Saturday, May 9, 2009

Walking on Air

It's easy to overpraise Man on Wire, last year's Best Documentary Oscar winner about Philipe Petit's 1974 tightrope act across the World Trade Center. Dubbed "the artistic crime of the century" (whatever the hell that means), Petit's crackpot feat has more significance now than it did then; and the director, James Marsh, smartly refrains from spelling out the more obvious points, opting instead for allusive visual and thematic motifs. The opening passages, shot in lustrous black-and-white, show a crew of shadowy figures driving a van around the Towers, intercut with maps and blueprints and various tools at their disposal. This sequence (and subsequent ones, where Petit and his team navigate guards and other obstacles on their way to the rooftop) has the giddy kick of a heist picture, yet we also see how these men with their creative impulses are the flip-side to the killers who brought down the Towers eight years ago. Petit, still alive and more than kicking, appears in both contemporary interviews and stock footage as an ingratiating narcissist, which is undoubtedly what prompted Armond White to dismiss the film as glorifying an "egotistical stunt." One could sum up most of White's criticism as precisely the same thing, only without the transcendent beauty of Petit's accomplishment. There's not a lot of depth to Man on Wire; what the movie does is fulfill a subconscious collective need to see the Towers again, and with that it aims not deep but high.

I was surprised by how much I liked Twilight, last Fall's teen Zeitgeist flick based on Stephenie Meyer's apparently popular novels (just to show how old I am), which I finally caught up with on DVD during a slow week without cable TV. Can't say the reasons for my enjoyment had anything to do with Robert Pattinson's performance as Edward Cullen, the hunk-a vampire stud reportedly the cause of much shrieking and garment-rending in theaters. (My first sight of Pattinson was as a presenter at the Academy Awards, where I was left wondering if his disconcertingly pale complexion was natural or part of a contract clause.) He's an awkward actor who nonetheless poses compellingly, and well-utilized by Catherine Hardwicke, a director with a knack for visual composition, fog-'n'-drizzle atmosphere and emotional directness. (Naturally, she won't be back for the sequel.) I dug her style particularly in the first half of the film, which establishes the angst of Kristen Stewart's heroine, Bella, a child of divorce who moves with her father to the amusingly named town of Forks, Washington. Neither of her parents are depicted as monsters, and her peers act like normal teenagers, which grounds the vampire element into reality. The best scenes may be warmed-over Buffy the Vampire Slayer without the laughs, but the erotic fervor is palpable. Even when the second half of Twilight descends into idiot-plot absurdity (a battle between Edward's family of "good" vampires" and a trio of human-eating bad ones), the intensely focused Stewart somehow makes it work. This, along with her wonderful performance in Adventureland, make her very much the young actress of the moment.

I suspect it may be coming across as tiresome to keep singing the praises of The Office, but I can't help myself. Right now the series is the best it's ever been, losing nary a step since the conclusion of the remarkable "Michael Scott Paper Company" story arc, which returned Michael, Pam and Ryan to the Dunder-Mifflin fold while still becoming a subtle game-changer in the dynamics between all the characters. This is the year that the writers finally hit the sweet-spot between Michael's brilliance and idiocy, and Steve Carell has fashioned the most aching portrayal of loneliness currently on TV. I can only urge you to check out the latest episode, "Cafe Disco," and marvel at the harmonious work of the show's ensemble (with the delightful addition of scene-stealer Ellie Kemper as dizzy new receptionist Erin) as well as the most warmhearted and blissfully funny twenty-two minutes you're likely to see in any current medium.

1 comment:

Jason Bellamy said...

On Man on Wire ...

"One could sum up most of White's criticism as precisely the same thing, only without the transcendent beauty of Petit's accomplishment."

That's fucking brilliant!

On The Office ...

I think the second and third seasons were stronger than this one (what, the fifth?). But after the utter disaster that was most of the fourth season, this season has been terrific. The best thing they've done is to settle in and let The Office take place in -- wait for it -- the office. That's where the show has always worked best.