Friday, June 30, 2006

Just a Link for Today

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Tonight's entry basically consists of this link to my most recent article for Pulse, a brief look at a deeper level of Billy Wilder's classic 1959 comedy Some Like It Hot. Because it isn't just a funny comedy. It's also a lightly cynical yet delicious funny take-no-prisoners satire of our views of the opposite gender.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

A Possibly Landmark Ruling

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Rarely does a United States Supreme Court decision actually get me fairly excited, but today's decision making military tribunals at Guantánamo unconstitutional really perked my ears up when I first heard about it this afternoon on NPR's "All Things Considered."

Forget about all the legal justifications about its going against federal statute and a Geneva Convention provision. Look at it simply from a human rights standpoint. How would you feel if you were detained for having connections that you actually don't have, or doing something that you didn't actually do? Then imagine how you'd feel if you had no human rights to speak of as a prisoner, thus having almost no way to defend yourself. I can only imagine how nightmarish that could be, even for a fundamentalist prisoner who hates America and doesn't fear death.

That is why I've always been rather queasy about the terrorist-fighting policies that have been adopted by this Bush administration: secretly tapping into our private lives, holding prisoners without reason or human rights, etc. President George W. Bush justifies it, of course: we have to be aggressive to win the war on terror. Perhaps; history has shown presidents to suspend certain rights in time of war. But at the cost of compromising long-held American values like giving even prisoners with terrorist ties equal protection under the law? That gives me pause. It's not political---is it ever political with me?---it's simply humanistic.

Now that the highest court of the land has put a dent on one controversial facet of President Bush's "active" methods of crimefighting, it'll be interesting to see how the president and Congress responds. Maybe I'm being too idealistic, but there just has to be some other way to combat terrorism without becoming almost as ruthless ourselves.

Fly On the Wall

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Last night, a friend of mine had a 21st-birthday celebration at his house, and the experience---while hardly a negative one---reminded me why, unless I'm buzzed or plain drunk, I tend to feel awkward in those kind of social gatherings.

Much of it probably comes from the fact that I've never really been part of a close-knit circle of friends; instead, in large groups, I'm usually on the outside looking in as people talk about old boyfriends, or trips to New York City or farther, or something else. And, unlike a lot of people I know, I'm honestly not as big a pop culture junkie as some of the other people (seemingly) who were there at my friend's little party. I haven't much felt the desire or need to listen to Dane Cook, for instance; and Monty Python---sure, I've heard of the British comedy troupe, and yes, I've seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but, save for a few (hilarious) sketches from their Flying Circus series (including one about a bunch of renegade nuns), that's about it for my exposure to Monty Python as a group (of course, I've seen John Cleese in other films, and obviously there's Terry Gilliam, who has become a visionary film director in his own right), and I surely can't quote them verbatim.

So last night, as cool as it was to see friends and meet new people, most of the time I simply sat there, listened, and felt like an objective observer. If I was writing about this particular bunch of people for a news story or something, I wouldn't have minded. But this was a social situation, not a news story, and after a while, the fly-on-the-wall approach felt a little uncomfortable, sitting there, wishing I could actually say something more---or just something clever or funny, for Pete's sake--- and make myself stand out in some way. Maybe popularity sometimes matters more to me than I think.


Yesterday I was called into Megamovies for an extra shift---a "rain shift," they like to call it---during the day, and I finally got an opportunity to man a box office pretty much all by myself. Granted, one of the managers there put me on the less-busy east box office, but still, I think it was a reasonable step forward.

I think I did all right, although one of the managers did emphasize to me during the 4+ hours I was there that really, I should know the business policies of the movie theater pretty well. I had directed a customer to one of the managers with a question that I guess he thought I could have answered pretty easily if I had known the policies better. My two weeks as a trainee are almost up, but I suppose I still have things to learn and pick up.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Brief Life Update No. 3: Movie Theaters But No Movie

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Not much to report this weekend as far as happenings go. Friday and Sunday evenings I worked at Megamovies, and Saturday afternoon I ushered an event at the State Theatre.

I was bracing myself for dealing with long lines at Megamovies on Friday evening, but the manager placed me with someone at another, less busy box office and so I wasn't hit with as many customers as I thought I would be. Perhaps sometime this week I'll actually get a chance to see how I do under the pressure of long lines. I don't think I should be too bad; I guess I just have to try to work more quickly.

This weekend was a rare weekend in which I didn't go to a movie theater to see a film. Not that I felt I was missing a great deal with the mainstream films offered this weekend. I mean, I know I shouldn't be too judgmental even with an Adam Sandler movie, but the trailer for his new movie Click made it look like a one-joke comedy that eventually turns sappy. So a selfish dad discovers his heart; yeah, didn't we see that already, to some extent, in Big Daddy? There's too much aggression in Sandler's comic man-child persona to allow us to really by his movie's attempts at Capra-esque "heart." (Maybe that's why the Sandler persona filtered through the art-conscious sensibility of Paul Thomas Anderson in Punch-Drunk Love felt so refreshing.)

Considering that because I now work at Megamovies, I get to see movies for free, perhaps I could safely check out Click and not worry about whether I'm wasting my money. Hmm...

Anyway...I'm not in the mood tonight, but look for a post about Joss Whedon's TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which I've just finished watching on DVD, in the near future. For now, I'll just say that watching the final episode of this terrific TV show really made me feel like I was taking leave of a dear friend. Heck, I didn't feel quite the same way even when I watched the final episode of The X-Files (but then, maybe that's because, when I saw it the first time, I tuned in after having abandoned the show for about 2+ years).

In the meantime, chew on this: apparently my piece on Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels that was published on Matt Seitz's "House Next Door" blog got noticed by the people at GreenCine Daily; in a recent entry on its blog, it quoted a line from my piece. I got a shout-out! Not much, but it makes me happy to feel like I'm getting noticed at least a little bit in the internet movie fan universe.

Friday, June 23, 2006

A Preview of Craziness

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Today at Megamovies I got a reasonable glimpse at the kind of craziness I might be expecting tomorrow night. For an approximately 10-minute stretch at around the seven o'clock hour, a large line formed behind the counter, and I had to try to handle every customer as efficiently and accurately as possible. I think I did a pretty good job considering that the manager was standing behind me and interrupting my, uh, cashering rhythm by printing out tickets for me and giving me money and all that. A little distracting, and I did forget some things a couple of times, but I think I was able to handle it without panicking or making a dumb mistake.

It's perhaps a good morale-booster, because I don't always think I'm graceful or calm under pressure. So it's nice to at least be fairly confident that I can be, especially when it comes to standing in between people being able to see a movie.

Today I was being observed by some other coworker than the one I had on my first two days on the job Monday and Tuesday. He admitted to me that he basically went for this job because of the prospect of free tickets. Well, I went for this job because I was desperate for a job, but I guess free tickets is a good deal too. That and free preview screenings for the staff. According to the coworker who helped me out today, there's a rumor going on that there might be a preview for us for Superman Returns...


For those who have happened upon the comments section of my previous posts, some of you might be a little puzzled as to why there's discussion about Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels for a post that was basically about Syriana. There was only a brief mention of Fallen Angels in the post, at best.

Well, the reason is this: a little piece I wrote up about the film which got web-published on "The House Next Door," the blog of New York Press film critic and Star-Ledger TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz.

Mr. Seitz and I first got acquainted with each other through an interview piece I wrote for the Inside Beat section of the Daily Targum, in which I asked him about various questions regarding the Oscars---it was published just before the Academy Awards aired in March---the importance of film critics, and the state of movies in general. When I sent him the piece, he seemed genuinely impressed by it, and we've been in sporadic content ever since.

"The House Next Door" used to exclusively be his blog, but then his wife died suddenly and tragically a couple months ago, and that allowed him to open the doors for other users to post things on the blog as he tried to, I guess, put his life back in order after such a devastating loss. It looks like he's stuck with the idea ever since; he and fellow contributors have became a "family" of sorts.

I've been wanting to write something up for publication on the blog for a while now---at the very least, it might attract some attention from the, uh, film critic circle or something. But, with the biweekly pieces I now write for Pulse, with the State Theatre and now Megamovies, and with the fact that I still try to make time to watch films on DVD, I hadn't had the time to devote to crafting a solid piece for the blog. This week, though, I found the time, and, once again, here it is.

I'll admit, too, that I had a mild ulterior motive for wanting to post on Matt's blog: to try to increase the comment traffic on this blog. Well, it seems to have worked a little bit; at the very least, I got two comments from people other than "Anonymous." (Not that I don't value all of your comments, all you anonymous posters out there, believe me.)

Comments are certainly still welcome.

Thursday, June 22, 2006


EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Sometimes there are films that I consider "obsessions"---movies that, at least for a certain amount of time, I just can't seem to get enough of. When I was a horror nut, some of the Friday the 13th flicks counted as personal obsessions. Later on, I got into an action movie phase, inundating myself with a steady diet of modern action flicks like Die Hard, Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger, Face/Off, The Negotiator, and probably some others. A few years ago, I bought the Pulp Fiction Collector's Edition DVD on a whim and felt like I had to savor Quentin Tarantino's dialogue every day. And recently, I've turned to foreign films: Jean-Luc Godard's Band of Outsiders and Wong Kar-Wai's Fallen Angels chief among them. What all these films have in common is that it seems as if I can't tear myself away from these films: I'm so addicted to them that, at least for a little while, I couldn't imagine going a day without seeing a favorite clip. Whether it's Crispin Glover's gruesome death by meat cleaver in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter; Nicolas Cage's defying-the-odds escape from Erewhon Prison in Face/Off; Samuel L. Jackson's chilling final monologue at the end---or is it technically the middle?---of Pulp Fiction; or Claude Brasseur, Sami Frey, and Anna Karina dancing the Madison in Band of Outsiders, all of these films, sometimes inexplicably, stick in my mind so much that every viewing of a certain film or film sequence is like one more attempt to get it out of my head for good. It's almost always a losing battle; time is usually the best way to let obsessions die down. (These days, for instance, my copy of Pulp Fiction barely gets touched, perhaps partly because I've become just a little less enchanted with that film, and with Quentin Tarantino in general. Tarantino may be energetic and original, but he's no Godard).

I think I may have found a possible new obsession in Stephen Gaghan's Syriana, that complicated-as-hell oil thriller that won George Clooney a whole lotta awards---including a supporting actor Oscar---ostensibly for his performance in the film as world-weary CIA agent Bob Barnes (although, really, he won it because of his newfound power within the industry as a movie star, producer, and director).

I saw this film in a theater towards the end of December, and I've had an interesting long-term reaction to the film. I found it entertaining enough when I saw it the first time, but I left the theater feeling a little hollow: what did Gaghan's Traffic-ish narrative puzzlebox really illuminate about corruption in the oil industry that would really rouse us to action? If anything, Syriana has the opposite effect: by engendering a feeling of utter confusion and cynicism, it left me feeling like throwing my hands up in the air and moving on in my life. Surely that's not what Gaghan, Clooney and co. intended. As a political film, I was left unconvinced.

And yet somehow, this convoluted film, for all these months, has stuck in my head in the same way that the alienated mood of Fallen Angels never quite allowed itself to dissolve from my memory. When I heard that the film was to be released on DVD in June, my impulse reaction was: Oh boy, I have to see the film again!

Well, today, thanks to my Netflix subscription, I did see it again on DVD. This second viewing hasn't banished my initial reservations about the film. As a narrative, it's a well-intentioned mess; and as an attempt at a '70s-style paranoid political thriller, it's probably way too complicated to rouse anyone into action at the end.

But even as I still found myself not a whole lot closer to understanding the conspiracies conceived of by Gaghan in this film, I did pick up on some new things. The score by Alexandre Desplat, for one thing: an understated yet powerfully effective score that underscores both moments of sadness, deep thought, or suspense in a consistently low whisper. The only moment Desplat really lays it on is the moment when Bob Barnes is abducted by a trio of Hezbollah militants (I think)---and even then it's not nearly as bombastic as someone like Hans Zimmer might have made it.

Some individual scenes made a stronger impression the second time around too. Particularly memorable is a small but chillingly tense moment when Matt Damon, as an advisor to Alexander Siddig's progressive Prince Nasir al-Subaai, says in response to the Prince's offer of key oil interests with a sarcastic "Great. How much for my other son?" (His son tragically drowned at a party thrown by the Gulf's emir.) I still can't say I'm closer to understanding every nook and cranny of the jargon Gaghan writes for these characters, but...

Perhaps Syriana will become a project for me in the future: a puzzle to solve. I may be deluding myself, but perhaps if I can decode how exactly everything is connected to this movie, I may be closer to decoding what, if anything, Stephen Gaghan is trying to say about the politics of oil other than "everybody is corrupt." If some people are still trying to figure out what exactly happened to the two technobabblists in Shane Carruth's Primer, maybe, one of these days, I'll try to figure out what the hell is going on in Syriana.

And if I don't figure it all out, at least there's always that infamous torture scene to return to again and again. I'd like to think that that scene grabs me because of George Clooney's genuinely scared reactions as he gets his fingernails ripped off and his face gets punched repeatedly. But who am I kidding? It's probably just because of the violence. I'm immoral and sick like that. Hehe.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Second Day Star Sighting

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - My second day of work at Megamovies was basically more of the same from yesterday. I learned a little more stuff---what to do if people wanted gift certificates of "Mega Money," how to answer phones, etc.---but otherwise it was more cash-taking and ticket-giving.

But there was a star sighting of sorts tonight. Hallie Kate Eisenberg showed up tonight for an evening screening of Nacho Libre. Hallie Kate Eisenberg, of course, is best known as the "Pepsi Girl"; she once did a whole lot of Pepsi commercials a few years ago as a younger girl. She has also been in a few movies as well (including Paulie, Beautiful, and some TV movies, like a TV version of William Gibson's The Miracle Worker). What some of you readers might not know---unless, I suppose, you've checked her on the Internet Movie Database---is that she is an East Brunswick girl. So I guess she was in town tonight, having wrapped up production on her newest film, How to Eat Fried Worms. "They've been showing your trailer for your latest film," I said to her as she was filling out information so we could accept her Screen Actors' Guild (SAG) pass. She chuckled briefly and said, "Oh yeah?"

For fellow EB-ers, yes, her parents were there too.

After we had given her and her parents their tickets, my coworker said, "I can't believe I met the Pepsi girl!"

She wasn't the only one who was able to show us an official pass of that sort. Some other lady came in and showed us a card proving that she was a member of the Directors' Guild of America (DGA). I asked this woman what kind of films she's been involved in; she mentioned titles but I'd never heard of them. I didn't get a chance to talk to her more, however, because the line was slightly busy and I had to deal with customers. (The lady's filmography on IMDb is here. Apparently she produced a movie starring Tyne Daly.)

Even as a lowly cashier at a local movie theater, there can still occasionally be surprises, it seems.

I'm still waiting for the craziness to come on Friday evening---just because it's Friday evening.

Monday, June 19, 2006

First Day

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Because that lady from the Drug Fair Group in Somerset never got back to me last week, today was my first day---well, evening, technically---at Megamovies as a cashier.

It was a good day, all in all. I learned the cashier procedures---ringing up sales, handling credit card sales and free passes and all that---fairly quickly, and I did a reasonable amount of sales on my own. And, even after standing for almost all of my 5+ hours at Megamovies tonight, my legs didn't feel overly tired! The State Theatre has apparently trained me well, hehe. (My State Theatre world collided with my new Megamovies world for one brief moment tonight when one of the gift shop ladies at the State Theatre showed up to buy a ticket.)

Highlight of my night, though: I got a chance to go "behind the scenes," so to speak, to the various film projection rooms. One of the projectionists---a young man around my age, one who admits that he's still a trainee---brought me up to the projection rooms at my request, and, well, I thought it was pretty cool. I mean, I honestly didn't know that someone actually puts the trailers and the many reels of the feature film all together into one huge reel, mounted on a flat circle. I had always assumed someone was feeding the reels into the projector manually, carefully watching for the reel change marker in order to put in the next reel. Silly me, I suppose.

It got me thinking: wouldn't it be interesting if one day I decided to try my hand at film projection as a way of making money? Yeah I know, it's not nearly as glamorous as it might sound at first...but I'm told that projectionists are supposed to get paid more. One of my co-workers---a ticket tearer who is also training to be a projectionist---said that learning film projection is quite possibly a valuable skill in the film theater marketplace, because not everyone can do it. Hmm...

(Side note: whenever I think of projection rooms, I always think back on that hilarious scene in Jean-Luc Godard's 1966 film Masculine Feminine where Jean-Pierre Leaud's Paul goes nuts when he discovers that a film he and his female friends are watching is being projected in the wrong aspect ratio; he actually walks to the projection room and reads from some manual to make his point about the incorrect ratio. I hope the young projectionist I spoke to isn't making such errors!)

All in all, a good first day. The people seem nice and helpful and personable. And I didn't make any dumb mistakes like I did at a previous job, when I admitted after the first day that I was willing to work but not for the whole summer, and was then fired the next day for not showing enough commitment. I could get into the details of that particular past incident if any of you wish to hear about it...

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Nostalgia Car Trip

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I don't know how many critics would admit to reading other critics. But, as an amateur critic (or, at least, as a self-professed one), I know I do. I can't resist comparing my relatively uninformed responses to that of professionals who---I hope, anyway---have reflected on and sweated movies for years, or certainly longer than I have.

The problem is: I am, I'll admit, a pretty impressionable person, and so sometimes I've allowed what may have been an initial ecstatic response be colored by reading a professional critic who has articulated reservations that a) I didn't think of, and b) I can understand and maybe even agree with.

Case in point: I saw Cars (**½ out of ****) this afternoon, and overall I found myself entertained and occasionally awed by it. Then I came and looked back at some of the reviews---some people suggested that Cars is probably the weakest Pixar film so far---and I started to think that maybe it wasn't as good a movie as I thought as I was watching it. I wonder if that's something a professional critic really should be doing, if he/she wants to have separate, original responses to movies. Maybe I still retain a hint of caring about what other people think---a trait that I suppose is a less than desirable one for a critic.

Upon reflection (and the insights of other film writers), I could probably create a whole long list of problems with the film. Yes, it's fairly predictable early on where the story is going to once we see that the main character, a race car named Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), is selfish and too much in love with stardom---obviously, this being a Disney film, he's going to have to change his ways. In fact, the movie as a whole is pretty predictable, period. Yes, the movie, at 116 minutes, is probably a bit too long and meandering. Yes, perhaps the computer animation in this one isn't as consistently dazzling as, say, the extraordinarily detailed underwater visuals of Finding Nemo (although Cars still has amazing sights to spare). Yes, some of the attempts at whimsical jokes fall down with a thud. And certainly one could say that, compared to the thematic depth and maturity of The Incredibles, Cars, with its nostalgia for an allegedly richer, less technologically advanced time, is impossibly retro.

It's no masterpiece or anything, but, given all those problems...I must say, I enjoyed the film. I enjoyed its beautifully rendered outdoor scenery. I enjoyed its loving and nostalgic spirit. But I especially enjoyed the fact that I started the movie pretty much having a good idea where this film was headed, and found myself a little surprise that there was more to it than merely a parable about a selfish man learning to become less so.

On the edges of Cars is a reflective, even slightly elegiac film that suggests that we lost something---human intimacy, an appreciation for beauty, etc.---when cities were allowed to develop and encroach upon small towns like the film's Radiator Springs, where everybody knows each other and nobody is in a rush as most city folk are. "Don't you feel like slowing down once in a while?" one car says to another in this film. As someone who often feels like I have very little time to simply sit down and just relax and be alone with my thoughts, that kind of sentiment certainly speaks to me in a profound way. I mean, for all the mundane beauty of hustling, bustling New York City, there isn't always much of a chance for real human connection in a big city like that---everyone always seems to be on the go, headed somewhere. Cars---going beyond its predictably Disney-ish "think about others and don't be too selfish" moral---depicts an appealingly idyllic fantasy town that stands in stark contrast to the impersonality of technologically advanced cities.

Now, of course, that might strike many others as an old-hat theme, one that has been explored with more insight and honesty in other (live-action) films. Perhaps. (For me, nothing in Cars comes close to matching that long, eloquent, wordless sequence in Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 Solaris in which a camera follows behind a car traveling through city highways and byways for about five minutes---first starting out in black and white; cutting to one of the characters sitting in the backseat of the car; then cutting back to the camera following behind the car, now in color, as it enters a city; and then cutting to an overhead bird's-eye view of the city's twisting highways---in evoking the exuberance and impersonality of big cities.) I'll just say that I nevertheless found myself touched by the film in parts, and occasionally dazzled by the scenery John Lasseter & co. create to visually expand upon this theme; the desert scenery is so majestic that it's hard not to understand why one of the cars, Sally (Bonnie Hunt), says she never wanted to leave it.

I'll also say this: sometimes, for film critics and for wannabe "serious" filmgoers, it's perhaps too easy to cynically dismiss a goodhearted movie such as this just because it follows a predictable character trajectory, or because it trumpets values many other children's films---such as Pixar's own Toy Story---has trumpeted before. Intellectually, I know this film is probably second-rate Pixar at best, and perhaps its view of the past is overly rosy-colored and dishonest. But emotionally I was moved by its depth of feeling and by its warmth and faint sadness. And, if it was overlong, I didn't really mind: its relaxed pace seems all of a piece with its nostalgia and sense of loss.

And if one could conceivably cry "bullshit" at its view of the past---well, maybe it's just personal wish fulfillment on my part that allows me to enjoy it nevertheless.

Ironic, though, isn't it, that a story that believes in a more innocent, albeit less technologically advanced, time is populated by talking cars---cars being one of the great technological advances of the past century? (Granted, there is not even a mention of hybrid cars in this film, but still...)

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Inspiration (AFI's, Not William Hung's)

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This is probably a bit late, since it was on Wednesday that the American Film Institute had yet another one of their overblown "100 Years...100..." whatever specials. But I rather wanted to say something about this most recent countdown of theirs, even though I technically didn't watch any of it.

This time, the topic was "inspirational films" and---surprise surprise---Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life emerged at the top of the heap. I haven't yet examined the rest of the list in depth to say anything else about it, but I can definitely see why the AFI would consider Capra's holiday classic the most inspirational American film ever made.

Heck, I'll admit it: it moved me the first time I saw it a couple of years ago. But then, I think I was in my "dark" phase when I first caught the film during Christmastime on TV, when I was dwelling on how much of a wuss I was for allowing my mother to push me (however unwittingly) into the accounting field. Call it over-identifying with a fictional character, but I couldn't help but sympathize deeply with George Bailey's yearning to do all the ambitious things he wanted to do when he was younger---travel all over the world, start some kind of business, etc. But everyone depended on him in Bedford Falls, and so he never felt he could leave. Personally, I was taken with George's plight because I saw it as a yearning to escape from a mundane existence---something that I was obsessed with when I was thinking hard about what direction I was headed in college and beyond.

Because I looked at the film in that very personal way, perhaps I should have logically cried "bullshit" at the Capra-corny uplifting ending, which affirms George's mundane, unspectacular existence by emphasizing his importance in the eyes of everyone else in Bedford Falls. That's not really the message I was looking for, especially after seeing Kanji Watanabe rise up against the prospect of dying an insignificant old lifelong bureaucrat by doing one final noble deed in Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (the most inspirational movie I've ever seen), and also after seeing Jack Nicholson's Warren Schmidt break down at the end of Alexander Payne's About Schmidt (which, I think, has a mild kinship with Ikiru) after realizing an African kid whom he's never met is the only one who takes him seriously. (I was moved to tears by the end of both films.) Compared to those conclusions, the ending of It's a Wonderful Life doesn't really solve anything if you think about it---by the end, George Bailey still hasn't traveled the world. Who knows? Maybe in a few weeks he'll become depressed all over again thinking of what he could have done if he could have somehow left Bedford Falls.

And can you resist Clarence's final, immortal "No man is a failure who has friends"? I'd certainly like to believe it. Granted, Capra builds up to this conclusion by basically rigging it, creating his own unmistakable fantasy Americana, in which everyone in town depends on this one man to handle their finances and stuff. That was pretty much always Capra's way. But only a hard cynic would allow that to deter them from going along with the emotional ride It's a Wonderful Life skillfully and passionately provides. Any reservations will only register afterward, when you think closely about the implications of the film---if, of course, you're not still high on the emotional uplift provided by its ending.


New Pulse article published yesterday (Friday)! This one compares Stanley Kubrick's two war films, Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket. In it, I find Paths of Glory the better film (for me, it's no contest---unless future viewings of Full Metal Jacket convince me otherwise, especially regarding its scattered second half, after Vincent D'Onofrio's Gomer Pyle shoots himself), although both films are worth seeing. Even Kubrick at less than his best is still worth engaging intellectually.

The Pulse editor even added a tagline to the end of this recent article, noting that I'm a "film enthusiast." That I am, although I was surprised she actually decided to use those words at all.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Stream of Consciousness No. 3

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - One of the things that I might start asking moviegoing or moviewatching companions to do from now on is to try not to ask me what I thought of a particular film immediately after it's over.

While surfing the internet today, I came across a recent post on a blog maintained by a web-based film writer, Jim Emerson. This passage stood out for me:

"As for the 'pack mentality' among critics---that can only develop if there are multiple critics' screenings over a period of time. In most cases, a commercial thriller like Running Scared would be screened only once---at an 'all media' screening, with an invited audience (targeted radio station giveaway passes). It might screen up to a week in advance of the opening, and critics go off and write their reviews. In most cases, they sure don't stand around and talk about it first. I don't know a decent critic who would try to sway other critics one way or another about a film. That kind of thing shows a lack of professional integrity....And, besides, why tip your hand and give away your take on a movie before you've fully formulated it, written it and published it? I don't want anybody to know how I felt about a movie until my review is published---especially publicists! In LA, I specifically asked them not to pounce on me the moment after the screening, while I was still absorbing the movie. In fact, a lot of times I don't know precisely how I feel about a certain movie (and why) until I start writing about it and feel my way back into it, do some exploring of the experience."

This interested me because, as a writer having written a whole bunch of film reviews for the Daily Targum and elsewhere, I know I've come across instances where I've thought something about a particular movie only to realize, as I write a review for it, that I might actually like or dislike a movie more than I thought initially. The point is, as a person who at least professes to thinking more deeply about films I see than most people, I've come to feel that I need time after a film screening to digest what I've just seen and reflect on it. When people who immediately ask me after a movie "So what did you think?" I risk giving a snap response that I may regret later, if I decide, upon reflection, that maybe a particular film was more problematic than I initially thought.

Besides...frankly, I suck at giving verbal opinions! I stutter and stumble, especially if I'm trying to give an intelligent verbal opinion right after seeing a movie. So if anyone still wants to ask me what I thought of a movie right after seeing it, one probably shouldn't expect more than a one-word "good" or "eh" response. That would probably be more honest than me trying to come up with something more thoughtful on the spot.

You know what I've realized, as I've written this post, though? That some of the previous film review posts on this blog have been the result of snap responses, often written on the same night I've seen that particular film. My review of United 93, for instance, was based almost entirely on the visceral feelings I experienced as I left the theater.

The problem with this snap approach is: sometimes I have a tendency to publish things about a film that I might regret publishing later. My United 93 post on this blog is an example: in hindsight, I think that perhaps I didn't go far enough in seriously questioning the use of a film that basically tries to pass itself off as an objective account of what happened during two fateful hours on 9/11 without providing much insight into why this atrocity occurred. Perhaps I should have pursued that line of reasoning to its logical conclusion---and thus perhaps should have given it less than a three-star rating because maybe I should have logically concluded that, as terrific a piece of filmmaking it is, it might not be all that useful to thinking audiences. (In addition, perhaps I should have been even harder on X-Men: The Last Stand than I was, because it really was a disappointment compared to the first two films of the series.)

When you publish something, it's as if you're putting final (not absolute, but relative, I guess) thoughts on paper. So you better make sure that they're really your final thoughts, and that you mean it, and won't regret it later. As an aspiring film critic, I think I'm still working on having enough confidence to take strong stands, to not be mixed all the time, and, above all, to think carefully about a film I've seen and take trains of thought to logical conclusions.

But of course I should not totally deny what I felt as I watched something. Maybe that's the struggle of all film critics: to reconcile both thoughts and feelings, allied with a reasonable understanding of how film perhaps inspires those thoughts and feelings.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

On the Edge of Cynicism

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - When I'm not busy writing or watching a DVD or doing something else, I sometimes reflect on how little in-depth knowledge I really have about politics in general.

As some of you readers might have gleaned from the lack of political content in my blog, I'm not a particularly political person. Oh, I occasionally follow certain national and international political stories in the news, of course: with a president as divisive as George W. Bush has been for over five years now, and criticism mounting against people within his administration and in Congress, it certainly isn't easy to avoid at least hearing about stuff going on in Washington. But I don't act political. I don't belong to either of the two major political parties, nor do I seriously involve myself in political activities like campaigning for a particular candidate I like. Nor do I really follow political news with quite the same intensity as I do entertainment news or news in my own life.

And, at the risk of sounding like my usual whiny passive self, sometimes that bothers me a bit.

The university environment encourages a lot of things that encourage growth in intelligence of its students, but one thing it especially encourages---and almost demands---is an engagement with the politics of the day. Frequently in my classes I've heard both professors and fellow students rail against what they perceive as a general apathy among most Americans as far as knowledge of politics is concerned. By implication, to not take an interest in political news is to be just like most other apathetic Americans. (Obviously, there are plenty of other, most likely better, reasons to follow political news, but that's one of the main ones, it seems, that have been trumpeted in some of the classes I've taken during my three years at Rutgers so far.)

I certainly don't want to feel like an average politically apathetic American.

And yet...sometimes I can't help it when I feel, from reading the newspaper or watching one of the news networks, as if nothing much good ever really comes out of Washington politically. I sometimes can't help it when I feel as if I can't trust any promise a politician might make, especially during a political campaign. And I especially sometimes feel like all these political and world issues are so complicated, based on histories of conflict and resentment, that I'd much rather just say "whatever," sit back, and just greet every new report of violence with an air of indifference: "Here we go again."

Maybe subconsciously I feel that it's more comfortable to be cynical. Saves me the trouble of having to actually try to have some kind of emotional investment in some political issue---and especially saves me the trouble of having to try to defend a position in some heated argument.

Maybe that's what leaves me cynical about politics sometimes: the heated arguments. And not only because I'm pretty much one of the crappiest debaters you will ever see. Sometimes I see two or three people going at it over, say, the death penalty, and I think: Man, how can you be so dang sure of the rightness of your position? I know I never seem to have my mind made up about anything; and yet you insist on arguing that your position is the right one? All these major political issues that many politicians try to simplify for us are really so nuanced that sometimes it just boggles my mind---and leaves me feeling as if maybe ignorance is bliss when it comes to politics.

This descent into self-confession was inspired mostly by today's New York Times news article about yet another instance of violence between the two Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas in Jerusalem. Again?, I couldn't help but think when I saw the headline this morning. Can't those two groups just talk things out and try to reach some kind of compromise through dialogue without resorting to violence?

Perhaps a naive attitude, I'll admit. But so many of these long-running ethnic conflicts seem based on histories of petty land squabbles and long-ago resentments that after a while, I can't help but say, "Why can't you all just let bygones be bygones?" In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: look, I understand that Palestinians want to feel like they have a home and all, and I understand that some of the land in contention have some kind of religious and historical signifiance to Israelis (correct me if I'm wrong). But is land really worth all the blood that has been shed since, I guess, the Six Day War in 1967?

At least, that's the way I see it. The truth is, my knowledge of all the issues surrounding this conflict isn't very deep. My knowledge of a lot of political issues isn't all that deep. Certainly not as deep as my knowledge of, say, movies.

One of the things for which my mom occasionally criticizes me is that I care only about movies, and not enough about anything else. I don't think she is right, but she isn't totally wrong. I'll admit, I've never really delved too deeply into politics---even when I was in a political debate class in my senior year of high school---as much as I've explored the world of movies. The arts have always been what grabbed me; politics, by comparison, have always struck me as perhaps important but mostly depressing. That's probably a deliberately ignorant attitude on my part, but it's how I feel. I know that whenever I open up a newspaper in the morning---if I have time to open up a newspaper!---I'll usually go straight to the Arts section first. I have to force myself to read through one of the front page stories---although it's certainly not an impossible feat for me.

Sometimes this fact worries me. In the back of my head, I know that I really do need to know a bit more about what's going on out there in the political world than I currently do now. Even with the film criticism I hope to write in the future, such knowledge may be important. If all I know is a world filtered through movies, my view of movies as expressed through my film criticism might possibly be entertaining to read, but it most likely wouldn't be all that interesting or even thought-provoking or enlightening. And film criticism without such qualities is, frankly, useless. I don't want to feel like I'm doing something useless.

If only there was much to get excited about in politics. Every day it seems like more corruption, more fearmongering, more empty promises---more opportunity to simply throw your hands up in the air in defeat. Sometimes I yearn for a world without all the division caused by politics.

But knowing that that's too much to hope for, I do my levelheaded best, I think, to stay mildly involved in what's going on. I usually don't have much thought or strong opinion on what's going on, but I usually have a general idea what's going on. And while that might not make me equipped to speak intelligently on political issues---something which sometimes gets me down---is there a whole lot wrong with keeping such a distance, as long as one still tries to stay reasonably informed?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Brief Life Update No. 2: Damn You, Mapquest and My Ignorance of Roads!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Today I went to Somerset to meet with the lady at the Drug Fair Group who posted a job listing on the Rutgers job search database looking for someone to help with data entry.

To remind people: this was the position that still appealed to me even after I basically secured a spot on the Megamovies team as a cashier this past Thursday. It looked like an easy enough job---learning some computer system and inputing data---and it paid $9/hr. rather than Megamovies' $6.50/hr. And, since I would be working during the day at the Drug Fair Group, I would be able to have nights free to do stuff like watch DVDs or write (either articles or blog entries such as this). To me, it seemed like just the kind of job I was looking for.

I think the interview went well for the fact that I almost got lost getting to my destination and ended up arriving about 15 minutes late. (There's a River Road, but there is no CR-622 West, only North and South! What the hell, Mapquest???) Not promising. Of course I explained to the woman I met what happened, and she seemed understanding. But consider that she apparently has more people she plans to interview during the week; at least one of them will probably actually make his/her interview on time and perhaps make a better first impression on her.

Anyway, she told me she would get back to me by the end of the week. I won't hold my breath---but then, I've probably learned not to hold my breath for anything job-related. You just set yourself up for slightly painful disappointment.

Thankfully, I guess, I have Megamovies to fall back on. I probably deserve better than $6.50/hr., but at least it's better than not getting paid anything at all this summer. And I guess cashier experience would be helpful in the future.

Still...if it turns out my interview at Drug Fair Group was successful, I think I may have a decision to make as to whether I should go with the Somerset job and forget Megamovies, or stick with Megamovies, or try to do both. Decisions decisions. At least I have decisions between jobs to make, rather than no job prospects at all. That's certainly progress from a few weeks ago.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Blast from the Past

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - In the nostalgic spirit that infuses Robert Altman's new film A Prairie Home Companion (***½ out of ****), allow me to reflect a bit on how my love affair with movies started.

How did it start? Gosh, I wish I could remember a specific moment. Well, I remember that, when I was in sixth grade, I used to have an affection for horror movies. (Maybe it went hand in hand with my obsession with the TV show The X-Files at the time.) In East Brunswick, there used to be a store called the Video Vault, and usually the first section I'd go to would be the horror section. Lined up on the video shelves were VHS boxes, almost all of them with forbidding images that couldn't help but excite my immature self subconsciously. And it seemed like every Friday-into-Saturday late night ABC would show some kind of horror film---often one of the network's old TV horror flicks from the '70s, but sometimes a real film, albeit censored and broken up into segments---that I would tape. (I remember there was one particularly cheesy one called Curse of the Black Widow which I suppose I'll always remember for the, I thought, effectively creepy moment in which we finally see a woman transform into a giant spider and terrorize her relatives.) My attraction to such freaky intrigue was heightened by the fact that my mother didn't really seem to approve of my taste in horror: whenever I'd try to get her to allow to me to rent a horror title, she'd usually ask me, "Do you really have to get this movie? Isn't there something else we could all watch?" That inevitably increased the lure.

Yeah, not necessarily a promising foundation on which to base an appreciation of film, in hindsight. For a while, I just couldn't get enough of slasher flicks---and not the artful slasher scares of John Carpenter's Halloween (which I technically still haven't seen in its original 2.35:1 widescreen format---important especially for Carpenter, who refuses to shoot in anything other than 2.35:1) or the extravagant visual imagination of Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street(with Freddy Krueger still king of the Michael Myers-Jason Voorhees-Freddy Krueger horror-movie holy trinity, for my money), but the low-rent exploitative bloody sadism of the Friday the 13th flicks. Can you believe there used to be a time when I couldn't help but watch Kevin Bacon's death-by-arrow scene in the original Friday the 13th over and over again?

Somehow, my taste in film evolved from that point, though. I think it must have been my early exposure to the writings of influential modern film critic Pauline Kael that aided in the personal evolution process---not only because her prose was so passionate and vivid, but also because her rave review of Martin Scorsese's early 1973 film Mean Streets led me to one of the most transforming film experiences of my young life.

Mean Streets startled me when I was young because, up to that point---maybe when I was still in junior high school---I had never seen anything quite like it. It was the film's realistic feel that really got to me, I think. Having been weaned on craving the scary and fantastical, I was stunned to discover that movies could also reflect real life. (Of course, I would only pick up on Scorsese's use of expressionistically hellish lighting in Mean Streets much later, when I actually started being conscious of the visuals of a film.)

If there was a moment which crystallized my passion for film and thinking about movies, it was probably Mean Streets that did it. And if there was one single moment that crystallized my interest in writing about film---well, perhaps that moment came at the end of last summer when I finally decided to drop out of the Rutgers Business School and refocus my energies on journalism and movies at Rutgers.

I indulge briefly in this flight of nostalgia to perhaps suggest the reason as to why I responded as much as I did to the warmth and nostalgia of A Prairie Home Companion, and maybe to Robert Altman's style in general.

I say the latter cautiously only because I haven't yet explored much of Altman's work; except for M*A*S*H (1970), Nashville (1975), and The Player (1992), I haven't seen a lot of his films in order to know for sure if I've gotten his style or his sensibility totally pinned down. But, even if A Prairie Home Companion may not have the occasional sharp edges of those three films, it has a complicated but wonderful feeling to it that I always treasure when I see it in a film: the feeling that I'm seeing real life playing out in front of me, the feeling that I'm seeing real people interacting, and especially the feeling that the film's director has a genuine interest in seeing these real people interact.

Perhaps some of that feeling comes from Altman's sound: he once again uses overlapping dialogue, and the result, as it has always been, sounds more "live" than most movie sound. But, for me, that feeling goes all the way back to my personal experience with Mean Streets: the feeling of watching not a film, but real life filtered through a director's vision. (Scorsese didn't use overlapping dialogue in the way that Altman has made famously his, and yet in Mean Streets he managed to achieve a similarly sharp effect.) Sure, I could probably take the occasional well-made action film or even the occasional scary horror flick. But, given the choice between sitting through the pointless non-stop action spectacle of a Mission: Impossible III and the parade of intimate human emotions marching through A Prairie Home Companion, these days I'd surely take the latter every time.

I'm not sure how else to describe the glow I felt from this film except to suggest that it's the same glow I've felt from watching, say, Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, François Truffaut's Jules and Jim, even Alexander Payne's Sideways: humanist works that actually bother to tell touching human stories or evoke recognizable yet complex human emotions. A Prairie Home Companion may not quite be on the same level as those films, but the sensibility is similar: the attention to, and affection for, human detail allied with technical rigor. For Altman, the people matter, not empty style.

But enough about what I felt; what is A Prairie Home Companion about? By detailing the fictional backstage and onstage goings-on in the final two broadcast hours of Garrison Keillor's long-running radio show of the same name, Altman creates a metaphysical portrait of a group of people dealing with the passing of an era. I say "metaphysical" because many of the characters in the film are physical manifestations of fictional characters featured on Keillor's radio show. The satirical Guy Noir, for instance, becomes an actual detective in this film, a security guard of sorts for the show. (He's played by Kevin Kline with a mix of understated elegance and subtle spoofery.) But the most metaphysical creation of them all is Virginia Madsen's Dangerous Woman, a self-proclaimed angel who hovers over the film as a symbol of the film's meditation on death, both physical and spiritual.

Robert Altman is 81 and getting up there in years, and it's easy to see A Prairie Home Companion as his way of dealing with his increasing old age through this intimate backstage saga that deals with the death of old-time radio, which is what Keillor's radio show represents, in a way---a real, if lightly satirical, blast from the past. That's probably why the film seems as lazy and relaxed as it is. But Altman's film is not obsessed with death: it still has too much love of life to be too bitter or depressing. (Maybe, in this respect, Lindsay Lohan's Lola, the suicide-obsessed daughter of the singing Johnson sisters (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin), is actually kind of a key character: it summarizes the film's complex attitude towards life and death.) Music abounds in this film, as it did in Nashville, not only to encapsulate character relations and express emotions (although Nashville admittedly does a better job of doing so), but also to simply give the film a lift. You can only hear this glorious music-making if you're alive, Altman seems to say.

A Prairie Home Companion isn't quite perfection. I found Tommy Lee Jones' Axeman---who appears about two-thirds of the way into the film---to be a slight misstep: when he fails to recognize the bust of F. Scott Fitzgerald---the theater in which "A Prairie Home Companion" is performed is named after him---you instantly know he's meant to be villainous, since he's the one that has pulled the plug on the show because he thinks the show is too out of touch with the times. It's a bit heavy-handed for a film that refuses to beat you over the head with anything else (although Jones underplays his role smoothly). And even if Altman is better than almost anyone else at creating character tapestries, I suppose at times I wished for a bit more dramatic meat to the characters. There are so many of them---although Nashville had more characters, to be sure---that inevitably not every character gets emphasized equally. (We never do get a sense of where Lola's obsession with with suicide actually comes from.)

But that may be the price Altman pays for his uniquely improvisatory approach to filmmaking, and I think what he's come up with in A Prairie Home Companion is good enough to be both sheerly enjoyable and rather touching. You don't really have to be a big fan of Garrison Keillor's radio show; you just have to be ready and willing to experience authentic real life onscreen. This may or may not be one of Altman's best films, but it shows a recognized master working out his own personal approach to dealing with death, and this kind of personal filmmaking is something that should be treasured. Though I risk sounding like one of these blurb writers, I'll go ahead and say it: A Prairie Home Companion in part reminded me of why I love movies.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Look, Ma---A Summer Job?

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - In the interest of encouraging more, uh, audience participation in this blog of mine, I will entertain suggestions for the following problem:

Some progress on the job search front! A couple of weeks ago, I filled out an application at a local movie theater, Megamovies---and a couple of days ago one of the theater managers got back to me and requested an interview. So yesterday I spoke with him, and it looks like I will have a cashier job there---provided I talk things over with the House Manager over at the State Theatre, where I currently "work." The manager I spoke to at Megamovies thought there might be a problem with increased hours during the summer at the theater---certainly not the case, since there are maybe a little over 10 events in the coming two months. I think I'll just try to ask the House Manager either to allow me to sign up for only, maybe, a handful of events in July and August (much less than the four-per-month requirement for ushers), or possibly just allow me to take a leave of absence from the theater for two months. (Other ushers have done it.)

Here's the problem: I found out that I'm going to be paid $6.50/hr. at Megamovies. Minimum wage, just about. It's the same rate I'm getting from the State Theatre. I was disappointed by this, though I think I hid it well when the Megamovies manager answered my question about the pay.

Now, I also have a job interview this coming Monday at a drugstore in Somerset that promises to pay $9/hr. for about 25 hours a week. (I'm going to be working part-time at Megamovies too, although I stupidly forgot to ask how many hours the manager schedules per week for cashiers.) It's a data entry job, basically: looks easy enough. Sure, I'd have to travel farther---from East Brunswick, Somerset is about 30 minutes away---but I get paid more. Show me the money, as Cuba Gooding, Jr.'s famous catchphrase in Jerry Maguire goes.

I want to keep that option open, but I certainly don't want to forsake this Megamovies opportunity and pin all of my hopes on this job interview on Monday. Now that it looks like I might have a job at Megamovies, I need that to fall back on in case my job interview on Monday goes for naught. But if I do end up getting a position at that Somerset drugstore, should I reject Megamovies? Or should I take up my mother's suggestion: try to work both jobs? Personally, I kinda want some free time for myself this summer; don't want to feel like I'm working all the time this summer, as much as I perhaps need the money. (I still have writing and filmwatching to do, dammit!) And also: if I got that Somerset job, I could still work occasional shifts at the State Theatre on certain weekday and/or weekend evenings.

Or should I bite the bullet and try to juggle all three? Eh, perhaps that's pushing it...

So that's, in a nutshell, the little problem I've set for myself. Just take the low-paying job right now, or aim a little higher? And if I do get the slightly higher-paying job, should I attempt to balance both (assuming that the House Manager allows me to take some time off from the State Theatre)? Suggestions are welcome...

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Devil's Number, The Devil's News Coverage

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Last night's Daily Show had a sharp demolition of all the silly news coverage over the fact that yesterday was 6/6/06---close to 666, the so-called "Devil's number." A montage of the various news reports concerning 6/6/06 ended with clips from reports that apparently discussed how people actually expected it to be the day of the Apocalypse, or something like that.

"Day of the Devil," said host Jon Stewart, "...or regular numerical sequence???"

One of the things my classmates and I discussed this past semester in my Media Criticism class was how advertising had become so prevalent in our society that it was perhaps starting to creep into news as well, however unconsciously. Frequently, for instance, you'll see news reports touting the latest hot new film, and not always in a serious, in-depth manner either: often, the kind of touting that goes on in some news is done in a fluffy style, whether by joking with a celebrity involved in the film, or perhaps even indirectly---by reporting on something related to a particular film's subject. Usually the proximity of such a news report as the latter type is such that it tips you off that, at that point, the news program is, in a way, advertising that upcoming film. A bald marketing tie-in, in other words.

Now, maybe it's all just coincidence that many news programs yesterday seemed to feel the need to waste a few minutes discussing the history of 666 the same day that the new remake of The Omen opened, on 6/6/06. But I just couldn't help reading a kind of subconscious news industry and entertainment industry collusion in the coverage. (Even Brian Lehrer, one of the midday talk show hosts on the public radio station WNYC 93.9 FM had a whole segment on his two-hour show devoted to 666.) Obviously, news programs need news to fill up time, but couldn't they have come up with something more interesting and enlightening than creating silly, pointless hype about a day that has absolutely no significance whatsoever save for the fact that, if you write out the date a certain way, it almost looks like the number of the Devil? (Damn that extra "0," said Daily Show host Jon Stewart last night.)

I guess my point is: if 2oth Century Fox hadn't been clever enough to open The Omen yesterday, I wonder if so many networks would have made such a big deal about the day? Coincidence? Maybe not.

Of course, this is old news to a lot of people: this kind of puffery has been going on for a long while now in the media. But then 6/6/06 only happens once every 100 years. Unless I'm really fucking lucky, I don't think I'll be alive in another century to sound off on the absurdity of this implicit movie promotion in the news media. It sure can be difficult to trust TV news---especially American TV news---sometimes.

Oh, and on last night's Daily Show segment about the 6/6/06 coverage, Jon Stewart posed the great central question: if people actually think we're all going to Hell on 6/6/06, then "I couldn't imagine where you think we're going on July 11."

Monday, June 05, 2006

Out Jury Duty-ing

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Nearly every American citizen is summoned to do it at least once in his/her lifetime.

Today was my first time.

Yes, readers, I showed by respect for the American legal system by going to jury duty today at the Middlesex County Courthouse.

I was originally supposed to go for jury duty towards the end of March, but my scheduled date was on a Thursday, a day full of classes. So I got it rescheduled for today.

Overall, it wasn't bad. At least I brought some reading material---a copy of the New York Times, a cinema history book I've been trying to read---to keep me busy as I sat around in the jury assembly room. Others kept busy either with video games, mp3 players, or the plasma screen TV playing soap operas. And it turns out two people I knew were there too: a former East Brunswick school district peer, and a former Churchill Jr. High School teacher (Mrs. Chang, former history teacher, for those fellow EB-ers who are curious) whose younger son my youngest brother Michow used to be friends with. So I talked with both of them about stuff to pass the time. (In hindsight, I wish I had reached out to someone new over there: like the fairly good-looking young woman sitting next to me reading Smithsonian magazine and reading some book on natural history. Looked like good material for getting into a conversation. You know me: always trying to get opportunities to talk to girls I've never met, maybe succeeding about, oh, 25% of the time, if that. More on my feelings about women in another post, perhaps...)

Yes, I was called into a courtroom. Yes, I was called to sit in a jury box. Yes, I was asked a bunch of questions by the judge---including papers I read and TV programs I watch---and asked to introduce myself.

And no, I am not serving on a jury. The lawyer for the defendant---this was a car-accident damages case---asked that I be excused.

The judge emphasized, "Don't be offended if you're excused by one of the lawyers. It's nothing against you personally." Me, offended? Nah. I got movies to see, things to write, etc. Still, I had to wonder what led the lawyer to find me so undesirable to sit on that jury for that case? Was it because I read the New York Times? Was it because I said I watched 24? Or maybe it was because, after explaining about a minor accident I had gotten into a few years ago, I said, "I think [emphasis mine] I could be impartial in this trial"?

Who knows? It's not like I'm going to be losing any sleep over it though.

So most of my post-lunch day at jury duty was spent talking to one of the aforementioned two familiar faces, reading my cinema history book, or taking a power nap (tough to do on the chairs in there unless you either slump down in your seat or use your arm as a kind of pillow, like I did). At around 3 p.m., most of us were dismissed.

And that's the end of that chapter.

I might not have minded serving on the jury of that damages case, though. The judge said it was supposed to be a short trial---lasting up to about Thursday, he estimated---and the sessions would have most likely been half-days rather than full days. Heck, it's not like I have much to do, being that I still don't have a damn summer job yet.


Boy, I was thinking as I was reading the Sports section of today's New York Times, I've become mostly out of touch with New York baseball.

It has really been a while since I seriously followed both the New York Mets or the New York Yankees. I root for the Mets---notice, I didn't say I was a Mets fan, because that would imply I'm very knowledgeable about the team, which I'm not, really---but these past two years there hasn't been much to root for. I guess the air went out of the team after they lost to the Yankees in that World Series in 2000 and they came back the next season with a pretty miserable year overall. Since then, the team has been in a rebuilding process, replacing managers (Bobby Valentine for Willie Randolph) and general managers (Steve Phillips for Omar Minaya), and Fred Wilpon buying the rest of the Mets from Nelson Doubleday and then becoming Chairman of the Board. And, of course, they're trying to get younger. David Wright, Jose Reyes, Chris Woodward, Lastings Milledge, etc.---all a bunch of young, energetic baseball players looking to be part of the next generation of the New York Mets.

All this has translated into a first third of the current baseball season---the first since the departure of former franchise player Mike Piazza, who seemed to be showing his age as a hitter at the end of his undoubtedly successful tenure with the team---that apparently has taken the National League East by surprise. The Atlanta Braves, as of today, are in third place, six games behind the first-place Mets. (Those pesky Braves usually find a way to resurge as the season goes on, though.) In second place are the Philadelphia Phillies, 4.5 games behind.

If all that sounds too, uh, statistical and objective, that's because I haven't really followed baseball in a while with the same intensity that I did in, say, high school or in my freshman year of college. If I've never necessarily been a diehard Mets fan, at least I used to follow them game by game, listening on the radio, watching snatches on it whenever I could on television, reading up on them in the newspaper. I've gotten away from that in a big way in the past few years, and now that the Mets seem to be doing well again, I feel a little twinge of regret sometimes when I realize how much baseball has ceased to fill up at least the sports-interest part of my life. I guess film and journalism have taken up most of my time. Not that I'm complaining---just observing with a bit of emotion to it.

I've also noticed recently how injury-wracked the New York Yankees are right now. Derek Jeter---one of their bona-fide stars---was hit in the hand on Sunday, and he's apparently to miss the big Boston Red Sox series coming up. Alex Rodriguez has come down with a stomach flu he supposedly contracted from a Miami Heat player, and Jason Giambi has been stricken once again with a similar stomach virus. But Jeter---he's the star player, he's the team's Mr. Reliable (especially in the postseason), and it'll be interesting to see how the team responds to these injuries to their big bats.

If, of course, I'm interested enough to follow them.


While we're on the New York Times, I noticed this book review that was published yesterday about a compilation of film writings from various critics called American Movie Critics: An Anthology From the Silents Until Now by Clive James---a review that seems to have been written by a highly articulate amateur who seems to be almost totally ignorant about film as an art form.

Now, granted, Mr. James has a point when he suggests at the end of his long (too long) essay that good movie critics need to be in touch with the outside world in order to greatly enhance their film criticism. Movies aren't everything; heck, even my mother says that. The best movies, I believe, do draw upon real life and represent it in a way that is both aesthetically intriguing and recognizable.

And perhaps Mr. James is right to be wary of critics who are too bound by film theory in examining movies. The auteur theory---the idea that a film is primarily an expression of the director's vision, his thoughts and feelings---sounds good when you look at it, but just because a director might have an interesting style or pet theme does not guarantee that every movie of his will necessarily be good, as some auteurists believed. Some flexibility of personal response is definitely needed.

But there are some things that bother me about what I perceive to be Mr. James' rather uninformed attitude toward film as an art that lessens his credibility (no matter how clever a wordsmith he is, or thinks he is). It seems obvious, from his review, that he sees film not as visual works of art to be examined and dissected perhaps more than once. His vision of cinema seems like that of a slightly more intelligent than usual casual viewer who's looking more for instant gratification---"entertainment," if you will---in movies. Example:

" the movies there are no later impressions without a first impression, because you will have stopped watching. Sometimes a critic persuades you to give an unpromising-looking movie a chance, but the movie had better convey the impression pretty quickly that the critic might be right. By and large, it's the movie itself that tells you it means business. It does that by telling a story. No story, no movie. Robert Bresson only did with increasing slowness what other directors had done in a hurry. But when Bresson, somewhere in the vicinity of Camelot, reached the point where almost nothing happening became nothing happening at all, you were gone. A movie has to glue you to your seat even when it's pretending not to."

This is the hyper-articulate equivalent of defending some average Joe who bashes a movie just because he feels it's "boring" without ever engaging with the film's substance: what it's trying to say, and how---whether visually or verbally---it tries to say it. Mr. James seems to be suggesting that, in movies, if it doesn't grab you the first time you see it, it's probably not a very good film. It's as if he wholeheartedly believes in superficial reactions to movies: if it doesn't excite you, it must suck. Personally, I find that a terribly narrow-minded, even smug approach to looking at films. Recent example: Terrence Malick's The New World might have been "slow" and at times a little boring, but it still had entrancing, expressive imagery; a highly original film style; and subtle themes that one couldn't necessarily grasp in one viewing without perhaps examining the imagery and the style carefully to see how it explored those themes. It might have some interesting things to say about the founding of Jamestown and the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas---but if one can't make it past the first viewing without finding it "dull," one shouldn't even try to take it seriously as a work of art? Call me pretentious, but that strikes me as an awfully immature, unserious way of looking at movies. There have been a few instances---The New World was admittedly one of them---where I've found myself squirming in my seat at a film even as I recognized that there was something genuinely deep going on underneath the surface slowness. Perhaps one just needs another careful viewing to at least get a little closer to grasping whatever nuances one might have missed the first time, especially once you've familiarized yourself with a film's plot and can then focus on aesthetics.

Which leads me to the thing that really got to me about that above quote, his "No story, no movie."

Here's what I think: if a movie can tell a well-structured, compelling story, that's all well and good. Personally, though, I'm not one to necessarily focus strictly on the story. Why should every good film follow a clean three-act structure closely? Yes, film at its best can be an all-embracing medium, an amalgamation of the novel, the stage play, and visual art in one. That's what's so amazing about it, in my eyes. But if a movie intrigues me visually with its cinematography, or stimulates me with the themes it explores or the emotions it evokes, I tend to not dwell so much on the actual plot. There's so much more to film than its story, and to judge a film simply based on that is---well, plain ignorant, I'd say. Want a good story? Read a novel. Films can certainly tell good stories, but if people looked at movies as simply stories, then how would it be so much different from a novel? Just because it's a novel with moving pictures? There is certainly more to film than that.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Super Serial

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - "My name is Al Gore," says Al Gore in the beginning of Davis Guggenheim's new documentary An Inconvenient Truth (*** out of ****). "I used to be the next president of the United States."

That little joke---referring to Gore's 11th-hour loss of the 2000 presidential election when, for a few hours on election night, everyone seemed to think he was going to be the next president of the United States instead of George W. Bush---gets hearty laughter from the lecture-hall crowd that has assembled to watch his lecture on the impending danger caused by global warming. "I don't find that especially amusing," he adds in a self-mocking deadpan.

This is Al Gore in a way most people haven't quite seen him. Most people attribute his presidential election loss in 2000 to Gore's lack of charisma and passion, but those qualities are certainly in evidence in An Inconvenient Truth as he presents his slideshow---one which he says he has presented many, many times---to both the audience in the film and to us, the viewing audience.

And damned if he doesn't make so convincing a case for the legitimacy of global warming as a real environmental problem that he just might convince most of us to actually get off our passive butts and make big changes in our energy consumption habits. (The end credits of the film start off with a bunch of suggestions for us to take home as to how we can help reduce the danger of global warming.)

But if I dwell a bit more on Al Gore himself that on the content of his slideshow here, it's because I think what makes An Inconvenient Truth more than the usual talking head documentary is director Guggenheim's presentation of Gore in the film.

Global warming is clearly a subject that means a lot to Al Gore. How much? Through Gore's soft-voiced voiceover narration, Guggenheim explores the man's passion for the subject in little bursts that occasionally interrupt his lecture. Perhaps the most intriguing little nugget is Gore's anecdote about the effect the death of his younger sister had on him: basically, it shaped his belief that self-destructive behavior needs to be stamped out before it ever has a chance to get out of hand. In another context, this kind of anecdote might sound like a political campaigning ploy to get easy sympathy: in the context of An Inconvenient Truth, however, it's part and parcel of a documentary that, when it's not involving us with the sobering case Gore lays out for us about how global warming might negatively affect the world in the future if we aren't careful, tries to bring some personal warmth and substance to Gore's lecture, give it a sense of underlying drama.

For me, aside from the content of the slideshow itself, that was one the most interesting thing about An Inconvenient Truth: it's a thoroughly well-argued op-ed piece with the brio of personal drama. Gore presents his statistics and his charts with the flair of a good college lecturer, but by interjecting the central lecture with shots of Gore in private moments and his voiceover narration hinting at why he feels so strongly about the issue of global warming, the juxtapositions somehow enhance the heat of personal commitment that one might not necessarily get from Gore's slideshow without the personalizing interjections.

Isn't it all a bit too flattering, though? Admittedly, this is not a film to criticize Gore's efforts in any way, and so An Inconvenient Truth could perhaps be accused of political image-building rather than sincere activism on the part of the filmmakers. That thought came to my mind a few times, but even if the film does dangerously walk the fine line between journalism and hagiography---listen, everyone, to this great activist Al Gore!---because Gore's message is so powerful, and because Gore is more engaging than most of us have ever seen him in public, for the most part I think it overcame those kinds of concerns. It didn't really bother me a great deal, in other words, although I could see how it might bother others.

What is Gore trying to tell us? That global warming is a real problem, one that is getting worse by the year; that our current administration is ignoring the problem at our peril; that combating global warming is "not just a political issue, but a moral issue." (I'm not sure I understand why he believes it's a moral issue; it's an environmental issue, certainly, but moral?) Why wouldn't we try to save the planet that we live in from becoming inhabitable for future generations, he seems to suggest?

How effective is Gore and An Inconvenient Truth? So effective that, as I drove back home from Princeton's Garden Theatre---where I saw the film---I reflected deeply on how maybe I should have taken the train to Princeton instead, just to save energy. Whether the film---and Gore's concurrently published book---will actually lead the way in helping to save the earth is still an open question. Nevertheless, the film itself is thought-provoking, intriguing on more than one level, and utterly convincing. It demands to be seen.

And yes, this time Al Gore is super serial (a wink wink to South Park fans who might recall a recent lampooning of Gore and his mission, substituting, of all things, a half-man, half-bear, half-pig called---conveniently enough---"Manbearpig" for global warming. Gore's recurring cry in that episode was "I'm super serial"---"I'm serious," in other words).