Friday, April 30, 2010

Ode to a Lost Hat: An Image Essay About Hats in Movies



Two Sundays ago, at a small street fair in midtown Manhattan, I noticed a stand selling a whole bunch of caps at reasonable prices. One particular cap—a brown checkered beret—caught my eye, and I impulsively decided to buy it.

That week, I wore that hat almost every day; in fact, you all saw me wearing it a few posts ago in a photo taken with Philippine director Brillante Mendoza after a Tribeca Film Festival screening at Village East Cinemas. It was only $10. I thought it was—as Family Guy's Peter Griffin might say—a freakin' sweet deal.

Now—only a little over a week after buying that hat—it's gone. I carelessly left it on a NJ Transit bus as I got off at New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal, and it took me maybe five minutes after I had left the terminal to realize that I was no longer wearing that beret on my head.

The feeling of disappointment in this turn of events was...well, "crushing" is too strong a word. Let's just say, it was weighty.

I know, I know: It's only a hat. Big deal, right? Well, no, I will certainly be the first to admit that it isn't a big deal in the long run. I can always buy another one (there will surely be another street fair in midtown Manhattan in the near future).

But man, I really did come to love that cap, even in just one week. Sure, I liked getting complimented on it, but I myself also liked the way it looked me and the associations wearing the hat provoked in me. Me, I don't think of John Wayne or Che Guevara when thinking of berets; I think of a French artiste like Claude Monet, he of all those gorgeous impressionistic watercolors, including this self-portrait:

Combine that with, say, sunglasses rocked in the Jean-Luc Godard manner seen below...

...and, maybe with a slight adjustment in my usually styleless wardrobe, I could have perfected a pretty cool look for myself, don'tcha think?

But it's not even just about achieving a certain personal style. Hats can be just so darn cool in and of themselves to look at—especially in the movies.

Jean-Pierre Melville knew it.

In Le Samouraï (1967), Jef Costello's hat is about as much a presence as the man himself, with Melville and cinematographer Henri Decaë finding innumerable ways to light and frame Alain Delon with his hat on to suggest the emotional guard his character—a stoic hitman who gets caught up in complicated intrigue after he accidentally gets spotted during a job—puts up throughout. To wit (and really, this represents just a fraction of the film's visual splendors in this regard):

It's telling that, at the end of the film, when he finally gets caught and killed, he isn't wearing his hat.

He has, figuratively speaking, finally lifted his emotional veil, and the implications are numerous and endlessly fascinating.

The Coen Brothers also understood the sense of mystery exuded by hats.

Early on in their great 1990 film Miller's Crossing, Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne), an adviser to Prohibition-era crime boss Leo (Albert Finney), is seen making a fuss about trying to find his hat after a drunken night out. But while Tom himself never says this explicitly, it's not just about getting back what is rightfully his. Tom is another emotionally reticent creature, and his hat is as much of a symbol of that circumspection as Jef Costello's. For all of its blatant artificiality and black humor, Miller's Crossing is a deeply subtle, tragic picture centering around a man who learns that not even a single act of selfless compassion is enough to make a difference in the amoral world he lives in.

In the end—as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell would do years later in the Coens' No Country for Old Men (2007)—Tom decides to step outside of that world. Thus, the Coens leave him, and us, with his hat on.

He adjusts it so that it covers his eyes...

 ...until a dolly-in reveals the face underneath.

Even then, though, it's difficult to pin down what is going on behind those eyes. Regret? Sadness? A sense of relief? The Coens—to borrow a line from their most recent film, A Serious Man (2009)—accept his mystery, hat and all.

Of course, maybe a hat is really just a hat—or, in the case of movies, a prop given larger-than-life status, as inseparable from an iconic character as...say, a whip?

Even Steven Spielberg understood the iconographic power of hats, especially when it came to Indiana Jones—so much so that, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), he concludes his opening flashback prologue with the image of a man giving a young, humbled Indy (River Phoenix) a hat...

...which cleverly segues, via a hard cut, into an image...

...of the intrepid globe-trotting adventurer he will become later in life.

Cutting as he does from young Indy learning an early lesson about humility to his latest peril—accepted with a smile, no less—as an adult, Spielberg, with the help of editor Michael Kahn, imbues that famous fedora with an extra mythic frisson—the boy first being introduced to a hat becoming the man who has grown into that hat. Really, I don't think there's anything quite like it in the whole series to date.

Of course, there are plenty of other instances of iconic hat-donning in cinema that I can't think of/don't have time to explore at this moment. (I haven't even gotten to hats in Westerns or musicals!) But I hope you all get my drift with this brief celebration of movie hats/requiem for my lost hat. Cinema is such a magical medium that it can endow even something as seemingly commonplace as a hat with iconic power. That, and some hats are just so darn cool to look at.

I think Agent Dana Scully might agree!

P.S. Regarding Miller's Crossing: I am definitely not the first to notice the significance of hats in that film. Film critic/blogger Jim Emerson—who considers the film to be the best of the '90s—got there first...and even has this nice video, plus text commentary, to visualize his observations. I'd be remiss if I didn't re-post that here, for easy access. Gotta give credit where credit's due:

P.P.S. And, of course, I'd love to hear any other memorable instances of hats in movies that you can come up with! Comment away...

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Weekly Musical Discoveries: Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark


Among the suggestions I received for music to get me in a California frame of mind for my trip in to the West Coast in a couple of weeks—a question I posed a couple weeks ago here—were a couple of Joni Mitchell albums from her peak creative period in the early 1970s, Blue (1971) and Court and Spark (1974). Both were recorded in Los Angeles, and both—as well as Ladies of the Canyon (1970) and For the Roses (1972)—show this famous singer-songwriter pushing past the acoustic folk of her first two LPs, Song to a Seagull (1968) and Clouds (1969), and trying to experiment with a more pop-oriented rock sound.

I finally listened to them all last week...and (sing it with me now) help me, I think I'm falling in love with her.

And for once, it isn't just about the music or Mitchell's soaring—and hell, I'll say it, sexy—voice; the words intrigue as well. I'm not sure I've ever heard such emotionally direct lyrics in an album. Bob Dylan, another celebrated singer-songwriter of that generation, might continue to exert an endless fascination with his enigmatic words: Where does the personal aspects end and the calculated aura of mystery begin? Or is that sense of mystery he cultivates the most deeply personal thing about him? (Possibly not, as his great 1975 Blood on the Tracks suggest.) But there's apparently no hiding with Joni Mitchell.

Take "California," the sixth track off Blue, in which she expresses a longing to go back home to Los Angeles while traveling abroad. Right from the first stanza, she, armed with acoustic guitar, lays out the dominant feeling she's trying to capture with the song:
Sitting in a park in Paris, France
Reading the news and it sure looks bad
They won't give peace a chance
That was just a dream some of us had
Still a lot of lands to see
But I wouldn't want to stay here
It's too old and cold and settled in its ways here
Oh, but California
California I'm coming home
I'm going to see the folks I dig
I'll even kiss a sunset pig
California I'm coming home
Mitchell's singing of these lines has an improvisatory, ad-libbed quality that intensifies the intimacy.

It's the chorus that I find most immediately affecting, however:
Oh it gets so lonely
When you're walking
And the streets are full of strangers
All the news of home you read
Just gives you the blues
Just gives you the blues
Having walked many times alone on streets filled with strangers, I know exactly what she's talking about. It's that sense of universality to her words that bridge the gap between personal obsession and a wider, broader resonance.

And later:
Oh it gets so lonely
When you're walking
And the streets are full of strangers
All the news of home you read
More about the war
And the bloody changes
Oh will you take me as l am?
Will you take me as l am?
Will you?
Here she is performing that song live in October 1970:

A lot of Mitchell's songs on these early-'70s albums are basically love songs of varying sorts: songs about romantic desire, songs about guarded hesitation, songs about disillusionment, even a memorably hell-raising tune on Court and Spark, "Raised on Robbery." Love is arguably the great pop-music standby; as long as there has been music, love in all its forms has been its most consistent subject. But Mitchell brings a personal specificity and maturity to her lyrics that is always refreshing—and her glorious soprano adds layers of vulnerability and introspection to her plain-Jane vocal exterior.

To put it less eloquently: She may be singing about things only she herself truly cares about, but somehow that makes her, and her music, more attractive, not less. Listening to her songs, you feel like you'd like to get to know her personally. At least, I do.

Blue is great, of course. But if I prefer Court and Spark above all of her albums up to that point, it's mostly by virtue of its more adventurous sound and style; in it, she embraces small-scale orchestral arrangements in addition to her usual piano and acoustic guitar, and the effect feels larger in scale than its lyrical content might indicate, though never to the point of sounding overblown. Also, it features the only song of hers—other than the oft-covered "Big Yellow Taxi," from Ladies of the Canyon—that I knew well before my recent listening binge: "Help Me," which was the only Joni Mitchell song Central Jersey's soft-rock radio station 98.3 FM WMGQ—a station to which I listened frequently as a young kid, in an attempt to try to balance out all the classical music I listened to in my early years—ever played in their rotation. It sounds even better in the context of an album that exposes Mitchell as an even stronger and more complex figure than might have been apparent in her previous albums.

I haven't yet delved into her even more experimental later work, but I'm looking forward to eventually doing so. Joni Mitchell: Color me smitten.

Here she is performing "Help Me" live:

Monday, April 26, 2010

Flames of Cinematic Passion...Or Not


Everyone Else (2009; Dir.: Maren Ade)
La bête humaine (1938; Dir.: Jean Renoir)

There are some movies that I find a lot to admire on an intellectual level, but which nevertheless leave me unmoved on an emotional or visceral level. Alas, for the most part, Everyone Else—German director Maren Ade's dissection of the dissolution of a romance, and a film which has riding a wave of film-festival-circuit acclaim upon its release at the IFC Center earlier this month—is one of those movies.

There's not much I can criticize about Ade's film, really; in many ways, it is as impressive as its many fervent champions claim. Ade has made a film about the highlights and lowlights of a relationship that is well-nigh unassailable in its evenhandedness, humanism and patience in closely observing the joys and agonies of its two central characters, the cautious Chris and the more flighty and impulsive Gitti. The two lead actors, Lars Eidinger (Chris) and Birgit Minichmayr (Gitti), give performances that feel authentic and fully lived-in in just about every single detail, right down to facial expressions. And Everyone Else sets out an intriguing view of relationships that respects the mysteries of what brings people together in romantic union while taking us out of our comfort zones in the way she hones in on these two tenuously lovelorn characters. (Ade's film is rather like that masterful half-hour second act of Godard's Contempt (1963)—that lengthy break-up scene to outdo all lengthy break-up scenes—stretched out to feature length.)

If only this movie were more interesting to look at, then maybe I could be more inspired to fully join in the chorus of praise this film has gradually been gaining in the past year. Alas, Ade's visual sense stays numbingly prosaic much of the time. Everyone Else is set during the central couple's vacation in Sardinia, and, amidst the island's bright sunshine, Ade and cinematographer Bernhard Keller capture a lot of pretty picture-postcard shots with his two main characters in the frame. But there's not even a sliver of poetic expressiveness in any of Ade's images and camera movements; she shoots in the most careful, functional manner possible—and frankly, to my eyes, her filmmaking style doesn't feel all that different from pedestrian TV drama.

This, of course, might seem like small potatoes in light of what the film does right—which, don't get me wrong, is plenty. Chalk it up to personal taste, then: I respect Ade's intentions in Everyone Else, I sympathize with what she's trying to get at about the agonies and mysteries of romance, and I admire the hell out of her emotionally naked lead performers. But the filmmaking feels too staid to me to feel much excitement about.

That is why, later that day, I turned with great relief to Jean Renoir's 1938 feature La bête humaine—not one of the French master's greatest films, perhaps, but certainly shot with far more passion and freedom than anything in Everyone Else. Renoir had me right from the opening shot, with a camera set atop of a moving train as it makes its rounds through the French countryside (tangentially related side note: I wondered briefly if Claire Denis had these shots in mind when she pulled off similar ones in her recent 35 Shots of Rum—which finally came out on DVD last week, by the way). But there are plenty of instances of expressive framing and lighting to be savored throughout the film, most memorably at its dark climax; Renoir's mastery of the medium may be "invisible," as Pauline Kael once noted, but it's an invisible mastery that becomes even more impressive when one does notice it.

The story, based on an Émile Zola potboiler, is pure film-noir-ish melodrama—and indeed, Fritz Lang turned the same material into his 1954 film Human Desire; I haven't seen that (it doesn't seem to available on Region 1 DVD), but, as Dave Kehr notes in his Chicago Reader capsule review of the Renoir, it certainly seems like the amorality at the heart of Zola's plot might play more potently with Lang's chillier hand. Still, Renoir's take on the material plays pretty well as a fairly schematic noir-ish storyline transformed into something unexpectedly more empathetic in tone, for all the darkness at its heart. So Séverine (Simone Simon) may outwardly play the role of a classic femme fatale, but Renoir adds layers of nuance to the part, so that she emerges as a fully rounded, emotionally complex individual. Her husband (Fernand Ledoux), who orders a reluctant Séverine to help him murder the Grandmorin—one of the directors of a major railway company—for his money, refreshingly becomes increasingly distraught over the action he has taken. And train engineer Jacques Lantier, who witnessed the murder but keeps quiet about it when he falls for Séverine, is conceived by Renoir and played by Jean Gabin neither as the usual passive victim of others' machinations or as a devious scheming dreamer, but simply as a normal, warm-hearted guy at prey to both his emotions and to a trait passed down through the generations that has given him an intermittent mania for killing women.

In short, the psychological depths in the characterizations of La bête humaine are what keep you compelled in spite of Zola's deterministic bent. And, of course, Renoir's subtly exquisite visual sense keeps your eye engaged as well as your mind. That's more than I can say for Everyone Else. Sorry, Maren Ade, but you haven't inflamed any flames of passion in me for your movie.

(Everyone Else is still playing at the IFC Center and in limited release elsewhere. La bête humaine played on April 10 as part of BAMcinématek's Jean Renoir retrospective, ongoing until May 11; details here.)

How to Train Your Dragon (2010; Dir.: Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders)

 More flames...literally. As of this writing, Dreamworks' latest animated picture looks to have beat out the likes of The Losers and the Jennifer Lopez-led rom-com The Back-up Plan this weekend at the box office; last weekend, it looked, for a few hours, as if it had also topped the heavily hyped Kick-Ass. (That piece of faux-genre subversion eventually did win out, though by all accounts its box-office take was less than its distributing studio, Lionsgate, had hoped.)

It's nice to see that this colorful, heartfelt, funny and thrilling Viking-era family adventure still seems to be finding a sizable audience even as its bigger-budgeted Hollywood brethren try to make their usual bombastic claims at multiplexes. I don't have a whole lot to say about the film beyond that, really; it gets my enthusiastic thumbs up. One thing I would suggest about the film going into it, though, would be to not take it too seriously as a social allegory of any kind. Like Avatar (and, er, Dances With Wolves before it), How to Train Your Dragon eventually hinges on the rift that develops between an entire culture that collectively demonizes a whole group—dragons, in this case—and one lone wolf (voiced by Jay Baruchel) who befriends a dragon and finds that one can coexist with them after all. This allegory of tolerance, thankfully, is handled with a light touch—but if the film is sincerely trying to put across a message of nonviolent understanding, then isn't it rather undercut by the decision to end the film with a standard violent action climax? Granted, the climax involves humans and dragons coming together to bring down a Big Bad (Dragon)...but still...if you think hard about it, it does feel a bit like the pot calling the kettle black.

Also, John Powell's thunderous score could perhaps stand to have just a touch less thunder. Otherwise, though, an enjoyable flick—even in 2-D, which is the format I saw it in, after a friend of mine, for some reason, decided in this particular instance he didn't want to see it in 3-D. Did I miss anything special by not seeing it in 3-D, readers?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Friday Full of Firsts

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Yesterday was yet another full day of firsts—and what a wonderful batch of firsts they were!

The day kicked off with my first-ever screening of Nicholas Ray's 1956 film Bigger Than Life, thanks once again to the IFC Center. Folks, if you haven't seen this classic yet and have only heard about it by its reputation as one of the key films of the 1950s, then rest assured, it lives up to that reputation and then some. Personally, though, my euphoria over the experience of introducing myself to Bigger Than Life on a big screen isn't so much over its content, of which much ink has been spilled over the decades. No, its real thrill, for me, was in seeing Ray's keen and endlessly imaginative compositional sense with the wide CinemaScope (2.35:1) frame projected in a large format.

CinemaScope—for those who aren't familiar with projection formats—was the anamorphic lens technology that became widely used in Hollywood films during the 1950s, in part as a response to the burgeoning popularity of television. Many critics argue, though, that the full potential for such a wide format wasn't fully realized until Nicholas Ray started shooting with the process, perhaps most famously in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Certainly, I could sense Ray's smooth fluidity with the format throughout Bigger Than Life, which mixes in close-ups, medium shots and wide shots that always allow plenty of space around the human figures carefully situated within those shots. But it's the way Ray fills those spaces between the people in his shots that provide some of its most fascinating moments. Telling visual details abound in those spaces: the maps hung in the Avery household, a lamp hanging over the main character in a hospital room, and the like.

You know, in film classes at Rutgers, I certainly heard a lot about mise en scène—the arrangement of actors, sets, props and lighting in a given frame. But even after watching Jacques Tati's Playtime on DVD on more than one occasion, or even after watching the nearly complete oeuvre of Wes Anderson—films by filmmakers who make you pay close attention to their shots simply by filling them up with a sometimes insane amount of complex detail—I honestly don't think I've viscerally sensed the importance of mise en scène in a directorial vision until this theatrical screening of Bigger Than Life. Not only was I fully involved in—and yes, even at times horrified by—the travails of Ed Avery (James Mason) and his cortisone-inspired psychosis, but I also—for maybe the first time in a very long time, if not ever—found my eye frequently wandering all over Ray's widescreen frames, taking in all the details. (Maybe Rebel Without a Cause didn't have the same effect because I saw it on the far smaller dimensions of television?)

Right now, I'm really wishing I had a DVD of this film on hand to illustrate the kind of attention to visual detail—right down to seemingly meaningless props—that I'm talking about. Perhaps in the near future I'll do an image essay (or maybe even a video essay?) on Ray's mise en scène in Bigger Than Life. For now, though, I will say this: After coming out of the IFC Center midday, I felt, in the course of one single theatrical screening, that I had perhaps experienced a personal breakthrough as a film-watcher. It's almost as if I hadn't actually realized what mise en scène was until Ray shook me and opened my eyes. Certainly, at the next film I watched yesterday (more on that below), I found myself doing that same eye-wandering even within a narrower aspect ratio.

I mean it sincerely when I say that, after seeing Bigger Than Life on a big screen, I may never watch films the same way again. After giving thanks to Jean Renoir last week for the heartrending beauties of A Day in the Country, I now have to thank Nicholas Ray for summoning forth an arguably even more important revelation in the dark.

Oh, and as for the film's content, I offer this as criticism: For those who think Sam Mendes and Todd Field have cornered the market artistically in the sick-soul-of-suburbia melodrama, I strongly suggest finding a copy of the Criterion DVD of Bigger Than Life and seeing how such a melodrama can be done in a way that is harsh yet compassionate, not snarky and condescending. And yes, it's also more visually distinguished than any of those films (Mendes may have a taste for slick visual extravagance, but none of his images in American Beauty and Revolutionary Road come close to the soulful expression of Ray's).


And then...

Believe it or not, until yesterday, I had never ever been to a screening that was part of New York's Tribeca Film Festival, which this year began this past Wednesday and is running until May 2. I'm not sure why this was the case; maybe, for all these years, I really didn't take this festival all that seriously in comparison to, say, the more widely celebrated Sundance, Cannes, Toronto or New York film festivals. 

In any event, I decided I'd pop my Tribeca cherry and go to a screening this year. But, because I absolutely refuse to pay a whopping $16 for a regular-admission ticket, I decided to pick a film that would be showing during a matinee time—before 6 p.m. on weekdays—on a Friday, a regular day off for me; then, I'd only have to pay $8. And because I anticipate possibly having to stick around in East Brunswick this coming Friday, I decided that yesterday's 3:45 p.m. screening of up-and-coming Philippine director Brillante Mendoza's fourth feature, Lola (2009), would quite possibly be the only Tribeca Film Festival screening I'd be attending this year. 

Alas, by the time I made this decision, I discovered that that particular screening, at Village East Cinemas, was sold out online. However, I still had a shot at getting into it by waiting on a rush line an hour before the screening's official start time. So, I decided to take a chance on it. And...
...well, it turns out that I was able to extend my recent rush-line hot streak yesterday afternoon after all! Yes I'm serious, folks; I have a streak going. I waited on a rush line last fall to get into a free preview screening of Tsai Ming-liang's Face and eventually found myself in an audience witnessing the great Taiwanese iconoclast's latest exhilarating mad folly (one which needs a U.S. theatrical release pronto). And just last week, I found myself standing on a line at the Museum of Modern Art to see the new 35mm restoration of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's two-part 1973 sci-fi television film World on a Wire; I successfully got into that screening, too, and proceeded to have my mind blown repeatedly for over three-and-a-half hours. 

With Lola, make it three for three.

And in the worth-the-wait department, I consider myself three for three as well. I haven't yet seen Mendoza's previous feature, the graphically violent and controversial Kinatay—for which he won the Best Director award at Cannes last year, and for which he inspired the ire of an especially offended Roger Ebert—but Lola, more often than not, harks back to his wonderful 2008 film Serbis in the way it mixes a tough-minded economic critique with empathy and affection for its characters. 

The two main characters here are grandmothers, both of them bound together by a murder, as one's grandson murdered the other's. (The film's title is, indeed, Tagalog for "grandmother.") Throughout the film, we observe both these devoted women try to do what they think is right by their grandsons; one gives his dead son a proper funeral even though it ends up costing them an arm and a leg, while the other goes to desperate lengths to scrounge up the money to reach a financial settlement with the other to drop the robbery-and-homicide charges against her grandson. They don't always act in the most honorable of ways, but Mendoza never loses sight of the loving impulses that drive their actions. He also once again evokes the squalid environment of the Philippines in visually and aurally brilliant ways, whether by shooting in long takes and wide shots to take in the lively environment around his characters, or overlapping his soundtrack to evoke a vivid sense of human hustle-and-bustle. 

The end result is admirably unsentimental and often quite beautiful—very much worth a wider theatrical release in the future. (It also provides an unintentional but welcome riposte to Bong Joon-ho's Mother, a far less humane take on overly devoted parental figures.)

Mendoza himself was in attendance at yesterday afternoon's screening, and, in his modesty and soft-spoken nature, his demeanor seems to nicely match his directorial style. He was so generous that he allowed me to have a picture taken with him:

That's Mendoza on the right—and for those who don't know what I actually look like, yes, that is me on the left, with my newly purchased $10 beret. Just trying to perfect that artiste look and all. You like?


And last but not least: For the first time since I started checking in at locations via the location-based social-networking site Foursquare, the site actually helped me network with a couple of friends—one of whom had noticed I had checked in to Village East Cinemas for the Lola screening, both of whom were on their way at the time to see a rock concert at Gramercy Park last night—to arrange dinner plans right after the screening, which let out at about 6 p.m. If I had not checked in at the movie theater on Foursquare and thus sent an indirect alert to my friends, I probably would not have had any delicious (gluten-free) risotto at Risotteria—a small restaurant on Bleeker Street—tonight; I probably would have just gone straight home, thus closing out my Friday on a relatively duller, lonelier note. Not to say that my mother's dinner leftovers wouldn't have been delicious as well (I have to admit, my mother is not too bad a cook herself)—but I was in a particularly eager mood to close out my very good Friday with a bout of extra socializing...and thanks in large part to Foursquare, that desire became a savory reality.

Now if Foursquare would just fix its mobile-web site on my non-smartphone and not make me text check-ins all the time, we'd be golden.


Thus, my Friday—and with two excellent films, delicious risotto for dinner and some honest-to-God socializing done, a deeply satisfying Friday it was. After a rather dismaying end of the work week, I realize that I really need more days like this.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dark Nights of the Seoul

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Some more film-review catch-up today. First up: Does South Korean director Bong Joon-ho's portrait of an extremely overprotective mother compare at all with my own mother's brand of overprotectiveness?

Mother (2009; Dir.: Bong Joon-ho)

The answer, thankfully, is not really. But then, after seeing this film and his previous film, the monster-movie-cum-family-drama The Host (2006), I may be on the verge of giving up on being able to find much real-life resonance in any of Bong's strenuously genre-bound exercises. (I say that having not seen his first two features, Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) and Memories of Murder (2003), the latter of which many of my cinephile acquaintances have praised highly.)

I honestly don't remember much about The Host beyond its chintzy-looking creature and its annoyingly schizophrenic "vision." Where a lot of critics saw daring shifts in tone—first horrific, then comic, then dramatic, all smashed together seemingly at random—in its take on a family unit under attack, I merely felt I was in the presence of a sloppy, if admirably ambitious, director who apparently couldn't be bothered to settle on a consistent tone in his rampant genre-hopping. So, with Mother, Bong automatically improves on The Host by settling on one genre—that of the police procedural, with a devoted mother as the detective-protagonist—and working within those parameters. And yet, while overall I found this a more involving and far less irritating experience than The Host, and certainly would not discourage you from seeing it, there's still something about Bong's (over-?)reliance on genre mechanics that makes me somewhat suspicious of it.

At its heart, Mother is a character study of a matriarch (impressively played by Kim Hye-ja) who is so devoted to her son that, after he's convicted of a young girl's murder, she goes on the trail for the supposed real killer, so convinced she is that her son could not possibly have committed the crime. Her relationship with her son verges on the creepy (he sometimes sleeps with her on her bed, for instance), but her loyalty to him is undeniable...and, the film gradually reveals, dangerous verging on murderous.

The real kicker, though, comes in its final two scenes, in which the mother's full monstrosity comes into focus in a manner that I'm of two minds about. [SPOILERS AHEAD] As it turns out, she's not only devoted to her son to a murderous extreme—to the point of denying her son's ultimate guilt in the young girl's murder when it becomes painfully apparent—but she also turns out to be unwilling to take any responsibility for her own actions. In other words, she really isn't all that different from her mentally addled son, except that she is more aware of her own wrongdoing. But in the final scene, set on a bus, the mother does a bit of creative acupuncture in a way that, as has been noted earlier in the film, effectively clears away all of one's bad memories. The last shot is set outside of the bus as we see the formerly grim-looking matriarch getting up and dancing with the rest of her group.

This concluding gesture works pretty well on the film's own terms, functioning as a fittingly sobering payoff to carefully planted details earlier in the film. But to my mind, it also exposes the film's major flaw, one that prevents Mother from fully transcending its genre trappings: Just as the film's twists and turns feel more like immaculately plotted twists and turns than anything else, its payoff feels too much like, well, a cleverly worked-out-in-advance sick-joke payoff. The film is undeniably a well-plotted detective story, one that, as the ad-copy cliché goes, "will keep you on the edge of your seat and guessing." When it comes to adding up to more than the sum of its plot twists, however...well, for me, it comes up just a tad short. Mother plays more like a portrait of an obsessive mother imposed onto a procedural structure rather than a procedural structure that opens out into a portrait of an obsessive mother. There's something a bit too programmed about it for it to be as deeply disturbing as it wants to be.

Date Night (2010; Dir.: Shawn Levy)

This is a slight, and slightly underachieving, attempt at a modern-day screwball comedy, but overall it's not all that bad. The ingredients for a screwball comedy are certainly here: a charming and believably down-to-earth lead duo, memorably weird supporting characters, a bevy of nutty situations and a can-you-top-this momentum that occasionally slows down for scenes of deeply felt emotion. The main idea underpinning Date Night is that its central couple, Phil & Claire Foster, having settled into numbing routine in their daily lives, rekindle their passion for each other in the course of an increasingly harrowing night out on the town. There is much subtext that could have been mined from such a premise, and now and then the script, by Josh Klausner, hits on some amusing iterations on the idea. Alas, director Shawn Levy—whose previous credits include those Night at the Museum flicks—seems more interested in efficiently moving the action along more than anything else (is this why he shoots the whole thing in shoddy-looking high-definition digital video?). Thankfully, the actors survive Levy's uninspired hand, especially Steve Carell and Tina Fey, both of whom, in a few scenes of seemingly improvised banter, show how much more inspired this movie might have been if they had been allowed to cut loose more. And hey, it runs a breezy 88 minutes and features a few funny outtakes over the end credits. Nothing special, and it doesn't come near striking distance of challenging, say, Some Like It Hot in the annals of great screwball comedies. But it's a passable night out at the movies—especially with a date. Which I did not have when I went to see it. (Ladies, I'm available...)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Weekly Musical Discoveries: Grizzly Bear's Veckatimest

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—For this post—and, I hope, once every week—I'm taking a brief break from blogging about film and life in order to let you all in on some of the music I've been grooving to. Discovering new music—and by "new," I usually mean new to me, not newly released—is as much of a passion as discovering new films, so I figure I ought to make music a greater presence on my blog than I have done so far. We'll see how that works out.

For now, though, here is my notable discovery of last week:

Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear (2009)

I finally got around to hearing this Brooklyn-based band's widely acclaimed third album Veckatimest last week, and my initial reaction to it was one of disappointed indifference. I didn't remember their second album, Yellow House (2006), to be this dour and joyless. Sure, Yellow House was hardly what you'd call a joyful romp, but I recall more immediately compelling color, variety and experimentation underlying its slow burn; Veckatimest, by contrast, seemed almost suffocatingly "atmospheric" and self-conscious.

However, I've listened to Veckatimest a couple more times since that first listen, and I think I've warmed to it a bit more each time. Yellow House may remain more bracing in its mixture of indie-rock and folk elements, and Horn of Plenty, the 2004 Grizzly Bear album that is technically more an Edward Droste solo effort, more memorable at evoking a distinctively low-key, creepy atmosphere in their sounds. Nevertheless, the band's stylistic ambition in Veckatimest—one which embraces choral and orchestral arrangements throughout—certainly cannot be denied, and sometimes that adventurousness yields some genuinely striking and attractive music. Maybe I'll eventually come around to embracing the whole thing (it took me a while, for instance, to come around to Radiohead's post-OK Computer albums, most of which—In Rainbows excepted—struck me as similarly arid upon first acquaintances).

"Two Weeks" seems to be the big hit from this album—it's been featured in many television episodes and commercials—and it's certainly a terrific song: a relatively upbeat number that sounds like a heavy-footed, slowed-down version of Maroon 5's "This Love" (sorry, but yes, that's the only point of comparison I could come up with at the moment). For my money, however, the best of the lot is "Cheerleader," one of the few instances where the band successfully melds the unsettling vibe of Horn of Plenty with the stylistic restlessness of Yellow House. Here, that restlessness manifests in a moderate dance beat and a sonic halo effect that suggests Droste hovering over guitars and strings all playing in their lower registers—appropriate in some ways for a song with lyrics that suggest someone looking down on another and advising: "God let it go, it doesn't mean a thing / Chance and sow, nothing changing."

And if nothing else, it's worth swimming through the drearier parts of Veckatimest to get to "Foreground," one of the most moving album closers I've ever heard.

Here's a video of a live performance of "Cheerleader" the band gave at South by Southwest last year:

Monday, April 19, 2010

Adventures in Filmmaking: Is God—or The Auteur—Really in the Details?


There's not much new to report on the filmmaking front other than the fact that I started working on the script on-and-off last week—and I'm glad I wrote out a treatment before jumping into writing the script, because having a screen story right in front of you, I discovered, really helps you focus while writing a screenplay. I've already written one major scene and a couple of smaller establishing ones, and it only took me a couple of hours to accomplish. If I hadn't planned it out beforehand, I might have spent a lot more time as I tried to figure things out on the fly.

Another thing that has cut down on scriptwriting time? Getting used to the realization that, in a script, you're not directing the film...yet. I started out this project not only with a story idea, but also with images in my head and possible camera angles mapped out; in other words, I embarked on this venture with the hope that I would eventually get to direct it myself. But, as both online screenwriting guides and a friend who is currently working on a script of his own have advised, when it comes to the script itself, it's best to try to take a hands-off approach and not overwhelm the script with detailed camera and actor directions. Eventually, whether you're directing or not, you'll be working with a group of collaborators that may well trump whatever ideas you may have initially had for, say, casting, shot selection or line readings. So it's good for a script to provide that kind of room for interpretation.

That's a bit of a relief for me; it means there is a lot of detail I can leave out for now, and thus less words to put on paper. But it also helps me realize that, as much as some critics might like to romanticize the auteur theory—roughly speaking, the idea that a director's vision and personality will come out no matter the cinematic context—the filmmaking process itself is as much about the people a director works with, and their dueling egos, as it is about the director him- or herself. And I think that I, by nature, am all about inclusiveness and hearing other people's ideas.

I still hope to direct this short film myself...but if/when I do, I will certainly be exploring and collaborating as much as I am trying to put a personal vision on the screen. Adventures indeed!


Speaking of a sense of discovery: Who knew that Jean Renoir had already staked out emotional territory that I was interested in exploring in my short film?

On Saturday night, I went to Brooklyn Academy of Music to catch a double feature of the legendary French filmmaker's 40-minute 1936 short A Day in the Country and his 1932 classic feature Boudu Saved from Drowning. I had seen neither film before, but I was especially stoked for the former film, which I had heard much great things about, but which isn't available on Region 1 DVD (though it is available on a Region 2 disc from BFI). Both turned out to be as terrific as I had heard, but I was especially stunned by the tantalizing final moments of A Day in the Country, which, in its deeply felt evocation of missed opportunity and regret—coming as it does at the end of a film that celebrates the pastoral, Pierre-Auguste Renoir-inspired beauty and sense of freedom offered by the countryside—very much reflects the kind of rueful mood I'm hoping to capture with my short film.

In my more angst-ridden younger days, I might have been disappointed by this discovery the way, say, the main character in this weekend's major new theatrical release Kick-Ass feels devastated by the sense of inferiority he experiences in witnessing Hit Girl's ruthless demolition of bad guys. (Wait, Renoir already did this? Why bother doing it myself then, if it's already been done?) But I guess you could say I'm older, wiser (?) and just generally more tired of feeling inferior about everything the way I used to. As a therapist I used to see during a stretch of time in my undergrad years told me: There will always be people better than you at even the things you're most passionate about. Better to find inspiration from your betters rather than merely regretting the fact that you're not on their level.

In that sense, then, I'd say: For that, at least, thank you, Jean Renoir, for making A Day in the Country. Perhaps you and your sublime little film have inspired me to raise my own game in some way.

I will have more to say, by the way, about Boudu and Kick-Ass in a future post (especially the latter, which I think is a good try at a smart genre deconstruction, if not quite as smart as it thinks it is).

Friday, April 16, 2010

A Greenberg Problem? (No, Not That One...)


I saw Noah Baumbach's latest film Greenberg about two weeks ago with a couple who wear their political convictions on their sleeves (they both met each other while campaigning for Barack Obama in New Jersey). After the movie was over, one of them raised a concern about a particular plot turn late in the film that struck him as problematic—a concern that I thought at the time was fresh and interesting enough to do a whole blog post about. Well, it took long enough, but here is that blog post.

Obviously, spoilers are ahead.

Late in the film, Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), the personal assistant that the film's title character (Ben Stiller) kinda/sorta falls for, divulges to Greenberg that she has discovered she is pregnant from a previous one-night stand, and that she has already made the decision to abort the baby. From what I can remember, no one in the film raises any concerns about her decision, and Marr herself doesn't seem to betray any anguish about the choice she is about to make—no vacillation, no second thoughts. For all I know, to her this is just about erasing a little mistake she made in the past.

I admit that this didn't bother me all that much in the moment (although that's partly because I inadvertently read a minor spoiler on a blog that mentioned this late development—so I was kinda primed for it). But, after the film was over, one of my moviegoing companions, while expressing overall admiration for the film—one that I, by the way, echo completely—said that the seeming nonchalance of that moment struck him as inauthentic, and perhaps bordering on offensive. His main point—if I'm conveying it accurately—was that he knew of women who had to make similar decisions, and, in his experience, none of them made the call to have an abortion as lightly as it seemed Florence had done in Greenberg; there was always some kind of genuinely tough emotional consequence as a result, something Florence never seems to experience in the film. I asked my friend if he was pro-life; he said no, not exactly, but he still felt that the issues surrounding abortion was something that should be taken seriously and discussed, not something to be treated as a mere inconvenience.

I found this an intriguing criticism; even more intriguing is the fact that, as far as I've been able to discern, very few film critics have commented much on this, especially on the heels of the debate over the recently passed health-care-reform bill, in which abortion was a major point of contention. Not that I imagine Baumbach or co-scenarist Jennifer Jason Leigh (whose character in the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High made a similar decision to abort with a similar lack of fanfare) necessarily had such immediately topical matters in mind when conceiving the film—but, amidst such a politically divisive environment such as ours, Greenberg's approach to the abortion issue, such as it is (the word is barely mentioned, if at all), could perhaps be seen as something of a radical act, at least in 2010 Hollywood...

...or, at least, that's what Stephen Farber suggests in this recently published essay at The Daily Beast, which, as far as I know, is the only piece of sustained criticism to grapple with the implications of Florence Marr's abortion decision in historical and international contexts. Greenberg, he argues, bucks a trend exemplified by recent American films like Knocked Up (2007) and Juno (2007), both of which feature heroines who decide against abortion. According to Farber, compared to more forthright overseas films on the subject like Vera Drake (2004) or 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), American films—ever since the the 1930s, really, and with the exception of a handful of films in the '70s and '80s—have preferred to either treat abortion with kid gloves (remember Knocked Up's cutesy "shmashmortion" joke?) or shove it under a rug altogether.

As Farber writes:
[Greenberg's] plot twist is pretty revolutionary for a Hollywood film in 2010. When did you last see an American movie that portrayed a woman opting to have an abortion? Thirty-seven years after the Supreme Court declared abortion legal in Roe v. Wade, the subject is more polarizing than ever, as the rancorous Congressional debate over health care demonstrated. In this contentious atmosphere, Hollywood has chosen to play it safe and keep abortion invisible.
At the end of his piece, he celebrates the film's daring, saying, "It's encouraging that in cautious times, a few filmmakers are again willing to confront this highly charged theme and take the flak that comes their way."

I'm not sure you can necessarily call Greenberg "confrontational" on the subject of abortion. No one ever actually confronts the issue in the sense of working through arguments for and against and coming to a conclusion; we hear that Florence has made that decision (she may have agonized over it beforehand, but we in the audience are not privy to that decision-making process), and Roger Greenberg accepts it without question. Nevertheless, one could say that the lack of discussion itself represents a position on the issue. My friend's criticism isn't with the position it takes so much as the lack of discussion.

So, for all of you who have seen Greenberg, I ask you: Does the attitude toward abortion suggested in the film seem unacceptably trivializing or provocatively accepting? Does it seem true-to-life or merely a screenwriter's lazy contrivance? Does it make a difference in your reaction to the film as a whole? Does a film that features a character deciding for or against an abortion need to make a big point of it for it to be acceptable?

Your thoughts on this are welcome, as always. (In other words: comment, please!)

P.S. I realize I haven't said much about the rest of the film. Short version: I like it. I like Ben Stiller in this, and I do find Greta Gerwig to be a tantalizing presence and fascinatingly original actress. I like how Noah Baumbach basically presents a fairly extreme specimen of misanthropy and maladjustment and tempers his character's potentially insufferable nature with enough traces of compassion to make him seem, well, almost universal in some of his neuroses. (Or, at the very least, I recognized some of his neuroses as extreme versions of my own.) It can no doubt be a discomfiting experience, but the end result is miraculously airy (part of that thanks to Harris Savides's limpid lensing) and, finally, even moving. God help me if I'm in my 40s and still dwelling on past failures like Roger Greenberg does. Hell, I sometimes feel I do too much of that now.

P.P.S. The title of this post, by the way, is a sideways reference to this now-infamous piece, titled "My Greenberg Problem—And Yours," by New York Press film critic Armond White, which is barely a review of Greenberg as it is a nuclear bomb lobbed at what he sees as an unethical collusion of forces—one that, he submits, has existed for years in the film-critic establishment—conspiring to get him banned from being able to RSVP to an early press screening of the film. White is notoriously critical of Baumbach's films—he even called him an "asshole" in this online interview—and so apparently the film's publicist decided to bar him from seeing it early. (Originally it was reported that Baumbach and producer Scott Rudin had asked the publicist to ban him.) All of this was big news among said film-critic establishment for a couple of weeks before the film was officially released, but the party pretty much ended with White's official, frankly bordering-on-deranged response to the whole controversy.

Perhaps appropriately enough, one of the points that came up in this mess is a quote concluding a brief New York Press review of Baumbach's second feature, Mr. Jealousy (1997), that reads:
I won’t comment on Baumbach’s deliberate, onscreen references to his former film-reviewer mother [Village Voice critic Georgia Brown] except to note how her colleagues now shamelessly bestow reviews as belated nursery presents. To others, Mr. Jealousy might suggest retroactive abortion.
There's that a-word again! Many people took this as him wishing Baumbach actually had been aborted; naturally, White denied the implication (though he doesn't really try to disprove it so much as simply assume that anyone who actually believed that implication was a self-serving idiot)...but in his New York Press screed, he goes further:
Even if I had advised abortion (which I did not), fact is, abortion remains a hallmark of the privileged class that extols Baumbach. In fact, the casual acceptance of abortion is part of Greenberg's plot. It's practically an article of faith for these "liberals." 
Baumbach's films all deal with people who are privileged in some way. Could Florence Marr's "casual acceptance of abortion" be a sign of class status as well? (Not that I'm taking anything in White's piece all that seriously...but hey, I'm all about asking questions, and so I find that question as valid as any.)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Overt and Covert Emotions

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Once again, I see that I've fallen somewhat behind in reviewing some of the films I've seen in theaters recently. Allow me to play some catch-up, then!

Cop Out (2010; Dir.: Kevin Smith)

The only truly memorable joke in this film comes right at the beginning, as Tracy Morgan, as he is spewing forth a battery of cop-movie homages amidst an interrogation, yells out "Yippee-kayyay, motherfucker!" and Bruce Willis, standing behind the interrogation room's one-way mirror, smirkily intones, "I've never seen that movie before." Get it? Because Bruce Willis played John McClane in all those Die Hard flicks, and he says that exact catchphrase in all of 'em? Get it?

But seriously, folks, everything you need to know about about this overextended, deliberately aimless and mostly lame riff on 1980s action cop dramas—complete with retro Harold Faltermayer synthesizer score, natch—is contained in that one joke, saving you the trouble of actually having to sit through the whole thing. It goes nowhere fast—probably by design (the film is called Cop Out, after all), but just because I can justify it doesn't mean I have to enjoy it. That said: yes, Kevin Smith, I did pay money to sit through this, if that makes you feel better.

Spring in a Small Town (1948; Dir.: Fei Mu)
The Prowler (1951; Dir.: Joseph Losey)

During the recent Jia Zhang-ke retrospective at MoMA, Spring in a Small Town was paired with Jia's 2008 short Cry Me a River, the reason being that Jia has cited the 1948 Chinese classic as his inspiration for that lovely piece. Naturally, pairing them together invited one to consider their similarities—though ultimately, the only significant quality they share is a mood of contemplative regret over relationships not pursued and emotions kept in check. The Jia short condenses that mood into 20 spare, concentrated minutes (and, as a personal bonus, it features, as an exterior location, a canal in Suzhou on which I myself rode when I went to China two years ago), while Fei Mu's film elaborates on it in 93. Neither is any less affecting than the other; what perhaps deepens the experience of Spring in a Small Town is Fei's empathy for his characters. None of the parties involved in the central love triangle are bad people, by any means; it's just that, in spite of the powerful romantic emotions raging inside all of them—especially the female character played exquisitely by Wei Wei—they all feel bound by traditional notions of marriage and friendship to keep their passions under wraps.

The film's compelling seesaw of emotions is captured in a relatively claustrophobic setting—all of the actions take place within one bombed-out-looking village where it seems these people, a grandfather and the woman's husband's sister are its only inhabitants—with a sense of desolate atmosphere and an eye for expressive visual poetry by cinematographer Li Shengwei. But above all, it's the emotional complexity of Spring in a Small Town that may well be its most beautiful quality of all. It's a romantic melodrama with characters as believably rich and multifaceted as you or I.

Webb Garwood, the anti-hero of Joseph Losey's 1951 noir The Prowler, is obviously not what you would immediately consider a "sympathetic" main character—but, as Van Heflin plays him, with uncompromising honesty and menace, one can get an idea of what drives his ruthless behavior through the course of the film. A former basketball star in college, he is now an ordinary cop frustrated with the lack of direction in his life, as he admits to Susan Gilvray (Evelyn Keyes), who herself feels stuck in a passionless marriage. Thinking he has found a kindred spirit in Susan, who is married to a disc jockey who says goodnight to her over the airwaves at the end of every episode, Webb begins to fixate on her—and, interestingly, Susan, for a time, reciprocates, though with palpable conflictedness (most likely contributed by those same traditional notions of faithfulness in marriage that highlights Spring in a Small Town). Their relationship takes a slew of twists and turns, from murder to marriage, all concluding with a secret birth conducted in a windy desert in a finale that is as spiritually expressive as the snow-covered second half of Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground (1952).

The Prowler obviously goes far darker and deeper with its characters and their suppressed, forbidden desires than the far more tender-feeling Spring in a Small Town does, but the film similarly operates as a fascinating psychological study of anguished characters locked in an emotional tug-of-war, observed by Losey and cinematographer Arthur C. Miller with a surfeit of beautifully wrought long takes. Webb Garwood ultimately gets his in the end (admittedly maybe more of a Hays Code-acceptable type of ending than anything else), but he remains a memorably convincing movie rake, one who disturbs precisely because his desires are, in many ways, universal: a desire to break out of a dead-end life, to move up in class, and the like. You almost want to see him get away with it all, in spite of your better judgment. Ah, film noir: making us contemplate the moral abysses underneath us all!

There's much more to say about this classic film noir...and film critic/video essayist Matt Zoller Seitz offers more food for thought here:

(Spring in a Small Town only available in an out-of-print Cinema Epoch DVD that apparently contains a print of poor quality. Cry Me a River is available as an extra on Cinema Guild's DVD of Jia's most recent feature, 24 City. And The Prowler is unavailable on Region 1 DVD at the moment.)

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010; Dir.: Steve Pink)

Yes, Hot Tub Time Machine more or less reconfigures elements from last year's big comedy hit The Hangover—right down to its scene-stealing third wheel (Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover, Rob Corddry here)—into an '80s nostalgia trip. But I enjoyed this more than The Hangover, a movie that never quite delivered on the delirious craziness its situations promised (and which wasted Mike Tyson to boot). Hot Tub Time Machine, a messier, less carefully structured movie, does eventually work up a steam of comic insanity that explodes at the end in ways that are often more inspired than anything in The Hangover. And, as A.O. Scott eloquently elucidated in his New York Times review of the film, there is a welcome undercurrent of bitter regret, played with conviction by the central quartet of actors, that actually creates some genuine emotional stakes for these seemingly washed-up characters. Hot Tub Time Machine eventually becomes almost poignant in its riotous consideration of middle-age disappointment. That's certainly more than Todd Phillips & co. even attempted for The Hangover.

Le Cercle Rouge (1970; Dir.: Jean-Pierre Melville)


More adventures in repertory cinema, this time with a Jean-Pierre Melville film I had never seen until three weeks ago at IFC Center. The legendary French New Wave director's spare, beautifully controlled late style—so concentrated, graceful and trance-like—is familiar, but this time his subject isn't one criminal's elusive inner life, as in his 1967 masterpiece Le Samouraï. Le Cercle Rouge's canvas is broader: a consideration of the criminal lifestyle as a whole.

It's telling that the final shot of Le Cercle Rouge is not of any of the criminals (Alain Delon and Gian Maria Volonte playing the two main thieves) involved in the film's justifiably celebrated central jewel heist, but of Mattei (André Bourvil), the police commissioner who is tasked to find and capture these criminals after one of them escapes from his grasp in the film's opening minutes. For me, the character of Mattei—not a major character, but a pivotal marginal one who is palpably unsettled as he is by his superior's authoritatively intoned philosophy that "all men are guilty" and that "They're born innocent, but it doesn't last"—holds the key to the picture's moral depths What drives these criminals to maintain that dangerous lifestyle, even after they have been punished by law for it? Is that possibly the only life they know? Or does something else—most vividly, the possibility of redemption, in the case of tortured former sharpshooter Jansen (Yves Montand)—keep them in the game? Melville, expressing his characters' guarded reticence through his breathtakingly cool style, keeps their motives intriguingly mysterious—but the police chief's misanthropy, and Mattei's troubled reactions to his investigation and whether they validate that point-of-view, casts a mournful pall over the whole film. Even at the end, as the criminals are gunned down by the police, the last shot is a close-up of Mattei's face walking around the crime scene, looking visibly shaken at the wasted lives that have just been taken.

If Le Samouraï was an intimately scaled meditation on a man defined almost exclusively by his actions, Le Cercle Rouge is an epic dirge about men defined almost exclusively by their actions. Amidst the cool gangster poses—and Melville's precise ways of lighting and framing those poses—and his play with noir genre tropes lies a whole troubling moral philosophy. That, of course, is one of the major source of the endless fascination of this master's late gangster pictures.

(Le Cercle Rouge is available on Criterion Collection DVD.)

Monday, April 12, 2010

Sky-High Skyboxes!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Okay, readers: For this post, I am taking all of you ever-so-briefly into my workplace, in a manner of speaking.

One of the many small tasks that I have gradually grown into as a news assistant at The Wall Street Journal is to write what are called "skybox refers": an informal term for the short items boxed off below the section banners at the top of the front page of each inside section, items which are meant to briefly summarize and refer to stories within that particular section. I try to pick up whatever skyboxes are available to write for the Money & Investing (C) section. It's not all that difficult, really; the main challenge is fitting pertinent information about a given story in a small space, and doing it in a way that will compel readers to turn to the story inside. In that respect, it's probably the closest I've come to writing headlines since I wrote them regularly as a Dow Jones Newspaper Fund copy-editing intern in summer 2007 (boy, that seems so long ago).

Considering the nature of the paper's famously sober style, there's not a whole lot of room to be too cutesy with these skybox refers; a lot of times, I merely end up borrowing a story's headline to fill in a skybox for that story. Every so often, though...inspiration strikes.

Inspiration struck last night as I was helping to put out today's paper. On page C2, there were two stories that dealt with the effects of the Euro zone's recently agreed-upon $40 billion aid package for Greece on U.S. Treasury markets and the euro. The markets-desk editor who chose the stories he wanted to mention in the skyboxes decided he wanted to have both those stories in the same skybox, one following the other. So I decided, instead of just repeating words in both—which would look awkward considering the proximity of both of the refers—I came up with this solution for the first two items:

Well, I thought it was a pretty creative solution—and today I got validation from a couple of higher-up markets-desk editors, both of whom complimented me on it.

So yeah, I'm showing it off. What of it? Might as well be proud of the work you do, even if it's small scale in the scheme of things.

And in case any of you might have been wondering what exactly I do for The Wall Street Journal five days a week...well, skybox refers aren't everything, obviously, but it's one of the more creative things I do.

California Dreamin' No More!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—It is now official: Next month, from Monday, May 10 to Monday, May 17, I will be taking my first (and hopefully not only) vacation trip of the year.

I'm going here...

Haha no, I'm not going to Romania. I'm going to California!

In all of my 24+ years of living on this earth, I have never, ever been to the Golden State. Well, I guess that technically isn't true: I've been to Los Angeles International Airport as a stopover between flights in traveling overseas, but I have never ventured outside of the airport. Now, from May 10 to May 17, I will.

There is no special purpose for this trip, really: This is strictly for tourist-y pleasure. I've always wanted to visit California—as a movie buff living on the other side of the country, how could you not? But only this year did I resolve to finally take the plunge.

I wasn't entirely sure if this trip was going to happen this year. Everyone and everything I consulted—from a high-school friend who used to live in California, to the used Lonely Planet California book I bought in January—was strongly suggesting that it'd be far better to rent a car instead of relying on public transportation to get me around, at least in the big cities. But I had not realized that most car-rental companies required a minimum age of 25 order to be able to use one of their vehicles. When I discovered this, I was initially figuring that it might be best to put this off for another year...until a hometown friend of mine, who will be turning 25 next month, expressed interest in tagging along.

$717 or so later—my friend and I reserved an airplane + hotel + car package online, so that price is not just for flying there, in case you were wondering—I'm making that 2010 resolution a reality!

Now, of course, comes the difficult part: What are we gonna do during our week there?

That's where all of you fine readers of this blog come in. Sure, I plan to consult that Lonely Planet book for suggestions and all...but, in addition, I'm opening up the comments section of this post and soliciting advice from anyone who has any to offer on what I should see and do in California. Best parks? Best restaurants? Best movie theaters? Best beaches? It's a huge state, and the possibilities are endless; help me narrow them down, please!

I'd even be open to suggestions as to what kind of music I should listen to in order to get me in the proper California mood...or even what movies to watch—of which, I'm sure, there are legion. (Maybe it's time to finally devote another three hours re-watching Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself via that file I downloaded via BitTorrent a while back.)

If anyone wants to submit any pieces of advice about my upcoming California trip privately, feel free to email me at

Finally: I tried to throw a curveball with the graphic above that introduced the revelation of my California trip. I haven't seen the late Cristian Nemescu's Romanian comedy California Dreamin' (2007), but I figured it'd be an unexpected choice compared to the way I was originally going to make the reveal—with this video:

Too obvious, right? But yes, I love Wong Kar-Wai. And Faye Wong. And Tony Leung. And Chungking Express. As if you all hadn't figured that out by now...