Sunday, September 30, 2007

In Search of Curtis Hanson

In a He-Watches-It-So-You-Don't-Have-To post, Daniel Fienberg's review of Lucky You confirms that the movie is every bit the limp biscuit it appeared to be when it wilted in theaters a few months ago--particularly disappointing if you happen to be a fan of Curtis Hanson's work. Talented directors who stage career-threatening epic screwups (William Friedkin's Sorcerer, George Miller's Babe: Pig in the City, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate) invariably make those movies more interesting than the mediocre pap that Hanson has been churning out lately. This would be easier to forgive were Hanson not the director of L.A. Confidential, for my money the best cop movie ever made--the film that put Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce on the map and offered Kevin Spacey's finest performance to date, its screenplay by Hanson and Brian Helgeland as perfect a distillation of an "unfilmmable" novel (reshuffling James Ellroy's story structure, expanding on his good ideas, getting rid of the clunkers) as you're likely to see.

To his credit, Hanson, who could have joined the rarefied-air establishment of Oscar-bait material, instead pursued off-beat projects that has made him a genre-hopper along the lines of James Mangold, another hard-to-peg craftsman without a distinct theme to neatly bow-tie his collective works. Nonetheless, Hanson's comedy gem Wonder Boys featured the most creative work of Michael Douglas's career, (indeed, the highest compliment I've heard paid to this film came from a female colleague, who said that it made her "feel sorry for men"), while the gritty semi-fictional biopic 8 Mile proved that the sixtysomething Hanson wasn't afraid of rap music or ditching his vivid classicist framing and experimenting with digital film.

Hanson is a late bloomer in Hollywood, formally the editor of Cinema magazine (known then as Curtis Lee Hanson, of whom an amusing and affectionate anecdote is related in Harlan Ellison's Watching), then a B-movie director who finally caught his big break in what is for most filmmakers the twilight of a career. Even after the dud chick-flick In Her Shoes and now, evidently, Lucky You, there is still much I admire about the man, namely his unpredictable choices of projects and his willingness to work with bad actors (Kim Basinger, Cameron Diaz), non-actors (Eminem, Drew Barrymore) and stiffs (Eric Bana). Before all of his creative collateral is used up, I would love to see Hanson return to--if not another L.A. Confidential--the kind of Hitchcockian thrillers with which he launched his career, only with a bigger budget and a better cast. The Bedroom Window without Steve Guttenberg--imagine the possibilities.

Friday, September 28, 2007


While it may be a little hasty to detect signs of creative rigor mortis in what is only the start of the fourth season of a consistently high-quality TV show, The Office's premiere episode of année quatre seemed too weighed down with lame jokes and low energy to jump a shark even if it wanted to. Last year--successful though it was--featured two red flags which last night were on prominent display: Where do you go once your central relationship consummates? And what do you do when your main character is an overbearing nuisance?

Regarding the first, I'm indifferent to character relationships in general (recognizing them as, you know, not real) as long as the main characters remain interesting as individuals and the supporting characters don't spend all their time orbiting around the principals. This episode used the odd effect of keeping Pam and Jim mostly on the sidelines, substituting meta-commentary--Kevin and Oscar discussing the relationship, the videotape being shown to P&J--that felt unnecessary for a show that already relies on talking-head interviews to get its points across. Keeping a relationship secret from other characters (e.g., Monica and Chandler on Friends) can be funny; coyly attempting to keep it secret from the audience is not.

As for Michael, it is clear that the writers, having backed themselves into a corner with an increasingly idiotic blabbermouth who won't shut up, have given Steve Carell a hint of purpose to go with his overextended free rein. From the opening prologue (which had an admittedly funny and shocking climax) through his faster-than-usual confession to his crackpot "race for the cure" solution (for rabies), the first episode appeared to be foreshadowing a season about Michael's long-arrested growth. But like everyone else's actions, his occurred in a void. Hopefully Ryan's move to corporate will provide more comic tension for subsequent episodes. Michael needs somebody to push against, and who will push back.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

All Your Negs in One Basket

If Saturday Night Live were as hip and edgy as it desperately pretends to be, one of its flagship sketches this season would most certainly be a recurring parody of The Pickup Artist (VH1, Monday nights at 9:00). Lorne Michaels' stable of myopic writers wouldn't have to look too far to find the funny with this one, because all the elements are already in place: a storyline (how to meet, greet and bed women, more or less in that order) rife with pretention and humiliation; a calculatedly eccentric guru with delusions of grandeur; a tone that combines the raunchy and the heartfelt in a manner that suggests chemical imbalance--all part of a reality-show evidently so bad no self-respecting critic will review it. Well, I'll review it, and to paraphrase a book review I once read at, it's the worst show I've ever loved.

For starters, the storyline offers an irresistible hook: eight (allegedly) lonely guys with (allegedly) problematic social skills compete in a "boot camp" where they (allegedly) learn how to become more successful with women. Presiding over the festivities is Mystery, the nom de plume of a tall pale stringbean who wears black nailpolish and eyeliner and oversized Dr. Seuss hats, the kind of tool who would be easy to dismiss were he not such a keen observer and gifted teacher of social dynamics. During this summer's run of episodes, Mystery taught his students how to create an "avatar" (a pick-up persona), how to "neg" (offer a backhanded compliment to show lack of interest--e.g.,"Did you know that your nose wiggles when you're angry?"--which, paradoxically, makes a woman more interested in you), learn to read "IOIs" (Indicators of Interest) and "bounce" to another location (go on a mini-date). An amalgam of Casanova, Herbert Spencer, and the Buddha, Mystery offered weekly challenges to the contestants and eliminated them one-by-one, until the winner was--well, the person I predicted from the start, actually. Somebody actually not unattractive or socially inept at all.

I mentioned the word (allegedly) earlier because, like most reality shows, there have been questions regarding The Pickup Artist's authenticity. The two finalists, a Latino who dubbed himself Kosmo and a faux-platinum blonde named Brady (a Light vs. Dark showdown that the show's creators must have found demographically irresistible), have been called out as, respectively, an actor and a model. Even worse was the lingering of Pradeep, a genuinely dorky motormouth who was unconvincingly carved into a Machiavellian villain by carrying out such atrocities as "cheating" during a reward-challenge reading of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" (no, really) and slapping another contestant on the cheek, with the subtle aid of an effect that sounded like the giant boulder that lands before the Uruk-Hai army in The Return of the King. That Pradeep and his tiresome shenanigans were allowed all the way to the final four smacked of more producer-meddling, as if they didn't trust that the premise would be compelling enough.

Which is a shame, because beneath the shiftiness and folderol, The Pickup Artist has a lot of things that distinguish it from other reality shows. This season (its first) was briskly paced, took advantage of a fresh location in Austin, Texas, had an agile sense of humor, and featured a group of competitors who--Pradeep notwithstanding--were likable, sympathetic and amazingly supportive. For every one of Mystery's tests that was predictably raunchy (picking up an exotic dancer) there were others, like having to engage a group of kindergartners on the strength of your storytelling ("If you can hold their attention, you can hold anyone's" said Mystery), or trying to "open" (strike up a conversation) with a walker or jogger on a pedestrian bridge, that were frequently surprising. (This latter challenge led to the entire season's funniest moment, where the six-feet-five-inch Mystery covertly watched them while disguised with a fake beard, in the least convincing act of camouflage since Peter the Great toured Europe dressed as a peasant.)

And if the outcome was predictable, the final challenge, featuring Kosmo and Brady not going mano-a-mano but rather each having to teach another AFC (Average Frustrated Chump) the tools of the trade in only one night (which a colleague compared to the Montessori Method), was unexpectedly sublime.

It was Neil Strauss' The Game, a 2005 chronicle of the author's successful foray into "seduction community" that introduced Mystery and his fellow pickup artists to the world (with a cameo by Courtney Love as the Voice Of Reason). Strauss' book is a buoyant romp that also has some dark corners (e.g., Mystery's violent and suicidal tendencies). The Pickup Artist smooths out those rough edges and leaves only buoyancy, with the winner earning (along with $50K) the ostensible privilege of becoming one of Mystery's "wingmen" a la Matador and J-Dogg, whose monikers suggested an emptiness that was plainly visible by how little they were given to do on the show. As the series has been renewed for a second season, I'm left hoping that these lackeys will be allotted more responsibilities and clearly defined personalities, but I suspect that the show will become even more of an ego-trip for its titular character, its contestants more Pradeepian in their machinations and combativeness.

Still, the central conceit of The Pickup Artist--that understanding women can actually be learned--is fool-proof for much of its audience; and for all of his own foolishness Mystery, at his best, takes something that is deeply scary for a lot of men and turns it into fun. If you don't believe me, has anyone ever told you that your nose wiggles when you're skeptical?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Fronts and Backs

One day during the week of October 12-21 (um, that's technically more than a week but I'm rounding back) I will be contributing to a blogathon on close-ups, specifically a movie close-up that I find particularly interesting or revealing. A great idea, and a tough decision: I'm saying nothing about my topic other than it's not going to be Frodo or Jack Nicholson from The Shining or HAL from 2001 or David Spade from Joe Dirt. I'll leave those to the true cineastes.

Lord knows we're not deprived of great faces in movies -- not even CGI or plastic surgery can airbrush them away -- but even more impressive to me are actors who can act with their backs to the camera. You can imagine the difficulty for a director to get this particular shot. ("Okay now, Ms. Jolie, I need you to turn around, away from the camera, and....Yes, that's correct: away from it....Well, you see, I'm trying to isolate your character in order to establish some emotional distance and....Ms. Jolie, please don't throw knives at me....You'll be in your trailer, right.") But with a capable actor--one who can act with his body--it can help create a tremendously affecting scene.

So perhaps a blogathon about actors' backs would be appropriate someday. Offhand, some possibilities might include Elizabeth Wilson playing Ben Braddock's mother in The Graduate (whom I mentioned in an earlier post), Harrison Ford hearing about the death of his partner inside a telephone booth in Witness, and most recently, Jon Hamm in AMC's terrific new series Mad Men. I haven't seen every minute of each episode, so I don't know if it came from an actual scene, but the opening credits of the series conclude with Hamm's character (the noirishly named Don Draper), sitting on a couch (or maybe a chair, I'm not sure) in an animated silhouette, his back to the camera, his right arm stretched casually atop the couch with a cigarette between his fingers. It's a great iconic image, the very essence of entitlement.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Graduate at 40, Me at 37

Does liking a movie make you shallow?

Particularly when that movie is the just-released 40th anniversary special edition of The Graduate, which I purchased last weekend and watched it from start to finish for the first time in years?

To say that I “like” The Graduate is actually an understatement. Ever since I was eighteen I have referred to it as my all-time favorite movie, the movie that underscores everything I love about movies, the movie that most explicates my worldview. Up to now I have never even owned a DVD copy: perhaps because, like so many of my favorite films, it has seemed to own me. Yet the fact that I was born three years after the film’s initial release invites the question of whether The Graduate is a stuck-in-amber product of the 60s, or if it still speaks to modern audiences, including those of us who didn’t see it for the first time until the end of the Reagan Era.

Ownership is a pivotal issue concerning The Graduate, as some from the generation who sang its praises upon its initial release now deign to tell us that the movie hasn’t aged well. Compare an excerpt of Roger Ebert’s original review from 1967—

The Graduate, the funniest American comedy of the year, is inspired by the free spirit which the young British directors have brought into their movies. It is funny, not because of sight gags and punch lines and other tired rubbish, but because it has a point of view. That is to say, it is against something.

—to his reassessment of the movie in 1997:

Today, looking at ``The Graduate,'' I see Benjamin not as an admirable rebel, but as a self-centered creep whose put-downs of adults are tiresome. (Anyone with average intelligence should have known, in 1967, that the word ``plastics'' contained valuable advice—especially valuable for Benjamin, who lacks creative instincts and is destined to become a corporate drudge.)

With all due respect, Roger, I think you were more right the first time. Benjamin’s not a creep (okay, he’s a stalker, but not in a creepy way), and the only put-downs that I recall are those that the ostensible grown-ups aim at him:

Mr. McCleery: You’re not one of those agitators, right? One of those outside agitators?

Mr. Robinson: I think you are filth. I think you are scum. You are a degenerate!

Mr. Braddock: Look, I think it’s all right for a young man, after he’s done some very good work, should have a chance to relax and lie around and drink beer and so on. But after a few weeks, I would think that that young man might want to take some stock of his situation, and start to think about getting off his ass!

I have a friend who always laughed at the “after a few weeks” line, as if four years of college never precipitated burnout and uncertainty. But there is legitimate concern in Ben’s father’s voice too, as well as later when Ben’s mother gently inquires to his evening whereabouts. (There’s a lovely, never-talked-about moment in the “April Come She Will” montage, when she watches him dive into the pool with her back to the camera.) The Graduate takes some satirical jabs at Ben’s parents and the Robinsons and the “plastics” gentleman; but I think the scenes that show Mr. Robinson’s earlier affection for Ben, or the extended middle sequence where Mrs. Robinson sadly talks about how getting pregnant forced her to give up college and abandon her interest in art (scenes wonderfully performed, respectively, by Murray Hamilton and Anne Bancroft), show that the film isn’t devoid of sympathy for them.

What The Graduate is filled with—and what I primarily respond to—is the possibilities of cinema. The endlessly imaginative camerawork and staging of scenes (courtesy of director Mike Nichols, screenwriter Buck Henry, and cinematographer Roger Surtees) get you completely inside Ben’s head. From the opening credit sequence, behind which Ben stands inert on a conveyor belt at the airport (notice that he is moving from right to left, which someone [David Lean?] once said went against the grain of the natural progression in a movie frame from left to right), to the unspeakably sexy camera angle underneath Mrs. Robinson’s leg, to the diving-in-the-pool sequence (shot from inside Ben's scuba mask), to the astounding scene where Elaine realizes that Ben and her mother have been having an affair as her face comes back into focus, it’s the most brilliant depiction of a subjective point-of-view that I have ever seen in a movie.

And yet, at the very end, as they are seated on the bus, Nichols pulls back and asks us to look at Ben and Elaine objectively for the first time. The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum made a valid point when he argued that having Benjamin running away with Mrs. Robinson instead of her daughter would have been the “true rebellion.” It certainly would have been a different movie. But it’s hard for me to accuse a film of gutlessness or pandering to a younger audience when it concludes with the poetic ambiguity of this one. (One of the enjoyable special features of the 40th anniversary edition, titled “Students of The Graduate,” features a current filmmaker calling that final scene a “pure actor’s moment.” The commentary track with Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, however, has Nichols explaining that the expressions on Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross’s faces came about because he had just given them an off-camera tongue-lashing and had left the camera running.)

Through the years there have been rumors of a sequel (albeit less so since Bancroft’s death in 2005), as though to suggest that some sort of closure was warranted following that open-ended final scene. But who needs one when the original holds up so well? When I was an undergrad, the university I attended (and which would eventually leave me feeling burned-out and indecisive) had a special showing of the movie; and the students I attended it with—Generation Xers like me, many of whom had clearly never seen it before—were as utterly involved in the story as the 60s generation undoubtedly were. It belonged to them.

It may be true that Ben has no creativity, that he is destined to live an unfulfilling life. But when I see a man steal the bride from her wedding and then lock the congregation inside their own church with a crucifix, I can't help but think that other viewers are a lot more worried about his future than I am.