Saturday, February 23, 2008

Showing and Not Telling: Oscars, 4 Months, and "The Wire"

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - I didn't really do as much reading and music-listening as I would have liked this week; mostly I was writing.

Last week, I went to New York for a press screening of Chop Shop, a new film from Ramin Bahrani, a young Iranian-American director who, in both this new feature and his previous film, Man Push Cart (2005), likes to apply an Italian-neorealist aesthetic onto Robert Bresson-like character studies of flawed working-class characters struggling through the daily grind to try to eventually make better lives for themselves---and often finding the harsh realities of life hitting them in the face. I liked Man Push Cart, and I like Chop Shop too, although Bahrani's films---as apolitical and uncommitted to social criticism as they are---can seem rather slight compared to those more ambitious Italian-neroealist touchstones of old. Anyway, my review of it will be forthcoming at The House Next Door (it starts a two-week run at the Film Forum on Wednesday.)


The Oscars, of course, are tomorrow, and for the first time in a long time I'll actually have something of a personal stake in this year's contest (however lacking in glamour it may be because of the recently ended writer's strike). No, it's not because I'm passionately invested in seeing a particular movie win a lot of prizes...or, actually, maybe I do. Because, for the first time ever, I am participating in an Oscar pool at the place I work---which is, of course, The Wall Street Journal. (See? Who says the people there are all business?) So I guess I will have a stake in who wins---just for the possibility of winning some money.

Of course, I'm probably going to pick No Country for Old Men as the pic to take home the big prize. But if the Academy shocked everyone and gave There Will Be Blood the big statuette of the night, you won't see me complaining. AMPAS would have drunk all of our milkshakes with such a move, but for a good reason, I'd say. Even after checking No Country for a second time in a movie theater recently and actually admiring it even more than I did before, I still find myself more haunted by Daniel Plainview's physical and spiritual disintegration than by Anton Chigurh's murderous, coin-flipping "freedom."

(Coincidentally enough, that milkshake would have cost me $5---the amount of money I have to put into the pool. Oh Pulp Fiction...)

As long as those two dark pieces of work don't cancel each other out and allow that annoyingly overhyped flick Juno---pleasant and occasionally touching, I'll admit, but not nearly clever or intelligent enough to bear up to the weight of its Roger Ebert-led praise---to sneak in and pull an upset in the Best Picture category, I'll be happy.


Speaking of the Oscars, there was a lot of controversy over the official batch of nominees for this year's foreign-language film race. First, the highly acclaimed Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days ended up not even making the shortlist (after it had received a Golden Globe nomination); then another critically acclaimed film, an Israeli movie called The Band's Visit, got ignored by the Academy because about half of its scenes featured English dialogue.

I don't really have much to say about those two mini-controversies. They may or may not point to some kind of excessive rigidity and/or conservatism on the part of AMPAS---but then, they've been pretty conservative---and, dare I say it, political?---in their picks for years (just look at their Best Picture choices over the years, especially in light of the acknowledged masterpieces they snubbed---I'm looking at you, Dances With Wolves). Surely the quality of a movie will surely outlast whatever awards and/or nominations come their way. I'm not being too idealistic there, am I?

I haven't seen The Band's Visit yet, but this past Sunday, I finally caught up with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and I have to say: boy, what a flub, snubbing this one. This is quite an experience, folks---2 hours in which my heart felt like it was in my throat right from the get-go.

For those who haven't heard much about this film: it's set during the Ceauşescu regime in Bucharest sometime during the 1980s, and it details the increasingly desperate and emotionally draining efforts by two college roommates to procure an illegal abortion. These are two richly drawn and compellingly acted characters: Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), the pregnant one, is innocent and seemingly incapable of taking any responsibility for her own actions, while Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is, by comparison, more assertive and self-sufficient. Even richer, however, is the gloomy sense of place this movie evokes: Romanian society during this time has apparently become so demoralized and downtrodden that many individuals' sense of humanity seems to have leeched away. You see this not only in some of Otilia's negotiations with insensitive hotel clerks, but also simply in the film's dank visual texture---director Cristian Mungiu isn't afraid to rub our noses in the bleakness and messiness of his settings and situations with his extreme, insinuating long takes. In this kind of environment, a character like Otilia---a loyal friend, willing to go to any lengths to help someone who probably doesn't deserve it---seems like a beacon of humanity in a cesspool of rot.

Sounds depressing, right? And yet, somehow, I found myself exhilarated as much as I was terrified throughout. It's so temporally sensitive in its minimalist technique, and that technique is married to a devastating vision---one that doesn't shy away from moral quandaries, especially when Otilia poses to her boyfriend, during a particularly testy exchange, the question of what he, a staunch anti-abortionist, would do if she became pregnant. But really, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days isn't a gaseous political or philosophical tract. It just sits back (literally---I wouldn't be surprised if the average of all the shot lengths in this film was something in the vicinity of five minutes) and observes events in sadness and horror (or, at the very least, gives a convincing impression of doing so).


On another, totally unrelated front: I've been gradually working my way through the first season of the soon-to-be-concluded HBO series The Wire on DVD. I'm enjoying it immensely so far---I like the characters, I like its realism and its moral gray areas, and I like how it doesn't make a big show of, or congratulate itself for, blowing the lid off the ugliness of life in the Baltimore projects or the corruption and self-interest running rampant in the city police force (in other words, no sensationalized American Gangster crap in creator David Simon's baby).

But there is a sequence in its fourth episode that strikes me as so damn brilliant that I just wanted to share it with all of you who aren't familiar with it. In one scene, Detectives McNulty (the magnetic Dominic West) and Bunk (Wendell Pierce) go to a crime scene (one that McNulty isn't particularly interested in, but one which does relate to an anecdote recounted earlier in that episode by D'Angelo Barksdale, one of the people McNulty and others are investigating) and proceed to piece together a shooting death. The genius of this scene is in its lack of...well, I was going to say "lack of dialogue," but that's not exactly true. There is dialogue coming out of this couple's mouths, but it pretty much consists of "fuck" and all sorts of variations of that word ("motherfucker," "fuckity fuck fuck fuck," "fuckin' A"---you get the idea). Otherwise, they pretty much figure it all out without a word of explanation.

You might as well turn the sound off, although hearing only those primitive words coming out of their mouths during this scene is itself a delicious satire of lurid cop street language.

In some ways, this sequence is an apotheosis of the "show don't tell" philosophy that some consider the highest forms of cinema (recently exemplified, of course, by the first 15 minutes or so of There Will Be Blood, which relate a whole host of important character and plot developments with only maybe one line of dialogue throughout). That I discovered this particular marvel of acting, writing and directing in a TV episode is proof that these days, the best cinema really can sometimes be found on television.

Don't believe me? Check it out below:

Friday, February 15, 2008


EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - This blog needs a swift, round, bloody kick in the ass.

Folks, I'm in one of my lazy-blogging phases right now. Shit, I've probably been in this phase for the past, oh, six months or so.

Yeah, I could try to excuse it by saying something like, "Oh, I'm always so busy doing other stuff; no time to devote to serious blogging." I could use that old crutch: life happens.

If I genuinely cared about getting my voice out there, however, then I would make the time to write carefully-crafted blog entries. And dammit, I would enjoy doing it regularly, too.

So readers, I think it's time to shake things up at My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second a little. Wait, a little? How about a whole fucking lot?

(How classy of me, using profanities to denote intensity. Whatever, this ain't Merchant-Ivory...)


Thus, a new direction for this blog.

Here's the plan, at the barest minimum: At the ends of every week, I am going to try to update you all with things I've seen/read/heard/thought about throughout the week. New film I've seen on DVD that I liked? First (inevitably rough and unformed) thoughts will go onto the blog, if I feel like it's worth writing a little bit about. An interesting passage from a book I'm reading? You bet. A song that's been in my head throughout the week? Fair game. Anything that intrigued or excited me will all be recorded, in raw, unfiltered (but, hopefully, somewhat coherent) form.

Who knows? I might not even wait 'til the end of a week for some of these thoughts. And maybe I'll just end up devoting my end-of-the-week round-ups to simply focusing on one thing instead of talking about a bunch of small things. But again, that's the bare outline. I'm flexible.

This will be good for me, I think. As I struggle not to get too bogged down in the monotony of daily routine, hopefully this will inspire me to start being more observant and thoughtful of things, more open to working out ideas, examining emotions, etc. At the very least, it'll force me to put pen to paper more in torrents of deep thought. I need to start doing it more regularly, I think---a little mental exercise.

Enough with the boredom. Time for some action. All of you are free to jump in, if you feel like it. I welcome you all.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Little Giants No More

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Being that I'm not a particularly knowledgeable or rabid sports fan---not anymore, anyway---there's not much else I can add to what is probably one of the most amazing football games I will ever see in my lifetime.

Was there a more thrilling feat glimpsed at tonight's Superbowl than Giants quarterback Eli Manning, under immense pressure from Patriots defenders, somehow running out of the pressure, heaving a pass into the air and seeing it somehow make its way into the hands of David Tyree late in the fourth-quarter during the crucial drive that put the Giants up once and for all?

I almost wish I was at Wall Street Journal right now eavesdropping on the reactions of the many Giants fans working tonight at this stunning, glorious upset. The office will certainly be teeming with excitement tomorrow.

I'll admit it: I'm not really a Giants fan, but I was rooting hard for them in this game just so those darned Patriots wouldn't reach that 19-0 landmark. (Funny how that little videotaping scandal---in which Pats coach Bill Belichick was caught taping an opponent---in the first week of the regular season seemed to be brush aside so quickly.) But my realistic side told me to brace myself for a Patriots victory and just hope that the Giants would put up a good fight, like they did in the last game of the regular season against the Pats. Well, they sure put up a fight...and more.

Oh, and that odd ending to the game---with everyone rushing out onto the field even though there was still one second left on the clock---couldn't help but remind me of the way ecstatic Rutgers fans stormed Rutgers Stadium a few seconds early as the Scarlet Knights football team was on the verge of upsetting Louisville.

This was fun; I feel like I was a part of history. Now, of course, the Giants will be put in the position to prove, next season, that this upset was no fluke---a position the Patriots are no strangers of, after having to prove their legitimacy after Tom Brady and co. upset the Rams a few years ago. They went 7-9 the next year, I believe; will the same fate befall the Giants?

We'll see. Anyway, I guess it's time to focus on more pressing matters of national import. Oh Super Tuesday...