Friday, June 27, 2008
When I was twelve, I got baptized at a Catholic elementary school in Phoenix, Arizona. Why so late in life? As the son of a pair of non-Catholics, I attended a local public school through the fifth grade, where the habitat was oddly reminiscent to that of the Lincoln Park Zoo. The summer before sixth grade, my parents decided to send me to Ss. Simon and Jude. They wanted me to get a good education, I wanted to not get tarred and feathered on the playground every day -- our interests coalesced.
S&J was a good school, and I was treated well during my two years there. But the nuns who ran the joint also wanted to save my soul, so in the spring of sixth grade we had a baptism ceremony in my honor. In addition to my parents, friends and peers being there, I had to have two sponsors who were of the faith. One was Mrs. Kinney, a friend of the family who had been a neighbor in an apartment complex at one time. The other -- a man some may recognize in the blurry photo above -- was John Boylan.
Mr. Boylan was a dapper, charming man over the age of seventy who was in one of my mother's art classes. I didn't know much about him at the time, but now I know that he had lived most of his life in Canton, Ohio, working in a steel mill for forty years. In what must have been an odd combination, he also ran and performed in a local theater company. After retiring from the mill, Mr. Boylan devoted himself full-time to acting, art and other interests. He had been an extra on the Lee Majors television series The Fall Guy and gave me a piece of fake glass he had collected after one of that show's many, many action scenes that featured shattered glass. At an age where I was developing a growing interest in movies and TV shows, Mr. Boylan was the closest thing I knew to a celebrity. Late in life, his acting career was starting to bloom.
The last I saw of Mr. Boylan, in the mid-80s, he excitedly announced he had scored a minor role, his first with dialogue, in a movie called Kidco. A few years later I saw the film on videocassette. Based on a true story, Kidco is about a group of rural kids who go into the fertilizer business, where hijinks ensue. (Ah, shit jokes; where would be without you?) It was bad, but Mr. Boylan was funny in his bit part. As his character, a court clerk, reads the deposition in the climactic trial between the child entrepreneurs and an evil fertilizer corporation, Mr. Boylan paused and let out a big yawn, which reflected my own feelings about the film while simultaneously stealing the scene.
We lost touch with Mr. Boylan following several moves. In truth, I hadn't really thought of him for almost two decades until recently, when on an impulse I checked out his filmography and realized I had stared him in the face several times in the late-80s and early-90s and hadn't known it. He was the elevator operator who gives Meg Ryan a few crucial extra minutes atop the Empire State Building in the last scene of Sleepless in Seattle. He played a janitor in the first scene of American Heart, telling Jeff Bridges' ex-con that he's in the way of his restroom cleaning duties. Most significantly, he was Mayor Duane Milford in approximately eight episodes of Twin Peaks, most of them during the second season before the series got cancelled. I was never a fan of Twin Peaks, gave up on it like many viewers halfway into season two, right before Mr. Boylan's role expanded. Recently I reviewed a few episodes I had missed: in them, Mr. Boylan was light and droll playing an elderly man with a trophy girlfriend, embroiled in a bitter rivarly with his brother, the elected head of a town without the slightest idea of what was going on in it. No small feat in David Lynch-land, he was good at downplaying the oddities and keeping things real.
This obit, written after his death in 1994, covers much of the same ground I have here. On a personal note, I would add that it's a major irony, a fitting circularity of sorts to currently live so close to where he spent most of his own life. I also see John Boylan's life as an illustrative example for how the creative impulse can take hold of someone at any age. It's somewhat chagrining to pay tribute to somebody who passed away fourteen years ago; but then again, that's a testament to the beauty, the staying power of art. Thanks for being a part of my life, Mr. Boylan. I'm a fan.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
It began as a tingle, followed by a buzz, then a full-fledged endorphin rush. An abstract thought became a physical sensation that consumed me for the better part of the evening. All the roiling passions that normally I suppress, like a handwringer in a Jane Austen novel, were cathartically unleashed. I felt a giddiness, a moment of clarity, and then I had the horrifying realization that M. Night Shyamalan was to thank for it. I hate M. Night Shyamalan, you see. I hate all his movies, even the ones I kind of like, even the ones I haven't seen. That a filmmaker can inspire such feelings is not one to be taken lightly, no matter how overrated or incompetent he might otherwise be. Writing about The Happening, sight unseen, something happened to me.
Movies are for anybody and everybody, but sometimes I wonder if it takes a movie buff to truly despise one. To feel personally betrayed by a film, to form demarcation lines between your likes and dislikes, to get so emotionally invested that all rationality is tossed out the window. Pauline Kael got angry at movies she felt let her down or otherwise offended her in some way. (Of Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, she famously wrote: "He has feathers in his hair and feathers in his head.") Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, either individually or in unison, were capable of obliterating a film that they loathed. Yet Siskel and Ebert could be savagely funny in their hatred, even made a gimmick of it early in their television career with a skunk mascot that would introduce the "Stinker of the Week." (Kael was sometimes hilarious too, though she could also come across as a killjoy.) But their pans weren't always fun and games. Readers of the current kid-gloves Ebert might be surprised to examine his disembowelment of Blue Velvet upon its initial 1986 release. Ebert and Lynch traded body blows for a good solid run through the 80s and early 90s; after they patched things up (somewhere around The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive), their dynamic became less interesting.
Grudge matches between critics and artists are rare these days. The former in the print media are generally too vulnerable and exposed to risk a major offensive, while the latter too hermetically sealed to touch. (When a stray brickbat does manage to reach the likes of Shyamalan or George Lucas, they tend to overreact violently, like Roman emperors scorching the earth in Germania.) Urbane types like Anthony Lane have it easier, as they produce what Matt Zoller Seitz has called a "cocktail party detachment" that is witty yet inoffensive. Despite his impersonality, I get a kick out of Lane. And I'm unduly fond of Joe Queenan, whose shticky misanthropy masks a deep and genuine affection for unloved "bad" movies. (Queenan's real ire is aimed at tony Hollywood gloss.) The same cannot be said for Charles Taylor, whose criticism, for all its keen insight, often feels like a nail driven into my skull, or for Armond White, whose Biblical sternness grows repetitive and wearisome. (The caption for White's take-down of The Happening -- "Shyamalan's a Ding-Dong" -- may be the only time I've ever laughed reading one of his reviews.) Even when you realize they have a point, you don't want to get anywhere near it.
I'm not sure if my hatred for All Things Shyamalan is amusing or off-putting; only that I, at least, have always enjoyed it. I couldn't believe the rain of roses that fell upon The Sixth Sense, and the movie's ardent fans couldn't believe that I couldn't believe it. I cringed at the film's melodramtic contrivances, starting with Donnie Wahlberg wailing in the bathroom and ending with the videotape of the mother-poisoner. I rolled my eyes at the mystical mumbo-jumbo that felt like the repertoire of a New Age huckster, particularly when juxtaposed with his facile shock tactics. I guessed the surprise ending fairly early on, and I'm normally terrible at that sort of thing; it was just obvious to me that Shyamalan had read An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and seen Jacob's Ladder and fortunately (or unfortunately) I had too. In the years that followed, I hated the comparisons of Shyamalan to Hitchcock and Spielberg, his raging ego, his uncredited plagiarisms, his evangelical followers. Feeling like a pariah can produce one of two responses -- either you drink the Kool-Aid or you embrace your solitude, and when it came to Shyamalan I was smug with certainty that I Was Right.
Still, it was more fun to hate him in his heyday. Despite a sense of vindication from the gradually diminishing returns of Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, The Lady in the Water, and now The Happening, I'm now feeling a perverse impulse to defend him. I even laughed at Bob Balaban's deconstruction of his own demise in Lady in the Water (which I recently saw for the first time), a character and scene that became the bane of film critics everywhere. Do some of us soften with pity toward a reviled filmmaker when it seems that everyone else is dogpiling on top of him? Is our hatred intensified when we feel in the minority?
This certainly seems to be the case with There Will Be Blood, the latest film from Paul Thomas Anderson which, as everyone knows, received near unanimous raves when released earlier this year. I've often called Anderson the greatest director who pisses me off. Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love all tried my patience to inexorable degrees, yet I stuck with them and, in retrospect, feel more affection toward them than to other movies I've enjoyed a whole lot more. Anderson is a polarizing figure, one whose fans are inadvertently cineastes and who lacks the populist base Shyamalan has (or perhaps had). His detractors, however, are equally fierce (one recently called Magnolia "quite simply the worst movie of all time") and like to use unflattering comparisons to Altman to buttress their arguments. (That Altman himself was one of Anderson's biggest admirers is conveniently overlooked.) Personally, I was surprised by how much I loved There Will Be Blood. Certain difficulties aside, I think it's his most accessible film, the cinematic equivalent of late-19th early-20th century "naturalist" novels, a lumbering epic with an intimate scale. It felt like a rarity, a movie for me; but I also could understand that it's not for everybody.
Even so, I was taken aback by the hostility of some toward the film and its director. I'm not referring to Charles Taylor and Stephanie Zacharek, former admirers of Anderson, whose disdain is more understandable within its proper Paulette context. (Both, I'm willing to bet, were perturbed by the film's homages to Kubrick -- a favorite target of Kael's -- more than anything else.) Among the movie's most impassioned haters have been Odie Henderson, N.P. Thompson and Russell Brown. Odie, at least, knows how to craft a sharp, funny rant. (Responding to Ed Copeland's review, he wrote: "His fanboys call him 'P.T. Anderson' because it evokes another P.T.: P.T. Barnum. [Barnum] said 'There's a sucker born every minute.' I think Anderson's counting on it with this film, his most empty film ever.") Thompson, in contrast, hates so many different films in the same relentlessly unvaried manner that it's hard to take him seriously. (His infamous attack on Slate's film critics had more energy and wit.) Ditto Brown, with whom Thompson feels a deep kinship over There Will Be Blood. Brown's manifesto, written back in January, reiterates Odie's belief that Anderson's movie is a con-job and takes issue with what the author sees as numerous plot holes:
"So many character beats arrive and depart without explanation. Why does Plainview not bless the well? Why does Sunday never confront Plainview about not blessing the well? Why does Sunday's brother arrive and provide Plainview with the location of the oil? Why does Anderson imply that Sunday and his brother are the same person? How does Sunday get the money to build the new Church, if Plainview never gave him the $5,000? Why did Plainview never take his son to be healed, and then get angry at Sunday for not being able to heal him? Why did Plainview adopt the baby? Why does the grown up son suddenly hate his father so much? Why does the street-smart Plainview so easily accept a stranger as his brother? And then why does he suddenly turn and kill him, one scene after he discovers the truth? Why does Plainview's son try to burn down the house? Why does the son read the diary upside down? Why does Sunday tell us that the Bandy's son is handsome and wants to be an actor in Hollywood (is Sunday now gay?) If Sunday is such a successful radio preacher, is it really plausible that he would turn to Plainview after the stock market crash? Why does Sunday not age a single year over the entire run of the film?"
Brown's piling on specious inquiries reminds me of creationist rebukes against evolution. (Why do human beings have eyes? Why are there stars in the sky? Why do you want to make Baby Jesus cry?) It's hard to know where to start responding, given the sheer wrongheadedness of the context. I would suggest that it's blatantly obvious why Plainview doesn't bless the well: to piss off his rival Eli and undercut his power grab. Plainview accepts a stranger as his brother (actually half-brother) because that stranger produces a letter written by his mother as evidence, and also because it's clear Plainview feels isolated following H.W.'s loss of hearing. As for the confusion generated by Paul Dano's dual roles, at what point does Anderson "imply" that Eli and Paul Sunday are the same person? That they are brothers is mentioned on multiple occasions; frankly, I found it refreshing that the filmmaker didn't shoehorn in a slog of tedious exposition:
ELI: Hi, I'm Eli Sunday. Paul Sunday's brother. We're twins!
DANIEL PLAINVIEW: You're twins, you say?
ELI: Yes, we are twins. We were born at the same time. That is why we look the same.
H.W.: So the two of you are twins?
ELI: Yes, we are played by the same actor! Please, stay and have dinner with my family. Everybody will be there, except of course for my brother Paul, whom you met earlier in the movie. Did I mention we're twins?
Real con artists, like Shyamalan, treat their marks as children. He spells things out slowly, in big block letters. Anderson, in contrast, provides just enough hints to his characters' motives while retaining an aura of mystery. He has enough confidence in his audience that they'll figure things out for themselves.
Big mistake. Indeed, I cannot recall the last time I read so many near-willful misreadings of a movie -- even among its admirers, who have not helped their cause. (There Will Be Blood is a "horror-comedy" the way Schindler's List is a musical.) Brown echoes the claims by Zacharek and others that Day-Lewis's performance repeats the same beats over and over again (if you think the scene where Plainview spoons with H.W. following his accident is the same as everything that comes before it, you're too busy scribbling bogus questions in your notebook) and goes on to claim that the film doesn't tell us anything new about greed or religion. But is it really about those things? I think a commenter at Dennis Cozzalio's hit upon it when he speculated that what's throwing people about There Will Be Blood is actually that the characters are all too specific, that they don't represent anything but themselves. Like all of Anderson's films, There Will Be Blood is foremost about family. Plainview, for all his fortune, ends up imprisoned within his mansion; whereas his adopted son, despite a debilitating injury, finds love, makes connections with others and seizes a chance at freedom. The relationship between these two characters is the heart of the movie, and I found it interesting, complicated, tragic, unexpected and moving.
On the surface, there are reasons why I should love Shyalaman (striking visuals, appreciation of silence, aspirations for classical storytelling) and why I should hate Anderson (strenuousness, high decibel level, rampant emotionalism). That it's the opposite may be because Shyamalan is always claiming to have the answers, whereas Anderson is interested in the questions. A typical theme in a Shyamalan film is "believe in God or he'll kill your kids." A recurring theme in an Anderson film is the unpredictable nature of human beings. I'm not sure why H.W. starts the fire in There Will Be Blood, though I suspect it has to do with his feelings of estrangement due to his injury and the arrival of Plainview's alleged half-brother. In any case, the image forges a poetic link with the fiery engulfment of the oil derrick that preceeds it; it's an entry into the boy's unexpressed state of mind.
Emotions are equally unpredictable creatures. It's possible, perhaps even probable, that I'll hate one of P. T. Anderson's movies someday. And who knows, maybe M. Night Shyamalan will make a film that I love. But will I hate loving him as much as I love hating him? There truly is a thin line.
A good piece on two of the best, most unsung composers in the bizness. Not long ago I had hailed Michael Giacchino's music for Lost as the best on TV since Christophe Beck's work for Joss Whedon, but I also have to give props to Bear McCreary, whose score on Battlestar Galactica is always eccentric and unexpected. Neither Giacchino nor McCreary have yet had a Whedon for a director, somebody with whose overriding vision their music can fuse, but for now their work is pretty spectacular on its own.
Sunday, June 15, 2008
Saturday, June 14, 2008
Blogging has been scarce lately, and not just because I'm shy. With a dearth of interesting movies (Mongol, a bio of Jenghiz Khan, a half-intriguing exception) and the TV season on hiatus (with one notable exception), it seems like a good time for a breather now and then. And in between, perhaps time for a game of coulda, shoulda, woulda.
I would have been writing more about Battlestar Galactica, but the sad truth is I've been forgetting when it's on. (Friday nights at 10, it turns out.) I did catch last night's half-season finale, however, and it was as exciting as others have opined. I'm not a sci-fi fan by any means, so that this show can capture my interest at all is no small feat. I chalk it up to the actors, a mix of both old reliables (Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell, Lucy Lawless) and captivating performers I don't recall seeing before the series began (Michael Hogan, Aaron Douglas, James Callis). The entire ensemble makes the world of the show dramatic and real.
I should (or so it seems, judging by some of my frothing male colleagues) tell you how much I loathe Sex and the City, but while I haven't see the movie (and probably won't, at least until DVD), the truth is I'm pleased that a film starring women and made for women is cleaning up at the box office. Hopefully this will dispel the actresses-can't-open-a-movie meme that has been making the rounds in Hollywood of late. Relatedly, I also hope to see more female directors get their props. When a proven hit-maker like Amy Heckerling can't get a picture released, or a distinctive talent like Kimberly Peirce gets largely ignored, something is very wrong.
Last and certainly least, I could tell you how much I despise M. Night Shyamalan, how delighted I am to have called him a charlatan even back in his Sixth Sense glory days, but it hardly seems worth the effort anymore. Then again, it is kinda fun. The Happening, his latest pseudo-horror metaphysical crock, may become a hit, but it's already generating the same hostile buzz that greeted The Village and Lady in the Water, so I doubt it. What's aggravating about Shyamalan is he has genuine visual style (most notably in Unbreakable, the movie of his I hate the least), and in the abstract I admire his goal to be a classical storyteller. The problem is his stories suck, at best recycled hash of Twilight Zone episodes or lifted from authors no longer in the American lit canon (e.g., Ambrose Bierce). Another issue is his ego, which even by Hollywood standards had inflated to ridiculous proportions (or at least before The Happening, his first film to reek of desperation). The egregious comparisons to Hitchcock and Spielberg, encouraged by Shyamalan himself, always leave out a vital element: Hitch and Spielberg were/are funny. Even Vertigo and Munich have more bonhomie than the disproportionate gravitas and faux deep thoughts that define Shyamalan's schlock. Entirely fitting that the joke is now on him.
Sunday, June 8, 2008
In one of a few confessions of his undying love for the movie Dodgeball (a guilty pleasure that he and I both share), Anthony Lane once wrote that you can gauge the effectiveness of parody based on whether or not you can continue to take its target seriously. Just as Dodgeball annihilated the underdog sports movie (try watching The Karate Kid with a straight face again, just try), so too Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story lands a few body blows on the music biopic. Directed by Jake Kasdan with almost too much of a professional sheen, with a script by Kasdan and Judd Apatow that vacillates between broad, obvious gags and jokes so subtle they only hit you on the rebound, if at all, Walk Hard isn't a great comedy. Still I loved the movie, maybe because its satire ultimately feels as affectionate toward its targets as I do. (No matter that this exuberant spoof bombed at the box-office last January and received tepid reviews; a long healthy life as a DVD cult hit is assured.) Moreover, it's anchored by a comic tour-de-force from John C. Reilly, who plays Cox from age 14 to 71, and sings a number of songs that showcase his dazzling range. It was obvious, from his memorable "Mr. Cellophane" number in Chicago, that Reilly had good singing chops; but who guessed he could mimic Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Bob Dylan with such devastating accuracy?
The central premise of Walk Hard is that Dewey Cox becomes a singing sensation and stays at the top over several decades by adapting (or, less charitably, plagiarizing) whatever is trendy at the moment. Yet it's never done cynically, and mimicry is really too shallow a description for what Reilly accomplishes. Early in the film, we see him mopping floors at an all-black nightclub, where the customers come to "dance erotically." While an R&B performer (the always wonderful Craig Robinson, in too brief a part) sings and spins, we see Cox off-stage excitedly mirroring the moves. Soon after, when the headliner gets injured, the hopelessly whitebread Cox seizes his big chance and leads a hot number called "You've Got To Love Your Negro Man." The patrons, initially angered, eventually succumb to the heat of the performance. (It may be an imitation, but it's an intensely heartfelt one.) This attracts the attention of powerful talent scouts -- who are, naturally, Hasidic Jews (led by an unrecognizable Harold Ramis) -- leading to a hilarious send-up of the scene in Walk the Line where Johnny Cash incurs the wrath of the recording studio producer. Here, the producer (played by Christopher Guest alum John Michael Higgins), informs Cox, following an ill-advised hillbilly version of "That's Amore!", that his musical career is over -- unless he can sing something that he's never sung before, with backup musicians he's never met before, something so personal that it will change his life forever, right there, on the spot. It is there that the title song, "Walk Hard," is created, and rockets up the charts.
Kasdan and Apatow have a lot of fun with this set-up, and the first half of the movie moves briskly through the cliches it mocks. In addition to The Songs That Derive Directly From Life, there is also The Unsupportive Wife (Kristin Wiig), whose mantra is "You're never gonna make it!" even long after he already has, The Dark Period Of Drug Abuse, where Cox is abetted by his drummer Sam (a scene-stealing Tim Meadows) and The Childhood Trauma That Haunts Him Still. As a boy, Dewey accidentally kills his ostensibly more talented older brother in a machete fight (of course!), which forms a rift between him and his aggrieved father. (I wish Robert Patrick, who played this tiresome archetype in Walk the Line, had been cast here rather than Raymond J. Barry, who doesn't quite hit the right note.) Hope comes in the form of Darlene Madison (Jenna Fischer), a June Carter Cash clone who throws herself onto Dewey and then slaps him for coming on too strong. While I'm not convinced Fischer is leading lady material, she's light on her feet here and deftly conveys her character's mixed signals to the man who falls in love with her (having had plenty of practice on The Office).
This being a Judd Apatow joint (he also served as producer), Walk Hard eventually abandons its raunchy high spirits and becomes an ode to the meaning of family. I don't dismiss this as saccharine hypocrisy the way some critics do. It's clearly an important theme to Apatow, who previously addressed it in The Forty Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, and who here adds the conflict between family and work (or, more specifically, art) that is perhaps a regular source of tension in his own life. Narratively, some of the fun goes out of the movie. Yet Reilly holds it together, with a climactic number that is as wittily self-aware as everything that comes before, while still managing to be moving.
Despite the character's dimwittedness and failings, Reilly makes Dewey Cox a grand synthesis of the greatest performers of country, pop and rock and roll. (I highly recommend checking out the extended versions of the songs on the DVD's special features -- especially the Dylanesque "Royal Jelly," which is flabbergastingly brilliant.) In his more serious films, Reilly has always had a lovable mug that can nicely offset the heavy weather of the scenes. How wonderfully ironic that it's taken his recent forays into comedy to bring new depths and shadings to the surface.