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the 21st century

The They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They website has posted its annually-updated list of the 21st century’s 250 most acclaimed films. The top four movies have been the same for several years now: In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Dr., Yi yi, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Nineteen movies made the list that were not on last year’s version, topped by The Social Network at #15. I have seen 144 of the 250 films … no, I’m not so anal that I know that number off the top of my head, I’m relying on the I Check Movies website. I’ve seen the top 14, and 19 of the top 20. Here is a list of the Top Ten Films from the 21st Century That I Haven’t Seen, i.e. I better add these to my Netflix queue (oops, I did this wrong ... see subsequent post):

  • The Social Network
  • Black Swan
  • Carlos
  • The King’s Speech
  • 127 Hours
  • True Grit
  • Inside Job
  • Dogtooth
  • I Am Love
  • The Fighter

what i watched last week

Fantastic Mr. Fox. There is much to like about this movie, beginning with the use of stop-motion animation … it was so effective, I honestly didn’t think about it as I watched, other than to note it wasn’t like a Pixar movie. The film was smart, the voices were good, it got in and out in under 90 minutes. So why wasn’t I more impressed? Maybe I’m just not a Wes Anderson fan … I’ve seen all but one of his films, only really liked Rushmore, and disliked Bottle Rocket. I found one aspect of Fantastic Mr. Fox perplexing. We were regularly reminded that foxes (real ones, and the ones in the movie) are wild animals, and wildness needed to be accepted. Also, their wildness stood in opposition to the crass materialism of the greedy capitalist humans. But Mr. Fox et al are not foxes at all. They walk on two feet, dress in human clothing, and seem to aspire as much as anything to living the life of an ordinary human being. The film is a celebration of the nuclear family, and how wild is that? If the animals’ wildness ever threatened to overwhelm them, we might have seen some interesting conflict. Instead, their ravenous eating habits are the only thing that separate these “wild animals” from the humans they are trying to emulate. 6/10. #81 (gimme a break) on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century.

Exit Through the Gift Shop. A clever “documentary,” although I confess I never felt like I was in on the joke. Perhaps, as one person in the film says, there is no joke. I understand why the crew putting Mr. Brainwash’s show together would never want to work with him again, but the rationale behind the various artists who come to dislike MBW is unclear. It is because he stole their ideas, if in fact he did? Is it because his success demonstrates something about the art world they didn’t like? I have no idea. His success is interesting, though, like if Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant set yet another trap for Karl Pilkington, only this time he parleyed it into a million dollars. Nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar. #188 on the TSPDT list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

Walkabout. Walkabout is one of my very favorite movies, and is one of the reasons why, as a film major in the early-70s, I thought Nicolas Roeg was the best director. I recommend it highly to pretty much everyone reading this. But I want to talk about something else, related to the vagaries of memory (a consuming topic for me in recent years). When the film was released in America, five minutes were missing. Nowadays, when those five minutes are back and all versions of the film are intact, you will read reviews where the critic claims that the five minutes edited out back in the day were of the now-famous nude swimming scene by Jenny Agutter, only 16 when it was filmed. But I saw the American version back in the day, and I assure you, Jenny swam naked. At this point, my memory gets screwy. I remember seeing the full version for the first time, many years ago. And I remember thinking a time or two that I didn’t remember a scene (I didn’t know then that there were multiple versions). I am now convinced that what was edited out was scenes that showed the aborigine interacting with other white people before he came across the girl and boy. And this is a crucial point … as Agutter says in an interview included on the disc, he doesn’t find the kids quite as strange as they think he does (at one point, the girl tells her brother, “I expect we’re the first white people he’s seen,” which seems accurate if you don’t include the scene of him and the white woman). #664 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.

Restrepo. Filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington are clear about their intentions with this documentary of American soldiers in Afghanistan. They want to give us a respectful look at what those soldiers’ lives are like during wartime. We see actions heroic and mundane, we get to know the soldiers as individuals, we get a feel for the Afghan landscape. What they don’t show us are generals and politicians and experts explaining the purpose of our occupation of Afghanistan. So there is something existential about the soldiers, who believe in each other and who believe in accomplishing specific goals, but tend to limit their focus to the comrades and the here and now. There are similarities between this movie and David Simon’s HBO mini-series Generation Kill, but Simon has a different point to make, one he tends to slip into whatever project on which he is working: the foot soldiers try to do their best, but they are limited by the manipulations of their institutional superiors. So the soldiers in Generation Kill spend a lot of time complaining about how their leaders are stupid, even as they act as heroically as their counterparts in Restrepo. Nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar. 8/10.

Il Posto. I didn’t get this one. It’s in the neo-realist style, but comes several years after the peak of that genre. It’s a satire of sorts, like Office Space with amateur actors, but it is extremely subtle, so much so that, as I say, I’m not sure I got much of the satire. We’re supposed to see how the protagonist’s new job guarantees him a lifetime of alienation, and Sandro Panseri’s face gets some of this across … he has a blank look for almost the entire movie, but he has big dark eyes that hint at something deeper. But Panseri isn’t really acting … yes, I know, that’s partly the point of casting amateurs … and for me, the story never really goes anywhere. It reads better than it plays, and I can imagine Ermanno Olmi constructing his thesis and imagining it would make a great film. For many, he succeeds, but me, I give it 6/10. #942 on the TSPDT list of the top 1000 films of all time.


man vs. fly

I am worse at drawing than pretty much anyone in the world. I draw at about the level of a pre-schooler, but I’m 57. I have no sense of perspective, I can’t draw to match reality, I can’t do anything. But once, when I was a teenager, I realized I could draw a fly. I’d first draw two tear-shaped wings with one stroke … they looked like a heart with a line down the middle. Then I’d fill in a little dot at the point of the heart … that was the fly’s body. Finally, I’d toss a few short straight lines above the wings to indicate the action of the wings moving. It looked something like this … understand, I’m using Paint here, and I’m even worse with that software than I am drawing by hand:

fly

We would draw these on anything … I remember when Robin and I went on our first “date” for her 15th birthday, she made herself a cake and put a fly on the frosting.

One day I came up with an idea for a comic strip. It had four panels … this was because unless I drew a rectangle and cut it into fours, I wouldn’t know where to draw. I had to draw a man, which was a bit hard for me … I’ll try to do it with Paint:

man

The cartoon had a plot. It went something like this (one last time, I suck at Paint, but the original versions did not look any better, I promise):

man

manvsfly2

manvsfly3

man

That was it. Rather existential, don’t you think? I came up with plenty of sequels … in one, a pair of scissors appeared and cut off Man’s tongue, in another, the final panel showed only Fly, who apparently had won that round.

This was more than 40 years ago.

Well, not long ago, one of my partners in crime from those formative years, Dub Debrie, mailed me a page from a New Yorker of a few months back. It was by Arnie Levin, and it was a professional job, much like the drawings you see in the New Yorker … Levin has drawn for them for a long time. There were five panels. In the first, a man was reading a book while a fly buzzed in front of him. In the second and third panels, the man tried to brush away the fly with his hand. And then, in the fourth panel, we see the fly, still buzzing, and the man, whose tongue is outstretched so the fly now sits on the tip of the man’s tongue.

The final panel showed the man once again reading his book. The fly is nowhere to be seen.

You can understand why Dub thought I should see this.

I hunted down the cartoon’s creator and sent him a message, explaining why we were so delighted at the confluence of his drawing and mine, separated by several decades and many, many levels of artistic ability. I asked him if he remembered his inspiration for the cartoon. This morning, he replied. He said that he was watching Once Upon a Time in the West, and at one point during the legendary opening, Jack Elam catches an annoying fly in his gun barrel. Elam listens to the fly, trapped in his gun, and Levin said that to him, Elam looked like an iguana and that he should therefore catch the fly with his tongue. Thus, a comic was born!

This goes into the My Day Is Made Dept.

Here is that opening scene. Well, it’s cut down a bit, which is a bit of a travesty, like lopping off the top of the Mona Lisa. But it’s nice for our purposes, since it starts in right about when Elam meets up with the fly.


music friday: p!nk, “fuckin’ perfect”

P!nk introduced her latest single and video on her website with a “Personal Note.” She wrote:

My favorite books, art pieces, films, and music, always have something jarring about them. I want art to make me think. In order to do that, it may piss me off, or make me uncomfortable. That promotes awareness and change, or at least some discussion. That is my intention. You can't move mountains by whispering at them.

It’s no accident that she talks about art in the above quote, nor is it accidental that she includes herself as part of the discussion. The Pop Star As Artist … not Artiste, something more down home.

It’s a bit of a puzzle for those of who are long-time fans, how despite her popularity, P!nk never seems to be at the top of anyone’s lists for best this or best that. Perhaps it’s because she’s hard to pin down. Her confessional approach, which first emerged with her zillion-selling Missundaztood, allows her to range from cocky fuck-yous to damaged ballads … both represent aspects of her personality. (The best example might be “So What,” a kiss-off to her husband … when she made the accompanying video, he starred as the jilted lover, and in real life, they reconciled and are now expecting their first child.)

P!nk isn’t the same person who spilled her guts about her adolescence. Now, she’s 31 and pregnant … I’m reminded of Chrissie Hynde in “Middle of the Road” singing “I’m not the cat I used to be, I’ve got a kid, I’m 33.” But that same person still lives inside her, and it prompts songs like “Fuckin’ Perfect”:

I support the kids out there that feel so desperate/numb/powerless, that feel unseen and unheard, and can't see another way.. I want them to know I'm aware. I have been there. I see them.
Sometimes that's all it takes.

When she raises her glass to the woman played by Tina Majorino in the video, she is acknowledging the connection between herself and her audience. Ann Powers wrote a fine comparison of this single and the new one from Avril Lavigne, mentioning an interview Ann had done with P!nk last year:

[She] justifies her return visits to Max Martin’s hit factory in part by insisting that her buying public is a community. … P!nk kept returning to the subject of her fans, and her decision to focus as much on touring as on recording because she recognizes that the loyalty of real people sustains her in ways the payoffs of product placement do not. … P!nk has compassion. It’s in the bluish purple swoop of her voice on a ballad; it’s one of her driving motivations, and it’s something that makes her different from maybe half of her diva/starlet competitors these days. … It is sign of her genius … that this late in her career P!nk has figured out how to be both a brat and a grown-up lady, and to ride that combination to the top of the charts.

There is an emotional edginess to much of P!nk’s work, an edginess that most definitely shows up in the video for “Fuckin’ Perfect.” It is, at times, almost unbearable to watch. But the chorus offers hope through an understanding companionship: “Pretty pretty please, if you ever ever feel like you’re nothing, you’re fucking perfect to me.”

Making this video was a very emotional experience for me, as was writing this song. I have a life inside of me, and I want her or him to know that I will accept him or her with open and loving and welcoming arms. And though I will prepare this little munchkin for a sometimes cruel world, I will also equip this kid to see all the beauty in it as well. There are good people in this world that are open-minded, and loving. There are those that accept us with all of our flaws. I do that with my fans/friends, and I will do that with my child, whoever they decide to be.

Here’s a song from earlier in her career. It addresses some of the above … “I’m a hazard to myself,” she sings, “I’m my own worst enemy … I wanna be somebody else.” This is the P!nk who can relate to “the kids out there” … she “has been there.” And the video is truly remarkable. For most of the song, she runs through her litany of problems, reminding us that she has wanted to be somebody else for a long time. But then she hits the stage (for a “welcome back” appearance at her old high school), and suddenly, she is the somebody else that the people in the audience want to be. As she sings, she morphs into various fans … she becomes them, she gets to be somebody else, and they become her, they are somebody else, as well, and everyone is everyone. They “accept with all our flaws.”


euphoria as illness

Last night, I revealed something to my wife because I thought it was important that she know. Since my recent bout with vertigo, I've been hyper-vigilant in paying attention to what is happening to me, most obviously when I get dizzy. I’ve realized, for instance, that I’ve “gotten dizzy” pretty regularly over the years, most likely due to my sinus problems, but in such a mild way that it never seemed worthy of comment. But once in awhile I’d get a little more dizzy than usual, and at times I’d mention this to Robin, in case something serious was about to happen, so she’d be able to pass along the information to the doctors. And the other day, I remembered that once in a great while, my balance gets thrown off, so I’ll walk a straight line but think I’m veering to one side of the other. In short, that scary feeling of vertigo did not come out of nowhere, and it’s a good idea to pass along info about lesser examples to set context.

As I told my wife last night, I assume that I should tell her when I am depressed, for the reasons cited above re: dizziness. Of course, I never tell her, and of course, she can always tell anyway. Well, in my bipolar 2 state, I also experience the “opposite” of depression … it’s why I take “mood stabilizers” rather than just anti-depression meds. So, I thought perhaps I should mention to Robin that recently, I’ve experienced moments of euphoria. If I’m supposed to supply context to my condition by telling about dizziness or depression, then it follows that I should mention if I’m feeling euphoric.

She tried not to laugh. First, she pointed out that euphoria wasn’t the opposite of depression, at least in bipolar terms … mania is the opposite of depression (people don’t max out their credit cards because they feel euphoric, they do it because they feel manic). Second, she said she was glad to hear it, because if I ever did end up in emergency with some oddball excess of happiness, she’d be sure to tell the doctors that I had only recently said, for the first time in my entire life, that I was euphoric.

But here is the real lesson to be learned from all of this: clearly, I think euphoria is a sign of illness. If I feel particularly good, if I have that special feeling inside that turns my frown upside down, my first thought (once the feeling of euphoria has passed) is, “uh oh, I must be sick.” This may also provide insight into why, when I meet someone who is happy, I assume something is wrong with them.


some late last thoughts on caprica

SyFy blew off the last batch of Caprica episodes in a one-day marathon, which I recorded and then quickly forgot about. The reboot hadn’t interested me enough. But my wife finally insisted we watch those episodes; it took a few days, but the deed is now done. I wasn’t going to say anything here, since it feels like old news, but then yesterday Jonathan Bernstein offered up a good “just finished watching it” post, and he linked to a similar post by Seth Masket, so I better join in.

Part of the problem is that I’ve written about the series a few times, and in the process I’ve repeated myself a few times. I like what was attempted in Caprica, wasn’t always happy with the execution, and felt some possibilities were being ignored in favor of what amounts to Too Much Daniel Graystone. My favorite aspect of the show was the examination of Zoe Graystone, former human/current “first” Cylon. I was fascinated with this, and felt it was a believable beginning to the tale of the Cylons. But when the series returned, the virtual Zoe was stranded in V-world, and the business shenanigans of her father took center stage.

If “Season 1.5” (I think … I really really hate Syfy’s method of naming seasons) had run consecutively, I would have liked it more, because I found the later episodes much better than the earlier ones, to the point that the season overall was redeemed. First, the purpose of Avatar Zoe became more clear, and Alessandra Torresani continued to improve in the role … her adolescent spite, combined with her enormous power within V-world, made for some riveting family drama. Second, the expansion of original Zoe into the masses of Cylons was well-done … you could see how/why the Cylons were becoming important, and the big reveal, where we learned that in some inscrutable way, all Cylons were Zoe, was fascinating. Finally, while I never minded the talky nature of the show, when the Cylons finally kicked some serious butt in the finale, it was a lot of fun.

If I were to write an essay on this, I might focus on the scene when the Cylons martyr themselves by leaping en masse on the bomb-carrying bad guy. It redefines heroism, which I always assume suggests a conscious act … ok, oftentimes our most heroic moments come when we act before we think, but the Cylons were just following orders. But we know that Cylons are more than just machines, and while it’s hard to say whether these early models are self-aware enough to recognize the concept of sacrifice, nonetheless that self-awareness is down the road, and it makes their heroic act here poignant. Of course, it’s mostly tossed off as the end of an exciting action sequence, but like I said above, I often found the idea of Caprica better than its execution.

Should I offer up a consumer-guide piece of advice? I don’t think Caprica stands on its own … I don’t know why any non-BSG fans would want to watch it. And it never reaches the heights of Battlestar. But it’s a worthy addendum. And the final montage, “The Shape of Things to Come,” did a good job of making us wish the series had more time to expand on its promise:


andromeda klein

I’m known for being a year or so behind on movies. I’m a lot worse on books. People will gift me a book, and three years later I’ll say thanks, I read it, it was great.

Andromeda Klein, Frank Portman’s second novel, is a couple of years old now, and I’ve had it for most of those two years, but only now have I actually read it. It’s another success for Dr. Frank of the Mr. T Experience. I realize that there are people reading Portman’s books who know nothing of his “other” life, but for those of us who do know his music, there is a pleasant disconnect at knowing the same person wrote a book like this (or King Dork, his fine debut novel) and a song like “I Love You, But You’re Standing on My Foot.” Dr. Frank the musician has always excelled at defying norms and expectations, which is one reason why the Mr. T Experience isn’t as famous as Green Day. And so it’s really no surprise that he’d break out in another art form entirely.

Portman’s two novels have a lot of heart. They are also kinda smart-ass … when I say “heart,” I don’t mean sugary. And he really has a knack for getting inside his characters, making them real … his books are marketed as Young Adult Novels, and I’m not so sure about that (I’ve taught King Dork at the college level and it worked just fine), but I imagine they would resonate with young adults because the books are honest and quirky without condescension. Andromeda Klein might be the most remarkable of the two for Portman’s ability to create a realistic character. Whether or not it was true, King Dork played in part as a semi-autobiographical tale. But Andromeda Klein is about a teenage girl who is obsessed with magic … not the Penn & Teller kind, but the Aleister Crowley kind. The book goes into tremendous detail on the magic Andromeda is involved with … it’s not dry, it’s a part of her life and her worldview, so it’s integrated smoothly into the story … I can’t say I know a lot about the topic, but as far as I can tell, Portman has done some serious research, which pays off.

But again, the magic serves the story of Andromeda. The book isn’t titled Crowley’s Minions, it’s called Andromeda Klein. Dr. Frank is two-for-two in the world of novels.

(A side note about my reading of this book. I got the Kindle version, and by the time I was done, I had read most of it on my Android phone, some of it on my computer, and even a bit of it on an actual Kindle. Each time I would switch hardware, Kindle would know where I had quit reading on the previous device and take me there. It was spooky, and also v.convenient.)


what i watched last week

The Cat Returns. A Studio Ghibli film not directed by Miyazaki, this 2002 film from Hiroyuki Morita is a bit of an oddity. Even though it’s the story of a teenage girl who talks to cats and finds herself in a magical Kingdom of Cats, there is something a bit prosaic about it all … it lacks the flights of fantasy that make Miyazaki’s worlds so enticing. The film is OK, and since I am not a fan of the Disney Musical genre of animated movies (which is to say, I’m not a fan of the music), a movie like The Cat Returns is nice because there are no songs to stretch the running time, which is 75 minutes. A pleasant movie, but nothing more. 6/10.

A Star Is Born. This is the Judy Garland version. She sings great, and mostly avoids the tics and mannerisms that I find bothersome (although I think her fans love them … I could be wrong). James Mason is as good as you’ve heard. The movie works well as a star vehicle for Garland, but it’s not a classic musical, no matter what people think. The damn thing goes on for almost three hours in the restored version … basically, you’ve got a normal-length movie with enough songs attached to make it long enough for two. Garland fans will want to give this a 10 … I’m going with 6/10. #245 (!) on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the 1000 best films of all time.

Sherlock Jr. A truly remarkable short feature from Buster Keaton, one that must have been at or near the top of Jackie Chan’s viewing schedule in his formative years. The setup takes a bit of time to get going, but when Keaton, as a movie projectionist, falls asleep in the booth and his dream self enters the theater, anything becomes possible. Keaton climbs into the movie … as with virtually all the stunts, there is a seamless quality that is amazing for a film made in 1924. Whatever trickery is used happens in the camera, or in the mind and body of Keaton. There are several Holy Shit moments, and the scenes are also hilarious, even as they are mind-boggling. This wouldn’t be a bad introduction to Keaton, if you’ve never seen him before. 10/10. #129 on the TSPDT list.


top ten as of this moment

I created an ordered list of my favorite movies for a web site yesterday, and in the process, I realized I had created my Top Ten Films of All Time List. I might change my mind by the end of the day, but here it is/was:

    1. The Godfather: Part II
    2. The Sorrow and the Pity
    3. The Rules of the Game
    4. The Godfather
    5. Bonnie and Clyde
    6. The Third Man
    7. Grand Illusion
    8. Citizen Kane
    9. Vertigo
    10. Rio Bravo

Nothing later than the early-70s … I’ll need to do one of these for the post-Godfather era. Top Ten Films, 1975-present:

    1. Hard Boiled
    2. Run Lola Run
    3. City of God
    4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
    5. The Killer
    6. Pan’s Labyrinth
    7. Red Cliff II
    8. The Lives of Others
    9. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
    10. Raiders of the Lost Ark

I’ve often questioned my general refusal to give current films the highest ratings, and this second list tells me something. Apparently, it’s easier for me to give 10/10 to a recent foreign film. There are only two English-language movies on that list, both directed by Spielberg, from 1977 and 1981 (i.e. there isn’t been a single American film on either of these lists that was made in the last 30 years). Meanwhile, John Woo shows up three times, which isn’t much of a surprise to me.

So, let me try again. Top Ten English-Language Films, 1982-present:

    1. American Splendor
    2. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
    3. The Rapture
    4. The Terminator
    5. Hoop Dreams
    6. Dangerous Liaisons
    7. Stop Making Sense
    8. Deliver Us from Evil
    9. Wit
    10. The Hours

an idiot abroad premiere

There’s a way in which An Idiot Abroad is Karl Pilkington’s revenge. When he participates in podcasts with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, he really does seem like an animal in a cage, being poked by Ricky. In this series, the poking occurs … Pilkington visits the New Seven Wonders of the World, and Gervais/Merchant come up with a variety of torments for him … but Karl is the only one actually there, actually participating, so his unique perspective on the world is offered to us, for the most part, without Gervais’ insane laughter. Pilkington doesn’t seem like an idiot at all in this show. He most definitely seems like a fish out of water, and he has a willingness to blurt out whatever is in his head. But as often as not, I found myself empathizing with him, because I knew I’d be the same.

So, in this episode, he goes to the Great Wall of China. He’s not impressed by the wall, especially when he learns from the guidebook that renovations have been done … how can it be a Wonder if they worked on it in 1980? But it’s in his encounters with Chinese culture that the combination of laughs and insight occurs. He eats toad … he gets a Chinese massage that amounts to having flaming gloves placed on his legs … he uses the public restroom and finds there are no doors on the stalls … and, of course, no one speaks English. We can make fun of his provincialism, but that doesn’t make him an idiot. And the fact is, Pilkington actually does the stuff he dreads. When he visits a family for a meal, he worries that they might feed him something he doesn’t like, and he won’t be able to tell them his tastes. He’s sitting outside when he sees the lady of the house with a bag of something … he quickly realizes it’s a bag of live toads, and she is whomping off their heads, one by one. He really doesn’t want to eat, but he goes to the table, and she forces pieces of toad into his mouth. He can’t really keep them down, and he is really suffering … but he’s doing it, while Gervais and Merchant are back home, laughing. It all makes Karl seem oddly heroic.

I should add that the HD photography is excellent (the series is on the Science Channel). I don’t know that I can exactly recommend the series, but I’ll be back for episode two.