Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Kiss Kiss Zhang Zhang

After Hero and House of Flying Daggers, you'd think that Zhang Yimou would have had his fill of the kind of martial-arts spectacle that enjoyed a renaissance of one with Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a few years back, but he tries to up the ante to D.W. Griffith levels of excess with Curse of the Golden Flower. I thought Hero was lavish but emotionally distant, and I loved Flying Daggers until the seventeenth plot twist too many, which utterly negated everything that had been set up before. Still smarting from that betrayal, I should have been able to identify more than I did with Chow Yun-Fat's cuckolded emperor in Golden Flower, who becomes embroiled in a bloody familial squabble that makes King Lear look like The Family Stone. Some made fun of Ang Lee's wire-work in Crouching Tiger, but I'll take that any day over the thudding sensory overload that Yimou achieves here. (David Chute's review in L.A. Weekly nailed it when he stated that the movie feels oddly like a dry run for Yimou's next project--the 2008 Opening and Closing Ceromonies in Beijing.) There's not much to be invested in when a director capable of erotic power (in Raise the Red Lantern and parts of both Shanghai Triad and Flying Daggers) shows less interest in great camera subjects like Yun-Fat and Gong Li than in his CGI armies and oversaturated colors and assassins soaring through the air. I wish I could raise my arms in rapture over Curse of the Golden Flower but sadly the film placed third in its bid for my attention, behind a good book I'm reading and my cat devising a flanking maneuver toward a bowl of ice cream that would have put Rommel to shame.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Little Big Apple

Never having been to New York, I happily glean what I know of the city through movies, books and television shows. (Yes, I suppose I could read a magazine, but durn it, that wouldn't save time.) Admittedly, a culture critic unfamiliar with Sinatra's kind of town carries probably all the clout of an Opus Dei member who's never toured Rome. Moreover, just as East Coasters often appear to view middle America through the lenses of Alexander Payne (we're fat and ignorant), the Coen Brothers (we're rubes with funny accents), and David Lynch (we like apple pie and we dream about dwarves), I am aware that my overreliance on artistic mediums can leave me suspect to stereotypes and biases. So let's get on with them, shall we?

New York is provincial.
Based on novels like The Brooklyn Follies, New York City seems less a sprawling metropolis than a series of petty fiefdoms. At the start of the novel, the titular borough is where the narrator, Nathan--insurance salesman, ex-husband, screw-up extraordinaire--explains that he moved to in order to die; by the end, he has survived familial dysfunction, a rare books scam, and medical maladies just in time for 9/11. If the abrupt intrusion of a real tragedy feels unearned, that is partly because the author, Paul Auster, writes in coy prose, employing a literary device--Nathan crafting a work called "The Book of Human Folly"--that would have made Erasmus gag. A more significant reason is the implausibility of its characters. Auster wants to pull off what Richard Russo accomplishes on a regular basis: to depict the lives of flawed people with good hearts and big dreams. But oddly enough, the only character who rings true is his most florid creation, a flamboyant book dealer named Harry Brightman, whose tragic end is the novel's most moving moment. The blurbs speak muchly about Auster's warmth and compassion; but the fact that the only sequence outside New York--in North Carolina, where Nathan goes to retrieve his estranged niece from the arms of a bible-thumping nutcase (natch)--views the outside world in unequivocably negative terms tells you all you need to know about the provincialism of the author's worldview.

New York is insular.
Made three decades before Auster's book, Manhattan is, of course, Woody Allen's cinematic mash note to the city that he loves--which, if I understand him correctly, is overrun with pretentious intellectuals with voracious sexual appetites. I saw the film for the first time in its entirety only a few weeks ago on TCM, and I was struck how Allen's snarky satire is contrasted, even heightened by the lush romanticism of Gordan Willis's cinematography and Gershwin's music. For me, the key storyline in the movie involves Allen's teenage girlfriend wanting to study abroad in England. Even more than Auster, Woody Allen fears the outside world. But the Allen of Manhattan, at least, was in on his own joke about the insularity of his existence. He understands, and perhaps even envies, why particularly for a young person with her whole life ahead of her, the world outside would be enticing.

New York leads the world (when it's not behind it).
Mad Men, my favorite post-Deadwood TV series, is set in an even earlier New York City. It is the year 1960, and the show's ensemble, comprised of employees at a Madison Avenue advertising agency, are blithely unaware of the momentous changes in store for them and their country. Much of the dramatic tension derives from the entitled conservative outlook of the patriarchy of the Sterling Cooper agency (who support Nixon and Big Tobacco) and the more visionary thinking of a few of the younger characters. As a friend pointed out, while the costumes and lighting uncannily recreate the mood of the period, the tone is not nostalgic. Critics have pressed charges of inaccuracy about the time period as well as the atmosphere of the city in the early 60s. (I'm reminded of the hostile reviews that greeted Eyes Wide Shut, which seemed to complain that the film wasn't a documentary about the high-society orgy set.) I think that Mad Men, like any good dramatization, is focused more on the authenticity of its story than its backdrop. Interestingly, though, it shows a city at once on the pulse of the nation (its ads, after all, tell us what to buy and how to think) yet in danger of falling out of step with the rhythm of the times.

New York brings the funny.
And no TV show is currently funnier than 30 Rock. Since the series began, Tina Fey has had tremendous fun with her New York milieu and last week's episode--featuring Carrie Fisher as Liz Lemon's idol, a has-been, socially-conscious comedy writer who takes a recently fired Liz back to her dive apartment to begin anew ("Never go with a hippie to a second location," Alec Baldwin's NBC executive hilariously advised)--was no exception. But the show's best episode to date, last season's joyous "Cleveland," depicted the world outside New York's skyscrapers not to be feared, but as a benevolent wonderland. (Baldwin again: "We'd all like to flee to the Cleve.") Like Seinfeld, 30 Rock's sense of humor manages to be a product of a distinct New York sensibility yet completely universal. It is perhaps fitting that among the many works of art set in the Big Apple, a sitcom aiming to be nothing more than funny would be the most generous and inclusive of all.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


In The Lives of Others (which I finally saw for a second time, now on DVD), Ulrich Muhe is reminiscent of Ben Kingsley at his unblinkingly spookiest. As Hauptmann Wiesler, a 1980s-era East German Stasi officer with an array of talents ranging from surveillance to 48-hour interrogations, Muhe's performance is largely silent, relying on a series of reaction shots that function almost as plot-markers that chart his character's arc from predatory party-liner to subversive sympathizer.

This transformation occurs when Wiesler is ordered to spy on Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch), a successful playwright and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), and it's hard to pinpoint the precise moment of change. Like a sonata that functions both metaphorically and as a plot device throughout the film (and Gabriel Yared's music is indispensible), The Lives of Others builds organically, with the motivations of its characters compiling like musical notes--some ultimately discordant, others merging in unexpected harmony. Suffice to say that both Wiesler and Dreymann take action against the G.D.R. only after the figure-heads of the State start meddling with their lives. Although the characters never formally meet, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is adroit enough of a writer-director to convey, through both words and images, how the destines of the two become permanently entwined.

There is much that I love about The Lives of Others, which blends the best qualities of European cinema with an Americanized accessibilty (and features a scene in an archives that the SAA should use as a public relations tool on the importance of professional record-keepers). Yet for all of von Donnersmarck's skill, I could see on a second viewing that the movie absolutely would not work with the wrong actor--a scenery-chewer like Kingsley would have pushed his effects too hard instead of receding into the background as Muhe does, letting us gradually warm to him. I respect Scott Foundas's willingness to write an almost lone-dissenting review, but I don't see how he can accuse a movie of claiming that the Stasi were "just following orders" when the turns of the plot derive so clearly from the personal motives of its characters. Any film, much less one set at the last pinnacle of the Cold War, that is about the transformative power of art (in music, through the stage, on the page)--that believes bad people capable of good deeds--runs the risk of appearing cloying or unconvincingly sentimental. But through that fixed stare, right up to his deeply generous final scene, Muhe makes you believe.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Belly Flop

Being a huge fan of the casino-musical genre, I'm deeply sorry that I hadn't even heard of the new television series Viva Laughlin until after its abrupt cancellation this week. I did track down a brief clip of Hugh Jackman's big number, as it were, karaoke-ing to "Sympathy for the Devil" just to get an idea of what all the critical caterwauling was about. Yes indeedy, it sucks; but amid your hearty chuckling consider this: How rare is it these days, with test-audience filters and media slavishness and polished production values and spin from the actor-publicist-studio axis and millions-in-marketing campaigns, for a show with a completely lunatic concept to slip unfettered through the cracks of mediocrity? So rare that I understand the eagerness of the Ken Levines and Alan Sepinwalls to pounce like jackals on Hugh et al, but at the least let's give the poor bastards credit for trying. And failing. Miserably.

To put it more formally: A toast, to unmitigated disasters.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Cutting Edge

Somewhere, James Wolcott is gagging: both Adam Gopnik and David Denby are featured in this week's New Yorker. While Denby's is standard Eeyorian fare from The Man Who Mistook a Movie for a Meteor (Wolcott's words), Gopnik's piece at least has an interesting subject in the novel abridgements, director's cuts and DVD commentaries that are all the rage. As usual it's hard to tell Gopnik's point without sending a canary down the mineshaft, but speaking personally director's cuts are usually marginally interesting at best and delusional egotism at worst. I never saw the theatrical release of The 40-Year-Old Virgin--which I understand was overlong to begin with--but watching the Extended Smut-O-Version, much as I enjoyed it, I found myself making mental edits in my head all the way through. Virtually the only filmmaker who has earned the right to release longer movies is the godfather of the director's cut himself, Ridley Scott. Of course Blade Runner is the most famous example of a film that flopped originally in theaters, thanks in part to studio hacking and tampering, but has since become a classic after being restored (more than once) to Scott's original vision. I also recall not thinking much of Gladiator when it first came out. When I saw the extended edition (about 20 minutes longer), I couldn't believe how much better it was, how smoother the transitions from scene to scene were, how much more depth and shading were given the characters.

Gopnik's essay also had me thinking of something else: How much adding or editing bloggers do to their posts after they're published? Rarely have I written a post where I didn't go back and make a correction or change a word to what seems like a better one. Is this typical for most bloggers, or do you tend to leave your stuff as is?

Across the Tracks

While experience has taught me (generally unsuccessfully) to not keep my hopes in people too high, I have to say that I have come to expect better things from Wes Anderson than a poisonous-snake-is-loose-on-the-train gag. This lame joke is trotted out relatively early in The Darjeeling Limited; then around the halfway mark, an extended flashback grinds the movie to a complete halt (and sabatoges a key scene later on, when Owen Wilson removes the bandages from his ravaged face). There are some funny and lovely moments along the way, namely in the quickly broken promises and rapidly switching alliances between the three brothers; and painful though it is to find Wilson in the state he's in, it's still wonderful to see him. There's a touching idea in The Darjeeling Limited about the connections we make along our separate journeys in life. Like The Life Aquatic, it's another transitional film for Anderson, an opportunity for him to throw chaos into his obsessively orderly frames. As when Tiger Woods went through a bad patch of golf to alter his swing and raise the level of his game, Anderson will learn from this and make a great movie again someday. For now, what's missing between his early films and his most recent efforts is the difference between emotional shorthand and emotional shortchanging.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

QT and the Women

I'm not sure how I feel about Death Proof, and that's probably a good thing. Severed from its conjoined twin Planet Terror (which I still haven't seen) for DVD after its initial release in theaters as a Grindhouse double-bill over Easter Weekend mysteriously failed to attract an audience, the movie as a stand-alone effort will undoubtedly prompt many viewers to throw in the towel early. The impulse is understandable. Annoying, upsetting and exhilarating in more or less equal measure, Death Proof is the first film in a long while that has left me feeling uncertain about my own reaction. For that ambivalence alone, I'm tempted to swing in Tarantino's favor.

Quentin Tarantino is viewed, often unflatteringly, as a manly man's director who makes manly movies about manly things. The guns, the suits, the tough-guy talk, the geek-boy enthusiasm for arcane trivia are all that a lot of people see and hear. As such he gets lumped in with what David Denby called the "leathery types" (Huston, Peckinpah, Altman) whom Pauline Kael admired so much, while simultaneously deemed second-tier to them artistically. Yet unlike the aforementioned roughnecks--whose films, with their unwavering machismo, have sometimes grated on my nerves--there is an unappreciated feminine streak that flows through Tarantino's work, of which Death Proof may be the apotheosis.

Tarantino's portrayal of women seemed virtually nonexistent in his debut, Reservoir Dogs, with all the speaking parts in the movie (and, Christ, do they talk) going to his all-male main cast. But from the famous opening scene--a lengthy discussion in a diner with digressions on Madonna, "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia," and the waitressing profession--it is clear that women are prominently on Tarantino's mind. More subtle is the complex relationship at the heart of the film between Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth in a brilliantly ambiguous performance). When Orange gets shot as a result of the heist (and has there ever been another director who so encourages his male actors to scream?), White takes care of him with revealing details: holding Orange's hand, caressing his temples, running a comb through his hair. One could argue that Mr. White's concern is that of a friend or a father figure, but I see it depicted with a lovingly intimate femininity that subverts the genre.

Tarantino's passion for gossipy conversation carried over to Pulp Fiction ("When all you hens get your heads together," Uma Thurman's trophy wife informs John Travolta's hit man, "you're worse than a sewing circle.") Additionally, he created a handful of supporting female characters with distinctive personalities. Most of the attention was paid to Thurman's Mia Wallace, who effectively conveys a woman who seeks danger as a means of staving off boredom, and Amanda Plummer's Honey Bunny, who learns during a restaurant robbery that she's not cut out to be a killer. For me, it is the Portuguese actress Maria de Medeiros who, in her limited screen time, registers the most strongly. In her one major scene, played mostly in the shadows of a hotel room, she wakes up in bed to the arrival of her boxer boyfriend (Bruce Willis) who has just killed a man in the ring. Oblivious to this (and, one senses, all unpleasantries), she launches into a long, funny monologue about wishing she had a pot belly. ("You wish you had some pot?" Willis asks, hearing her incorrectly.) De Medeiros isn't directly involved in the action that follows, she's never in danger; and if this makes her a passive character it also indicates Tarantino's refusal to follow cliche and use her for cheap effect.

It was in first Jackie Brown, followed by the Kill Bill movies, that Tarantino's women moved from the periphery to the center. Starring Pam Grier, an icon from the 70s-era blaxploitation movies that he loves, Jackie Brown is, on one level, Tarantino's engaging B-movie adaptation of an Elmore Leonard crime novel (Rum Punch), and one of a trifecta of films in the late-90s (with Barry Sonnenfeld's Get Shorty and Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight) which, unlike several previous Hollywood botches, maintained Leonard's sensibility onscreen. Moreover, it offered one of the most mature portraits of a middle-aged woman (and a middle-aged romance, between Grier and Robert Forster) in recent movies. As Charles Taylor's review at Salon pointed out, Tarantino's camera was highly attuned to Grier's sexuality. "I've never seen a young filmmaker as alive to an older woman's beauty in quite the way Tarantino is here," Taylor wrote. "It's not coarse, but it's not a chaste appreciation." Nor was it chaste in either volume of Kill Bill, with Tarantino's unreserved worship of Uma Thurman's killing machine--Beatrix Kiddo, a.k.a. "The Bride"--uncomfortably blurring the line between character and actress. (Everyone in the movie is always complimenting her looks and her brains and, though I can't quite remember for sure, perhaps even her fashion sense.) Yet a complicated view of the destructive potential of male-female relationships comes through the titular character's climactic monologue (wonderfully delivered by David Carradine, who possibly gets more dialogue with his windbag guru than in all his seasons of Kung Fu combined). When Bill informs Beatrix that she is incapable of being honest about her feelings for him, it is as a man who has punished the woman he loves (and himself) because she failed to live up to his overidealized view of who she is.

Which brings us to Death Proof. Much has already been said about this polarizing work--it's boring, it's masterful, it's the nadir of Tarantino's career, it's his most personal expression yet--and I concur in varying degrees with all of these summations. His female protagonists--a quartet of women in the movie's first-half, then another foursome in the second--are deeply sympathetic, yet allotted too many scenes of interminable dialogue. The brutal dispatching of the first group is done with Hitchcockian skill, but it also contains the director's at-times appalling sadism. (As this scene and a couple of sequences involving children in the Kill Bills indicate, Tarantino is struggling to show more serious ramifications of violence but still has a long way to go.) The second group's turning the tables on Stuntman Mike--and Kurt Russell's blood-curdling screams (a call-back to Roth's in Reservoir Dogs) are horrifically funny--manages to be both cathartic and something of a cop-out. Perhaps the most coherent assessment of this mishmash came from Matt Zoller Seitz and Keith Uhlich's online debate, namely when the former wrote that "while (Death Proof) certainly doesn't absolve (Tarantino) of charges that he likes to see women get hurt (as if he doesn't love to see men get hurt, too), it also establishes that he doesn't hate women....I think he fears them and is in helpless awe of them." (This reminds me of Jane Hamsher's painfully hilarious anecdote in Killer Instinct, her book about the making of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers--for which QT wrote the initial screenplay--where she reveals a photographed copy of a mash note written by Tarantino complimenting her "leggs" [sic].)

That said, I couldn't disagree more with Seitz that Tarantino's movies fail to contain deep feeling. I've been moved countless times: Chris Penn offering Michael Madsen's paroled criminal a job, calling him a "fuckin' rabbit's foot" in Reservoir Dogs; Tim Roth putting on his wedding band, which may or may not be real, before meeting up with his cronies, also in Reservoir Dogs; the dance contest in Pulp Fiction, which left the rowdy college audience I attended it with in hushed rapture, and Travolta blowing Thurman a kiss a little later in the same; all of Grier and Forster's scenes together in Jackie Brown; Sonny Chiba solemnly offering Uma Thurman his sword in Kill Bill Volume I; Thurman's final scene with Carradine, filled with messy emotion, in Volume II. While I wouldn't go so far as to claim these scenes derive from any kind of feminist sensibility (if Tarantino has any sociopolitical consciousness, he's kept it to himself), I would argue that their tenderness is indicative that his creativity derives from a largely feminine impulse. For all its flaws, Death Proof shows that Tarantino is continuing to develop as an artist; and this growth, increasingly dependent on women, is proof of life.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

You and Me and Nothing I Wanna See

Whenever I read critics of Wes Anderson's films describe them as "precious" and "twee," I have to wonder precisely what adjectives they would then use to describe the oeuvre of Miranda July? Having just caught on DVD her hideous breakout indie, Me and You and Everyone We Know, I would characterize her as a second-rate performance artist masquerading as a writer-director-actor were it not for the fact that that's exactly what she plays in the film. Here's to typecasting, I suppose. Her character is an eccentric lonelyheart who falls for a masochistic shoe salesman (John Hawkes) who likes to set his hands on fire--because, hey, who doesn't?--who in turn has an adolescent son propositioned by a pair of sexually competitive teenage girls and a younger boy who unwittingly discovers internet sex (it's played for laughs that he doesn't grasp the concept), and so on and so forth. Bouncing with faux-sensitivity from one character to the next, it's sort of like an Altman film directed by a mime.

Lord knows female filmmakers don't get nearly the credit they deserve. The talented Lisa Cholodenko has made only two films released theatrically in the last decade--the acclaimed High Art and the underrated Laurel Canyon. (Cholodenko's movies, while trafficking thematically in circles similar to July's, ultimately celebrate the artistic process and understand the difference between depicting pretention and being injected with it.) Eight years ago Kimberly Peirce wrote and directed Boys Don't Cry, one of the most audacious and visually poetic debuts I've ever seen, and dropped off the map (at least until Stop Loss, her Iraq war movie coming out next year). In every genre, movies desperately need more of a feminine sensibility behind the camera. The last thing they need are smug quirkpeddlers named Miranda July.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Close-Up Connection (Or: What Do Billy Wilder, Wes Anderson, and Feet Have in Common?)

Here's a shot from an early scene in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17, which as I recall comes soon after a failed escape attempt by some American POWs:

While I'm unsure if technically this is a close-up (are there official AFI spatial standards?), I'm going with the idea that there is a body part that's being emphasized; and Wilder uses it as a grim reminder for what's at stake amid the seriocomedy that follows throughout the film.

Now here's one of the opening moments in Wes Anderson's Hotel Chevalier (i.e., Part I of The Darjeeling Limited). Click on the image to enlarge it:

On the television, to the left, is the very same shot from Stalag 17. On the bed, to the right, are Jason Schwartzman's feet, in a humorous mirroring of the scene from Wilder's movie.

What is Anderson--a fetishistic, ephemera-obsessed filmmaker for whom hardly anything in a frame is left to chance--trying to convey with this shot? Is he suggesting that Schwartzman's character, despite his spacious hotel room and fancy pajamas, is also something of a dead man? Is Schwartzman in a kind of metaphorical prison camp too, or did he just escape one in the form of his relationship with Natalie Portman? Or did Anderson just happen to find it funny?

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Thursday's Top 4

Too much good tube on Thursdays.

There I was, ready to smooth over the rough edges of my post (l had a harsh editor as a child) for The House Next Door's must-read close-up blogathon, figuring I'd have plenty of time to do so with only a half-hour of 30 Rock and thirty more minutes of The Office to delay me. Little did I know that The Office was another hour-long saga (and one more step forward to old form following the dud opening week). Then lo' and behold, I remembered that Mad Men was on after that with this season's penultimate episode! (It was great, though I think too much is being made about the series allegedly following The Sopranos template, as if Matthew Weiner can't think for himself). Didn't get much sleep that night, but too many great moments to mention made the evening worth it. Here are four that come immediately to mind:

4. Tracy Morgan/Jordan's "Werewolf Bar Mitzvah" on 30 Rock. Morgan/Jordan's daydreamy reaction afterwards was almost just as funny.

3. Michael's shout-out to Ryan--"Dwight beat your stupid computer, asshole!"--on The Office. The evening's second most cathartic moment.

2. Andy's courtship of Angela on The Office, culminating in his wonderful rendition of "Take a Chance on Me." Ed Helms' best moment yet--namely that he played it seriously and not just for laughs--and the high-point of the season thus far.

And finally, the scene that made me laugh the hardest:

1. Bert Cooper's devastating reaction to Pete's revelation about Don Draper's secret identity on Mad Men: "Mr. Hammond....who cares?" It was pure catharsis, somehow both surprising and completely true to the nature of this cliche-bending show.

What were your favorite bits? (Helen, that's your cue....)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Close-Up as Turning Point: Peter Sarsgaard in Shattered Glass

Close-ups provide several functions in movies, not all of them in the service of an actor’s vanity. Some are purely sight-gags (insert Peter Sellers movie here), others are moments of dramatic revelation (Elaine discovering Benjamin's affair in The Graduate), while a few are devised to scare us shitless (one of the Gentlemen gliding by an open window in the episode “Hush” on Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Still other uses of the close-up are more subtle, almost imperceptively changing the direction of a story. About an hour into the 2005 film Shattered Glass, a close-up is used as a critical turning point, drawing attention to an actor’s face as though inviting the audience to see his character for the first time.

At first appearances, Shattered Glass is not a visual movie. The debut of writer-director Billy Ray, it’s a low-budget journadrama that borrows the naturalistic approach (if little else) from All the President's Men, a movie more interested in words than images. Yet it’s filled with great faces, among them Hayden Christensen (whose performance Owen Gleiberman vividly described as “all mind games and subliminal facial tics”), Chloe Sevigny, Steve Zahn, Rosario Dawson, Hank Azaria, and Peter Sarsgaard. It is Christensen's face--wide-eyed, innocuous, eager-to-please--that Ray at first focuses on so squarely that those unfamiliar with the story might be led to believe that his Stephen Glass is the hero of the movie. (My mother almost stopped watching during the early scenes in the high school classroom and at the Young Republicans convention, thinking that the movie was supposed to be "some dumb teenager thing.") Conversely, Sarsgaard's mug--beady-eyed, cynical, shifty--is that of a stock antagonist, his Chuck Lane seemingly possessed with the kind of ambition that leads him to become editor of The New Republic in what many of his colleagues believe to have been an underhanded manner. As Glass's boss, a serious journalist, and impervious to his underling's charms, Lane initially appears to function in a way similar to that of an archetypal police captain in a cop thriller--a purveyor of obstacles and nuisances. ("By the book, Glass! By the book!") For quite a while their faces are used to play on our assumptions, so that even the viewer who knows the movie's outcome can see, in dramatic terms, why Glass's schmoozy likability gave him the power to fabricate phony stories for so long and why many of Lane's difficulties in exposing him may have derived from his own standoffish personality.

Ray's direction is so unaffected that it wasn't until listening to his DVD commentary track (joined by the real Chuck Lane, and one of the most absorbing commentaries I've ever heard) that I discovered that he and cinematographer Mandy Walker had in fact devised a visual scheme, playing on my subconsious all along. Whereas the first-half of the movie is shot in a hand-held, shaky-camera style, the second-half employs more classical framing, with the camera held stationary on a tripod. This is to denote a shift in the narrative's point-of-view from Stephen Glass to Chuck Lane, to convey the idea (as Ray points out) that truth is slowly being restored.

It is the conference call scene in Lane's office that marks the turning point for this transition. Glass's most recently published scoop--a wild yarn about a computer hacker blackmailing a powerful software company--has been challenged by a duo of reporters (played by Zahn and Dawson, with Cas Anvar as their editor) at While an increasingly panicky Glass attempts to deflect, dodge and stonewall their questions, Lane sits quietly and observes. And it is at this point, for approximately twenty-five seconds, the camera begins to push slowly toward Sarsgaard's face.

Facetiously, Billy Ray has called this his "Godfather moment," but in actuality Sarsgaard's close-up serves a similar purpose to Pacino's. Chuck Lane knows that Glass's reputation and career--as well as his own--are on the line; and Sarsgaard reveals the inner turmoil of a man reluctant to take action but knows that he is running out of options. The unbroken take ends when Lane finally has enough and tersely tells Glass--who has been ostensibly searching for the phone number of one of his bogus sources--to "give them the number." These words, softly spoken, carry a devastating impact, so much that at the scene's conclusion Zahn's character says, sotto voce about Glass, "This guy's toast."

All the President’s Men depicted Woodstein's Post as a bastion of truth and the Nixonian atmosphere outside it as a world of underground parking garages and menacing shadows. Shattered Glass, while also set in D.C. (though actually filmed in Montreal) is about a more subtle, internal threat--perniciousness disguised as affability, a tricky notion to convey within a narrative framework. Restructured as “a Stephen Glass pitch” after the original "talking-heads" concept--with the ensemble recounting the story--didn't test well, the movie demands some patience from the unfamiliar viewer to realize that Glass is an Unreliable Narrator, and perhaps an even higher degree of tolerance from those in the know to overlook the stilted device of Glass speaking to a group of students in his old high school journalism class. (These scenes include a series of ultimately pointless shots of an anonymous pretty girl in the center row, who is given so many close-ups of her own that I began to wonder if she was going to ask Glass to the prom.)

Still, the movie holds together, thanks in no small part to Peter Sarsgaard's performance. As an actor in films like Garden State and Kinsey, I have found him maddeningly hard-to-peg. Yet he's the kind of guarded performer, who, in the right role, can powerfully convey a character's internal life. Billy Ray believes that the conference call scene is about Chuck Lane discovering that Stephen Glass isn't telling the truth, but by this point it is clear that behind his poker-face Lane already harbors suspicions. I think this scene--and specifically Sarsgaard's close-up, one of the few shots in a subdued movie that calls attention to itself--is about a person mustering the courage to act; and when Sarsgaard does, he takes us the rest of the way with him.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Pipe Dream

Since so many of you have asked (all right, none of you have asked, and it hurts like hell, but work with me here), I should explain why my blog is called The Man From Porlock, even though I am regrettably not from Porlock--though I am, in every John Huston/Sam Peckinpah/Oliver Stone/Norman Mailer/Vanilla Ice sweat-spit-'n'-leather sense of the word, A Man.

For a long time I had thought about starting a blog and had run out of convenient excuses to procrastinate, until finally only one remained: What shalt thou callseth it? Yes, the title was a stumper, and continued to be one until one afternoon last month when, like countless times before, my Word For The Day Calendar chose to intervene. As I tore the previous page (flabbergast), crumpled the paper and cockily dumped it in my wastebasket at work, I turned to the new word and was rendered speechless:

Man from Porlock: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Romantic poet, related that he wrote his poem "Kublai Khan" after awakening from an opium dream....he scrambled to write down what he remembered of it, only to be interrupted by a "man from Porlock," a neighboring manor. The phrase means someone who breaks a particularly inspired moment of concentration.

As you can imagine, I was most flabbergast (Damn you, Word For The Day!), and opted to take the name Porlock for my own. Not because I'm a big Coleridge fan (though I do like the poem, finished or not), or because I have a predilection for the Big Poppy, as everything I know about drugs derives from movies like this:

No, I chose the name because (same as Coleridge, I suspect) I rather like the idea of genius being interrupted. It's human, it's tragic, it's funny. And if I can invert the original meaning of the term and distract any of you from your dreary daily tasks--and not from building a great new invention or discovering a medical cure or creating a bold new work of art--then I bid you welcome and onward.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Brief Encounter

A young American male, in about his late-20s, lies down in a Paris hotel bed and orders room service in passable French. (Like so many of us, he halts at the word "grilled-cheese.") Seconds later he gets an unexpected phone call from a deep-voiced young woman, who informs him that she has arrived from the States and shortly afterward comes to his room. They embrace awkwardly, they fumble for conversation, they fall into bed, they go outside and look at the view. In the hands of, say, Harold Pinter or Neil LaBute, the visuals would be peeled-wallpaper cheap, the atmosphere fraught with deadweight contrivances. But this is a short film by Wes Anderson, who has a gift for making the mundane magical.

Hotel Chevalier, which as everyone knows is Anderson's 13-minute prologue to The Darjeeling Limited (coming to a theater near me, and hopefully you too, on October 19th) that was cut by the studio before Darjeeling's official release. Now available for free on iTunes, Chevalier stars Jason Schwartzman (who appears in Darjeeling along with Owen Wilson and Adrian Brody) and Natalie Portman as the aforementioned couple, and they are exceptionally good at conveying a broken relationship that nonetheless retains a mysterious organic connection.

A common observation about (and sometimes a swipe at) Anderson's work is that it embodies a child's-eye view of the world. What I see is a more egalitarian perspective in which both children and grown-ups occupy the same sphere. When Dirk Calloway confronts Herman Blume about his affair with Miss Cross in Rushmore, or when Royal casually pans an early play by his daughter in The Royal Tenenbaums, there is none of the patronizing of either the older or younger generation that one often sees in movies aimed squarely at teenagers or adults. Anderson doesn't shy from truth or pain in his films; and in so doing, he treats his characters as equals.

In Hotel Chevalier, Schwartzman and Portman (we never learn their characters' names) are somewhere between the grown-up world and the childlike. Schwartzman has grown more handsome since his Max Fischer days, and Portman is evolving into every bit the luminous woman that Timothy Hutton in Beautiful Girls predicted her preternatural 13-year-old would become, yet there is something still touchingly vulnerable about them that is hinted at more than spoken. He collects insects and evidently designs miniature dioramas. She has bruises on her body (we the audience notice them before he does) and fiddles with a toothpick between her teeth. Anderson's fetishistic visual style demands so much attention that it distracts from just how good he is at depicting intimacy. The entirety of Hotel Chevalier is in a way a complement to the great scene between Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow lying inside a tent in The Royal Tenenbaums, only with a slightly more adult ambiguity. We are left unsure about the exact nature of the relationship, but the emotions are familiar and real. "Whatever happens in the end," Portman says with hushed urgency, lying on top of him in bed, "I don't want to lose you as my friend." Sadly but firmly, Schwartzman replies, "I promise I will never be your friend."

Although Hotel Chevalier was intended as an overture to The Darjeeling Limited (and leaves me eager to see the full-length movie), it holds up beautifully as a self-contained piece. I thought that Anderson's last movie, The Life Aquatic, suffered from the miscasting of Bill Murray in what called for a megalomaniacal Gene Hackman-type in the lead. (Murray's been a wonderful reactive performer in his other films for Anderson, but he's out of his element as a driven go-getter.) Admirers of The Life Aquatic have regarded that film as a maturing from Anderson's earlier works, but I think that Hotel Chevalier is a more pivotal act of progression for this highly distinctive filmmaker. In a limited running time that never feels rushed, it accomplishes what most of the short features in this summer's anthology film Paris, je t'aime (which included Natalie Portman in one of its more interesting efforts, Tom Tykwer's "Faubourg Saint-Denis"), failed to achieve. With the tactile quality of a classic short story, it attempts to capture in amber a moment in time which, like all moments, inevitably slips away.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Old School

Last week I speculated that the creative juices of The Office might be running dry and that the season was pretty much hinging on old-fashioned narrative conflict--specifically, the dynamic between Ryan and Michael now that the former is the latter's boss. This week's episode came through on this premise in a big way (and showed how underused B.J. Novak has been in previous seasons). From the moment he walked through the door noodling on his annoying Blackberry, Ryan's presence electrified the atmosphere for at least the first half-hour. (The second half was more standard but still funny.) His unearned sense of entitlement and revisionist sense of history--it was Ryan who had asked Karen out last season, not the reverse--was truly appalling; yet like all compelling bad guys, Ryan isn't completely wrong about what he believes in. (And, as his humiliations by Kelly and Pam made clear, he's still way over his head when it comes to women.) Dunder-Mifflin needs to change in order to survive, and Michael does too.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Hating Horror

I love October! Indian Summer and rich autumnal colors and the cool evening air and leaves cascading from the trees and the World Series and Trick-Or-Treating and splatter films and torture por--er, uh, ah....

I hate October. Or at least what has become an elemental part of it, when Hollywood whips out the cutlery and aims for the vital organ of choice. I detest previews in general and around this time of year I positively dread the coming attractions in both theaters and on TV of the latest incarnation of Saw an Alien and a Predator in a Hostel around Halloween on Friday the 13th along with the Living Dead, as if the prospect of Good Luck Chuck wasn't terrifying enough.

Stephen King once made a case that horror is virtually the only genre where you can consistently get away with an unhappy ending. This may be true as far as novels are concerned. My problem with horror movies, however, is that they never end--they mutate and spawn endless sequels, remakes, or remakes of sequels. A more intriguing argument is that horror movies are particularly reflective of our culture during times of war, but as the original Freddy/Jason/Michael Myers oeuvre came out in the late-70s and all through the 80s, I don't completely buy that one either. However one feels about the Reagan Era, Rambo and Ahnold are far more representative icons of that time period than a knife-wielding maniac in a hockey mask.

Horror is my least favorite genre for mainly two reasons. It is filled with women who, it seems, must be disembowled (when a well-aimed neg would do), and it is almost totally devoid of humor. Which is why, for its first few seasons at least, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was such a tonic in that it turned the "Mary Sue" slasher-and-the-bimbo scenario on its head and filled it with laughing gas. Similarly, the film Shaun of the Dead imported to its tale of zombies on the rampage the humor from a British comedy of manners and concluded (after the gore) on a surprisingly hopeful note.

A recent mutation of the genre--and the fraternal twin of its other recent offspring, what David Edelstein dubbed "torture porn"--is what may be called the "New Age" horror movie. The specialty of M. Night Shyamalan (who had been hailed as everything from The Next Hitchcock to The Next Spielberg, and not just by himself), the New Age horror film only pretends to scare you shitless; its real agenda is to soften you up for an addled spiritual message that carries all the conviction you'd expect from a faith healer. As quite a bit of the hot air has gone out of Shyamalan's sails following the diminishing returns of Signs, The Village, and The Lady in the Water, and considering the fair amount of grief I took whenever admitting I disliked his initial triumph, The Sixth Sense (and from guessing the "surprise" ending from the previews), I'm proud that I called him out for a charlatan from the start. Unlike most who dabble in the horror genre, Shyamalan's not a hack. He has a good eye for where to put the camera (though a tin ear to undermine it) and has enough evangelical zeal for his own hokey ideas that he will never be shy of True Believers.

Oddly, both misogyny and mirthlessness are both on display in perhaps what I consider the best pure horror movie, The Exorcist. But that film was adapted from a novel by William Peter Blatty which, whatever its flaws, had sincere spiritual convictions. (Incidentally, though The Exorcist isn't the most telling example, Blatty, as the screenwriter of A Shot in the Dark--one of the first Inspector Clouseau movies--and the writer-director of the metaphysically slapstick The Ninth Configuration, has a little-appreciated comic sensibility.) Moreover, the film contained director William Friedkin's recurring motif of the Self-Immolating Male, personified by Father Karras's plunge through the window at its climax. Kael was right that Friedkin's objective was to work you over; what she failed to grasp was that he was punishing himself even harder.

What do all of you think of horror films? What am I missing in terms of their appeal, and what are some of your favorites?