Sunday, January 31, 2010

Water, Water Everywhere: An Image from Tsai Ming-liang's Rebels of the Neon God



Who else but Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang could shoot an image of water creeping up an apartment floor and make it seem as ominous, tragic and strangely beautiful as the screengrab above?

After having my mind thoroughly blown by Tsai's The Hole (1998) and his as-yet-unreleased Face (2009) last year, I'm only now finally getting around to checking out the rest of his creative output. Yesterday, I kicked off my Tsai-on-DVD explorations with his 1992 debut feature Rebels of the Neon God, from which the above screen capture is taken. It's a grittier and more realistic movie than the others of his I've seen, but even with a relatively conventional storyline, one owing a certain debt to Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955), the film already features traces of Tsai's distinct brand of alienated lyricism, which he would expand upon to glorious effect in his later, wilder works.

It also features water. Not as much water as, say, the monsoon that drenches turn-of-the-millennium Taiwan in The Hole, or the flood at a spectral construction site in his Malaysia-set I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006), or even the explosion of water from a pipe that bursts in Hsiao-kang's (Lee Kang-sheng) apartment in a hilarious extended opening gag in Face. But water continually flows out of a hole in the ground of Ah Tze's (Chen Chao-jung) apartment in Rebels; he has apparently gotten so used to the flooding that he walks around his wet apartment as if nothing was on the floor. And yet, try as he might to either ignore the problem or stanch the liquid overflow, water still manages to flow through—and in a scene in his apartment towards the end, after a sales deal gone wrong leads a dear friend of his to get severely beaten up, Tsai hits us with the image above: water slowly creeping toward the camera like a blob gradually inching towards land.

Much like the anomie that swirls in neon-lit Taipei in Rebels, the water in Ah Tze's apartment just leaks aimlessly about, not heading in any particular direction. But it remains an underlying presence, spreading over his apartment floor like the urban angst that hangs over his characters.

That right there is the kind of madly poetic detail that has come to fascinate me endlessly in Tsai's films. Where does he come up with these ideas? Does anyone else see the world, and the human beings populating it, the way Tsai does? Whatever the source of his peculiar sensibility is, I'm finding it more and more of a pleasure to bask in each new cinematic vision of his I encounter. More to come, I hope...

Thursday, January 28, 2010

R.I.P. J.D. Salinger (1919-2010)


...and now J.D. Salinger has died??? So many artists who spoke to me at certain points in my life, all dying within a relatively concentrated period of time? Damn...

In the interest of honoring Salinger's distrust of "phonies," I might as well disclose early on that, other than The Catcher in the Rye, I haven't yet read much of Salinger's other work. (I guess I know now what will be next in my reading queue after I finish Farber on Film!) In fact, it was only after his death was announced today that I finally got around to reading his famous short story "A Perfect Day for Bananafish"...and, in addition to being a deeply affecting piece of writing (its ending is as blunt-force stunning as the impact of the bullet that Seymour empties into his brain), it vividly reminded me of what I loved about Catcher when I acquainted myself with it during my high school years.

I like to think that one of my better qualities is that I always try to be honest with people, both in person and online, about the kind of person I am; I think The Catcher in the Rye played a huge part in shaping that quality in me. Also—to be perfectly honest—it spoke profoundly to some of the darker emotions I was feeling during my adolescent years, as someone who always felt rather outside of the loop in many ways, particularly socially. Admittedly, I haven't re-read the book in years, and even after reading "Bananafish" tonight, I do wonder, years removed from those emotionally tumultuous high-school years, if I'd embrace it with nearly the same passion that I did back when I was younger. (In the back of my mind, I wonder if Salinger's vision, casting as it does a gleaming light on the innocence of childhood, has begun to come off as merely sentimental as I wade deeper into adulthood. Or have I really become that cynical? I shudder at the latter notion.) But I won't deny the impact The Catcher in the Rye had on me...and I can't imagine its brilliance simply as a piece of writing has dimmed one iota over the years.

And now, I will end this remembrance here, reserving to right to say more about Salinger once I get to the rest of his work. Nevertheless, I thought this particular loss, and my own personal (if perhaps not wholly well-informed) investment in said loss, was still worth noting here.

R.I.P. Howard Zinn (1922-2010)


Howard Zinn, the great American historian and political activist, has died.

His epochal People's History of the United States remains an important work in my life, not only in profoundly influencing the way I look at American history, politics and politicians, but also providing inspiration simply as a work of tremendous curiosity and bravery. Zinn perceived mainstream U.S. history as, for the most part, "written by the winners," so to speak, and thus proceeded to look into alternate voices—ranging from minorities (Native American, African American, etc.) and women, to laborers and even prisoners—to recount history from the viewpoints of the oppressed and unfairly treated. The result is a genuinely revelatory work of rigorous research and humane empathy, one that asks all of us to always consider our fellow man while cultivating a healthy skepticism toward our government (because, believe it or not, our government officials, democratically elected or not, may not always, and quite possibly rarely do, have our best interests in mind).

There are few books that I have read (and few movies that I have seen, for that matter) that I can say has stirred in me an honest-to-God desire to try to go and bring out some kind of change in the world I live in. Zinn's People's History of the United States is one of them. May his passion for championing the rights of the downtrodden continue to reverberate in all of us even after his death.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Brief Ode to the Long Shot

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—I love long shots in movies.

I love shots that are framed to take in as much of a particular environment as possible; I especially love the kind of long shot that surrounds pitiful human or animal figures against vast natural-landscape backdrops. On a big screen, such shots can be overwhelming for the eye and the mind to take in. Where to look, what to see, what to take away from such vast panoramas of imagery? Forget 3-D (and yes, that includes you, Avatar); that, my friends, is true immersion, an often exhilarating reminder that what you are watching is honest-to-God cinematic in the best sense.

Recently, I saw two films that reminded me of my love of the long shot: Michelangelo Antonioni's fictional L'Avventura (1960) and Ilisa Barbash & Lucien Castaing-Taylor's documentary Sweetgrass (2009). (By the way, yes, I only recently finally got around to seeing L'Avventura for the first time ever...and, well, let's just say, I'm impressed but also eagerly awaiting a chance to see it on a big screen.)

The island on which the events of the first hour or so of L'Avventura transpire is not just a literal setting; in Antonioni's hands, they become a kind of barren psychic landscape, conveying the characters' spiritual desolation. So it's only appropriate that there are many deep-focus long shots, like the one seen above, throughout the film. In essence, Antonioni and his cinematographer, Aldo Scavarda, visually contextualize the characters' (lack of) passions, properly situating them within the purview of a wider world that could care less about their relatively trivial concerns.

There are many precious shots like that in Sweetgrass, a documentary that, for most of its running time, follows a couple of shepherds in Montana as they herd a large flock of sheep one last time through the Beartooth Mountains in 2003. There's one particular long shot—it was filmed, on digital video, by Castaing-Taylor himself—that stays with me: an aerial shot in which we glimpse, from a far distance, the sheep as they slowly bleat their way down the side of one of the mountains. It's a scenically splendid shot, of course, but, in the context of the film, it also carries a larger thematic resonance. Sweetgrass, which starts out by simply observing the ways of sheep and shepherds before a couple of them venture forth into the Beartooth Mountains with their flock of sheep, eventually deepens into a portrait of men struggling to control the elements during their journey, whether those elements are grizzly bears, human limits or simply the sheep themselves. But nature, for the most part, eventually wins out—and that sense of man being overwhelmed by nature is precisely what makes Castaing-Taylor's many extreme long shots so beautifully expressive in addition to being merely impressive.

There are plenty of other examples of movies that employ long shots to brilliant effect—Playtime (1967), Barry Lyndon (1975), and that Catalan film Birdsong (2008) released in New York last year, come immediately to mind—but perhaps I will explore those other examples in a later post. (And, of course, readers, feel free to list other memorable examples of long-shot cinema in the comments section!) For now, though, I just wanted to say this one last thing about long shots: that, while no two long shots are alike in what they contain and what they express, generally these kinds of shots, for me, serve as potent reminders that, in life, however wrapped up you may be in pursuing your own personal passions or handling your own private problems, that a) the wider universe could care less (I don't see that as nihilism; it's just the truth), and b) there are always situations better and/or worse than the one you may be in. Long shots, in short, not only provide a dizzying sense of visual perspective, but, for the receptive viewer, can also summon forth a more introspective sense of personal and philosophical perspective. And, in light of some of the personal shit I've had to deal with recently (one day I may get to explaining this, but not now), there's nothing more necessary than the kind of art that can inspire such a profound awareness. Because, I mean, isn't that what the best art can do: bring us closer to life, in some way?

Finally, another image from L'Avventura to close out this brief ode to the long shot, this one featuring the film's star Monica Vitti. Because, well, who wouldn't want to see the gorgeous Monica Vitti, even in long shot?

Certainly these men do:

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Critical Distance

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Guess I spoke too soon, because here I am already with a new post! I guess this is what slacking off from going to the gym will do: free up time for blogging. I'll be back to my two-session-a-week routine next week, I promise!

In the meantime, there's something that's been on my mind recently that I'd like to put down here. To introduce it, then, an image:

Amidst the many random postmodern bits of movie-movie business strewn throughout Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou (1965) is one cherishable bit of real-world insight, one that's now more relevant than ever in ways I'll explain below. It comes early in the film, as Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is driving Marianne (Anna Karina) home. Marianne turns on the radio and hears a news broadcast reporting the number of soldiers on both sides of the Vietnam War killed that day. From that instant comes the following exchange (at least, as rendered on the Criterion DVD's subtitles):
MARIANNE: Awful, isn't it? It's so anonymous.


MARIANNE: They say "115 guerrillas," and it means nothing to us. But each one is a man, and we don't even know who he is—if he loves a woman, if he has kids, if he prefers movies or plays. We know nothing about them. All they say is "115 killed."
This particular dialogue exchange crossed my mind last week when I heard about the massive devastation in Haiti. Obviously, what's going on in Haiti right now—70,000+ people dead as a result of a 7.0 earthquake—isn't quite the same as people dying in war; the casualties in one come from a natural disaster, while the casualties in the other are entirely man-made. Here's the dovetailing point of interest, though: I'm hearing about the destruction in Haiti through media sources, just as I'm certain a lot of people around the world heard about the violence in Vietnam through radio and television. In other words, I'm hearing about it all from a distance. Unless you're physically present to see, with your own eyes, the unconscionable loss of life in both those situations, can you truly grasp the magnitude of destruction, particularly on an intimate human level? You may have an idea, buttressed by eyewitness reports you may see and/or hear, of how bad it is in Haiti right now, but that may be all it is: an intellectual grasp, but, depending on the kind of person you are, not necessarily a visceral or emotional one.

That kind of distance can be a slightly disturbing sensation especially if you are aware of it. I was sitting at my cubicle at the Wall Street Journal news desk when initial reports of the Haiti earthquake started flowing in, and honestly, I didn't think too much of it at first. The simple fact that a huge earthquake occurred in a third-world country like Haiti affected me no more than a standard murder reported on a local evening newscast usually would—which is to say, not all that deeply. But then more details started pouring forth: the initial death-toll estimates, the Richter-scale reading of the quake, and, later, the heartbreaking images and soundbites right from the stricken area. Only then did I start to get an idea of just how bad this situation was.

Even with that awareness in mind, though, it all still feels far away for me (literally and emotionally). I have no relatives in Haiti, and no one in my immediate circles of friends have been affected by the wreckage, at least as far as I know as of now. If I knew people affected by the tragedy, I might feel differently. But, as it stands for me right now, it feels like...well, a news story. And my comprehension of this feeling (or lack of it?) unsettles me just a tad. (Maybe I really just need to watch more TV news?)

And that's why I flashed back on that particular moment in Pierrot le fou. Godard, early in his filmmaking career, may have made films that, on a certain level, expressed a certain yearning for life to be like a movie. But he knew, deep down, even literature, sound or image had limits on accessing the various human truths of a situation. The distance is always there, however much a medium tries to bring you the cold, hard facts.

These realizations, of course, haven't stopped me from trying to do my part in contributing to the relief effort underway in Haiti. So far, I've donated some money to UNICEF online, and now that it may be possible to be able to write off those donations as 2009 tax deductions, I will probably contribute more. Short of actually going into Haiti to help the relief effort in person, I feel like it's the least I can do.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Placeholder

NEW YORK—Don't worry, readers! I have ideas for upcoming blog posts bumping in my head, but I may not be able to get to them this week; I've got a few other (non-film-related) things on my plate right now that I hope to get out of the way before I commit pen to paper, or rather, fingers to keyboard. (One of those things, if you would like to know, is to catch up on the third and fourth hours of the latest season of 24, if only to see if they improve upon the fairly lackluster first two hours.) Rest assured, though, I have not hit one of my lazy creative-block hiatuses. I will be back.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Odds & Ends for the Week Ended Jan. 16, 2010

NEW YORK—I have just a few brief things I feel like mentioning, so I'll pool 'em all in one all-over-the-place post.


Every week, I try to put aside a couple of long train rides to listen to the podcasts of two public-radio programs: Studio 360 and This American Life. Last week's This American Life program was, I found, unusually compelling, especially its first act, which focuses on a prison lifer in California who maintains hope, against all odds, that he'll eventually be released after his prison parole board, on his seventh try, decides to finally recommend that he be freed. [SPOILER ALERT] Alas, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger overturns the parole board's recommendation, and, maybe a month after the prisoner experiences this bitter defeat, he's heard castigating himself for getting his hopes up too high. (There is an eventual happy ending to this story, however, but I'll leave that for you all to hear for yourselves.)

This story resonated with me in a particular way—not so much because of the man's story, but because it reminded me that I myself tend to get suspicious of ever getting my hopes up too high for something. Ever since high school, I've always had a habit of keeping expectations guarded—because, that way, I'll be pleasantly surprised if those low expectations are fulfilled beyond my wildest dreams, and if things don't go the way I want, I won't be too disappointed. To wit: I applied for the Dow Jones copy-editing internship in 2006 on a whim, and didn't expect much to come out of it; so imagine my delight in receiving a phone call from my to-be-residency director Dr. Edward Trayes a couple months later offering me an internship at The Wall Street Journal's now-defunct copy desk in South Brunswick, N.J. On the other extreme: I had high hopes for Lorin Maazel's performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony in his last few concerts as music director of the New York Philharmonic last year; alas, the performance turned out to be more workmanlike than inspired, really only coming fully alive in its concluding "Alles Vergängliche" prayer—a rousing, reach-for-the-stars finish in Maazel's hands, but perhaps too little too late. (It was the kind of performance that turned me, for a moment, into a doubter of Mahler's unwieldy Eighth—and that is never a good thing in Mahler performances.)

I don't know if this is necessarily a good way to live a life, and certainly it's not an approach I consistently live by. But, as with most things that you've grown up with, it's a way of thinking—of perhaps controlling emotion, to be more precise—that, I suspect, will stay with me as long as I live, whether I like it or not.

Anyway, if you have an hour to set aside, give this particular This American Life radio episode, entitled "Long Shot," a listen. If nothing else, its first story, about the prison lifer, is gripping, affecting stuff..


Turning to the personal front, two notable events, one positive and one negative.
The positive event: Remember that irritating clusterfuck over auto-accident-related medical bills and unprocessed claims that inspired me to post something about an image from Terry Gilliam's Brazil? Apparently someone over at Aetna's Hartford, Conn., corporate headquarters was listening! I got a call from someone there last week who says she saw a tweet I had made about a recently denied medical claim. Thus, I explained my whole situation to her, and a couple days later, I started to see all those as-yet unprocessed accident-related medical claims (plus a claim for an H1N1 vaccine I received in December) finally get processed. I'm not free and clear from all this: I still have some payments to make to Robert Wood Johnson for services rendered (my mother had insisted I wouldn't have to pay anything related to that August car accident, because I wasn't at fault; not quite right, it seems), and it turns out one of the claims I thought had already been processed was done incorrectly.

Nevertheless, I'm stunned. Even this Twitter fanatic didn't expect it to carry that kind of power! And who knew that someone at Aetna would, I assume, be looking for these kinds of tweets, and would actually respond to them (or, at least, to mine)? I guess they really do take public relations somewhat seriously.

The negative, however? In a snap of uncontrolled frustration on Friday night (don't ask me why), I stupidly landed a fist on the area to the left of the trackpad and below the keyboard on my MacBook and thereby fatally damaged my hard drive. Yesterday, I was able to get an Apple "Genius" to look at my computer, and he said they could replace the hard drive (for no cost, either, because I have AppleCare). But my external hard drive had been on the fritz for a while now before this happened—lots of clicking noises and such—and thus all the stuff I backed up onto that drive, thanks to Mac's Time Machine feature, may be gone for good. On the bright side, I have some of my important documents backed up on a flash drive, and of course my music files are still on my iPod, so it's not quite a total loss. I will see today, once I get my computer back. Stay tuned...


Movie time!

As a favor for a friend, I agreed to sit through Avatar, 3-D but not IMAX, again yesterday—and surprisingly enough, I found myself enjoying the film, in all its verbally cheesy, politically problematic, visually entrancing glories, a bit more than I did the first time. That extended war climax is still the same retro-'80s bombast and noise, but oddly enough, I found it less sleep-inducing, and even a bit more rousing the second time around. And that moment near the end when Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) finally glimpses Jake Sully's (Sam Worthington) human form is stirring enough to almost be considered visionary. My take on the film remains essentially unchanged: it's silly but dazzling eye candy. The formalist in me finds the eye candy satisfying enough.

I still wish, however, that I had been able to squeeze in that critically praised sheep-herding documentary Sweetgrass at Film Forum this weekend. Maybe tomorrow night...?

Tonight, however, will be all about the start of the new season of "24." Yes, hipsters, I still watch "24," and I'm not ashamed to admit it. (Whether it's something still worth watching this late in the game is, of course, up for debate. Maybe I'll elaborate on this in a later post.) Tonight will not be about the Golden Globes, however. That I could really care less about. Besides, the supposed "biggest Hollywood party of the year" cuts into valuable "24" time.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Portraits of An Artist, A Hack and a Drunk

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Just knocking off a few reviews here, which should bring me up to date as far as films seen in theaters go.

The Beaches of Agnès (2008; Dir.: Agnès Varda)
Nine (2009; Dir.: Rob Marshall)
Crazy Heart (2009; Dir.: Scott Cooper)

How you respond to a first-person memoir documentary like The Beaches of Agnès will, I suspect, depend on how invested you are in the life and thoughts of the film's maker, French New Wave legend Agnès Varda. Cards on the table, then: as of now, I'm basically unfamiliar with Varda's work—I've seen none of her stuff outside of that brief movie-within-a-movie with Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina featured in her Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962). So while I marveled at the creative energy and moving introspection Varda offers on her life as a filmmaker and wife/mother (when I finally caught up with this film at the Museum of Modern Art late in December), I also felt a bit detached from the whole thing—leaving me wondering whether my indifference to some of Varda's musings stemmed mostly from not knowing much about her art in advance, or whether I just naturally tune out of these kinds of deeply personal projects. (For what it's worth, its most poignant moments, for me, come from Varda's reflections on the way she dealt with husband Jacques Demy's impending death from AIDS; she, as most artists are wont to do, turned the experience into her own handcrafted art.) I had much the same reaction with another first-person cinematic memoir released last year, Terence Davies's Of Time and the City: I found a lot of it beautiful in the moment, but I can't say I remember much from the experience now beyond respecting Davies's zeal to documents his own memories and impressions on film. However, I haven't caught up with Davies's earlier work either, so again, that may have influenced my reaction.

Could it be that films like The Beaches of Agnès and Of Time and the City are so inherently tied into their respective auteurs' personal experiences that they risk leaving audiences not already invested in their art in a state of distant admiration? And if that's indeed the case, does it necessarily matter? Whatever you may think of films like these, they show directors working in their own creative zones, dealing with their personal obsessions and leaving the audience at sea in trying to determine whether there's anything to take away from the viewing experience. Generally, I admire filmmakers who work in such an uncompromised vein; on the other hand, the result can sometimes feel like you're on the outside looking in. (In Varda's case, though, it means looking into a house with celluloid walls—a closing image that truly inspired this particular cinephile.)

To a certain extent, that's a feeling I've always felt while watching Federico Fellini's much-celebrated —not a documentary (obviously), but a grand phantasmagoria borne out of the same kind of deeply personal impulses as The Beaches of Agnès and Of Time and the City. Having seen the film numerous times over the years, I've come to appreciate not just Fellini's endless imagination and creativity, but also the extent of his brutal candor and his heartfelt belief in cinema as the perfect medium for self-analysis. (When, towards the end of the film, Guido implores his long-suffering wife Luisa to "accept me as I am," it feels less like a narcissistic rationalization of his faults than it does a purifying expression of the kind of awareness of human foible that marks the greatest of film directors.) But, if you're not receptive to Fellini's self-examination, could come off as insufferably masturbatory stuff.

Better that kind of introspection, though, than the kind of prestige-pic impersonality exemplified by Rob Marshall's Nine. Now, maybe we should be fair to this film and take it on its own terms: as an adaptation of a Broadway musical inspired by the Fellini classic rather than a reworking of itself. That still leaves us with bland music, even worse (read: inelegant and inexpressive) lyrics, TV-style cutting, and an emotional void at its center. Granted, there are some moments of impressive musical bravura (Fergie does a pretty impressive Saraghina in tackling "Be Italian") and even instances of genuine dramatic emotion (most of the scenes with Marion Cotillard, playing the constantly cheated-on wife). But nowhere in Nine is there a sense of an artist feverishly expressing his passions onscreen, however self-involved those passions may be. Instead, generic, fashion-spread, stage-bound slickness rules. Has Marshall actually seen any movie from the so-called "Cinema Italiano" (the name of the film's worst number, by the way) other than ? But then, I can't tell that Maury Yeston, the composer-lyricist of the musical, has done so either. None of this is actively offensive, mind you—at least if you don't mind the film's choreography-obscuring cutting. But a movie that is supposedly about an artist's creative block arguably shouldn't feel as soulless as it does here. , for all its self-indulgence, certainly didn't.

Self-indulgent? Jeff Bridges? Never! But narcissistic? I would have never thought Bridges was capable of narcissism in a performance...and then comes Crazy Heart. Writer/director Scott Cooper's film is another portrait of an artist: Bad Blake, a 57-year-old former country sensation who is now frittering away his songwriting talent in small-town shows and heavy booze. The film follows a predictable thematic trajectory: Bad Blake aims to make a comeback, but of course it's a tough road, what with his alcoholism and a frayed father-son relationship that he tries to make up for with a single mother/aspiring reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and her kid. A bastard son of The Wrestler (2008) and Tender Mercies (1983), Crazy Heart is a notable mostly for how unsurprising it is throughout; only toward the very end does Cooper, adapting a novel by Thomas Cobb, throw in one or two calculated curves to Bad Blake's road to redemption.

Much more disappointing than the story's infestation of clichés, however, is Cooper's near-worshipful stance toward the main character—or, more accurately, to Jeff Bridges. Women eagerly prostitute themselves to him; his younger rival Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) stands in awe of him, even as Blake trashes him to his manager; and of course there's that Bridges/Gyllenhaal May-December romance, which gives us an opportunity to see that, yeah, he's a family man, too, when he's sober. Notwithstanding one unfortunate incident, in which he nearly loses the kid in a shopping mall when he takes him to a bar so he can grab a drink, Crazy Heart feels, more than anything else, like an endless love-in for its lead actor, with rarely anything at stake other than the threat that, gasp, we might actually see his character in something approaching a genuinely negative light. Could Bad Blake be the cuddliest alcoholic ever seen in an American movie? Even when the film approaches toughness—with one shot in particular, of Blake collapsing on a bed in a depressed, drunken stupor, that somewhat recalls the closing shot of Kirk Douglas collapsing right in front of Billy Wilder's camera in his Ace in the Hole (1951)—Cooper consistently pulls back to reassure us that, no, Blake will indeed see the light soon thereafter.

I'd like to believe that Bridges—certainly a great actor who has earned the right to a showcase of this kind, and who, to be fair, is fine enough here—was totally innocent, trying his damnedest to give, within this pandering Oscar-bait vehicle, as honest and gritty a performance as possible given such undistinguished material. But when I see his name listed as an executive producer of this dreck...well, I really have to wonder.

But at least the T-Bone Burnett/Stephen Bruton songs are generally quite good, and Bridges's performances of them show the kind of emotional honesty otherwise smothered by Cooper's stars in his eyes. Buy the soundtrack; skip the movie.

(The Beaches of Agnès will be released on DVD March 2; Nine and Crazy Heart are currently playing in theaters across the country.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Michael Fassbender: One Charming and Cool Dude

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—The Irish actor Michael Fassbender is one charming and cool dude. He's a damn fine actor, too, based on the performances of his I've seen: in Hunger (2008), Inglourious Basterds (2009) and now Fish Tank (2009), the latter of which will begin a run at the IFC Center on Friday. I did a one-on-one interview with the man on Friday, and some of the results of that interview can be seen in my latest contribution to The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog here. Fun times!

As for Fish Tank itself...well...the only comment I'll make is this: If you thought seeing the main character of Tony Manero (2008) shitting all over someone's suit was edgy, incisive stuff, then maybe you'll enjoy seeing a young girl angrily pissing on someone's carpet in Fish Tank. Other than that, I will defer further comments on British director Andrea Arnold's second feature to Keith Uhlich at Time Out New York and Armond White at the New York Press.

But Michael Fassbender is still one charming and cool dude, and a damn fine actor, too.

Monday, January 11, 2010

R.I.P. Eric Rohmer (1920-2010)


Eric Rohmer, one of the founding fathers of the French New Wave, has died.

Perhaps I'm not as qualified to say much about this legendary filmmaker as my older and more experienced peers; I admittedly haven't seen all of his films beyond the six Moral Tales and his wonderful last feature, The Romance of Astréa and Celadon (2007). Still: what an amazing bunch of films!

One of the things I value from the best filmmakers is the kind of empathetic awareness of human foible that Rohmer seemed to always exude even when his characters could sometimes drive you up the wall with the intellectualizing of their innermost faiths and passions. But that, of course, was Rohmer's great universal subject, at least judging by the films of his I've seen: the distance between intellect and passion, between what one says and what one thinks. Despite films like My Night at Maud's (1969) and Love in the Afternoon (1972) being among the ones lumped under the "Moral Tales" moniker, they were never simplistic or facile in their morals; Rohmer's gaze was by turns ironic, affectionate, detached and exploratory, but above all, it was remarkably alert to the sometimes problematic ways we human beings try to reconcile the warring factions of heart and mind. Even his films themselves embody this dialectic to their very core: talky and intelligent, yes, but also aesthetically beautiful to behold (witness Nestor Almendros's lustrous color photography in Claire's Knee (1970) and Diane Baratier's in Astréa and Celadon for remarkable examples).

Rohmer's profound wisdom is sorely missed in much of modern cinema. Let's not forget his shining example. As for me, I now have more of a resolve to learn as much from him about the human experience as possible through his other films.

Bills Bills Everywhere: Bureaucracy and Brazil


On Sunday, August 2, 2009, as I was driving to the New Brunswick train station in order to take a train to head to Manhattan for work, I got rear-ended by some careless young woman. The car accident led to a small cut above my left eye, and it required me to be carted off to the local Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital for about four stitches. Thankfully, no other serious injuries arose from the accident, only those stitches; I was able to go to work the next day, and I only needed those stitches until the end of that week.

Little did I know, however, what would await after those stitches came off: lots of bills, and lots of frustration in trying to get those damn bills paid.

The trouble begins when my mother—who I expect to be more well-versed in these kinds of insurance-related matters than I am—steers me wrong by maintaining that all I have to do is just fax all the medical bills I receive to Allstate, our family's auto insurer, and that Allstate will take care of everything. (I mean, if Dennis Haysbert, aka President David Palmer, says I'm in good hands with Allstate, it must be true...right?) Which I do...but it turns out, no, there are state-imposed ceilings and deductibles and such that limit the amount that Allstate will cover, and that, if I am to try to get the rest of the bill amounts reimbursed, I will have to then go through my health insurer—which, in my case, is Aetna.

Thus, after weeks of naively thinking that, once I fax all my hospital bills to Allstate, everything will be taken care of, I only then finally decide to take matters into my own hands. I file medical claims to Aetna for all the bills that still need to be covered. One of them seems to be taken care of without a problem (or so it seemed), but in the case of another one, apparently they need more information. I call Aetna and find out what else they need; the guy I speaks to tells me that I could cut down on paperwork by requesting a "payment ledger" from Allstate listing all that my auto insurer has covered thus far. I follow this dude's advice and request to have one sent to my home, and I fax that and some other papers to Aetna. Days later, I check Aetna's Web site and notice no changes made on that claim in my account. I call Aetna quite a few times to find out what's going on. During one of those times, a lady I speak to says all that they really need for "more information" was to let them know that it was related to a car accident—which, of course, totally goes against what the guy I had spoken to previously had told me. I continue getting bills from Robert Wood Johnson demanding payment, and of course I fax those bills along with medical claim forms to Aetna...but they never show up on my Aetna online account before 2009 is out. I feel compelled to call them again, and of course I get a different person on the other end of the line, this time telling me that they never received certain papers that I'm 99% certain I did indeed fax.

All the while, I'm marveling at how needlessly complicated all of this is. Can't they just have someone assigned to my case to handle all this? Instead, I get different people telling me different things; I deal with workers at a health-insurance company who don't even seem to check faxes regularly (I was told at one point, maybe a week or two after I had faxed a bunch of papers, that some of them might still be sitting underneath a pile somewhere); and overall, I get barely any closer to resolving this situation.

Even after spending four years at Rutgers University—which is, among other things, infamous for its "RU Screw," a term coined for any unfortunate situation a student experiences as a result of the sprawling university's inherently unwieldy bureaucracy—I don't think I've ever truly experienced the irritations of bureaucracy this acutely until now!

Perhaps this explains why, when I finally got around to seeing Terry Gilliam's Brazil (1985) on DVD Saturday, I was immediately drawn in by its deadly accurate satire of bureaucracy run amok. Here, amid Gilliam's endlessly inventive visuals and absurdist, sometimes bracingly adolescent, sense of humor, was a film that embodied my frustration with the seemingly never-ending bureaucratic nightmare that is Aetna. It's beautiful—the beauty of personal recognition.

In Brazil, Gilliam blows up the fairly mundane evils of dehumanizing bureaucracy into a dystopian nightmare universe in which authorities claim that everything is running smoothly even when it's not, dissent is squashed like flies on a ceiling, and its inhabitants are reduced to extreme paranoia. In such an environment, people are merely cogs in a machine whose whole reason for existence is just to be as coldly efficient and orderly as possible, nothing more and nothing less. In this environment, people even get receipts after citizens' arrests! In short, paperwork, not the human touch, is paramount, and to get to the right people requires jumping through endless departmental hoops.

That's why the image above especially resonates with me. It comes two-thirds of the way into the film, after Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) has made a mess of things at his new Information Retrieval job in his attempt to capture/pursue his dream girl (Kim Greist). After being rejected by his friend Jack (Michael Palin), he returns to his tight-quartered office and starts getting letter after letter delivered to him via pipes from the ceiling running into the office. Lowry gets so frustrated by it all that he takes a tube and sticks both ends of it into the two pipes, thus clogging up all the pipes throughout the floor. This leads to the explosion of papers seen in the above screen grab. You wouldn't think the image of a bunch of papers flying around would be particularly compelling...but in the context of Brazil, flying pieces of paper are given an odd kind of lyricism, especially with Michael Kamen's amazingly rich score in the background. Most of the events of Brazil take place around Christmas, and the way the other workers react to this confetti of paper, you would think they were looking at snow falling from the sky.

This image, representative of one defiant man's angry attempt to take the whole bureaucratic system and shove their paperwork right up its figurative ass, feels cathartic to me in ways you can't even imagine. But, of course, then I remember that I still have hospital bills that need to be paid. Apocalypse...later, I suppose.

Oh yeah, and Brazil is absolutely, positively dope.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

One From the Heart

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—To continue this brief musical detour here at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second, here's my musical discovery of the week:

Never heard of Nancy LaMott or this album? Well then, get right on it, I say!

LaMott was a cabaret singer who, after years of professional and personal struggle—among them persistent health problems from an intestinal disease—finally made waves in the New York cabaret circuit in the 1990s, to the point where she was even invited to perform in front of the Clintons at the White House twice, in '93 and '94. Alas, because of a uterine cancer diagnosed too late, LaMott was taken from us at the way-too-early age of 43.

My introduction to Nancy LaMott came thanks to one of her most prominent supporters, the great WNYC radio personality Jonathan Schwartz. He customarily ends his weekend radio broadcasts with a Nancy LaMott recording—that's how passionately devoted he was, and still is, to her music-making—and a while back, he ended one of his radio shows with an interpretation of Van Morrison's "Moondance" that was recorded in Atlantic City in 1988. I didn't know it was LaMott I was hearing at the time; all I remember was marveling at how this singer made the song sound like something literally shimmering under moonlight. I had to wait a few months later before I finally discovered the identity of the singer behind that rapturous, transcendent interpretation; then I started taking notice of other LaMott recordings Schwartz played during his shows.

Surely "glorious" is the most apt word to describe her voice...but these days, what does having a "glorious" voice actually mean? To many people, it seems, being a great singer means being able to belt a lot and thrown in a lot of showy melisma—the fallacious Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey conception of musical artistry that television shows like "American Idol" present as the gold standard of vocal performance. LaMott can certainly belt along with the best of them, but she always married dazzling vocals with a wide-ranging emotional directness that brought fresh meaning to the words she sang. And it's that purity, finally, that leaves my hair standing on end even when she's at her quietest and most intimate. Every rendition of hers is an emotional drama, whether in the throes of wistful regret, deep yearning or plain joy.

I finally got around to listening to most of her handful of full-length albums recently, and while all of them—including Beautiful Baby (1991), Come Rain or Come Shine (1992) and My Foolish Heart (1993)—are chock full of wonderful performances, to my mind, it's her 1995 album Listen to My Heart that towers above the others. One of the reasons for this is extra-musical: This was the final album she completed before she died in late 1995, and, taking that into account, her rendition of songs like "The Secret o' Life" and "Ordinary Miracles" can't help but gain an added layer of tragic resonance. The other reason, though, is purely musical: For this album, she has a full orchestra backing her—as opposed to just a piano, flute and/or cello in her previous albums—and the beautifully rich orchestral arrangements fully match the passion and intensity of LaMott's singing. The cumulative effect is shattering. At one point she sings "We can be kind / We can take care of each other / We can remember that deep down inside / We all need the same thing," and, for an instant at least, she almost makes you believe that those words contain the secret to a better world. Listen to My Heart is, if I may be so bold, LaMott's Abbey Road—a career summation that finds an artist throwing caution to the wind and going out guns a-blazing. It's just that, in LaMott's case, "guns a-blazing" means ending with a delicate, soothing performance of "I'll Be Here With You."

Here's that song, as performed on "Good Morning America" in 1995 with piano accompaniment:

She and her sublime voice and artistry will certainly be here with us forever—certainly through this marvelous album.

P.S. That aforementioned "Moondance" recording was released on CD in 2008 in a two-disc collection of posthumous recordings entitled Ask Me Again. It's a bit of a rip-off, to be honest; the 20 tracks could easily have been squeezed onto one CD, with room to spare. But that rendition of "Moondance," at least, is worth the extra expense.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Conductors/Musicians: The Musical Equivalent of Film Critics?

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Before I had aspirations to be a film writer, I wanted to be a musician. In my younger days, I studied both the piano and the violin; years later, as I was struggling to work up the courage to go against my mother's wishes and drop accounting from my undergraduate plate, I even flirted with the idea of becoming a full-fledged conductor. I dropped that idea fairly quickly, and I don't regret doing that; I don't think I'd have the ego required to stand in front of a large group of musicians and imposing my interpretive will on them all. Once in a while, however, I do regret not working harder at either the piano or the violin—never working hard at perfecting my technique; never developing the work ethic for intense practice; and, perhaps most damagingly, never truly grasping what true artistry and musicianship is. I think I always treated the performance of both instruments as mere casual sport; it was probably no coincidence that, even six years or so into playing the violin, my teacher (one among many, actually) was still complaining that I was "too stiff" on the instrument. And it's that stiffness—stiffness that can only be borne out of mediocre technical command—that can kill the kind of expressive spontaneity that distinguishes the playing of the greatest of instrumental artists. All of this I only realized until long after I had stopped playing either instrument.

But I still maintain a certain level of fascination with classical-music performance, which is why I was fascinated by "In Praise of Infidelity," an editorial written by acclaimed pianist Byron Janis that appeared in yesterday's Wall Street Journal Leisure & Arts page. In it, he passionately argues against the literalist school of classical-music interpretation, one that prizes absolute fidelity to the letter of a score. Sometimes not even composers themselves stuck to the letter of their own scores. From Janis's editorial, two examples:
In 1960, I opened the cultural exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and brought Aaron Copland's Piano Sonata to play. Never having performed it before, I wanted to play it for the composer first. On arriving at his home, I found him tinkering with one of its passages and said, "Mr. Copland, I notice you are playing forte and you have marked it piano in the score." He turned to me grinning mischievously and said, "Ah, but that was 10 years ago!"

Some 200 years earlier, Chopin would have made a similar remark. Only he would have said, "but that was 10 seconds ago!" Julius Seligmann, president of the Glasgow Society of Musicians, attended a recital where the composer played his new "Mazurka in B flat, Opus 7 no. 1" as an encore. According to Seligmann, it met with such great success that Chopin decided to play it again, this time with such a radically different interpretation—tempos, colors and phrasing had all been changed—that it sounded like an entirely different piece. The audience was amazed when it finally realized he was playing the very same mazurka, and it rewarded him with a prolonged, vociferous ovation. It seems he had facetiously decided to show why he had no need to republish a score—the magic of interpretation would do it for him. He would often say, "I never play the same way twice."
Janis sums up his main point this accordingly:
Thinking is creativity's worst enemy. When I first sight-read a score, everything seems so right, so natural. The notes seem to be playing themselves and the music flows. Why? Because I am not thinking. Inspiration has been my guide—the adventure of a first time. Then comes familiarization, the learning process where, until the piece is well in hand, thinking is allowed. After that, interpretation—choices must be made, but you are finally free to feel and use your creative instincts. And, at last, creation—how do I make the music sound as it did when I didn't know it?
However closely an interpretation hews to a score's details or however far it departs, Janis seems to be saying, it's how the performance of that score feels to a listener that ultimately matters. The beauty of the music being heard is its own truth, regardless of matters of local detail (matters that perhaps only music critics and/or scholars would fixate on, anyway).

I tend to be a man who values feeling in art over more literal elements, so, in theory, I'm wholly in sympathy with such an approach. Let the critics and scholars parse the fine details! Still, Janis's take on classical-music interpretation rather begs a lot of questions. Chief among them: If we allow that artists will take liberties with the letter of a score in order to get at its spirit, at what point does that latitude—especially if it's wide latitude—reveal more about the interpreter and his ego than about the composer and his intentions? At what point does a supposed pursuit of greater artistic truths simply cross the line into sheer arrogance—the belief, based on possibly sketchy historical evidence, that an interpreter knows better than the composer how a particular piece of music should go?

Take the example of the epic first movement of Gustav Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony (his second) as conducted by Otto Klemperer, in his celebrated 1963 EMI studio recording, and Leonard Bernstein, in his 1987 Deutsche Grammophon live recording. This wide-ranging, frankly episodic first movement is, at the beginning, marked "Allegro maestoso," which roughly translates to "majestically fast." Already, there is considerable room for interpretive license here; does "majestically fast" suggest a slightly slower Allegro than one might expect, or is the "maestoso" only meant to be an expressive marking? In the score, Mahler supplements the "Allegro maestoso" marking with another note: "Mit durchaus ernstem und feierlichem Ausdruck," or "With quite serious and solemn expression." He even obliges conductors with metronome markings at the beginning. All of that—and there's plenty more of this kind of detail in Mahler's score—suggests that Mahler (himself a renowned maestro) had a pretty precise idea about how he felt his piece should be performed.

Klemperer more or less takes Mahler at his word: his tempo is quite fast—indeed, it's within the metronome range Mahler specifies—and the mode of expression is indeed serious—though calling his interpretation "solemn" might be stretching it a bit. Solemnity, though, pretty much carries all before it with Bernstein's interpretation of the opening moments of this movement. He pretty much forgoes the forward movement implied by Mahler's "Allegro maestoso" marking and instead dares to take it at something more akin to an Adagio (slow). Clearly taking his cue from the fact that the movement is a reworked version of a symphonic poem Mahler wrote years earlier named "Totenfeier" ("Funeral Rites"), he interprets the music to sound exactly like what one might imagine a piece with such a nickname would sound. Where Klemperer moves Mahler's funeral march at a pretty fast clip, keeping the tragic expression relatively under wraps, Bernstein evokes a slow-coach funeral procession.

And yet, if Mahler really wanted a slow-moving dirge, wouldn't he have noted so? Considering that, does Bernstein's choice of tempo really illuminate Mahler's intentions, or is he merely imposing his own personality, drawing as much attention to himself as to the music at hand?

Of course, all of that is what my head tells me. And yet, put all preconceived notions aside, listen to the same exact notes played in such two wildly divergent ways, and I find that I always find myself pulled emotionally to Bernstein's tragically intense approach rather than Klemperer's comparatively straight-laced take. And it is ultimately Bernstein's performance, defiantly unscorebound, that moves me to feelings of spiritual transcendence cumulatively, while Klemperer's more faithful and buttoned-up response to the "Resurrection" elicits merely chilly admiration.

Heart over mind, Dionysus versus Apollo: This must be what Byron Janis means when he writes, "Thinking is creativity's worst enemy." And yet, as in all art, one cannot—indeed, must not—entirely negate the other. Could it be that a profoundly moving interpretation of a particular work is essentially a gross, elephantine distortion of Mahler's score? Is this really Mahler's "Resurrection" I've heard, or has Bernstein made it more his own?

And if it's the that inherently a negative thing? In popular music, no one seems to bat an eye when it comes to covers, especially when a singer/band covers a certain song in a way that is markedly different from more traditional interpretations. (Think of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" versus Jimi Hendrix's, as one of the more famous examples of this kind of thing.) Let me put it in a different way: What are conductors and musicians, really, other than the musical equivalents of film critics putting across their own interpretations of certain films with written words or in the form of a video essay? Each performance, to extend this line of thinking to its conclusion, is one man's interpretation, and an open-minded listener should take it as such. But, of course, what of the idea that perhaps projecting a score as clearly and faithfully as possible and allowing the music to speak for itself—in the composer's own voice, some might say—could be more insightful and revealing?
I don't have set answers to these questions, of course...but such questions fascinate me endlessly, touching in their own way on the neverending tension between one's head versus one's heart in the consideration of art. That's why I found Byron Janis's editorial a deeply compelling read, and why I wanted to share it and some of my (rough, not fully formed) thoughts with all of you.

What do you all think out there, readers? Strict musical interpretation versus a freer, more personal approach? Should a score be the be-all and end-all, or merely a starting point? And, just for fun, what are some of the most fascinating and daring interpretations of both classical and popular music you've heard?

Monday, January 04, 2010

Flying Through Visions Digital and Real

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Once again, I have a backlog of films I've seen in theaters but haven't written about here on this blog. Let me see if I can knock off a few in one fell swoop. Here goes...

Avatar (2009; Dir.: James Cameron)
A Christmas Carol (2009; Dir.: Robert Zemeckis)

After all the hype has subsided about Avatar changing the way we look at movies, I'm finding that I can't really muster up much of interest to say about the movie. It is what it is—a bloated and self-important but undeniably amazing technical achievement—and you either accept the whole package, warts and all, or dismiss it all as so much expensive self-indulgence. I was able to accept the whole package, at least for about two hours, before Cameron, guns blazing and bombastic speeches soaring, started to bore me in its lengthy and noisy climactic battle sequence, bringing back bad memories of the soulless wall-to-wall action spectacle that sunk The Matrix Revolutions—part of another bloated, self-important and technically amazing pop epic about imaginary worlds clashing with reality—years ago.

But boy, is the visual spectacle dazzling in its early stretches! Cameron really has thoroughly imagined an impressive new world here, with images that rank among some of the most awe-inspiring in recent cinema—stuff you just can't see anywhere else. And while this alternate universe is wondrously imaginative in and of itself, what makes Avatar emotionally involving as well as visually entrancing in its early stretches is the fact that its wheelchair-bound main character, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), is getting his first glimpses of Pandora along with the rest of us. Sully, then, functions as a kind of surrogate for the audience. It's a canny move on Cameron's part, but it works because for about half its 162-minute running time, the visuals fully live up to Sully's innocent awe. (Not even George Lucas was that canny about inspiring wonder in his Star Wars films. While Lucas's fancy creatures and landscapes peppered the wide screen, his characters seemed to take no notice, the assumption being that these figments of his imagination were merely a part of the characters' everyday lives.)

Even Cameron's most stupefying flights of fancy, however, get crushed under the baggage of its paper-thin characters, clumsy storytelling and ham-fisted attempts at topical relevance. Avatar's third act eventually becomes the kind of video-game spectacle that leaves me me more in a state of numb detachment than exhilaration. (To be fair, the climax of Aliens (1986) already felt like a first-person-shooter video game, but the emotional stakes felt higher there than here; Ripley was fighting for her and Newt's life in a real environment, for one thing.) In other words, the wonder gradually wears off, though not to a fatal degree; in hindsight, I can find myself separating the problematic literal elements from the purely visual aspects of the experience.

So sure, I wouldn't mind sitting through Avatar again, especially in IMAX. (I saw it in regular-sized 3-D, by the way. For me, it's either true-blue IMAX or no IMAX at all; none of AMC Loews' IMAX-lite shite!) If anything, though, Henry Selick's Coraline, released much earlier in 2009, featured more impressive 3-D special effects, if only because those effects were situated in a context that didn't forget to back up its eye-popping imagery with an intriguing story and flesh-and-blood human beings. Avatar, a grand—and contradictory, considering the technology involved—myth of returning to the earth and a utopian plea for understanding unfamiliar cultures, more or less embodies the same "rock-'em, sock-'em" mindset that characterized the primitive 3-D features of yore; it may not be throwing things at you from the screen, but the emphasis on spectacle above all else is similar. It's more a refinement of the various digital filmmaking techniques available to Cameron than an advance; in the end, though, technology is still pretty much all you're left with.

Technology is also the only thing Robert Zemeckis's most recent performance-capture animated projects, The Polar Express (2004) and Beowulf (2007), leave you with—at least, that's what many of his harshest critics have said about them. I still haven't seen Beowulf, but I was admittedly a skeptic of the technique after The Polar Express—not so much because of motion capture's lack of visual warmth (or what some might call the "dead-eyes" problem) as with the technology being totally in sync with a distinct chilliness at the heart of Zemeckis's conception (Santa Claus elevated to the level of religious myth, with odd echoes of Riefenstahl to some of the imagery). I can't say that I experienced a road-to-Damascus moment with his latest, A Christmas Carol; nevertheless, after finally seeing it in 3-D a few days before Christmas, I finally grasp what Zemeckis sees in performance capture.

There's a visual freedom about this one that is at times exhilarating, most notably its interpretation of the Ghost of Christmas Past episode: years of Scrooge's memories compressed into one dense 12-minute long take. Could that kind of complicated camera move have been accomplished nearly so easily with live action? I doubt it, and according to Zemeckis himself in this New York Times interview, that's the kind of freedom he finds appealing about digital performance capture. But what's welcome with Zemeckis's Carol compared to The Polar Express is that the technology is, much of the time, placed in service of putting across a fresh and astonishingly faithful interpretation of Dickens's traditional holiday chestnut; despite a few regrettable episodes which, like much of the first half of The Polar Express, feel more like a theme-park ride than a movie, human warmth isn't totally sacrificed. Unlike Avatar, technology serves the story, and not vice versa.

Up in the Air (2009; Dir.: Jason Reitman)

This is far from the X-ray of current-recession-era America that some of its champions claim it to be—but, taken as a romantic comedy-drama with never-fully-realized aspirations to topical relevance, it has its undeniable pleasures. George Clooney, as a frequent flyer whose profession is basically firing people, once again turns on the charisma (perhaps to the detriment of exploring the darker sides of his character). And Vera Farmiga, as his love interest, has never been more foxy onscreen—mostly because her previous directors (Martin Scorsese among them) have used her more for her ability to project desperation than Barbara Stanwyck-like sensuality. Folks, she had me melting in my seat!

Rarely does it cut particularly deep; even more than with Aaron Eckhart's cigarette lobbyist in his debut feature Thank You for Smoking (2005), director/co-writer Jason Reitman treats his amoral main character with kid gloves, backing away from devastating inquiry in favor of a rather inappropriate smoothness. Still, I come here not to bury Reitman; he's far from the "hope for the cinema" that Roger Ebert proclaimed him as earlier this year, but he's a sincere middlebrow artisan, and his failures of nerve seem borne out of deeply felt emotional generosity than calculation. He managed to locate the heart beating underneath Diablo Cody's self-consciously quirky dialogue in Juno (2007); and in Up in the Air, he brings a refreshing affection for characters like Anna Kendrick's hard young entrepreneur and Danny McBride's not-overly-bright brother-in-law—characters that might have been played for caricature and easy laughs in less sensitive hands.

Thanks to Reitman's snappy way with fresh dialogue, a few entertaining visual coups (including a wonderfully edited montage of Ryan Bingham's packing routine early on in the film), and a boatload of sincerity, Up in the Air works best as a wonderful light romantic comedy that once in a while delivers moments of real emotional gravity. I enjoyed the movie a lot...but let's not inflate this breezy Hollywood entertainment into the realm of "film of our time." Despite its lip service to the wounds suffered by laid-off workers across the country, Up in the Air mostly feels removed from anything resembling working-class experience. The film's conception focuses less on the people laid off than the ones laying them off; no amount of featured real-life working-class talking heads mixed in with the movie-star wattage can quite overcome that inherent flaw.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

2009 (and Earlier) in Review: Looking Ahead to 2010

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—2009 has officially come to an end, and so has this week of "2009 (and Earlier) in Review." Onwards to 2010!

I don't know if this is necessarily a good thing, but guarded optimism has been my approach to many things in my life. If you don't expect too much from the beginning, you won't experience quite so much disappointment if something doesn't work out, right?

This year, however...well, I'm not quite ready to cast off my guarded optimism. Old habits die hard, after all. Nevertheless—at the risk of experiencing bitter disappointment in the future—I'm feeling genuinely positive about the possibilities that lie ahead for me this year.

As I tried to suggest in my introductory overview to this week-long retrospective, I think I was able, in 2009, to lay the groundwork for positive outcomes ahead. Professionally speaking, I'm getting more involved in film-related writing outside of my day job at The Wall Street Journal, and it's even gotten to the point where I'm occasionally asked to take on assignments, if I can. That sounds like some kind of progress to me, suggesting that I'm making some of the right connections at the workplace, that I'm impressing someone at the office with the work I'm doing. As far as connections go, I've made some inroads in at least knocking on the door of the cinephile community both in New York and online. And, of course, I'm trying to ramp up my blogging output here at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second, and see if maybe I can build up a sizable audience with this here online journal. (Now, I just have to get better at self-promotion. If you all like what you read here, tell your friends!)

But, of course, my professional life isn't my whole life; if that was the case, I would be a very shallow person indeed. No, my personal life could probably use some improvement. If I have resolutions for the new year, the bulk of them would be related to changes I'd like to make in my way of living, my personality and my interpersonal relationships.

For one thing, I could probably stand to have better relationships with my parents. They've sacrificed a lot for me as I've been living under their roof for the past two years or so, and I could certainly stand to show more explicit appreciation for said sacrifices. I mean, who else is going to drive out in a blizzard just to bail you out of making a big mistake with the spot at which you parked your car the next town over? My stoic but loving dad, that's who. I'm not sure if even my best of friends would be willing to go that far and risk life and limb for me that way (although, that said, I don't think I've asked my best of friends for that kind of massive favor, so who knows?). And, of course, with my mom...well, longtime readers of my various online journals over the years will know about the varying degrees of love and frustration I have towards my mother. But even when she's at her most oppressively single-minded in her belief that she knows better than I do what I want/need, I can't accuse her of not being, at the very least, well-meaning. And sometimes—nay, let's be brutally honest, often—she's more right about things than wrong. If I sometimes have an unfortunate tendency to be much too short-tempered with both of my parents—a short temper perhaps cultivated from years of grudge-holding and such—this is as good a time as any to try to cast off buried anger, change that nasty side of me and exercise more compassion and understanding. Sometimes, with my parents, they just know not what they do.

As for me, where to begin? I could start with my tendency toward shyness. Really, I just can't sit back and expect people to come to me; I just have to reach out to people, especially strangers whom I might be interested in interacting with.

Passive-aggressiveness is something I need to work hard to overcome, also. If something is bothering me about something/someone, sometimes I just have be confrontational about it, and not try to bury my frustrations deep inside until they simply burst out at inopportune moments. My parents have bore the brunt of my penchant toward passive aggression over the years, and in the end, it simply isn't constructive; not only does it never come close to getting at the root of a particular problem, but it also just exhausts me.

But if there's a general area of self-improvement to work hard to overcome from now on, it's an excess of self-consciousness. To put it simply: I have a strong suspicion that I often worry too much about how people think of me. Thus, I may hold off on talking to a stranger—especially one of the opposite sex—because I'm too afraid of looking and sounding stupid; and I may avoid confronting someone—especially a close friend—with a particularly bothersome issue out of fear of making that other person angry. Granted, some situations require a careful calibration of image, especially when it comes to matters of the workplace; you wanna make a good impression on your employers, right? (Especially in this business we call print journalism?) I guess my challenge in 2010 and beyond is to try to strike a careful but beneficial balance between being careful with people's perceptions of you and simply being myself. (But, of course, what is self? I think Todd Haynes may have some ideas about that...)

Other resolutions? Generally, I could be much more well-rounded than I am. Read more, write more, watch more films and television shows, sure. (Classics by Michaelangelo Antonioni, for instance, remain as yet unseen by me...yes, that includes L'Avventura. I know, I know...) But also, I need to start going to more art exhibits and Broadway shows (or, at least, as much as I can fit within a budget).

On a non-art-related matter, it'd be good for me to get back into a more regular gym habit after shirking it the last couple weeks of 2009 in favor of holiday food-gorging. (As I'm trying to see more films in press screenings outside of my daily work schedule, though, this may become rather difficult to do...but persist I shall.)

And in general: I'd just like to resolve to be as happy and healthy, physically and mentally, as possible. Get out more and have fun. Don't let relatively minor personal challenges bring me down; try to take those frustrations in stride, and don't react like it's the end of the world. Above all, try to keep a sane perspective on things. Because, really, things are going pretty well for me, if I step back and consider the details of my existence right now. People are far worse off than I am. I should be grateful. I still reserve the right to complain about certain things not going my way, but as long as I always maintain that sense of perspective, I should be thankful.

(Oh, and one last resolution to make to myself: Move out of your parents' house. As soon as you're willing and able—which I suspect is very, very soon. Enough talk; action!)

To 2010 and all that is in store! Even amidst this recession we're all in, I wish you all a fine new year as well.

Starting the New Year Off Right...By Losing My Car Keys!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Happy new year, everybody! I rang in 2010 in, um...interesting ways.

If I've learned anything from the films of the Coen Brothers, it's that, when you experience unbelievable bad luck, sometimes you just have to stand back and have a good laugh over it. Haha! Oh the vagaries of Fate! And my carelessness!

Last night, when I returned from ringing in the new year at the Lit Lounge in the Lower East Side—a night that included a random kiss in on the lips; a bit more on that anon—I suffered through my second car-related epic fail in as many weeks.

You all remember the first fail, right? During that raging snowstorm in the metropolitan area a couple of Saturdays ago, in which I came back to New Brunswick, N.J., from a dance performance at BAM, only to discover my car nowhere to be found at the spot on the street at which I had parked? Yeah, that one.

What could possibly be worse than being stranded without a car in a blizzard? Well...granted, discovering, just as you're about to step out of a train at about 2:40 in the morning, that your car keys are no longer in any of your pockets—that's not quite as bad. I mean, at least you still have a car to get home; you just can't get into it, is all. Nevertheless...coming not even two weeks after my last major car snafu, losing my car keys felt, in the heat of the moment, like a Serious Man-like piling on of misfortune. (Instead of desperately saying "I haven't done anything," however, I simply cursed out loud and muttered angrily to myself.)

Keeping in mind the objections my mother lodged, at the least constructive possible time, against my occasional penchant for staying out too inconveniently late for her and my dad during the days of the week when I need to be picked up from the New Brunswick train station, I really tried not to involve them in my desperate attempts to get help for this situation. Eventually, though, I was forced to rope them in after a call to AAA lead to a call back from someone saying it'd be better for me to wait until the sun came up in order to get a cheaper price on a new key for the car. They were going to charge me a little over $400 for a new key at that time of night, but if I waited until daylight, they would only charge me a little over $200. Not sure how I should proceed—I certainly don't want to spend double the price for a new key if I don't have to!—I broke down and called my parents. My father came to the rescue once again, this time coming to pick me up in Edison at around 4 a.m.

As my mother pointedly said to me earlier this morning—though, thankfully, in a less overly frustrated tone of voice that the one that greeted me after my towed-car-in-blizzard disaster—"you seem to have bad luck with cars." Apparently so.

On the bright side: At least it wasn't snowing last night; it was just really cold. At least my car didn't get towed. And at least I didn't get an annoying parking ticket out of it.

Still, what a way to open up 2010, right? And, if I really wanted to take a more negative outlook on all of this: I can't help but wonder if these two incidents, happening as close to each other as they did, aren't signs of something? A sign of more bad luck to come? A sign to finally move out of the parents' house, once and for all?

What do you all think? Or should I just listen to the overachieving Korean kid in A Serious Man and "accept the mystery"?


And oh yeah, the kiss.

Last night—before Car Fuck-up No. 2 occurred—I ventured into New York's Lower East Side and met up with a couple of friends at this bar/hip music venue called the Lit Lounge to celebrate the coming of 2010. A few minutes before midnight, a porn star—yes, folks, you read that correctly—named Joanna Angel got up on the stage in its basement/performance space and basically implored everyone to "look to your left and give the person next to you a kiss" to ring in the new year. Looking to my left, all I saw were my buddies, both of them, I figure, no kissing action for me. But that was before some blond chick came up behind the three of us and decided to give all three of us a quick, celebratory kiss on the lips.

I didn't really talk to that young blond woman after that, but hell, for someone who hasn't gotten much kissing action recently, I'll take it. That and the nearly-nude woman gyrating in the Lit Lounge basement.

So, for those who follow me on Twitter, that explains—in more depth than I could possibly pack in a mere 140 characters—my tweet from earlier this morning: "Happy New Year! 2010! I greeted it with a kiss. How about you?"

I also greeted it by losing my keys and getting locked out of my car in the wee hours of New Year's Day, but never mind.

By the way, I was supposed to publish the last installment of my "2009 (and Earlier) in Review" yesterday, but I felt a more immediate desire to put these anecdotes out there for your, um, enjoyment; that, and I volunteered to cover for a fellow Wall Street Journal news assistant Friday—because I'm a team player like that, you know. (I was reasonably rewarded with delicious free pizza.) I hope to get to that final installment sometime next week. In the meantime: hope you all have been enjoying my 2009 round-ups thus far!