Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Stream of Consciousness No. 8: Sunday Sunday Sunday!

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I probably should actually be using this block of time before my Inside Beat meeting to get started on serious thesis research. Instead I'm updating this blog---because I feel like it, I guess.

I wanted to pick up from where I left off in my previous entry, a slightly perfunctory yet certainly felt shout-out to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team and its newfound resurgence into the AP Top 25 this past weekend. I especially wanted to elaborate a bit more on the entry's short final paragraph and encompass the whole of my typically complex attitude toward sports in general.

This Sunday---when I wasn't sitting in front of my laptop computer editing submissions for the upcoming issue of Inside Beat---I did something I hadn't done in a while: I tuned into pro football on TV. It was actually a rather pleasurable experience: it brought back a little of the old excitement I used to feel come Sundays when I could hopefully look forward to the latest football game.

But this summer, I pretty much lost touch with sports in general. Usually I'm mildly into baseball in the summer, but this particular summer I was racked with other concerns (readers, of course, will understand what concerns I'm talking about pretty easily) to give the team I usually root for, the New York Mets, even a passing nod. And guess what? The year I pretty much tune out on them in the summer---again, shows how much of a fan I am---the Mets decide to have a great year and do so well as to not merely clinch a spot in the playoffs, but win the N.L. East division as well! This was the year that the Mets cut the usually dominant Atlanta Braves down to size (are they in the running for a wild card spot? If a serious baseball enthusiast reads this blog, let me know, because that's how out of it I am as far as what's going on in pro baseball goes), and I pretty much missed it all in favor of worrying like hell about my future and irritating the hell out of my mother (and vice versa). I guess spectator sports inevitably will take a backseat when it's my future I'm dealing with here, but still...

...I remember when I actually used to give a bit of a damn about watching sports on TV. No, I never played on any team in high school or anything, but I got into the New York Mets---when Mike Piazza was around and making waves with the team---mostly to counteract my brother Masao's love of the New York Yankees. Hey, I like rooting for underdogs. You can bet I was rooting like hell when the Mets went all the way into the World Series in 2000: Benny Agbayani's walk-off home run against the Giants in the penultimate game of the Division Series, Robin Ventura's "grand slam single" to end an epic 15-inning monster against the Braves---I could drool over those memorable moments like Homer Simpson drools about donuts. (And of course I felt a 50-lb. weight of disappointment when the Mets faced off against the Yankees in the first game of the World Series and let that first game get away.)

Obviously, the Mets got progressively worse afterwards, and the season before this current one I didn't even bother to tune in all that much: it seemed obvious that the team was in some kind rebuilding process, and so I figured there wasn't much excitement to be had that year. Guess I must have carried a similar attitude to the beginning of this year---and look what happened.

Yeah, excitement. I'm no diehard sports nut or anything; I don't have a vast knowledge of stats and history like, say, WFAN's Mike Francessa does. Really, I'm just looking for entertainment---but I'm principled enough to have some, er, "morals" when it comes to team loyalty. With one exception---I'll get to that in a moment---I don't plan on bailing on the Mets just because they start to win or lose on a more consistent basis. I have my sense of honor!

I don't plan on bailing on the New York Jets either. But tell that to the New England Patriots!

Remember that "game in the snow" a few years ago when the New England Patriots were playing the Pittsburgh Steelers in a playoff game? I certainly do; it's probably one of the most vivid sports memories I'll ever have. So, towards the end of the fourth quarter it looks as if the Steelers had picked off a pass by Tom Brady...and then what's this "tuck rule" shit? I remember my bros and I were playing a game of Monopoly that night while we were watching this game, and I was laughing my head off in disbelief at this turn of events, but I was probably also getting high off the monstrous roar of approval coming from that Gillette Stadium crowd when that interception call was overturned. And when the Pats went on to win that game, I pretty much started to follow them for the rest of their miraculous postseason up to their Superbowl victory. The way I reacted to their Superbowl win---when they came from behind once again to take it away from St. Louis Rams---you could mistake me for being a fan.

The next year, I felt compelled to continue to root for them just to prove that their previous postseason run wasn't a stroke of luck. They didn't make it to the playoffs that year, but they hardly disgraced themselves either...and then they came back the next year and pretty much asserted a dominance that would continue for the 2004-5 season.

But then came Superbowl XXXIX facing the Philadelphia Eagles: for me, though, it was the moment when I realized that my love affair with the New England Patriots had died out. It wasn't that it was boring to see the Pats win all the time; it was that they simply had become so dull to watch. I think this Slate article sums it up nicely: the Pats, I realized, had become a well-oiled machine. And there's nothing less dramatic and less exciting, to my mind, than a well-oiled machine.

So---responding to a bit of pressure from friends who questioned why I would even bother to root for the Pats, because I wasn't born or raised anywhere near Boston---I decided to circle back to my New York roots and place my loyalties in the New York Jets. Why the Jets? I don't know; maybe it's just because the other big NY football team calls itself the "Giants," ooh the giants. Whatever. Again, it's not like I'm a diehard sports nut who lives and dies with a team. It's all about entertainment for me, and the Jets have certainly provided me with plenty over the years: plenty of triumphs, and plenty of disappointments (remember Doug Brien's crucial missed field goals in a playoff game against the Steelers in early 2005? And then the disastrous 2005 season, with Chad Pennington's and Curtis Martin's big injuries?) . But right now, the Jets seem to have a lot of heart, and I'll take heart over boring perfection any day.

Still, know how much of a Jets fan I am? I didn't watch much of their most recent game---a victory against the Buffalo Bills. In fact, I watched more of the Giants' disaster against the Seahawks than the Jets game. I like to be entertained, but when there's work to be done, there's work to be done.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Hollywood Confidential

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This weekend I didn't get a chance to see a movie (I was planning to see All the King's Men---which, it turns out, has been getting hammered critically----with my usual movie-watching friend, but he was busy this weekend, so perhaps we'll check it out this coming weekend). So I think this would be a good opportunity to play a little catch-up and reflect on two recent films: Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland (**½ out of ****) and Brian De Palma's similarly themed The Black Dahlia (*½ out of ****). I was going to do a comparative review of both decadent-Hollywood noirs right after I saw the latter film, but my general busy-ness intervened. So here goes...

Let me first say right off the bat that, at this point, I'm still wishing that I had liked The Black Dahlia more than I did on a first (and so far, only) viewing. I'm no Brian De Palma expert, but I've liked most of the movies of his that I've seen, especially his most recent film, the 2002 thriller Femme Fatale, arguably the ultimate De Palma movie in its twists and turns, its bravura technique, and its Hitchcockian obsessions with voyeurism and deception. But, for all the over-the-top swooniness of Mark Isham's score in The Black Dahlia, for all its occasional moments of distinctly De Palma-like inspiration (including one unbroken p.o.v. shot as Josh Hartnett's Bucky meets the family of Hilary Swank's vampish Madeline Linscott), and for all its surface passion, the initial impression I'm left with is of a muddled mess by a filmmaker who's not quite sure why he's making this particular movie.

But then, perhaps you should take my reaction with a grain of salt. Consider that I haven't read the James Ellroy novel on which it is based, and also consider that I'm hardly a De Palma expert by any means (other than Femme Fatale, I've seen Sisters, Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, and Snake Eyes, and most of those I saw a while ago, so my memories of them are probably not entirely fresh). So I couldn't tell you if I thought this was the most felicitous Ellroy adaptation or some kind of important auteurist statement from De Palma. I'm just taking The Black Dahlia on its own terms and telling all of you that it's gotten me stumped.

For instance: what does De Palma intend by allowing Mark Isham to go over the top in his scoring, and to use it so insistently, to the point of distraction? Is it meant to be sincerely operatic, or is it meant to be ironic and postmodern? Why does De Palma allow Fiona Shaw, as Madeline Linscott's crazed mother, to go laughably over-the-top in her performance? Are we supposed to take it seriously, or is it meant to blend into the movie's hyper stylization? I don't know. Maybe a second viewing will clear many things up for me, but at this point after a "cold" viewing, I have to say that The Black Dahlia left me pretty dissatisfied, and not necessarily in a way that would make me think that a second viewing would yield something richer. I have to be upfront: I just wasn't terribly engaged by the movie...and I wonder if De Palma was all that engaged in it either.

I'd hardly be one of these people who fall into the De Palma-as-cold-fish camp that has persisted since the '70s; I mean, look at Blow Out (1981) and tell me that he isn't emotionally invested in what happens to John Travolta's sound-man character as he tries---and fails---to save the woman he loves from a deadly political conspiracy using his technical knowhow. The Black Dahlia, however, couldn't help but give me the impression of a director trying to convince himself that he actually cares about this rather shallow noir material. With the exception of Mia Kirshner's touchingly vulnerable and naive Elizabeth Short---seen in archive footage by the detectives and by us---most of the actors seem either fairly lifeless (Josh Hartnett, Scarlett Johansson) or hammy (Hilary Swank, Fiona Shaw).

Ultimately, what's the point of this movie? Again, I'm not sure I could even begin to tell you what De Palma was trying to get at in this film, with its baroque excess and film noir overload. Is it meant to be some sort of sensationalistic expose of the evil lurking behind the glittery Hollywood facade? That doesn't seem to me like big news anyway. De Palma, as usual, pulls off a few lovely visual coups---that aforementioned unbroken p.o.v. shot, a recurring image recalling The Man Who Laughs, among others---but those moments are in the context of an inexplicable mess of a movie that left me furrowing my brow not in confusion at all the last-minute twists thrown into the film, but at the point of this whole enterprise, especially within the context of De Palma's body of work.

Hollywoodland is, I think, the better film, but I half-regret admitting it because Allen Coulter is certainly no Brian De Palma as far as cinematic intelligence goes. Coulter is a TV guy, formerly of The Sopranos, and Hollywoodland, compared to The Black Dahlia, is, for the most part, visually prosaic---the stagy The Asphalt Jungle to De Palma's stylish Out of the Past (if that makes any sense). It creates a noir atmosphere mostly out of its content: it tells two parallel stories about relatively ordinary people who yearn to make something better of their lives but find themselves stuck in a rut, with little hope of advancing. That sense of melancholy pervades Hollywoodland, and it gives the film a coherence and resonance that'll stay with you longer than the whole of the technically impressive yet dramatically hollow pyrotechnics of The Black Dahlia.

Much of Hollywoodland dwells on the trials and tribulations of Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), a detective who wants to break out of his current rut and prove himself in a big case. He gets that chance when he decides to take on the strange case of George Reeves (Ben Affleck), Hollywood's first Superman. Did he really commit suicide, or was he murdered? And if the latter, why?

I can't say I always found the Simo-related stuff in Hollywoodland all that gripping: Brody certainly exudes a certain needy, yearning quality, and he tries to inject gravitas to the character's personal suffering, but much of it seems like mundane, relatively dull noir business as usual compared to the film's real trump card: Affleck and his surprisingly moving portrait of a man who despairs at having fallen victim to typecasting.

Who knew that, after all the recent bad movies he's made and all the negative press he has gotten over the years, Ben Affleck would return to the screen and, with the force of bitter experience, basically command the screen in the few scenes he has with genuine authority and weight of emotion? Affleck may seem to move around rather awkwardly in his own body, but somehow that sense of discomfort adds to the character's pathos. Reeves' bitter disappointment and resignation with the way his acting career has turned out seems, in Affleck's characterization, to have turned him into a bit of a stiff. Perhaps his most vivid moment comes in one of his final scenes, as he is seen walking up the stairs to his eventual death: his face and the way he walks up the stairs seems to communicate all of Reeves' weariness. He wanted to accomplish so much in the famed Hollywoodland, but his attempt to break out of his popularity as Superman never really took off the way he intended---maybe he was never meant to be anything more, as his wife Toni (Diane Lane) suggests to him vindictively in one scene.

It's that kind of anguish that is, I think, the essence of good film noir---not just in the low-key lighting or the hard shadows, but also in the spiritual desperation it meditates upon. That is what Hollywoodland successfully captures at certain moments. As a whole, it's no masterpiece---it meanders, there's frankly not enough of George Reeves, and it stops dead in its tracks rather than ends---but it carries an emotional punch that The Black Dahlia fails to summon, as much as it clearly tries to do so.


Congratulations to the Rutgers Scarlet Knights football team! This weekend, after their 56-7 trouncing of Howard University this past Saturday, the team currently find themselves in a new position: atop the AP Top 25, at No. 23. Apparently the team hasn't been in the Top 25 since the late '70s.

Boy, I should really get into my own college team! Honestly. What enormous school spirit I have.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Don't Worry...

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about this blog. Been busy, is all. Hopefully a more substantive blog post will be forthcoming soon. Stay tuned...

Monday, September 11, 2006

Remembrance of a Thing Past: 9/11

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Obviously, I have to start with some respectful words regarding the fact that today marks the fifth anniversary of the tragedy that befell this country on Sept. 11 five years ago.

What Pearl Harbor was to a previous generation, 9/11 will probably be to ours. In its sheer magnitude of atrocity, 9/11 truly was a defining event, especially in light of what has transpired in the world afterward: how much more we have thought hard about terrorism and ways to combat it, for instance. Only history, of course, will determine our invasion into Iraq---which certainly the Bush administration tried to paint as an integral part of an appropriate response to 9/11---was a brilliant move or merely a brilliant Vietnam-like blunder (it seems to be more the latter than the former, but I don't know if we can afford to simply pull out of there now). Nevertheless, the day itself will stand as a genuine landmark in our history, especially for our generation: this is the event that we all will be telling our own kids about.

Sorry if that previous paragraph sounded like platitudes and cliches; I don't know if there's much else to say about today's fifth anniversary that hasn't already been said in five years.

I do, however, vividly remember what I was doing that day when I found out about what happened to the Twin Towers (but then, who doesn't?): still in high school at the time, I was walking into my Physics class when I saw people looking up at images on the television screen in our lab room depicting smoke coming out of the North Tower. I vividly remember my confusion and surprise. I also vividly remember my slight revulsion at some of the people sitting at the back of the room who seemed to think this was some kind of perverse "entertainment." In hindsight, dunno if I could totally blame them, though: either this was their way of masking their own horrified feelings, or they simply found the whole thing a bit surreal. I mean, those images certainly did look like something out of a disaster movie---except this was real life, and real people were jumping to their deaths from about 70 floors up.

I'm not sure if I've experienced the horror of 9/11 in the same way as a lot of other people have, though. Maybe I'm just generally detached like that---I didn't really lose anyone close to me that day---but when I think of 9/11, I don't get emotional in the way many other people do; I always seem to think of it as a fact of life, some devastating thing that happened, something that made history. Would it offend anyone if I suggested that sometimes I feel just a tad bit of a rush when I realize that I was alive for what will ultimately go down as a great and terrible day in history? I was a part of history, cool! (Somehow that kind of reaction seems like it denigrates the terror of that day; but in this blog of mine, I always strive for honesty.)

In any case, condolences to all those who lost people close to them on Sept. 11. I know this is another newspaper-wrought cliche, but let me say it once more: We will never forget.


Could my decision to take Editing and Layout be the smartest decision I'll make this year? (Sorry to break the melancholy spell of the previous segment, heh.)

One of the things that my mother bugged about constantly this summer was about how I planned to make a living and support myself as a film writer. I never really had much of an answer for her---if I wasn't totally sure myself, how could I?---but of course she was probably right when she suggested that one couldn't necessarily make a living on film writing alone. What was worse, of course, was that I couldn't help but feel she was accurate when she accused me of not being nearly as broad-minded as any good journalist is supposed to be. I mean, yeah, in this blog I occasionally sound off on stuff going on in the outside world and all, but I don't take as much an active interest in following, say, politics as I do following what goes on in the film world. Deep down, I know I should, but whenever I open a daily newspaper, I can't help but go straight for the Arts section rather than reading the front page carefully. Just another fault on which to lower my self-esteem, I guess.

But if my Editing and Layout teacher is correct when she says there's a high demand for copy editors in the media field---maybe this class has opened up a possibility that I didn't even think about beforehand.

Now granted, most editors probably need the kind of broad, deep, wide-ranging knowledge that I sometimes feel I lack. But of all the options I've considered over these past few months as far as how I could find a way to support myself as I toiled away at finding my film-critic voice and all, copy editing---at this point, anyway---strikes me as the one I feel most comfortable with. Not teaching, not even reporting (although I have tried my hand at it, and have gotten my share of kudos for it too). Maybe copy editing is what I need to try to learn if I'm going to have a measure of satisfaction doing something just to pay the bills---because sometimes i wonder whether passion will necessarily sustain me, as much as I like to think it would.

Of course, I'm just saying all this having only sat through two class sessions of Editing and Layout. But maybe this realization will allow me to take more intense interest in this class, which I didn't even think about taking 'til late August. Thus, maybe this might be the best lucky decision I'll have made this year, especially if it pays off in the future.


I saw Hollywoodland yesterday, but I think I'm going to reserve my comments 'til next week, after Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia comes out. I suspect both films are probably going to be rather different stylistically---unlike De Palma, former TV director Allen Coulter is no Hitchcockian stylist or anything---but both seem to tackle a similar kind of subject: seedy, murderous intrigue underneath the Hollywood dazzle. It might make for an interesting comparative review, so I'll wait 'til next week.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Brief Life Update No. 7

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Figure I owe you faithful readers a brief update of the rest of my first week back at school, so here it is.

I was able to register into Editing and Layout class without having to wait for a special permission number. Basically, I lucked out: I looked at the online course schedule and saw that the section was green---meaning open---again after it had been red---closed---for so long. I was actually pretty happy about this (my roommate told me later in the day that he had heard me whisper "Yes!" when I was able to register into the class); now I hope the class lives up to my enthusiasm. (I subsequently dropped a Development of Mass Media class I had previously registered into.)

My schedule actually seems to divide itself quite nicely into "journalism" days and "film" days. So my Mondays and Wednesdays are all journalism classes, while my Tuesdays and Thursdays are dominated by film courses. No classes on Fridays (although I plan to do something important with my Fridays; more on that in a moment...).

Thursday night was my first Inside Beat meeting as Film Editor. The night before, our head editor had e-mailed all of us editors imploring us to try to come up with assignment ideas. I didn't come up with a great deal of film feature story ideas except cliche things like a fall movie preview (which no one called); but, of course, most of my assignments are basically film-review assignments anyway. And so, in the typically rambling little spiel I gave to the crowd of editors, staff writers and wannabe writers in our office, I tried to emphasize how I wanted a slightly stronger indie film presence in my section. So obscure foreign film releases playing at, say, the Angelika Film Center or Landmark's Sunshine Cinemas in Manhattan? I guess as long as it has generated a certain amount of buzz, it's fair game to me. And of course I encouraged writers to be proactive and come up with ideas of their own. (Editors like me don't always come up with the greatest ideas anyway.)

I was actually a little nervous before I opened my mouth to speak to the group last night, as if I was about to give a rallying speech to the troops. Nevertheless, I think I made my major points, and I was able to elaborate on them a bit more with individual wannabe writers after the meeting was over.

Look at me, assuming a position of (some kind of) power! (Unfortunately, not enough power to be able to get access into the New York Film Festival; I only found out last night that today was the last day applications for accreditation to the press/industry screenings of films being shown at the festival. That was rather disappointing, I must say.)

As for today: well, as I might have said in a previous blog entry, I am supposed to be writing a thesis this year for the Livingston College Honors Program. (I promise, I will eventually go into a little bit more depth about what that thesis is going to be about in a future post.) But of course a thesis is nothing without research, and I kinda have to get cracking on that; I didn't do much of it in the summer as I had planned (although, that said, I did decide to change my thesis topic in August, so I have a little bit of an excuse).

I don't know how much time during my four days of class I'll have to devote to intensive thesis research, so I think I will try to designate my Fridays---and maybe some Saturdays---as "thesis" days, in which I will perhaps hole myself up in one of the campus libraries and research stuff. We'll see how that works out.

Oh, and still no shower curtains. Looks like maintenance isn't going to come help us out after all (is it possible that Devco has instructed maintenance to disregard any calls for shower curtains?), so I'm going to have to go buy some this weekend, as well as do some extra packing that I neglected to do before returning to Rockoff. Sloppy sloppy me.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Back to School, Back to School...

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Today turned out to be a pretty wet first day of classes here at Rutgers, and guess what? Somehow I totally forgot to pack in long-sleeve shirts and the umbrella I bought just yesterday at my local KMart. So guess who was one of the stupid people walking around College Ave. wearing a short-sleeve shirt and getting myself very close to soaked by the rain? (I did pack in plenty of long pants, though---somehow that seems like small consolation, though.)

Hope that isn't some kind of omen for the things to come this semester... (Yeah, negativity rearing its ugly head again.)

Today on my class menu: a French film course that covers the history of French cinema up to the 1950s, and a "Major Filmmakers" course.

I was a little disappointed to find out that my French film course would only be going up to the '50s---pre-French New Wave, so no Godard! Truffaut! Demy! No big deal, I suppose: I like to think I can keep an open mind. And of course there were still great French filmmakers before those Cahiers du Cinema upstarts: Jean Renoir is an obvious one.

Today's session was actually a full close-to-full three-hour session (1:10-4:10 p.m.), and so we did watch something: a film called The Story of a Cheat by a filmmaker named Sacha Guitry. The name sounded vaguely familiar, but otherwise I didn't really know a thing about Guitry before seeing the film. It's actually not a bad little movie: it's more or less an extended monologue---narrated by Guitry himself, playing the main character---in which he recounts his experiences as a kid who grows up learning that cheating is actually good for him. He actually gets through his life by cheating---a subversive thought, but one expressed in a stylish and witty manner in the film. It's actually a weird kind of silent film, except with one or two scenes of recorded dialogue and Guitry's voiceover narration dominating the proceedings. Guitry was a well-known playwright before he became a filmmaker, but, in spite of its inherent talkiness, there is some genuinely clever filmmaking going on in Story of a Cheat: Guitry's dominant voiceover narration suggests a play on point-of-view that may well be described as unreliable. Certainly it's entertaining---even though, I'll admit, its talkiness got just a tad monotonous to me, so that there were moments where I felt my eyelids start to get heavy...

...Or is it just my tendency to get heavy-eyed in the early afternoon? During my summer break, I often made it a point to catch some zzz's at around the 1:00 hour, because I often feel genuinely refreshed after a nap at around that time. But with this French film class starting at 1:10 p.m....well, I just hope I can stay awake during the films, because many of these films are unavailable on DVD (including the one I saw today). Dunno if I really want to take two buses to go to the Livingston Media Library all the time just because I can't keep my eyelids open in that class. (Anyone know a good energy drink I could start drinking---something that won't make me crashing-tired later on?)

In my "Major Filmmakers" class, the filmmakers we're going to be examining will be Clint Eastwood, King Vidor, and the Coen brothers. Not exactly the lineup I was expecting...but again, I'd like to think I can keep an open mind, and all three of them have certainly gotten their share of acclaim. But Eastwood as a "major filmmaker"? Well, okay, he's "major" in the sense that he's prolific and he's earned a position in Hollywood in which he can pretty much make any kind of film he wants. Not every filmmaker earns such a coveted position, to be sure. But aesthetically? Personally, I think it's pretty debatable whether he's "major" in the sense that he's actually moved the art form along in some groundbreaking way; I mean, doesn't much of his acclaim these days come from the fact that he's still making classically-told film stories in a time when speed and noise seem preferred? Most of the acclaim for his recent film Million Dollar Baby didn't come from the fact that he did anything groundbreaking or fascinating with the film's look or style or anything like that; in fact, some critics I read acclaimed him for making something that reminded one of an old-style noir boxing picture from the '40s. But, the way my professor explained his choices, one could understand why he picked the three: King Vidor is an example of classical Hollywood; the Coen brothers are considered post-classical in their style and sensibility by some; and Eastwood stands in the middle, kinda.

I half-respect more than love Million Dollar Baby---some of it strikes me as manipulative and overly melodramatic, but it does have a trio of great performances, I do like the seedy look of the film, and, in its own crude way, it does make you think about some pretty deep issues---but I do think Unforgiven and Mystic River are pretty good movies. As for the other two (or three): although I've seen a couple of Coen brothers films (Raising Arizona and Fargo), I don't feel like I have a good-enough grasp of their sensibility to be able to comment on them with any confidence. Don't know a great deal about King Vidor either, although I did see his 1928 silent The Crowd last year in an American Cinema class I took (bring that to DVD soon!). Perhaps this class will bring me closer to a greater appreciation (if not love) of all of those filmmakers.

And that has pretty much been my day. I ran into some old friends and went through the usual rigamarole ("how was your summer?" and all those pleasantries), and I got wet from the rain and had to buy myself a fleece just so I wouldn't have to get any more wet and cold than I already was. Oh, and our Rockoff apartment didn't have shower curtains last night---apparently Devco, the company that owns the building, decided not to purchase shower curtains for all of us, forcing us to go to them and get them, or something stupid like that. So I didn't shower last night. Yuck! (I'm typing this up in a College Ave. computer lab; I will be fairly annoyed if I return to Rockoff tonight and find out that we still don't have shower curtains.)

Monday, September 04, 2006

A Look Back and a Look Ahead

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - On the heels of finishing up a summer movie wrap-up feature for the Inside Beat (the entertainment weekly of the Daily Targum), I figure an equivalent summer overview would be nice for this personal blog of mine.

This wasn't a particularly eventful summer---but then, most of my summers usually aren't eventful in the sense that I did a great deal of "cool" things ("cool" to me meaning taking a lot of trips, going to some exotic place, something like that). Still, was it a good summer? In retrospect, hard to say.

Maybe I should have expected the amount of nagging and guilt-tripping and frustration engendered by my relationship with my mother this summer because of the fact that this is my supposed final summer break as a college student. And apparently what she saw of me this summer---usually, all she saw personally was me sitting in front of my laptop computer for much of my free time---didn't exactly increase her confidence about my chances at success in the future I've chosen. "I have to be honest," my mother once said to me this summer, "I don't even think you'd make a good journalist." (Thanks for the words of encouragement!) No matter that I did use some of my time this summer to write some articles for the Home News Tribune and for Matt Zoller Seitz's online blog "The House Next Door" (only some of which I told my mother about---I dunno, just don't feel comfortable with being so open with her about such things anymore), and that I used other hours increasing my personal film knowledge (discovering the pleasures, for instance, of Stanley Kubrick's typically distant yet gorgeous and haunting Barry Lyndon and Francois Truffaut's delightfully playful yet tragic Shoot the Piano Player for the first time): movies to her are just things to either stay awake or fall asleep for, a stupid obsession that should be overcome because "you can write about so many other things; you can't write about just movies."

So of course my summer was chock-full of a certain measure of introspection and worry. Sometimes I wonder if she's right, that a life in which I simply try to write about movies all the time will be a hard life indeed. Last year, I remember meeting film critic Charles Taylor for the first time at an advance screening of Domino, and even he said to me something to the effect of "You'd probably have to be able to write about a little bit of everything in order to make it in the biz." If a professional film critic---and a good one too---gives this kind of advice, then I feel as if there must be something to it. Which gets me nervous, because, as I've probably said before on this blog, film is kinda the only thing I've ever really felt comfortable writing about---it's the art that I know the most about, really. Books? I haven't even bothered touching something like, say, James Joyce's Ulysses yet. (I didn't read much this past summer; just never felt in the mood to do so, maybe because I always felt like there was something else I should be doing.) Music? There are still Beatles albums I haven't even bothered to hear yet (of course I'm familiar with their hits). Pauline Kael became famous in part because of her wide knowledge of the arts: even in her film reviews, she often made handy reference to literature, music, even theater. I know I have a lifetime to catch up on this stuff, but at this point...well I can't help feeling a little nervous, even if, intellectually, I know I'm probably worrying about nothing.

So, instead of depressing the hell out of myself this summer, I worked. I had fun working at Megamovies; I considered it my experience with retail, and I enjoyed meeting its challenges: dealing with impatient people, answering questions, etc. A few slip-ups here and there, but thankfully nothing big enough to get me fired or anything. (One trainee made a mistake with not charging an infant even though the infant was supposed to be charged, and the ranking manager at the theater fired her on the spot. When I heard this story, I was like "whoa nelly!") And, of course, the free movies was a nice touch (and a friend of mine utilized my connection as much as he possibly could). I might consider coming back for winter vacation---unless, of course, something happens in the meantime (like an internship or something...).

And that's about it, really. Speaking of internships, I did start giving a little bit of thought to what kind of internships I should try for; I even got a big internship book from my local library and copied some of the entries for future reference. Hopefully I'll be able to get something good for my spring semester.

So was it a good summer? It was okay, I guess. I suppose there was more I could have done to contribute immensely to my career or something---and, as August dragged on, I kinda started losing the will to write as much as I did in June or July---but hey, at its best, I was able to relax. Relaxation is important to me, dammit!

Tonight I'm moving back into Rockoff Hall and tomorrow I'm starting a new semester. It's going to be a busy one: taking on my new post as Film Editor for the Inside Beat, researching my senior thesis, looking for an internship, and probably something else I'm forgetting at the moment. It's enough to make my head explode in a slag heap of brain and skull. Hopefully I'll be focused enough to be able to get all this stuff done without feeling the need to, say, commit suicide by the end of the semester.

Wish me luck! And hopefully I'll still have time to update this baby. My last blog pretty much died because I barely felt like I had time to devote to posting stuff on it during the school year, so hopefully this year will be different.


Shocking news: the "Crocodile Hunter," Steve Irwin, died today as a result of a stingray bite as he was filming a documentary in the Great Barrier Reef. He was 44.

I was shocked to hear this. To be honest, I didn't really see much of this TV show; I only knew of him by his reputation as a kind of nature-doc daredevil, and a likable and engaging one at that. Perhaps his daredevil-ness finally got him in the end. Not that I'm saying that's a bad thing; he died doing what he loved to do. Guess one should respect him for that.

Ironic, though, that a guy who has supposedly wrestled with crocodiles would get done in by a stingray...

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Do You Believe in Magic?

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - People across the world fall in love with so-called "movie magic"; Neil Burger's new film The Illusionist (*** out of ****) turns our fascination with magic into an entertaining allegory of sorts about how we all respond to it in our different ways.

The film, set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, is ostensibly about Eisenheim (Edward Norton), a magician whose spectacular feats attracts the consternation of Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) and Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti). It also has elements of a love triangle to it, as Eisenheim finds out that a supposedly long-lost childhood female friend (Jessica Biel) is now a duchess attached to Leopold. But, at its heart, The Illusionist is really about how easily some people fall under the spell of the unknown that is conjured up by magic, how others dismiss it altogether, and how some people are torn between wanting to believe in the purity of the illusions and trying to figure out how it's done.

And isn't that the way we all seem to react to movies in general? With a mix of curiosity and awe? That, most people would agree, is its appeal, and Burger, who directed and wrote the screenplay (an adaptation of a short story by Steven Millhauser), puts that idea front and center in a film that generates a lot of its considerable appeal from the way it awakens your sense of awe at magic and keeps you guessing. Eisenheim may be the main "illusionist" of this story, but Burger is the real magician of this particular film.

Burger uses an obviously strong command of film style to lead us into the world he creates: under Dick Pope's cinematography, Vienna becomes awash in beautifully burnished brown tones. And, in signalling time shifts in the narrative---most notably an early flashback recounting Eisenheim's early years---Burger uses a grainier film stock (it looks like found documentary footage) and even uses iris-ins and iris-outs to create a surreal sense in us. The point, ultimately, is to create a kind of dark dreamlike storybook atmosphere to the film: to create a sense that not everything you see is meant to be taken literally.

So absolute believability is not necessarily something that one should look for in The Illusionist, because the movie is, in part, about the power of illusion, the power of image. One should also not expect to have all the film's questions answered, either (even with a final twist that, in typical Usual Suspects fashion, tries to recast the entire movie in a different light than we initially thought). We never exactly learn, for instance, how Eisenheim is able to conjure up all those apparitions in his magic act. But then, a magician---whether it's Eisenheim or Neil Burger---doesn't reveal his secrets...

Eisenheim may be the main attraction of this story---he is the magician after all---but most of the story is told from the point-of-view of inspector Uhl, who turns out to be the film's most complex and dynamic character. Unlike some of the other characters in the story, Uhl doesn't have a set opinion toward Eisenheim: he's entranced by his magic, yet at the same time he is suspicious of not only how he accomplishes his tricks, but eventually he becomes suspicious of his motives. He also has a personal stake in taking Eisenheim down: if Leopold is successful in his plan to overthrow his father in Budapest and take the throne for himself, Uhl would become his right-hand man.

Edward Norton may get top billing---and he's certainly not bad, although personally I found him rather dull here---but Paul Giamatti commands attention from beginning to end with the film's standout performance. Much of it probably has to do with the fact that Uhl is kind of a stand-in for the audience. He is---just as we are---trying to figure out what's really going on underneath it all, trying to figure out what's real and what isn't. (Uhl is the only character that gets voiceover narration in the film.) So yes, of course we'll respond more to his character than even to Eisenheim. What Giamatti adds is an acute understanding of the conflicted nature of his character: how he wants to believe in the illusions, yet also how interested he is in taking apart the illusion. He's, at different points in the film, both the villain and the hero.

One other aspect worthy of mention: Philip Glass---known for minimalist scores which tend to repeat certain musical patterns endlessly---contributes a surprisingly rich score that adds to the mysterious atmosphere and period flavor and yet remains resolutely Glass-ian.

In the end, I suppose one could say that one is not necessarily left with much at the end of The Illusionist except the glow of a good cinematic illusion, skillfully wrought. Nevertheless, this film is a fun ride that, through its storytelling and its elegant visual style, implicates all of us in the way it plays with our expectations and the way it keys us up to applaud at Eisenheim's illusions, both small-scale and large. It might not be a masterpiece---perhaps the film could have been more daring with its illusion-versus-reality games, really given us a good mindfuck---but, for what it is, it's one of the more genuinely pleasurable films of the summer, especially because it's so unselfconscious about itself.

P.S. I mentioned a last-minute twist. I must also admit that, about halfway through the film, I had a pretty good idea that the film was probably going to have some kind of perspective-altering concluding twist, and I pretty much figured out what that twist would be. If I figured it out, I'm pretty sure someone else will figure it out early on as well. And yet somehow, I wasn't too annoyed by that: in magic, it's all about the fun of the illusion, and The Illusionist works the same way too.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Stream of Consciousness No. 7: Why I'd Like To Be a Film Writer

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - For some reason, in recent weeks there has been a bit of discussion on the web about the relevancy of film critics in the face of financially successfully big-budget smashes like Pirates of the Caribbean 2. So many people went to see a movie that many film critics met with indifference or hostility (with a few, of course, that at least gave it credit for being a nice-enough thrill ride): wow, maybe the critics don't really matter anymore.

A few days ago I noticed this article from Erik Lundegaard, a film critic and contributor to MSNBC. I think it's a pretty good defense of film criticism; I especially like the way he suggests that it's the argument that's important in a film review, not just whether a critic liked it or not. (Anyone can say that, really.) But it hasn't been the only article about film criticism I've read this summer. In his blog "Scanners," Jim Emerson devoted two entries (here and here) to not only respond to a Los Angeles Times trend piece attempting to make the case for the demise of film criticism in America, but to also explore the way people respond to film criticism in general. "...[F]ilm criticism is whatever a particular reader likes," Emerson writes at the end of the second entry, "and is not what that reader does not like. That hasn't changed, and never will." And earlier in the summer, A.O. Scott of the New York Times---a critic I respect and enjoy reading---weighed in with his own take on the value of film criticism, especially when people seem to complain about film critics taking the fun out of summer movies by taking it too dang seriously. Here's his last paragraph:
"So why review [popcorn movies]? Why not let the market do its work, let the audience have its fun and occupy ourselves with the arcana — the art — we critics ostensibly prefer? The obvious answer is that art, or at least the kind of pleasure, wonder and surprise we associate with art, often pops out of commerce, and we want to be around to celebrate when it does and to complain when it doesn’t. But the deeper answer is that our love of movies is sometimes expressed as a mistrust of the people who make and sell them, and even of the people who see them. We take entertainment very seriously, which is to say that we don’t go to the movies for fun. Or for money. We do it for you."
(Well, I assume that last sentence is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.)

I bring all this up because today---as I moved some of my stuff into Rockoff Hall to get ready for the start of my fourth year at Rutgers---I began reflecting a little bit on why exactly I've decided that I'd like to seriously write about film. (Some of this ruminating was spurred on by my mother once again trying to preach to me the virtues of going to law school in order to make good money coming out of college. Unbelievable: I thought we'd been past this two years ago when I dropped out of the Rutgers Business School; instead, now she's focusing on law and not accounting. Has she really accepted my action, as she claims? Hard to believe she has.)

I suppose I could try to come up with some noble public-service justification for my interest in writing about film. Sure, it'd be nice to see regular moviegoers start looking at their movie entertainment more closely and critically because of a film critic's review. Sure, it'd be heartening to see a small movie championed by critics become a hit. In short, yes, it'd certainly be cool to see us making a difference in the film world.

I'd like to say the same thing A.O. Scott says at the end of his article: I do it for you (whoever "you" are). But I suppose the truth is much simpler and personal (or problematic, depending on who you are---in other words, if you're my mother): I love to write about film. I love watching movies; I love watching them critically and trying to form original opinions on them. And I love the challenge of putting all the complex thoughts swirling in my head down on paper. (Yeah, sometimes it can take a while for a piece to happen, and it can be frustrating: but, more often than not, that struggle leads to much more satisfaction when a piece is finally done.)

Yep, love. That's basically it. Writing about film is something I've always felt comfortable with---certainly much more comfortable than writing about, say, politics.

Now, of course I'd like to know that I'm reaching a lot of people. I'd like to think that a great many people out there will actually read my stuff and engage with it. I'd like to know for sure that I'm making some kind of difference in the way some reader out there looks at movies. I can't necessarily be sure of either of those things all the time, though, especially if I'm writing for some specialized film magazine (Film Comment or something like that). That kind of gratification may come much easier for, say, an accountant or a lawyer, but not so easily for journalists. So something else has to motivate someone to become a film critic or journalist other than a yearning to be widely read and popular. It seems logical to me, thus, that that other reason would be love. (In the journalism field, it certainly isn't about the money.)

Maybe I'm just naive at 20 years old, but what's so wrong with trying to pursue what you love, especially if you think you're good at it and can really offer something fresh to the world, like a fresh viewpoint?

At least, I hope I have a fresh viewpoint to offer anyway. I'd like to think that, with maturity and experience and more knowledge, I'll be able to develop a viewpoint that might make me stand out among film critics or something. Some of my favorite critics seem to have different approaches to looking at films, be they political, formal, or just as a more-intelligent-than-usual moviegoing Joe who likes to be entertained. Sometimes I feel more like one of those moviegoing Joes---one of the people who come out of a movie and simply say "That was good" and leave it at that, since sometimes I feel stuttery whenever I try to elaborate---when I know intellectually that the criticism that really matters---the ones that will last---probably rests in other approaches. I mean, everybody likes to be entertained; but what a particular film might mean in a particular social context is something not everyone thinks about. (That social context is what I appreciate about, say, Armond White's criticism.) And, if nothing else, I'd certainly like to be thought-provoking in some way.

Gosh, there are so many films I've yet to see! No it's not like I'm trying to see every movie ever made or anything, but it sometimes seems like there are so many movies and movie directors I haven't really explored in depth, even among the major ones. For instance, I've seen a few Brian De Palma films, to be sure, but probably not enough to get a real good sense of him so I could discuss his work with any authority if I was to review his upcoming Black Dahlia. Well, I suppose I have a whole lifetime to catch up on movies (but I want to have great deal of knowledge now ::stamps feet on ground like a little kid::)...

Uh-oh, I'm rambling. Guess the ultimate point of this entry is: while passion is pretty much the force driving my college path right now, I'm not blind to the challenges that lay ahead in deciding to go for the less-than-sure career bet. I just hope that passion will sustain me even in the more difficult times.