Friday, January 26, 2007

Humanity vs. Inhumanity

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Oscar nominations came out earlier this week. A few surprises here and there---no nomination for Sacha Baron Cohen??? If nothing else, Borat was a brilliant performance piece---but overall this year's Oscar noms pretty much stayed on the dull, unadventurous side of the fence, especially with its Best Picture nods. I mean, you can't get much more well-meaning than this year's frontrunner Babel. I think it's undoubtedly superior to last year's pernicious multi-narrative Oscar winner Crash, but on its own terms it strikes me as a noble, occasionally moving failure at best (and so melodramatic by the end of it that all the film's credibility jumps out the window, even as your heart may bleed for its tortured characters). But, as ever with the Oscars, artistry---of which Babel undeniably has a good deal---takes a backseat to good intentions (although I must admit that I think the good intentions behind Babel---its ambition to embrace all forms of communication and miscommunication in ways both personal and political---is at least more interesting to contemplate than those of Crash).

As for the others: maybe I need to see it again (it's being re-released in theaters nationwide today), but at this point I still don't see Martin Scorsese's The Departed as much more than a once-great director pandering to those fans of his who only seem to like him for his violent machismo and his hyper style. (And I don't feel an ounce of shame seeing Jack Nicholson get snubbed: was Scorsese so intent on crowd-pleasing that he intentionally allowed Nicholson to get away with the blatant scenery-chewing he commits here?) The Queen has a fine script by Peter Morgan (miles better than the vile one he concocted with Jeremy Brock for The Last King of Scotland---more on that later) and good performances (Helen Mirren's sympathetic in the role, but I think Michael Sheen should have gotten some kind of nod as Tony Blair---the closest the film has to an audience surrogate), but it's so insistently TV-ish that I honestly don't know what it's doing in the Best Picture category. (Little Children, an equally prosaic movie, would probably have been a more interesting choice.) As for Little Miss Sunshine: in hindsight, perhaps I was a little hard on it in my initial review, not giving enough credit to the film's sharp jabs at American's success-at-all-costs mindset and perhaps fixating too much on the occasional moments of condescension (come on, that bereavement liaison was just doing her job!). Nevertheless, despite a brilliant cast, I still think the film is at best an entertaining, occasionally inspired big-screen sitcom---a movie that takes nearly every opportunity to remind you of how darn quirky! it is. (Now it seems like the people at this year's Sundance Film Festival---currently going on right now---are looking for the next Little Miss Sunshine---God help us.)

Which leaves Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima (***½ out of ****), which overall isn't as aesthetically daring as parts of Babel are (Letters doesn't have an equivalent to the Japanese nightclub scene in Iñárritu's film), but which is so warmly humanistic and compassionate toward its doomed Japanese soldiers, and takes so contemplative and even ambivalent an approach toward typical Hollywood war-movie themes and conventions, that I think it's the best of a fairly unexciting crop by a considerable margin. (In fact, so good it is that I might be inclined to consider it my favorite Eastwood film since Unforgiven.)

I got a chance to see Eastwood's film---his "Japanese" take on the battle of Iwo Jima, and a companion piece to his Flags of Our Fathers, released earlier this year---on Monday night, and for the most part I embraced it with nearly every fiber of my being. I needed this movie after sitting through the near-atrocity that was Kevin Macdonald's The Last King of Scotland (*½ out of ****).

Earlier in 2006, when United 93 came out, critics and non-critics seemed divided as to whether the film was an exploitation of a real-life tragedy or presented a legitimate way of working through our anguished memories of what happened on Sept. 11. I'm still in the middle on that issue: I recognize and half-admire its skill and director Paul Greengrass's ruthless dedication to its docudrama aesthetic, but I wonder what value a fictionalized reenactment of what happened both in the air and on the ground on that day really has for us as far as healing and catharsis goes. Still, it's a miracle of scrupulousness and taste compared to the exploitation of real-life atrocity on flagrant display in The Last King of Scotland. This movie is so seemingly inhuman that, by the end of it, I was on the verge of throwing up. Literally. It's only in hindsight that I can even begin to give it any glimmer of credit for being something other than a shamelessly manipulative Hollywood-style thriller which pretends to have some kind of political point to make.

For those who've been living under a rock, Forest Whitaker has been getting a lot of acclaim for his against-type, scary-black-man performance as the undeniably awful Idi Amin, the Ugandan despot who led a popular government coup and who eventually began to rule the nation with an iron fist, destroying any perceived enemy for any little offense, and even feeding human remains to crocodiles. But Amin isn't technically the film's main character. Nope, this is another movie in which real-life African struggle is seen through the eyes of a white lead character: in this case, a fictional medical student, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who has come to Uganda deluding himself that he wants to help the Africans when, really, he just seems to want to bask in privilege and be a part of the Amin team, so to speak.

The Constant Gardener
redux? In retrospect, The Last King of Scotland actually does something more interesting than usual with its white hero: he isn't made to be noble or insufferably do-goody. In fact, he's unabashedly selfish and naive, unwilling to see the realities right in front of his eyes before it's too late for him to get out scot-free. By the end of the film, as he's desperately trying to get out of dodge, the film has turned into an oblique parable about British imperialism in Africa (I'm paraphrasing, but at the end Amin says to Garrigan something to the effect of "you really thought you could come in here and change the world?") instead of simply a Hollywood melodrama using African suffering as a backdrop.

So why, in the end, was I so pissed off at The Last King of Scotland? I can accept the use of Garrigan, however unappealing he's made out to be (especially since McAvoy---last scene as Tumnus in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe---does a pretty good job in the role); that's not the problem (although, of course, a movie that had dared to tell the story entirely through Africans' eyes might have been more challenging). The problem is the baldly manipulative Hollywood-thriller style director Kevin Macdonald employs in telling this story: emphasizing close-ups in trying to magnify Amin's bad-guy status, turning up the volume of the dreadfully bombastic score in order to create superficial "excitement," and, worst of all, using the atmosphere of violence and death surrounding Garrigan simply for what Pauline Kael, in her review of The French Connection, called "zaps." There's pretty much no psychological depth or even an attempt at understanding to be found in this film: Macdonald and screenwriters Peter Morgan and Jeremy Brock seem more interested in exploiting their white-guy-in-Amin's-Uganda scenario for the maximum amount of thrills and bloody spills. Hopefully I'm not the only one to find this kind of exploitation distasteful to the utmost!

Consider this following comparison. In Hotel Rwanda a couple of years ago, director Terry George included a scene in which its main character, Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle, arguably superior to Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles impersonation that year), reacted in horror at a street strewn with corpses resulting from Hutu slaughter during the 1994 ethnic cleansing in Rwanda. There's an equivalent image in The Last King of Scotland when Garrigan discovers what has happened to a poor African woman---she is glimpsed dismembered on an operating table, and Garrigan reacts in an equally horrific manner, barfing on sight. Both images of slaughter and atrocity serve similar purposes in their narratives: it signals the respective heroes' awakening resolve and sense of desperation in terrifying circumstances (although, to be fair, in Last King, that true turning-point moment probably comes much earlier). But the way both directors treat those similar moments are instructive as to why Last King is mostly disgusting trash compared to the effective, sometimes powerful (if admittedly still fairly Hollywoodized) Hotel Rwanda. In George's film, the shock of the moment comes through viscerally, and Rusesabagina is allowed to contemplate it afterward (Cheadle has a marvelous scene in which he breaks down in private as he tries to tie a tie; it's an emotionally wrenching, honest moment that still stays with me). For Macdonald, however, that dismembered body isn't so much a symbolic horror as it is an empty thriller jolt with which to shock the audience. In Hotel Rwanda, you might say "Holy shit" and then reflect on the full extent of the atrocities being committed in that country; in Last King, you might say "Oh shit" and then breathlessly try to move on to the next thriller setpiece. It's the difference between humanity and a distinctly Hollywood-based soullessness, and it's the latter that The Last King of Scotland has in abundance.

Of course, the big question for Oscar nuts: how is Forest Whitaker? Well, if anything, he's probably the one shining bright spot in this hateful brew, as he seems to valiantly try to turn Amin into something close to a flesh-and-blood human being, however reprehensible and frightening. Note that tear that you see come from his eye towards the end of the film after he's tortured Garrigan (in a repulsive manner that I will leave you to discover for yourselves, if you dare); even as that damned music tries to beat you into a Renny Harlin-like submission (it's even more inappropriately bombastic than Trevor Jones' Cliffhanger score), Whitaker seems to try for a hint of understandable regret---Garrigan was once a close friend of his, and so he's saddened that he has to torture him even as he tries to scare the crap out of him. It's that kind of sensitivity to nuance that should have been in a better, less inhuman movie than this one. (I wonder if Whitaker was horrified by the end result of shooting this film...not that he would say so in public as he does his awards-season rounds.)

After such vileness, Letters from Iwo Jima comes off as a balm that soothes the spirit even as it pokes some pretty potent holes in our views of not only war, but also our experience of war in other, older Hollywood movies. Because, if nothing else, Eastwood, in this startling late run of his, has been all about trying to elucidate the harsh realities of classical Hollywood narratives even as he remains a fairly staunch classicist himself.

The film, of course, is the second-half of his Iwo Jima diptych this past year; the first was Flags of Our Fathers, an ambitious, half-successful film which, among other things, tried to expose the anguished, guilt-ridden human beings underneath the artificial heroes they were painted as by the American war machine. In a way, you could see it as a critique of blind patriotism, or at least the forces trying to create such a feeling in support of such a morally troublesome thing as war. Letters from Iwo Jima---which deals with the battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese side---explores a similar theme: these Japanese soldiers are raised by custom (the bushido code, specifically) to believe that anything is better than surrendering to the enemy, and some of the characters' attempts to try to turn their deaths into something meaningful provide some of the film's most gutwrenching moments.

I've read some criticism of the film that suggests that Eastwood's attempt at multicultural sensitivity both a) distorts the brutal, ruthless character of the Japanese during the conflict just so we can sympathize with them more, and b) humanizes the Japanese to such an extent that Eastwood and screenwriter Iris Yamashita basically turn them into versions of us. I guess I can see where such criticisms come from, and yes, there are certain moments where Eastwood indulges slightly in the kind of Hollywood-bred sentimentality that marred the extended final half-hour of Flags of Our Fathers (not to mention Million Dollar Baby). And yes, mostly what we get from this movie is its contention that, however brutal some of them may have been, they were indeed just like us Americans---and, as Eastwood dramatizes in the film, Americans weren't above committing atrocities of our own (two of the American soldiers in the film, for instance, shoot two Japanese just because they don't feel like watching over them for an entire night). But this is war, after all.

Overall, I think Eastwood is trying for something more universal in nature than its historical particulars may indicate---so to condemn the film simply because it may not be absolutely true to either history or to Japanese culture is to fall into the trap of---cliché alert!---missing the forest for the trees. Letters from Iwo Jima---and, to a lesser extent, Flags of Our Fathers---stands apart from most war movies by trying to sincerely explore some of its most pointed questions. Can one truly die an "honorable death" in war? Can death actually mean something in such a barbaric activity? And what constitutes heroism in war? In Letters, Eastwood shows characters both killing themselves before surrendering or simply trying to live. And really, isn't that the ultimate human impulse: to live? Well, perhaps not when you pledge your life to a cause---even one as gruesome as fighting a war. As much as Eastwood seems to want to believe in some the old sentimentality of older Hollywood war pictures, he simultaneously seems to realize that in war, moral relativism always wins out.

Perhaps what ultimately attracted me to Letters from Iwo Jima is the sheer sense of one director taking on large issues in such an intimate and discursive tone. It's the kind of movie that doesn't seem to be sure what it's trying to say, as if it's working out its ideas as it goes along. That, to me, is exciting. By the end, instead of feeling my preconceived notions of war confirmed, I actually felt challenged to think about issues of humanity and patriotism within the context of an activity that Eastwood seems to have concluded a priori is barbaric and inhuman. Not even Unforgiven managed to accomplish that for me.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Form and Feeling

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Sorry, faithful readers, for not updating all that much in recent days. My winter break is over now and I'm back at Rutgers for the second half of this fourth academic year, and hopefully I'll get it off to a good start. But while I could be working on that thesis outline that I promised for my advisor for next week right now, I'm taking some time out of my morning to update this blog of mine---something I've been meaning to do for a while now, especially since I've seen a handful of films over the break (yes, I persist with moviegoing even with my free Megamovies tickets temporarily revoked) that I'd like to discuss here.

I'd particularly like to discuss both Dreamgirls (** out of ****) and Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower (**½ out of ****) in the context of a discussion of spectacle. Because to me, that's what both movies essentially are: lavish spectacles.

I don't necessarily mean that as a bad thing, mind you. Spectacle has always been a part of the attraction of movies; every movie is a spectacle of some sort, really. But both of those films are spectacles of a particular variety: Dreamgirls is a musical drama that emphasizes slick surfaces and whizz-bang song and dance as much as it tries to highlight both raw emotion and a relatively truthful (at least for Broadway) look at the compromises inherent in Motown's rise in the '60s and '70s, while Curse of the Golden Flower---in keeping with Zhang's typically sumptuous aesthetic, especially in recent films like Hero and House of Flying Daggers---tries for an arty formalism as it emphasizes lush, intoxicating colors and operatic, near-Shakespearean tragic melodrama in its hard look at the implosion of a royal family during the Tang Dynasty in China during the 10th century.

Here's the question that popped up into my mind when I saw both films: at what point that does spectacle becomes simply that---spectacle---and crowd out the humanity of the stories the films tell and the characters the film depicts? In other words, at what point do films like Dreamgirls and Curse of the Golden Flower cease to involve on an intimate level and become...well, soulless pageants of sound and color? And---crucial question, I think---is that necessarily a bad thing?

I pose these questions to try to account for why I felt vaguely dissatisfied after sitting through both of these films---as if I had sat through beautiful museum exhibits without ever connecting all that much with what was happening onscreen. Actually, that's admittedly a bit of a distortion in both cases: Dreamgirls is too insistent on trying to entertain you, with its slick surfaces, its loud singing and its whizz-bang MTV-style editing, to feel much like a museum exhibit; and Zhang's film tries so hard to tell its story through its sets, its costumes and its close-ups of little bits of character business that it (thankfully) plays less like a historical pageant when you think about it afterward, and more like the kind of Shakespearean tragedy that it clearly wants to be.

It's too bad one can't really defend Dreamgirls as even an interesting formalist exercise the way one could conceivably claim for Curse of the Golden Flower, because unfortunately glitz seems to be the main order of the day in Bill Condon's film, as it is in other recent Broadway-stage-to-screen adaptations like The Phantom of the Opera, Rent and The Producers, to nearly as detrimental effect (disastrous in both Phantom and The Producers, barely bearable in Rent). Dreamgirls is slightly better than those hollow musical pageants mostly by virtue of Jennifer Hudson's impressive belting (as an actress, she seems initially awkward but improves as the movie goes on, but as a singer---as American Idol fans could probably testify---she could positive give you goosebumps, at least when she isn't making you close your ears when she's at her loudest) and Eddie Murphy's surprising depth of feeling as his character, to-be has-been R&B singer James "Thunder" Early, is on the decline commercially. Both actors occasionally come through with moments that powerfully illustrate the film's core idea---that black artists had to compromise their distinctive artistry in order to appeal to a wider (whiter?) audience, and that those who refused to do so were thrown aside---in ways that the music (perhaps mediocre on purpose?), the direction and the rest of the cast rarely do. (Perhaps it makes sense, then, that those two were honored with Golden Globes this past Monday; with such a lifeless cast, their occasionally transcendent moments were bound to stick out by default.)

Whether or not Dreamgirls accurately reflects the music and milieu of the time in American history that is its backdrop---the '60s and '70s---is something other critics have already grappled with, and is something I won't delve too deeply into here. (It becomes pretty obvious by the end of the movie---when Jamie Foxx's sell-out producer Curtis is slain by Hudson's narcissistic but still heroic Effie White and others---that we're dealing with pure, pat Hollywood fantasy anyway---good triumphing indisputably over evil---whether or not you're familiar with the period or with the history of the Supremes, whose story is often cited as the inspiration for Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger's original 1981 stage musical.) Dreamgirls isn't all that interested in history anyway, although it throws in touches (shout-outs to Vietnam and race riots, including one odd scene in which an angry Effie storms out of a recording studio and into the midst of a riot happening in the street) to give the film a false aura of historical awareness. Mostly, it's just interested in spectacle: the spectacle of impersonal slickness (Tobias A. Schliesser did the cinematography), the spectacle of a clichéd rags-to-riches story that tellingly stints on the rags part (and when the rags do come---when we see Effie trying to make it on her own after she's thrown out of the Dreamettes---Condon makes even poverty look fairly slick as well), and the spectacle of people singing loudly---as if volume meant "INTENSE FEELING" (a common trait among many American Idol-ers like Jennifer Hudson). What's ultimately missing is much evidence of soul---the kind of soul that animated even the most commercial of Motown music---in this slick commercial package, and whatever interesting insights it has to offer about the black music industry during the '60s and '70s is blunted by the film's obvious desire to impress---a sign that spectacle has at least partly overtaken the human beings supposedly populating this musical landscape.

It might be harder to assess the extent to which spectacle dwarfs humanity in Curse of the Golden Flower if you subscribe to Zhang's notion that form equals feeling. Of course, that kind of notion has always held a certain appeal for me, because I often like movies that tell its stories sparely and through visuals: shot selection, lighting, sets, costumes, even sound. Stuff, in other words, that you can't necessarily get from novels unless you imagine them for yourself. Directors like Zhang, Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien (you must see Three Times, especially its opening section---even if the IFC Films DVD is sadly un-enhanced for widescreen TVs) or Terrence Malick, or perhaps Stanley Kubrick in his own misanthropic way, have proved that an interest in film form can intensify our intellectual and emotional responses to a particular story being told.

So perhaps this is my way of saying that, one of these days, perhaps I'll feel compelled to take a look at Curse of the Golden Flower again and discover the ways in which the film's awe-inspiring formal beauty---its Technicolor walls, carpets and curtains; its tight-fitting costumes; etc.---complement its thematic ambition---its interest in observing how a royal family is undone by madness, stubbornness, greed, and even such supposed virtues as honor and loyalty. Maybe there are depths to the film's formalism that I'm not comprehending right now, because, as I sat through the film, I couldn't help but feel detached from the whole thing: admiring its ornately designed (overdesigned?) mise-en-scène while feeling barely a thing for any of the characters onscreen: not the slowly-going-mad Empress Phoenix (Gong Li, looking as glorious as ever), not the rigid Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat, an interesting choice to play a rigidly controlling king), nor his sons. I felt the same way with House of Flying Daggers a couple of years ago, rarely feeling all that engaged in its soapy love-triangle story while admiring its beautiful look and some of its visual tropes (a tragic snowfall that ends the film, for instance, or a fight atop bamboo trees) from an emotional distance.

Maybe that detachment is meant to be point: perhaps the film's explosion of color is meant to be deliberately oppressive, to emphasize the feeling of constriction many of the characters feel. Maybe its blend of bright blood reds and eye-popping yellows are meant to serve as a visual expression of the swirling passions boiling underneath the characters' restrained surfaces. Or maybe it's all meant to simply be ironic counterpoint, much like the visual voluptuousness of Sofia Coppola's underrated Marie Antoinette was last year. Still, I was rather disturbed by the sense I got that this particular director seemed more interested in the way blood splashes on yellow flowers than in the way blood courses through a desperate woman's veins. To me, that seems...well, dehumanizing, to put it rather bluntly.

And yet, maybe such an approach is more appropriate to this particular story than in House of Flying Daggers, in which the passions of its characters wasn't matched by an equal passion for those characters on the part of the director. Perhaps, in the end, I'm suggesting that Curse of the Golden Flower is a movie that plays better after the fact than it does as you watch it. This means that the experience of watching the movie can be an off-puttingly remote and distant one for some, myself included. Of course, that doesn't mean the film is a bad one---far from it. (With such deliciously opulent set design and a few memorable action sequences, how could it be?) It may well be a formalist masterpiece of some sort, and thus perhaps it isn't really meant to be loved---just admired from afar. Like many spectacles of this sort.

Which brings me back to the questions I posed earlier about the nature of movie spectacles such as Dreamgirls and Curse of the Golden Flower. Maybe I've been raised too much on classical narrative expectations: the expectation that a movie should tell a good story and involve us in the lives of its characters. So what one could read as fatal detachment in Curse of the Golden Flower, others could read as one director's interest in using elements of film form to express feeling. (Dreamgirls is just plain careless.) This could be another case of "beauty is in the eye of the beholder": what one sees as simply visual decadence, another sees as cinema at its most visual, and thus at some kind of peak. Count me as still contemplating.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Belated 2006 Retrospective Post

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Was 2006 overall a good year for me, or a not-so-good one?

Not so good in some ways (count on me to start with the negative!). Most of the bad stuff came thanks to my usual combination of worries about my future, my low self-esteem and occasional need to be validated (I know, not good attributes for a wannabe film critic), and my mother's incessant nagging. In the first half of 2006, I was positively in a fog: despite the fact that I had desperately switched my focus to journalism, I felt no closer to having a clearer idea about where I wanted my life to go, and even if I occasionally felt I had that clearer idea, I always found myself falling into self-doubting spells. It came to the point that not only did I feel compelled to see a psychologist during my summer break, but even earlier in the year, my mother had the oh-so-bright idea to see a local psychic and get a palm reading---mostly, I suspect, to validate her own suspicions about my mental and emotional state.

And my mother: I don't know if there is much more to say about our troubled relationship (which has thankfully gotten somewhat better, as I will explain in a bit) that I didn't already realize---and discuss in this blog---after our whole family had come home from our pleasant-then-disastrous vacation in Maine. If there has been an unpleasant peak in our relationship so far, that was definitely it---a peak in which a lot of things became clear to me about her worldview, and how that view clashed with mine.

There was one outburst after that incident---in which I admittedly overreacted to criticism she made about something I did, stormed out of the house while swearing at her (later, I found out she had misinterpreted what I said as name-calling; I didn't call her a "piece of shit," I called the whole situation a "piece of shit"), and stayed the night at Rockoff. I came back home the next day, and the day afterward she, in her own blunt way, implored me to try to accept her as she was, and deal with whatever held-in beefs I had with her in a manner more mature than the one I was exuding.

After that, for the most part, things have been pretty tranquil between us so far---so tranquil that it's almost pleasant. (I know, I'm jinxing it as I write this!) Maybe it's just because I don't tell her much anymore---although, to be honest, I never did talk to her all that much about personal stuff---or maybe it's simply because I've listened to her plea and tried to accept her faults and mentally throw away my grudges toward her. For once, though, this winter break hasn't been laden with emotional incident between us. Who knows? Maybe I partly shut her up after getting that Wall Street Journal summer internship (although, predictably and irritatingly, when I told her about it, she immediately reacted with something like, "Now, I know you really like movies, but, like I've told you many times, you have to try to write other things, not just movies").

That Wall Street Journal internship did a lot to redeem the last half of 2006, because it seems to promise at least a direction in my future. Is it a direction I necessarily want, copy editing? To be honest, I'm not entirely sure (especially because the Wall Street Journal, as prestigious as it is, initially doesn't seem to point me into the kind of direction I would desire to go, as someone who is deeply interested in writing about film)---but, if I've learned something over this past year, you won't really know until you give it a try. That sounds like a cliché, I know: but that kind of risk-taking is not something that comes easily to me, having been raised by a mother who seems to prize sureness and planning above a lot of things.

Any resolutions for 2007? Well, I guess one obvious one is to try to work my tail off at that internship, and hope that it leads to further great opportunities. If it doesn't---well, I guess I try to find my own opportunities. Above all, try to find some kind of work this year. And perhaps think about moving out of my house into the "real world" once and for all. (How else are you to escape your mother's financial choke-hold?) In many respects, 2007 is an important year in my life---I'll be graduating (if not on time, then still certainly graduating) from Rutgers this year, and I was planning to try to see what's out there in the job market first before thinking about graduate school (maybe try to pay off some of my school debts, heh). So it's rather important for me to try to get my feet grounded firmly in that "real world" via some kind of job and some kind of place to live (it'd be a dream if I could find a place to live in New York---Brooklyn, perhaps?).

On a less obviously serious note, I think I need to re-establish certain reading habits in 2007. Over the past year or two, I've been seriously slacking off in the pleasure-reading department. With all the schoolwork I've had, and with all the worrying I've done, I just haven't done nearly enough reading on my own---either film-related stuff, or just simply acquainting myself with the classics (like, say, Madame Bovary---now that I've seen the film Little Children, with its explicit references to Flaubert's novel and, specifically, its equally bored, repressed-passions bourgeois heroine). I really need to pick that habit up again! (That and reading a newspaper on a daily basis.)

And anything I need to change about my personality this year? Boy, what doesn't need improvement in my personality. Learn to make more eye contact, stand up straighter, be less easily irritable with people, be more confident arguing with people. I suspect, though, that I've been making those same personality-related resolutions since college began, and I haven't really changed all that much since then. I've always thought about changing, but never really have. Maybe I'm just comfortable with looking elsewhere when someone's talking to me or always evading arguments about, say, movies (boy, I'm just dreading the moment when I'm asked what I thought of Little Children to a friend I know who says he loved it)---although I suspect they're not necessarily good people habits to have. Maybe this year will be different. Hopefully. Let 2007 roll along.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Brief Life Update No. 9: Happy New Year (Belatedly)!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Happy New Year, everybody!

I know, it's a little late in coming, and one of these days I'll sit down and try to write an extensive post reflecting on 2006. Maybe two, in fact: one about the year in the life of Kenji in 2006, and one about film in the year 2006 as I saw it. (I was initially going to unveil my first-ever "10 Favorite Films of 2006" list, but perhaps I might hold off on publishing it until I at least get a chance to see Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, which has gotten its share of acclaim and buzz so far, with the L.A. film critics crowning it their movie of the year. Personally, I highly doubt it'll challenge either Inland Empire or Hou Hsiao-hsien's spare yet profound Three Times---yes, I did catch it on DVD after all, and I'm glad I did---as my favorite of 2006, but, if Letters is the improvement over the earnest but frankly rather dull Flags of Our Fathers that some have suggested it is, it might at least break my personal Top 10.)

I celebrated the ushering in of 2007 the same way I did last year: with my Rockoff Hall apartment mates---two of them, anyway---and their friends. I drank a little bit---a bottle of Heineken, some mixed drinks that included vodka---but apparently not enough to even get buzzed. Has my tolerance been built up that much---ever since that fateful night early in 2006 when I got sick from drinking too much wine and not eating enough cheese at an Inside Beat wine and cheese party? At Sunday night's party, I took one sip of champagne and it reminded me so much of that experience---I ended up barfing at some frat house and forcing a friend to drag me back to Rockoff, where I barfed some more into my toilet with one of my roommates sitting next to me---that my stomach immediately tightened up and I turned to other drinks for my fill. After the ball had dropped in Times Square, most of the party denizen ended up watching John Waters' 1974 trash classic Female Trouble (actually a pretty damn good movie---for all its rough technique and deliberate gross-out moments, satirically sharper and deeper than you'd expect---if all you know about John Waters is Hairspray and Divine eating dog shit at the end of Pink Flamingos). All in all, it was a fun night, and I didn't have to get piss drunk to enjoy it. (At least I know, now that I'm 21, that I legally can get piss drunk, hehe.)


I've been working at Megamovies again, and on my second day back---last Tuesday evening, to be exact---I made a mistake that got me in trouble with management and cost me free movie passes for a whole month.

A lady came in with 10 other kids. She showed me a Screen Actors' Guild card. Now, in hindsight, perhaps a red flag should have popped up in my mind simply because of the fact that she came in with 10 other kids in the first place and implicitly desired to get them all in for free because of her SAG card. Maybe I'm an idiot, but frankly, that red flag never popped up for me when I printed out 11 special tickets for her---until after my evening shift was over, and one of the floor managers took a look at a log sheet I had her fill out and saw that she was an SAG member. Apparently I was only supposed to allow her and one other guest in for free instead of 10 others.

Thankfully, I didn't get fired for the incident, but the head manager of Megamovies suspended my free movie passes for a month. Not a week, as even that floor manager initially thought---an entire month! A little extreme, don't you think? Especially because I honestly didn't know better, and at least that floor manager was able to defend me because I explained the mix-up to him. But I guess there's not much I can do now, lest I risk putting my job on the line or something. Besides, I only have one more week to go.


Why can't Democrats and Republicans just get along???

Yesterday, I was listening to NPR's "All Things Considered" and one of the anchors was reporting on some of the measures the Democrats---now that they have control of Congress---were thinking about trying to pass in the beginning of their new term. One of the things that jumped out at me was the fact that the Democrats were planning to impose some kind of sanction on Republicans' ability to add clauses or argue about certain pieces of legislation, at least for the first 100 hours. (Please, someone correct me if I'm getting details wrong here.)

Is this the way to foster a spirit of bipartisanship in Congress? Methinks probably not!

Oh, but apparently the Republicans did the same thing early on in the previous Congressional term, curbing Democrats' ability to challenge legislation the Republicans wanted to get passed. So what is this---revenge? Just desserts?

I would have thought that maybe a better approach might be to show that you're the better, uh, party by showing the kind of inclusive spirit that perhaps the Republicans didn't extend to you when they were the majority. But that's just me. As someone who doesn't profess to be the most politically knowledgeable or involved, what do I know, right?