Saturday, February 21, 2009

Funny Kitty Cartoon

I got this as an e-mail attachment. Does anyone know the source?


video

On Discernment, Taste, Quality, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

I have never seen an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I have been told numerous times by numerous people (some whose opinions or judgments I actually respect) that it is a quality show. I don't doubt it. From others, whose rhetoric is a bit less carefully chosen, I've been told that I would like it. I do doubt that, though I allow for the possibility that it is true. (Doubt is not denial; it is uncertainty.) From still others, whose rhetoric is even less circumspect, I've been told that I "should" watch it. I would doubt that if I thought it meant what it said and wasn't just a lazy short hand for "well, I like it."

I have pulled Season One off the shelf at CD Warehouse numerous times and looked at it. I've had friends who own the complete series who have offered to lend it to me for free. I've thought about putting it on the Netflix queue. Each time, though, I've stopped. Not because of some critical panning or particularly bad review--I actually can't think of a single person I know who has seen it and given it a bad review--but because some inner voice or impression has said, each time I've thought about watching it, "You don't want to do watch that."

Now in Christianese circles, the word attached to the process I've described here is generally "discernment," and my reluctance to actually just use that label says a little something, perhaps, about the odd way in which that word has been appropriated, deconstructed, diminished, and come, perhaps, to stand in for something other than what it is.

Perhaps, then, before I amplify, a few disclaimers are in order. There are a number of things I am NOT claiming, and its important for me to point them out because of the way this concept is batted around in Christian circles.

1) I am not saying that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is bad artistically.

2) I am not saying that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is bad in some spiritual or moral sense, especially if by "bad" we mean:
2a) intrinsically or essentially bad, bad in its essence and, hence, logically
2b) bad for everyone.
[To cop a food analogy, giving peanuts to someone with severe peanut allergies would show bad judgment. It doesn't follow that peanuts are inherently bad and should be denied to anyone.]

3) I am not claiming that those who refrain from watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer have more judgment or discernment than those who don't. If I'm a diabetic does my refraining from certain foods mean I have better judgment than those who partake of it? Perhaps, if they too are diabetic, but maybe their ability to partake is evidence of the fact that they are constitutionally better equipped to process such foods, could even be evidence that they have not exercised bad judgement (in terms of diet) as much as I have in the past and are thus in a better position to be able to eat food I can't.

4) I am not claiming that those who are able to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer are more spiritually (or emotionally) mature, developed or discerning than those who aren't. This may seem counter to what I just said in #3, but it isn't. Because while there are situations in which particular choices can be evidence of good judgment, it doesn't follow that the same choice (in different contexts) is always evidence of the same degree of judgment. This point strikes me as one that most Christians I know seem to find very difficult to embrace when it comes to art or consumer choices. Even though they wouldn't insist on the logic, most sort of reflexively hold onto the notion that maturity means more choices and thus, de facto, anyone who can make a choice another cannot is more mature. I think this is a false premise, not necessarily false logic, and I largely attribute to it the disbelief (and sometimes exasperation) people express if I cop to the reason I don't watch Buffy as being one of discernment. But you're such a mature Christian! But you watch _____________ (insert the name of something that they think is intrinsically worse)!

In the vernacular, "discernment" simply means acuteness of judgment. To exercise discernment is to exercise good judgment. But that is to use a synonym rather than to actually define the word, and in Christianese the term carries with it the notion that the judgment is good because it has been particularly or peculiarly informed or influence by God. For example the NIV translates Hebrews 5:14 as "But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil" while the ESV renders the same verse "But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil."

The tension I see in this verse is that both translations give the ability to distinguish good from evil as the hallmark of those who have discernment. Thus, doesn't it follow that what they are discerning is the "good" and "evil"? And wouldn't it further follow that the choice to refrain would only come from discerning evil? I don't think so.

First, this logic follows if there are only two, absolute, concrete categories. Good and evil. I tend to believe (as, for example, Milton claims in Areopagitica) that in the world good and evil (and the ability to discern them) are intermixed. In fact, the pure "good" is so rare as to be possibly non-existent. (This is why I reject the--what seems to me socially fundamentalist position--that the proper response to all mixes is to refrain and only partake of what is an unqualified good.)

Second, bear in mind that the verse above is talking about teaching. In cultural conversation it tends to get conflated with verses about meat offered to idols and thus create a notion that, analogously or metaphorically, it is okay to eat meat offered to idols (i.e. partake of something questionable) if one has and exercises discernment.

Let's separate these two verses, though. It seems to me that what Paul says about eating meat that was sacrificed to idols not that it is okay for some and bad for others. He says it is fine, that there is nothing wrong with it. He then goes on to say that if you think or feel it is wrong and do it anyway, that you have sinned against your own conscience and tells those who have freedom in their conscience that they should refrain rather than tempt a brother to stumble. [My friend Don often used the term "tyranny of the weaker brother" for those who used this verse to try to coerce people not merely to accommodate their weakness but to defer to their judgment. That is, to people who used the argument of I Cor 8 but used it as a trump card to try to force their will where their were disagreements about the substance of 2A rather than about the effect of exercising freedom they acknowledged the other person had.]

The Hebrews verse, by contrast, strikes me as saying that Paul (or the author if you don't believe in Pauline authorship of Hebrews) would be able to give more difficult or advanced teachings if the listeners/readers had more discernment, but that such teaching may be damaging (or at the least unhelpful) to those who hear it without judgment.

Clearly the author isn't saying that the lack of discernment on the part of the hearers is in some way correlated to the intrinsic good or evil of the object. The teaching itself was good, so I have a hard time buying an interpretation that says the motive for being unable to give the teaching that the hearers might err in their discernment about the intrinsic nature of it. I have a similar hard time buying the argument (though I think it marginally more possible) that the reason for refraining from giving the advanced or good teaching was that it might induce some to accept ideas without coming to any determination at all, without making that part of their mental calculus.

What I think the verse does suggest, and what I think can be applied to art or entertainment choices is the notion that the more developed the person's discernment (i.e. capacity to distinguish good from evil), the more they can make such judgments (about what to listen to) for themselves rather than having to be shielded from not only those things that are always or intrinsically bad (or wrong, or evil) but from those that might have bad consequences stemming from their inability to distinguish the good from the bad in it or who might be peculiarly or particularly injured by the bad intermixed in it, even if that amount is smaller in quotient relative to the good than it is in other matters. ( This latter is, I think, the category that Buffy falls into for me and why I don't watch it.)

None of this strikes me as particularly new or insightful or "out there." So why share it now and here?

Only this. I tend to congregate in circles where the default is to more often criticize the puritanical censor, the weaker brother tyrant, or the holier-than-thou-snob. Most of my friends and many of my acquaintances, to the extent they congregate in Evangelical circles at all, have had experiences of being ostracized, condemned, defamed, or criticized for not refraining from something that someone else thought it their business to tell them they ought to refrain from.

By and large the ability to screen out, ignore, or leave behind the voices of the puritanical, Pharisaical censor (whether it be the external voice of a toxic, self-appointed guardian of morality or the internalized, nagging voice masquerading as conscience in those who have lived too long amongst the others) is, in my experience and judgment a difficult but important and liberating step away from cultural hegemony and towards emotional and spiritual maturity.

But...

Well, there is such a thing as backlash or blowback, and it puzzles me how often the exercise of one's discretion grates on or offends another party, even when it is not accompanied with judgment or condemnation. Of course, maybe it is possible that I misjudge or mismeasure the extent to which I don't communicate or don't feel those things in reference to those who watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Were I to be asked to enumerate the five people whose spiritual judgment I trust and value the most in the world at least two of them would be self-professed fans of the show. So if I hold some secret contempt in my heart for those who watch the show, it is one of those well kept secrets that I'm keeping even from myself. I can't recall ever (before now) volunteering that I had never seen the show when others were praising it nor stating what my reasons were for not watching it unless specifically asked. Yet in those times when it does come up my decision is more often met with criticism or frustration rather than understanding. I suppose on some level the irritation and frustration can be chalked up to enthusiasm leading to disappointment--those who like books or films like being able to share them with people they like--and not to something less benign.

What I do know is that people who I think wouldn't dream of replying to someone who said, "Well, there is nothing wrong with double fudge cake, but diabetes runs in my family and I don't think that is a good idea for me" with "Oh, come on, you'll really like it, and one scoop won't kill you!" seem to feel no compunction about telling me that I've unfairly misjudged their show, that I'm needlessly missing out on the most fun I'll ever have in my life, or that I must therefore be just like those fundamentalists that told them they were going to hell when it got out they had seen Nine Songs or listened to the Police.

And I don't get that. If your partaking shouldn't lead to my taking offense, please don't take offense at my refraining. Look at it this way, that just gives you something to do while I'm watching South Park or Eyes Wide Shut or Brokeback Mountain, and while we're together we can always watch Firefly or Dollhouse.

Deal?

Bizarre BBC Book List Meme 48

This has been going around Facebook; the list itself is rather odd. Heavily British slanted and heavily modern; it's clearly not supposed to be a canon of great books (Douglas Adams but no Chaucer). Even so, lists/memes make for interesting jumping off points in conversation, so here we go.
**********************************************************************
Apparently the BBC reckons most people will have only read 6 of the 100 books here. Come on, well-read friends, it's time to feel good about yourself.

Instructions:
1) Look at the list and put an 'x' after those you have read. [Ken note; I put a 'y' by those I have read in part but not in full. I put an 'xx' next to those I have read multiple times, though the number of x's is not equivalent to the number of reads. Some like Emma or The Bible I've read more times than twice.]
2) Add a '+' to the ones you LOVE.
3) Star (*) those you plan on reading.
4) Tally your total at the bottom.
5) Put in a note with your total in the subject
6) Cut and paste to notes and link me in too please...

--------------------------
----------------------------------------------------------
1 Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen (x+)
2 The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien (xx+)
3 Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte x
4 The Harry Potter Series - JK Rowling x
5 To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee xx
6 The Bible xx+
7 Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte x
8 Nineteen Eighty Four - George Orwell x
9 His Dark Materials - Philip Pullman x
10 Great Expectations - Charles Dickens x
11 Little Women - Louisa M Alcott y
12 Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Thomas Hardy
13 Catch 22 - Joseph Heller
14 Complete Works of Shakespeare yxx
15 Rebecca - Daphne Du Maurier
16 The Hobbit - JRR Tolkien xx
17 Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks
18 Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger xx
19 The Time Traveller’s Wife - Audrey Niffenegger
20 Middlemarch - George Eliot xx+
21 Gone With The Wind - Margaret Mitchell *
22 The Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald xx
23 Bleak House - Charles Dickens
24 War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy *
25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams xx
26 Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
27 Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky x
28 Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck x
29 Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll y
30 The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame
31 Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
32 David Copperfield - Charles Dickens
33 Chronicles of Narnia - CS Lewis xx
34 Emma- Jane Austen xx+
35 Persuasion - Jane Austen xx
36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe - CS Lewis xx
37 The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin - Louis De Bernieres
39 Memoirs of a Geisha - Arthur Golden
40 Winnie the Pooh - AA Milne y
41 Animal Farm - George Orwell
42 The Da Vinci Code - Dan Brown x
43 One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney - John Irving
45 The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
46 Anne of Green Gables - LM Montgomery
47 Far From The Madding Crowd - Thomas Hardy
48 The Handmaid’s Tale - Margaret Atwood y
49 Lord of the Flies - William Golding xx
50 Atonement - Ian McEwan
51 Life of Pi - Yann Martel
52 Dune - Frank Herbert xx+
53 Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons
54 Sense and Sensibility - Jane Austen x
55 A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
56 The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon
57 A Tale Of Two Cities - Charles Dickens x
58 Brave New World - Aldous Huxley x
59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - Mark Haddon
60 Love In The Time Of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
61 Of Mice and Men - John Steinbeck x
62 Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov xx+ (I love it and hate it both, but that's Nabokov).
63 The Secret History - Donna Tartt
64 The Lovely Bones - Alice Sebold
65 Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas
66 On The Road - Jack Kerouac
67 Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
68 Bridget Jones’s Diary - Helen Fielding
69 Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
70 Moby Dick - Herman Melville xx+
71 Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
72 Dracula - Bram Stoker xx
73 The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett
74 Notes From A Small Island - Bill Bryson x
75 Ulysses - James Joyce
76 The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath
77 Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome
78 Germinal - Emile Zola
79 Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
80 Possession - AS Byatt
81 A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens y
82 Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
83 The Color Purple - Alice Walker xx
84 The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro xx+
85 Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert x
86 A Fine Balance - Rohinton Mistry
87 Charlotte’s Web - EB White xx
88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven - Mitch Albom
89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes - Sir Arthur Conan Doyle xx
90 The Faraway Tree Collection - Enid Blyton
91 Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad xx
92 The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
93 The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
94 Watership Down - Richard Adams x
95 A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole
96 A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
97 The Three Musketeers - Alexandre Dumas
98 Hamlet - William Shakespeare xx
99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Roald Dahl xx
100 Les Miserables - Victor Hugo x (The unabridged version, too!)

Monday, February 16, 2009

In Defense of Slumdog Millionaire

Okay, I get that the Academy Awards are lightning rods for critical disaffection and that as such, films nominated or winning awards become the easy scapegoats for those frustrated at the quality and quantity of movies monopolizing our critical attention.

I get, too, the complaint that something about the process--politicking, judgment by committee--continually appears to result in the championing of mediocrity rather than daring. In the last ten years the Best Picture award has gone to: No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chicago, A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator, and American Beauty. That's a depressing list to contemplate.

I also understand that disaffection may be strong this year because the whole crop of nominations appears particularly weak, meaning that those who had films they actually valued will have their irritation level raised before it even has to settle on a particular target.

All that said, the scorn heaped on this year's front-runner, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, strikes me as particularly intense. And given the fact that, unlike, say, at least six of the films on that list two paragraphs ago, Slumdog Millionaire is not (at least in my opinion) a bad film even if it is also not (again, in my opinion) the best film, I guess I feel roused to move beyond my initial "begrudging" thumbs up to say a bit more about what I liked about this film.

First up, though, some disclaimers:

I do not claim here that anyone should like this film. How many times does this bear repeating? Affinity and critical estimation are not the same thing. You can like something (even a lot) that you don't think is very good for all sorts of reasons. You can recognize the craftsmanship in something that you nevertheless feel antipathy for. If you didn't care for Slumdog Millionaire, you aren't alone. Nobody is asking you to hand in your critic's card, or human being card. By the same token, though, recognize that a lot of people did like it. And either they are all simpering idiots, none of them is smarter than you (or even smart enough to think something you haven't thought of first), they are all deliberating lying to try to pull one over on you, or they are capable of appreciating and enjoying something that you don't. Why is the latter such an offense to so many people's sensibilities?

In talking about the critical response surrounding a film, one inevitably generalizes, stereotypes, and is selective with, others' readings of the film. This sort of survey of criticism is one of the lower forms of responses for that reason. It pretty much always comes off as more arrogant than one means it to, because it places the writer (in this case, me) in the role of adjudicator rather than participant in the debate.

Why do it, then?

Well, because my response to a second viewing was markedly different from my initial response, and in that development of opinion may (or may not, but hey that's what the delete button is for) provide some insight into where these critical divisions lie and why the gulf between them is so sharp and nasty.

My first comment is that we live in a cynical age, and sentimental works of art, by their nature, tend to be very divisive. Dictionary.com defines sentimental as:

sen⋅ti⋅men⋅tal

–adjective
1. expressive of or appealing to sentiment, esp. the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia: a sentimental song.
2. pertaining to or dependent on sentiment: We kept the old photograph for purely sentimental reasons.
3. weakly emotional; mawkishly susceptible or tender: the sentimental Victorians.
4. characterized by or showing sentiment or refined feeling.


Now certainly these definitions in the aggregate do not mandate that the term must be prejudicial, but I think it has mostly become so. I would not be the first to suggest that the sentimentality of the Victorians (think Dickens on a bad day) was concurrent with (and in part wrapped up in) the rise of a less sophisticated commercial audience and is so wed in our historic consciousness with a sheen of inferiority. There are, in fact, however, works that are dependent on sentiment not simply as a gloss to cover over technical inferiority but which are combined with technical ability to great great sentimental art. (Think George MacDonald on a good day. Or Robert Burns. Or Frank Capra.)

It seems perfectly acceptable to me to say of such works that we don't care for them. But there is a difference between not caring for the genre and denigrating the artist, between saying "I don't like pop music" and "Celine Dion can't sing." The first is a defensible personal taste. The second is a snooty prejudice masquerading as a critical opinion.

One reason we don't like sentimentality may simply be personal taste. I would argue, though, that we are enculturated to dislike it, because sentimentality is the direct opposite of cynicism, and cynicism is the defensive posture of the day. It is the default attitude to which most modern viewers are calibrated. And it views sentimentality as not merely naive but false.

I read some comment somewhere from a viewer who said he or she liked the film well enough but would have liked it more if Jamal had gotten the last question wrong. Even when recognizing it as a genre piece, there is a part of us that recoils at the happy ending, that feels as though all happy endings must be "earned" (whatever the heck that means) or are not realistic.

I had one friend call Slumdog Millionaire the world's most depressing feel-good movie. I think she was right. Part of what I think she meant (or what I think she recognized if she meant something different) is that we are so uncalibrated to sentimentality, that we tend to think of it only as incessant, upbeat, Pollyanna cheerfulness--a denial of the darkness and painfulness of life rather than merely a(n increasingly foreign) response to it. Boyle's film doesn't sugarcoat the poverty, the suffering, the weight of environmental determinism and so we have a hard time dismissing it on purely sentimental grounds because it doesn't fall into the trap that bad sentimental art does.

Sometimes, too, I think we go to the other extreme. If a film refuses to be fantasy by simply denying pain, suffering, or obstacles, we insist it be cynicism by saying that those things are not just real but preeminent. Or, we put the weight on them to explain rather than merely testify to the presence of pain and suffering in the world. Now, I'll rail against films that I think play fast and loose with (or exploit) the mystery of suffering, either by offering false answers or pat ones that are really no answers at all. (Signs is one of my favorite whipping boys in this regard.)

If I've softened a bit towards films that are realistic about human suffering but sentimental in their conclusions (and certainly Slumdog Millionaire fits the bill here) it is because I can sometimes bring myself to see them as embodying the mysteries of the vagaries of providence (I use the word deliberately rather than "fate") rather than depending upon either false answer (i.e. that the innocent never suffer or that the reward is somehow and apt compensation for and hence justification of the suffering).

The essence of Slumdog Millionaire, its central theme, is announced right at the beginning. How did Jamal arrive where he is? It is the sentimental rejoinder to the much (too much in my opinion) celebrated "profoundness" of Anton Chigurgh's taunting inquiry of what use is one's philosophy if it has brought one to the point of despair (or hasn't prepared one to face the ultimate fate that awaits us all--doesn't have answers to the only questions that really matter).

"It is written" can be taken as just a cheeky reminder that what we are watching is a genre piece, a fairy tale. Jamal got here because there is an author and he wrote the script that way. And the reason he wrote the script that way is because that is how fairy tales are written. Certainly that's how I took it on a first viewing, and I laughed at the winking joke to the audience right before the fourth wall came down and everyone (from those playing happy Jamal to those playing trash heap living orphans) came out and did a happy boogey dance.

The film is very meta-fictive, even more so (for me) on a second viewing. And one quality of much metafiction is that it instructs you on how to read it (in the reader-response sort of way). The film is not just a depiction of the story, it continually breaks from the story to depict people watching the story and commenting on how and why they are watching it. From Jamal's early interactions with the police who are poring over the episode on tape to try to demonstrate their critical and intellectual superiority (but who evidence only their snobbishness and the way it threatens to blind them to a truth that is openly proclaimed right in front of them), to Latika's glossing of the show as a means of "escape," to the countless shots of people congregating around televisions in the build up to the final question, Slumdog Millionaire treats Who Wants to Be a Millionaire not just as the story within the story but as the means to be a story about stories. (Even the little bit about Jamal being fed the wrong answer by the show's host can be interpreted as a sort of meta-commentary on the determinedness of stories as one character within the story tries to usurp for himself the role of story author and finds, like we all do when we lose track of whether we are authors or characters in our own narrative that having all the answers isn't the same thing as being able to control what will happen in life.)

Still, most of my reservations about the film on first viewing, were tied to the show frame which not only showed Jamal on the show but insisted on interweaving the answers to the questions into his life experience. While this makes sense as a narrative hook, I was a bit too hung up on assuming that by underlining those events, by structuring the film around them, the story gave them a thematic significance that somehow made the game's outcome a quid-pro-quo. Sorry you got orphaned, but hey that experience got you past the $100 question. Your friend's blinding and slavery was not in vain, it led to the $50,000 answer.

If some were to read the film that way (and I can totally see how some might) I would totally understand why they might not only dislike the film but actually outright despise it. I don't think that is the film's message though, both because the final question's answer is not the product of some life experience (though it does reinforce the theme that the most important things like the most important questions, are the ones that were before us all along if we just could have eyes to see them) and also because Jamal, post answer, is not radically changed. The next shot of him is of him waiting in the train station, still alone, still unfulfilled. The money isn't the reward for the experiences, the girl is.

But isn't that the same thing? It's still happiness, whether it comes in the form of a check or a kiss. Perhaps. If that were delivered whole, all at once, and without a spot shadowing of the scars that remain as evidence of the past pain. Jamal does not so much overcome suffering as escape it. Neither--and this is important for me--is his suffering (or Latika's for that matter) portrayed as redemptive. It is not as though he is able to use the money to extricate her from her mobster's prison. Jamal is faithful through the suffering, but that faithfulness doesn't enact change so much as it makes him present and available when change becomes possible. (In large part through the agency of others.)

If Jamal's (and Latika's) progress is an escape from suffering (as opposed to a defeat of it), then my nagging doubts were about the singular and peculiar nature of that escape. Why do some live and some die? This, too, is a question that film ponders itself. Both when the blind boy says "I'll sing at your funeral" and when Salim looks down on Mumbai from the skyscraper with wonder at how they got from there to where they are now.

We need there to be some explanation, some reason, that ties that seemingly arbitrary providence to human agency, and hence merit. He need this so that we can feel not just that it is a fortuituos thing that some (including us) are rich and happy while others are not but that it is an appropriate thing.

Dallas Willard writes in The Divine Conspiracy:

It is deeply revealing of how we think about God to see the way translators struggle to make this condition of "spiritual poverty" something good in its own right and thus deserving of blessing [...] This struggle with the translation reflects our intense need to find in the condition referred to something good, something God supposedly desires or even requires, that can serve as a "reasonable" basis for the blessedness he bestows. But that precisely misses the point that the very formulation of the Beatitudes should bring to our attention.

Jesus did not say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit because they are poor in spirit." He did not think, "What a fine thing it is to be destitute of every spiritual attainment or quality. It makes people worthy of the kingdom." And we steal away the much more profound meaning of the teaching about the availability of the kingdom by replacing the state of spiritual impoverishment [...] with some supposedly praiseworthy state of mind or attitude [....]

In so doing we merely substitute another banal legalism for the ecstatic pronouncement of the gospel.


Yes, Ken, but Willard is talking about the kingdom of God, not earthly blessings. Are you saying the film is some sort of spiritual allegory?

Well, no. If by that do we mean was Vikas Swarup thinking of Matthew 5 when he wrote the novel? I don't think the film is necessarily about the New Testament beatitudunal teachings, but I do think Jamal can be a figure of them, and thinking of him as such reminds me (particularly the cynic in me) that "realistic" is not the same as "true" and that cynicism is not the same as wisdom.

You know, we don't have an answer for why the rain falls on the unjust as well as the just, but we don't reflexively sneer at films that depict it doing so. When a work of art shows the unredeemed or the unrepentant sharing in some universal blessing, we may, like Solomon (or Quoheleth, if you prefer) question why it should be so, but we don't (at least in my experience) chastise the artist for lying to people about the way things really are.

Sometimes bad things happen to good people. That sucks, but that's life.

Sometimes good things happen to bad people. That can be hard to bear, but that too is life.

Sometimes, though, good things happen to good people. Not merely because they are good. Not necessarily as a reward for their goodness, but because for one soul-lifting moment the veil is lifted and the fog of so many things we can't understand rolls away to give us a glimpse of the universe we know must be latent somewhere beneath the dirt, and death, and shit, even if we too often despair from the weight of doubt borne out the infrequency of such glimpses.

This, too, is life.

Horton Hears a Who! (2008)

For about two and a half minutes, 20th Century Fox's Horton Hears a Who! is just sublime.

The color palette is perfect, resurrecting memories from books you had forgotten you had. The shapes of flowers, hills and trees, has the simple but identifiable style of the illustrations from Dr. Seuss. There is movement, and it is almost as though life has been breathed into memory, simultaneously feeding and drawing from the imagination.

It is the perfect embodiment of a childhood classic only...more.

And then Horton opens his mouth and Jim Carrey's voice comes out...

No, stop. Wait. This isn't about Jim Carrey; really it isn't. Go back. Restart.

There are, so I always thought before watching Horton Hears a Who! two types of viewers for films based on literary texts that are not just popular but beloved. There are those who have a passionate pre-attachment to the material, who know not just the name of every shop in Daigon Alley but could draw you a floor plan down to what's in the display windows and those who view the first group as somewhat daft. Members of that second group might be diverse; they can include those who say, "Liked it, just wasn't obsessive about it" and those who say, "Well, didn't care for it, but the movie might be okay." For the purposes of our consideration--how they will respond to the film, what expectations they have, how their judgments shall be formed--I always assumed there were only two categories: zealots and everyone else.

Nor is this division meant to be limited to Harry Potter or children's literature.

It is the difference between those who have actually read Nick Hornby's 1992 autobiographical novel Fever Pitch and those who think there really is no substantive difference to speak of between obsessive baseball fans and obsessive soccer fans. (Or between those who say "soccer" and those who say "football.")

It is the difference between those who take a "Which Jane Austen Character are You?" quiz on the Internet and say, "Marianne Dashwood! No way!" and those who think Keira Knightley has a "good enough" English accent.

If you want to know which type of viewer you are, take the following quiz. Imagine watching Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring (or try to think back to the first time you saw it). Imagine, instead of an invisible Frodo taking off in a boat and leaving Aragorn (son of Arathorn) to either go after him after Frod has made his choice or to honor that choice, that you have a visible Frodo actually meet Aragorn and explain his going away alone to him. Now imagine Aragorn saying, "Okay."

If your response was:
a) close enough;
b) never read it, what the hell are you talking about?; or
c) hmm, that's not the way I envisaged Aragorn

go to the left.

If your response was:
d) WTF?!?!

go to the right.

Now here's my point as it relates to Horton Hears a Who! I had always just assumed that the difference between those on the right side of the room and those on the left was a passionate attachment to the source material. That the difference between those who cared how the dynamics of the Edmund-Peter relationship were altered in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe were those deeply invested in the book to begin with.

Part of that assumption was challenged many years ago by my friend Donald T. Williams who argued (somewhat persuasively, I thought) that those of us (like me) who grew up reading or studying primarily novels tended to look at films at the visual representation of the book and judge them based on the extent to which they were faithful to our understanding of what the book was. Those who had spent a significant amount of critical work in and around drama, tended to to look at films the way they looked at stage productions of Hamlet or King Lear--interesting for how they interpreted the work, what they did differently, and where they fell short.

Don, and those like him, would, I think, be the ideal audience for Horton Hears a Who! At the very least, he would be a better audience than I, because this film lost me two minutes in for one very simple reason.

That's...not....Horton.

The strange thing for me, of course, is that, I didn't really have an emotional attachment to the source material. I didn't, so I thought, have a concept of who Horton was or what Horton did (other than the things he said and did in the book). It wasn't as though the film violated some sacrosanct image from childhood. As elephants with messianic complexions go, the film's Horton seems nice enough, even wedded with a pro-faith sort of message that will appeal to the least thoughtful (and usually most dogmatic) sort of Christian viewer who is usually anti-movies in the first place. Granted, that viewer will then be lost in the next ten minutes by gratuitous stereotypes of fundamentalist kangaroos who somehow symbolize both empirical materialism AND religious cultural paranoia, but, still, on the whole, the elephant is a nice elephant is what I'm saying. And in the book, Horton was nice. And he was an elephant, and he did hear a who.

What he wasn't in the book was, well Jim Carrey. This is not meant to be a knock on Jim Carrey, who I like well enough. It's just that ever since Robin Williams did Aladdin, voice talent in animated films has been less about asking actors to act and more about adopting and integrating their personas into the characters. As such, it isn't so much that Jim Carrey is a bad actor who can't play Horton, it's that Jim Carrey isn't Horton. Or, more accurately, Horton isn't Jim Carrey.

I could, I suppose, if I wanted to beat a dead elephant here, enumerate all the ways in which Carrey's persona is at odds with Horton's. Let me settle for one. Carrey is the child of a postmodern age and as a result has a layer of self-mockery and inbred irony in his very model of speech. Horton is, above all, simple and sincere. Carrey has a stand-up's comedic sensibility, which is all about drawing the viewer in, gaining his sympathy. His goofiness can do "gee whiz" and "well golley" in a Gomer Pyle sort of way (now there would be a good Carrey role) but it doesn't lend itself real well to genuine wonder, because wonder is based on awe and the comic (Robin Williams is the same way) will always be sacrificing genuine wonder for wry bemusement or sarcastic, deflating, hilarity. This doesn't--I can't say this enough--make Carrey a "bad" actor. It just means he isn't particularly suited for certain roles. I had the same response when I saw Anthony Hopkins play Othello. It's hard to picture the epitome of British reserve and manners as a raging moor. An animated version of the play that sought to encapsulate not who the character is but who the actor is--which is what all animated performances do these days--would create an Othello that was not bad per se, but was unrecognizable. It would be like Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock playing Hamlet.

No, what we're dealing with here is not a lack of fidelity to the source material. Rather Horton Hears a Who! is a reinvention. It is closer to what is currently called a "reboot" than an adaptation. And, no, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, either. Some reboots (Batman Begins; Casino Royale) are good at salvaging familiar elements from conventional works and giving them new life with a new context. Others (I'm looking at you Superman Returns) fail precisely because their inability to decide whether they are new or old means that there is something arbitrary about what is kept and what is dismissed and the new thing becomes a pastiche of elements that don't necessarily work together.

Horton Hears a Who! is just such a pastiche. It is hopelessly long. (I understand the economics of a film versus a television special, but to make it 80 minutes, it is just stretched by taking all the things that are not intrinsic to the story and increasing them, making the things that make it Horton Hears a Who! feel as though they are afterthoughts in their own story.) We've got elements that would be pleasant enough in other venues: Carrey's mugging, Carrell's Office persona and inept leadership skills, Seth Rogen's overgrown childishness tempered with good will (that worked so well in Knocked Up and seems so out of place here), the substantial amount of good will engendered by the very name of Carol Burnett. Put them all in a blender, mix with some iconic art design and you get...visions of a pregnant Katherine Heigel watching porn when you should be thinking about furry characters? Meandering thoughts about whether or not if Horton could hire Ace Ventura, would the tone of the film be any different? Narrative down time (also known as filler) scanning the Whovville golf courses in case Tim Conway were to make a special appearance as a Seussian Dorf?

I didn't have, to my knowledge, an emotional investment in the way Horton Hears a Who! should be. My blanching has nothing to do with what I thought this movie should have been. If my flat, dispassionate, critical voice says that a film closer to the text (in length and tone) would have been better, it is not the voice of protest or even disappointment so much as it is the impulse of one who instinctively looks for ways to fix what his eyes and ears tell him is broken even if his heart feels a bit like a grinch for saying so.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Warning--This Post Has an Agenda

I'm wondering, when exactly did the word "agenda" get co-opted by those on the front lines of the culture of fear to have such a negative and sinister connotation?

a⋅gen⋅da

–noun, formally a plural of. agendum, but usually used as a singular with plural. -das or -da. a list, plan, outline, or the like, of things to be done, matters to be acted or voted upon, etc.: The chairman says we have a lengthy agenda this afternoon.

Pop quiz--which of the following social or political groups has a social agenda?

a) the gays
b) the Christians
c) Planned Parenthood
d) Right-to-Lifers

Ummm. Don't they all (and, more to the point, we all) have an agenda?

I found myself today thinking about this imaginary conversation. Like most satire, if it is funny, it is because it is not that exaggerated from how people act and think now:

Pilate: So, Jesus, is it not a fact that you are trying to influence people in order to advance your secret Jewish agenda?

Jesus: Well, I am Jewish...and I do have a list of things that I would like to be done...I'm not sure how secret it i....

Pilate: Aha! And I suppose you are going to deny that this agenda has been influenced by the carpenter's guild? I see that shave hook in your tool belt!


FOUND AMONG MOTHER TERESA'S PAPERS AFTER HER DEATH:

Top Secret Agenda:
(Destroy before letting fall into wrong hands)
a) Feed the hungry.
b) Care for the sick.
c) Repeat as necessary.

Perhaps this can become a running gag in this blog...like Mad magazine's "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions." I can call it "Secret Agendas of Famous People."

Found in George Washington's grade School Notebook:
a) Lead revolt against Britan.
b) Become first president of backwater confederation of states.
c) Get face carved on big mountain.

Ah, if only his teacher had taken this seriously...we would all be singing "God Save the Queen" right now.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Awhile back I mentioned that my initial response to Slumdog Millionaire was a begrudging thumbs up.

Nevertheless my better half wanted to see it after a Dev Patel interview on The Daily Show. I confess I enjoyed it a lot more on a second viewing. Now this is rare for me. I don't usually have a drastic change in appreciation on a second viewing (especially absent a critical intervention that I find persuasive) and when I do, it is almost always in the other direction (i.e. noticing holes that I didn't on first viewing).

Most of the things I liked on first viewing, I liked again. Some things that bothered me (the artificiality of the frame story, the inability to bring insight into the reasons for suffering and inequality) didn't faze me so much.

We live in a cynical age, and I find sentimentality hard to do well. If I have more time and inclination I might say more about the whole "It is written" thing.

Having said that, it's not my intent to champion the film, per se. I don't think anyone "should" like anything. The function of criticism at the present time is not the same as it was at the time of "The Function of Criticism at the Present Time." One thing I value in criticism at any time is transparency and honesty, because a personal response is only valuable to the extent you come to know the personal sensibility that has it. As a result, I think the best critics (or at least the ones I like) have a higher degree of self knowledge than average and an ability for introspection. Note, this isn't the same as formal critical ability, though I value that too. (i.e. The ability to poitn to specific things in the text that prompt the judgment in question, whether it be formal or personal.) So, I'm thinking, too, about what it is about this film and my respective viewing situations that have made me have different responses. No conclusions yet, but I wish I could have tape recorded the conversation I had with Cindy about it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Pineapple Express Rant

Since I had Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall on top ten lists the last two years, I guess I should summon up the energy to rant Pineapple Express, but I just can't think of any clever or creative way of saying, boring, pointless and unfunny.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

New Reviews

Well, it never rains, it pours, huh.

I had two new reviews posted this weekend.

Christian Spotlight on Entertainment posted my review of Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky.

The Matthew's House Project posted my review of Milk.

Click on the titles above to be linked to the respective reviews.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Christian Bale's Rant

Woke up this morning and was perusing the Internet and it seems the most important thing that happened in the world this week is that actor Christian Bale dressed down a director of photography on the set of Terminator 4.

My overriding reaction? People who like to eat sausage shouldn't look too closely at how they are made.

Okay, that's a bit tongue in cheek, but really...If one thing is, or should be, patently obvious from the extent and intensity of the responses is that this isn't really about Christian Bale. Much like the Alec Baldwin phone message to his daughter, this is a microcosm that touches on everything from civility to powerlessness to privacy to celebrity.

I think the intensity with which people respond has to do with the fact that the incident, like many that have higher shelf lives on the Internet, has the illusion of being self-contained (i.e. without context) and thus allows people to graft it onto their own experiences and think it analogous. (Who hasn't had a boss, parent, or other authority figure scream at them? Who hasn't had a subordinate, child, or team member f--- things up through lack of concentration, attention, or adequate training?)

What follows are a couple of random thoughts, in no particular order:

--I don't know any of the people involved nor do I know anyone who knows anyone. Christian Bale may very be a jerk whom people like Darren Aronofsky are defending for reasons that serve various self interests that have nothing to do with what they know to be true. He could also be a very nice person to know and work with that others are deliberately trying to embarrass or discredit for motivations that have nothing to do with this particular incident. That's the nature of media. I haven't ever been involved with making a movie, but I've had a small taste of being in the public eye to the extent that things I did (or people close to me did) were reported. When are people going to learn to get over this notion that this dichotomy between scripted and unscripted, caught by microphone and not caught by microphone, etc. isn't identical with the dichotomy between the "real" person and what they are projecting? They are both expressions of the real person. What's so hard to understand about that?

--To the extent people want to make this about "acceptable" vs. "non-acceptable" behavior, I would respond with "according to who?" Context matters. (Which is what microphones or clips don't always give.) Like it or not, there are different standards of behavior that are considered acceptable in different contexts. Some may say that there is no context in which such an outburst is acceptable. To them, I would say, have fun in your bubble, because that's the only place where you get to be the unilateral arbiter of acceptable behavior. There are behaviors that I think would be unacceptable to a stranger that would be acceptable for a parent. There are means of addressing a person that I would find reprehensible in a Little League coach, questionable in a High School coach, perfectly acceptable in a college coach, and pretty much expected in a professional coach.

--I honestly wonder how much of this is generational? I would not be the first person in the world to suggest that the self-esteem movement in child-rearing and education has resulted in a group of young adults who tend to phase out or not listen to correction and who, because they have been systematically shielded from the consequences of their mistakes, never learn from them nor develop the capacity to distinguish between major and minor errors or consequences. These people are incredibly frustrating to have to work with or be teamed with, not just for divas, but for anyone who has something invested in the success of the enterprise one is corporately working on.

--I have seen or been involved with many enterprises (plays, sports teams, military, business) where such people are much more effectively dealt with via peer policing than top-down instruction. This is especially true as we move to an age of a relatively "flat" world and one in which team chemistry (athletic or corporate) is more important to success than effective management. Chuck Daly used to talk about this in sports--guaranteed contracts flattened the authority/power hierarchy, making the difference between coach and player small. There is an emerging (heck probably already present) attitude in our culture to praise team members' policing themselves, motivating each other, and holding each other accountable rather than simply doing their segmented job and expecting management to deal with any other problems. Like it or not, Bale's conduct or initiative is increasing viewed as a legitimate kind of leadership** in a team environment, particularly one such as sports or film where success or failure is very strongly performance based.

--Here's one thing I know from teaching, from being on some athletic teams, from having been on a variety of jobs, and from being involved in theater. Such dressings down are no fun to give and less to receive, but they are extremely effective at altering behavior, particularly behavior that has already been addressed but has not been altered. People don't like being embarrassed, but...and here's a point that I think is largely lost in this discussion....sometimes they should be. And if they should be and they are not, than forcing them to acknowledge that they should be can be a last, drastic intervention before escalating the consequences of their failure to alter their behavior.

A couple of examples, perhaps not as extreme, but I think analogous:
--I was in a stage play once where one of the principals was having trouble learning his lines. The director was at a loss; she was used to simply just giving a deadline (i.e. I will expect all lines to be learned by such and such a date) and having actors with enough pride in their craft and professionalism and courtesy towards others that would motivate them. She tried several times to explain in polite terms to this actor that this was holding back the development of the play. Each time he would nod politely, listen attentively, say he would try to do better, and then go out that night and show up at the next rehearsal still not ready. It wasn't until other members of the cast got in his face and said "You are not going to mess up our play. If you don't learn your lines and we can't rehearse, it is not just your performance that will suffer, our play will suffer. We will all look stupid and dumb. The scenes that you are not in will be worse because we will have had to rob time working on them to redo stuff we should have down flat by now with you. Or we'll have to have you dumped and spend even more time with an understudy. In either case, you are screwing this up for all of us and we are not going to let that happen--and if it does, you can be damn sure that we will do everything in our power to make sure everyone who will listen knows it is your fault." Needless to say the prospect of escalating embarrassment was a much greater motivation than any other. *

--I had an otherwise good student once who in the course of a busy semester fell behind in reading and came to class unprepared several times in a row. Assuming she was one of those who was responsible enough to be humiliated by being found out to be unprepared, I just said something generic like, "you need to get caught up" and moved on. But rather than this motivating the student to work harder, it actually relieved her of the fear of being caught--hey, that wasn't so bad--and the behavior escalated rather than diminished. Worse she started cracking jokes about not being ready for class until I finally read her the riot act before class. Chagrined, she admitted the non-chalance was a defense mechanism to cover her embarrassment at not being ready. Avoiding embarrassment was her motivation, and to the extent that it was, the refusal to ever embarrass her was actually a disservice, because she wasn't capable of motivating herself by herself and needed me to motivate her before things got to the point where the consequences of her failure to motivate herself were beyond repair.

--I wonder, then, if all the people who think Christian Bale is now the scum of the earth would feel if he had ignored the director of photography altogether or said something polite, like "Hey, as a gentle reminder, please don't adjust the lights or walk in my eye-line while the cameras are rolling" and then gone privately to the director and said, "Look, McG, we've talked to this guy several times, but it's just not working. He doesn't get it. He's a nice guy and it's nothing personal, but this is a $100 million dollar plus movie and we have a responsibility to the studio and other members of the cast and crew whose careers are on the line to get rid of him and get someone else in with a bit more experience who knows how to conduct himself around a set."
What would have been the consequences of that? I imagine a) Christian Bale's reputation might not have taken a hit. b) The DP could very well have been fired (and if people in Hollywood don't think of Bale as being particularly hard to work with, might have been branded as incompetent and had a hard time finding another job). c) The director could have said "no, I won't fire him but I'll talk to him" after which the DP stayed on the job but didn't alter his behavior and the film suffered as a consequence; Bale or others could have trashed him later either on the record or privately, and the DP would have a hard time getting additional work. d) The director could have said "no, I won't fire him but I'll talk to him" after which the DP stayed on the job but did alter his behavior.

Perhaps d) might have happened. Given that Bale asked McG in the tirade if he had anything to say and the director said he didn't see it unfolding, I suspect (but don't know) that this issue had been addressed by the director previously and therefor I'm skeptical that d) would have been the case.

Here's my point about such hypotheticals. For all those who are aghast at how Bale handled the situation and think he could have (or even should have) handled it better. How should he have handled it? What would have been an appropriate response? And are you positive that the response you think was appropriate would have been better for anyone, including the object of his wrath? Locker rooms, green rooms, sets, some board rooms, boot camps, are all high conflict areas and cultures, and anyone who wants to succeed in these industries knows that going in and accepts it, or if they can't accept it, probably won't succeed in such cultures. Now we may not like that. We may say I would like to be in such an industry but I wouldn't want people to treat me that way. But that's the way it is. And Christian Bale responding to the way things are doesn't make him the root of all that we find evil in such situations. Heck, it may not even make him wrong. It may. We may find out after the fact that he's just a jerk. But I don't think this one tape clip is evidence of that fact. Sometimes you have to be a little cruel to be kind. Sometimes, to be successful, you have to require that people take their work seriously or make way for someone who does.

*It's also worth noting, as any parent will tell you, that different people have different temperaments. Some kids will be so embarrassed by a withering look that that is all it takes. Others are more expressive and honestly don't think anything rises above the level of a minor irritation until the volume level is raised. Some people respond well to clear, flat instructions, but some really do need a good kick in the pants.

**If I were going to invest a 100 million dollars in making a movie, even laying aside talent, I'd rather have my cast led by someone like Bale than someone who is the nicest guy in the world to everyone from the director of photography down to the smallest intern, but phones it in or cares more about hurting people's feelings than about holding them to a standard of professional behavior. We aren't talking about having the wrong color M&Ms in your trailer here or just being generally d--kish to someone because you can be even though they did nothing wrong.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Frost/Nixon (2008)

Some random thoughts about Frost/Nixon that I posted over at Cinevox.

Saw Frost/Nixon and Milk today, and I suppose, if I am able, I'd like to collect thoughts on both into fuller reviews, though I feel pressed for and cant call either of them great.

Random thoughts I may be trying to tease out about Frost/Nixon.

--The continual dumbing down of films. The use of voice-over and/or (in this case) interviews to comment on the action we are about to see (such as when the press agent says he calls in the middle of the night to see if the person will take the call and thus gauge how desperate they are) or have just seen (such as when producer tells Frost how Nixon is trying to get in his head with pre-camera banter). It's bizarre really. I know I constantly kvetch about this in reviews, but it's just gotten to the point where films don't trust you to get the point of any scene without a running commentary and the film that provides it is considered clear rather than ham-handed.

--The film as a Ron Howard auteur pic, particularly in regards to Nixon's final speech about Frost having the gift of "likability" and the recurring reference to Frost as an "entertainer" as a derogatory term. The nice guy who wants to be taken seriously. The Cambodia speech as an underlined parallel between Vietnam and Iraq with the "bamboo Pentagon" serving as a metaphor for WMDs struck me as the film showing its (or Howard's) true intentions, and my realization that while Howard gives me the most reductive and simplified of narratives, that makes me distrust any sort of political or ideological point he might want to make (or include as a passing potshot).
And I say this as someone who despised the Bush presidency.

--The use of archival footage (this, like the taped narration as commentary, was an issue in Milk, too). The thing I found most exceedingly strange about this film was how much of the screen time was taken up recreating the interviews themselves rather than building the story about how they came about. One supposes (wrongly, I increasingly think) that as we move into a period where many historical events that pre-date current audiences were nevertheless modern enough to be televised or have some sort of video archival image that this would effect how pseudo-historical narratives are crafted more than it actually does. I think if people lived through it, they care more about the emotional tenor than the surface accuracy of an account, and if people didn't, they want to be told what to think about it rather than actually examine or think about footage themselves.

--This film is just remarkably confused. Nixon is portrayed as either smart or an idiot, either saddled by guilt or hopelessly obtuse. Now, certainly people can and do embody contradictions, but the film relies too much on ambiguity to make Nixon's character opaque rather than complex. One key example--Nixon tells an aide it might be helpful to know what Frost's team is thinking in preparation for the interview and proposes bugging his hotel. When the aide looks shocked, Nixon backs off and says he was "joking." Yet Nixon isn't portrayed throughout as being particularly sensitive to tone or capable of making such a joke at his own expense. So is it a cover? Or a glimpse of the "real" person getting through? Too much of the film is garnered around ambiguity rather than insight.

--The film begins with a claim that Frost's one advantage was that he knew television and it was his understanding of the media that allowed him to get what others failed to get. Yet the film totally fails to follow through on this, alternately suggesting that it was Reston's diligence that uncovered the information, Nixon's own tiredness of hiding or evading the truth (and Frost just happening to be there at the opportune moment), or just dumb luck that made the interviews a success. The film is being advertised as depicting a sort of early precursor to combative (or even "gotcha") journalism" but Reston's speech immediately after the interview totally undercuts this premise, claiming that it wasn't, in fact, anything that was said in the interviews but the image of a harrowed Nixon that was important and that the people who understood that weren't necessarily Frost (who spends the whole time trying to prepare in hopes of getting a "gotcha" confession on the record) nor even Reston himself but some of the other members of the team.

The conjunction of bullets 2,3, and 4 left me, coming out of the theater with the sense, not that I disagreed with this film's argument, but that I thought this was a film that didn't know what it's argument actually was. Howard has this eye for interesting or dramatic stories, the popularity to attract top-flight talent to them, and the humility, common sense, or temperament to mostly stay out of the way of his film. In that respect, he reminds me of a current day John Huston, sort of managing a set rather than imposing his artistic vision on a film.

I certainly didn't despise this film, and it's nice enough in a movie-of-the-week sort of fashion, but I'm genuinely puzzled--not just disappointed, since I don't get my hopes up anymore--by this year's slate of Oscar nominations. Do people actually think this is a good movie? In either sense? Well crafted or insightful?