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Ride Along

January 19, 2014

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Kevin Hart doing a stand-up routine about the making of Ride Along would probably be funnier than the movie itself. An excitable, insecure motormouth, Hart has peppered such specials as Laugh at My Pain with high-pitched ruminations on his physical stature (he stands five foot four) and insufficient gangsta skillz. His frightened but common-sense demeanor refutes what’s expected of Scary Black Men. He’s a great talker, and some of his more amusing bits in Ride Along, I’m guessing, were improvised. Hart will say something that sounds scripted, then natter on for a couple of extra beats, and the nattering is what makes his character seem like a real person, and what gets a laugh.

Hart plays Ben Barber, a school security guard (aside: only in these times would Ben’s job be sadly plausible) who hopes to make it through the police academy and become a true cop. This, Ben also hopes, will impress stoic rogue cop James Payton (Ice Cube), whose sister Angela (Tika Sumpter) Ben wants to marry. James has been looking out for Angela since they were both foster kids, and he disdains the flighty, videogame-addicted Ben. (Ben’s videogame fixation, gamers will be happy to learn, pays off later on several levels.) Ben asks James’ blessing to ask for Angela’s hand in marriage, and James proposes a challenge: Ben must accompany James on a ride-along to show how well or poorly he takes to police work.

This could allow for some mismatched-partner laughs, and it does; Ben’s panicky attempts to look like a hard man in front of James rub up against James’ complete lack of surprise that Ben is a soft man. Ice Cube was probably funnier in a small role in 21 Jump Street, but then again he didn’t have to watch his language there as much as he does in this PG-13 movie (he does get to drop one F-bomb). Unfortunately, Ride Along is shackled to a lazy plot involving a master criminal (Laurence Fishburne) James has spent three years trying to take down. It also involves crooked cops, the time-honored police captain who exists to tell the hero he Crossed the Line, and a scene where Angela ends up at gunpoint.

Predictability is the enemy of surprise, and surprise is the essence of comedy. I’m not talking here about well-known characters on sitcoms who behave amusingly predictably; I’m talking about a plot that cancels out any possibility of freshness or invention. The movie isn’t loose enough to let Kevin Hart run wild with sustained riffs; he’s trapped inside the stodgy, stifling structure. Ride Along doesn’t offer the randomness and digressions of the similar, superior The Other Guys, and once again I find myself wondering what the film might’ve been like if Hart and Ice Cube had swapped roles and played against their personae.

What else is there to say about such a lightweight thing? Well, given that it’s directed by and mostly starring African-Americans, it’s blandly post-racial; for the most part, white guys could’ve played the roles and it would shake out roughly the same. Is that progress or homogenization (and shrewd packaging for what the money guys call “the urban audience”)? Eddie Murphy’s early cop comedies were very aware that he was a black man in a largely hostile white world; they couldn’t have played the same if he were white, or, at least, Murphy made Beverly Hills Cop (originally a Stallone vehicle, I believe) a story about a specifically black man among the gilded and ivory. But such awareness would founder here, because the movie isn’t interested in how actual, specific people of any color would behave. There’s truly nothing to James’ character other than his protectiveness towards his sister and his mission to get the big bad guy; Kevin Hart takes over by default, filling the void with abbreviated patter. Like the comparably easily-frightened, anti-macho Richard Pryor, Hart might best be optimized alone onstage, weaving absurd mind-movies at a hundred miles an hour.

The Canyons

August 2, 2013

20130802-230443.jpgOn paper, the director Paul Schrader and the writer Bret Easton Ellis seem like a match made in frozen hell. The work of both men is cold around the heart, exploring violence and neurasthenic sexual deviance. It’s possibly no coincidence that the tombstone achievements for this pair are Taxi Driver (Schrader’s script) and American Psycho (Ellis’ novel). They have now collaborated on a microbudget indie film, The Canyons, which has gained some notoriety from the off-camera antics of its star, Lindsay Lohan, and the travails she caused the production. LiLo, in truth, isn’t the movie’s problem; she often seems like the only committed, professional performer onscreen, especially next to porn star James Deen (né Bryan Sevilla), who plays her movie-producer boyfriend.

Ellis likes complicated love/sex triangles, and so the central couple, Tara (Lohan) and Christian (Deen), regularly engage in casual swinger sex with people they find on the internet. Both have old flames; Tara used to be in love with Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), a struggling wannabe actor who has a part in Christian’s upcoming horror movie shooting in New Mexico. Christian doesn’t mind if Tara has sex with someone in front of him, but if she lies to him about seeing someone behind his back, that infuriates him. He’s a control freak and also a manipulative jerk, to say the least.

Ellis usually writes this sort of thing with deadpan wit, but Schrader approaches the material in his standard dour, puritanical setting. The Canyons offers plenty of sex and nudity, filmed by Schrader in the so-cold-it’s-meant-to-be-hot mode familiar from American Gigolo, Cat People and Auto Focus. But sex for Ellis isn’t an occasion for desolation and shame; it’s all a power game. In brief, Ellis and Schrader bring out the worst in each other, and this production simply doesn’t have the money to achieve the heartless dry-ice, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-undead look it really needs. A lot of it seems to have been shot in someone’s borrowed upscale L.A. home. What violence there is unfolds elsewhere: You can film here, guys, but don’t get blood on the tiles.

There’s a great deal of spying and stalking and message-checking. People look at their phones instead of at their conversation partners whenever they can. A skipped heartbeat of dread develops when Tara gets texts from someone she doesn’t know, who offers cryptic information; Ellis got a lot of chilling mileage out of that trope in Imperial Bedrooms, his belated sequel to Less Than Zero. But the texts just lead to a character who’s treated contemptuously, as an afterthought. The Canyons packs little of the extremity and shock that mark Ellis and Schrader at their most indelible. It feels like, and in fact was, an on-the-cheap project they entered into in haste when an earlier film — the intriguing-sounding class-warfare thriller Bait — fell through. The movie was financed partly on Kickstarter, and everyone worked for peanuts. I see very little passion, though, very little animating emotion to explain why the film had to be made, why the story needed to be told.

James Deen, I think, has more screen time than Lohan does, and Schrader uses him as a found object the same way Steven Soderbergh used Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience. Deen has porn-star swagger and an instinct toward domination — he moves comfortably, occupies other people’s space — but when he opens his mouth it’s strictly amateur hour. He doesn’t have a trained actor’s voice; he has the sound of, well, a performer in shot-on-videotape porno, flat and artificial. The other, lesser-known actors are competent but can’t do much with Ellis’ stylized, sometimes overexplicit dialogue. Lohan, meanwhile, throws off all sorts of morose, bitter energy that keeps us riveted to her but doesn’t always seem connected to the character she’s supposed to be playing. All of this happens in an off-Hollywood milieu that’s decently appointed but a little musty, more than a little depressing. Those hoping for something wild and crazy from the bad boys Ellis and Schrader, or even a good old hearty train wreck from Lohan a la her much-derided Liz and Dick from earlier this year, will look here in vain. A cult may form around it, but it’s bound to be a very tiny and cynical cult.

Roger Ebert

April 4, 2013

C200512-A-Life-in-the-Movies-01He knew. He had to have known. His last blog entry — posted two days before he died — had the tone of a fond goodbye, though, to comfort the rest of us, he wrote a lot about the plans he had for the future, the future I’m guessing he knew he didn’t have. He would leave workaday film reviewing to others, and concentrate on things that meant more to him. His Ebertfest. The forthcoming documentary about him, which will now  have a sad period at its conclusion that none of us wanted. His “Great Movies” column. Even if he didn’t consciously know, some part of him must have. The blog entry opens with “Thank you” — he was never one for burying the lede — and ends with “I’ll see you at the movies.”

Roger Ebert, as I’ve said elsewhere, made a whole lot of us want to see and think about and write about movies with greater precision and passion. Throughout the many health demons that plagued him in his final years, one constant remained: his voice. It was robbed from him physically, but it continued in print. We could still hear it in our heads as we read him. Now the voice is gone, though we can still call it up from any of his thousands of reviews, or watch him on YouTube if we literally need to hear that avuncular, sane, midwestern sound.

You don’t need to agree with everything someone believes in order to like them, and you don’t need to agree with everything a film critic writes in order to like their reviews. The entire point of Blue Velvet seemed to go whistling over Ebert’s head and far out to sea, but his thoughts on the film are valuable just the same. He was fond of quoting Robert Warshow’s maxim “A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man.” In recent years I grew weary of people pointing out where Ebert got this or that fact wrong in a review. So what? He was dealing with far graver things in his life than some plot point in a forgettable Hollywood entertainment. His emotional responses were still sound, and those, really, are what a critic has to work with. Give me someone who responds openly and whole-heartedly to a film over someone who gets all the details right but doesn’t rise to the film with any soul.

I never met him, and now never will, but I felt I knew him, feel I know him. That was true even before I read his memoir Life Itself. Even when his reviews contained no autobiographical element, he revealed himself, as all good writers do and must. Years before he officially declared himself a recovering alcoholic, review after review of films dealing with addiction (even the bad films, especially the bad films) spoke of firsthand understanding of and compassion for the slave to a chemical.

Ebert has two entire books devoted to negative reviews, and yet he never struck me as mean. Even at his most splenetic, he came across as a guy who’d just drunk a glass of sour milk, when all he’d wanted was a good honest normal glass of milk, and had been assured it was a great glass of milk. He wanted you to know that, no, this milk is terrible; don’t drink it; I drank it so that you don’t have to. He seldom gave the impression that he was dumping on a movie for the sadistic pleasure of it. He’d wasted hours of his ever-decreasing life on the damn thing and now he had to make something out of it. Sometimes a little bitter glee did show. He was only human.

Ebert’s first review (more exactly, “just about the first movie review I ever wrote”) was of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. Not a bad way to start. The final review he posted was of The Host — not the Korean kaiju film but the shitty Hollywood one based on the shitty Stephenie Meyer book. I’m hoping there’s something else on his desk somewhere. Some final fragments of thought about, say, Citizen Kane or Casablanca or even Dark City. In Ebert’s career, in his life span, you go from Fellini to teen bullshit. You don’t want to dwell on that too much.¹

No, you want to think about a man who loved what he did and did what he loved, day in and day out, for decades. You want to think about a man who did what he could while he could to add to the conversation about art. You want to think about the work he championed, the work he accomplished, the work he left us, the work we can sure try like hell to continue in his honor. We can’t be Roger Ebert but we can try to be us with as much grace and wit and honesty as he was himself.

¹As it turns out, according to Jim Emerson, the final movie Ebert reviewed was Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder, which seems more appropriate.

The Annual Box-Office Lament, 2011 edition

December 18, 2011

We live in a country where:

  • Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked made more money on its first day than A Dangerous Method has made in four weeks
  • Mars Needs Moms made more money than The Tree of Life (and I’m not a Malick fan, but c’mon)
  • I Don’t Know How She Does It made more money than Cave of Forgotten Dreams
  • Conan the Barbarian made more money than The Rum Diary
  • Sherlock Holmes 2: Sherlock Holmesier, or whatever the fuck it’s called, has made more money on its opening weekend than The Descendants has made so far in 33 days
  • Even Atlas Shrugged Part I made more money than Melancholia.

Of the top ten moneymakers, eight were sequels — straight-up, the top seven were sequels. The two exceptions were based on Marvel comic books. This is the list as it stands now, though latecomers like Mission Impossible 4: Mission Impossibler might supplant a few.

  1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
  2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
  3. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1
  4. The Hangover Part II
  5. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
  6. Fast Five
  7. Cars 2
  8. Thor
  9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes
  10. Captain America: The First Avenger

Now let’s take our annual look at the top ten from twenty years ago:

  1. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
  2. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
  3. Beauty and the Beast
  4. The Silence of the Lambs
  5. City Slickers
  6. Hook
  7. The Addams Family
  8. Sleeping with the Enemy
  9. Father of the Bride
  10. The Naked Gun 2 1/2

There’s a good deal of family/kiddie/fanboy pap on there, yes. But at #4 is the year’s eventual Best Picture winner, The Silence of the Lambs, recognized then and now as a modern classic. Not that it matters much, but how many times since then has a top-ten-of-the-year breadwinner also been a Best Picture winner? Exactly five times: Forrest Gump, Titanic, Gladiator, Chicago, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Which means we haven’t had a top ten Best Picture winner in eight years.

Let’s flip back ten years. 2001 looks like 2011 in a lot of ways. A Harry Potter film sits at #1, just as in 2011. There’s also a Michael Bay film (Pearl Harbor), a Joe Johnston film (Jurassic Park III), and a Planet of the Apes film. The rest of the list is clotted with kiddie flicks, sequels, and movies based on previously popular properties. Then there’s Ocean’s Eleven, which itself would become a franchise (and was also a remake, though higher in tone than most). Note the lack of comic-book films: even though the previous year’s X-Men had made the top ten, and Spider-Man would dominate a year later, Marvel and DC hadn’t quite gotten Hollywood in a stranglehold yet. Since 2000, there have been only two years when no comic-book flicks appeared on the year-end top-ten list at all: 2001 and 2009. (2009 was a relatively light year for the subgenre; the double-whammy success of The Dark Knight and Iron Man in ’08 led to a new boom in superhero films being greenlighted, but they wouldn’t actually hit theaters until 2010 and thereafter.)

So what films might make the list of 2012’s top-ten grossers? The Hunger Games might be the new Twilight. The old Twilight still has one more film to go. Comic books will rule again: The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man. Peter Jackson is revisiting Middle-Earth, and 3D isn’t going away. And possibly a few surprises. They still happen. The Help just missed a spot on the top ten, and Bridesmaids wasn’t far behind. And even the execrable Bad Teacher cracked $100 million. That means more non-rom-coms made for females who aren’t fourteen. It won’t happen in 2012, though; you’ll start seeing the Bridesmaids wannabes in 2013. That’s if we’re still here, of course. Remember, the world’s supposed to end December 12, 2012, just like Roland Emmerich said. This means the last big-budget movie you’ll ever see is Les Miserables with Hugh Jackman on December 7. As for The Hobbit (scheduled for release December 14) and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (December 25), well, we’ll just have to wait and see.

“Geese, villain?”

May 24, 2011

I love the geese thing in Macbeth. I’m a big fan of the geese thing. What the hell am I talking about? Well, near the end of the play, Macbeth is all cocky and shit, swinging his big dick around the castle, because he knows nobody “of woman born” can hurt him. He’s basically being a TV wrestler, or Denzel Washington at the end of Training Day — “King Kong ain’t got shit on me!,” that sort of thing. Of course, we know two things about Denzel Washington at the end of Training Day: (1) King Kong does indeed have shit on him and (b) shit doesn’t end well for ol’ Denzel. Same with Macbeth, really. Dude is going insane — well, he’s already insane, but he’s going more insane trying to keep his mens from shitting their pants. Because even if the English can’t produce any test-tube-baby warriors in their ranks, that doesn’t keep everyone else from taking the pipe all around Macbeth.

In any event, either Macbeth believes all the shit he’s spouting, which is one kind of bad brain chemistry, or he’s just spouting it to make everyone feel better about their inevitable deaths, which is another kind. So Macbeth finishes up his tirade about how all y’all muthafuckas ain’t shit, and then a servant enters.

MACBETH
The devil damn thee black, thou cream-faced loon!
Where got’st thou that goose look?

SERVANT
There is ten thousand–

MACBETH
Geese, villain?

SERVANT
Soldiers, sir.

This cracked my shit up in high school. This was Shakespeare being Monty Python centuries before there was a Monty Python. At the time, I figured Macbeth was so far gone he actually thought the poor little scared dude had seen an army of ten thousand geese approaching.

But an actor could play this any number of ways. He could play up Macbeth’s rage at the servant for bringing fear into the mix just when Macbeth is trying to psych up his team. Or he could play it as a contemptuous joke, trying to make light of the servant’s fear. Or he could play it as if Macbeth actually believed the dude was about to say “ten thousand geese.”

So then Macbeth keeps verbally smacking the servant:

MACBETH
Go prick thy face, and over-red thy fear,
Thou lily-liver’d boy. What soldiers, patch?
Death of thy soul! those linen cheeks of thine
Are counsellors to fear. What soldiers, whey-face?

SERVANT
The English force, so please you.

MACBETH
Take thy face hence.

Macbeth keeps making fun of the poor dude’s face — the face of fear. Probably the only honest face around. Within an hour the servant will most likely be dead, and he knows it. Which puts him one up on Macbeth, at least.

But anyway, the geese thing. It still makes me laugh, even with all the added possible interpretations.

How homeboy ends up.

What I’ve Been Reading

May 21, 2011

Some off-the-cuff ramblings on recent text that has entered my eyeballs.

Mutant Message Down Under – The familiar narrative of the white person receiving wisdom among the people of the earth. Usually the white person is female, as in this and also Lynn Andrews. It’s probably because males can be, to put it nicely, skeptical, or to put it plainly, closed-minded (not, please, the non-word “close-minded”). Women are seen in these narratives as caretakers of knowledge that would otherwise be lost (or remain within the circle of the elders). Essentially Marlo Morgan wanders about with Aborigines and learns all the ways in which modern Western thinking is fucked. I find it hard to argue. The question is, how many of the white Western people who read this when it was new and popular ever did anything with the insights they may have gained? I tend to think, not many. You dwell on how fucked we are and then you feel powerless to do much about it. Or I do, anyway. I often feel unworthy of such narratives — not that I don’t get something out of them. Maybe just the comforting awareness that not everyone gets riled up over First World problems or gives a shit about The Real Housewives of Reno or whatever the hell it is. The idea of losing yourself for a year among a people completely cut off from pop culture and the debased political dialogue and the new Pirates of the Caribbean flick has a tempting pull. Ultimately though it’s just a pipe dream. Anyway, this was a good read, if probably not a 100% accurate account of life among the Aborigines.

Losing Mum and Pup – Christopher Buckley’s memoir about becoming an orphan in his mid-fifties — first his mother, Patricia Buckley, then his father, William F. Buckley Jr. — is really more like Losing Pup (and Mum), since most of the book deals with Christopher dealing with WFB in decline. The elder’s detractors may find some schadenfreude in the depiction of WFB addled, wanting to invite long-dead friends to his party, pissing heedlessly out of a moving car. But anyone who’s watched a parent slowly fail should find themselves sobered. Christopher, a wickedly funny writer (who lost a lot of Republican goodwill in ’08 when he endorsed Obama; as with Dennis Hopper, Palin was the last straw), makes it sound both fun and somehow isolating to grow up the only son of William and Patricia. WFB comes off as an overgrown Richie Rich accustomed to getting his own way. He was filthy rich, of course, and inherited his fortune from his oil-magnate father. My empathy with WFB’s end-of-life suffering (and Christopher’s front-row seat for it) can therefore only go so far. Many thousands of people go through the same thing each year without the cushion of a family fortune. I consoled myself with the thought that WFB would not have approved of the book’s portrait of him near the end, enfeebled, finally dying alone in his garage office. The book did lead me to WFB’s amusing collection Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription, which I’ve been nibbling on at work during bathroom breaks.

Django Unchained – Following up Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino seems to have anointed himself America’s grindhouse historian. Both stories are wish-fulfillment revengesploitation in which the insulted and the injured rise triumphant against their oppressors. Contrary to early belief, this script doesn’t have much at all to do with the ’60s Django film. It’s essentially a rambling buddy movie in which a German bounty hunter frees a slave and takes him under his wing. Along the way, much racist blood is spilled and the N-word is said so many times in so many contexts the film will likely be protested by one group or another, but as has been said elsewhere, the script is crudely honest about race in a way that a more polite film never could be.  In any event, a cracking good yarn, as QT’s scripts always are; can’t wait for the movie, which should be worthy of shelving alongside John Singleton’s vastly overlooked Rosewood.

Why I’m not in the Terrence Malick fan club

May 17, 2011

So the early word is out on The Tree of Life, the new gift from the firmament — uh, I mean the new Terrence Malick film. It has now played at Cannes, and the buzz is decidedly mixed. People who obviously wanted the film to be great are choking out admissions that it isn’t. Typing through a wretched prism of tears, they report that the movie is unfocused, that it is way too far up itself, that it expends vast ambition and gorgeous imagery on an utterly banal story.

To these people I must say the apparently unsayable: What, then, makes The Tree of Life so different from Malick’s previous films?

I say “apparently unsayable” because Terrence Malick, on the strength of five films he has directed over a period of 38 years, has ascended to the status of Film God in many quarters. He is a Poet, an Artist, a Sage. His Vision is Beyond Question. (Capitalization seems to suit the sort of hype that wreathes Malick.) Many people salivate over a new Malick the way they used to over a new Kubrick, Kurosawa, Bergman. I don’t mean to caricature those genuinely moved by Malickian cinema. They’re welcome to it, as I am welcome to my own David-Lynch-can-do-no-wrong thing. Anyone who cares about films has at least one director they consider flawless. It’s not that they’re in denial about the director’s turkeys. It’s that they are honestly tuned in to the director’s style and way of seeing. I’m sure there are John Landis acolytes who’ll give you 500 words on the unrecognized brilliance of The Stupids. In fact, I know there are.

So I’m not attacking the weeping masses of Malick supporters so much as the hype. I am given to wonder anew what so many perfectly credible people see in Malick. Partly it must be that we’re fast running out of American directors of true epics. (These days, of course, the closest thing we usually get to an epic is Harry Potter and the Whatever of Foo-Foo.) We do, I think, need more mad visionaries who throw caution, logic and narrative to the winds and obey nothing but whatever angel/demon resides in their hearts/minds/souls, driving them to make unclassifiable graffiti on the walls of good taste, sanity and propriety. For many people, Malick is that person, a man who cares little for monetary return, who wants only to paint his pictures about how mankind is a giant squalid bug farting flames all over resplendent, innocent nature, and also dads suck except when they don’t. In theory I should be completely in this guy’s pocket, but I have been steadfastly unengaged by the three Malick films I’ve seen (I opted out of The New World, still nauseous from the inchoate chowder that was The Thin Red Line).

In an era when Kenneth Branagh is making Thor and any film arrogant enough to tell a story about actual people is relegated to cable, Malick looks like a giant. I understand that. He is the anti-Michael Bay. That alone is almost enough to recommend him. I enjoy the idea of Malick. What I don’t understand, for starters, is the golden reputation he has among actors, especially now. An almost-literal army of actors — the green and the esteemed alike — clamored to appear in The Thin Red Line. Many of them saw their scenes whittled to shreds or thrown out entirely. After that, one would think an actor might look askance at the (slim) chance of seeing himself in a Malick flick. As it is, one hears that Sean Penn (a veteran of Malick’s World War II) is barely in The Tree of Life. Humans are but a part of the grand design in a Malick film; they don’t talk like real people and their iconicism verges on simplistic, cartoonish. Much the same, incidentally, could be said of George Lucas.

Malick’s movies are beautiful. Of course they are. Consider the list of world-class cinematographers who serve as his paintbrush: Tak Fujimoto on Badlands, Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler on Days of Heaven, John Toll on Thin Red Line, Emmanuel Lubezki on The New World and The Tree of Life. These are not Joe Shmoes pointing and shooting. You or I could make dazzling films with men such as these in our corner. Ah, yes, the Malick apologist will say, but you could not duplicate the vision that animates those delicious pictures. To the apologist I must shrug and say, What vision? Malick may have a keen pictorial eye but so do many anonymous photographers who compose well and/or luck into evocative shots. The eye is only one of the organs a movie must engage. The brain is another, and from where I sit, there is not much in Malick for that organ to, so to speak, chew on.

The key Malick moment is the luscious quietude of natural Earth disturbed by the ignorant violence of its dominant life form. There are dinosaurs in The Tree of Life, Malick only knows why — I mean, God only knows why, though the other way works too. Even in early Malick, we see the problems of the central humans reduced by the grandeur of their backdrop to mere scuttling insects. I have no problem with this emphasis; it could as well describe Kubrick, or late Kurosawa. But Malick gives us nothing to hold onto aside from the hippy-dippy-trippy visuals and the motif of the innocent seeking enlightenment in the flawed false father rather than in the Mother (Earth, of course). There’s no edge to his work, no vitality.

A while ago, we could rationalize the hoopla over “the new Malick” because he emerged from his cave so seldom — The Thin Red Line was his first in twenty years. Since then he has released two films, with another reportedly in the can, a blistering pace for him. So the novelty of A New Malick isn’t quite as exciting these days. Yet the hype persists. Even allowing for welcome-back elation, I can’t imagine anyone looking at The Thin Red Line and seeing anything but a broken, incomplete film. Malick famously shoots miles of footage and then takes a year or more making sense of it in the editing bay. The waggish Erik Childress, who delights in skewering blurb whores in his Criticwatch, dared to suggest on Twitter that if Jonah Hex (a famously troubled production, similarly Frankensteined together in the editing room) were revealed to have been directed by Terrence Malick, it would magically, retroactively become a masterpiece.

Aggrieved Malickians hissed Childress for his impertinence, but the point stands. The point especially stands because Childress was hissed. What other director commands such knee-jerk loyalty? And why him? And why, for Malickians, does a distaste for or disinterest in Malick’s work speak poorly of a critic? Roger Ebert dumped on David Lynch for years; it didn’t make me stop reading Ebert. Pauline Kael savaged Kubrick for most of his and her careers; didn’t dim my admiration of Kael. Erik Childress gets mildly snarky about The Master and the weepers shriek “STOP IT! UR STOOPID!”

I dig my Tarkovsky and my Barry Lyndon and so on. Long-winded, contemplative films aren’t my Kryptonite. But I need to perceive some inner life, some drive and purpose. I don’t get that from Malick. Perhaps you do. Bon appetit. If Malick’s meandering daddy-issue tone poems are what ring your bell, The Tree of Life is said, for better or worse, to be the Malickiest Malick of them all. Dive right in. Just don’t expect me to join you, or to relish the immersion if I do jump in. We Malick skeptics are not necessarily belching vulgarians whose idea of cinematic transcendence is Transformers. Isn’t the point of art that it isn’t for everyone?

All that said, I am glad that Malick exists and that he unaccountably continues to get money to make his films (though, as my friend Kenneth Souza rightly points out, Orson Welles did not benefit from such largesse; and other filmmakers today have to scrape and bow for pennies to finance movies far less opaque and interiorized than Malick’s). In an industry dominated by mercenary crap, Malick, as I said, looks like a giant and possibly is one. But this giant seems to have fallen with The Tree of Life, which according to many reports is a spindly sapling that can’t support the weight of its ambition or its audience’s expectations. Finally, the Malickians gaze upon the Master’s canvas and see something of what I’ve seen all along.

Tomorrow is Saturday, and Sunday comes afterwards.

March 14, 2011

Charlie Sheen? Over. Rebecca Black is the new shit.

Sometime over the weekend, someone discovered Rebecca Black’s apocalyptically awesome new video “Friday” on YouTube. Well, it went viral with astonishing velocity, even by 2011 internet standards. There are already god knows how many remixes and covers (the best cover I’ve heard: Bob Dylan). By now, Rebecca Black has an army of ironic fans who cherish such lyrics as “Kickin’ in the front seat/Sittin’ in the back seat/Gotta make my mind up/Which seat can I take?” and this post’s subject line. The video has, as I write this, clocked over two million views.

I feel bad for the people who can’t appreciate the majesty that is Rebecca Black’s “Friday” on some level: ironic, genuine, whatever. To me, what this song means is this: This is it. In case you were wondering, this is about as far as pop music can fall. This is the logical extension of pop’s worship of surface over substance, catchiness over melody. And honestly? It’s so adorably inept I kind of love it. Yeah, I’m in the Rebecca Black fan club. You got a problem with that? It makes me laugh. In case you forgot, laughs were in short supply this past weekend. Cackling at an insanely bubbly kid auto-tuning her way through a perfectly content-free paean to a day of the week was perhaps just the release valve two million people (or maybe one million people watching it twice) needed.

I said “perfectly” content-free, and “Friday” is perfection in a lot of ways. Not great; not even good; but perfect, the way that an Ed Wood film is a perfect expression of ol’ Ed’s feelings (“Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!”) despite his technical inability to portray those feelings in any way that isn’t hilarious. “Friday” is The Thing Itself, the sleek essence. The Ark Music Factory, which apparently takes rich parents’ money to turn their little darlings into internet pop stars, has done what major labels have tried to do for decades: package radio-friendly unit shifters despite their non-existence of talent. According to their website, Ark has eleven other “artists” besides Rebecca Black, though Rebecca Black was the one to break through, because millions of laughing/aghast YouTube clickers knew what I know: This is it.

And the video! Oh my shit, the video: Rebecca Black grinning nonstop at the defenseless camera, while kids around her dance dorkily, some even gaining their own ironic fan clubs, like the girl in braces to the right of Rebecca Black in the back seat — she may yet rise to Amber Lamps status. The whole thing is slickly produced but conceptualized on about the level of a thirteen-year-old, which is what Rebecca Black is.

Struggling musicians have done some resentful grumbling: “I’ve worked on my craft for thirty years and I’m still doing gigs in pubs and at farmer’s markets, and this dweeb gets two million hits.” You know what? Fuck you, musicians, and fuck your craft, if you’re that pissed about who gets sprinkled with popularity dust and who doesn’t. Then don’t quit your fucking day job, you infant. Life isn’t fair — learn it, know it. Most people in any creative field will never make anywhere close to a living on the art they practice, and the undeserving consistently get handed the keys to the kingdom. Accept that, embrace that, and either do it because you love to do it or get the fuck out of it and stop scorning the giddiness the rest of us derive from something like Drive Angry 3D or Rebecca Black’s “Friday.”

Besides, the kid is only thirteen and she looks so damn happy up there, singing about having her bowl (??) and her cereal (oh, that kind of bowl), living the dream with all her friends or all those day players pretending to be her friends. I, for one (or two million), eagerly await Rebecca Black’s follow-up, but really, how can you follow up “Friday”? It’s been done; this is it. It’s been said. Pop has gazed into the abyss, and the abyss has gazed into it, and the result is “Friday.” Partyin’ partyin’ yeah.

The End of Objects

March 4, 2011

I own more books than I will ever read, more DVDs than I will ever watch. At the moment I also have more music on my iTunes — only a portion of which resides on my iPod — than I ever listen to. But at least that music only takes up digital space. If it all had analog counterparts — say, a physical CD for each album I’ve got tucked away on iTunes; a physical 45 single for each albumless, stand-alone song — it would fill half a room.

We are rapidly, of course, approaching a time when books and movies needn’t be represented by things of metal and plastic and paper on our shelves, either. I can fit Infinite Jest and/or the complete works of Dostoyevsky into my pocket via the Kindle app for the iPod and have room to spare for my keys, a cell phone, and some quarters. As more and more movies become available for streaming via Netflix, Hulu, Crackle, and goddess knows how many other outlets, we lose the need to go trawling through the $5 DVD bins in search of impulse-buy items that look just intriguing enough to be worth watching … someday.

Recently I was pointed to this video, an extended ad for Corning Glass that promises a world of smooth surfaces, a total touchpad environment. I found the ad unsettling and vaguely offensive for various reasons, but it started me thinking. I visualized a glass wall in one’s living room which, when touched, would show off one’s collection of e-books or music or films much the way we want our physical shelves to represent our tastes and pretensions. Press the wall once, there’s your book collection (or “page” one of it, if you own more e-books than will display on the wall). Press twice, there’s your music collection. Press thrice, there’s your movie collection. (Your porn collection would, of course, be fingerprint-passworded.)

What you see on this wall is an assortment of uniform spines of media. If you want to reach something near the top of the wall, or don’t feel like bending over to reach something near the floor, you finger-swipe up or down as you do on your iPod or iPad. All your media is stored on a 500 petabyte (or whatever you can afford) central hard drive, kept in a climate-controlled room. (You’ll also have backups, right? You’ll pay a monthly fee to store them on a massive server, or something with cloud-computing capabilities.) So you touch a spine on the wall: you feel like listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on your home sound system. Or you feel like reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions — the book is piped wirelessly to your iPad or similar handheld tablet, or you have the option of paging through it on your widescreen TV. Or you feel like watching Wallace & Gromit — again, piped wirelessly to your TV.

What happens to all your physical media? Simple: you trade it in. If it’s got a UPC, and most stuff does, you scan it in, and a digital copy of it downloads onto your hard drive. The physical copy you can then drop off for recycling, or donate it to an organization (school, etc.) that still relies on physical collections of things. Very soon, you need no physical books, movies or music in your home at all. (Bear in mind, this is optional — you can still hold onto objects that have sentimental value — until, of course, it isn’t optional because there simply isn’t enough space left on the planet.)

The point is to roll with technology to do what every spiritual school of thought worth its followers tells you to do: let go of the physical.

This future I’m spinning has obvious appeal to me as someone who’d love to have easy access to all the media I own without the clutter, the hassle of organization, the pangs of guilt upon bringing home one more book or one more DVD. But this same future also spells what certainly sounds like the definitive death of the public library. And as a library worker for the past going-on-21 years, that rankles me. I want it for myself personally; I don’t wish to see it become the standard for everyone.

Which it probably won’t, any time soon. What you probably don’t realize, unless you come into steady contact with the sort of people who aren’t reading this blog entry or any blog entries, is that there are still many, many, many people who not only don’t have internet access at home but who have never been on the internet. And yes, this is changing as we witness a growing generation that doesn’t remember a time before the internet. But it won’t happen tomorrow.

What will happen sooner than we want it to, if people continue to insist on procreating quite literally as if there were no tomorrow, is a simple problem of acreage. Our grandchildren may live to see the day when everyone on the planet lives like those poor cramped bastards in Tokyo, making do with an absolute minimum of square feet of living area. When that day comes, pretty much everything will, or will have to be, digitized in response to the needs of space. If you want culture in your home, it won’t be tactile, except for that smooth surface you touch to bring up a display that shows off your complete collection of Virginia Woolf or Django Reinhardt or Federico Fellini. And then, at a stroke, you’re reading A Room of One’s Own or grooving to Djangology or watching La Strada.

Or you’re not; or you’re living in a shoebox with no culture whatsoever because all this technology, all this access, is available only to the top 1% of income earners, and the rest of us can go suck a corn dog. Which is why that video annoyed me: it looks like a rich person’s future, not yours or mine.

Whether this future chills or compels you, you can either take comfort in or be frustrated by the likelihood that by the time the tech comes down to your spending level, you and your children will be long dead of old age. For the moment, we are stuck with physical media — or we still have it to give us tactile joy, whichever you prefer — and we still have to find a place for it all. Anyone want a paperback of The Lovely Bones? I’ve got two.

The Apotheosis of Carlos Irwin Estevez

March 1, 2011

He hasn’t been on my radar much of late — I mean, I don’t watch Two and a Half Men, and he pretty much stopped being a box-office force sometime around the early ’90s. But Charlie Sheen is sure on my radar now. I don’t even know that much about what he’s so pissed off about — something to do with the show’s producer. What I do know is that he’s been dropping one awesomely epic pronouncement after another. And I’m loving it.

Charlie Sheen said: I am on a drug, it’s called ‘Charlie Sheen.’ It’s not available ’cause if you try it once you will die. Your face will melt off, and your children will weep over your exploded body.

Charlie Sheen said: I mean, what’s not to love? Especially when you see how I party. Man, it was epic. The run I was on made Sinatra, Flynn, Jagger, Richards, all of ‘em just look like droopy-eyed armless children.

Charlie Sheen said: Resentments are the rocket fuel that lives in the tip of my saber.

Charlie Sheen said: I will not believe that if I do something then I have to follow a certain path because it was written for normal people. People who aren’t special. People who don’t have tiger blood and Adonis DNA.

Charlie Sheen said: We are high priest Vatican assassin warlocks. Boom! Print that, people.

Charlie Sheen said: Read behind the frickin’ hieroglyphics… this is cryptology.

Most truthfully, Charlie Sheen said: I’ve got magic. I’ve got poetry at my fingertips. That’s a bingo. Boom! Print that, people.

This is manic apotheotic poetry, what Charlie Sheen is spinning here. I don’t know and I don’t care what his mental state is or should be. All I know is that anyone who can come up with this caliber of psycho-Biblical magniloquence is to be treasured, and interviewed frequently.

I mean, can you even imagine what would’ve happened if Lindsay Lohan had made the rounds with this kind of chit-chat? Lindsay Lohan, the F-18 who will deploy her ordnance to the ground! Out of the ash she rises with her red hair / And she eats men like air. I would’ve gone out and bought every goddamn Lindsay Lohan DVD and both her albums if she’d done that. The thing is, and Sheen knows it, if you’re a celebrity you’re supposed to shitkick and act humble. Gosh, I just got lucky is all. Stars: they’re just like us! I’m not a witch; I’m you! Not Charlie Sheen. He’s a warlock, he’s a fighter plane, he’s on a drug called Charlie Sheen and it will melt your face.

I love this shit. I could read it all day and all of the night. I love when a star drops the pretense and says he’s fucking special, he has magic and poetry in his fingertips and coming out of his massive heavily-veined dick (the tip of his saber!), and if you don’t believe him, just ask his goddesses. They’ll tell you he’s a secret feminist:

Women are not to be hit. They’re to be hugged and caressed … She was attacking me, though, with a small fork — like a cocktail fork. And she had it with her; that was the weird part. What was she doing with, like, a shrimp fork in her purse? She stole it, clearly. From a buffet.

Frickin’ women with their shrimp forks. But leave the forks at the buffet, man; come party with Charlie Sheen, if you can even handle it without your bones melting like wax.

Charlie Sheen has strafed the received wisdom that the rich, powerful and famous are like anyone else, except with more, like, money, power and fame. Did you see the Oscars? Every goddamn one of those people onstage knows what Charlie Sheen knows. They just don’t talk about it. But Charlie Sheen, man, beautiful epic Charlie Sheen, he’s made the pilgrimage to the burning bush of his own awesomeness, and it almost torched his fucking eyebrows off, but who needs eyebrows, you can buy eyebrows, you can buy anything if you’re Charlie Sheen, which you’re not because only Charlie Sheen is Charlie Sheen.

Can you be like Charlie Sheen? I dunno, dude/dudette — I mean, you can try to excavate and nourish your inner Sheenliness, the chthonic essence we’re told to smother or else the other kids won’t like us; roll with the science of it, the knowledge that you win all day long, you win in your underwear before your first cup of coffee, and anyone who can’t see that is a troll, a loser, a droopy-eyed armless child who can’t process the reality of you. “Pretty pretty please,” P!nk recently implored, “don’t you ever ever feel like you’re less than fuckin’ perfect,” and Charlie Sheen certainly internalized the shit out of that message. Charlie Sheen is not sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. Read behind the frickin’ hieroglyphics!

Thing is, Charlie Sheen is wasted on a sitcom with Duckie and a kid, and he knows it. He needs to be writing operas, epic novels that make Atlas Shrugged look like a crouton (Who is Charlie Sheen?) — Ayn Rand totally would’ve spread ‘em for Charlie Sheen, bro. He needs to be the hero of his own Tolkien saga, and he wouldn’t be some hobbit, he definitely wouldn’t be some simpy elf, he’d be Gandalf and the Balrog at the same time, motherfucker, telling himself “You shall not pass” because nobody else has the balls to, and fuck throwing the Ring into the volcano, Charlie Sheen would keep it and be righteously awesome with it, and it wouldn’t control him because he can cure himself with his mind, and maybe he can cure you too — who knows? — nobody’s ever asked him.

Anyway, a sitcom is beneath a man with such rhetorical gifts as Charlie Sheen has shown. So shine on, you high priest Vatican assassin warlock. Shine the fuck on.


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