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Archive for July, 2011

“Everything is so beautiful, the sky is so beautiful, the world is so beautiful. Why is it all I can think about is death?” – Jackson Pollock

America has a passion for the destructive artist. This is inevitably a human need, but I try to stick to the things I really know. Celebrated recording artist and perennial addict Amy Winehouse died a little over a week ago, leading to both a widespread outpouring of remembrance for her music as well as criticism of her actions and media presence. Her death dovetailed with another tragedy, the Oslo Massacre, in which some 90 plus people were murdered by Christian fundamentalist Anders Behring Breivik. Part of what surprised me I read Facebook and Twitter posts that Sunday morning was the seemingly contradictory responses to the news. Many who mourned Winehouse seemed (an important word) blissfully unaware of the terrible events in Norway, while many posting about the Oslo Massacre were dismissive of those who grieved for the death of a single drug addict with a hit record. Both were, obviously, tragedies. The division of one death here and 93 there seems, to me, an almost holocaust-like mentality of attributing more worthiness to life for some than others. At the risk of that serving as hyperbole, it is most certainly a fundamental misunderstanding of the grieving process. While I can agree that the American news media unabashedly focuses on popular culture in ways the BBC (and I’d presume many global news networks) would not, I think the pointed division of the two events is a disturbingly inhumane action. Death is not about camps or sides. That may make a naive idealist or pretentious liberal. That’s okay with me. I think the fundamental things which connect us as humans are far greater than our ideological differences or political preferences. I’m sure that’s naive too. My condolences go out to the Winehouse family and friends, those wounded in the Oslo Massacre, and I will continue my sincere hope that we remain fervent in our respect for all life, even if such respect is not shown by misguided radicals in our world.

This was not meant to be a political post. In fact, my immense respect for British poet William Blake began with his stalwart rejection of the myopic, self-serving nature of politicians. While I have often admired and emulated the work of outsiders (O’Toole, Ginsberg), there’s a powerful sub-text to be tapped of political crossfire and activism in art. Sometimes, though, it’s the life of the artist that truly captures our imagination. As though the art is a violent expression of the self, and the notion of fame and attention only serves to subvert its intimacy.

These are heady notions. And so, with the unfortunate death of a very talented addict, the stage seems set for a discussion of the often troubling behavior displayed by our most talented minds.

Biography: Jackson Pollock – (2004) Jack the Dripper, as it were. The defining abstract expressionist is chronicled in an hour-long A&E documentary which brings together many of the voices who have documented his success or were present for his quasi-suicidal breakdown near the end of his life. As a TV biography, the facts are laid out pretty simply. The story deconstructs the rural life Pollock lead in Wyoming and his meteoric rise to stardom in post-WW2 New York. Most interesting is his unique approach to finding ways to create art, exploring his interest in older masters like Picasso and development of his own voice, or his financially destructive need to create new art which would not repeat his infamous dripping. Also of note is just how short his stardom lasted, as he was declared one of the most talented living American painters in 1949 – a late-blooming star at age 37.

By 1956 he was no longer painting, and his personal life was in shambles. Pollock presents many of the archetypes which characterize our most famous artists – a defining moment as a child, a deep misunderstanding as a human being, complex family life, and destructive or unorthodox personal habits. Still, his artwork has a primacy and energy that makes so much of the artwork before it seem obsolete. Pollock presents chaos in his art even as his own life was relationally complex and his drinking habit alternately flourished and dominated his creative spirit. For all the fame he found, it’s all too possible to imagine his frustration at being asked to explain his technique on film, only to find he can no longer work without intense privacy. Conventional biographies may lack the artistic statements that well-crafted (and longer) feature films can present, but Pollock is an artist well worth exploring. If at least for that funny moment where you end up in a museum, face to face with his art, and are educated enough not to say “Gee, I could paint something like that”. The reality is, as the complexity of his personal life reveals, there was a great deal of depth beneath the striking, stoic figure.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson – (2008) Sometimes the storyteller outdoes the story. Hunter S. Thompson certainly did, catapulting himself headlong into his own reporting and operating as a maverick voice in American politics and journalism for much of the 1960s and 70s. Following the strange adventures of Thompson as he embeds himself and attempts to “smash the window” of the normal majority, it becomes far more than just character study. The film charts the deep social and political unrest of the hippie generation, establishing Thompson’s role as Old-Testament style prophet and unrepentant soothsayer. Johnny Depp, who played Raoul Duke in the film version of Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, narrates much of Thompson’s writing with his characteristically distinctive tone. Fellow journalist Tom Wolfe also appears, comparing Thompson to Samuel Clemens and recalling some of their more hedonistic exploits during The Rumble in the Jungle.

Besides all of the fun cameos by writers, there’s a real sense of craft in the documentary. Whether it’s the time and place established by shots of Martin Luther King, the Kennedys, and Hells Angels, or the scenes of Thompson hard at work on his typewriter, it’s clear that this plucky Kentucky boy found a home for his stories in an especially turbulent America. Taking our worst idiosyncrasies, particularly our distaste for the strange or unconventional, Thompson blasts open mindless patriotic optimism, revealing it to be pandering and spineless. He’s no hero, as the product of Gonzo journalism is a bloated and ultimately self-indulgent lifestyle for the author, but his ambition provided the literary world with a blistering shot in the arm. More than that, his twisted observation of the American Dream reveals it to be every bit as simpering as Miller found it in the late 40s, every bit as fraudulent as it appears to so many today.

As with many great voices, time has a tendency to make things incoherent. Where Pollock moved inward, changing styles and grappling with the demands of fame, Thompson filled out to mirror the expanse of his persona. He became gripped by the need to live up to the mythos of being Hunter, creating a life and lifestyle wholly at odds with his simpler, writerly spirit. He was man and demon, with everything that dichotomy implies. Perhaps the strangest part of the film is the matter-of-factness with which his suicide enters the narrative, the utter calm as the family and friends recall the event. Time, and the slippage of Thompson as a convicted writer, eroded the brilliant mind that for a moment seemed to challenge the hypocrisy and lunacy of the gaunt American power-structure. With his voice gone, he warped to resemble his shell. Belligerent, angry, flippantly anarchistic.

The charade is just one potential response to the wholly demanding nature of fame. Ultimately, the work stands for itself, for the right to operate outside the lines, for the pure simplicity of words on a page. We may err on different sides of the line, but it’s impossible not to respect his devotion to words. The terror he must of faced to see his command dissolve, his ideas go, and his frustration at realizing he might not have another great story to tell. It strikes uncomfortably home, unfathomably true. Beyond a lysergic tale of a country in poll-position for total destruction (rendered uncomfortably prophetic by our current debt-ceiling woes) or even the tale of journalism in flux (admirably helped along by Jann Wenner), it’s about the power of writing. The ephemeral nature of talent, the powder-keg of activism, the totemic virtue of verse. I recognize a kindred spirit in Thompson, a shared passion for telling stories.

Great artists are frequently destroyed by their addictions. Pollock never quite learned how to draw, and as a result created something quite nearly original. Thompson filtered himself through his work, at times succeeding brilliantly, at his worst failing to even complete his assignments. These speak to a fundamental truth, a need for message, and a necessity to understand oneself. Thompson became his image, hyperbolic and unreasonable. Pollock couldn’t rectify the fame he’d sought, descending into alcohol and sex under the pressure of success. Outside forces may have pushed them to such lengths, but they lost something of themselves in the need for fame. The spotlight, if anything, seems to diminish the very creative spirit they so cherish. Giving way, instead, to something far more destructive and hedonistic. Fame isn’t something I’ll try too hard to understand, as I’ve never believed I’d like it all that much. Still, Amy Winehouse is not a recent development in the stardom continuum. Perhaps we must ask ourselves, as Dave Chappelle did after he returned from Africa, why he felt the need to go there in the first place. Why Hunter killed himself, or Pollock drank so heavily. Why Martin Lawrence was waving that pistol around, or Nick Drake took sleeping pills. That’s not to diminish personal responsibility or genetic outcome, it’s simply to wonder at the role we play. Simply to consider the bartering system between art and commerce, and just what it means to paint on camera.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Well, you know, the fun of these things is not just what they say on a page 10 or 100 years later. The real fun was in writing it and doing it.” – Hunter S. Thompson

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Groundhog Day – 1993

“That’s not the worst part. The worst part is that tomorrow you will have forgotten all about this…” – Phil Connors (Bill Murray)

A lot can happen in a single day. Or so suggests a pantheon of fascinating literary and film tales. From Ulysses, to Under the Volcano, to Run Lola Run, to the sweet and folksy Groundhog Day. The concept brings up a host of ideas regarding the minutiae of everyday life, the importance of small choices, and the powerful effects of correcting minor mistakes. At its best, it often serves as wonderful technique for fable, for correction, and as a testament to the ripple-effect of our actions. There’s a lot to be said for that lesson, and for the simple virtues extolled in the cult-classic Groundhog Day.

The film follows a brash and self-centered weather forecaster named Phil Connors through one very particular day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Even slightly aware Americans should recognize the town as the home of a very famous groundhog, and the title of the film as his very special day. Connors is stuck in a moment, as it were, and he can’t seem to get out of it. Experiencing the day as anything from zany, to thoughtful, to mundane, the snippy newsman learns a genuine lesson about the value of thinking about others. And, on a slightly more inter-personal level, the film examines the rewards for doing right without realizing it (see my post about rom-coms for the positive effects of those actions).

Besides the charming romantic aspects, there’s some other cool stuff at work in the film. Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin won a BAFTA Award for the screenplay, and I’d have to agree that it’s definitely one of the strongest parts of the movie. It has such a folksy, Almost, Maine kind of charm, and that’s really my favorite kind of story (I know, I’m sappy). Still, I think there’s something nice about a story populated by small-town folk, especially since the moral is usually that they’re smarter than you think. I guess in that respect it’s more like Northern Exposure, especially with the aspect of the nosy interloper. Anyway, it’s part of a wonderful tradition of folksy film, and that gives it a real rootsy flavor I (not so secretly) adore.

Also, it manages to take a fairly simple concept (a repeating day) and work it in about every imaginable direction. That sounds like it’d forced, and some days are more dated than others, but generally it’s pretty inventive. Some very judicious cutting, especially as the days wear on, keeps things brisk and entertaining. It’s pretty nifty that the film veers from a Looney Toons episode to a genuinely touching moment between the romantic leads (reference the quotation at the top for that – it’s surprisingly real). That alone is pretty remarkable. It errs more on the comedy side, and particularly the slap-stick, but it plays the rare drama nicely. It certainly helps the end feel earned, as without that investment in the early game the limited closure (and hammy resolution) are less forgivable and make it an awfully hollow adventure. More than likely, things won’t come to that.

And kudos to Bill Murray! What an asshole! Or at least, he plays one awfully convincingly. I’m not wild about Andie MacDowell (Rita), but she works in a proto Julia Louis-Dreyfus sort of way. I’m not mad at her, but I found Murray absolutely delightful. It’s the rare modern vehicle that I can genuinely get behind, but I thought he carried the film with an abundance of charisma and dynamic charm. Also, Willie Garson appears as Murray’s assistant for a mili-second (he’s just fun). Overall, it’s a cast of fine actors that I’m probably too young to remember, and it all clicks without extensive background knowledge. Things like the cast of character actors and slightly corny tone may put off some (they kept me from getting attached for the first half hour), but ultimately the concept won me over. I’m just a young softy.

My mother has been telling me for years how good this movie this. I’d imagine that has a lot to do with her affection for Bill Murray (something we share), but I see what she’s getting at. Our vision of funny today is pretty heavily skewed by the Judd Apatow return of the R rated comedy, and it’s easy to forget that you can make a point, tell a sweet story, and still garner plenty of laughs. Groundhog Day makes for a fun watch, and I’d imagine it’s only heightened if you watch with a loved one. Unfortunately, if the date doesn’t go well… you can’t try it over again. But you can always watch the movie.

Also, Bill Groundhog-Day-Ghostbustin-ass-Murray. Wu-Tang!

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Love is tough.

I know I’m not the first 19 year old boy to feel that way. I’m not even the first teenager. In fact, it often seems like Love is about the toughest, most ego-centric feeling in the human compendium. What is it that softens the heart of the Scroogey, megalo-capitalist book-seller in You’ve Got Mail? Love. What surpasses even the most powerful curses in Harry Potter? The magic of Love. Films like Blade Runner and Lars and the Real Girl explore the curious notion that Love doesn’t have to be purely human, while classic literary tales like The Inferno or Brave New World explore the destructive implications of knowing Love all too well, or not at all.

All of this to say, I think Love is firmly rooted in the too-bigness of life (a term sociologists Helen and Robert Lynd applied to religion, but hey, John said that God is Love) and the immensity of the human experience. If jazz is a uniquely American sound, Love (or what it has come to mean to us beyond a physical conception) is an intimately human act. It begins speaking to us from a very young age, through the Love of family and friends, into the complexity of adolescence and beyond. And many of the emotions we identify with as we grow – jealousy, anger, betrayal – are outgrowths of Love misplaced or misrepresented. Given the universal nature of Love (whether spiritual, platonic, or romantic – although we’re veering closely towards romantic), there are few conversations more pertinent to your life right now. Except for something about the debt ceiling. I won’t blame you if you go read up on that.

So give me the chance to share with you how Love has shaped my life. And more importantly, how the fragments and shards of the stories I Love have taught me more than I could have ever expected about how my perceptions of romance are wrong, the real truth about falling for someone, and how Love must be lived.

We’ll keep my part in this brief. I’ve been, and probably will be, single for a very long time. That’s not a knock against relationships (or myself)! I’ve been blessed to have some wonderful girls in my life who have often recognized (as I have) that something very messy was about to take place at the moment of truth. I thank them for only breaking my heart slightly. I apologize to anyone I’ve inadvertently wounded – I’d Love to still be friends. Point being, I’ve got a little relationship experience and a lot of neuroticism. Girls make me nervous, and a discussion about the implications of magic realism in contemporary animated films scares most girls (and humans) away about as quickly as you’d imagine. I don’t worry that someone out there will some day have that conversation with me, but I do worry about my self-perceived need to have it. Like the characters of my favorite books and moves, the idea of companionship is overwhelming. More than that, like many people, I can get a little (or a lot) too gung-ho about the prospect of meeting someone special.

That’s where the movies in my dorm come in. This is an idea I’ve been cooking for a while now, and I think I’m finally ready to test it. Playwriting, and a general lack of social skills or outside interests, has left me plenty of time this summer to work through some of the secondary titles in my small film collection. It all has to do with the romantic comedy. I know what you’re thinking, probably something about Mila Kunis or Justin Timberlake, or something mean about Natalie Portman. No, silly, good romantic comedies. Stories about people who do (or don’t) fall in Love, and why it matters so much just how they get there. As we poke around some of these classic and contemporary Love stories, I think you’ll be surprised and reassured by what you find at work in the human heart.

What I’m suggesting is that that by living your life “the right way” (loaded term), that is, making positive choices for yourself without the intent of ensnaring someone in your Love-trap or maintaining a romance through deception, Love will find you on its own terms. The Love that’s perpetuated today seems to be so focused on the manipulative or leading aspects of affection, rather than Love as a by-product of self-development and personal fulfillment. Love, as Leonard Cohen once suggested on his 1971 album Songs of Love and Hate calls you by your name.

Groundhog Day – 1993 Bill Murray, right? He’s pretty awesome. While we may commonly associate him with ghosts (and busting) or Japan, I have a soft spot for this quirky comedy about time. Phil Connors lives the same day every day, and two of those days say very different things about what Love actually means. After goofing around and getting arrested, making a new female friend, and generally causing havoc in the town of Punxsutawney, Connors sets his sights on his charming co-worker Rita (Andie MacDowell). And, after a host of test-days to learn exactly what makes Rita tick, he’s ready to woo her with an encyclopedia of her likes and dislikes. From chocolate, to French poetry, to her favorite ice cream, Connors does it right. Still, with just the end-goal of physical intimacy and no real perception of the manipulative nature of his actions – she doesn’t sleep with him. In fact, she even indicts him for his self-centered affection. “Is this what Love is for you?” she wonders, before she screams that Connors “only loves [himself]. And at that point, he does. He sees the act of Love as a game, something to be won. A set of thoughts or words meant to be strung in perfect order (appropriately captured by the Sure Thing camera cuts) to create a positive situation for himself. It completely eliminates the element of sincerity or chance.

But, by the final day Connors has completely abandoned this mantra. Rather than simply trying to woo Rita, he goes about the town helping everyone he can. By the time they dance at the close of the day, Connors has touched the entire town. And when Rita falls for him a second time, it’s not because he’s personally wooed her, it’s because he’s become a better person. Not for her, and not just with her in mind, but genuinely and three-dimensionally improved himself and begun to care for others. Is it any surprise that this moment cracks the Beckett-esque cycle of repeating days? Connors has finally exploded his own selfish ideals regarding Love. It’s bigger than just the two people, it can’t be captured in a bottle, and most importantly – you can’t manufacture it.

I.Q. – 1994 A favorite from my childhood. Also, I had a crush on a girl who looked like a much cuter Meg Ryan (Catherine Boyd) for a very long time. Also-also, I adore Tim Robbins (Ed Walter). Following the charming adventures of a car mechanic and a young scientist, the movie explores the importance of social class and identity in relationships. By posing as a famous scientist, Ed Walter manages to capture the mind, and more importantly the heart, of brilliant young mathematician Catherine Boyd. And, when his secret is revealed, he doesn’t pull any punches. Ed quietly apologizes and does his very best to support Catherine and her ailing uncle, Albert Einstein (Walter Matthau), without any expectations of returned affection. Ultimately, this makes the turnaround all the sweeter. And when, in that tiny car looking up at the cheesy background, they begin to talk about the things they really know, we get the first glimpse of a real relationship blooming. Not for trying, mind you, but because Ed (even if he says he doesn’t) is willing to leave something to chance, but isn’t afraid to act on it when it’s right. Tricky balance, that one.

Knocked Up – 2007 This is actually the film that gave me the idea for this motif. I’ve always liked the way Ben (Seth Rogen) actually ends up at the hospital. For a tiny section of the film, he and Alison (Katherine Heigl) aren’t even planning on being together. They break up pretty decisively at her niece’s party, and after that interaction Ben is left to his own devices. Words from his father provide a fitting guide to the concept of personal fulfillment in relationships – “You can go around blaming everyone else, but in the end, until you take responsibility for yourself, none of this is going to work out.” Ben must make the choice to make his own life better before he can even expect to have the tools to navigate a healthy relationship. The following scenes, where he finally gets his own job, apartment, begins preparing a baby room and reading baby books, are some of my favorite in the film. We as human beings have to grow up, and Love is a natural component of that. Yet, most of the film Ben waits patiently for things to fall into place or assuages the unpleasant aspects of the relationship without addressing deeper personal concerns. It’s a really remarkable message on the power of growth and growing up, that things fall into place when we recognize the need to assume responsibility.

It’s also interesting that those personal choices Ben makes set the precedent for the rest of the film. The moment Alison finally accepts the relationship (if you choose to interpret the film that way) is without a forceful push from Ben. He simply steps into the role where he’s needed, having assumed the skills of a father without the expectation of becoming a husband. By reading, acting, and living without preconceived notions about what should be handed to him, Ben ends up becoming precisely what Alison is looking for. He’s charming, assertive, and finally understands another, less talked about aspect of love – nurturing self-sacrifice. He lives for the sake of living, knowing that others rely on him and that he’s finally matured enough to live up to those expectations. And as he commands that hospital room and cares for his new daughter, he finally becomes the sort of man worth loving.

Superbad – 2007 Another film I’m a strong believer in. Here, deception (normally the primary tool in highschool relationships) is actually a hindrance. Rather than just communicating with the girls they like (or each other) Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are initially content to play by all of the traditional high-school rules to get with the ladies they admire. Particularly for Seth, who goes so far as to nearly alienate Jules (Emma Stone) by attempting to ply her with alcohol rather than working with the chemistry the two develop in class. Similarly, Evan and Becca (Martha Maclsaac) believe that expressing their feelings through sloppy, drunken sex will somehow normalize them. Both couples suffer from communication issues and initially scuttle what could be promising relationships. In fact, if we’re keeping score, it’s Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who literally changes his last name to McLovin, but changes his personality the least, that’s the most successful. He nabs Nicola (Aviva Farber) by remaining relatively himself, although he allows the police officers to boost his reputation at the conclusion of the evening.

Still, there’s an important lesson at work here. The boys and girls of the film utilize murky channels, rather than direction communication, to speak to one another. Not only that, but they utilize a hive mentality that never forces them to act on their feelings as individuals. The strength of that closing sequence at the mall, which I truly admire, is that it shows two young men finally learning to shape their independence. They accept that college is coming, that positive changes can be made, and finally man up to the women they’re interested in pursuing. More than that, they use what they’ve learned from the night before to their advantage. Problem solving, quick wit, and an appreciation for their natural gifts. That longing gaze at the close of the film isn’t just for a friendship gone by, it’s a loving farewell to the boys they’ve been and a greeting to the self-assured men they’re soon to become.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall – 2008 There’s a lot of relational truth in Judd Apatow films. No, seriously. Or at least truths about the importance of moving on for yourself. That concept informs the entirety of this film, in which Peter Bretter (Jason Segal) chases the eponymous character (Kristen Bell) all the way to Hawaii to win her back. What transpires throughout the course of the film is a small master-class in the importance of living for yourself, in which Peter learns that his relationship with Sarah is hardly his defining factor. The relationships he develops with the other characters on the island, particularly with Rachel Jansen (Mila Kunis), are a testament to the need for self-definition in adulthood. And ultimately, though Peter wavers even further on his stay on the island, he sets the stage for his triumphant success. Alone and adrift, he finally writes that nagging creative project (a puppet rock opera starring Dracula called The Taste For Love) which he could never complete when he allowed another relationship to define his life.

Exercising agency is particularly important in this framework, where the choice to develop the self supersedes and eventually dovetails with the Love of another. Peter runs into Rachel at the conclusion of his theatre performance, and when she asks why he didn’t call he responds genuinely that she “asked him not to” and he listened. He’s not some simpering Love-puppy, he’s a man who has finally taken stock of the broken aspects in his life and taken steps to alter their course. Fulfilled and finally aware of his self in the relationship, he’s actualized to the point that he can return Rachel’s Love and embark on a genuine relationship.

500 Days of Summer – 2009 Ah, a contemporary classic. The closest thing to a Bible for hipster relationships, if I’ve seen one. But truthfully, there’s a great message in here about the power to move on, and the importance of finding (and not making) someone right for you. The relationship between Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) isn’t all that great to begin with, but it’s given adrenaline and fuel by Tom’s hyper-romanticized vision of Love. He has a secret ambition for architecture, and it’s no surprise that he spends his time in the film constructing a relationship that fits his ideal rather than making one for himself. So, while Summer may not have a very genuine interest in the things Tom cares about, he’s content to ignore (or re-structure, in one of the more interesting scenes) the problems and recognize himself only within the context (or confines) of the relationship. Tom, much like Ben in Knocked Up, is ultimately the only person who can push himself to do something truly meaningful with his life. And the fatal flaw of men such as those (one which I know too well) is the loss of the self in the development of the “us”.

But the film suggests an answer. There’s a beautiful moment where Tom, after being completely demolished by the loss of Summer, picks up a piece of chalk and starts drawing. In fact, once he starts creating he can’t stop. Pretty soon he’s out of his alcoholic slump (a trait shared with Peter from Forgetting Sarah Marshall and he’s applying to architecture firms. By the time he hits the 500th day of his entanglement with Summer, he’s truly moved onward and upward with his life. Awaiting a new interview, it’s clear he’s managed to prioritize his life and goals ahead of the relationship he initially configured himself for. He runs into Autumn, but he also actualizes (and accepts) the uncertain nature of his new prospective relationship. And more than that, he finally knows enough of himself to truly connect with another human being on a more intimate level.

Easy A – 2010 A film all about mistaken identity. If we’ve seen anything here, it’s that it’s awful hard to Love without a keen sense of who you are. And here, Olive Penderghast (Emma Stone, again) proves that not defining yourself clearly allows others the ugly power to re-brand you. In fact, the inability to reconcile her personal choices with the popularity she’d like is the main reason Olive can’t seem to Love herself throughout the film. Not only that, but it causes her to overlook the very open, and rather sincere Todd (Penn Badgley). She manipulates the perceptions of others, and is in turn manipulated by their expectations, to the point that she is confused as to where she truly stands. That’s dangerous territory for anyone, and it’s only through an acceptance of the self that she’s truly able to recognize the charming young man in her life just waiting for her attention. More than that, the story does an excellent job of foregrounding her personal struggles and backgrounding her romantic debacles. She can’t begin to Love Todd until she defines herself, and it’s refreshing to see a mainstream Hollywood female so self-aware and open to positive growth.

These are not boy problems or girl problems, they’re people problems. And with all of the attention, pressure, and anxiety of finding the right Love, it’s no surprise we all get a little sidetracked. I’m also not here to suggest that getting sidetracked is bad, as frankly it’s most often the key to getting it right. So don’t be afraid to take those risks and make those discoveries, but also take a lesson from the movies of our generation. Apatow may be slandered for crass comedy (and I know girls who won’t watch his films), but it seems to me that at least in these three instances (KUSbFSM) he’s suggesting that who we are as people, given the impetus to truly examine our motivation, is pretty exceptional. That we ought to love those who genuinely inspire and encourage us, but without forgetting that we’re ultimately responsible for caring for ourselves. And most importantly, that it’s often in the act of simply living, with the mindset of being present for every interaction and directed with a focused goal, that good things come to us. British poet and painter William Blake once wrote a neat poem (Auguries of Innocence) which includes some brief lines about the experience of trying to grasp sand. It can fall straight through your fingers or be blown away by the wind, all for trying too hard or not hard enough. I’ve come to believe Love is kind of like that. It’s something we need to feel, recognize, and spend our lives cultivating. But we also need to understand that although we’ll never be perfect or fully developed, we’ve got do our best to see that we grow properly.

And mind you, this is just one focused take on Love. I’m not an expert anymore than you are, and these situations don’t apply all the time. Even just looking at the films for this list, I made three extra piles for films where opposites attract, where the two people embrace their weirdness together, and where the key moment of the film is where the protagonist makes the choice to be with their Love. These are all valid takes on the experience, and my emphasis on self-development doesn’t preclude the ideals of random chance or assertive faith. I’ve seen all three work, and I won’t pretend to understand how. These stories spoke to me in a funny, connected sort of way. They remind me that who I am should be subject to the best, most personal kind of change, and shouldn’t be motivated by the desires of others. That said, others can be a tremendous source of good in our lives. They remind us of what we don’t realize, and often push us in unprecedented directions. Changing for others, like changing the self, is something to be done judiciously and with patience. Finding anyone, even you, takes time.

Movies have a very important power to instruct. Even when we don’t think so, they send us subtle messages about our own lives. These films help remind me that even in the midst of heartbreak (which I can assure you I haven’t felt in some time) we are breathing, striving creatures. The death of a relationship does not mean the death of the individual, as the the self is always in flux. We have to define ourselves through many people, and many things, lest we find ourselves adrift and malfunctioning when one thing goes awry. You should fall in Love sometime, it’s good for you. But don’t be afraid to step back and consider just what you’re offering to others – if it’s not you, and if it’s not the best you, maybe you should take a cue from some of these Lovely characters and find something else worth believing in.

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“You know the funny thing is, on the outside I was an honest man. Straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to become a crook.” – Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins)

I think Shawshank must be one of those movies. You know, the kind that’s just unmitigatedly loved by just about everyone. Maybe it’s the fact that my generation has come to appreciate it during the last five years (we’re growing up), or the continued success of actor Morgan Freeman, or even the fact that it’s still heavily syndicated on TV (a curious product of its seven Oscar nominations). Regardless, there’s something to be said for it as a genuinely well-crafted film. Perhaps a bit of corniness here or there, but most of the schmaltz is pretty well-earned. And people just genuinely like this movie, from all walks and film perspectives. I don’t know exactly why they like it, but you know what? I do too.

The story follows one Andy Dufresne on his journey into the penitential facility Shawshank after he’s convicted of murdering his estranged wife and her wealthy lover. Dufresne maintains his innocence, but it’s clear as he wanders into the prison on the first day that he’s a troubled man. The prison is quickly introduced as one of those terrifying, back-breaking places with little love, sympathy, or traditional rehabilitation to offer prisoners. We’re also introduced to a man named Red, a lifer for murder who apparently won’t be getting out too soon. Eventually the two team up, and what begins as small schemes to pass the time on their life-sentences rapidly develops into a full-blown (and rather clever) caper. The story is ultimately an exploration of the power of hope and male bonding (a favorite topic of mine), although the literary concerns it addresses on the whole are a bit more abstract.

Beginning with actors, I absolutely adore Tim Robbins. The fact that his last major endeavor was Mystic River eight years ago is so frustrating! I think he and Morgan Freeman (Red) do a really wonderful job at building a strong sense of chemistry and kinship throughout the twenty or so years they spend together. And of course, the entire last act of the film is predicated on that bond. Meaning if you don’t buy them, you’re not going to buy it. Shawshank was adapted from a Stephen King novella, and that sense of gritty America King forwards in his early releases (Green Mile and Stand By Me come to mind) allows for dramatic heft without clunky supernatural conventions. The great thing about prison narratives (and there are echoes of Oz here) is the idea of enclosed space. With so little room for the characters to move, they’re forced to rely on actors rather than action-pieces. And here, by relying on the magic of a twenty year connection, the creators trust the audience to truly invest (and the actors to truly connect). It could easily resemble the antiquated talking-head films of the 1930s and 40s, but the long narrative takes surprising detours to keep things fresh.

This is primarily a two-man show, but I’d like to make brief mention of Mark Rolston as a particularly nasty rapist (he’s also in The Departed, funnily enough) and the wonderful James Whitmore (who I first witnessed as a child in Where the Red Fern Grows) as an aging inmate who’s released after a lifetime in prison. The small detour the story takes by exploring his life may, at first glance, seem like material that is only imperative to the novella, but I thought it served as a wonderful vehicle for the primary concerns of the film. It’s soft, eloquent, and exceedingly heartbreaking. It should also stand out to anyone who has grandparents currently trying to grapple with a changing world, and particularly those elderly who don’t have a support network to help them. Credit to Whitmore for bringing his sub-plot to the forefront, and for managing to channel so much feeling into a piece where he has little contact with any other actors.

The film is also playful in style. The script allows for the prisoners to end up in a variety of scenic locations (flashbacks, recounted narratives, the rather literary penchant for following characters from their introduction to their death) that break up the prison-y feel and allow some hope to creep in. There’s also a fairly clear chapter style, where the audience follows yarns (like the beautiful day Andy plays Mozart to the entire prison population, the life and death of convict Tommy Williams, Andy’s talent for banking) and experience the slowness and non-linearity of prison time. The frame plays fast and loose with exact dates, but then again, it also makes clear that too much focus on time can kill you. With references to The Count of Monte Cristo, a literal depiction of Frost’s Mending Wall and the entire section devoted to re-birth and redemption (clever title), it’s a movie with big ideas and some nifty ways to implement them.

But the two areas that strike me most about the film are these – the concept of learned helplessness and the action of redemption. First, the major crisis of the characters in the film is the idea that rather than rehabilitate, the prison institutionalizes. Utilizing some beautiful cyclical imagery, Freeman and Whitmore encounter the very same problems when they attempt to re-enter the real world. This is also very characteristic of  Oz, where prisoners never made it outside for very long. The system fundamentally changes them, brought down by the abusive power structure and vulture-like inmates, to the point where they are no longer confident in their ability to find new skills or a meaningful identity. One of the characters most focused on re-defining his life outside of prison is killed before he ever gets there, where the older inmates constantly emphasize the “fear” of no longer having instruction or guidance. They’ve become man-babies, emasculated so deeply by the system that was supposed to offer correction. Ultimately, the film suggests the hypocritical nature of both organized religion and bureaucratic procedure in favor of a substantial, self-driven connection with a greater spiritual force. There may be something heavy-handed about Andy Dufresne’s descent into the muck of human existence and baptismal bath in the creek, or his decision to cross, Buddha-like, on the border between two countries, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way. It’s not exactly the most erudite symbolism, but it connects because we as an audience genuinely care about his success and friendship with Red. The beauty of the cliche is the ability to re-package it with earnest storytelling, and I think Shawshank succeeds through sheer perseverance.

People like hope. People also appreciate the genuine (sometimes). I get why people like Shawshank so much. It manages to take an ugly, dark corner of the human experience and humanize it. It employs, as all great prison dramas do, a willingness to explore the depth of the human condition. And while things may be painted a smidge too black and white for some tastes, there’s appropriate complexity to the themes, if not some of the secondary characters. It’s genuinely inspiring, not to mention a nice character-centric story. We love stories of journey, forgiveness, and the ability for a screw-up to finally make good. As a sweeping paean to the importance and power of living, Shawshank makes the case for all of us to seek out our own demons – and to conquer them.

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The Departed – 2006

“I’m the guy who does his job.
You must be the other guy.” – Sean Dignam (Mark Wahlberg)


And back to movies. So circular.

It’s the first Scorsese film I’ve discussed on the blog, which is a nice little milestone. And the film, if nothing else, has a rather remarkable cast. With four Oscars (including an elusive “Best Director” for Scorsese), The Departed is widely hailed as a modern American crime classic. This is particularly interesting given its roots as an adaptation of the 2002 Hong Kong classic Infernal Affairs. With so much artistic buzz for a Hollywood movie, it’s well worth exploration.

The film follows the parallel lives of two men (initially) working in the Boston police. On the one hand is Billy Costigan, on the other is Colin Sullivan. When both are assigned to different task-forces to take down infamous Irish mobster Frank Costello, things get tricky. What evolves is a contemporary tragedy about the power of identity and the murkiness of the self. The two men enter a dance of deception, interweaving and imploding as they near and stray from one another. When at last the two finally collide, it’s after what seems a lifetime of getting to know their personal struggles with the street. It’s explosive, uncompromising, and manages to suss a slightly psychological thriller out of a Hollywood action-er.

It’s also long. No getting around that, it’s part of the American trend towards “muscular” filmmaking (the recent Batman and Transformers films come to mind), although I’d wager The Departed makes better use of the time than most of its contemporaries. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that the story could have been tighter if it hadn’t been trying to simultaneously tell so many stories.  I almost feel bad for criticizing a plot which does develop over the course of the movie, and has appropriately tense stakes, but it was difficult to make it through that last hour. This can be pared down to the desire to robustly develop each character, the sagging romantic sub-plot, or even flabby plotting in regards to the cat-and-mouse between Costigan and Sullivan. Take your pick.

But alright, now we’ve gotten the major gripe out of the way. Take 150 minutes if you must, but by all means, make it count. Otherwise, it’s a rather Shakespearean ride. Exploring the notions of identity and dual lives, there’s even a nice little Hamlet quotation in the film when the wonderful Martin Sheen as Captain Queenan notes – “The readiness is all.” Naturally, the implications for the quotation in a script that flirts with Hamlet are rather interesting, and serve the story a helping of higher-minded psychological concerns regarding deception, family, and the power of inaction.

More than that, it’s the interesting cast of characters that really sell the whole yarn. While a lot of Hollywood vehicles offer up a single worthwhile actor to bring all the charisma, the wide cast of talented actors do their best to avoid energy lag between story-lines. Leonardo Dicaprio as Costigan and Matt Damon as Sullivan make for compelling protagonists, Dicaprio for his descent into madness and Damon for his remarkable cool and disturbing sociopathy. The tag-team of Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg (who snagged the only acting nod from the Academy, I’d imagine owing to the number of characters explored) are a ton of fun, and even smaller roles like the one played by Anthony Anderson manage to keep the kinetic balance between hilarity and bleakness. You’ll notice I haven’t mentioned any women yet… that’s because this is a story firmly rooted in the Reservoir Dogs framework of crime machismo. Vera Farmiga as a dual love-interest attempts to alleviate that problem, but ends up overwhelmed (by script) and flat (by nature) to the point that her character and sub-plot are subsumed by the huskier stories.

It’s a fun movie too, even if a bit boggy. I also felt like the location of Boston, which seemed to be a central facet of the film initially, was ultimately lost in the character study. It’s reassuring to know that Hollywood can flirt with the thought-provoking, and that sometimes the most popular film in the room can be the smartest. Even if it’s not wholly innovative, it’s great to see Scorsese back at the helm of one of the genres he’s helped define. And, despite a few reservations with pacing, you’ll get a finely crafted and engrossing exploration of the human identity. Oh, and you probably never would have guessed Leo and Matt could have looked so much alike… I was seeing double for the first half-hour.

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Reader Round-Up (1)

So, I read. I don’t know if that’s clear, but I’m actually a Literature major. And, besides the larking about that consists of movies, games, comics, etc… You know, books are my actual thing. And I’ve read a few, too!

Regretfully, as I read more books, watch more movies, and hear more music… I can’t give everything a full revision and read-through. So I present, with a small twinge of sadness and a great deal of relief, my condensed book review. A simple(r) way to share everything.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If on a winter’s night a traveler – Italo Calvino (1979)

This was recommended to me by my Lit. advisor, and wow… it wasn’t an easy read. Calvino, in his remarkable post-modern novel, creates the vivid experience of reading. Tracing a reader through the experience of reading and mixing the worlds of fiction and the fictional, the book reads like a playful magic trick. Not for the faint of heart, mind you! It’s one of the more thoroughly puzzling things I’ve read, and the host of Crit. Lit. I’ve perused has only reinforced that idea. Still, if you’re into experimental narrative (or playful narrative in film) you’ll probably learn a lot from Calvino. Just be prepared for ten novels in one…

How to Read Literature Like a Professor – Thomas C. Foster (2003)

Delightful! I think this is assigned in my old high-school. It’s essentially a primer for those beginning to do literary analysis. I’ve heard it called simple, although I think it’s intentionally set out to be helpful rather than experimental. Foster is funny, warm, and genuinely helpful. It can all run together a bit given all of the different novels he cites, and I wasn’t a huge fan of the concluding story, but it works great as a tool-kit for newbies to reading and a charming refresher for those in the know. Heartily recommended for anyone planning to analyze film, theatre, or literature.

Stitches – David Small (2009)

Oh, this is wonderful. Extremely dark, but a very compelling memoir by the famous New York Times cartoonist. Follows the story of a young David Small, his debilitating vocal surgeries, and his attempts to survive his chaotic family life. The book reads like a master-class in visual storytelling, incorporating elements of Hitchcock and Lewis Carroll. Not an easy read by any means, but a unique entry in the graphic novel genre and a deeply compelling narrative of the power of an individual to transcend the most difficult of trials. Grotesque, beautiful, and sometimes nightmarish.

Our Town – Thornton Wilder (1938)

Such a curious play! I read this not too long ago for my playwriting seminar, and it’s not at all how I remember it! We only read the first two acts in highschool, though, so it really didn’t capture the magic of the story. It’s ostensibly about a small town and the hum-drum people in it, but there are layers of magic and darkness beneath the melancholy exterior. Stay through to that third act! It’s something else. Also, check out the 1989 Frances Conroy tele-cast. She’s divine.

Winesburg, Ohio – Sherwood Anderson (1919)

Can you tell the play I’m working on is about small towns? Well, I absolutely love this book. It’s one of the darkest things you’ll ever read, right down to that unassumingly sinister title. Like Our Town, there’s a raw-edge that digs much, much deeper than the middle-American setting would suggest. Some of these chapters are searing, absolutely harrowing accounts of the destructive wheel of the small town. One of the darkest books I’ve ever read, not to mention the most human. A huge, overarching influence on my perception of storytelling.

The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway (1926)

This guy. Hemingweezy. I actually ended up loving this novel. And I didn’t like For Whom the Bell Tolls, so that was nice. I’m mostly familiar with his short stories, which made this both a surprise and a joy. There’s a ton of dysfunction in the novel, but the issues addressed regarding masculinity, hipster-dom, cultural relations, and particularly the portrayal of women, are all handled in tight, journalistic prose. You’ll never know who’s talking, but you’ll almost always have fun reading it. Like a long vacation with your best friends it gets fun, it gets ugly, and occasionally it gets real. And drinking. This book puts alcoholics to shame.

That’s it for the moment! I’ll make these periodically as I keep reading. Time allowed, they’ll even get full reviews. Still, hope you like the snack-size reviews!

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This is just a really lovely album. An effort by one of those remarkable Canadian groups where everyone’s just a superlative musician (see Broken Social Scene, of which Stars is an off-shoot) and the lyrics are hard-wired for youthful immediacy (see The New Pornographers). Naturally, they’re rife with tunes about braving love the hard way.

Like this one, from their 2004 album, Set Yourself On Fire. Clearly, we’re playing in a theatre of the dramatic. Yet that’s not what makes Stars so lovely. They’re that mix of art and pop, the accessible and the genuine. And, at their best, they’re the sound of well channeled talent, big ideas without needlessly grandiose presentation.

Things begin in larger than life fashion with a spoken word portion by Canadian stage actor (and father to male lead vocalist Torquil Campbell) Douglas Campbell announcing that “when there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire”. That’s actually another cool aspect of the album, much like the songs of rapper Jay Electronica or fellow Canadian Dan Bejar (perennial favorites of mine), the same phrases pop up in new and unusual ways throughout their releases.

Then come those glorious strings. Wooh, are they pretty. The opening notes of the song are sweet and strident, bitter and beautiful. Then, in perfectly confessional tone, Campbell stumbles in with the appropriately flustered line “God, that was strange to see you again”. Well, isn’t it always? Seeing anyone you haven’t seen for a while, particularly a romantic interest, is always a bit perplexing. Nobody ever looks like you thought they would, either too similar or eerily new. Of course he’s all charm, smiling and noting that “yes, [they’ve] met before” in that way we’d all like to act when confronted with an old flame. As the story unfolds, with that ominous “instant it started to pour” and the inevitable chasm of emotional discontent, the young man drops the confessional irony that what she perceived as sadness was really his attempt to “remember [her] name”. Clearly, the two shared something something meaningful, although I think the implication is that the importance of the brief moment they shared isn’t quite balanced.

Back to that beautiful musical refrain. Now the voice of the lovely Amy Millan enters to give the female perspective on the whole encounter. Starting off with the striking image of the man as a “fleck on her porcelain skin”. Now, as he sees “all the beauty” he missed when he was “trying to get in”, he’s forced to examine the mistakes he made in the past. She’s still lovely, and he screwed up. The music stirs and lends her following quatrain a good bit of strength, reinforcing the idea that they’ve both lost “time and a face” – they’re simply different people now. They have some of those same memories, and obliviously they run rather deep for the conversation to break down in the taxi-cab, but the fact is they’re not those same two people who shared that moment so long ago. And ultimately, the woman gets the kiss-off. The man may have the brief pleasure of informing her that the whole time he was trying to remember her name, but there’s something far more satisfying about her soaring decree that she’ll send him “a postcard… the news” from “a house down the road – from real love”. Biting indeed.

Then that haunting whisper of a chorus, “live through this, and you won’t look back”. Stars eloquently nail the difficult phrase, turned into something of a mantra of willpower through repetition, associated with the aftermath of a breakup. Certainly, the two tackle it from different ends, but they’ve both ultimately moved on. We’re left with a coda by the young woman, seemingly the better for the situation, noting her lack of regret for the uglier parameters of the relationship. She’s “not sorry”, even if the repetition might suggest she’s trying to reassure herself that things have gone right. She gains strength and bravery in the situation, noting in precise terms that what’s done is done, that’s there’s nothing to regret, and that somehow that’s okay. Piano creeps in under the beautiful strings and brass and brings the emotional whirlwind to a forceful, elegiac close.

It’s nice to hear a bit of the female perspective in all this, not to mention the woman seems to be the better for the relationship. While he “couldn’t choose”, she “gave what she gave”, and though I could get into my take that she’s probably better off for her willingness to take that chance, it’s a bit beside the point. This is a song of regret and anger, of changed people with (perhaps only slightly) hazy memories of something brief and wonderful. The title of the song says it all, then. Your ex-lover is dead, and there’s no sense trying to resurrect them. Whoever they were is, as German author Hermann Hesse observed in his novel of the river, Siddhartha, part of the ebb and flow. And we take what we take, whether it’s a laugh at a nettling memory or the chance to finally transgress our own hurt, as part of the constantly evolving process. There’s no accounting for those terrifying moments when we run into the ghosts of our past, but to surely know that above all else we have the potential to “live through this”. Bitter, painful, life-affirming. Peter Gabriel said it best – “Life Carries On”.

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