Sunday, March 30, 2008

Dan in Real Life: I'm not done yet....

Hey, I achieved another life goal this weekend by finally getting a shout out in Jason Morehead's Opuszine!

I very much like and respect Jason's take on film (we together sat through Geoffrey Wright's MacBeth at the Toronto Film Festival one year and he helped articulate some of the reasons I didn't care for it despite Lady MacBeth giving her "out damn spot" speech in the nude), so I was pleased that he had the same exasperated response to Dan in Real Life that I did.

Now, I made the (possible) mistake of posting a comment at Jason's blog, and the next thing I know all the rant juices are flowing again, and I kept thinking of more and more things about the film I didn't like.

I already mentioned in a footnote the (I can only assume meant to be taken as) playful "teasing" of Mitch early in the film in which a family member says that if he messes up the relationship with Marie they will dump him and keep her.

Since Marie, with Dan's help, is the one who messes up the relationship and the family doesn't dump her (or Dan), I can only assume that this earlier scene was less a call for applying an expected standard of decency in all relationships as a condition of family acceptance and more just an expression of personal preference--they actually just like her more than Mitch.

This, in turn, got me thinking about Marie's character. I've mostly just been ranting about Dan and the film's inability to reconcile what he does with what it wants you to feel about him. I thought, too, as the final credits rolled over the wedding and we see the family beaming at the now happy couple, of Ann Landers's old rubes that when a man marries his mistress he creates a vacancy for that position and that if she cheats with you she'll cheat on you. Mitch and Marie aren't married, of course, but there is a corollary here somewhere--Dan and Marie's relationship is (half-)baked in the cauldron of lies and deception, and we are supposed to take it on spec that the resulting pastry that is the ensuing marriage will be one of love, trust, and mutual respect? Forget "love," she doesn't even respect Mitch enough as a person to tell him the truth when she dumps more example of the film's curious motif that lying to people is the highest form of love because the truth sometimes hurts and therefore trying to prevent hurt is the same as loving.

Just as the film changes the foundation of Dan's dilemma from attraction to love as a means of glossing over and trying to justify what the audience might otherwise recognize as some pretty shabby behavior, so too it must try to figure out a way to make Marie a character who can string Mitch along, dump him with no explanation, immediately start dating his brother, and yet not come across as a completely heartless bitch.

The first step in doing so, is, of course, casting the radiant and lovely Juliette Binoche, who is so lovely and has so much good will wrapped up in her actor's persona, that we are just inclined to think of anyone she is playing as a good person. You, know, it's Dan in Real Life's equivalent of the U.S. Government hiring Tom Hanks in The Simpsons Movie to cash in on some of his credibility. There is a weird sort of twisted irony of Binoche in this role. She may be best known for her role in Krzystof Kieslowski's masterpiece, Blue, about a woman trying to emerge from the deadening weight of grief after the death of her husband (and daughter). If I thought the maker's of Dan in Real Life were cleverer, I might almost take this as a tip of the hat to their influences, much like the cameo roles for veteran actors in remakes or Branagh's inclusion of Judi Dench and John Geilgud as Hecuba and Priam in Hamlet.

There's a fine line between honoring and exploiting, though. (The Simpsons Movie is making that very point with the Hanks example.) If this film is thinking about Binoche's association with Blue at all, its invocation of it is more base, akin to the rising tendency of writers and directors to point to shared cultural reference points as shorthand for communicating what they are going for rather than actually trying to invoke a message, idea, or theme in their own work. One can do this through casting (part of what makes Bob Saget so darn funny in Entourage is our immediate association of him with Full House; part of what makes Keith Carradine so right for Kill Bill is the immediate association with Kung Fu), as well as musical cues, or visual "homages" that invoke previous cinematic reference points. When done well, or decently, this can be a way of fleshing out an otherwise minor character and enriching a film. When it becomes a substitute for character development, it becomes a lazy crutch for bad writing.1

The closest thing Marie is given to an explanation of her feelings (other than, hey, I just like this other guy better) comes in an exchange with Dan in which she talks about reading his book. Mitch has apparently stolen some lines or approaches from Dan's advice column--nuggets like "I'll forgive you your past if you forgive me mine"--and in a foolish act of unforgivable deception has tried to apply advice from a relationship advice column to his relationship. Marie complains that all Mitch's "best lines" are, in fact, Dan's and that she didn't realize in falling in love with Mitch (who applied the advice) she was actually falling in love with Dan (who gave the advice).

This exchange, like the aforementioned shower scene screams out for a deconstructive reading, in part because (like many scenes or works that cry out for deconstruction) it makes no sense if taken at face value. Here is a woman who, we are supposed to believe, is too embarrassed to be found talking to a guy in a bathroom while she washes her face and so she will subject herself to the greater embarrassment of stripping and getting in the shower with him. Here is a woman who apparently detests lies and dishonesty so much that she is outraged that a boyfriend will apply advice from a relationship column without providing a verbal, in-text MLA citation about where it came from. Yet the same woman who is outraged not at being lied to but not being told the whole truth will turn around and refuse to be honest with him about her own actions. This makes about as much sense to me as a teacher failing a student for plagiarism on the grounds that he argued in an essay that people ought to love their neighbors as themselves without thinking to mention that someone else said it first but then turns around and plagiarizes large parts of the student's essay for her own dissertation.

Marie's rationalization here (it has to be a rationalization, she can't be serious) would seem to imply, if taken seriously, that words are a greater sign of love than actions. Perhaps if the film had cast Gwyneth Paltrow instead of Binoche, we might instinctively think of Shakespeare in Love and suspect that Marie is a poetic, Romantic sort of the type who has a highly idealized view of love and falls in love with the man because he is the source of the words, but then that would work better if Dan were a poet rather than an advice columnist and if it were the words themselves, rather than the sentiment behind them, that were beautiful. As it is now, I kept flashing forward to a moment thirty years in the future after Marie has enjoyed a few decades of Dan's sincere love and devotion, where she is wandering through another, different book store and stumbles across a Bible that has fallen open to Ephesians 5:25: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her."

In my mind, I see Marie immediately and tearfully filing for divorce. "All those years," she sobs, "I thought I was falling in love with you...only to find out that I'm really in love with St. Paul."

1One could argue, I suppose, that Binoche's presences is meant to evoke not Blue but The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and were I to find out that the original choice to play Dan was not Steve Carrel but Daniel Day-Lewis, I would have to rethink my contention that we are meant to take the Dan-Marie relationship as true love and not merely the desperate attempts of two lonely and co-dependent people feeding their addiction to love and lust as a narcotic used to dull their existential pain.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Netflix "Recommendations"

I hate to pile on Netflix since, on the whole, they do a lot of things right. I would like to note by way of preface, though, that my profile says that I have rated 2874 movies at that site under their urging that if I rate more movies, they can fine tune my recommendations.

So I think it's a little disingenuous of them to parse what was no doubt a paid banner promotion as a recommendation:

"If you enjoyed:

Drawn Together, Season 1
Escape to Grizzly Mountain

We think you'll enjoy:

Futurama: Bender's Big Score."

Hey, thanks for that head's up, guys.

I'm pretty sure if YOU enjoyed The Harlem Globetrotters Visit Gilligan's Island and From Justin 2 Kelly, you will probably like Hanna Barbara Presents: A Lawrence of Arabia Christmas.

I'm running off to update my queue right now.

That Was Then...

...this, as the saying so rightly points out, is now.

I recently blogged about the passing of my former drama teacher, Joan Bedinger. The combination of her passing and the greetings from some people I haven't heard from in ages (Alan Eisenberg's got a very interesting and educational blog about resources for thinking about and dealing with bullying here) put me in a bit of a nostalgic mood and I went rooting around the attic today to find my box of scrapbook stuff from high-school and earlier.

Here's a great picture I found of Joan:

It was weird going through the scrapbook, in some ways painful (high school was by no means the "best years of [my] life") but also oddly instructive. Here are a couple of random thoughts that passed through my mind:

Man, this seems like a LOOOOOONG time ago. That could be, perhaps, because it was. I was trying to think when was the last time I seriously sat down and looked at these pictures, and wondered if it had been decades. I guess that's one difference between being young and middle aged. It used to be that the only things I could measure in decades were future things. Past things were always measured in days, months, or years.

I remembered I had a letter from Joan when I graduated. It was weird to read it and think that she was now dead. An even more strange feeling came when, going through the scrapbook, I found a second letter, one she sent to me while I was at college. It said that she missed having me around and hoped she would see me when I was next in the area, that she was and had always been a poor letter writer, but that she thought of me often and looked forward with pleasure to being able to catch up with each other's lives soon.

I suppose, looking back, that there was a part of me that was paradoxically jealous of and suspicious of her friendship. Sure, the inner cynic whispered in my ear, Joan said I was unique, and special, but she probably says that to everyone. Was she my friend, I sometimes wondered, or a cult-like personality who was collecting followers who could easily be replaced?

Memory is this bizarre thing. I had sort of constructed this memory of my college years of my making the effort to go back when the school had a show, to correspond, to visit when I was in town...My recollection was that these efforts were always appreciated but seldom reciprocated. I wondered now, as I re-read the second letter if that were only a partial truth. I tried hard to think back twenty some years and see if I could really remember not just my impressions but actual events. As with any friendship that ends not through conflict and/or a particular catalyst but through gradual drifting apart, thinking about this one was, admittedly, painful, and I think I understand that some of my revisionist memories might have been simply to dull that bittersweetness by focusing on those parts of the process I was not (or did not feel) responsible for.

Of course, my perspective is not only changed now by the fact that I am older but also that I am a teacher. While there are great spiritual and psychological rewards for teaching--my students enlighten me and enrich my life (okay, maybe not all of them but many of them)--there is also a painful truth that I understand now that I didn't then: if the best teachers are the ones who are willing to teach within the context of a personal relationship, a good teacher is forever investing herself or himself into relationships, the majority of which are not permanent--in people who grow up, move away, move on (and rightly so) to the next stages of their lives.

In this sense teaching can be analogous in some ways to parenting. I found some old programs for plays I was in while in high-school, and I was reminded through the program notes of how many of my fellow students used to call Joan "mom" and how I used to roll my eyes at that practice finding it unprofessional and too "familiar." A number of my fellow students also called her "Joan," which I could never bring myself to do, either, because it felt disrespectful; it wasn't and wouldn't be right for my particular idiom (pun intended). But I realize now that this practice was not necessarily a sign of brazen disrespect for her position nor of cheeky familiarity; it was--or at least could be--one of the higher forms of respect.

I also realize now that friendship isn't a zero-sum game. It isn't as though the meaningful friendships she had with other colleagues and students somehow diminishes the importance of the friendship she had with me. Actually, in my experience, the opposite is true--philia, like agape, enlarges a person rather than diminishes her; as we give, we grow and have more to give. I think now that the friendship she received back not just from me but from others no doubt enlarged and encouraged and sustained her to be able to give to the constant new stream of people in her life. Perhaps a better, more fitting legacy for such a friend would be to focus less on trying to figure out how special or unique our friendship was but on how typical it think not about how special I must have been to deserve special friendship from amongst the sea of faces but about how special she must have been to be able to befriend so many.

The final thing I think about in reviewing my scrapbook is that I like that she is smiling. I was such a serious person in high school:

Things that had happened to me growing up...early exposures to violence and death probably influenced me more than I knew and taught me to look at the world as place where bad things happened. I think that's contributed to the fact that I've always been both drawn to and judgmental of people who are capable of enjoying life. I don't just mean hedonists or epicures, and I certainly wasn't cognizant at that time that I might tend to look down on such people because I envied their ability to enjoy life and not merely because they were all superficial. (I guess I thought I was superior to them on some level...I had faced reality...they would find out soon enough things were not all strawberries and cream.) I remember I didn't take a curtain call for the play I assistant-directed my senior year. I no doubt was suspicious of the transiency of happy moments and protective of my dignity and the decorum of the situation. I didn't like how the closing nights would be mawkish and the rhetoric would be inflated. Joan didn't force the routine on me, but she did let me know (in friendship) that she thought I was being stupid. "You worked hard," she said (or words to that effect), "why not enjoy your moment?"

One has to stop and smell the flowers now and then, and, you know, if they smell good, it won't kill you to smile at the pleasure of it.

I'm smiling now, mom.

Friday, March 28, 2008

"C"+ Songs

It's my theory in teaching that the hardest papers to write out grade comments for are the "C+/B-"

My roundabout way of explanation is that people who earn "A"'s and "F"'s know it; most of the time you are documenting objective deficiencies or problems or moving from highlighting specific examples of excellence rather than giving generic or vague praise.

Writers who earn "D's" generally are just happy they didn't fail, while writers who earn "B"'s may be disappointed they didn't get an "A" but may not have had the expectation that they would.

The thing about a "C+" or "B-" is that you are saying, as an evaluator that the work is better than average. You are pointing out successful attributes of the work. Doing so inevitably leads to the question, "Well, then why wasn't the assessment higher?" So you then have to turn around and point out the weaknesses or flaws as well.

It is this requirement to point out both--strengths and weakness--that make grading such works so tricky. In other works you may just have to point out one or the other.

I have 46 "C" songs in my Ipod. (48 actually, but I only counted once for two songs by Sting for which I had two versions--from studio and live album--"Children's Crusade" and "Consider Me Gone.') In ranking them from 1 to 46, I figured the songs ranked 18-23 would be the equivalent of my C+ "C" songs. (Boy, isn't that awkward to type?)

"Corey's Coming" -- Harry Chapin.
Chapin is a story-teller, so as a whole you might like or dislike his work depending on whether or not you like ballads. Like most ballads, this one can move me when the story reaches its climax, and it is there that Chapin's lyrics get the most power via simple directness rather than bombast. ("So I said if you're a relative, he had a peaceful end/That's when she said, "My name is...Corey.../You could say I'm just a friend." On the downside, though, the chorus of this song makes no sense. ("Like I told you/when she holds you/she enfolds you/in her world.") In fact, the chorus suggests that Corey has somehow drawn John Jacob into her world rather than inspiring and sustaining him to survive in his own.

"Christians and the Pagans" -- Dar Williams
I like Dar Williams a lot, but this song lacks some of the ambiguity of Williams's better work ("Teen For God," and "I'll Miss You Till I Meet You" for example). There is a contrast in the lyrics of "CATP" but maybe not the internal conflict borne out of self-questioning and probing leading to a more mature, developed faith. Actually this is true of "Beautiful Enemy" as well, a song I love. It's like the more self-assured the speaker in the song is of the rightness of her position, the less interesting or complex the song is. While there are hints of dawning self-awareness in "Beautiful Enemy" ("I just keep getting above myself..."), "Christians and the Pagans" is a little too pat ("So the Christians and the Pagans sat together at the table/Finding faith and common ground the best that they were able/
And just before the meal was served, hands were held and prayers were said?
Sending hope for peace on earth to all their gods and goddesses). It's a nice, noble sentiment, that I enjoy, but it's also a bit too mushy to be an "A."

"Celebrate the Child" -- Michael Card
Contemporary Christian Music (CCM)lacks a lot of complexity. It can be repetitive and focus on choruses that sing well in worship services. A good chorus may not be the same thing as a good song to listen to. As a whole, I like Michael Card and I find many of his songs moving and a bit less superficial than most CCM. (Going through the the "C" songs made me rediscover the song "City of Doom" which I think is a really, really interesting mix of music and lyrics.) "Celebrate the Child" is a nice song, but as with many praise songs, there isn't much emotional fluctuation in it. The sentiment is nice, but there isn't much if any variation.

"Cry on My Shoulder" -- Bonnie Raitt
I confess that I mostly just like the tone of Raitt's voice. The song itself is pretty pedestrian:

And in the world outside
It can be harsh and cold
But if you need someone
I will be here to hold you
Cry on my shoulder
I'll help you dry your eyes
Cry on my shoulder
My love
My love

"City of Dreams" -- The Talking Heads
Harry Chapin once famously said that he had a hard time getting songs on the radio because they were too long. The Talking Heads sing songs that don't play well on the radio because they may not catch your ear right off the bat and pop your socks off. They do, though, have legs. "City of Dreams" is song that I like, but it never quite spikes. It's a bit too cerebral and abstract in its lyrics to make it easy to be great, though they are lyrics that might be really interesting if you think about them. The problem, though, is that I'm judging it as a song and not as poetry:

We live in the city of dreams
We drive on the highway of fire
Should we awake
And find it gone
Remember this, our favorite town

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Dan in Real Life Rant

Dan in Real Life is one of those Three's Company/sitcom style comedies in which people get themselves into bigger and bigger complications trying to cover up something that wouldn't be half the problem their secrecy was if they simply were honest and rational for any thirty second segment of the film.

It is the type of film in which a woman will strip and get into a shower where she knows a guy is hiding because she is too embarrassed to admit he was in the bathroom talking to her while she was washing her face and too stupid to tell the person who asks to talk to her to wait for her in the other room and she'll be out in a few minutes.

It is the type of film in which characters spend days of screen time (what seems like years of our life time) lying to or avoiding honest conversations with people they love so much because they love them so much and are afraid the truth might hurt them a little bit. One of my pet peeves is movies that tell us something about characters but can't back it up by showing us what we are supposed to take the movie's word about. You know, how, say, Finding Forrester will tell us over and over that Forrester is a great writer but never show us anything he's written, or how The Saint will tell us Elizabeth Shue is a supergenenius but never show the character doing an intelligent thing.

Dan in Real Life tells us over and over again that Dan's extended family is loving and has a great relationship, but it seems to think that means they have competitive crosswords on family game night and not that they ever make particular efforts to treat others as they would be treated themselves or to try to provide for them a supporting and loving environment.

It is the type of movie where kids who are bratty the whole movie (and brattiest when dad is actually acting the most responsible as a parent) suddenly act supportive when their dad actually does something irresponsible and mean. Why do they do this? Because these characters exist in a world in which they know they are not real but are in fact characters in a movie...a movie which is 95% over and the plot needs for them to undergo a change of heart (and character) in order to have a happy ending that the writers don't know how to logically get to.

I think the part of Dan in Real Life I liked the least was Dan's resolution with his brother who first hits Dan and then interrupts Dan's attempts at apology to rush out the door and get in a car with a hotter, younger chick who was trying to pick up Dan at a bar earlier in the film. What, exactly, is the point of the scene? Turnabout is fair play? The brother landed on his feet or wasn't really that into the girl to begin with? No reading of this scene is consistent with what the character and the film has told us is true to that point about the brother's feelings for his girlfriend,1 but, I'm hard pressed to see how any scene that tried to honestly deal with the fallout of the discovery could be resolved in 30 seconds or less so that we can get on with the happy ending.

Towards the end of the film Dan and Marie meet furtively in a bowling alley. The woman working there smiles knowingly as she watches them interact and, without being asked, turns on the romantic strobe lights. The function of this scene appears to be to have the stranger validate what the movie wants us to believe but has been unable to credibly show us--these two are obviously in love. It is so obvious anyone, even a complete stranger, could see it. The only ones who can't see it are, apparently, any adult who is living in the same house with them. The woman's recognition is a prefiguring of Dan's own recognition ("I love her"), and it is irksome how problems and conflicts are not resolved in light of that fact but dissolve in the face of it.

Like many rant-worthy things, there may be a seed of truth here, a seed that hints at a better movie that might have been. If the film were about two people gradually realizing (or even trying to hide the fact) that they are in love only to come to admit it and sadly (or defiantly, who know?) admit that love is selfish sometimes and this fact trumps whatever reasons they might give to or wrongs they might perpetrate on other people, it might have been a mature, intelligent, "real" movie.

The problem, though, is that Dan in Real Life is not about two people who spend several days trying to hide the fact that they are in love. It is a film about two people who spend several days trying to hide the fact that they just met. Furtiveness, as any good Medievalist reader might tell you, is a wonderful aphrodisiac. So you either buy the fact that Dan and Marie instantly fall in love at the book store and spend days valiantly trying to fight against that realization only to realize its no use, or you are confronted with the interpretation that they somehow fall in love through the glimpses they get of one another while pretending to not know each other. In the film's most honest moment, Dan (after watching Marie lead family jazzercise) pretty much admits that what is painful to be around her is that he finds her attractive and knows he can't pursue that attraction not that he "loves" her and knows she is dating someone else. Yet to follow that line of thought when she does become available can't be construed as something other than selfish (or at least indifferent to his brother's feelings) so his feelings have to be recast as love because claiming (him to himself and the movie to us) that his actions are motivated by love is the only way to make them justifiable (much less noble).

Heck, even that sort of self-deception might be interesting if the film was honest about it being (or at least mixed with) self-deception. If it admitted or invited you to consider the fact that these characters might be unhealthy (or have unhealthy habits) that have led to periods of regular or prolonged self- (and other-) delusion, then the "heart wants what the heart wants" conclusion might even be poignant as at least it would come on the heels of some self-knowledge or surrender of a constructed but artificial self-conception. (Yeah, can you tell I've been watching Rohmer's Six Moral Tales all last month?)

Dan in Real Life has no such pretensions. Dan gets the girl and gets to keep his conception of himself as a sacrificially giving father (he's willing, at the end, to give up the love that justifies all if that's what they want and they have to practically shove him out the door) and a supporting, loving brother. Bonhoeffer once famously railed against "cheap grace"--pale imitations of a holy and beautiful thing masquerading as the real deal--by pointing out that grace costs something. Dan in Real Life is kind of about "cheap love"--love not proven through putting others first or coming with a cost, but love used as the vaguest of all possible words, love as a label not to be earned but invoked, love not as a reason but as an excuse.


1Nor, really, is the family's response to Dan's revelation consistent with the family dynamics hinted at when the family tells the brother, earlier in the film, that if he messes up the relationship with Marie they will keep her and dump him. Or maybe it, again, the film could be hinting at a truer, realer, film that wants to come out, one in which responses are based not on what people actually do but on assigned roles in the family mythology. Dan is the good brother and Mitch is the f--- up, because, well, because it's always been that way and to let the facts get in the way of a good stereotyping is to question the truthfulness and reality of the family mythology on which the priviliged positions of respect and deference of its members rest.

Friday, March 21, 2008

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and No Country For Old Men

John Ford is always a treat.

Many of his works have an air of simplicity about their narrative, yet manage to convey subtlety or complexity through performance, direction, or writing.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) doesn't have much of a plot; it is mostly a character study. John Wayne plays Nathan Brittles, a thirty year army man on the verge of retirement. He visits a loved one's grave for monologues like Henry Fonda in Young Mister Lincoln, but towards the end of the film I kept thinking about Tommy Lee Jones's turn as Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men.

Brittles bristles at retirement, in part because he thinks the world (at least his world) needs him. Custer has just fallen at Little Big Horn. The younger officers destined to inherit his position don't engender a great amount of confidence. To retire in the face of such chaos goes against his grain; it feels, perhaps, like accepting defeat.

Interestingly, though, Brittles has a scene with his commanding officer who tells him this isn't necessarily so. There is a suggestion--not overplayed--that Brittles may be mixed in his motives. It may be less that the world can't do without Brittles so much as Brittles can't do without being in the world. Brittles's friend says that they, too, were green once, and that for Brittles to refuse to believe or act like he is expendable is to rob his junior officers of the opportunity to grow into their roles and to become leaders of the next generation. Brittles himself says in one speech that he will miss having people come to attention at his command; he will miss being someone. In another, when Brittles complains bitterly that he "failed" in all regards in his last mission, he is reminded that the outcome is not the measure of the rightness of his actions. He is neither infallible nor omniscient, and while this truth is a bitter pill to swallow, swallow it he does, and without the sugar coating of Romantic martyrdom to make it go down easier. His commanding officer recognizes Brittles's report of his "failures" for what it is--equal parts bitterness and self-pity, and he reminds the Captain that this experience is by no means unique.

Sheriff Bell doesn't seem to have that sort of equivalent sounding board (or mirror) in No Country For Old Men. The old ones that he measures himself against exist now only in his (idealized) memory or dreams. When he does visit one of the older generation, he gets no comfort but only a fatalistic homily that he can't stop what's coming. The closest thing to a confidant is Mrs. Bell, who, while clearly in love with her husband, suggests she doesn't want him in her hair because she hasn't retired. The voice-over of No Country For Old Men takes on a (perhaps unintentionally) ironic function in this context. Bell, like the Ancient Mariner, stops the audience, like the wedding guests, ostensibly to tell them his story as some sort of cautionary tale. Really, though, the moral of the tale is not that the audience can be spared the curse but that the speaker rises to Romantic tragedy by receiving the greatest measure of the suffering that is universal to all humanity.

I'm tempted to return to my riff about generation gaps expressed in Knocked Up, but that would probably be too long a tangent.

What the comparison to Ford's film suggests to me is that there is something of pride in the form of false humility in Sheriff Bell's apocalyptic fatalism. Of crimes today, Bell says, one cannot take their measure. Yet, when you think about this claim, you may wonder how a drug deal gone wrong and a singular bad decision enmeshing a decent man in a series of hard consequences really qualifies as something new in scope under the sun.

"She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" was released in 1949, just a few years after the end of World War II, an event that did have scope and showed advances in technology that made violence seem more pervasive and horrific. Yet within that post-war context, Ford--interestingly enough--eschews a narcissistic modern gloominess. Men have ever felt in each generation that theirs is the worst (if they haven't thought it the best) and wondered how the world will survive without them to stand in the gap.

Brittles uses his experience to avert rather than win one last battle. Bell, on the other hand, is unable to reach Llewellyn in time to make good on his claim to Carla Jean that he is Llewellyn's last, best chance. He must live with the knowledge of that final unsuccessful resolution (I hesitate to call it failure) as he eases towards death. That he--and the film he occupies--seems to think that his knowledge is the biggest, hardest burden of all, that it is unique in degree if not of kind, is (I finally realized) what allows the film to come across as nihilistic and pandering at the same time.

Since screening No Country For Old Men at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival, I've been cool to the film but struggled to articulate why. Certainly the stylized violence, while not Tarantinoesque is still desensitizing and used a bit too much to seduce rather than sadden the audience. Perhaps, too, I thought that the fatalism it trumpeted masked the nihilism at its core. But some people seemed to recognize the nihilism and love the film anyway...and that was something I didn't get.

I think this Romantic sensibility, this sense of Sheriff Bell, and McCarthy, and the Coens' seeming to say, "I have the thorns of life cast upon me and I bleeeeeeeeeeed" is not just what I disliked about the film; it is what I found rang false about it. Captain Brittles does not accept that he can't stop what's coming but, finally, he does accept that he may not be the only one who can.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

An Actor for All Seasons

Actor Paul Scofield passed away last night. Even though (according to IMDB) he hadn't done a studio film since 1996 (The Crucible) or major television work since 1998, one always hopes with an actor of his quality that there will be one more encore, one more command performance.

Scofield was by these accounts a good man as well as a good actor, and his ability to convey goodness and decency (much harder traits, I would argue, for an actor to convey that colorful evil) helped elevated A Man For All Seasons from a conventional biopic to a spiritually rewarding and inspiring representation of faith and not just a man of faith.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Emma (65-70) -- "She could not wonder at her brother-in-law's breaking out."

Reader-response critics (among others) are interested in first readings as opposed to subsequent readings. I note, for what it's worth, that for as many times as I've read Emma, I did not have a strong recollection of this scene. I always conflate it in my mind with the scene at the end of the previous chapter. Both involve a conversation with Mr. Woodhouse, and both illustrate the role Emma plays in keeping the fragile peace around the home.

Is this scene superfluous, then?

Two possible reasons jump out at me for the repetition of scenes involving Emma as a peace maker over strained dinner conversations.

First, the repetition make underline just how monotonous these conversations are, thereby making the reader experience a bit, vicariously, of the tediousness of Emma's existence. As we have said before, it is one thing to be told that Emma's father is a bit of a hypochondriac and a high-maintenance relationship, it is another thing to feel the constant presence of such a person in scene after scene.

A second reason for this scene may be a foreshadowing of Box Hill that underscores some of the gender politics that Emma has to live with. In both scenes a benign but irritating person (Mrs. Bates/Mr. Woodhouse) is curtly cut short by a momentarily exasperated listener (Emma/John Knightley). The difference? While Mr. Knightley rips into Emma for her momentarily lapse of patience, Emma "could not wonder at her brother-in-law's breaking out" (69).

Obviously, there is more than one difference between these two scenes, but the central one that jumps out at me is the gender of the person making the curt remark. The woman is apparentely expected to hold her tongue endlessly, while the man, it is understood, can only be expected to take so much before his outburst is considered unremarkable.

Both characters are nearly instantaneously sorry for their remarks. John Knightley pauses and grows "cooler in a moment" (69). Emma "blushes" and "was sorry." John Knightley, after the pause, though, presses on: "[...] growing cooler in a moment, added, with only sarcastic dryness [...]" (69).

So, stop the presses, there is a double standard applied to gender! The same actions considered a huge faux-pas for a woman is considered an understandable irritation for a man. When the man pauses and repeats his cutting remark, the onlooker sees her responsibility as stepping into the breach to separate and soothe the conflicting parties: "[...] the soothing attentions of his daughters gradually removed the present evil" (70). By contrast, when the woman lapses, the onlooker (George Knightley) sees his responsibility to correct the offending party with a stern rebuke: "It was badly done indeed" (246).

Nobody is saying "badly done" to Mr. Woodhouse for scolding his married daughter for following her doctor's advice or to John Knightley for cutting off his father-in-law and host.

Love in the Afternoon and Eyes Wide Shut

Okay, I just finished Love in the Afternoon and I'm a little tipsy on Rohmer having just finished my first run through the Six Moral Tales. I suppose watching paint dry can be pretty interesting if the paint makes a beautiful, nuanced picture. It's certainly more interesting than watching a car explode.

The Criterion DVD had an interview with Neil Labute talking about how Rohmer influenced him, but I confess that towards the end of Love in the Afternoon, the film I kept thinking about was Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.

When Frederic leaves Chloe's apartment I thought, "Wow, there really is a thematic parallel with Eyes Wide Shut," particularly in the way the film plays off the ambiguity between what the characters say they want/believe and the actual choices they make. Then when Frederic calls his
wife on the phone right after he leaves Chloe's apartment, I thought, "Okay, if he [or she]
says 'And it's really important for us to f--- right now now'" it really is going to play for me like the end of Eyes Wide Shut." Neither character uses that line, but darned if the final scene with Helene isn't, essentially a much more ambiguous parallel to the final scene between Bill and Alice in Kubrick's film.

I also made a connection to Eyes Wide Shut at the very beginning of the film. Love in the Afternoon opens with Frederic walking in on a nude Helene in the bathroom, and this scene made me think of the opening scenes of Eyes Wide Shut and how Kubrick juxtaposes the more voyeuristic opening shot of Kidman which seems to be about woman as object of the male gaze with the shots of Alice in the bathroom while Bill is getting ready for the party which are all about familiarity, suggesting the ways he is and isn't looking at her. This Bill's indifference to Alice echoes Frederic's indifference to Helene.

Finally, I see a third parallel in the penultimate scene of Love in the Afternoon and a central scene of Eyes Wide Shut. In the climactic scene of Love in the Afternoon, it looks like Chloe and Frederic are moving towards a consummation. Chloe is undressed and moves to the bed (from whence we get the iconic shot of her on the bed that is in some of the movie posters). Frederic begins to undress and in the process of pulling his shirt off catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror.

The image of the shirt over his head is a visual echo to an earlier scene in which Frederic was playing a game with his daughter, and while ultimately ambiguous, I don't think it a stretch to suggest that Frederic is remembering that earlier moment himself. It is immediately after that glimpse that he leaves Chloe's apartment.

This scene reminds me of the scene (structurally earlier) in Eyes Wide Shut where Bill visits the prostitute and gets a call at a key moment on his cell phone that reminds him of his family, causing him to leave her apartment. (It is later suggested/reported in Eyes Wide Shut that the prostitute was HIV positive and so there is yet more ambiguity about this scene. Is it meant to be providential or coincidental? In my meditation on Eyes Wide Shut when it first came out, I wrote that while on the surface it may appear that Bill would have consummated the adultery had not he received a well timed interruption, it was at least plausible to think that given the fact that he can never seem to seal the deal, that something is always interrupting, the structure of the film invites us to contemplate whether or not there is some deeper seated reason Bill cannot (or at least doesn't) sleep with someone else.

Returning to Chloe in the Afternoon, I remember feeling a bit surprised at the shirt/glimpse in the mirror scene. It seemed uncharacteristic to me of Rohmer's style in the other tales, a bit more underlined. Neil Labute said in his commentary interview that one thing he appreciated about Rohmer in the Moral Tales is that he didn't judge the protagonists. He allowed you to do so, to be sure. In fact, he almost forces you to do so by withholding his own judgment. This scene, then (or the shot anyway), was one of the few times in the tales where I felt Rohmer was editorializing--or at least spotlighting--telling you what to pay attention to.

The comparison to Eyes Wide Shut, though, made me wonder if this scene weren't more ambiguous than I was giving it credit for being. Labute said he found Rohmer's men to be the great self-justifiers, and while I agree up to a point, the tales seem to me to have a lot of ambiguity in that there is often a tension or a discrepancy between who and what they claim to be and what their actions reveal them to be. Just as in Eyes Wide Shut where a central question (for me) was how to reconcile who and what Bill said he was and what he wanted with what he actually did (or didn't do), so too in Chloe, I felt like there was a bit more self deception going on, that maybe the glance was not a providential reminder that pulls him back from the edge but the moment in which he really sees himself (not the image he is trying to protect) and what he really wants. [Of course, it is also equally plausible that Chloe's well timed gossip sort of backfires and rouses him not to reciprocal hurt but recognition of possessive love...hmmm...that is another connection to Eyes Wide Shut, isn't it? It is Alice's "confession" about the fantasy with the naval officer that prompts Bill to want to start a journey of revenge but ends with him being shaken out of his complacency and familiarity with her and a realization (I think) that he doesn't want to hurt her back, he wants to have her back.]

Anyway, I'm fascinated by the Tales, because while I'm sympathetic to the naysayers who might say "It's the same movie over and over" I do think exploring the same themes allows Rohmer to make nuanced comparisons that articulate the important (or meaningless) distinctions between similar characters. To me, these films are more like classical music with variations on a theme than pop music with a lyric/medley being repeated over and over again.

Postscript: I'm adding a link to the Eyes Wide Shut review here and in the text above. I realized after writing this post that my review was from when I had the blog at a different web address and thus was no longer available.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

My New Favorite College Football Team... whoever is playing Clemson.

I don't have a child, but if I did, could I imagine any coach I would less want that child to play for than Tommy Bowden? (Maybe Dave Bliss, but that could be a toss up.)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Elizabeth: The Golden Age Rant

Ah, remember the good old days when comedies could be openly homophobic and historical (I use the term very, very broadly) dramas could be openly Catholicphobic without...

Well, without what, that's the question.

I mean, these days, complaints of hackneyed or negative portrayals of some group are so common that they may have lost their ability to rouse our censure much less our indignation.

I suspect on some level that the opening of Elizabeth: The Golden Age is meant to make me associate Spain with Al-Qaeda, what with the whole Holy War angle and them trying to loose a war on Christian civilization that only, protestant England stands in the way of. It reminded me of all the previews for The Alamo that said that the Mexican army under Santa Anna was "one of the most powerful armies ever assembled." I think they, too, were Roman Catholic, weren't they? Hmmm. The plot thickens.

I don't know, maybe this was exactly how it played out, but I suspect, as with the scene of Elizabeth in the bathtub with some female adviser and followed by the awkwardest of love triangles between the Virgin Queen, Sir Walter Raleigh, and said maiden, that the film was trying a bit too hard to be topical rather than insightful. The first film, I thought, tended to focus on the political manueverings of Elizabeth, presenting the queen's love life as secondary to her political pragmatism; this film seems to read like an undergraduate psychoanalytic reading of history crossed with a bad episode of Zalman King's Red Shoes Diaries. Is the Virgin Queen sublimating her unfulfilled (and unfulfillable) sexual desire by vicariously forcing the two people she wants to love her to love each other? Or is she some symbol of neoconservative tyrants who use a veneer of public morality to hide or deny their baser instincts (such as getting a sexual charge out of power over people in all forms)? The whole pancake make-up takes on a whited sepulcher symbolism that I'm not altogether convinced is consistent or intended.

Then again, I'm not altogether convinced anything in this film is intentional other than the message that Catholics are lying, plotting, untrustworthy assassins (whoda thunk it) and that Protestants, like Americans who inherited the tradition of Elizabeth are morally superior protectors of freedom of speech and religion, even while those they are protecting are plotting to take away those very freedoms as soon as they can kill all the leaders.

But if the Spanish (and English) Catholics are the Holy War Jihandists, what are we to make of Elizabeth, the protector of all civil liberties who insists that she will move against her own people only when they break the law and won't have half the population hung or hounded merely because they have ideological differences with her? Is this pandering to American audiences? Is it meant to be a sarcastic comment about how power really sees itself? Is it supposed to be an arch contrast to the "fight them there so we don't end up fighting them here" mindset of the George W. Bush aministration? Is it just supposed to be a historical curiosity without any reference or connection (or comment on) current events?

The film is a mess, ideologically as well as structurally, which is a shame because...well, because there is a certain nostalgia to seeing Cate Blanchett return to the scene of the triumph. Still, it's a real head scratcher. One can only assume that they hoped to fill it with enough pretty set design that nobody would look to hard at what was happening on screen or try to make heads or tails of it.

Monday, March 10, 2008

"B" is for Bracket

In my alphabetical mosey through my Ipod I'm now up to the letter "B." I noticed that I have 63 songs beginning with the letter "B," and since that was close to 64, which is a magical number in March, I figured I would do what any person would do with too much time on his hands...break up the songs into alphabetical order as rankings and do a bracket challenge. This sort of meaningless exercise makes me nostalgic for the old days of, back when you would get two random entries and simply clicked on whichever was better. I used to waste waaay too much time on that site, pondering whether Liquid Soap was better than Nirvana or incense was better than an electric pencil sharpener.

A truly random distribution matching of songs already randomly selected by letter leads to such interesting quandaries as why does Bruce Springsteen have so many songs that begin with the letter "B" ("Born in the USA," "Badlands," "Born to Run," "Better Days," "Brilliant Disguise"), whether or not Dire Straits's "The Bug" is better than Mary Chapin Carepenter's "The Bug" (tough call), and whether Johnny Cash's "Bird on a Wire" is better than Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire" (yes, I think so).

Anyway, here is my final four of "B" songs and the songs they beat to make the final four.

"Brass in Pocket" (The Pretenders)
[Songs beat: "Bearers of the Light" by Michael Card; "Be Thou My Vision" by Fernando Ortega; "Bitter End" by the Dixie Chicks; "Brothers in Arms" by Dire Straits.]

The Pretenders did have the proverbial easiest path to the finals, somehow drawing CCM into the sweet 16. Still this is a great song. It is (not kidding here), the only song I've ever called a radio station during request hour to request. They didn't play it. Love Chrissie Hynde's vocals.

"Badlands" (Bruce Springsteen)
[Songs beat: "Burn Down the Mission" by Elton John; "Bloody Well Right" by Supertramp; "Brilliant Disguise" by Bruce Springsteen; "Burning Down the House" by the Talking Heads.]

This regional bracket was loaded. Somehow, but a fluke of aphabetizing, almost all the Springsteen songs ended up in the bracket, beating up on each other like ACC teams trying to get into the big dance. I really think Springsteen is underrated as a lyricist. There are times where he can rival Paul Simon for poetic metaphors, but he also has a sardonic edge to him that really encapsulates certain emotions:

"Workin' in the fields
till you get your back burned
Workin' 'neath the wheels
till you get your facts learned
Baby I got my facts
learned real good right now"

I'm mean that's just brilliant.

"The Boy from Tupelo" (Emmylou Harris)
[Songs beat: "Beast of Burden" by The Rolling Stones; "Be Good to Yourself" by Journey; "Blonde over Blue" by Billy Joel; "Beautiful Enemy" by Dar Williams.]

It sort of makes me sad that "Beautiful Enemy" didn't make the final four since it was the song that was playing in a Barnes & Noble one day that literally made me stop in my tracks, go to the counter and say "Who is that?" Still I think that Emmylou Harris's song is more compete (not as flashy at first but it works its way through the song rather than just stopping). I didn't even think it was the best song on the album, but one thing this exercise made me do is relisten to some songs when they came up on shuffle play.

"The Boys of Summer" (Don Henley)
[Songs beat: "The Beast in Me" by Johnny Cash; "Be Still My Beating Heart" by Sting; "Bye, Bye Love" by the Everly Brothers (kind of a neat contrast there); "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen.]

Yes, I'll admit there is some sentimental value here. This song was hot on the radio the year I got engaged (I feel old all of a sudden), so it's the closest thing the spouse and I have to "our song." I will say, as I've gotten older, different things stand out about the song, to whit: "Out on the road today, I saw a Dead Head sticker on a Cadillac / A little voice inside my head said 'don't look back; you can never look back."

So that's my March Madness of "B" songs (not to be confused with "B" sides.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

The Shortest Distance...

...between Nashville, TN and Fuquay-Varina, NC goes through Wilmington, Ohio (in a snowstorm) if you are DHL.

Yeah, that makes sense.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Trembling Before G_d (2001)

Swift once reportedly claimed that satire is a mirror in which we see every face but our own. Trembling Before G_d is not a satire, but it does contain a critique of a way of thinking and living.

I bring this up, because while watching this documentary about orthodox Jews struggling to come to terms with their own (and each others') homosexuality I thought at times that perhaps it was the sort of film that would be good for a Christian audience. On the one hand, the fact that it was about another religious tradition might make it easier to grapple with questions that tend to provoke a fight or flight reaction when raised about one's own tradition. On the other hand, perhaps seeing and hearing the words of one's own community in the mouths of others might make some stop and listen rather than just recite dogma as a knee-jerk response.

But that's a bit idealistic, I suppose. The capacity we have to compartmentalize what our hearts and minds tell us when we witness behavior in others and how we respond in our own lives is generally greater than the ability of any one work of art or argument to slip in the back door.

Then again, as George MacDonald said, God sometimes approaches us from behind, so we don't always know he is gaining on us or is closer to us until that moment in which He overtakes us. Trembling Before G_d is a sensitive, compassionate, and possibly fruitless portrayal of gays and lesbians, most of whom realize that their orientation is at odds not just with their community's beliefs but also with their own.

If there is an argument here (beyond the basic one for tolerance towards those who are different) it is one against the idea that being homosexual (or heterosexual) is a choice. Most interviewees claim to have tried to change their orientation through various methods--prayers, rituals, mitzvahs, marriages of convenience, talk therapy, aversion therapy, hormone therapy. To act or not act on a sexual orientation may be a choice (though, as one interviewee points out, it is a choice between a lifetime of loneliness and frustration and a lifetime of rejection by the community), but is the orientation itself a choice? Try telling that to the man who, as related by his therapist, struggled for 40 years against a homosexual orientation, never once (according to the interview) acting on the inclination, but eventually having to give up teaching in the yeshiva because of his attraction to other men.

The film doesn't idealize or lionize its subjects, which goes a long way towards its effectiveness. When one lesbian is shown "counseling" a still in the closet lesbian over the phone, she doesn't seem to be aware (while on the phone or after) that she is nearly shouting and that her tone is one of anger and frustration at her advisee than it is one of compassion. She, like many who appear in the film, is carrying deep emotional scars from painful rejections and (as she later admits) self-doubt. The teaching of childhood is internalized and is hard to simply abandon. Thus the special pain of gays and lesbians raised in orthodox communities (I imagine this is true of those raised in fundamentalist communities as well) is that they can no more imagine not being Jewish (or Christian or whatever) than they can imagine not being gay.

One could quibble, I suppose, at a few of the interviewees who are "out" but remain anonymous via silhouette or creative editing. One could claim that there are other reasons besides religion than parents and children have conflicts and that (perhaps) there is a "more put upon than anyone" tone in the film that threatens to turn victimization into a contest or hierarchy. One could even claim that the documentary lacks the courage, insight, or ability to examine the alternative point of view from anything other than a scolding perch of moral indignation. [If it is hard for those who are themselves gays and lesbians to reconcile their orientation with what they've been taught, surely it must be hard for those who are not to try to reconcile these two things. How much choice is there in their actions?]

All of these nitpicks may be valid to some extent, and the nits themselves may keep the film from being particularly complex or gripping, but on the most plain level the film works because it illustrates on an experiential level what an argument can't convey--that believing something about homosexuals is one thing, but looking into the eyes, face, heart, and life of an actual person who is homosexual and acting on that belief is something altogether different. The film accomplishes what I imagine it set out to do: it makes you confront the fact that the person sitting opposite you is not a hypothetical, abstract homosexual construct about whom an impersonal debate can rage but another human being.

It's probably sad that we need to be reminded of that in the mirror of intolerance and fear we see every visage but our own.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Awake, My Soul

My review of Matt and Erica Hinton's documentary Awake, My Soul is now available at Looking Closer.

Thanks to Jeffrey Overstreet for providing space on his site to review this film. You can read the review with this link.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Any Group That Would Have Me for a Member...

The Faith and Film Critics Circle has finally completed its annual voting for honors given to 2007 films.

This is something like the fourth or fifth year I've participated in the voting, and about the fourth or fifth year that the results were pretty much antithetical to most of my opinions about the year in film.

This years winners included Into Great Silence and There Will Be Blood. You can see the whole list at The Matthews House Project.

This year I didn't have strong feelings about nearly any of the films that made the final ballot. Oh, well, there's always next year. One may ask why I keep voting when my tastes are so far out of line with the majority? Well, if you don't vote, you have no right to complain about the results, right?

Senator Obama Goes to Africa

The Matthews House Project has a review from me in its March edition. Bob Hercules's film, Senator Obama Goes to Africa is reviewed here.