Friday, November 30, 2007

Stream of Consciousness No. 10: Self-Pity Alert

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I'm feeling a little bored right now, so I think I'll do a little stream-of-consciousness blogging, or something close to it. Where it stops, nobody knows...

Despite the fact that I'm (hopefully) graduating from Rutgers soon, don't anyone get the impression that I'm automatically one step to maturity or adulthood. Tonight I heard snatches of a phone exchange between my mother and an AT&T representative over some sort of issue with a recent phone bill (something to do with international calls that she felt she shouldn't have been charged for on account of a special service she was on for a while that made international calls real cheap), and, as happens to me once in a while, I immediately wonder how I'd fare in a similar conversation which would require a combination of calmness, assertiveness, fortitude and articulateness---personal qualities that seem to come and go (mostly go) with me, at least in person. How would I handle having to deal with unfair phone charges? Would I immediately shrink away from pressure and just accept something if I had even a hint of doubt? A part of me thinks that's what I'd probably do unless I absolutely really truly felt I was in the right about an issue (and most likely I'd probably have be inspired to such confident heights by someone else agreeing with me).

Adulthood? Maturity? Don't make me laugh! I may be working, I may be earning money, I may be reading more, but I have a feeling I haven't even come close to dealing with the drudgeries of everyday adult existence of the type my parents deal with consistently. I feel like, as much as I get immense pleasure out of books, music and movies, I'm still somewhat trapped in my own bubble, the real world still beyond my grasp---perhaps deliberately so. I wonder if I'm even ready for going out there and living on my own, traveling, etc. Shit, I'm still getting parental help with most of my bills!

And I guess some of you could point to the fact that I'm still living at home as an indication of my, uh, sheltered-ness...but I say big deal, I'm not the only graduate or soon-to-be-graduate staying at home. Might as well save some money while I'm doing what I'm doing.

Wait...what am I doing these days?

I'm working at the Wall Street Journal while, on the side, I'm indulging in modest intellectual pursuits like reading a book for about an hour a day, reading the news for about an hour a day, listening to a music album I've never heard, and otherwise Web surfing and/or writing. While an undergrad, with all the work I had to do (especially in my senior year, with my thesis always prominent in my mind), I was never able to get around to finishing Jack Kerouac's On the Road and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover or listening to a good deal of Bob Dylan and The Beatles (not just their hits; complete albums). Thanks to my new job and my lack of consistent pressing commitments elsewhere, now I have.

I rather like the way things are going with me now. I feel comfortable. But am I too comfortable? Surely this isn't the real world. A part of me feels like I should just try to risk it all and go out there, try to find that place near New York City, find some fresh entry-level newspaper job somewhere (either writing or copy editing)---just start off on my own for the first time in my life. Another part of me says, What's the rush?

In reading a lot of film criticism, both in print and online, I've realized that most of my favorite critics marry deep film knowledge and a personal vision with a broader knowledge of other arts---literature, music, visual arts (painting, sculpture, that kind of thing). Shit, where's my knowledge of all those other art forms? Superficial at best, really. I still haven't actually read Moby Dick or Huckleberry Finn, for instance (perhaps I really should have majored in English as an undergrad in addition to, or maybe even instead of, journalism). As far as painters go, don't even bother to try to engage me in a deeply intellectual conversation about the visual glories and profundities of Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Manet, Picasso, with Todd Haynes and Bob Dylan, I'm not there. And I'm only now really trying to acquaint myself with music that isn't written by Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner, or someone considered "classical" (a term, by the way, I wonder about these days; I mean, do you call Aaron Copland "classical"? Stravinsky? Schoenberg?).

All that is to suggest that perhaps one of the reasons I think I've decided to keep the way things are going for me right now is partly so I can play catch-up of sorts---explore some of these artistic areas outside of my (currently part-time) job at WSJ. So far, I think it's been working pretty well for me.

But I know I can't keep this up forever. I also suspect that my plan is probably fatally flawed in one respect: even the best critics, I suspect, are still catching up themselves. I wonder if I'm assigning too much of an artificial aura to film critics I admire, giving them credit for being infinitely more knowledgeable in general than I am. (By the way, not only is some of my artistic knowledge patchy at best, but really, so is my political knowledge---call me emptily cynical if you like, but the American political scene just plains disheartens and frustrates me, to the point that most attempts at trying to summon up some kind of idealism about American politics often fails.) The point is, I could be spending the rest of my life "catching up," and I'd never really get to a point where I can say, "Okay, I think I've learned enough I need to feel more confident about my intelligence, now it's time to go out there and make my voice heard."

Sooner or later I'm just gonna have to be brave and make the jump. Not sure if that time is right now, though...

I dunno. I guess I'm just trying to work through personal issues rattling in my brain even as I slowly work my way through Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner and delve a bit into the varied musical worlds of Elvis Costello (whose debut album My Aim Is True turned 30 this year).

I recently emailed the copy desk chief and asked about the possibility of coming back to the desk I interned at during the summer. His response, to put it simply: probably not for a while. So it looks like, if I plan to move up in Dow Jones (and the copy chief's response got me thinking about whether that's what I want to do), I'm really going to have to start from the bottom. In essence, I willfully dropped myself back down to an entry-level position. Well, I had to, I guess (although if I had pressed people to let me get internship credit for my 10 weeks at the copy desk during the summer, maybe I'd still be working there right now). Don't get me wrong: I like my job just fine. But it looks like I'll be at the monitor desk for a while.

My supervisor says most people stay there for about two years before deciding to try to find other work elsewhere (recently, two monitor-desk employees left us, one to Dow Jones Newswires up in Jersey City, the other to some book-publishing company in New York).

Maybe I'll see how I feel about the way my life is going in one year and take things from there. Will I feel more restless then? Heck, I might already be feeling a little restless now (not to mention immature and intellectually inferior)...

Oh, and have I mentioned the bundle of greatness that is the Coen Bros.'s recent film (and, I honestly think, some kind of masterpiece) No Country for Old Men? See it (read the Cormac McCarthy novel if you'd like, although I think the movie improves on the book).

Monday, November 26, 2007

Images and Ideas: Todd Haynes's I'm Not There

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I think it's time for me to start trying to write semi-regularly about some of the newer films---heck, it's time for me to start writing more on this blog again, period! If I'm going to work my way up to writing about movies more regularly in the future...well, practice makes perfect! Or at least, if not perfect, at least engaging and readable.

Maybe in the near future I'll write an update about what's been going on in my life. In the are some random thoughts based on first impressions of one viewing of Todd Haynes's meditation of Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, which I got to see on Saturday evening over at a small art-house (or, at least, the New Jersey version of art-house) theater right in the heart of Princeton.

Three words: intellectual stimulation overload! I was by turns fascinated and frustrated by this film---which, as some of you may have already heard, is nothing like a typical biopic of Dylan, but a postmodern discourse on the idea of a shapeshifting artist such as Dylan, drawing both directly and obliquely from his life and his music---but I now find myself feeling more excited about it the more I remember its stylistic bravura and reflect on its perhaps rather troubling implications, both for our time and universally speaking.

I'm probably going to wait for its eventual DVD release to get a chance to see this movie for a second time, and this is the kind of dense movie that pretty much demands more than one viewing (as well as, in this case, more Dylan research and a greater familiarity with films that it references). So allow me to throw out a few thoughts I have rattling in my head about this film, with the disclaimer that, of course, I don't necessarily have a coherent take on what the movie seems to be saying and doing, just a few ideas. (Maybe coherence in this special case is beside the point.)

For me, the most fascinating thread I latched onto in I'm Not There is the question the film raises, in its own kaleidoscopic way, of what kind of responsibility an artist---especially a popular artist with a devoted following like Bob Dylan---has to reflecting his particular time---the social issues of the time, the politics, the general mood, etc. Is an artist somehow obligated, because of his popularity, to be some kind of barometer for his time? Is that what makes an artist automatically interesting or important---sheer topical relevance?

People---and I am sometimes guilty of this myself---often instantly equate topicality and an engagement with some big issue or event of his time with seriousness. According to both I'm Not There and Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), this perceived engagement with politics and society on Dylan's part is what attracted many people to Dylan's music-making in the first place. "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin'"---these songs, among many others, sounded like deep social statements to many listeners, and the fact that his lyrics were clothed in the garb of this "music of the working classes," folk music, enhanced this sense of seriousness for many.

But then, when Dylan donned an electric guitar, enlisted a backing band behind him and started deliberately moving way from "protest songs" to more whimsical and surreal imagery in his songwriting, he was condemned by many as a sell-out, a betrayer. Thus came his ever-changing personas---folk-music hero, electric musician, country artist, born-again Christian, and beyond---and thus now you have I'm Not There, one artist's response to another's media images and representations.

Of course, Todd Haynes puts into his cinematic mosaic all of Dylan's own justifications for so willfully frustrating his fans---he refuses to be pigeonholed, to be typecast, to be locked into his audiences' expectations. All of this will be familiar to those who have seen both the Scorsese documentary and the 1965 classic D.A. Pennebaker doc Don't Look Back, the latter made just before Dylan "went electric." What Haynes is particularly interested in is broadening Scorsese's (arguably rather softball) inquiry into Dylan the man to try to raise pointed, ever-relevant questions about art and the artist's role in society---perhaps whether an artist actually has one or not, or if that artist should be like the outlaw Dylan played by Richard Gere in I'm Not There, who seeemingly escapes from the limelight (which, by the way, is portrayed so vividly in the Cate-Blanchett-as-Bob-Dylan-in-sub-8 1/2 segments) only to be awakened out of his self-imposed flight from harsh reality by news of a road-building project that got approved right under his nose.

On the other might argue, if Haynes was really interested in exploring issues about art, artists and the society they inhabit and reflect, why does Haynes load his film with a whole host of '60s film references and barely delve into the pressing social issues of the time except through media images? Is he actually serious himself, or is he simply playing games with us? (Quentin Tarantino, who has never made a movie like this one, is often second-guessed the same way, even by yours truly.)

This probably requires an auteurist perspective that I don't quite have, having admittedly not seen Haynes's '90s features (Poison, Safe, Velvet Goldmine). From what I gather from having seen both his publicly unavailable Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (thank you Google video), and his 2002 feature Far From Heaven, Haynes, in classic postmodernist (isn't that kind of a contradiction in terms?) fashion, is primarily interested in both shocking us out of our typical movie comfort zones (thus the use of Barbie dolls to enact the haunting, horrifying saga of Karen Carpenter's losing battle with anorexia) and examining film images and movie history while appealing to our emotions in a familiar movie idiom (thus telling a basic melodramatic story in Far From Heaven even as he riffs on the '50s films of Douglas Sirk). So while his films may affect us on an emotional level, one would be hard pressed to consider them works that directly confront the real world. You're constantly aware of his film's movie-ness, to put in inelegant terms.

Those elements all come into play in I'm Not There. But are Haynes' shout-outs to 8 1/2, Masculine Feminine, A Hard Day's Night, Petulia, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and others I'm probably not deeply familiar with, his own way of merely winking to the film buffs of his audience? Or do they signal something deeper and perhaps more disturbing?

On that point, I'm still trying to figure that out.

Maybe they are of a piece with Haynes' conception of Bob Dylan as an artist who may not really have cared as much about addressing social issues as his songs might indicate---in order to make such a conception vivid, Haynes is playing the same game, refracting his themes through film and music (mostly film) history. But even that theory seems a little superficial. If all Haynes wanted to do was wink at us and get us to say "Oh there's a speech from a Godard film," or "Those Beatles are running from screaming fans as in A Hard Day's Night," what explains the potent meaning of a sequence that baldly steals from 8 1/2---a dreamlike POV shot of adoring fans looking on from their cars at Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett) as we hear his heart palpitating as he's trapped in his own vehicle? Just as those opening images of Fellini's film vividly expressed a famous film director's suffocation from his own fame and crushing expectations, so likewise a similar feeling is expressed with just about the same image in a different context. And perhaps the Richard Gere sequences owe their meaning not only to a Dylanologist's familiarity with both The Basement Tapes (recordings he made in 1967 with The Band while he was recuperating from his motorcycle accident) and the Rolling Thunder Revue (a tour in the mid-'70s in which he often performed wearing white face paint), but to one of the core ideas of Sam Peckinpah's 1973 film Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid---the idea of a man refusing to face up to his own time, as Billy the Kid seems unwilling to do in that film.

Such references, thus, are meaningful (rather than just being film-school postmodernist winking) but they are essentially borrowed and adapted meanings. Maybe, by taking such an approach, what Haynes is saying about Bob Dylan, and maybe even about our society today, is that we are so inundated with images to be appropriated for our own personal uses and gratifications, and more often than not, we do so. And that, Haynes may be suggesting, is exactly what Dylan did. Sincerity, or just a series of masks? (Fitting that, when Haynes's Billy the Kid confronts Bruce Greenwood's Pat Garrett, he initially does so with a mask on his face.) That Haynes leaves this question up in the air---Jude Quinn may rail against an interviewer for questioning his sincerity, but the fact that, even as a younger man, he was already bluffing his way into people's hearts, as evidenced in the Marcus Carl Franklin segments of the film (in which Franklin plays a young man who calls himself Woody Guthrie and goes around with a guitar case that reads "This machine kills fascists" even though he's actually an escapee from Minnesota)---is a sign to me of a seriousness that transcends insider-knowledge, hagiography, self-awareness and movie references, moving it to the level of a stimulating dialectic.

All of this sounds overly intellectual and pretentious, I imagine. Perhaps, at heart, it is. But the movie, miraculously, never degenerates into dull academic discourse. Haynes and his ace cinematographer Edward Lachman keep the visuals alive and popping; Lachman switches film stocks and shooting styles with stunning ease. And ultimately, I'm Not There is so filled with ideas and questions that it never bores for an instant. It might frustrate those unprepared for it, though; I know I sat through the first hour of this film admiring the creativity of Haynes's stunt but itching for this swirl of personas and images, both original and borrowed, to get somewhere concrete instead of just congratulating itself on its own Dylan/movie knowledge (one groaner is Jude Quinn's offhand "Just like a woman" after a female member of his crew in England knocks out an angry fan---a cutesy reference to a cut on his classic 1966 album Blonde on Blonde that merely seems irritatingly precious, at least to those who get the reference).

However, now that I know where this film goes---and now that I have elaborated on some of the film's more striking themes---well, as excited as I am by it, I'm still wondering about whether it has anything particularly new to add to the Dylan legend. Maybe media representations are all we really have of popular artists, and that Dylan knew this and used it to his advantage---and, if one is wont to be overly critical (why not, in a movie that actively encourages criticism?), maybe Haynes is doing the same thing here as well. Is Haynes himself being sincere? The movie may be a mess of contradictions, but it's a fascinating mess, and right now I'm having fun thinking about its implications, struggling with them. As for the experience of watching the movie itself: I think that, once you adjust yourself to the film's unpredictable, whirling style---and, I'll admit, it took me a while to get onto its wavelength---I'm Not There becomes truly gripping, engaging and, even at times, oddly, unaccountably moving.

Finally, of course, there is the music---and even Bob Dylan's most familiar tunes come alive again in this context. I, for one, didn't realize just how beautiful an expression of love "I Want You"---also from Blonde on Blonde---was until I saw them scored to Heath Ledger's courtship to Charlotte Gainsbourg in this film. That kind of revelation is more than most typical biopics accomplish except in the most numbingly predictable and prosaic terms (in other words, nothing quite as clunky as that silly attempt to explain the genesis of "Hit the Road Jack" in Ray with a wronged girlfriend singing the words angrily to Ray Charles, then cutting to Charles singing it in public). Like most Bob Dylan songs, you feeeeel it in your gut. I'm not sure I feel this movie in my gut---not yet---but I certainly feel it in my head. Sometimes, for me, that's enough.

Friday, November 09, 2007

First Time Long Time

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Yes I know, I'm becoming an awful blogger. I guess right now I'm in one of my "not often much in the mood to update" phases that comes about once in a while.

Not that I find myself overwhelmingly busy these days. Of course, I'm still working at The Wall Street Journal, still the proofreader extraordinaire for Asia and some of Europe. And outside of work, I'm still indulging in my artistic/intellectual pursuits (at, it must be said, the expense of an active social life---not that I'm deliberately secluding myself or anything). Currently---in preparation for Todd Haynes's upcoming Bob Dylan fantasia I'm Not There (not sure whether I want to make a special trip to the Film Forum in NYC to see this, though, based on what I've read about this film so far, I'm tempted)---I'm trying to catch up on Mr. Zimmerman's music. Recently, I listened once through Highway 61 Revisited; on first listen, it's maybe my favorite album of his so far (although Blonde on Blonde is coming up next). His lyrics---sometimes whimsical, sometimes political, always intelligent and interesting to parse---even more so than his stylistically adventurous music, are what really fascinate me.

On the reading front, I just finished reading D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, a novel which makes me seriously wonder if I could be a lot more passionate about things in general---not only about love---than I am. (At the very least, I like to think I'm not as snobbish as some of the upper-class characters in the novel.) Lawrence may have been writing for a particular post-WWI audience, but I wonder if some of his thoughts on male/female relationships and class consciousness---and how they may sometimes intersect---are more universal than I'd like to admit. Next up: I'm not exactly pining to see the new animated Beowulf, but I thought it might be cool to finally check out the celebrated Seamus Heaney translation of the famous Anglo-Saxon epic. That and Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner---again, in part because of the release of an upcoming movie adaptation.

So many books I still haven't read/have yet to read...sigh...

Speaking of movies, what about the art form that I profess to love so much? Well, I'm still catching up with movies new and old on DVD. Can you believe that only recently did I finally catch up with two bona-fide classics, Orson Welles's Touch of Evil and Carol Reed's (or more appropriately, Graham Greene's, or maybe even more appropriately, Orson Welles's) The Third Man??? Amazing films! If anything, they both demonstrate just how much sheer imaginative style---the tilted camera angles of The Third Man, the exaggerated close-ups (among many memorable characteristics) of Touch of Evil---can transform what might have played as otherwise standard-issue crime thrillers in lesser hands. The depictions of evil in The Third Man are entertaining enough---especially when Welles comes onto the scene midway through the picture---but Touch of Evil both entertains and unsettles almost entirely through its delirious technique, using a kinetic camera style to create an unforgettable baroque world of corruption around which the characters try to negotiate, in ways both honorable and not so honorable. You can viscerally sense Orson Welles's obsessiveness in telling this story (I've read some reviews suggesting that the morally suspect character he plays in the film is perhaps a reflection of himself, doing whatever it takes to retain control of things). I've heard all about the auteur theory, but I think I can honestly say that only after seeing Touch of Evil do I intuitively grasp what those Cahiers du cinema upstarts in the '50s and then, later, Andrew Sarris actually meant. I mean, if Carol Reed had taken on Welles's Touch of Evil script, I wonder if the end result would seem half as forbidding, hyperbolic, lurid---or, above all, personal.

As for more recent releases: somewhat like Touch of Evil, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises might seem like a typical gangster genre piece on the surface, but Cronenberg is able to take Steven Knight's script and make it seem utterly Cronenbergian by virtue of its surgically precise style, its interest in character psychology (even among this band of genre archetypes) and its searing images of the human body in various states of distress. For an instance of the latter: Viggo Mortensen's body art---which tells his supposed life story---gets bloodied and bruised in a brutal three-way fight in a sauna that outdoes almost any of the shockingly graphic violence of his last picture, A History of Violence. Perhaps Eastern Promises can be said to be a logical companion piece to Violence---both essentially transform genre clichés into meditations on both real-world violence and movie violence, in all its ugliness. But both, in the end, strike me as a bit more different than alike. Violence takes a more baldly deconstructionist approach, reveling in its clichés and toying with one's reactions to the violence while undermining them at nearly every turn; Eastern Promises, however, not only makes all of its archetypal characters seem convincingly multifaceted and human (even the so-called "villains," like Armin Mueller-Stahl's patriarch), but frames these characters and the brutal situations in a dark fairy-tale atmosphere that, for my money, leaves more of a lasting impression than the intellectualized winking (however valuable and perhaps necessary) of Violence. This, it goes without saying, isn't completely original and personal like Videodrome or Dead Ringers, but nevertheless, it's a compelling example of a fascinating film artist working at near the top of his game with what might have been old-hat stuff in other hands.

And I recently caught Away From Her---the film about how a husband deals with his wife's mental deterioration via Alzheimer's---on DVD; I'd be shocked if there was a more vibrant, honest, and deeply moving love story released this year. And Julie Christie, as the deteriorating wife, still looks pretty darn attractive even at 66. Oh, and yes, she's terrific in it, too---totally convincing and free from look-at-me (read: Oscar-baiting) histrionics.

Anyway, I'm not entirely sure if all this reading, listening and movie-watching I'm doing is actually helping me in the long run except giving me more things to do, more perspectives and approaches to absorb, etc. But I'm rather enjoying it---so much so that it's likely I may stick with this schedule for a little while longer after I (hopefully) graduate in January.

Maybe all I'm really doing is just putting off real-world responsibilities for a little while longer.

Otherwise...well, I did contribute this recent piece about one of my favorite classical works for The House Next Door. So I'm still keeping my writing skills somewhat sharp.