Sunday, December 31, 2006


EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Oh boy! Where do I even start with David Lynch's insane new magnum opus Inland Empire (**** out of ****)?

Well, let me start by stating a given: that one viewing isn't nearly enough to grasp this movie. Once again, Lynch is experimenting with narrative, trying to play with our expectations and reconfiguring stories in ways that will, to put it crudely, fuck with our heads. But while the Möbius strip narrative of Lost Highway (1997) and the splintered movie fantasy/cruel reality narrative of Mulholland Drive (2001) certainly worked to confuse the hell out of us, Lynch---if one can believe it---actually manages to go even further here in Inland Empire. At first, this seems like your typical movie-within-a-movie...and then you start questioning what's "real" and what's the movie...and then it starts to feel like another movie within that movie-within-a-movie...and so on for three mesmerizing hours.

But the narrative puzzle box of Inland Empire is hardly the only story here. As with Mulholland Drive, Lynch has created a surrealistic, corrosive portrait of Hollywood---even more corrosive, in fact. Mulholland Drive focused its narrative machinations on dreamers who discover the harsh realities of Hollywood life; Inland Empire goes deeper into those harsh realities, dispensing with genre conventions and training its fucked-up eye on an already established star (Laura Dern) who, through the course of the film, seems to undergo a fall that's even more tragic than that which befalls Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive. (Mulholland Drive is named after a street in Hollywood; Inland Empire is a totally made-up name for Lynch's vision of the seedy underbelly of Southern California. Perhaps that should tell you something about the differences between the cumulative visions of the two films right there.) Does that make this a depressing movie, you may ask? It's dark and it's dingy (thanks in part to Lynch's use of miniDV technology instead of film; more on that later), and yet somehow Inland Empire remains oddly playful and bleakly funny, even at its most baffling. (A Greek chorus of floozies doing the "Locomotion" out of nowhere? And I thought Godard and Tarantino were the only masters of such sublime "random" moments in movies!)

Thematically, there's so much that one could latch onto in this beast of a film that I'd probably go crazy in trying to articulate all of the ones I noticed. So I'll just take the time here to mention one thing that I took away from the film: its self-reflexivity. Inland Empire, on a grand scale, seems to be a movie as much about itself as it is about Hollywood. And one of its movie-related targets is acting: just how far an actress is willing to go for her art. Laura Dern has been justly praised for her fearlessness and her fierce intelligence in approaching this monstrously complicated role---does she even know which character she's supposed to be playing at certain points?---but perhaps the key to her startling success in the film comes from the fact Inland Empire is, in part, about her fearlessness, about the depths she would plunge for the sake of approaching a character. As Inland Empire goes on, Lynch starts confusing you as to who exactly we're seeing on the screen: Nikki Grace, the bright-eyed ingenue actress, or Susan Blue, the character she's playing in some cheesy melodrama entitled On High in Blue Tomorrows. That confusion, in fact, is a witty surrealistic take on the idea of actors "inhabiting" a role to the point that it nearly consumes them. (It's often said that Michael Redgrave was never quite the same after playing the haunted ventriloquist in Dead of Night, or Faye Dunaway the same after playing the control freak Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest; heck, among modern actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman has publicly expressed relief that he no longer had to think about Truman Capote after impersonating the hell out of the late writer---and winning an Oscar for his trouble in Capote.)

Of course, what do Polish gangsters, singing and dancing prostitutes, and a television show populated with giant rabbits have to do with Nikki, Sue, or the supposedly cursed script of On High in Blue Tomorrows? Not sure I could tell you with any certainty. Perhaps this is another case of Lynch mixing one character's movie-influenced dreams with sad reality. Maybe Lynch is looking back at his own career through a distorted mirror. Or it may well be that Lynch is just being silly, throwing whatever strikes his subconscious onto the screen with no particular logic to speak of, narrative or emotional.

Maybe I'm just too much of a sucker for experimental stuff, but I'm inclined to give Lynch the benefit of the doubt and believe that Inland Empire will eventually reveal most of its secrets to me in subsequent viewings. (Call me pretentious or cowardly or whatever, but I'd like to remain hopeful on that prospect, especially based on what I've seen and on my past experiences with Lynch.)

This brings me to one of the more controversial aspects of Lynch's films: his use of a consumer-grade digital video camera to shoot Inland Empire as opposed to film. First things first: unlike Michael Mann, Lynch didn't use a high-definition video format to shoot the film (apparently, he found HD too clear for his taste), so Inland Empire almost defiantly looks like amateur digital video, with heavy video grain and washed-out colors and many instances of visual murk. Yes, it isn't always pretty to look at, and one can't really call this movie "beautiful" in any conventional sense---at least, not in the sense that earlier Lynch films like Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive, among others, could be considered beautiful and artistic.

But Inland Empire is very much a film in which Lynch attempts to throw out convention, and in this experimental atmosphere, it seems almost fitting that his experimentation would include his method of filming. In a movie that seems as much about it's movie-ness as it is about the characters and wild situations onscreen, it's almost oddly appropriate---and certainly provocative---that he would chronicle the shooting of a film as some kind of amateur home movie, and attempt to see whether his surrealistic style would take on the new format. You would think that Lynch's art would suffer immensely from the limits of the digital medium, especially a lower-grade one; film seems to be the medium most suited to him, with not only its clarity but also the dreamlike atmosphere film can evoke. But I dunno: for the most part, I wasn't too bothered by the change in format, and while I certainly think people have the right to call it crappy-looking and just leave it at that, I think a more instructive approach would be to think about whether Lynch puts digital video---warts and all---to any interesting uses. I think he does: it seems to me he's forcing us to question whether what we are looking at is necessarily cinema or not. Is cinema cinema just because it's shot on film? Or can Inland Empire be considered cinematic simply because it takes place in a seemingly unfamiliar world and has fictional characters and situations?

For all its narrative complications (if there's an actual narrative to speak of), and for all of the mystique that David Lynch has built up for himself (the IFC Center screening was preceded not only by amusing, random clips from the IFC's "Movie Night with David Lynch" on December 4, but also a clip of actor Justin Theroux reading a poem written by Lynch himself), perhaps that's the most fascinating and valuable thing I get from my first (and certainly not my only) viewing of Inland Empire: it's a movie that, in addition to painting a fairly sour portrait of Hollywood, provokes you into thinking about movies and perhaps even the people behind the making of movies in ways that Mulholland Drive didn't even attempt. Sweeeeet.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - First off: merry Christmas, everyone!

Yeah, that's it. Don't have much to say about Christmas this year (at least, not much to say that won't make me come off as a grinch). As usual, my family is basically treating Dec. 25 like any other day of the year. So no Christmas tree and no gift-giving. The only gift we all have, I guess, is the gift of being alive, heh.

So no fancy-pants plans for us today. And most likely, no trips to a Chinese restaurant where we get to hear an awful Chinese-accented a cappella rendition of "Deck the Halls." (Maybe a viewing of one of my Christmas favorites, Die Hard? Or even its middling, if exhilaratingly bloodthirsty, first sequel?)


Yesterday I returned to Megamovies to try to rattle off a slew of shifts during winter break. It interesting experience, to say the least.

For my first day back in about three-and-a-half months, I was forced to have to brush off the cobwebs of my cashiering knowhow pretty much all by myself; someone had apparently called out at the last minute, leaving me to man the west box all by my lonesome. Thus, I was pretty much forced to have to remember how to do things all by myself, with a little help from the managers on staff. Worse: because it was Christmas Eve, gift certificates and Mega Money (theater money in $5 denominations that could substitute for cash) were in high demand, and so at certain moments of my 5+ hour shift yesterday, I had to occasionally juggle helping out a customer with gift certificates and printing tickets for theatergoers at the same time.

At the end of the day, I think I handled myself pretty well for my first day back on the job in a few months. It took me a while to get back into the, uh, swing of things, but hopefully I brushed off those cobwebs well enough that I'll be able to handle myself better on Tuesday, when I'll actually have someone else manning the other computer at the west box and when not so many people will be demanding gift certificates. (Aside: who knew I was any good at multitasking? But that was pretty much what I was forced to do last night. It helped that most of the people who demanded gift certificates were understanding enough to step aside and let me handle customers before dealing with their need.)

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Humanity...and Cleavage

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Chalk up Pedro Almodóvar as one more well-known auteur whose work I profess ashamed unfamiliarity. (A while ago, a friend of mine burned me an .avi file of Bad Education (2004); I still haven't seen it yet, nor am I sure I even have that CD-ROM anymore.) I'm familiar with his melodramatic sensibility, and I'm aware of his "bad-boy" image, but if you were to ask me to try to put his newest film Volver (*** out of ****)---honestly, the first film of his which I've seen---in some kind of auteurist context, I most likely couldn't do so with much authority except for notions gleaned from reviews and such of what kind of an artist Almodóvar is.

My feeling is that Volver probably represents the gay Spanish filmmaker in a mellower, more straightforward mood than in such formally and/or emotionally daring recent works such as Bad Education, Talk to Her (2002) and All About My Mother (1999). If, in previous films, Almodóvar tried to create sympathy for homosexuals or hookers or other "disreputable" types, in Volver he trains his eye mainly on a band of ordinary women trying to keep their heads above water in less than secure circumstances, both financially, physically or emotionally. That some of the troubles that engulf the female characters---and the cast of characters of Volver are pretty much entirely female---include incest and a possible ghost haunting---the ghost being that of a supposedly long-dead matriarch who alerted one of her daughters to the death of a beloved aunt---is only to be expected from Almodóvar: although this film doesn't seem to have the gleeful outrageous frisson of late '80s, early '90s breakthroughs like Law of Desire (1987) or Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1989), he includes some fairly outrageous, surrealistic material in what is otherwise a warmhearted, convincing portrait of working-class women in Spain. This, of course, has the effect of making Volver genuinely unpredictable and original, as it tries to mix in notes of soap-opera melodrama, tough-minded (neo-)realism, Hitchcockian suspense and (very) lightly Buñuelian surrealism all at once. Personally, I found it an often exhilarating brew---even if the more outrageous elements occasionally come off as a rather awkward fit here than I imagine it does in other Almodóvar films---and it does intrigue me as to what I've missed by not having acquainted myself with his other work.

Anyway, as for Volver on its own terms, I loved it, personally; its sheer generosity and depth of feeling equals the warmth experienced this year in one of my favorite fiction films of the year, Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion. It's amazing how warm-feeling a movie that includes incest, adultery and murder can be, but Almodóvar, with all the confidence of his 57 years behind him, manages to make a movie that can be described as both humanist and quietly subversive. It's tricky: you're meant to laugh at the absurdity of some of the soap-opera twists---particularly when they involve the cancer-ridden Agustina (Blanca Portillo) and her quest to find out what happened to her mother---and yet you can't help but feel for these characters, and care. And what about the way Almodóvar, through the camera, clearly adores the ass or cleavage of the star, Penélope Cruz? Yet somehow, one still responds to the character she plays as a real, flawed human being, not just as the sexual object that Almodóvar softly implies she is through not only technique, but also through the way she's dressed throughout.

I haven't seen much of Penélope Cruz in the American films she's been in; I've heard she's been pretty bland and colorless in films like All the Pretty Horses (2000) and Vanilla Sky (2001). Not here, though: here she's a full-blown goddess but also convincingly desperate and multifaceted, by turns tough and tender when she needs to be. It's amazing how vividly Cruz is able to play a working-class woman without sacrificing a whit of her glamor. But Cruz isn't the whole show here (she's just the one the Hollywood Foreign Press recognized enough to give her a Golden Globe nomination, for what that's worth); the whole female-dominated cast is equally fine, particularly Carmen Maura, an Almodóvar alumnus who plays the mother-cum-ghost who has come back to try to make amends. Volver is, if nothing else, an exquisite display of female emotion that equals other exquisite displays of female emotion like Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 (in a more dreamily romantic setting) or Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (in a vastly more anguished, emotionally stark and tortured setting).

Is there more to say about this movie? Only that it's a little amazing how such a potentially campy movie such as this one could turn out to be such a dazzling wellspring of palpable, genuine humanity. But that seems to be the kind of balancing act in which Pedro Almodóvar excels.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Jaguar Paw: The Wrath of...Mel Gibson?

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Though Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (*** out of ****) is better than Blood Diamond by a considerable margin, both share the same flaw: they're both Hollywood at the core, in spite of its pretensions toward message-movie importance---in the case of Blood Diamond---or visionary, Werner Herzog-like grandeur, as in the case of Apocalypto.

In the film---which is entirely in the Mayan language---the hero, Jaguar Paw (an impressive Rudy Youngblood), turns out to be a fairly typical Hollywood action-movie hero who experiences fairly typical action-movie hero emotions and goes through fairly typical action-movie hero challenges. He's a kindhearted family man who cares for his pregnant wife, his kid, and the rest of his tribesmen---so much so that when his tribe gets attacked by invaders who destroy the village, rape the women and take the men as prisoners, Jaguar Paw feels the need to go back to try to help his fellow men after he has lowered his wife and child to safety in a hole in the ground. Jaguar Paw gets kidnapped, and thus we are treated to scenes where we see the "bad guy" invaders treat his fellow tribesmen badly---it may not be entirely mustache-twirling villainy, but it comes pretty close. Then we find out the reason they've been captured: the invaders want to sacrifice them to their Sun God in order to appease Him and relieve them of their troubles with crops and such. Of course, Gibson isn't afraid to show us the sacrifice of two poor Mayans before it's Jaguar Paw's turn, but this time the effect of the bloodletting isn't, as was the case in The Passion of the Christ, for a kind of perverse, spiritually-transcendent realism: it seems more like the usual Hollywood way of increasing our bloodlust before our hero eventually shows these antagonists who's boss.

Let me try to avoid exaggerating, however, because, while some have called Gibson a sensationalist in his approach to onscreen violence, I think he's a lot more mature and intelligent about the violence he presents than many people give him credit for. I just saw The Passion of the Christ for the first time recently (I know, I know, way too late), and I was surprised to see Gibson cutting away from violence perhaps more often than he shows us actual gore---and sometimes, when he does show us blood, he does it for poetic effect (when Jesus gets a nail through his hand towards the end of the film, there is a cut to a shot underneath the cross where we see blood dripping down the nail in slow motion as if they were crimson tears). In many instances in The Passion, the claims of the film's being "the most violent movie ever" seem once again to be the case of people projecting more graphic violence in the film than is actually shown (although don't get me wrong: The Passion can hardly be considered restrained when it comes to violence). You get some of the same stuff in the first half of Apocalypto: when those two poor Mayans get sacrificed, you hear the gruesome noises but don't actually see the violence being inflicted, only its aftermath and others' pained reactions.

In that respect, the second half of the movie---which is essentially an extended chase sequence as Jaguar Paw escapes death and runs around in the jungle trying to elude the clutches of a vengeful invader Mayan as he desperately tries to get back to his wife and child, still trapped in that hole in the ground---disappoints slightly because it devolves into a beautifully-shot, exotic version of a Rambo movie, in which the violence Gibson depicts onscreen occasionally seems intent on satisfying a Hollywood-bred yearning in us viewers to see the villains get theirs. I could imagine one ultimately dismissing Apocalypto as a whole because, apart from the historic setting and its mythmaking pretensions, the film is essentially a Hollywood action movie in structure and even in some of its technique.

I won't go that far, though; Mel Gibson is simply too good a filmmaker craft-wise to take an all-or-nothing critical approach, the way a lot of critics seemed to do two years ago when The Passion of the Christ crashed onto the movie landscape and became a major point of controversy. Perhaps it was a bit myopic to simply focus on the punishment Jesus received in the last 12 hours of his life (before he was resurrected, of course) instead of focusing on the spiritual teachings that made him so revered and feared by many. But hey, it's not like Gibson simply ignored the spiritual side (through his ordeal, Jesus does receive quite a bit of sympathy from his fellow men): he expressed it almost entirely through imagery, some of it positively horrific, almost all of it genuinely moving---at least, I thought it was. Gibson may have Hollywood encoded into his DNA---thus his rather adolescent fascination with violence and brutality in his films---but he clearly is trying to say something about violence, not just indulging in it for shock value. And, if you pay careful attention to the way he approaches the violence in his films, I think one will come to the same conclusion: this isn't just violence for kicks.

Apocalypto---just as much as either The Passion of the Christ or his Oscar-winning 1995 film Braveheart---is clearly the product of one passionate filmmaker's vision, even if that vision can be said to be Neanderthal or trivial or simply not as grand as he intends. But let's not downplay the real cinematic intelligence at work here, and let's certainly not use the film as an opportunity to trash Gibson in light of his recent unfortunate public notoriety.

Besides, perhaps there is a difference to this film than to the traditional violent Hollywood action flick: even when Jaguar Paw is mowing down his enemies in the second half of Apocalypto, there isn't quite the same gleeful attitude toward bloody violence than there is in, say, a Renny Harlin bloodbath (Cliffhanger, anyone?). Jaguar Paw himself seems to be losing his own humanity the closer he gets to his destination (thus the images of him stalking around like a jaguar coated in black). (SPOILER ALERT) Only when, at the very end, he glimpses the Spanish conquistadors who are about to do their own invading of the Mayan culture as a whole does he regain his humanity and realize how far his culture is about to fall. At its best in Apocalypto, Mayan civilization falls with a genuine adrenaline rush.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Blood On Our Fingers

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I should preface my thoughts on Edward Zwick's new film Blood Diamond (** out of ****) by noting that, because of my friend's tardiness (he unexpectedly had to deal with a flat tire before coming to the movie theater where we saw the film this past Sunday), I technically missed the first 10 minutes or so of the film. On the theory that I probably didn't miss much that I couldn't glean from the rest of the film---Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) getting separated from his family, Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) being introduced---I'll go ahead and pool my thoughts anyway, because I'm not sure there's much to say about the film, an obviously sincere and well-meaning but awfully clichéd piece of Hollywood message-movie entertainment.

I suppose it's probably too easy a criticism, however true, to lodge at Blood Diamond that it's mostly predictable, both plot-wise (its use of one man's quest to reunite his family as a structuring device strikes me as something of an action movie cliché) and as far as its characterizations go: Danny Archer, with all his wiseass cynicism masking personal pain, is pretty much straight out of Casablanca (1942), and most of the characters seem to be shaded in degrees of either black or white. However, Zwick and screenwriter Charles Leavitt seem to have conceived the film at the start as a familiar old-style Hollywood entertainment, so perhaps they were fully aware from the start that they were dabbling in fairly shopworn dramatic material. Perhaps, in this case, they were trusting that audiences would see through the clichés and grasp at the film's underlying point: to make us think twice about where that cherished diamond you may glimpse lovingly at a store window actually came from, and whether it's a legitimate diamond or a so-called "conflict diamond," an illegal black-market diamond from Sierra Leone.

So perhaps the best way to approach Blood Diamond is to determine whether the film works as a piece of political activism. For me, it just misses in that regard, although it misses in a slightly different way from last year's The Constant Gardener. Turns out that the problem with Blood Diamond isn't so much that the Africans who are the victims of civil war and government-wrought atrocities are given short shrift, as they arguably were in The Constant Gardener. Oddly enough, I think the film's clichéd nature is the problem here: although it wears its noble intentions on its sleeves, Blood Diamond ultimately comes off as a standard-issue Hollywood action epic with a thin veneer of social protest, and even if it makes you more aware of the potential histories of a valuable diamond---not an unimportant thing to be aware of, I'd say---that doesn't necessarily make the movie itself any more interesting. (Hotel Rwanda (2004): now there's a Hollywood message movie that actually works to make your temperature boil at the issue it raises: specifically, where the heck was America and the rest of the international community when the Hutus were butchering the Tutsis in droves? It might have taken the inspirational Schindler's List (1993) route in approaching its subject, but it didn't bury its anger amidst stale action movie clichés as Blood Diamond does.)

If the movie works at all---and, admittedly, it has its moments---it's mostly due to Zwick's obvious conviction in his overfamiliar dramatic material (given visual lushness by D.P. Eduardo Serra, especially when he silhouettes human figures in extreme wide shots) and to the effectiveness of its cast, particularly DiCaprio and Hounsou. (Jennifer Connolly does her best with the thin part she's given, playing an idealistic journalist who's basically around to comfort the two male lead characters at the right times.) Hounsou lends Blood Diamond whatever weight it has, convincingly portraying his character's singlemindedness even when he seems to take a backseat to the two other stars. As for DiCaprio: if The Departed didn't convince people that DiCaprio had the gravitas in him to play non-romantic leads, than his magnetic turn in Blood Diamond should silence those naysayers who've only seen boyish charm in him in the past. It's a charm that Steven Spielberg used to great effect in Catch Me If You Can (2001), but it wasn't quite a perfect fit when he tackled Howard Hughes in Scorsese's The Aviator (2004). Here, he has such gravity and intensity---a paradoxically relaxed intensity that doesn't seem overwrought---that he almost manages to convince us that we're not watching something we've seen a million times before.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Fall 2006 Semester Retrospective Post

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Another semester at Rutgers ended yesterday with a final exam in my French Film class that went fairly well. Now I'm back home and thinking back a little bit on this past semester as a whole---a custom for me whenever a semester ends.

What was good about this most recent semester? Well, for one thing, getting that Wall Street Journal copy editing internship, which of course I wrote about at length in my previous entry. That's a pretty big accomplishment, all the sweeter because it was so unexpected. Even my Editing & Layout professor had e-mailed us to tell me and three others who had taken the controlled editing exam not to get our hopes up. Kenji Fujishima, copy editor? Not exactly Kenji Fujishima, film critic, but for now, it'll do.


Speaking of editing: perhaps many of you forgot that I became the film section editor of the Inside Beat section of the Daily Targum at the beginning of the fall semester. Yeah, I didn't write much about my editing experiences throughout the semester; I figured I'd save my reflections on being an editor for a reflective post such as this one. It was certainly an interesting experience: not nearly as hectic as it might be in a daily newspaper office environment---the Inside Beat is published every Thursday---but it still occasionally kept me up 'til 2 or 3 a.m. on some Sunday-nights-into-Monday-mornings. Oddly enough, my most stressful Sunday of editing came on the weekend before the last Inside Beat issue of the semester, published on Dec. 7---I only received, like, two or three submissions, and yet I felt swamped by looking at revision upon revision of those two or three articles, having to keep going back and forth with writers who weren't quite sure what exactly I was complaining about.

That's the thing about an editor like myself who is also a writer: sometimes I have to fight the urge to try to be too intrusive, to try to rework a writer's whole piece so that it'll make it sound good to me, and thus destroy the writer's own individual voice. Throughout the semester, I rarely got complaints from my writers about my inadvertently distorting his/her distinctive voice (but perhaps some of those writers were just too unassertive to know any better, hehe); nevertheless, that's something I always worried about whenever I tore into a new submission: resisting the urge to change a piece to somehow suit my style. Because, if you're a writer, you know that there are certain ways you phrase things, and when you see an article in which something is phrased in a way you know you wouldn't do...well, you feel a great need to reword it. As an editor, that's something I tried my best to do only if I could somehow justify it to myself or to the writer.

One thing I'll definitely look to improve next semester, when I go for another round of film section editing, is my method of assigning movies to writers. Obviously, some of my writers are better than others, and because of that, really, I shouldn't continue with the first-come, first-serve method that I used for assigning movies last semester. It got me in trouble late in the semester when I realized that I had a writer among my small staff who was probably better suited to tackling The Fountain---a fairly big, buzz-generating movie like, say, Babel earlier in the month of November---instead of the writer who ended up reviewing it (and panning it) for the paper. The problem was, I had already promised the latter writer the assignment months in advance---and when I tried nicely to tell the latter writer (who's competent but usually not much more than that as a writer) that I was thinking of giving the Fountain assignment to this other, frankly better (read: often more serious and insightful) writer, he got defensive (to my great annoyance, although I should have seen it coming) and told me, "Uh, but I had called it months earlier, and you gave me your word. And I always thought you were someone who kept his word." Lesson learned; might as well establish a bit of a hierarchy just like in a regular print newspaper, and establish some kind of a system: if you're a new writer, you're going to get a third- or fourth-tier movie first before you're considered for bigger and better assignments.


Academically speaking, probably the most dismaying thing about this semester was the fact that I just wasn't able to find nearly enough time among my 17-credit schedule to get some serious work done on my senior thesis.

Yes, I am working a senior thesis; it's required for the Livingston College Honors Program. Broadly speaking, I'm comparing Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino, and I'm trying to determine whether there really is anything to some of the claims I've heard over the years that QT is an American Godard (or, at least, the Godard of the 1960s, not the irascible grand old man of French cinema he is today). I have a general idea where I'm headed with the thesis, and I've certainly seen enough films by both to get a general idea of what kind of filmmakers both of them are---but specifics? Don't ask. A few weeks ago, I went to see the scholar-in-residence over at Livingston, the man who's going to be grading our theses, and I actually was on the verge of tears as the meeting went along when I realized how little progress I had actually made this semester, apart from a few online sources and a general familiarity with the two filmmakers. But when I tried to explain my weak grasp of the concept of postmodernism to the professor, it was obviously I had little fucking clue what I was talking about. "Yeah, I'd try to stay away from that if I were you," the professor told me right then and there---disheartening, because I had previously thought a consideration of postmodernism was pretty much the backbone of my thesis.

So yeah, I feel like I'm falling behind---not a comfortable place I want to be as far as my senior thesis goes, but that's where I stand. (The scholar-in-residence tried to console me by saying, "Honestly, you're not one of the ones I'm worried about yet," since many other fellow Honors Program peers hadn't even contacted him at all at that point.) So right now, if I don't get some serious work done during my winter break---perhaps even going so far as to start writing the damn thing---I might as well consider myself officially screwed.

Otherwise: academically, I think I had a fairly solid semester. At the very least, however well I do grade-wise, I can say that I took some interesting, and occasionally eye-opening, courses. Obviously, Editing & Layout was one such course: I may never be able to look at a newspaper's front page again without thinking about some of the design principles we discussed in class. (Might as well be hypercritical of front pages, because that's possibly the kind of thing I'm going to be doing at my Wall Street Journal internship.) But also: my journalism seminar on cultural critique and documentaries may have turned me paranoid (though hopefully not Mulder-paranoid) for life about what the government isn't telling us about world affairs or things that they might be doing domestically. And, if nothing else, my Major Filmmakers class has helped me realize that my indifferent reaction to the Coen brothers' highly (over-)praised Fargo (1996) when I saw it on DVD years ago may not have just been the result of its hype: I see what it's trying to do (positing, for one thing, Marge Gunderson as the exemplar of welcome small-town naivete in a mostly harsh, cruel world), but its frankly irritating (and certainly anti-humanist) condescension toward most of its characters (especially with those mile-wide Minnesotan accents; however accurate they may be, it's obvious to me that the Coens are exploiting the accents for snarky comic effect) turned me off for most of its running time. Personally, I'd take their more deeply felt Miller's Crossing (1990) or their more elegiac existential noir film The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)---or heck, even their fairly heartless but coldly impressive debut Blood Simple (1984)---over Fargo or even the popular The Big Lebowski (1998). (In some ways, Joel & Ethan Coen, I'd almost go so far to say, are the true American Godards, not the entertaining wannabe Tarantino.)

Well, I think that just about covers it. Oh yeah, and I did turn 21. No, I don't feel any different.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Kenji Fujishima, Copy Editor?

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I'm not sure if I spilled this on my blog or not, but towards the end of October I decided to try my luck at applying for the fairly prestigious Dow Jones Newspaper Fund copy editing internship. After having taken Editing & Layout class for a few weeks, I figured that it was not only something that I could do well enough, but also something that might help me out financially if I'm good enough to become a copy editor at some newspaper somewhere while I do film-related writing on the side. Besides, at that point in the semester, I hadn't really applied to any other possible internships yet, although I had flirted with sending in an application package to Entertainment Weekly for a possible internship there. So I figured, what the heck? Not only did I have to put together an application package for the DJNF---unofficial transcript, brief essay, resume, etc.---but I also had to take a controlled editing exam testing not only my knowledge of grammar and AP style, but also of geography and current events.

I thought I did well enough on the exam, but otherwise I kept my expectations low: this is a pretty competitive internship, after all, and my previous experiences at job-seeking---losing a job after one day, for instance, and striking out at many others---didn't exactly infuse me with optimism. (I guess it's a defense mechanism I have: if my expectations are low to start with, it makes the surprise of landing a job or an internship that much sweeter.)

So last week, on Thursday, I'm in the Macs section of the College Ave. computer lab working on my Editing & Layout front page design project when, at around 1:15 p.m., I get a message on my cell phone from a man who identifies himself as someone from the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund---a professor from Temple University (I won't name him here) who says he might have something for me. I call him back a couple minutes after receiving the message; turns out he's offering me a copy editing internship at one of the biggest of newspapers, the Wall Street Journal. The Wall Street Journal!

The professor basically needed an answer from me now, and, in the few seconds before I gave my answer, I flashed back briefly to my projected Entertainment Weekly application that hadn't gotten off the ground yet. Entertainment---this was what I eventually wanted to devote my life to, and it'd be terrific if I could get my foot in the door by interning at one of the most popular of entertainment magazines. And yet, here was one of the most prestigious newspapers in America offering me an internship for next summer, and quite a bit of money too ($700/week, the professor told me over the phone). Take my chances with Entertainment Weekly, or take this sure bet and try to do best at it?

In the end, I decided to take the sure bet. When I said "I'll do it," the professor said, "Kenji...your life just changed."

I sure hope so.


So it looks very much like I'm going to be interning at the Wall Street Journal next summer as a copy editing intern. In mid-May, I'm going off to Temple University for an all-expenses-paid, two-week training session before I begin my 1o-week internship. And it looks like I'm going to be making a handsome amount of money doing it, too.

How do I feel about this? Well shit, I'm just glad that I have something lined up for the summer. Coming into the semester, I pretty much had no idea about what kind of internships I'd apply for apart from the fact that I had to try to apply to one. The Dow Jones Newspaper Fund thing was basically something that I decided to try just for the heck of it. Sometimes great opportunities come in the most unexpected packages? (Yeah, that's not a popular saying; I just made that one up.) I guess I'm also happy that I was able to get this one on my own: I got this all by myself, I accomplished this. Pretty satisfying feeling, I say.

Of course, copy editing doesn't really have a whole lot to do with film or entertainment, you might say. No, it doesn't. Neither did accounting, which is the major my mother had preferred I pursue in college instead of journalism and cinema studies. Is history repeating itself?

But my mother has always been right about one thing: even if you do make it to a fairly high position in journalism, it may still be difficult to live on a reporter's salary. Maybe copy editing is just the thing I need: the kind of higher-paying job I need to try to support my film-writing career, whenever that comes. And it's something that I could conceivably find myself enjoying doing; accounting was never something I could picture myself doing while enjoying. Editing articles, laying out a page: this is not only creative stuff, but important too. The journalism world always needs good copy editors; maybe I could become one, especially with a Wall Street Journal internship on my resume. And this could perhaps financially pave the way for future success as the entertainment writer that I ideally would like to be. Or who knows? Maybe I'll end up doing copy editing all my life and relegate film stuff to the side. Life is full of possibilities---a cliche, but I'd like to think it's true.

All in all, I'm pretty happy about this. Readers, do you think I made the right call, considering my entertainment-related aspirations?

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Brief Life Update No. 8

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Sorry, readers. It's been a while since I updated this thing, I know. Amazingly, this is probably the longest stretch I've gone this semester without updating "My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second." I would've anticipated more of these long dry spells.

Somehow, though, this spell didn't feel so dry to me---maybe because I've had so much to deal with at school. Nothing bad, mind you: mostly schoolwork and finals and such. I had a project in my Editing and Layout class due this past Thursday---a front page design project---that kept me in one of the College Ave. computer labs for a few hours each of, oh, I'd say, four or five days. I had a final in that same class this past Wednesday, and I have another final---my only other final exam, actually---on Monday. But that design project was a real time-killer. (I think my front page came out all right in the end---at least, I think it did; whether my professor agrees with me is a rather different story.)

And speaking of Editing and Layout, a big thing happened to me this past Thursday...but I'm afraid you'll all have to wait to find out what that big thing is. It's rather late, and tomorrow I have more studying to look forward to, as well as a possible side trip to see Blood Diamond, the new socially-conscious Edward Zwick picture with Leonardo DiCaprio starring. (This year's Constant Gardener, as one of my roommates suggested based on trailers he had seen? I like The Constant Gardener overall, but to enjoy it, you pretty much had to try to ignore the fact that that film basically places real African suffering in the background of a vaguely Casablanca-ish love story, however well acted and resonant. Maybe Blood Diamond is in that same vein---inadvertently glamorizing Third World suffering in the name of popular entertainment?) But rest assured: it's pretty exciting news. At least, I think so.

Also expect my usual end-of-semester retrospective post, as well as possibly my first ever stab at something close to a 10-movies-of-the-year list. It'll be full of blind spots (probably won't get around seeing Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times until next year, for instance), but I'll give it a shot anyway. (Hopefully David Lynch's three-hour magnum opus Inland Empire will come out in a theater near me before the year is out; that's the one I'm really waiting for, especially after the brilliant, surrealist mindfuck of his 2001 Mulholland Drive.)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Stream of Consciousness No. 9: Kings, Queens and the Vast Middle

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - For those who are curious: I only had one drink at Harvest Moon on Monday night in celebration of my 21st (paid for, thankfully, by one of my roommates): a Coke with Captain Morgan mixed with it. Hardly enough to get me drunk (thank goodness), but it was actually a pretty good drink.

It was a pretty good feeling to be able to show off my driver's license to the guy standing at the door and hear him say, "You can go in." In fact, realizing that that day was December 4, 2006, he even wished me a "happy birthday" both when we went in and just as we left.

I don't know how frequent of a barfly I'll become now that I'm 21, but I guess it's nice that I can actually enter into bars now. Who knows? Maybe one of these days---to elaborate on the Charles Bukowski namedrop I threw into my last entry---you'll be seeing me piss drunk, holding my mug of beer up high, and saying "To all my friends!"


In my journalism seminar on documentaries Monday, we watched a two-hour, four-part documentary series about social classes in America that apparently aired a few years ago on public television (alas, it's not available anywhere on video, as far as I've seen; my professor showed us a video copy taped off of television). The series was called People Like Us: Social Class in America, and it was probably the most impressive documentary I've seen in that class all semester (I'm not counting Gillo Pontecorvo's justly celebrated political classic The Battle of Algiers because it isn't nonfiction)---mostly because it trained a pretty wide eye on social classes and inherent social divides in the country, trying to cram in the voices of all major groups, from WASPs to "rednecks" and everyone in the (self-proclaimed) middle.

I could maybe create a whole laundry list of fascinating insights that I gleaned from the film (for instance, isn't it funny, the film points out, how almost everyone---even upper-class celebrities like Jay Leno---likes to label themselves as middle class? Some would rather do that than risk the resentment of others by flouting your upper-class status, whether or not it's actually financially accurate). The most interesting effect the film had on me, however, is that it made me think back on one of my most nagging suspicions: that, in my relatively comfortable suburban existence, I've somehow been stunted of real-world survival skills, somehow been deprived of learning how to really live the way others---perhaps others under my social class---have.

I really hope that doesn't come off as insufferably condescending. Maybe it's my low-self-esteem-shading-into-self-loathing speaking here, but I can't help but respect the hell out of other college students I know who have taken the initiative to try to make it on their own: rent their own apartments or houses, pay their own bills, try to earn their own money while still going to school, etc. What am I doing? Yeah, I occasionally work at the State Theatre on Friday or Saturday evenings, but I don't work nearly enough a week to earn a great deal, and it's not like I'm necessarily struggling to balance my need to earn money with taking classes and doing my homework. And my mother---in spite of her threats a couple of years ago that she had had enough with helping to pay my tuition after I dropped out of the Rutgers Business School at the last minute---still helps me out with some college finances as well as a couple of other personal finances (credit card bills, cell phone bills, stuff like that). No doubt I'm appreciative of her financial help---but sometimes I wonder if, by not being brave enough to financially cut her off almost entirely, I'm stunting my own preparedness for my future success in trying to handle all this stuff by myself. Because she isn't going to help me out forever; even she's made that clear to me.

Thus, I see some of my peers---including one of my roommates---juggling schoolwork, extracurricular activities and a part-time job, and I think: boy, he's most likely more prepared for making it on his own than I feel like I am. I'm especially disturbed by this because I thought I had braced myself enough for struggling on my own as a writer. But has that really sunk in? Or is my clarity clouded by naivete and my relative middle-class good fortune?

I dunno. Not sure if I should be worrying about it now, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a concern.


I suppose Stephen Frears' The Queen (*** out of ****) is the kind of movie that temperamentally doesn't make me go crazy with enthusiasm: it's an actors' movie, and as such, it concentrates basically on creating an agreeable but not intrusive environment to allow the actors to cut loose. Months from now, no one's going to really be talking about aesthetic daring the way people will probably be discussing The Fountain in such terms in the future (whether or not an individual likes the film or not). The Queen hardly seems like a desperately personal project like Aronofsky's film uncompromisingly is. Instead, a movie like The Queen, with its careful, unobtrusive (though undeniably skillful) craft and emphasis on character and thematic development above all else, will be remembered more for its acting and maybe for its dialogue than for a bold or particularly expressive visual style. If I wanted to be snarky, I'd say this kind of movie was prime Oscar bait (or, to put it in French cinema terms, an American version of the old "Tradition of Quality" against which French New Wave filmmakers like Godard, Truffaut and Resnais rebelled).

And yet, if The Queen is the essentially the stuff that actors' Oscar dreams are made of, it's still a pretty solid movie. It achieves its own kind of perfection not only because of high quality of the performances, but also its fairly vivid and rather moving evocation of the dying customs of the British aristocracy, and one woman's---Queen Elizabeth II---subtly regretful realization that modernization---represented by Tony Blair and his promises of New Labor reform---is creeping up on her and slowly cancelling out her long-cherished belief in tradition and honor.

It's not just about Queen Elizabeth, however. In many ways, it's also about Tony Blair. One of the surprising things I noticed about The Queen is its portrayal of Blair as an understanding person who is adamant about what he wants to do as prime minister, but also sympathizes with the queen to an extent and ultimately tries to save her standing in the public eye as the press---and subsequently the people---start to publicly question her after she refuses to say anything in public about the death of Princess Diana in 1997. A lesser movie, in trying to sentimentalize Queen Elizabeth's regret, might have tried to take easy shots at Blair and the way he and his advisers focus more on public image than with the kind of traditions the queen steadfastly sticks to. But Peter Morgan's script remains honest and unsentimental: it sees the emotions churning on all sides with insight, and, even if it isn't always subtle about its points (Morgan, like Paul Haggis, hails from television, although Morgan strikes me as much smarter and less crude than Haggis generally is), one can't help but admiring the intelligence underlying nearly every line of dialogue.

Does Helen Mirren live up to the hype? I think so, although I can't help but be a little wary about the hype itself. I mean, hasn't she been considered a more-than-respectable actress for a while now? What's so special about this performance that is causing Oscar buzz? Is it just because she plays a real-life queen---a pretty easy ticket to an Oscar nomination if done well? Maybe, maybe not. So let me just suggest that she goes deeper than impersonation-level creates a warm, understanding portrayal of a mostly hard, intimidating character, one that doesn't talk down to the way she holds on to "antiquated" royal customs. But it's not just Mirren's movie. To me, Tony Blair is arguably the second main character of this piece---the man who admirably tries to bridge the gap between old and new---and actor Michael Sheen inhabits him with as much subtlety as Mirren does with Queen Elizabeth. For all we know, Tony Blair may well just be trying to curry favor with the person who is supposed to invite you to the P.M. position; Sheen---undoubtedly with the help of the script---is able to suggest this without shortchanging Blair's eager yet knowing and mature disposition.

At the end of The Queen, it's quite possible that American viewers will not only have a greater knowledge of British custom and tradition, but also have a greater appreciation for the very human feelings a person in a position of royalty might have when faced with the dawning realization that a way of life has personally passed for you. Well, whether or not a movie like The Queen represents the pinnacle of great moviemaking, that kind of sympathy for a personality other than your own is certainly something movies can accomplish just as well as novels or plays. On that count, this film must be counted as a success. I don't know if I'll be remembering this movie as much as I will, say, A Prairie Home Companion or The Science of Sleep---or even the flawed yet oft-dazzling Fountain---maybe a year from now, but on its own unassuming terms it's a sympathetic, warm, engaging piece of work.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Happy 21st Birthday to Me!

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Look at me, wishing myself a happy 21st birthday. How pretentious!

Anyway, yes, readers, I am officially of legal drinking age today as result of my being born at Mt. Sinai Medical Center 21 years ago today.

And, as I expected, I'm not feeling all that different than I did yesterday (other than the fact that I didn't go crazy trying to work with writers to edit Inside Beat stuff last night, I suppose). Of course, that feeling might change when I take a stroll to Harvest Moon, a restaurant on George Street which serves alcohol. To finally be able to legally buy an alcoholic beverage at a the next Charles Bukowski in the works? Eh, he might have been a brilliant poet (I dunno, I haven't read his writing), but, for the sake of my health and my projected future, I hope not.

Don't worry, readers, I do not plan to get drunk tonight. It's a school night, after all! (Maybe sometime this weekend...?)

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Hail, Folly!

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. - The Fountain (*** out of ****) is talented young hotshot director Darren Aronofsky's attempt at creating his own 2001-style myth about life, death and what may lie beyond it. I wish I could call it an unqualified masterpiece, one not worth the strong critical drubbing it's been getting from some quarters, especially after it was booed when the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year. It's an honorable try, at best. As much as I enjoyed and was genuinely stirred by the film's passion throughout, ultimately I couldn't help but feel that The Fountain, for all its visual splendor and its entirely respectable pretensions, is simply not quite rich or complex enough to stand up to 2001 or Andrei Tarkovsky's 1972 Solaris, to mention two other sci-fi meditations about similar subjects. Whereas Kubrick's and Tarkovsky's imagery can be both coldly impressive and spiritually expressive (remember the slow-motion romantic tryst in zero gravity in Solaris?), sometimes Aronofsky's gold-tinted imagery seems merely like slick magazine-ad surface skimming. And sometimes not. Aronofsky's equally flashy technique in his previous two films---Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2001)---strikes me as more psychologically penetrating than much of what he provides in The Fountain. (In Pi, Aronofsky, shooting on grainy black-and-white 16mm film, really gets you inside the head of its paranoid math-genius protagonist; and his drug montages in Requiem are still some of the most brilliantly edited depictions of the cravings and feelings induced in drug addicts I've yet seen).

Still, should a movie like The Fountain have to be perfect in order to be great? Maybe a movie like this should simply be allowed to exist, out there in the movie landscape, a monument to one artist's grand ambition and perhaps his megalomania. I'm inclined to cut The Fountain a lot of slack simply for its effort and its sincerity. There's a lot to be said for a movie like this one that dares to be grandiose, dares to be silly and pretentious, dares to create a modern myth about such a powerful, universal subject such as death and man's attempts to live forever. Aronofsky may not be quite as visually profound---and is certainly not as philosophically profound---as Kubrick or Tarkovsky were, but nevertheless you can sense that he's trying to reach for something big: for some kind of wisdom about life and death, for some kind of genuine transcendence. This is the kind of "folly" Pauline Kael talked about in her opening of her review of Bertolucci's 1900: this is an "artist-initiated big-budget epic" shot in a state of "superenlightenment" that "tries to bring mankind the word," the kind of overreaching movie that could only be made by a filmmaker who, after popular and/or critical success, "gets drunk on the potentialities of movies." That's the kind of personal integrity that kept my eyes glued to screen as I watched The Fountain; it's why I can't help but think fondly on it even as I recognize its faults---its abstractions-rather-than-characters (especially in the case of Rachel Weisz's Izzy), its occasionally laughable dialogue (trying to be poetic and heightened, but perhaps Aronofsky should have trusted his imagery to speak for itself), and Clint Mansell's overly insistent, rather derivative score (his score for Requiem for a Dream was vastly more restrained, and thus much more effectively solemn and emotional). But then, I'm not sure anyone would claim that even similar cinematic follies like Griffith's Intolerance, Gance's Napoléon, or even Coppola's Apocalypse Now are perfect movies. What matters is that these are personal visions from a particular director who doesn't care whether you're on board with him or not; Aronofsky's doing his own thing, and not compromising or dumbing things down for his audience.

Two things worth mentioning in passing:

Aronofsky seems to favor two particular kinds of shots in The Fountain: direct overhead shots that seem to suggest a God's-eye view of certain events (like Tom's operating on a monkey), and brightly lit close-ups that suggest characters about to meet their destinies, no matter how transcendent or tragic. I dunno, I just thought they were worth pointing out, particularly because they seem highly appropriate to Aronofsky's vision (and are maybe an indication of where The Fountain falls short: there's nothing particularly expressive about those two types of shots except for how interestingly they are placed or lighted).

And finally, the climax of the 15th-century Inquisition storyline (out of three Aronofsky tries to tell at once, with an emphasis on the present-day storyline), in which Tomas (also Hugh Jackman) finally gets to the tree of life, is the one moment where Aronofsky pulls off something genuinely visionary, genuinely commensurate with his vast ambition. Tomas is so happy to have gotten to the "promised land" that he immediately eats bark from the tree in an enthusiastic rush---before flowers begin to start sprouting from a stomach wound and then begin to sprout out of his body in general. I can't really describe it in a way that'll convey the awesome effect of the moment: suffice it to say that an image of a flowerbed in the shape of Tomas is arguably the closest Aronofsky comes to matching Kubrick or Tarkovsky in its visual and thematic profundity. (Too bad the movie didn't end with that image.)