Archive for June, 2011

A Prophet – 2009

The parade of foreign film continues. After the 2007 Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Film, The Lives of Others, we end up at one of the 2008 nominees (and BAFTA winner for Best Non-English Film) – A Prophet. While Lives is a German film, Prophet is French. Although even that, given the rampant multi-culturalism in the film (we’ll get to that later) gives the film a culture-blending overtone. Still, I was actually under the impression the film would be Italian since the back of the DVD case informed me there was some business with Corsicans. The language of Corsican is, from my understanding, actually much closer to Italian than French. Curious, but hardly the most curious thing to come out of watching this French, gangster/prison drama.

The prison aspect was another element I wasn’t expecting. Once again, with the back of the box displaying protagonist Malik wielding two handguns, appearances can be deceiving. The film tracks the development of a nineteen year old hoodlum as he attempts to navigate the dangerous network of an unseemly French prison. Starting without a visible past and few usable skills (he can’t read, has no family, and no trade skills), he’s sent out into the harsh and clique-ish prison. If you’ve seen any recent prison drama, you’re probably well aware of the frequently dramatized need for allies in the clink. While the groups here are Muslims and Corsicans, shows like Oz further divided these groups (and added American counterparts) into drug-dealers, homosexuals, Hells Angels, etc. Malik is thrust headlong into the gang warfare when the head of the Corsicans request he murder an arab inmate set to testify against one of their own. The incredible tension imbued in that encounter is just the first of several memorable moments in the film, finally offering Malik the protection necessary to survive the jail.

Malik isn’t just satisfied with protection, though, and both infiltrates and eventually wholly subsumes the Corsican gang. Comparisons to The Godfather abound, but the limitations and restrictions of the prison lifestyle give the film a tight, claustrophobic feel. And the playful French filming manifests here in roaming shots representing the physical space of the eye, occasionally surreal fantasy sequences, and a collage of musical languages. Malik’s climb up the crime ladder is fascinating to follow, particularly with the subtext of Malik’s intellectual growth. He lierally learns language, planning, strategy, and utilizes each step in his adult development to overtake and outwit those who employ him. He even picks up an accomplice in prison, a man named Ryad who helps Malik in his dealings outside of the prison. As Malik’s power grows, so too do his ego and responsibilities. Forced to play the game of prison mafioso, Malik’s struggle reveals the brutal and studied concessions modern power requires of its wielder.

There was an amusing moment about thirty minutes into the film where a tracking shot through a prison hallway reminded me so vividly of Oz I had to stop for a moment and marvel at it. It’s remarkable how closely the prison mirrors a real education for Malik, and to that how I came to empathize with him as the film progressed. I particularly liked the more surreal touches, the ghosts which haunt Malik and dream sequences adding a decidedly French element to the American gangsters with which I’m so familiar. The more abstract ideals of identity, loyalty, and the importance of the individual really come to the forefront as the story progresses. The power of an individual like Malik to confront and upend an older generation like the Corsican leader, Cesar Luciani, speaks to the ability of youth to adapt to and outpace a dangerous situation. The magical realism implemented in introducing Malik’s cellmate is quirky and engrossing, revealing a filmmaker (Jacques Audiard) willing to play with an established format to net real results.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the film is the multi-cultural aspects inherent in the European setting. Malik is an arab man in a French prison. Corsican, French, and Arabic are all spoken in the length of the film. The mixing and blending, not only of language but of Malik’s precarious position as a courier for the Corsican gang and a member of the Arab community, creates a synesthesia of culture quite unlike anything I would expect to see in American film. While A Prophet might not rewrite the script on gangster films, it certainly adds a different dimension to the traditional tale. The slight French touches were really invigorating, the story long (but well paced), and the circumstances simultaneously entertaining and appalling. It’s not a pretty sight, but the film offers a compulsively watchable chronicle of a young man on his way to self-determination and power – the vivid and unapologetic struggle of a king born from nothing.

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It almost seems silly to contribute my meager thoughts to a film that’s already received such a massive amount of press. Still, I figured the least I could do was offer a little more coverage on the controversial, original, and hugely epic There Will Be Blood.

It’s hard to think of an art film that has so wholly subverted our culture in recent years. From the famous “I drink your milkshake” sequence to the terrifying character of Daniel Plainview, it seems almost everyone had something to say about the mythical oil saga. Loosely adapted from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 exploration of the oil-boom, Oil!, director Paul Thomas Anderson crafts a story of tremendous scope, covering family, spirituality, the power of man to master nature. What results is widely hailed as the film of the past decade, and certainly one of the most distinct.

The film follows the journey of oil-baron Daniel Plainview from his initial work in the booming oil industry, and into his development of a specific plot of land in California. Traveling with his young son, H. W. Plainview, the two work in eerie tandem to charm the folks of a small village in the California country. As they begin to develop the land, they eventually come into conflict with a young preacher named Eli Sunday,a fire-and-brimstone preacher who eventually takes issues with the materialism he sees dominate Plainview’s work. The oil venture initially goes well, with the plot of land clearly yielding an ocean of black gold, but an accident derails Plainview’s personal objectives. What follows is a deep journey into the destructive nature of pure capitalism, the success and destruction of Daniel Plainview and his supposed half-brother. Meditating on these issues over the course of a quarter-century, the final chord of Plainview’s success rings disturbingly hollow.

Conceptually, there’s a lot to say about this film. To start, while it’s so widely hailed as one of the best films of its year and decade, I didn’t absolutely love it. I did very much enjoy it, though. The cinematography (which won an Oscar) and the music (which won a BAFTA) are really exquisite aspects of the film, solidifying the detailed plot and operatic acting performances. While The Hurt Locker and Winter’s Bone stand out as great, recent pieces of American film, this is the only thing I’ve seen lately that literally feels like an American Classic. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead composed the score for the film, and from the opening chords the harsh dissonance adds layers of chaos to the oil drilling. Those scenes, too, shot in such peculiar closeness and distance feel distinctly unlike most American film of the moment. While the film isn’t the first to play fast and loose with the convention of dialogue, I felt those distinct pangs of 2001 A Space Odyssey in the wordless opening. It’s got elements of Citizen Kane, too, and the commentary regarding our current economic predicament couldn’t be more timely.

Ha, and I’m saying I didn’t love it? Well, not completely. It’s big and sprawling, a bit like the West, and the sum may well outweigh the parts. The narrative careens in so many directions, and with harsh and uncompromising rigor, that my ability to extrapolate the themes of the film is some respects supersedes the film itself. It’s an incredible powder-keg of filmmaking technique, obese American capitalism, the Lost Generation, the self-destructive nature of wealth… even corruption of religious idealism through uncontrolled financial desire. The dilution of faith and materialism in combination, as played out by the two main leads, is utterly devastating. While the unbending characters work perfectly for the stalwart old America, it doesn’t make it any easier to watch. And I guess that’s what I’m getting at – this is a hard movie. Like a less romantic Fitzgerald, it offers the harsh and striking portrait of a country in flux. We’re still in flux, and we need challenging movies like this to remind us of how ugly we can be. It’s not a simple movie, nor a fun one, but brutally necessary.

The final note I’d like to make regards the fantastic lead actors in the film, Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Dano. While Lewis will be familiar to audiences from his remarkable work in films like The Crucible and Gangs of New York, Dano will probably be familiar to most as the near-silent brother in Little Miss Sunshine. Both actors received BAFTA awards for their work (and Lewis was awarded with an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the film), and both seem to me to be landmark performances. For Lewis, it’s another notch in his incredible acting belt. The character of Plainview is so idiosyncratic, relentless in his pursuit of wealth and power, it’s impossible not to be swept up in his madman fervor. And beaten, broken at the close of the film, his is a feat of unparalleled ugliness. For Dano, plumbing equally horrific depths of character, his ferocious energy is frenzied and kinetic. For an actor who didn’t speak for most of his most famous role, Dano brings such incredible energy and passion to this role. The scenes of him in the church, particularly, are some of the most haunting I’ve seen in recent years. Cheers to these two men, uncompromising and fearless.

Overall, I quite liked There Will Be Blood. As a piece of genuinely American cinema, it creates something wholly unique and not entirely palatable. I’m still not confident the movie is a concise, clinically produced piece of art. That’s hardly the definition the film must adhere to, but I think it’s important to note that with so much hype it’s very likely to fall short of high expectations. The performances and technical aspects are stunning, and there’s a curiously old feel to the risk-taking. More than that, it feels as though you’re partaking in an experience both ground-breaking and timeless. Particularly given the rampant capitalism which seems to have ravaged our nation, I urge those interested in storytelling and recurrent American trends to examine the power of singular destruction to reveal the folly of a nation. The movie is good, very good indeed, but also wholly unusual. Like the best of America it’s striking and unconventional, prone to failure and to glory.

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The Lives of Others – 2006

One of the great literary concerns is that of voyeurism. Whether it’s something as innocuous as the confessional songwriters of Topanga Canyon or the likes of Rear Window and the entire throng of thrillers which have followed Hitchcock, it’s clear that audiences thrive as much on traditional stories as they do on fractured, intrusive narratives. In fact, The Wire, made an entire series out of the minutiae of monitoring outlaws.

And funnily enough, there’s a bit of that David Simon show in the film I chose to begin my four or five days of watching films in my collection I’ve always avoided. I’m on break from my current work, the Middletown Theatre Project, and I thought it might be nice to bolster my film preserves. I was a bit daunted to be starting with a foreign film, let alone one which took stock of the GDR (something I can promise you was never covered in any of my history classes) and with those little yellow subtitles that are so hard to read! But I acquiesced… there’s been a lot of positive buzz around The Lives of Others (the 2006 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Language Film).

Really, even with all the hype, I was still pretty blown away. While I don’t feel incredibly competent to parse apart the complexity of the Wall, or even the reality of the Stasi (or secret police), I don’t think all that is necessary to partake of this beautiful film. Following Captain Wiesler, a member of the police asked to watch over revolutionary playwright Georg Dreyman, the film follows the length of the operation and the moral complications which naturally arise. What’s special about it, though, is the curious relationship between the listener and the subject. The multi-faceted nature of the film means that nearly everyone turns out to be playing multiple roles – Wiesler is an operative, an educator, a shell of a human. It’s the exploration of these complex roles, the slowly burgeoning form of Wiesler’s soul, that truly grips the audience as the story unravels.

The things that really stuck with me in this story are two-fold. First, there’s a really curious parallel that develops as the story progresses. While Wiesler starts as the most impartial form of human being, the eternal listener so far from activity his sole relationship is with a rubenesque prostitute. Thrusting, horrific, almost horrific in its depiction of Stranger-like detachment from anything human. On the other hand you have Dreyman, not only an artist but a fully capable lover and idealist. While Dreyman rekindles his pasion for writing after his mentor commits suicide, it’s the thawing of Wiesler’s soul. In his own way, as the man selectively decides what is and isn’t appropriate to share with his superiors, Wiesler becomes another writer and artist. The two may never directly interact, but their mutual change is both endearing and heartbreaking.

This leads me to the second magnificent stroke of the film. Ulrich Muhe as Wiesler becomes almost a mask of deception and muted human emotion. Watching him blossom through listening to a haunting sonata, or become entranced by the world he is asked to monitor, it’s clear that the movie is as much about Wiesler learning to feel as it is for Dreyman to navigate the perilous traps of the GDR. There’s so much silence, so many shots of listening, that it’s all the more accentuated by the almost mime-like performance Muhe puts on. His relationship with Dreyman’s partner, Christina Siegland, becomes full-bodied and effective even if their actual interaction is scarce. With well drawn characters and a gripping plot, it’s remarkable how attached I became in such a short time.

The music, again, is gorgeous. Rarely obtrusive and often perfectly suiting the moment. Especially given the time period, one which has little meaning to a generation like mine, I was pleased to find I could follow and gain a bit of insight into the oppressive politics of the past. But more than that, it’s fascinating to watch the story unravel. Whether it’s the change in performance style from the opening play to the climactic final scene, there’s a remarkable amount of growth in the stasis. Figures may appear clear-cut or simplistic, but beneath the veneer that the GDR demanded are people brimming with unfulfilled ideas and desires. Muhe leads these brilliantly, creating the shell of a man searching for art and beauty amidst the constraints of duty.

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed The Lives of Others. The focus on straight acting, on telling a complex story with a real devotion to small details and non-verbal expression, was super refreshing and made for a great story. The last quarter, where everything comes together, was especially powerful and managed to realize the strange kinship between Dreyman and Wiesler with a remarkable deftness of touch. I can’t speak highly enough of Muhe’s power to conjure the most broken of characters, and the film’s ability to weave a deeply intimate tale out of time where people had to risk everything to pursue their own humanity.

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Man on Wire – 2008

It seems like I review a lot of documentaries… well, I really do enjoy them. I especially enjoy the informative aspect as, you know, it’s just helpful to learn as much as possible. Especially for someone like me in the literature trade, we kind of live and die by our treasure troves of knowledge. And so, on a quiet night with my good friend Caitlin Burnham, I return to the sort of movies that spark your interest and your brain.

I watched this movie about two years ago, mainly on the recommendation of a British “Best-Of” film list from the music magazine I read every month. I was aware that it had to do with wire-walking, but not particularly knowledgeable as to what that vague (but descriptive) term meant, I hardly realized the incredible feat I was about to discover. As a child of the late 1990s, the actual significance of the World Trade Center is very much overshadowed by the tragic and life-changing moments that took place in 2001. The building, for so many a central image of our standing and prosperity as a nation, is to me a push-pin for the guns of war. An awful tremor in the American fabric, a tear which we still feel every time we look in the mirror or to our efforts abroad.

But did you know it used to be a playground for acrobats? I didn’t either! Such is the beautiful, childlike, and passionate documentary about infamous wire-walker Philippe Petit. Petit, in one of the most famous stunts of all time, spent forty-five minutes walking between the towers in 1974. This film, in addition to adding an important chapter of the Twin Towers mythos to the popular consciousness (particularly for us young folks), also muses on the peculiar whimsy of Petit’s journey to stardom.

Part of what makes the film such a joy-ride is the almost heist-like sequences which move the plot forward. Jumping between the actual three days of Petit’s team in the tower and footage of Petit’s training and preparation in France, there’s a sort of kinetic force and frenzy which mirrors the very tight-ropes Petit utilizes. And truthfully, those are some of my favorite parts of the film. While the jumpy narrative can cause some sense of confusion as to where all the plans line up in the timeline (it’s difficult to understand precisely how much planning went into the stunt – although clearly several trips are made), there’s joy in almost every part piece of the puzzle. The sequences of Petit’s past, shot in an amusingly French style, echo the almost carnivalesque tone of the film itself. And the reenacted footage from the era makes it seem as though the performers always knew their day in the sun would eventually come. The whole thing truly seems like one of Petit’s parlor tricks, fraught with magic and humor.

Also of note is the lovely music, mostly composed by Michael Nyman. I am familiar with Nyman’s work from Tristram Shandy, but the music is still a joy to hear. Every time the film switches focus to follow Petit’s wire-walks, the beautiful score creeps in and dominates the scene. Watching Petit perform at a church early in the film has a gorgeous, holy quality, while another scene in Australia feels serene and gentle. While the frenetic tone of the WTC ascent is remarkable, fun, and nail-biting, it pales in comparison to the scenes of Petit wire-walking. There’s a magic invested in those scenes which absolutely transcends the footages itself, tapping into a more primal human desire for freedom. Particularly with the WTC, and the use of Debussy’s “Clair De Lune”, it’s gentle and haunting. Petit is literally dancing across a dead building, layering humor, the fantastic, and the ultimately triumphant over a location which we will now forever associate with horror.

To say the least, it’s a fascinating look into another culture. And appropriately, Americans come off the worst for it. We realize, perhaps, just how boorish we appear with all of our laws and procedures in the face of a freewheeling artist. It’s also the realization of Petit’s book (now titled the same as the film), and a paean to our missing World Trade Center. The haunting images and surprising past of the towers will not bring them back, will not bring them to life for a generation like mine who will never recognize their significance beyond a totemic symbol of heartbreak, but Petit’s ability to shepherd us through so many emotions might just remind viewers of everything a building can be. And in the achievement of their dream, we recognize Petit’s ultimate success in the face of daring odds and overwhelming adversity. The message, then, is one for dreamers everywhere. Nothing is truly impossible, hard work can accomplish a great deal, one man can dance across the sky. But it helps, of course, when he knows a little magic.

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Back to real books!

For the record, the comic-book thing is a (personally) productive project and the movie reviews are like little snippets of flash-bulbs for my writing. Sometimes I feel like I’m doing too much of one or the other, but it’s all pretty relevant in regards to becoming a better writer. I like so much art! I haven’t even done a music or song review, even though I love music (thought for the future) or very much television stuff (“Game of Thrones” and “Treme” are great right now).

That said, I recently finished a book of short stories called “Bagombo Snuff Box”, collected from stories Kurt Vonnegut penned when he was just a burgeoning writer working in the short-story market. As the nice preface by Peter Reed notes, the stories were created in a time period veering on dramatic social change, one in which Vonnegut’s work as a short-story writer was cut short by the rise of the television medium. Reed notes the influence of World War II on Vonnegut’s writing, as well as the prevalence of references to identity, both honest and dishonest. While these are valid observations, certainly supported through a broad-scope reading of the book, I did want to take the opportunity to record some minor thoughts on the individual tales.

INTRODUCTION – I really enjoyed the conversational tone and humility of the small piece Vonnegut contributed at the beginning. As someone who writes a lot, I almost have a vague idea of what it’s like to have a large body of work (relatively speaking). By that I mean, Vonnegut might not have even wanted these “old relics from an age before television” re-produced for readers. I don’t like things I’ve written from before age tweleve, and I can’t imagine wanting my stuff from age 25 read when I’m in my sixties or seventies! Still, he comes off as peculiar and genuine. And his inclusion of creative writing tips is a pretty cool touch.

1. Thanasphere – This story kind of threw me off! It has a strong technological element, focusing on the idea of “space populated by ghosts”. Off-beat, but then so was he. Honestly, this didn’t feel like any other story in the collection, and to me resembled some of his more bizarre exploits in his novels. Still, it made for a great introduction and a compelling encapsulation of his major themes.

2. Mnemonics – A small story about a man who uses women as his mnemonic device. Relies, as stories and poems of this sort often do, on the twist of the final line. Utilizes the nebbish males Vonnegut often draws.

3. Any Reasonable Offer – A class related story that plays on the idea of the middle class posing as the aristocracy. Transforms into a more existential offering just near the close.

4. The Package – Yet another story about class dynamics, albeit this time amongst former equals. Utilizes the nifty motif of “the house [as] science fiction”. Also, some interesting communist/far-east commentary.

5. The No-Talent Kid Featuring the adventures of Walter Plummer and music teacher (also, Vonnegut wanderer) George Helmholtz in their battle for the future of the band. Also twists on the final line. I really admired Plummer’s pluck.

6. Poor Little Rich Town Almost “Our Town”-esque in its depiction of small-town life (minus the existentialist leanings, and with a less isolated populace. Contains some really beautiful sentences amongst the seemingly ordinary details. “A village isn’t like a factory. We’re not manufacturing anything. Everyone’s trying to live together”.

7. Souvenier One of my favorites in this collection. Portrays the burgeoning style of Vonnegut’s writing, utilizing his WWII experience and infusing much of the patriotism and frenetic brutality. The move from humor to grim urgency was beautifully navigated.

8. The Cruise of the Jolly Roger Another really elegant, almost pastoral story about (this’ll sound cliche) power of relationships to transcend the ugliness of war. Vonnegut is very adept at evoking the complex and universal through small moments, and small people.

9. Custom-Made Bride An odd story, one which I’m not sure holds up very well in the context of our modern (and ideal) views of womanhood. Almost “Vertigo”-esque in the idea of designing womanhood, although with more mechanical meandering. Didn’t do much for me, personally.

10. Ambitious Sophomore Another Helmholtz story. This time, embracing the bluster and swagger of young, American Love. Charming, reveals the increasingly one-track mind Hemholtz possesses.

11. Bagombo Snuff Box The title story, although hardly my favorite. I liked the combination of deceit with the gilded American Dream. The idea of the twist was really well-executed here.

12. The Powder-Blue Dragon A car story evoking masculinity, American identity, and even addiction. Didn’t personally move me much, but created a different atmosphere and a thoroughly American subject.

13. A Present for Big Saint Nick Comic and absurd take on mobsters. Thoroughly zany and odd, predicting some of the peculiar leanings Vonnegut would later pursue.

14. Unpaid Consultant Didn’t do much for me emotionally, but this is pretty good storytelling. Combines the male need for identity (like Fitzgerald’s “Head and Shoulders”) and the idea of the future overtaking an antiquated past. Pretty relevant to today, actually.

15. Der Arme Dolmetscher Another WWII tale. Keeps with the absurdist theme, exposing the haphazard command and unlikely humor of war. I preferred the moment where “Souvenir” got dark, but his WWII stuff is pretty compelling. Oh, and the moment where it breaks down into a goofy Drama was awesome!

16. The boy Who Hated Girls The final Helmholtz tale is also the darkest. Focusing on the idea of children sacrificing personal growth for tangible team success (something I’m all too familiar with from watching the different ways people participate in forensics), we see here just how far Helmholtz will go when he “only hear[s] music”. The ending struck a sweet, and unexpectedly resonant note.

17. This Son of Mine Poignant father-son story, and emotional, natural American tale. I really liked this one, even if it felt a bit slow (end packed a wallop, though). Reminded me a bit of Sherwood Anderson’s short story “The Untold Lie”.

18. A Night For Love The most ambitious story, perhaps a bit long-winded, but a real sense of Vonnegut trying to craft history and narrative. I feel like some of the meandering could have been trimmed, but I also understand the expansive and “mundane” realism of real relationships. That said, the sentimental ending was really pretty lovely.

19. Find Me a Dream An odd story of a dying town and jazz musicians. I wasn’t very compelled by this one, as it felt rather murky (perhaps that’s the jazz influence).

20. Runaways Ha, Kanye! Well, not quite. Detailing an almost “Sun Also Rises”-esque situation (except junior). That said, the focus is on the sort of Young America which I so empathize with. Liked the radio touches, too.

21. 2Br02B I wondered where the bros were the first time I read it… whoops, took me a minute to “get it”. One of the best in this collection, mixing technology and the ethical dilemmas of the future in a beautiful, mural-like manner. Predicts lots of his later work.

22. Lovers Anonymous Well… another gender-dated one. Perhaps Vonnegut deserves credit for moving the needle in the right direction though, as my modern reading is assuming too much about where that era stood. Not my favorite, but an interesting concept.

23. Hal Irwin’s Magic Lamp A peculiar story about relational dynamics and a very strange buzzing object. I really didn’t care for this one, but that’s just me. That said, the ending is rather harrowing.

CODA – Loved Vonnegut’s comments about art, but also meditation on the Midwest. Also, he sort of tells the story of himself and his influences. Flowing, and really lovely.

I picked up this book a month or two ago when I visited the lovely Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. I’ve become really interested in his vision of the Midwest, and in these stories he certainly channels some of the beauty and delicacy of the often overlooked middle-America. I also love his use of technology, found here even in his early stories, and the ways we are often disconnected from humanity by technology (as Vonnegut was, himself, displaced by a piece of technology). What is most powerful here, though, are the small moments Vonnegut crafts out of thin air. The war stories are the most emotive, examining those affected by the battles in both new beauty and overwhelming sadness. Likewise, the small stories of small towns – following new roles for women, young lovers, even the complexity of fathers and sons – paint vivid Americana without simpering sentimentality.

The best stories here, “2BR02B“, “Souvenir”, “The Cuise of the Jolly Roger”, “Thanasphere” make powerful statements and transcend their time-period to reveal many of the themes Vonnegut would examine throughout his career.

This is not the best of Vonnegut, but it does detail a sense of storytelling we’ve lost. It also captures a young storyteller embracing the power of the pen, eploring technology and narrative. Finally, it’s a beautiful evocation of that Faulkner community-storyteller, someone catching a hint of gossip and reflecting on the absurdity of human life. Much more than “relics of the past”, these are pieces of an American tapestry we’re quickly losing. The trip back is worthwhile, but perhaps best taken by Vonnegut enthusiasts.

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Almost Famous – 2000

Here’s a movie I’ve already discussed a good deal in one of my previous posts, but I thought I’d cement another film review and knock out a great movie at the same time.

When I was a kid, the backseat of my dad’s jeep was littered with CDs. In fact, when I started listening to music at about age 12 or 13, I mostly pilfered from the discarded ones he wasn’t listening to. One of those was the 1971 Jethro Tull album Aqualung. And it became my prized possession. Tull became The Beatles. The Beatles became Zeppelin, became Floyd, became Barrett, became Bowie, became the VU, became The Smiths, became The Strokes, became modern day. That’s my musical lineage in a nut-shell, with a whole swath of hip-hop and soul left out. Needless to say, I was in love with my father’s music for a really long time. The Who, Genesis, and Yes became my pantheon of (ROCK) Gods.

And yet it’s taken me a few watch-throughs of this film to really understand how important it is to an accidental child of the 70s like myself, but also a young idealist grappling with the complexity of art and relationships. I’m sure putting myself in the shoes of Cameron Crowe is much too much, but I wonder if he was grappling with those same complexities when he was sixteen? It couldn’t have been easier traveling with some of the most talented musicians, and enormous egos, of his day.

With the difficult nature of adolescence and adulthood in mind, we alight on William Miller (Patrick Fugit) and a household in crisis. William’s precocious intellectualism is clear, when as a child he expresses his desire to be just like Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch. His mother, played by Frances McDormand, is a college professor intimately involved with the education of her children. And then there’s William’s sister played by Zooey Deschanel… a Simon and Garfunkel enthusiast who leaves her oppressive home to, as the S&G song so beautifully narrates, “look for America”.

Saddled with a bag of illicit records, William lights a candle and slips on a Who album, slipping a few years forward to a vision of himself at 15. He writes at school, listens to the records he loves, sends correspondence to rock journalist Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Asked to do a write-up on Black Sabbath, William finds himself swept into the fictional band Stillwater and travels through a kaleidoscopic tapestry of the 1970s musical scene. With him is a beautiful “band-aid” called Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) and a surprising ensemble cast of recognizable actors. As William attempts to grab interviews and weave a story together for Rolling Stone magazine, while simultaneously being adored and ingratiated into the group, those around him stray farther and farther from the tame lifestyle his mother promotes.

William not only find himself a silent third-partner to a love-triangle of epic proportions between himself, Penny Lane, and Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), but also party to the destructive nature of a band on the rise. Russell is planning on leaving the group, and the tension within as their band only grows in popularity becomes overwhelming.

All of this reaches a head as the band finally heads to New York. With William at this point literally on the other side of the country, the fractious relationship between Penny, Russell, and the band on overdrive, and William’s article a behemoth of bacchanalian rock secrets… William is forced to grow up remarkably fast. And though there is no easy road to adulthood, the boy manages to carve out a remarkably clear and admirable path for himself.

There are so many moments I’d like to comment on in this film! First, the long opening scene where the camera takes an inquisitive look through a collection of seventies nostalgia. Tickets, pamphlets, pictures… there’s a lovingly autobiographical feel to Crowe’s retelling of the era. The pictures of David Bowie, for instance, always fascinated me. And time has only added detail to the sort of nuanced feelings that make the film for me. The coffeeshop scene between William and Lester features the slightest hint of Todd Rundgren’s gorgeous “It Wouldn’t Have Made Any Difference”, a song my father adored. One of my aunts did much the same thing as William’s sister and left her Connecticut home to travel to Alaska in a school-bus. Those sorts of details make the whole thing feel so real, so fun, bittersweet and timeless.

And the music! My gosh, the snippet the audience hears of Yes when William goes to his first concert is electric. I’d been in love with those albums when I first watched the film, I could tell Crowe felt the same. Although some of the music scenes have always felt overlong to me, for the same reason I don’t enjoy concert footage, the scene of the primary cast singing “Tiny Dancer” manages to transcend cheese to achieve a real sense of longing. The film captures these moments in abundance, from a Bowie sighting in blistering hotel to a young roadie obsessed with Zeppelin, there’s the general sense that the people most in love with the music are those just outside its actual creation.

Then you have the band, a funny mix of art and commerce. Jason Lee turns in an amusing lead vocalist constantly moaning about his place in the band. “I’m incendiary too!” he chimes in at our introduction to the band, quickly establishing himself as every bit in it for the “buzz” and great chicks. There’s even a conniving manager, who at one particularly fatal moment in the film admits that if he’s ever taken a little more than he earned “it’s because [he] deserved it”. Well, that’s just peachy. And don’t forget the perennially goofy Jimmy Fallon, playing a schmaltzy over-the-top manager and managing to not laugh too much at his own jokes.

As you can see by now, there’s a lot of talent in this film! And the thing itself looks gorgeous. From done-up scenes where the band plays to packed crowds, to almost magical ones such as the one in which William is deflowered by nymph-like “band-aids”, to that funny touch of humanity in the band watching school-girls run track from their trusty bus “Doris”, the film oozes that genuine nature that encapsulates William’s love for the music.

Not that things don’t ever get ugly. While one of the main criticisms of the film centered on the pristine nature of the groupies, I’ve always found the nature of the love-triangle and the underlying ugliness of some of the characters extremely compelling. I didn’t live in the seventies, and I’m not qualified to judge a story about them on exact merit, but perhaps they mirror more the story and less the time. And certainly, through William’s eyes, everything has a new and magical gauze. Even the most intimate scenes between William and Penny have that filthy-but-fine aesthetic to them, capturing the gorgeous faults that so affect young boys like us.

Zooey Deschanel’s role in this film is so funny to me. I can’t say I knew much about her when I first saw the film in the mid 2000s, but how funny that she showed up there! Interesting, too, to see how her character and William’s achieve their independence in such different ways. While William goes out into the world to find himself, their’s something to be said for the way Deschanel’s ultimately ends up with her mother back at home. She looks so perfect in that antiquated stewardess uniform, and it’s funny to think that a decade later she’s about to star in a television show. Also, remarkably, she looks virtually the same. And talking about Zooey, it’s only proper to talk about Kate Hudson in the movie. I’ve always loved her mother Goldie Hawn, and I really do think she does a great job of almost getting lost from herself the whole film. A bit of a shell, distanced from her own reality, she does a great job of finally finding her way back to herself by the end of the story. It’s odd that “Band-aid” Fairuza Balk does so much of the actual band-aiding, defending William to his mother and chastising Russell near the close of the film, but she does a wonderful job of portraying the gruff exterior of a groupie, and her remark about “loving music so much it hurts” still sticks with me.

Brief mention for goofball Rainn Wilson as one of the music editors for Rolling Stone – dude was everywhere! Bigger surprise than when I realized he spent a season on Six Feet Under! We might talk about that show someday – I have a bit of a thing for Lauren Ambrose…

But, naturally, the thing I really love about the movie is the relationship between William and Lester. I don’t want to sound as though I’m ascribing some sort of fanboy status to the film, or cleansing it of some over-long tendencies, distressing gender politics (perhaps disturbing off-spring of the seventies themselves), or ignoring some of those cheesy pop-song montage moments – no, they exist. And this film isn’t a perfect one, but the ones we connect to personally rarely are. I just love the idea of having someone there to help you find yourself, a Yoda, if you will. Of having two guys who can commune over music that has so much meaning – that same feeling I got when I used to listen to David Bowie’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide on the way to the bus every day. Silly, inspiring, dumb. To follow what Lester is really getting at when he talks about writing pages of pure dribble “just to write”. This blog is my attempt “just to write”, and my way of staying true to the idea of writing for me at a time when I do so much (well-intentioned) work for others. I’m still trying to embrace that uncool, and I still turn to Lester and Hesse’s Siddhartha in moments of great need. Like all the things I love in this world, I only visit Almost Famous occasionally. But the times I do, and the magic I feel, teaches me so much about an era I love and a person I’m trying to be.

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