a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

haven't posted in awhile, so...here's a big, exhausting post!

In no discernible order, here's what been occupying spots of my brain over the last couple weeks:

1) Sputnik Sweetheart
Perhaps it was a curious after-effect of getting a full-time job in addition to my part- one, but I’ve found it next-to-impossible to sift through a work of fiction since roundabout November. Since then, it’s all been facts, facts, facts. (Or more accurately, “interpretation, analysis, maybe even a little spin.”) In short, I’ve had a thirst that can’t be filled by narrative play (I have film for that), and studying up on my math (John Allen Paulos), evolution (Richard Dawkins), and language (Geoffrey Nunberg) has proven to be the cure. So kudos to Haruki Murakami. I may not be able to go more than 60 pages into The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle without growing distracted, but it only took three bouts to complete his 2001 200-pager Sputnik Sweetheart -- thus putting and end to my fiction dead patch. The story’s a blatant L’Avventura riff, but Murakami’s exploration of longing, in the form of a fairly unique love triangle, is palpable, told with characterisitic deadpan. Besides, telling the story from the most insignificant of the three is a choice move, and one that I’m inevitably a sucker for.

2) The Phantom of the Opera
Of all the “the world is divided into two people” scenarios, the only one that matters is the one that pits those who love Andrew Lloyd Webber against those who find him to be a masterful designer of exquisite torture machines. My mother falls in the former category. So did I, once upon a far off time, but age -- or some something -- has forced me to switch teams. My wise decision was backed up ten-fold upon waffling through Joel Schumacher’s long-in-development-purgatory rendering of the show, a 2 1/2-hour block of consistent bombast and obviously the most faithful adaptation of anything ever. Apart from a pointless switcheroo of the chandelier plumet scene, everything is as it has already been, only with less vocal talent: ‘80s synth drums, gold-on-red sets, hysterical overacting -- all there, every last bit of it stubbornly unforgiving of the newbie’s newbieness and the hater’s hater-ness. Not that anyone on the latter side ever stood a chance. ALW's wicked schtick is simple: he writes four or five annoyingly derivative songs then re-visits them again and again over the long haul. It's very middlebrow and very undemanding; the lyrics never rise to the occasion either (at the end: "It's over now/The Music of the Night!") Schumacher, as ever, is glad to play ball, canting the angle at random points, having actors whoosh! by right in front of the camera, pulling us up, up, and up into the heavens as Le Fântome wails in (strained, grizzled) anguish. It’s all so tacky-big, not unlike Vegas (or Showgirls), from the boat trip that looks like it was shot inside the Pirates of the Carribean ride to a hallway-set, “look, here’s the secret secret plan” scene that looks like it has more extras than the interminable masquerade ball sequence. For those into this kind of faux-opera-ness (and good job Nathan making the Meatloaf connection), it’s a masterpiece. Which, I suppose, is a good thing, in its way, but the lumbering beast’s so top-heavy it’d collapse fantastically if you blew lightly on it. Watching it, I felt like I was being crushed by a boulder, slowly, inevitably.

3) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
I’ve already elaborated here (see: comments box) to some extent, but the gyst is this: it’s all about American vs. British comic sensibilities. Specifically, can they fit? Can you have Stephen Fry droll narration on top of an overblown dolphin production number that lends a tune to “So Long and Thanks For All the Fish”? Can Mos Def’s mumbling line readings bounce off Alan Rickman’s dour ones? Is it possible that Martin Freeman can register when pitted against wily special effects, fast cutting and, most of all, Sam Rockwell’s gonzo-Dubya routine? (Not that all of those are all inherent American qualities, but they’re ones currently on loan.) The anwser to all is, of course, no, but not for lack of trying. Americans, stereotypically, just don’t do well with understatement, which is a bit of shame when the lifeblood of HHG2G is, in fact, near-sociopathic understatement. So the movie is essentially trying to find a middle ground that just ain’t there, pissing off fans and baffling the virgins. (Try watching it as though it were tabula rasa. For one thing, you'd never know that the bulldozer exchange, tragically abridged here, is one of Brit-com's acme moments.) What’s really heartbreaking is that the series has proven to be the most adaptable thing ever, mutating into different mediums without an ounce of a hitch. (Don’t believe me? Try the 1984 text computer game.) Perhaps delusionally, I’d always hoped that this would be the “Ultimate” Hitchhiker’s, fully envisioning Adams’ universe while keeping the sensibility: imagine a blockbuster where the characters are constantly underwhelmed by the ace pyrotechnics. Okay, these are some harsh words for a sci-fi bohemoth that features a missile turning into a sperm whale. And honestly the thing sporadically hits, with the yarn bit and the trip around Earth Mach 2 suitably wowing. And some of Adams’ new inventions - the truth-ray for one -- fit right in. And while the perfect casting somehow leads to much stranded talent, Bill Nighy barely disappoints with his 11th hour appearance. (I also dug Mos Def, who’s kind of awesomely distracted, and La Zooey, who fleshes out a non-existent character, who essentially loses all personality after introducing herself, with her La Zooey-ness. Move over, Maggie Gyllenhaal.) Plus, not downplaying the atheism in a major studio product? Even including a Darwin joke? That's hot. But at the end of the day, I wonder if we can try it again. ‘Cause Restaurant is gonna be a toughie if we're headin' in this direction. (Related article: M.J. Simpson, Adams's official biographer, hurling monkey feces and still more monkey feces at the film. I agree with about 70% of it.)

4) Meet the Fockers
Ever since it became a Saturday afternoon cable staple, the original has started looking better and better, turning from a standard time-killer to a passably farcial elaboration of the Hassidic-Jew-in-the-Midwest visual gag from Annie Hall. Alas, the creators saw it a different way, thinking everyone prefers the cat-urinating-on-the-ashes bit or the covered-in-feces gag or...drawing a blank here, honestly. This may be so, but I don’t know about you but the top grossing live-action comedy of all time has to be something of a jerry-rigged laff-machine, not the laziest sequel since Home Alone 2. A horny dog is flushed down a toilet by a cat. Babs sports whipped cream on her pushed-up cleavage. Foreskin tumbles into fondue. A cursing, mugging baby goes hog-wild over a Hispanic maid's voluptuous mammaries. And so on, with only Dustin Hoffman’s rather filled-in characterization offering respite from the this-happens-and-then-this-happens stumble. (And even there I'm not sure if Hoffman was actually brilliant or if it was one of them relative deals.) What made Parents a pleasant quasi-blast was the forward thrust -- they milked the outsider-in-the-Midwest for all its worth, the pace rarely flagged, and Ben Stiller, his well-meaning nebbish schtick still fresh, was always the center of attention. This one has more of an Altman spread, though it constantly forgets about characters so that it’s about everyone and no one, the red-vs.-blue set-up brought up to little to no noticeable effect. And, yes, it is fun being snobby about ultimately harmless neo-farces. I respect my farces.

5) Ann Coulter...
...is, in case you haven’t been making your weekly checks, still completely evil. The Time cover story is a joke, but that hardly prepared me for her little outburst at Harrisburg International Airport last month. Inadvertently affected by that which she heartily supports (whoops!), Coulter underwent a routine full-body search by an security official who was simply doing her job. In fact, this attendant was a multiply decorated employee. The sucubus freaked out on the girl and then made a mad dash to her computer, subsequently churning out a hate-filled missive in which her searchee has her name mocked, her figure belittled and is dubbed a lesbian. Now, let’s say racial profiling is her preferred bigoted anti-terrorist mode (which it is). Don’t you think these purported terrorists would have, as they’ve already proven their mettle, by now caught on and found different ways of infiltrating the system? Say, by employing someone not of their background? Say, an Amazonian goddess who likes to show off her long legs and scream epithets? Oh, but I forgot. She tells it like it is.

6) ID
I won’t go the Scopes Monkey Trial distance, but the Kansas kerfuffle is still some mighty hogwash and far too much on my mind these days. Three years ago, Slate’s William Saletan was calling ID what it is. Now he reports, in a hilariously mis-interpreted article, that the proponents themselves have evolved, still no more right but at least earning the writer’s respect by defining their methods as “observation, hypothesis testing, measurement, experimentation, logical argument and theory building to lead to more adequate explanations of natural phenomena.” To which they’re more than welcome, but can we please wait until they’ve come up with something concrete before inplanting it in the minds of young-uns everywhere? (Or, hmm, do I smell something fishy?) Granted, that’s a tall order. In the past, ID has been disproven almost immediately on nearly every occasion. That’s because it’s not a hypothesis as much as a nit-picker, maniacally hopping on every blip in current evolutionary knowledge. Like any complicated process, evolution isn’t air-tight -- there are gaps in the fossil record, questions that remain tantalizingly unanswered, et al. There’s still research to be done. What it doesn’t have is anything that remotely disproves it, though it has many, many things that support it. (And as Dawkins points out, we're lucky to even have fossils.) ID, on the other hand, can’t, by definition, be proven or disproven. When there are ambiguities, how scientifically sound -- or logical -- is it to jump to the conclusion that it’s the smudgy fingerprints of a superior being? It’s like saying it’s the work of an invisible dog -- think Underdog -- who can’t be detected and leaves no physical traces but definitely wins people key football games and causes mutations on Easter Island’s denizens. Can that be proven or disproven? How much sillier is it than going with the God answer? (Look, I’ll even give him a magic wand. Still not sillier.) The ID proponents, I suspect, realize this, but, as Saletan notes, they're sly: they pitch it to their own people, earnestly fumbling to locate a middle point between theism and what is actually reality. See? Science isn't scary, folks! It can tell you what you want to hear, not that nonsense about man being just another creature on a random planet!* But nothing’s locked down and, barring an earth-shattering revelation, nor will it ever be. No matter their improvements in their m.o., ID is still what it was three years ago: creationism pathetically deflated. (Also worth reading: Richard Dawkins just plain railing against religion on Salon, albeit with the briefly-mentioned (too brief maybe for his detractors) caveat that he's referring to the violent/narrow-minded/hypocritical fundamentalist sects. Even better: the Skeptic's Dictionary entry on the subject.)

7) My Sex Life, or How I Got Into an Argument
Personally, I was pretty frightened by Scott Tobias’ near-about-face on Arnaud Desplechin’s Kings and Queen, which I gobbled up in the manner of a kid seeing Return of the Jedi for the first time. Desplechin’s a thrilling filmmaker, but he raises the question of whether it’s good to be too thrilling, too ostenatiously messy, too obviously in love with himself. That vague thought didn’t stop me from surrendering to his breakthrough opus, an epic survey of neuroses, a Woody Allen film with all the tangents left in. Conclusion: no, K&Q won’t go down on a second viewing. Either you give into this kind of thing or you don’t and, in that respect, it’s not unlike The Phantom of the Opera. So, ALW fans, I know how you feel. Not that I’d ever split a bowl of wings with you.

8) The Weekly
I haven't been shamelessly pluggin' for two straight weeks, so here’s the breakdown. Last round: this (last one), this (fourth down), and this. Today's round: this. Meaty pickings this week, what with rep appearances by Imitation of Life, Jean Vigo's entire catalogue, and a video showing of Losey's M, as well as the beginning of the first ever Philadelphia Palestine Film Festival. By the way, I haven't seen Zero de conduite. Is it obvious?

* This, I believe, is the biggest crutch people have about evolution, and more specifically atheism. A mainstay of humankind is the need to acknowledge both our strength and our reliance on other things. And atheism, at least viewed generally, supports neither of these. Sadly, another mainstay is that for someone to embrace something, it has to sound appetizing. And ultimate insignificance just ain't. (For most: I personally find it strangely uplifting. Not in a Nietzchian, super-id way -- I can be a decadent bohemian and nothing will happen to me when I die, because literally nothing happens when anyone dies -- but in an I-am-part-of-a-larger-thing way, just another lifeform inhabiting a planet. I like being humbled.) These aren't necessarily flaws -- just parts of being a human, things I suffer from too.


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