Saturday, August 16, 2008

All Talk: Profit Motive, The Dark Knight, The X-Files

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - First things first: I recently dipped my feet back into writing movie reviews for The House Next Door, and my latest review---of Claude Chabrol's latest, A Girl Cut in Two---is up today! Check it out here.


I'm still in my classical-music near-obsessive phase right now (I recently purchased---online, of course---Herbert von Karajan's complete set of Bruckner symphonies, and one re-hearing of the trumpets-blazing coda of the first movement of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony has pretty much gotten me hooked on that piece again), but it's been a while since I blogged about some of the recent movies I've seen. So let's go back into my mental archives...


The most notable new film I've seen in the past few weeks is...well, it ain't The Dark Knight, I'll say that much. (More on that anon.) Instead, it's a documentary entitled Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind: an abstract, experimental hour-long work that tries to essentially illustrate the socialistic version of American history explicated in Howard Zinn's classic People's History of the United States by visiting the tombstones and site markers of the various people and events chronicled in Zinn's book and shooting these structures and their surrounding environments---pastoral landscapes, graveyards, mundane highways, etc. And when I say "shooting these structures," that is exactly what director John Gianvito does: he points a camera head-on at a tombstone or site marker and shoots them---sometimes in interesting angles, sometimes moving the camera up and down. He times each shot so that we in the audience have enough time to read the writing etched on these rocks and take in the suggested meaning of them all. Because Gianvito relies on these sites to tell the story, he eschews voice-over narration and talking-heads interviews, letting the images do the heavy lifting.

The result of this method of filming might sound repetitive, dry or static. On the contrary: it may be the most enthralling demonstration of living history I've come across in any movie, fiction or nonfiction, a fascinating, inspiring work that opens one's eyes toward the ghosts of our nation's past that reside everywhere you look, whether you are conscious of it or not. Profit Motive certainly has an interesting take on American history and the forces that shaped our country and continue to do so---but I'm guessing that much of that take is taken from Zinn's book (I haven't yet read it, to be honest, but the film makes me desperately want to give it a careful read). Its more lasting achievement in broader in scope, and harder to put into words: by the end of its 58 minutes, one's awareness of vast historical and societal forces working underneath the surface of everyday sights and sounds is gloriously reinforced. (The film is no longer playing at the Anthology Film Archives, so, if I've piqued your curiosity, you'll most likely have to wait for a DVD release.)


While Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind operates through blissful, thought-provoking imagery, The Dark Knight operates almost entirely through talk---and pretty mind-numbingly heavy-handed talk at that. Obviously, I am really late to the discussion of what has become a box-office juggernaut that may well run Titanic very close financially speaking during its initial theatrical run. Many friends I respect seem to love it immensely, and I really wish I could share their enthusiasm. I mean, I really do respect Christopher Nolan's ambitions to try to bring more intellectual and moral seriousness and shades of gray (amidst the requisite action fireworks, of course) into the comic-book superhero genre; if a category of films ever needed an infusion of that kind of adult sensibility, the comic-book category is certainly it (although I don't think even this summer's other much-lauded superhero flick, the overpraised Iron Man, provided that sensibility). But I say, what's the use of all that over-intellectualizing over good-versus-evil, order-versus-anarchy, and heroism-versus-vigilantism if there are no human beings to relate to onscreen? Funny how a narration-free documentary seems infinitely more alive than a big-budget action spectacle.

Just about every single character in The Dark Knight remains glued to their preconceived allegorical roots, and nearly every plot twist seems predetermined by the director's philosophical game plan rather than emerging from a sense of exploration and life. Nolan's apparently lack of empathy for his characters as flesh-and-blood people is so deadening that I found it difficult to even feel much for Harvey Dent's eventual corruption into reckless murderous vigilantism. First of all, his penchant for coin-flipping---supposedly espousing a relying-on-chance worldview that the Joker seizes upon in order to seduce him to the dark side---seems so much of a deliberately placed literary conceit that it sucks out all interest in the character himself (despite Aaron Eckhart's valiant efforts to bring emotional credibility to the role) when his moral descent finally, predictably, happens. And the way the film is constructed, if you can't empathize with Dent, the whole movie's sunk, really. He's supposed to be the emotional fulcrum in this theoretical tug of war between the ambiguous hero Batman and the unambiguous villain Joker, one creepy and mysterious but working for the good of Gotham, the other creepy and mysterious and working to bring down its destruction (just for laughs, I guess, although Heath Ledger's conception of the Joker---admirably controlled even when he goes off the rails, which is pretty much throughout the entire movie---doesn't make much room for the funny). Unfortunately, Dent/Two-Face remains...well, a fulcrum. No more, no less.

I should probably qualify all this by admitting that I'm not a huge comics fan and that my only experience with Batman is through the previous feature films (the Tim Burton ones and the earlier Joel Schumacher flick) and glimpses of episodes of the old 1960s TV series. So who knows, maybe this doesn't make me fit to speak with any authority on the fascination of the DC Comics icon. Whatever. Tim Burton, in his two Batman films, was able to wring genuine mystery out of the character; but in Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan attempted to demystify Batman's origins, and did so in an often thuddingly literal manner (its worries about the thin line between revenge and heroism was more verbalized than imaginatively demonstrated) with incoherently edited action sequences to boot. Though Nolan has become a smoother action director in this second go-round---he thankfully settles on long takes filled with action rather than MTV-style cutting to simulate a visceral blur---he goes further with the bloodless literalness: the whole movie has become an abstraction, with obvious allegory substituting for human drama. It's way too easy to pick out all the emblems and post-9/11 metaphors, because Nolan lays it all out for you like an analyst laying out a bunch of stock options. Sure, you could say there's something more on its mind than the usual summer blockbuster. But aside from some impressive action sequences (particularly its opening bank heist, with its shades of Heat), a few dryly funny line readings from Michael Caine (as Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred) and a climactic sequence that engineers some impressive morally inflected suspense (before ending it in all-too-comfortable box-office tastefulness---really, you think a big blockbuster like this one is doing to risk upsetting the masses by having one boatload of innocents actually go through killing the other boatload?), there's no beating heart to it, or at least no genuinely felt emotions to latch onto. It's a cold, lifeless Philosophy 101 lecture conceptualized in comic-book-movie form; it talks about darkness a lot more than it actually lives and breathes it.


The X-Files: I Want to Believe is actually a vastly more humane and affecting movie, even if it, too, relies on dialogue rather than searing images to explore its themes. But at least the dialogue---written by director Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz---is often a lot more eloquent and poetic than The Dark Knight's comic-book balloons; non-fans might find lines like "I can't peer into the darkness with you" too high-flown, but fans---myself included---should be attuned to its distinctive cadences.

Sure, the movie is basically one long super-sized episode, and yeah, its central plot---despite intimations of homosexuality, pedophilia and other assorted taboos---is disappointingly mundane and draggy compared to some of the wilder inventions of the TV series (the Flukeman, Tooms, Donnie Pfaster, Pusher---hell, I'd even throw the online-preying fat-sucker 2Shy on that list). But how many of its episodes essentially used plot as merely an excuse for deeper, more character-based examinations? In I Want to Believe, Scully is faced---as she often was throughout the series' nine-year run---with the question of deciding whether to go ahead with a risky treatment for a boy with cerebral palsy, or to follow the disapproving glances of her Catholic superiors, who find it better for the boy to simply leave things with God. That dilemma right there is The X-Files in a microcosm: the conflict between faith and rationality, the intersection between following a religion while maintaining a scientific mindset. It was the series' richest theme---and in hindsight, I think even the frustratingly convoluted alien mythology explored that theme in its own operatic ways---and I Want to Believe, for the most part, does right by it, creating involving human drama out of Scully's vacillations, daringly distancing us from Mulder's obsessiveness, and creating a surprising amount of creepy atmosphere out of its Vancouver-shot locations. It's hardly a masterpiece, and I'm not entirely sure what X-Files newbies would really get out of it if they haven't followed the series in depth. But it's considerably better than you've heard. (Were critics really that disappointed that they got this intimate character study instead of another freaky creature feature? Few of the writers I read regularly---with a welcome exception in Roger Ebert, bless him---touched on its religious and moral complexities, or were apparently too jaded to take those complexities seriously. Their loss.)


Also worth checking out, if it's still playing in a theater near you: the French hit thriller Tell No One, with a doozy of a Hitchcockian plot---in which a doctor-husband finds out that his wife may not be as long-dead as he had initially thought---a dazzling foot-chase sequence, a few killer plot twists, some beautiful French (and, in the case of Kristin Scott Thomas, English) women (clothed or unclothed), and some great French actor-legends (like Jean Rochefort and André Dussollier) delivering loads of explanatory dialogue. Who cares if it doesn't totally add up? Tell No One draws you into its wild conspiracy plot while never forgetting to maintain its emphasis on the human beings involved. It's quite entertaining---so entertaining that I bet Hollywood will try to remake this in a couple of years and fuck up its memory. Or is one already in the works...?

Movies I'm interesting in seeing in the theater soon: the hit documentary Man on Wire, Eric Rohmer's supposed valedictory film The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, and yes, Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder.

And to bring this post full circle, let me put in a good word for one of Claude Chabrol's lesser-known masterworks from the late '60s, This Man Must Die, a revenge thriller that develops into a deliciously macabre but fundamentally serious meditation on the cost of hollowing out one's life and humanity for the sake of pursuing vengeance. Its final, breathtakingly poetic image---that of an ordinary man so unsettled by the evil inside him that he literally sails away from the rest of society---puts both the numbly literal vengeance-minded quandaries of both of Nolan's Batman movies and also the over-the-top Greek tragedy of Chan-wook Park's Oldboy to shame (though that doesn't mean I don't still like Oldboy, although maybe not as much as Park's earlier and more harrowing Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance). It's available on DVD in a watchable non-anamorphic transfer---no matter; its psychological acuity and formal precision still communicate forcefully.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Aftershocks Indeed

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This week, I'm going to bring this blog back down to earth to meditate a little on my own current status within the increasingly troubled, insecure, blurry world of journalism---not to mention within the current job market in general.

As some of you may have heard: a few weeks ago, the higher-ups at The Wall Street Journal decided that it was finally time to consolidate all the news operations and locate them all in New York. Thus, all the bright and wonderful people that I know in my old stomping grounds at the South Brunswick office at the copy desk and pagination departments---among many others affected by this decision---were basically laid off in one fell swoop. Even worse: if some of these people want to stay within the company, they would have to apply for 24 newly created positions, all based in New York, and wait until mid-August to find out if they have gotten these positions.

Jeez, might as well turn this into a Survivor-style competition while they're at it.

In the midst of my recent traffic-ticket and health troubles (yeah, I've had a couple of minor health scares; I'll only reveal them if any of you readers are, er, dying to know), my mother has recently hit upon a new piece of motherly wisdom that she repeats to me over and over: "don't worry." Basically, she thinks I have a tendency to worry too much during times of trouble, and that I dwell too much on negative aspects of a situation. She probably has a point (most of the time, I hate to admit, she does have one when she offers her "advice" to me, especially because I have always considered myself a low-expectations kind of guy---expect the worst, sometimes hope for the best). Anyway, I've been thinking about hope and worry recently in light of what happened to the copy editors, some of whom have been working there for a long time, some of whom have families to take care of, others of whom have to deal with rent and all those other headaches that come with living on one's own. Now they're hit with this piece of anxiety-inducing news and are forced to be kept in dire suspense as to whether or not they will still have a job with Dow Jones come September. I can only imagine what must be going through their minds during such a time. How would I react? Fearful? Apprehensive? Or more numbed by indifference? I can't even bring myself to contemplate the prospect at this point. (I've chatted with a few people at the copy desk since the layoffs were announced, and while most of them try to put a positive spin on their situations---what else can one do at this point, really?---one of them did describe the atmosphere over in South Brunswick right now as something perilously close to a sense of devastation. "People are scared," she said.)

All of this can't help but make me reflect on just how lucky I have been so far in dipping my toes into The Wall Street Journal. Four months into my stay at the (late) monitor desk, I was already emailing the chief of the copy desk, asking him if I could come back to the desk---only to be told that there weren't any more spots for me, at least with the resume I had. (Not that he actually saw my resume, but let's put that aside for now...) At the time, I regretted not going for Rutgers journalism-school credit with my Dow Jones Newspaper Fund copy-desk internship last summer (I had thought I couldn't do if I was getting paid by the company, but the Rutgers journalism school's internship director later told me that, as far as he was concerned, I probably could have done so). I could still be copy editing right now---checking facts and grammar, struggling with headlines, etc.---and not still stuck looking for small production-level flaws and obvious grammar and spelling mistakes in my proofreading, I thought, with a wince, at the time. Now look at the bullet I just dodged!

Sure, there was a month-long stretch during which none of us who were left at the monitor desk had any idea what was in the future for us, or if there was even a future for us within the company. Of course, I did what anyone faced with job insecurity would do: look for other jobs inside or outside the company and apply for them, not pinning all my hopes onto one prestigious, good-looking candidate. And yet, somehow, I never got the sense that my job was on the verge of termination---I took the insecurity in stride and soldiered on, taking an attitude of eagerness to see what would be next for me. Now that I'm firmly ensconced (for now, anyway) at the Global News Desk and taking on new challenges---I'm now doing some photo-caption and refer-box writing, and I recently even decided to try a minor reporting assignment---I can only count my lucky stars and think: maybe there's something to the "things happen for a reason" or the "it'll all work out in the end" clichés after all.

And yet, the reality remains: in the American job market, genuine good news can seem dreadfully difficult to come by. Recently, my father was cut off from his partnership with Canon after serving them for years, and now my mother---who is a postal worker, with the USPS---is in the midst of scary layoff talks at her organization. Maybe it's just our collective bad luck to be working in fields that are arguably falling by the wayside: print journalism, non-digital camera repair, physical mail delivery. Are we just working in analog professions during a predominantly digital era? It's amazing how things just come into vogue and go out of fashion, and all the while time and history just keep progressing along, watching it all with seeming objectivity (no comment, so to speak). I guess all that's left is to make the best of the circumstances...even if it's as little as maintaining a measure of optimism in the face of shifting trends and all the aftershocks they may bring. Aftershocks indeed.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Hills Are Alive...

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Not sure if this is an experience that is universally shared, but...

You know how you experience something that really catches your eye, ear or mind, and suddenly you find yourself gripped in an obsessive need to explore anything and everything related to that original bolt of sensual lightning? You think about it night and day, you scour for more from the creator of that particularly memorable experience, you even lose sleep in order to stay up a bit later than usual in order to have more time to indulge in your explorations.

That's the state I've been in for the past week or so with my music collection---specifically, my (relatively sparse) collection of classical-music recordings.

Yes, I've been bitten by the classical-music bug again after neglecting the genre for what seems like years now, in favor of digging into rock music's past and present. I've been thinking back on some of my previous classical-music experiences---the shocks of discovery and excitement accompanying, for instance, initial, fresh hearings of Beethoven's revolutionary "Eroica" symphony, Mahler's "all-embracing" (his description) symphonic worlds, Bruckner's symphonic cathedrals of sound, Alban Berg's disturbing 12-tone opera Lulu. I've also returned to some of the CDs I have, considering what deserves to go into my iPod or what I might want to purchase in the near future for further explorations.

Most of my reignited interest in classical music probably stems from the sad-but-true fact that I have no life and don't mind sitting in my room in front of my computer for hours on end. (Hey, I'm doing it as I write this, and browsing through the review archives of, the Web site for the British classical-music magazine Gramophone.) Some of it, however, also stems from a book I've been reading recently: The Rest is Noise, a recently published history of 20th-century classical music that balances formal analyses of the music of Mahler, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, Shostakovich, Copland, Stockhausen and many others with valuable historical context and rich biographical detail, all ambitiously wrapped in an amazingly accessible writing style. It's by Alex Ross, a music critic for the New Yorker, and it has definitely stoked my interest in either revisiting 20th-century works that I've heard, or hearing works I've never heard before. (Ross is even kind enough to provide a useful list of recommended recordings at the end of his book.)

I'm not nearly done with reading it yet, but so far, it's proven to be just as dazzling and fascinating as film blogger Jim Emerson expressed in an entry he wrote on this book months ago (basically, it was through that entry that I became aware of, and interested in reading, Ross's book). The 20th century was one of the most turbulent and troubling times in Western civilization---what with two world wars, threats of nuclear annihilation and assorted other conflicts and atrocities. No surprise, then, that the century produced some of the most unsettling music ever written---unsettling and endlessly fascinating. Sure, the thorny music of the Second Viennese School---Schoenberg, Berg and Webern---may never be a popular choice at any concert, classical or otherwise. This sure ain't your papa's Bach, Mozart or Beethoven---to some, it might all be, well, just noise. By putting these composers and their compositions in proper historical, societal and cultural contexts, however, Alex Ross helps us appreciate why, for example, Schoenberg decided to create his controversial 12-tone technique (a return to formal order mirroring the way Germany tried to return to some kind of order in the 1920s after World War I), or what inspired the infamous fistfights at the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

Although The Rest Is Noise is principally about 20th-century classical music, it has gotten me thinking a lot more about music in general---music in the abstract if you will.

Abstract? Exactly!

I hope I'm not the only one who feels that music may well be the most mysterious of all the art forms out there. With painting, at least you have an image in front of you to associate with other images, both by other painters or from your own experiences; books have words; films have both. Compared to music, those art forms feel more concrete, or at least have more concrete elements to them. But what do you see when you open up a music score? All staves, notes and foreign-language instructions on a page! It's like a secret code that only the initiated---composers, conductors, soloists, etc.---can access. Obviously, a good conductor can bring that code to life for audiences to hear and perceive---but even then, the ways in which music affects us can be extraordinarily difficult to try to put into words. How does one vividly convey the sense of disorientation at losing your tonal bearings at Wozzeck? The sense of spiritual peace that accompanies the drawn-out coda of Mahler's Ninth Symphony? Unless the piece has a choral setting, you can't necessarily point to any specific lyric or line of dialogue to illustrate the point. (But hey, even lyrics can be tricky, too; Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello may load up their songs with puns and clever wordplay, but do those prosaic virtues totally account for the exhilarating experience to hearing the whirling "Like a Rolling Stone" or the controlled viciousness of "This Year's Girl"? Not entirely, I would say.)

In music, then, it seems to me that it's almost entirely about how it affects you on a gut level. Not that novels, poetry or cinema don't also hit you on a primal level, but music's effects have always struck me as the much more elusive---and thus maybe the most fascinating---art of all in how it achieves those effects. Notes on a page certainly won't reveal too much, at least to the layperson. (How did conducting geniuses like Arturo Toscanini, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan or Leonard Bernstein learn and absorb scores? Just by looking at them? That is talent right there.)

I don't really have much more to add to this subject at this time, but it's been on my mind a lot lately, so I figured I'd put it in words. Words---at least words are something I know how to use to express myself!