Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I'm a LAMB!

NEW YORK—If I had any doubts as to whether my blog had been accepted into The Large Association of Movie Blogs (LAMB)—a site that has, so far, collected and highlighted more than 750 film blogs—after I finally got around to applying in early October, they were erased when I got an email on Sunday that directed me to this link:

Should I consider this "moving up the ranks in the film blogosphere"? (At the very least, it's farther than I've gotten at The Wall Street Journal so far...)

When applying for inclusion into LAMB, I was asked a bunch of questions about my site; it seems that, in the aforementioned post, those questions and my responses were included. I think it offers a fairly good mission statement of sorts for My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second.

Selections below:

What is the main focus of your site?
My personal explorations in cinema and cinephilia, with occasional detours into theater, music, literature and the news events of the day. For me, life and art are always intersecting.

What are your blogging goals, personally and/or professionally? In other words, what, if anything, are you trying to get out your blog?
If nothing else, I see my blog as my way of not only sharing my love for cinema, but also nurturing and furthering dialogue about the arts. Also, I do use it to promote my writing outside of the blog; it is my life, after all.

Do you prefer an interactive community for your blog or are you the teacher and your readers the students?
I am absolutely all about interactivity, and to that extent I always try to continue the conversation after someone leaves a comment in my comments sections.

Name up to three of your favorite movies (and no more).
Playtime, Vertigo, Fallen Angels
Any additional comments, or give yourself an interview question that's not listed above.
I am a strong believer in the idea that all film criticism is at least somewhat personal in nature, however objective a tone a review might try to take. That is why I am unafraid to foreground the personal in some of my film reviews/blog posts—and that is why I think the title of my blog fits the content best. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Blogging to the Rescue!

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Today at work, my boss, in trying to figure out if I was owed more comp days for the rest of this year, asked me about certain holidays which she wasn't sure whether I had worked or not. At first, I panicked, because I wasn't entirely sure whether I had worked those particular holidays either. Oh, I had my guesses as to which ones I did work and which ones I didn't...but I admit that I wasn't good about keeping track of my holidays worked/not worked on my own, and apparently my boss wasn't obligated to keep track on her end. So even if I did have inklings as to which holidays I worked and which ones I took off, I didn't have any real way of proving those inklings correct.

Or so I thought.

"Maybe you could check Facebook, see if you posted anything on those days," my boss suggested. No, I said to her, it would take way too long to go that far back to see what I had tweeted on those days in question (same with Twitter, too...because I have my Twitter feed linked up to my Facebook account). But then, after thinking about it and temporarily blaming my less-than-ideal work schedule for getting me into this mess, I was struck with inspiration: What had I blogged on or around those certain days?

And sure enough, I went back to old blog posts and found perhaps-not-quite-definitive-but-close-enough passages like this:

—From "Spring Awakenings," published at 8 p.m. on April 1, 2010: "But wait a minute, some of you might be wondering: Aren't you supposed to be working today? In fact, thanks to the Asia and Europe editions of The Wall Street Journal not publishing on Friday and Monday, I have Thursday and Sunday off. Four-day weekend, woo-hoo!"

—From "Celebrating the Fourth of July—1776-style!," published at 7 a.m. on July 4, 2010: "As I am working both today and tomorrow—alas, the international Wall Street Journal editions don't celebrate America's independence; at least I get time-and-a-half for my holiday labors, though—I'll be celebrating Independence Day in my mind..."

—And from "(Late Labor Day) Weekend Film Round-up, Procrastination Edition," published at 12:01 a.m. on Sept. 8, 2010: "In the meantime: I saw a really mixed bag of films theatrically during my long weekend."

All of that was enough to get me four more comp days to use by the end of the year!

Earlier this year, I recounted the story of how one angry tweet on my Twitter feed somehow managed to catch the attention of someone up at Aetna's corporate headquarters in Hartford, Conn., and how that helped speed up the process of getting an increasingly exasperating hospital-bills situation resolved. It looks like something similar occurred here, except this time it was my blogging that came to my rescue!

Who knew that oversharing on the Internet could have such positive consequences?

RIP Leslie Nielsen (1926-2010)


To commemorate the death of Leslie Nielsen (from pneumonia complications), the Huffington Post put up this post today recounting some of the more memorable lines uttered by the great comedian/actor from three of his most famous films, Airplane! (1980), The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988) and The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991). Here's the thing, though: None of those lines, as far as I know, were actually written by Nielsen. Others wrote them, and, simply reading them on the page and divorced from context, one might find some of those punchlines, in and of themselves, breathtaking in their cheesiness rather than their wit. Nielsen, however, with his flawless deadpan, made those lines work every single time; even when playing a bumbling Clouseau-esque fool like Frank Drebin in the Naked Gun movies, he never, ever let on that he was in on the joke. He didn't need straight men; in those films, he was his own straight man. Maybe his decades preceding Airplane! basically playing actual straight men in films like Forbidden Planet (1956) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972) gave him the resources to apply that same stalwart quality to his comedic performances.

For a more thorough appreciation of Nielsen's career here, I direct you all to Edward Copeland's fine remembrance at his blog here. In the meantime, I'll just note that, in addition to the kinds of B-grade horror flicks I referred to previously, I grew up on the kind of laffaminit spoofs that Nielsen often appeared in during his late-career comedic renaissance. Seeing Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994) on television (the rare instance, by the way, in which the network-TV version actually included more footage than its theatrical version) offered me my first glimpse of Nielsen, and I don't think I had laughed harder at any other movie comedy up to that point (Airplane! came soon after that). In that sense, he was an essential part of my formative cinephilia—even in lesser stuff like Repossessed (1990), Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) and Wrongfully Accused (1998). Even with those misfires, I thank him.

May he rest in peace...whoopee cushion and all.

(Thanksgiving) Weekend Film Round-up: Tangled Up in (Survival) Blues

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Because I was back in East Brunswick on Friday and Saturday catching up with family and friends, my theatrical cinematic explorations this weekend were limited to two new releases, both of them pleasant—or, in the case of Danny Boyle's 127 Hours, pleasant with generous doses of agonizing—surprises.

Tangled (2010), written by Dan Fogelman and directed by Nathan Greno and Bryan Howard, is Disney's 50th animated feature, and while the formulaic Disney elements are ever-present—cute animal sidekicks, buffoonish comic relief, a central love story—there's a refreshing sincerity that transcends the familiar outlines of this beautifully imagined world.

The film takes off from the famous Brothers Grimm fairy tale Rapunzel —she of the extra-long hair that she lets down for her deceitful "mother" so she can retain her youthful looks—and while its opening moments, featuring sarcastic voice-over narration from Flynn Rider (voiced by Zachary Levi, from TV's Chuck), suggest that this may turn into a Shrek-like smirkathon, Tangled eventually drops the sarcasm and becomes an emotionally stirring tale of a sheltered young woman (Mandy Moore) who takes her first few danger-fraught steps out in the "cruel," "wicked" world, as Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) has raised Rapunzel to believe. Having wrestled with my own desires to break free from what I perceived to be a sheltered environment back home in East Brunswick, I found myself relating quite deeply to its scenes of Rapunzel escaping from her home prison and being hit by the same kind of awe that, say, Jake Sully felt while exploring Pandora in Avatar. It's that kind of openness to the natural world, as well as to life's highs and lows, that tends to animate my own views of life and art.

It certainly helps that Tangled features some of the most wondrous imagery seen in an animated Disney film in a long time; one sequence, in which Rapunzel and Flynn declare their love for each other on a river as a mass of lanterns float around them in the air, may be the most sheerly beautiful sequence I've seen in a theater all year (so much so that the forgettable blandness of the Alan Menken/Glenn Slater love ballad featured in the scene doesn't matter). Disney's latest film may not feel like an instant modern animated classic on the order of, say, most Pixar features, The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, but it still resonates with the same emotional purity as some of the best children's animation in recent years.

127 Hours (2010) is not an animated film, but, considering how much visual trickery director Danny Boyle pumps into this based-on-a-true-story account of Aron Ralston's (James Franco) ordeal after he falls down a crevice in a Utah canyon and gets his right arm stuck in a rock for about six days, it might as well be. Actually, that's not entirely fair to the film, which, against all odds, works both because and in spite of Boyle's usual slickness.

Here, Boyle's canted camera angles, restless jump-cutting, split screens and pixelated shots are put in service of trying to get inside the head of Ralston, who is presented in this film—adapted by Boyle and Simon Beaufoy from Ralston's own published account of the incident—as an adventurous, reckless and lonely all-American soul who ends up reassessing his own life as he's trapped literally between a rock and a hard place. In the opening stages, Boyle's impulsive, restless visual style makes sense for such an impulsive, restless fellow; once Ralston gets his arm trapped under that fateful rock, though, it's more hit-or-miss. Boyle has never been what one would consider a spiritual filmmaker, so his attempts to render the existential side of Ralston's crisis usually fall flat; his jittery style completely mucks up a climactic dream sequence that supposedly instills in him the push he needs to finally go through with his self-amputation.

Still, there are other scenes in which his style successfully elucidates the sensation of a given moment. In one sequence, Ralston, still trapped, films himself pretending to be on a talk show, and Boyle simulates his mindset by cutting quickly between camera angles and even adding a laugh track to the soundtrack. But then, Ralston reaches a moment of personal epiphany, and as he drops the ruse, Boyle likewise drops the laugh track and multiple camera angles, wisely leaving us with Franco's regret and sadness to carry the rest of the scene.

If the film manages to be as affecting as it is, it's mostly because of Franco, whose magnetic performance fills in the film's spiritual holes. When, after his physical/mental trial is over, he quietly whispers "Thank you" to the rock and his cut-off arm—after having photographed the gory image, no less—the moment is remarkable for Franco's sense of peace in his delivery, as if the whole agonizing experience has purified him in a way. Sure, a less flashy director than Boyle would probably have made more out of the existential man-versus-nature themes this film lightly touches on...but somehow, the inspiring nature of this story still communicates quite movingly. Even after suffering through what most of us would consider six days of Hell, Aron Ralston still managed to retain both his derring-do spirit and his awe of the natural world. (Apparently, the real Ralston is still climbing rocks and mountains, even with only one arm.) That's real human resilience, folks—and, at its best, 127 Hours exudes that same exuberant sense of life even as the film deals with the effects of a character who teeters on the brink of death.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Link for the Day: Self-Promotion At Its Most Extreme

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—A few weeks ago, I, along with two other news assistants, was asked by one of the senior editors at The Wall Street Journal to help do research on an investigative news story he and a few reporters were working on. Apparently, a few weeks earlier, the paper had published a front-page scoop exposing Congressional aides who were trading shares of companies that they themselves were helping to oversee in their jobs; this follow-up story was intended to put some numerical/statistical meat on the earlier story's bones. So all three of us were asked to go through a mountain-sized pile of disclosure forms online and note the members who reported more than 30 trades done in 2009—because apparently, if a Congressman is doing more than 30 transactions of this sort, he/she is considered an "active investor"...and that, of course, begs the question: What are all those legislators/Congressional aides doing, legislating or investing?

It was a large task, of course, because of how many people walk the halls of both houses of Congress. So I was forced to put in overtime hours—even going so far as to come in on a Friday, my usual day off, in order to wade through these disclosure forms—in order to help get the job done. This wasn't particularly challenging work, by any means...but I didn't mind. At least, for once, I felt like I was contributing to something genuinely important: keeping power in check, and all that good, noble stuff. It certainly helped that I would be getting overtime pay for my efforts...and that, I was told, my name would be mentioned at the end of the story as having "contributed to this article." Hey, these days, I'll take whatever mention in the print paper and/or wsj.com I can get!

The story was originally supposed to be completed and published on Election Day, Nov. 2...but then, that day came and went and I saw nothing via email, online or in the paper about insider trading of any kind in Congress. Then, a couple days later, one of the news assistants who helped with the research forwarded me an internal email with an initial draft of the story, and sure enough, my name was mentioned in it as one to be noted in the story's concluding tagline. But after that, I heard nada más, and I didn't really bother to ask anyone about it.

Then yesterday, on a whim, I tried to search for a story like it on Google and see if I had somehow missed it all these weeks...and sure enough, I came across a story sporting the headline "Congress Has Active Investors" that had been published, it seems, on Nov. 6. I scrolled down the page on wsj.com, and there was my name, mentioned along with two others as having "helped contribute to this article."

So, in the interest of pure self-promotion, I'm offering a link to the story—which one can apparently access easily online without having to pay for it—here. Why should I care to promote this? I didn't help write it. And yet, actually, I'm kind of proud to have helped out on it. (Also: Hey, editors! I can help you do research! Without complaining, too! Hire me!)

Here are the first few paragraphs of that story, written by Tom McGinty, Jason Zweig and Brody Mullins:

Some active individual stock and bond investors these days aren't on Wall Street, it seems, but in the halls of Congress.

A total of 86 legislators and congressional aides on both sides of the aisle reported frequent trades of securities last year—in one case, an aide posted nearly 2,300 trades in his brokerage account—according to a Wall Street Journal's analysis of disclosure forms covering trading activity on Capitol Hill in 2009.

These 26 legislators and 60 congressional aides—roughly 2% of the total—reported an average of 170 trades last year, with half of them reporting 100 trades or more, according to the analysis.

Brokerage firms like Fidelity Investments and Charles Schwab typically define an "active investor" as someone who trades an average of at least 36 times a year. They say such active investors make up a small proportion of their clients, though they wouldn't provide percentages.

There is nothing wrong with active trading, of course. And unlike many executive branch employees, lawmakers and aides don't have restrictions on their stock holdings and ownership interests in the companies that they oversee.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving...to My Dad

NEW YORK—I hope you are all having a happy Thanksgiving so far!

If you're spending it at home with loved ones feasting on turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce and all that usual holiday standbys, then right there you are already having a better Thanksgiving than I am...being that I am currently at my place of employment working. (Hey, Wall Street Journal papers needed to be put out tomorrow!) But then, I've worked on Thanksgiving this three years in a row for News Corp., so I'm used to it. At least I get fed. And at least I get holiday pay out of this. Extra money: always a good thing!

There's much that I'm thankful for, of course. And really, I paid tribute to the most of the important stuff in my life in this post, written last Thanksgiving; not much has really changed since then, even with the recent change in living locale.

My dad at the Toyota factory in Tokyo last year

This year, though, Thanksgiving coincides with my father's 61st birthday. For the occasion, my mother came up with the idea of commissioning each member of the Fujishima clan to contribute an essay to commemorate this milestone. As she wrote to me via email:

Since we will get together for the turkey feast, I have suggested and requested everybody writes an essay of the personal feeling about your Dad.  I keep asking Dad what he wants.  He keeps saying "nothing special".  I think if we all tell him how we feel about him, this shall touch his heart and make him feel special.  Shiiii.  I want to keep it a secret-giving him one essay for his birthday present from each one of us.

Here is what I came up with (essentially a reworking/expansion of this earlier Father's Day post, since I seem to be on a self-referential streak these days):

Well, it's Thanksgiving. And this year, it seems, Dad's birthday falls on the same day. This is not only coincidental but very fitting.

Though I consider myself a pretty passionate person inside, I'm admittedly rather sparse with the loving gestures outside—as are you, Dad. But really, there's a lot that makes us both similar, even if we don't say it out loud. Philosophically and personally, I've always felt more of a kinship with you, especially on matters of how to live one's life. So, for instance, during that particularly agonizing time in college during my sophomore year when I was torn between practical fears and my own desire to pursue something I was more deeply interested in, you were the one I went to for advice and support. In general, I feel far more comfortable talking to you about personal matters than I do with Mom.

Of course, I realize that most of the time you end up hearing more about what happens to me from others than from me directly. Maybe that needs to change, and I need to let you in more. But in my own bid to keep this as short and sweet as possible—because I think you, most of all in this family, would appreciate both a lack of sentimentality and brevity of gesture—for now, I'll just offer you this: I'm thankful for your wisdom and, simply, your presence when I've needed you most.

Now, if you would consider at least taking some steps to giving up smoking, then that would make this all the nicer.

Video for the Day: A Bit of Perversity to Start Off This Thanksgiving


Ah yes, Eli Roth's contribution to Grindhouse: a trailer for a nonexistent slasher movie called Thanksgiving. Though I've heard that Thanksgiving may go the Machete route and become an actual theatrical feature? I, for one, was always wondering when this particular all-American holiday would get the stalk-and-slash treatment...

Hey, guys, let me be perverse for the moment; I have to actually work on Thanksgiving! Let me have my fun, if I won't be having it with my folks back at home!

A more "serious" Thanksgiving post will be forthcoming, though, I promise.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Runaway Trains

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Over the weekend, I saw two of the films in the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Cannon Films Canon series: John Cassavetes's Love Streams and Andrei Konchalovsky's Runaway Train. Both films were backed by Cannon Films, a studio run from 1979 onward by Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Golan/Globus were known throughout the 1980s not only for bankrolling a lot of gung-ho action schlock starring Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson and Michael Dudikoff, but also gambling on world-class auteurs like Cassavetes, Jean-Luc Godard and Raúl Ruiz, among others. For that reason, the same studio that brought the world, among other films, the Missing in Action flicks, The Delta Force, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Masters of the Universe and others also brought the aforementioned two titles, King Lear, Treasure Island, Barfly and many other classier projects to a wider audience. That's an almost unheard-of contrast, for an American studio at least, between popular entertainment and art-house fare...and frankly, I wish the Film Society had emphasized the contrast that much more in its otherwise interesting series. (Chuck Norris kicking Robert Forster's ass on the same day Jean-Luc Godard purses his lips as Professor Pluggy in King Lear? That'd at least be someone's dream come true!)

I might get around to the fascinating and strangely moving Love Streams in a later post. For now, though, this:

I wasn't planning to see Runaway Train (1985) this weekend; it's available via Netflix, and was thus not a viewing priority for me. But apparently the Film Society got a wrong print of Treasure Island and only realized it 20 minutes before its scheduled Saturday 2 p.m. screening! So Konchalovsky's film was chosen as its last-minute replacement. Having not seen the film before—and remembering that I was planning to see Tony Scott's new runaway-train movie Unstoppable the next day (more on that later)—I decided I might as well check this out. The film I ended up seeing was, to my mind, a wildly uneven one...but one with an ending so stunning that I'm willing to forgive it a lot. [Spoilers are ahead, obviously, for those who have never seen the film.]

With a screenplay by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel and Edward Bunker that was based on a script written by none other than Akira Kurosawa, Runaway Train aims to be the kind of mix of action-movie thrills, character study and philosophical discourse that Kurosawa often excelled at in his heyday. It thoroughly fulfills its first aim, with a handful of edge-of-your-seat stunts, action sequences and high-powered collisions to satisfy the popcorn crowd. As a character study, though, it's more problematic. Some of the dialogue is so ham-fisted in trying to explore its themes that it's almost a miracle that the actors manage to find imaginative ways to deliver it; on the other hand, some of that acting is just so mannered and hysterical—and alas, yes, that includes the performances of the two Oscar-nominated leads, Jon Voight and (especially) Eric Roberts—that the characters themselves never quite transcend their obvious places in the script's grand allegorical design.

And yet, here is a case where I can mostly forgive the didacticism, since the philosophical and moral issues it raises are so fascinating to ponder. Both having escaped from a maximum-security prison in Alaska, Manny (Voight) and Buck (Roberts) find themselves trapped on a train barreling uncontrollably forth after its conductor suffers a heart attack just as it's about to leave a station; the train becomes the setting for what amounts to moral tug-of-war between a weary older prisoner-legend (Manny) and the dim-bulb younger prisoner who idolizes him (Buck). Buck only knows of a life of crime; a criminal is all he aspires to be. Manny, however, has spent years in the slammer, and it seems all those years have instilled in him a sense of regret at choices not made in his own life. Both of them may technically be "free," but mentally speaking, are they really? Does Buck truly understand the implications of his freedom, or is he actually still stuck in a prison of his own imagining, reinforced by years of being treated like less than a human being by prison authorities? And while Manny seems to have a better grasp of what his freedom means, he is perhaps also locked into his own criminal past, unable to, well, run away from it—especially with the prison's vengeful warden (John P. Ryan) ruthlessly hounding him even after he has escaped from his clutches.

In that sense, Runaway Train is trying to consciously enlarge an action-movie framework to focus not only on the twisted psychologies of its characters, but also on eternal issues of what it means to be truly human. Is Manny, as willing as he is to sacrifice the lives of others for the sake of his own personal freedom, truly the "animal" the warden says he is, especially when he threatens to kill Buck after he tries but fails to uncouple an engine? Or does his own failure to kill Buck suggest genuine moral impulses underneath the increasingly aggressive exterior? The script even introduces a third character, a railway worker named Sara (Rebecca De Mornay), to add a more explicitly spiritual side to this animal-versus-human standoff, with her faith not only in a higher power, but of the compassion of her fellow workers that they won't send them to their deaths. (The latter faith, however, turns out to be broken until the end.)

Again, I'm not certain that the characters are sketched in and performed with enough depth for its psychological/philosophical concerns to resonate beyond our awareness of their place in the script's allegorical scheme. But then comes the film's final five minutes, when Manny and the warden finally have their date with destiny. As hellbent as he remains on not returning to prison, Manny's own sense of humanity finally kicks in as he heroically uncouples the lead train car—proving to Buck, who had failed at the task earlier, that the task could be done if he'd put his mind to it—and saves Buck and Sara from certain death while forging ahead with the fate he himself has decided upon.

As Vivaldi's Gloria operatically plays on the soundtrack, we see shots of the train car barreling ahead to certain doom—and on top of it is Manny, battling the elements but standing upright in a cruciform position. After all the clumsy speechifying, Konchalovsky finally allows an inspired image to suggest everything the film's dialogue had made explicit about the humanity of its characters and the nature of their freedom/imprisonment. By making this choice—to die as a free man rather than return to prison as less than a man—he has found his own kind of autonomy, and exults in this knowledge even as he braces himself for death.


Tony Scott pays tribute to this eloquent image from Runaway Train in the climax of Unstoppable (2010), though the context here is more conventionally heroic rather than ambiguous. Otherwise, the film relates to the Konchalovsky film only in the fact that it features a train that cannot stop. No philosophical/moral pretensions, no over-explicit didacticism, no outsize over-acting; Scott's by now familiar whip pans, quick edits and excessive zooms notwithstanding, the film is a comparably modest meat-and-potatoes action flick ("inspired by true events," an opening title card takes care to note) in which working-class grunts—among them a veteran Pennsylvania railroad engineer (Denzel Washington), a much younger conductor (Chris Pine) and a no-nonsense station chief (Rosario Dawson)—use their combined wits and experience to stop a runaway train from barreling into major residential towns and causing untold amounts of damage and casualties.

The "working class" part is not insignificant. Unstoppable, far from being just a mindless thrill ride, manages to generate a surprising amount of warmth in its depiction of proletariats soldiering on in their humdrum lives amidst mundane personal setbacks (early retirement, marital troubles, and the like), and finding the strength, when faced with an out-of-the-ordinary situation such as this, to summon up the courage to step up, put aside petty resentments and band together in a common goal. It's a stance that will probably resonate with many wage workers during this current recession, as news reports proliferate of long-time veterans being forced into early retirement as a result of downsizing, outsourcing, what have you.

First and foremost, though, this is one hell of an adrenaline rush, boosted by a solid script (by Mark Bomback, who also wrote the screenplay for the last Die Hard installment), fine performances (with Chris Pine, last seen as young Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams's Star Trek reboot, admirably holding his own next to Tony Scott veteran Denzel Washington), terrific stunt work and expertly taut pacing. Unstoppable is the kind of momentum-filled action spectacle that Roger Ebert has, over the years, famously called Bruised Forearm movies; in my personal pantheon of Best Bruised Forearm Movies, this one proudly stands alongside such diverse genre films as (among others) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Die Hard 2, Speed and The Bourne Ultimatum. That it features a touch of social relevance—without becoming overly preachy and self-congratulatory about it—just makes it all the sweeter.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Vienna...in Brooklyn? A Convergence of Tree-Lined Roads

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—In early October, I commemorated the beginning of autumn in this post by grabbing a still frame from the desolate final shot of Carol Reed's The Third Man:

Only recently, though, did I realize that, in my neighborhood, there is actually a visual equivalent to this Viennese setting near my apartment in Brooklyn:

This is a median running along the Eastern Parkway, a stretch of boulevard that runs from Grand Army Plaza to Evergreen Cemetery. I haven't yet walked the full length of the Eastern Parkway, so I'm not sure if tree-lined medians run all the way through...but scrub away the color, and this could be somewhat Third Man-esque, don't you think?

So if anyone is itching to remake The Third Man in New York...well, here's a setting you can use. Not that I'm necessarily encouraging anyone to remake that classic noir, mind you...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Is Next to Normal All Too Normal?



It opens with a musical number that, right off the bat, suggests disturbances underneath surface normalcy. The son complains that the mother is too overprotective; then, the daughter enters the scene, and immediately you sense an emotional rift even as the mother tries to be comforting. On the other hand, how would you react if your mother, with unexpected frankness, says ebulliently to you, "I'm going upstairs to have sex with your father"? But if you didn't already have a clue that something serious was up with this matriarch, then the climax of that opening number seals the deal: In straining to prepare lunches for her family, the mother ends up throwing a bunch of bread slices on the floor and making a mess until she catches herself, with the husband and daughter looking on in pained silence.

Spanning the heights of familial harmony to the depths of psychological horror, and ending in such a whirlwind of a crescendo that the ensuing musical silence is deafening and devastating, this opening number of Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey's Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical Next to Normal—which I was finally able to see on Saturday evening, after months of unsuccessfully trying to engender interest in it among my circles of friends—sets out the show's modus operandi. Taking its cues from the mother, Diana Goodman—who, we discover, is in the midst of a breakdown as a result of a bipolar disorder she has dealt with for many years—the show is itself defined by a superheated intensity even in its quieter moments. As an emotional experience, Next to Normal offers one of the purest and most astonishingly direct that you are likely to see on any stage right now, supported by a rousing score that somehow embraces all manner of styles and tone colors without seeming overly self-conscious.

And yet...is this is a great work? It's certainly a good one, with its compelling human drama, sensitively directed by Michael Greif and extraordinarily well-acted by its cast—with Marin Mazzie doing a spectacular job in the role that won its original Diana, Alice Ripley, a Tony—and buttressed by Mark Wendland's eye-filling three-tiered set, its coldly lit, industrial bent acting as a kind of theater of Diana's addled mind. All of that passion, however, isn't quite enough to transcend a formulaic, predictable storyline from seeming, well, formulaic and predictable; its treatment of the devastating effects of bipolar disorder on this particular character is also problematic, to say the least.

Screengrab courtesy of DVD Beaver
A seemingly effervescent personality stuck in the drudgeries of suburban home life finds herself feeling even more numbed-out under the influence of the myriad drugs prescribed to her; at a certain point, she recklessly decides to forgo the drugs, which triggers a relapse and leads to even more serious treatment. If some of that barebones plot summary sounds familiar to you, then you could probably trace its pedigree not only to Milos Forman's 1975 film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (which the show name-drops for comic effect during Diana's "Didn't I See This Movie Before?" number), but arguably even all the way back to Nicholas Ray's thematically similar 1956 masterpiece Bigger Than Life. Both take place in suburban settings; both revolve around characters who, deep down, yearn to break out of a barely conscious inner listlessness; and both detail the near-destruction of a family unit as those central characters experience mental declines and risk taking the rest of the family down with them (in Next to Normal, for instance, the daughter, Natalie (Meghann Fahey), becomes addicted to recreational drugs as a result of the matriarch's travails).

Admittedly, this isn't a perfectly correspondent comparison: Bigger than Life's Ed Avery (James Mason) only becomes overcontrolling and delusional after he becomes addicted to cortisone, while Diana Goodman is already ill at the outset, with medication—a barrage of pills first, then shock therapy—only increasing her frustrations. The thematic thread, though, is comparable: suburbia as, once again—as in such recent films/books as American Beauty and Little Children—a stifling environment that drives a husband and a housewife to some kind of madness. Alas, Next to Normal, for all its emotional rigor, never really delves into any notably fresh directions with this frankly played-out theme. And even when its second act—in which Diana finds herself forgetting key memories as a result of the shock therapy, while her husband Dan (Jason Danieley) finds in this convenient side effect an opportunity for the family to start afresh—threatens to push into genuinely provocative territory, by the end it steps back into the usual gauzy Broadway-style uplift.

That said, Next to Normal isn't just about suburban ennui; by literalizing Diana's spiritual turmoil through the explicit use of bipolar disorder, Kitt and Yorkey demand that we take her plight seriously on a certain level as an actual disease rather than merely a metaphor for a deeper soullessness. It's unfortunate, then, that its depiction of bipolar disorder borders on A Beautiful Mind triteness. Remember the way director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman condescendingly turned Prof. John Nash's schizophrenia in that film into little more than a bait-and-switch Sixth Sense-style plot twist? Kitt and Yorkey pull a similar tactic early on in Next to Normal, when it is revealed that that son we saw in the opening number is actually not alive; he died 16 years ago, and Diana has never been able to let him go. Granted, this revelation occurs about 10 minutes into the show, so it isn't stretched out for the purposes of facile "mystery." More problematically, however, the son remains an actual flesh-and-blood character in the show, literally hanging over the proceedings, tempting her mother toward a relapse. In a drama that otherwise manages to find welcome amounts of nuance in its individual characterizations and in the relationships between the characters, this gimmicky fantasy construction comes off a cheesy attempt to create a comfortable villain for the piece—the "devil" to her husband's "angel"—and the show's frequent suggestions that the son's death, and the hazily explained guilt feelings her mother still holds as a result of the tragedy, is the main cause of her disorder feels too simplistic for a psychological affliction that usually comes from more complicated roots.

The disappointing thing about Next to Normal is that all of its good intentions, laudable compassion and thrilling musicality is put at the service of an unconvincingly tidy and comfortable depiction of domestic dysfunction, mental illness and deep-seated guilt. I can't say I was left unmoved by this show, and if you're looking for a theatrical experience that will leave you feeling something for actual human beings rather than detached wonderment at empty spectacle—seemingly the raison d'être of most other Broadway musicals these days—this one fits the bill in gripping fashion. But I'm not sure I can say I felt especially shaken or challenged either, in the way that truly great art can do.

If you're still curious to see this show, however...well, all of you living in or near New York have only until Jan. 16, 2011, to see it on Broadway. And if you, like me, are able to score a $25 front-row ticket via a lottery—like I was successfully able to do on Saturday evening, then so much the better!

Here's a clip of two numbers, "You Don't Know" and "I Am the One," being performed at last year's Tony Awards, with original cast members Alice Ripley, J. Robert Spencer and Aaron Tveit:

Monday, November 15, 2010

Score One for Traditional Projection! Plus, For Colored Girls


Last week, a few friends and I went to see For Colored Girls at the Regal Cinemas theater near Union Square Wednesday evening. The screening was scheduled for 8:30, but the show started about half an hour later than expected. One of the theater managers came in and announced that there was a digital-projection issue that was delaying the start of the screening, and that it would be another 10 to 15 minutes before things would hopefully be up and running correctly.

One of the friends in my group was a former employee of that particular Regal theater, and she gave me an illuminating (to me, at least) piece of inside info that I thought was worth sharing with all of you. According to her, the reason that it was going to take 10 to 15 minutes was that the projectionist had to re-download the entire digital file before trying to start the screening again. "It was actually easier before the theater went all-digital," she said. "If there was any problem with the film, we could just take out the messed-up frames and splice it back together. That only took five minutes. It takes longer now to fix those kinds of problems."

Surely many of us have noticed how big theater chains such as Regal and AMC more or less shoved digital projection down our throats overnight over the summer. While I'm far from a staunch Luddite when it comes to film vs. digital—Vadim Rizov did a fine job a few months ago in this piece at GreenCine Daily outlining the virtues of digital projection—in light of my friend's fascinating tidbit, I have to admit, I find it rather ironic, and somewhat poignant, that celluloid film, that longtime "analog" format, turns out to be, in some cases at least, quite possibly superior to the supposedly more up-to-date digital format when it comes to fixing its own issues. Score one for traditional projection!


Oh, and I suppose some words are in order for For Colored Girls, Tyler Perry's screen adaptation of Ntozake Shange's groundbreaking 1975 "choreopoem" For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Having never read/seen Shange's play (I honestly hadn't even heard of it until this film adaptation was made) nor seen a Tyler Perry film before, I came into it only having faint ideas of what to expect from it based on reviews of previous Perry features as well as this All Things Considered item about the play and people's expectations about its translation from stage to screen.

From what I hear—and correct me if I'm wrong, those of you who do know the stage drama—Shange's play is basically a series of monologues in which various unnamed African-American women recount their struggles, most of them at the hands of men. (A precursor to Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues?) That, on the face of it, sounds like an inspired idea, suggestive of a desire to express emotions of universal import by purposefully subtracting dramatic and character specifics and allowing these women to speak in their own voices. Perry's ungainly approach to the material is to include most of the monologues but also extrapolate dramatic material from them and filter it all through his unabashedly operatic sensibility. Alas, the near-campy melodrama of the situations Perry comes up with here—most of it shot in a mostly flat, functional TV style, with the exception of one risible (no doubt Lee Daniels-inspired) bit of crosscutting between a rape and an opera performance—has the effect of leeching away much of the power of Shange's poetry. Worse, Perry fails to incorporate the monologues into the overall dramatic structure in any convincingly organic way; the whole film ends up feeling mostly unwieldy and draggy.

If the film is affecting at all, it is mostly by virtue of the full commitment his immensely talented cast brings to the material; this mostly female ensemble is pretty excellent across the board, and Perry is at least generous enough toward these actresses—capturing them in luminous close-ups, allowing scenes to play out in long takes—to give them all moments to shine. Exquisite, soulful displays of female emotion seem to be in preciously short supply in mainstream American cinema these days, and Perry, with the help of this ensemble, generates emotions you can practically touch. That's not nothing...but it isn't quite enough to elevate For Colored Girls above the level of well-meaning but misguided.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Aung San Suu Kyi: A Real "Triumph of the Human Spirit" Story

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Now here's a real "triumph of the human spirit" story for all of you to chew on.

For those who hadn't heard, over the weekend Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released from military junta-imposed house arrest after about 15 years.

Fifteen years! Damn...that's a long time to be imprisoned in one's own home, especially by decree of a military-led government trying to suppress the pro-democracy ideal for which you stand. (I get antsy even after one day of being trapped at home; imagine fifteen, especially if you're as much of a political activist as she is!)

And yet, judging by public comments she has already made upon her momentous release, she is sticking to her political guns, even after all these years, and planning to continue her fight for a free, democratic Myanmar...even if it means risking future imprisonment. She and her burning flame of belief endures. That's real bravery right there.

I, for one, wish her the best of luck; a genuinely inspiring figure such as this deserves all the support she can get for such a worthy cause, against all odds.

Here is some video of the inspiring response from the Burmese people that greeted her release on Saturday:

Friday, November 12, 2010

Howard Finster's Fire-and-Brimstone Marriage of Text and Image

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Speaking of religion: Who among you knows of the artist named Howard Finster (1916-2001)?

A few weekends ago, I ventured forth into Harlem for the first time ever to check out a private new art gallery that recently opened up. How private? So private that it's basically one family's two-story studio apartment! One of my co-workers—who, it turns out, is himself an artist specializing in scanner photography (check out his site here, if you're curious what "scanner photography" looks like in practice)—decided to turn his apartment into an informal art gallery displaying some of his own works, some of the work of other artists, and cultural artifacts he has collected over the years.

Among the works of art displayed in this gallery was this:

The Devil's Vice, Howard Finster

Two things jumped out at me about this print: first, the sheer, overwhelming amount of detail packed into this canvas; and second, the fact that much of that detail was given over to words rather than images.

When it comes to movies, a lot of critics have a sometimes seemingly knee-jerk disdain for such characteristics as "preachiness," "heavy-handedness" and "didacticism." I guess many critics just don't like to preached to—but who does, right? And we all consider film a visual art more than anything else, so of course we'll vastly prefer something expressed visually rather than verbally; if a filmmaker is so clumsy as to feel the need to spell out his/her intentions for us in the audience...well, then, where's the fun in that?

Personally, I've always taken films that go the didactic route on a case-by-case basis. So yeah, sometimes such spell-it-out-too-explicitly heavy-handedness can bother the hell out of me too. Take one of the most popular, and widely praised, films of recent years, Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight (2008). This highly touted sequel to Batman Begins (2005) abounds in fairly graceless speechifying about, among other things, what morality there can really be in a world governed by chance and fate; but the speechifying matters less to me than this gnawing sense that Nolan is so insistent on putting his order-versus-chaos allegory across that he sacrifices character development and subtlety to do so. When he actually tries to turn his thinly veiled allegory into some kind of human drama, the lack of three-dimensional characterizations is thrown into sharp relief; there's nothing to care about on a human level beyond each character's preordained place in Nolan's grand allegorical scheme. The film ends up playing more lke a big-budget philosophical thesis paper than a drama with flesh-and-blood characters; thus, its many moments of overt didacticism—especially its "will one boat blow up the other" climax—stick out like so many sore thumbs.

Sometimes, though, didacticism can be done in a way that's genuinely thought-provoking and maybe even emotionally stirring. When it comes to some of the more hardcore-intellectual work of Jean-Luc Godard, for instance, sure, the same criticisms I just lobbed at The Dark Knight would probably apply. Does anyone really remember much about the characters in films like 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967), Tout va bien (1972), or in more recent work like In Praise of Love (2001), Notre musique (2004) and his latest, Film Socialism (2010)? In these films, to varying degrees, his "characters" mostly spout off ideas and aphorisms, and he leaves it up to us to either take his thoughts seriously or dismiss it as "pretentious." And yet, Godard's didacticism usually evinces a curiosity and engagement with the wider world that Nolan's never does; plus, for all the chatter he includes in his films, he's far more visually inventive in the ways he expresses his intellectual obsessions on the screen (witness, for instance, the back-and-forth tracking shot in the supermarket towards the end of Tout va bien, from which the above still is taken). There's an exciting sense of exploration in Godard's later work that, even at its most inscrutable, offsets any sense of preachiness; he's trying to pin down his ideas the same time we in the audience are.

Admittedly, Finster's art isn't fueled by that same sense of exploration. A Baptist pastor from Georgia, Finster often claimed that God, through visions, implored him to spread His word through his art; in that way, much of his more than 46,000 works are essentially fire-and-brimstone expressions of his faith. And yet, one look at the portrait above and one gets the sense that he is so passionately committed to that faith that he'll even go so far as to include large amounts of text, scriptural or otherwise, in his canvases in order to get the Word out. One could consider this the visual-art equivalent of the kind of talky didacticism in Godard's films or The Dark Knight, and one might even dismiss it wholesale as crude and un-artistic. For me, however, there's a certain purity of intent to Finster's art—his posters, his sculptures, his self-built Paradise Gardens—that rises above its simple means and becomes almost transcendent. It's his zeal that moves you, whatever the method.

 Here's another example of his art, this one in the shape of an American flag:

Oh, and for those who think they've never seen Howard Finster's work before...remember this album cover...

...and this one?

Yep, Finster designed the album covers for both R.E.M.'s 1984 album Reckoning (the band's second) and Talking Heads' 1985 Little Creatures. In the former, he collaborated with lead singer Michael Stipe, and it looks sparer than many of the Finster paintings/sculptures I've seen; the latter seems more echt-Finsterian in its denseness. Rolling Stone magazine named the Little Creatures cover the best of its year. The more you know...

You can get more information about Finster, by the way, at this ancient-looking website. He seems quite a character; I look forward to delving even more into his work in the future.

The man himself

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Video for the Day: Conan O'Brien, Cable-TV Censorship and Die Hard 2


Because I don't have cable in the apartment (and, if the inclinations of my roommates are any indication, there may not be any cable for the rest of my year-long lease there; oh, what we will sacrifice to save money), I wasn't able to join in the Conan O'Brien lovefest going on among my Facebook/Twitter friends upon the premiere of his new late-night show on TBS Monday night. This saddens me just a little bit; I'm not a rabid Conan O'Brien fan, by any means, but I find his self-deprecating shtick amusing and charming nevertheless, and my sympathies were entirely with him during the Jay Leno/NBC clusterfuck that got him unceremoniously bumped off his Tonight Show hosting gig and led him to quit the network entirely. I have been able to catch up on bits and pieces of his new show on his TBS show page online, though, so I don't feel like I'm totally out of the pop-culture loop.

On Wednesday, one film critic I follow on Twitter posted the following about Tuesday night's episode of Conan: "Conan calling out the TBS censor over Die Hard 2's "Mr. Falcon" line was GENIUS. So glad to have Conan back."

My eyes popped out at this for two reasons: 1) As some of you may have guessed from this post and various tweets I've posted every so often, I'm an apologist for Renny Harlin's much-maligned but still hugely entertaining follow-up to the original Die Hard; and 2) I've sat through TBS's censored version of Die Hard 2, and it is one of the most unintentionally hilarious things I've ever seen on cable.

I could make a whole list of what's so amusing about this particular dubbing job—the cheesy substitutes for the various verbal obscenities, the Bruce Willis overdubber that sounds nothing like Willis—but this assemblage of clips from the TV print sums it up economically:

Yes, folks: Among other moments of hilarity, McClane's famous "Yippee-kayyay, motherfucker" quip has been transformed into "Yippee-kayyay, Mr. Falcon"! Um, what?

I didn't think, though, that this would ever become a rich source of comedy on a late-night talk show. But it finally has, as you can see here, especially from 4:52 onward:

The whole segment is an amusing (if safe) satire of cable-TV censorship double standards, and while there are some solid punches landed even before O'Brien unveils his Die Hard 2 clincher...well, yes, the clincher is still a stroke of genius of the "it's funny because it's true" variety.

O'Brien, by the way, isn't quite right about one thing. While there's technically no one named "Mr. Falcon" in the film, Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero), the deposed South American general whom Colonel Stuart (William Sadler) is trying to extricate from imprisonment, does take the code name "Falcon" over CB radio. And being that Esperanza is the one flying the plane that McClane ends up blowing to bits with his lighter in its climax...well, there is a certain logic, then, to having McClane give a kiss-off line of "Yippee-kayyay, Mr. Falcon."

That, of course, doesn't nullify O'Brien's agreeable satirical intent in using this particularly egregious example of clumsy cable censorship in this skit. I mean, it speaks for itself!

And yes, I have a near-unhealthy obsession with Die Hard 2—a film that, I'd argue, works in context of the series as the exuberantly decadent cowboy fantasy that John McClane pretends to inhabit, at least every once in a while, in John McTiernan's original. One day, perhaps, I'll go into more detail on this line of thought (though that blog post I linked to earlier coupling this sequel with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom already got at some of the logic behind that assertion).

In the meantime: If anyone knows of any other uproarious bits of awkward network- and cable-TV censorship of especially profane theatrical films, I'd love to hear 'em in the comments section!

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Still Out There, Looking: Errol Morris's A Brief History of Time


A lot of journalists I know complain about how bad they are at mathematics, but for me, math was actually not the subject that I struggled with most in high school; throughout most of my algebra and geometry studies, I found myself having a fairly easy time understanding the various ideas involved in both subjects (calculus, though, turned out to be an exception to that rule). No, science, in fact, was the subject that often confounded me the most. It didn't matter whether it was biology, chemistry or physics; there was always something about scientific concepts that seemed so abstract to me that I often found myself experiencing great difficulty relating those concepts to what I observed in the real world. (Physics turned out to be the subject I had a relatively easier time with in high school, mostly because of the greater amount of mathematics involved.)

Maybe this difficulty had something to do with my approach to studying these subjects; I have a sneaking suspicion that, as a high school student, I was always more interested in memorizing facts than grasping concepts when it came to math and science. But maybe my struggles in science classes were rooted in a deeper cause: sheer indifference. What many of my peers were grumbling about history classes—questioning what the point of learning about all these past events and dead people ultimately was—I grumbled about science. You could say that, even before Clive Park uttered those now-famous words in A Serious Man, I was already "accepting the mysteries" of the natural world and preferring to bask in those mysteries rather than digging underneath them.

And yet, is that all there is to scientific study: simply understanding how nature works? As I watched Errol Morris's 1991 documentary A Brief History of Time on Saturday afternoon at the IFC Center, I found myself beginning to develop a more intense appreciation for science, a fresh way of looking at it that verged toward the religious.

For those of you who don't know much about Morris's documentary: Yes, it is based on physicist/cosmologist Stephen Hawking's bestselling book of the same name. But while it is partly about some of the theories Hawking posits in the book, the film—as is also the case with the book, so I'm told (I haven't read it yet)—also focuses on Hawking's personal biography: how he was a fantastically smart yet undisciplined and underachieving student even in his undergraduate-college years, and how his neuro-muscular dystrophy paralyzed him physically but also helped him develop the intellectual and emotional focus to be able to conceive of his theories about black holes and the possible limitlessness of the universe. That may sound like a potentially unwieldy approach, but the mixture of science and biography ends up fusing nicely in A Brief History of Time, with the details of Hawking's own life up to that point running parallel with his theorizing about the beginnings of all life.

One of the more unsettling implications of Hawking's work is the idea that, instead of there being a fixed point in time at which life began, the boundaries of space and time are infinite, and thus our universe is not as closed as we may prefer to think. On the basis of his theories (as explained in the film, at least), one could say that, in his work, Hawking is trying to understand just how much we don't know about the world around us. And as discomforting as this knowledge—or, more accurately, lack of knowledge—might be, it is this kind of awareness that makes us, well, human.

And yet, even as answers to such profoundly immense questions are far from easy to pin down, Hawking, paralysis and all, seems far from deterred. With his mind still intact, he insists on searching for answers to questions about how our universe began, where it may be headed and what may lie beyond it. In a way, Hawking's quest feels spiritual, if not downright religious, in nature (and, as he and his family members note in the film, Hawking, for all his analytical proclivities, was far from ignorant of religion in his youth). Much of what he had offered up by the time he wrote his book and participated in this film was theoretical in nature; I mean, how can one definitively prove the existence of black holes if, by definition, they cannot be so easily observed? Though there has been plenty of evidence amassed over the years that could be interpreted as proof of the existence of black holes, physicists/cosmologists like Hawking and John Wheeler—the scientist who coined the term "black hole," and who appears in the film—basically continue on with their research on the belief, buttressed by mathematical and logical evidence, that there are indeed such bodies to be found. It's almost as if, for such minds, looking for black holes and investigating the concept of a boundary-less universe were the equivalents of, well, looking for God. Could science in general be considered a kind of secular search for higher powers? Who knew science could also be considered something of a religious pursuit?

Some of this conflation of science and religion is briefly elucidated by Hawking and the other talking heads in the film—ranging from physicist peers to family members—but Morris suggests just as much of this spiritual aspect visually and aurally: through the imaginative visual correlatives Morris uses to illustrate Hawking's theories, through the evocative (God-like?) chiaroscuro lighting John Baily and Stefan Czapsky employ during Hawking's interview segments, and especially through Philip Glass's hypnotic score, which itself suggests a striving for order and structure through its myriad repetitions of motifs.

All of this leads up to its moving final image, one that sums up the film's view of both Hawking and the study of science. It circles back to the film's opening image, of a starry void in space...except this time, instead of the head of a chicken foregrounded in order to accompany Hawking's posing of the classic "chicken-or-the-egg" dilemma in the context of space and time, Morris superimposes an image of Hawking's wheelchair, seemingly traveling through that starry void. Hawking may not (yet) have the answers he—and perhaps all of us—seeks to all the questions he has about the universe...but at least he's still out there, looking.

(A Brief History of Time is currently unavailable on Region 1 DVD; a Region 2 DVD looks to be out of print but available in used copies.)

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Tchaikovsky: The Man and His Musical Dreams


On this day, in 1893, the great Russian composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky died under circumstances that continue to be a bit of a mystery today (cholera or suicide?). To commemorate the 117th anniversary of his death, I took a look at Tchaikovsky, a Russian biopic from 1969, and wrote about it for Fandor, a new paid-subscription film site that looks poised to possibly give the by-now-well-established MUBI a run for its money.

It is, in many ways, not a particularly good movie; it's fairly worthless as biography, for instance, scrubbing away much of the man's more troubling aspects (his suppressed homosexuality, for one thing) in order to present what feels overwhelmingly like a squeaky clean, government-approved official history of one of its most famous artists. Nevertheless, it has its isolated moments of visual and aural interest, and not even Dmitri Tiomkin's enthusiastic rearrangements of Tchaikovsky's music can kill its impact.

If you're a Fandor subscriber, you can watch it on the site. Otherwise, it is available on Kino DVD.

In the meantime: How about a concert clip? Leonard Bernstein (yes, him again, 'cause I love him so) conducting the New York Philharmonic in the third movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony, which premiered nine days before he died:

Friday, November 05, 2010

Tweeting To My 16-Year-Old Self

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—A more-interesting-than-usual new meme hit Twitter yesterday, this one bearing the hashtag #tweetyour16yearoldself.

A primer, first, for those who don't know how memes on Twitter work: Basically, they revolve around a certain topic that eventually spreads throughout the vast Twitter community as more people join in and add their voice, or in this case tweets, to that topic. Users participating in the meme mark their tweets with a hashtag—a word or phrase preceded by a # sign—so other users can just click on that tag and see what has already been tweeted in regard to that topic.

Most of the time, these Twitter memes are usually more in the spirit of silly time-wasting fun than substantive discussion. Lord know I've gotten sucked into many film-related memes; early on in my Twitter usage, I found myself sucked into coming up with a bunch of #nicerfilmtitles—alternate titles of existing films that soften their supposed surface harshness (example: There Will Be Blood turning into There Will Be Bodily Fluid or something like that). This latest one, however, felt different—possibly more serious in nature, and maybe even profound in its own way. (Profundity on Twitter? Eh, maybe I exaggerate...a little...)

Essentially, the #tweetyour16yearoldself meme revolved around the idea of sending tweets to yourself at 16, which opened up the possibility of being able to look back and advise your 16-year-old self on things you might have done or thought differently if he/she knew what you know now. Thus, it's a topic that invites reflection, and while I was seeing just as many lighthearted #tweetyour16yearoldself responses as these exclusive-to-Twitter trending topics usually inspire...well, I for one took it a bit more seriously than that.

To wit, some of my personal contributions to the #tweetyour16yearoldself meme:

"You should go out and socialize more. Don't be so studious all the time. And that acne? Treat it early."

"Oh...and maybe you really should do more of those things they call extracurricular activities at school."

"And stop wallowing in your insecurities! You may not believe it yet, but you do have gifts that will someday flower."

"Carrying a grudge against your mom might sound heroic in the moment, but really, she won't give a shit. Let it go."

"You know, Mrs. Maier was cool and all, but maybe I should have just taken Humanities rather than AP Euro."

"Were you actually ever serious about mastering the art of playing piano or violin? Or were you just [fooling] around?"

"You can't please everybody...so really, you shouldn't even try. And also, work on developing a thicker skin."

"Badminton seems to be the thing you're the best at in your gym classes. You should do something with that."

And so on. If any of you were at all interested in what I was like at the age of 16...well, these reproduced tweets will give you an indication. I'd like to think I've made some progress since then, but who knows? (Have I developed any thicker a skin since I was in high school? My irritated overreactions to my boss jokingly blaming me for our editing/publishing system's many, many glitches might suggest otherwise...)

P.S. For those with sharp eyes: Yes, I am blogging this from my home in East Brunswick, N.J., where I stayed last night and will be staying for much of today. I'm basically here for a doctor's appointment (I figured I was close enough to my primary-care physician that I could afford to stick with him for the time  being), but I have to admit, for once it has been a pleasure to briefly catch up with the family; it's nice, for instance, to actually be able to talk to my mother without feeling on edge all the time. Also, I figured I'd come back to collect some more supplies for the apartment.

Oh, and apparently I'm going to be seeing the new Todd Phillips/Robert Downey Jr./Zach Galifianakis comedy Due Date with a hometown friend this afternoon. Due Date, really? Well, I'll try to keep as open a mind as I possibly can...

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Musical Discoveries: John Lennon & Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy (1980) and Milk and Honey (1984)

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Before I start waxing rhapsodically on my latest musical discoveries, a bit of housekeeping: Yes, I've dropped "Weekly" from what I once envisioned as a weekly feature on this blog before, well, life—my big move, the New York Film Festival, and other matters of work and play—got in the way. Now that I feel more settled in, I've been getting back into my music-listening habits...but, with the same newfound sense of freedom I feel in my life, so I feel a similar newfound sense of freedom in my blogging. Thus, I don't feel a need to discuss my musical discoveries on a weekly basis—just when I feel like sharing my discoveries with the world. (That, and "Whenever-I-Feel-Like-It Musical Discoveries" sure sounds unwieldy, doesn't it?)

Rest assured, though: I am still trying to discover music both old and new on my rides to and from work...and even with a shorter commute, surprisingly enough, I still find myself able to get through whole albums uninterrupted during a ride. Usually, though, this means keeping my earbuds on even as I walk the streets; that's something I once swore I would never do...but then, there was once a time when I swore I would never use an iPod, and now look at where I am with that. In the quest to expand my musical horizons on the go, resistance to such resolutions is futile, it seems.

My recent musical explorations have finally led me to this...

...and this:

I may not have liked Michael Epstein's documentary LennonNYC all that much when it premiered at this year's New York Film Festival (you can read my thoughts on it here), but there were parts of the film that nevertheless managed to sneak past my critical defenses and move me—its section regarding Double Fantasy, Lennon's final (1980) album and a collaboration with wife Yoko Ono, chief among them.

Part of this had to do with my previous lack of familiarity with Lennon's years leading up to the making of the album: how he went through his 18-month "lost weekend" separation from Yoko, and how, as Epstein's film depicts it, they both eventually agreed to put the past behind them and ended up finding a sense of domestic bliss together after their second son, Sean, was born. Double Fantasy, then, was intended as an expression of a sense of peace with both the world and each other—and as aesthetically boring as the film was, I'll be damned if hearing some of the more famous cuts from the album ("(Just Like) Starting Over," "Watching the Wheels," "Woman"...heck, even Ono's "Kiss Kiss Kiss") set to montages of home-video footage and still photographs of their home lives didn't affect me emotionally. I remember realizing, while watching this portion of the film, that I hadn't actually listened to Double Fantasy all the way through; I found myself wanting to do so immediately, having heard some of those hit songs on the radio many times in my youth but never fully appreciating, well, how lovely those tunes actually were.

So my reaction to listening to Double Fantasy complete for the first time probably stems as much from my awareness of the album's background as by the quality of the music itself. Thus, I am not bothered one whit by the way Ono's experimental contributions alternate with Lennon's more traditional pop; I guess I'm perfectly willing to buy into Epstein's contention that Lennon choose to sequence the album this way in order to shine a brighter light on his wife's music. (Besides, I don't dislike Ono's contributions—though I think she wrote better songs for the posthumously released follow-up, Milk and Honey, which I'll mention anon.)

I would like to think, though, that you don't have to be aware of Lennon's personal life at the time of the making of this album in order to be moved by the profound sense of personal stability that pervades much of Double Fantasy. Lennon's songwriting here suggests a freedom that comes to an artist when he feels like he has nothing left to prove; this is possibly his most explicitly confessional batch of songs since Plastic Ono Band, his first (and in some ways, still his best) official post-Beatles album (1970)—except that, instead of naked angst and self-examination, Lennon provides serenity and inner peace. (The album's fifth cut, "I'm Losing You," may be the closest Lennon comes to anguish, and even then it's a low-key sort of anguish, almost an acceptance of the kind of marital fear that is simply part of life.) The Lennon cuts of Double Fantasy feel almost autumnal; the more energetically inventive Ono cuts, then, offer a bracingly youthful contrast. It's youth and aging wisdom in the space of a single album.

But then, it's quite possible that I myself—even as the supposedly young age of 24—have gotten to the point where I can somewhat identify with the album's "settled-down" feeling. Not that I've even come close to thinking about settling down with a wife and family yet, by any means; I still feel like I'm at a fairly tenuous and unsure time in my life, with endless possibilities in front of me and barely a grasp on which direction to go. But I see many friends in my age group getting married—some of them the type of people that I would never imagine settling down so soon after college—and I admit, I sometimes find myself craving the sense of solidity that a marriage symbolizes. (This is probably my roundabout way of saying that I'd like to have a girlfriend...but let's not dwell on that for the moment.)

Perhaps that's why the song I keep coming back to in Double Fantasy is "Watching the Wheels," as it beautifully evokes the feeling that, for Lennon, life has finally come to the point that he can find his own kind of pleasure simply by sitting back and relaxing, with barely a care in the world—and, in Lennon's case, without having to worry about living up to his rock-god status in any way. As personal as his lyrics seem, the implications are universal: Life can be such a whirlwind that sometimes you just have to drop out for a bit and regroup.

Besides, when you hear the devil-may-care laugh in Lennon's voice when he sings "I tell them there's no hurry / I'm just sitting here doing time"—right there you can tell that this is the sound of a man at some kind of peace with himself.

In case you've somehow never heard this wonderful song before:


Double Fantasy was meant to be one of two albums of Lennon/Ono material; some of the material for that second album was eventually released in 1984 as Milk and Honey, which sequences the songs the same way as its predecessor. The Lennon cuts are essentially sonic rough drafts; the source of the album's penultimate track, "Grow Old With Me," is apparently a cassette tape from Lennon's personal archives, and it sure sounds like it. But don't write this album off as merely a bunch of outtakes; in some ways, this is a more interesting collection of songs than Double Fantasy. For one thing, as I mentioned before, Ono contributes stronger material in this one; she gets the last word this time with the touching "You're The One," for instance. Most importantly, though, Lennon's cuts bring some sharp curves to the domesticated image he presented in Double Fantasy: the opening track "I'm Stepping Out" is about breaking away temporarily from his home life; "I Don't Wanna Face It" harks back to the self-examination of Plastic Ono Band ("You wanna save humanity / But it's people that you just can't stand"); and "Borrowed Time" is a Caribbean-styled meditation on the insecurities that come with aging ("Now I am older / The more that I see the less that I know for sure").

I see that I've devoted one mere paragraph to Milk and Honey; I don't want to give the impression that I value it any less than Double Fantasy, however. Maybe the best thing to do is to look at both albums as two halves of a great, unfinished double album—one that, in its own unassuming way, has a lot to say about ordinary human life, and does so in ways that are sometimes unabashedly sentimental but frequently heartrending. All I can do is echo Robert Christgau in his Milk and Honey capsule: "What a farewell."

Here's a music video, by the way, for "Nobody Told Me," from Milk and Honey:

P.S. To celebrate the 70th anniversary of Lennon's birth, EMI, with Ono's blessing  this year reissued his eight solo albums in digital remasters. For Double Fantasy, the company reissued the album in a remixed "Stripped Down" edition supervised by Ono and the album's original producer, Jack Douglas. As Ono has said about this new version, it "allows us to focus our attention on John’s amazing vocals. Technology has advanced so much that, conversely, I wanted to use new techniques to really frame these amazing songs and John's voice as simply as possible." I haven't heard this new version yet; maybe I'll get around to it eventually, though even with the studio tinkering of the original, I think the tender qualities of Lennon's vocals still shine through.

P.P.S. No, I didn't know that famous Lennon line "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans" came from "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)." Now I know!