starting to gain a foothold, the great little-acknowledged feminist Roger Corman was handing women the keys to horror and exploitation movies. Corman’s instructions to men and women alike were simple: Do what you want, as long as you give me something I can sell. Amy Jones took this to a whole other level in Slumber Party Massacre, in which the camera lingers so long on naked young women in a shower scene that it’s pretty clearly a joke. A joke that cuts both ways: Jones was giving Corman what he wanted — T&A to sell to the drive-ins — but she was pointedly giving him so much of it that it came across as ironic, sarcastic. It was Courtney Love’s “Do you have the balls to fuck me?” ethos ten years early.

Dare we mention Mary Shelley? The daughter of a famous feminist, Shelley wrote some book you might’ve heard of called Frankenstein when she was eighteen. One critic harrumphed at the time, “The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel; but if our authoress can forget the gentleness of her sex, it is no reason why we should; and we shall therefore dismiss the novel without further comment.” Another judged the novel, in a choice of words that might please many horror creators today, “a tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity.” Hell, these days that’s a money quote. Anyway, gentle-sex Mary Shelley stands with the titans of horror, having created something that permanently changed and influenced the genre for centuries. Its reach extends far outside horror: if not for Shelley, to name but one example, there’d be no Hulk.

So women in horror have an obvious pedigree. Why, then, is the concept considered so unusual that we have to have a month set aside to recognize it? I suspect it gets back to what scares those in power. Women are scary (“they bleed for seven days and don’t die”). Women are horror. The well-meaning and not so well-meaning on the left and right attempt to infantilize women, to disregard them in all their complexity, to reduce them, to name and label them, to backhandedly “praise” them by putting them on a pedestal where they are supposedly morally and aesthetically above the low goals of horror. These are all ways to make women less of a threat. Male culture saw what the Maenads did to Pentheus and never got over it.

Among other things, to muse on women in horror is to dabble in what it means to be “male” and “female.” If a woman can cheerfully direct a film in which human beings are butchered, that up-ends a lot of assumptions, some of which go beyond the question of whether women can or “should” do horror. Women in Horror Recognition Month not only recognizes women in horror; it recognizes that they belong there, as they belong everywhere else.

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Women in Horror Recognition Month had its debut in February 2010. Bookmark that site and keep yourself posted.

RIP Movie Night

November 8, 2010

For the past couple of years, I’ve hosted a Movie Night at the local library on (usually) the first Monday night of the month, at 7:00pm. The first film I showed was, I believe, Sherlock Jr. That enjoyed a decent if unimpressive turn-out — twenty-plus people. The first six-month series didn’t really have a theme; I just showed classics.

Then I started doing themes. War movies. Comedies. Sci-fi movies. Horror movies. Usually I’d pick by decade; the typical six-film series might start in the ’30s and end in the ’80s. These would be shown on DVD, projected onto a screen, with a decent, if not Bose, stereo system. I noticed that comedies and horror movies got the best turn-outs. The war series and the concert-film series got diminishing returns. I showed cream-of-the-crop stuff: Vertigo, Rashomon, M. Hulot’s Holiday, Sullivan’s Travels, Paths of Glory, Eyes Without a Face, Nosferatu. Occasional fun stuff like Buckaroo Banzai and Gojira.

Whenever possible I showed the best available transfers, which got us noticed in a bad way by Kino Video when we advertised that we were showing the restored, remastered Metropolis (this was a couple years before the really restored Metropolis). The shitheads at Kino snootily informed us that we didn’t have a license to show their versions of films. (We pay yearly for licenses to show films owned by various movie studios. We started that so that the children’s librarian could legally show, say, Harry Potter. That’s when I said, hey, if we have the licenses anyway, why not do a movie night for grownups?) Anyway, we replied to Kino that (a) we were showing films for free and (b) the audience was probably going to be, like, ten people. They let it slide. From then on, though, we never mentioned in the advertising which version of anything we were going to show. Kino owns their remastered version of Nosferatu, but the film itself is in the public domain, so we showed — for all Kino knew — a fuzzy public-domain transfer of it. But, yeah, we showed the Kino version.

Aside from being good movies, I had one practical criterion for the movies selected for Movie Night: they had to be two hours or under. Preferably under. We had metal folding chairs. You don’t want to be sitting in those things for Seven Samurai or Solaris. I also had an increasingly ill mother at home to worry about. When she started needing help just to get off the couch to go to a commode fifteen feet away, Movie Night started feeling self-indulgent. A couple of times, I snuck out in the middle of a movie to go home and see if Mom needed anything.

Mom passed in July, and the first movie thereafter was Double Indemnity, the first of the film noir series. I started to see the writing on the wall: there were maybe five, six people. The series went on: The Killing, four people. Shock Corridor, the same. The Friends of Eddie Coyle, three people. And then tonight, I got everything set up to show Angel Heart. 7:00 came and went. Crickets. Empty chairs. I gave it another ten minutes, then disassembled. Then I made a probably spiteful-sounding notice for the library’s front doors:

Due to lack of public interest, the Millicent Library Movie Night has been discontinued.

The last movie in the series would have been Wolfgang Petersen’s overlooked, sublimely ridiculous Shattered. After that, in January, I would’ve started a silent-film series: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Battleship Potemkin, Safety Last, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Diary of a Lost Girl, City Lights. After that, a western series, but not just any westerns — the five Anthony Mann/James Stewart westerns, along with a sixth Mann western sans Jimmy, The Furies.

As I said, Movie Night started out well — the novelty drew people: free movies! At the library! I saw fairly early, when I screened E.T. for a sparse crowd, that I couldn’t show movies that people had seen a hundred times. But you get into a catch-22 (coincidentally, another film I showed). If you show stuff everyone’s seen or stuff that gets shown on TV every weekend, you get no audience. If you show stuff nobody’s heard of, you get no audience. The best bet is to show stuff few people have seen that has actors everyone knows. Or stuff a lot of people have seen, but not for years, and remember with pleasure and would like to see again. My audiences tended to skew Boomer.

I fully expect to hear from patrons who are sad that Movie Night is done. They will say they should’ve gone more often. This, by the way, is the story of every small-town movie theater that isn’t part of a chain. We had a cool theater in town for a number of years. It would close, then open again a few years later, then close, then open. For a while it focused on foreign films. Then it was a second-run theater. Then it became an indie theater — I certainly wouldn’t have gotten to see American Splendor on the big screen otherwise, or Frida, or even Amelie. People loved the place, but not enough people. It closed in 2004 and has remained shuttered.

Would I, a movie geek, have attended Movie Night if I weren’t hosting it? I have to look facts in the face and say, probably not. I have a nice home-entertainment set-up, and a good assortment of DVDs and Blu-rays to watch, and Netflix Instant Watch, and five Redboxes in town. I can sit in a comfortable chair and watch what I want when I want. I hate to be banal and say that the same tech that allows film buffs to have a huge chunk of cinema history at their fingertips is also killing movies as a communal experience. But sometimes banal is also true.

Waiting for “Superman”

November 6, 2010

The “Superman” being awaited is the person who will fix the broken American educational system. Good men and women have tried for decades to fill that role. But then, to the accompaniment of ominous bass strings, emerges the evil Lex Luthor and his kryptonite — teachers’ unions! According to Waiting for “Superman,” the inchoate and divisive documentary by Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth), children everywhere in America are suffering and dying because bad teachers are being shielded from accountability by such brimstone-stinking cults as the American Federation of Teachers. In all, the film is positively Reaganite in its scorn towards organized labor; it’s disorienting to see a more-or-less liberal film (and filmmaker) casting unions largely run by and peopled by women (about 80% of U.S. teachers are female) as the Devil.

Guggenheim allows that, despite his own respect for the good public-school teachers (his 2001 debut, The First Year, followed five rookie educators), he sends his own kids to private school. He also allows that not everyone can afford that option. Having said that, he wades into the morass of debate about American education and comes up mostly empty. Charter schools, non-unionized and uncrowded, are one good answer, the film says. Waiting for “Superman” (I presume the quotes are at the behest of Warner Brothers, so that this won’t be confused for a film about the Man of Steel) speeds past the information that four out of five charter schools aren’t much better than public schools; it tracks five kids of various ages trying to get into charter schools, and we get to watch their anxiety at the end when they wait to be accepted by lottery, and their pain when they aren’t. (Three of the five don’t make it.)

The way Guggenheim builds up suspense by, in effect, watching the life or death (in the film’s terms) of five kids decided at random is a little sickening. We know very little about the kids; most of them, bashful and wary, don’t open up to the camera, and we spend some time with their various parents or guardians, most of whom grew up in poverty and just want their kids to have it easier than they did. (One kid is actually already saying this about his own, hopefully years-in-the-future kids, as if he had guiltily internalized his mother’s rhetoric.) So this human story, shakily carpentered, is surrounded by much footage of people in the educational system expounding on various talking points. Occasionally we get Michael Moore-style animated segments insulting in their we’ll-spell-it-out-for-you-dummies breeziness.

To get a sense of how haplessly simplistic the film is, look up Dana Goldstein’s piece in the October 11 issue of The Nation, which points out that teachers’ unions have worked closely with former or even current adversaries (like Bill Gates) to get things done for the sake of students, not teachers. Former D.C. public schools system chancellor Michelle Rhee, who resigned a few weeks ago, is held up as a mover and shaker instead of the often destructive and dismissive influence she actually was, while Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, is cast as a human roadblock to progress. Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada is fawned over, though the movie doesn’t mention that the HCZ benefits from millions of dollars of private funding.

In truth, the movie hems and haws and then comes up with the missing “Superman”: us. If we’re to get through this crisis, we’re all to band together and buy war bonds, uh, I mean do something — Guggenheim is unclear on what. The real problem, outside the purview of this confused film, is that American education is a broken system inside a larger broken system, and that external factors like poverty, crime, indifferent or toxic parents, and disastrously inadequate funding¹ have more to do with the shameful state of our education than the demands of unions or the tenure of a relative few inept teachers. For those with money, there’s private school. For those with the luck of the draw, there’s charter school. For those whose parents have the time, patience and education, there’s homeschooling. The rest will sink or swim depending on the toughness and innate smarts they bring into the public system — and that goes for the teachers, too. The times call for grimming up, finding a spine, and facing facts, not pointing at one group or another. Guggenheim points. I respond in kind, and will leave to your imagination which finger I use.

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¹I can’t quite help pointing out that the citizens of all those other countries that are smoking our asses on the educational front — unlike historically and currently tax-averse Americans — probably don’t mind kicking in a few more bucks, tax-wise, to ensure better schools for their or others’ children. On this point, the silence of Waiting for “Superman” speaks volumes.


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