July 28, 2017


So, there is a running joke in The Thirty-Nine Steps of references to Alfred Hitchcock films. Well, I call it a running joke, but that may be a misnomer—at any rate, there are a handful of verbal and visual references to Alfred Hitchcock and his films. And I briefly discussed Hitchcock films with one of my castmates, and it occurred to me that he and I have very different ideas of what constitutes a “Hitchcock film”. And I think he’s right, and I’m wrong, despite my being right.

Let me explain: if a random person were to say “Hitchcock film”, that person would be talking about Psycho, The Birds, Rear Window and maybe Vertigo. Possibly North by Northwest, maybe Notorious, conceivably Rope. That’s it, right? That’s what we are talking about when we are talking about a “Hitchcock film”.

And, well, that’s not actually what I’m talking about when I talk about a Hitchcock film. I’ve never actually seen The Birds, and I haven’t seen Psycho all the way through from beginning to the end, either. My favorite Hitchcock film is probably Jamaica Inn, and that isn’t a “Hitchcock film” at all. Rebecca might be a “Hitchcock film” or might not be, but it’s a terrific movie. I like The Lady Vanishes a lot, although it’s not really as good as The 39 Steps. It’s not just that I prefer his earlier, funnier work (which I do), as I like both North by Northwest and Dial M for Murder quite a bit. But then, I like Blackmail and The Lodger, and I prefer the original Man Who Knew Too Much to the remake, which I didn’t actually finish watching. So, yeah, probably the earlier, funnier work. Or at least the funnier—I don’t actually like horror movies, as a genre, but do really enjoy the comic caper-thriller. Alfred Hitchcock is talked about as a master of suspense, as of course he is, and that’s what makes a Hitchcock film a “Hitchcock film”, but he was also a master of the comic caper-thriller.

Anyway, I suppose it’s not a surprise that when a fellow directs half-a-hundred movies, they will differ somewhat, one to another. And if a person becomes an adjective, as you might say, it will describe only a small portion of what that person actually is. I think of Alfred Hitchcock as making movies about spies, wrongly accused men on the run from police, and meet-cute flirtations where the couple have secrets from each other. That’s not what people mean by “Hitchcock film”, though, and I should keep that in mind.

That was the last time I spoke with President Trump,

June 2, 2017

Movie Report: Pride

I have been griping a lot lately, so here’s a puff piece about something I really liked: the movie Pride. I finally got around to seeing it a couple of weeks ago, three years or so after everyone else, and I enjoyed it wholeheartedly. A terrific, sweet, lovely movie.

It takes off from a true story about a group of gay lesbian folk in London in 1984 and 1985 who raise money for the striking miners. In that sense, it’s one of a slew of terrific movies set amid the strikes and pit closings and the aftermath: Billy Elliot and Brassed Off come to mind, and I put The Full Monty into that category, although incorrectly as it was a mill that closed in that one, not a mine. Still, a distinction without whatnot. But Pride is also a one of a slew of movies about the gay community in the 1980s: My Beautiful Laundrette and Longtime Companion, and I feel sure I am missing some recent movies set in the time of the early terror of AIDS and the opening of the closet.

The fundamental point of the movie is in a thing that the labour leader played by Paddy Considine says several times:

There’s a lodge banner down in the welfare [the union hall]. We bring it out for special occasions. It’s a hundred years old. I’ll show it to you one day. It’s a symbol like this—(Extends his hand) Two hands. (Mark takes it) That’s what the labour movement means. Should mean. You support me and I support you. Whoever you are. Wherever you come from. Shoulder to shoulder. Hand to hand.

or perhaps it’s this, that he says when Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners take him to a gay bar and invite him to the stage to talk to a crowd that has no interest in listening to some straight guy from Wales:

If you’re one of the people who’s put money into these buckets—if you’ve supported LGSM—thank you. Because what you’ve given us is more than money. It’s friendship. And when you’re in a fight as bitter and as important as this one, against an enemy, so much bigger, so much stronger than you—well. To find out that you have a friend you never knew existed—It’s the best thing in the world.

Does that sound soppy? Well, I am soppy like that. Seriously I have found the shooting script online and I am weeping all over again, like I did when I watched the movie and one of the girls in the town started singing "Bread and Roses".

Now, of course, like Billy Elliot and Brassed Off, the political stuff is the setting: the story is about the personal connections that people make within that setting. But the setting is so powerful and makes those connections so powerful. The acting (Billy Nighy underacting for a change, but still lovely, and dear Lord thank you for Imelda Staunton, and Andrew Scott was not as irritating as I usually find him, Dominic West was utterly wonderful, somebody named Joe Gilgun was delightful, pretty-eyed Ben Schnetzer was magnificent, Russell Tovey made me cry (again) and, yeah, it’s a good cast) and the film-making (and the soundtrack! Bronksi Beat! Frankie Goes to Hollywood! Dead or Alive! Style Council! Fun Boy Three! The Communards! Bananarama!) were wonderful. Just a really well-made, sweet lovely movie.

And I think to myself: Self, I think, maybe somewhere in all this fucking mess of a world right now, there are some young people—and some old people—who are living lives that will someday be turned into movies as good as this one.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 31, 2017

Movies! In! Space!

So, Your Humble Blogger has gone to a few lectures at the University this semester. It’s interesting—I hardly ever think about going to lectures, and yet when my Best Reader and I do go, we largely enjoy ourselves at the lecture, and almost always enjoy ourselves afterward when we discuss it in detail. Perhaps I should go to more of them.

Anyway, the lecturer in this case was discussing a trend that she called Mourners from Outer Space—a trend of big-budget Hollywood movies where humans go out into outer space and grieve.

She was looking in detail at Interstellar and Gravity, but also mentioned The Martian, Arrival, Passengers, The Fountain, Moon and the remake of Solaris. That’s quite a few movies which evidently share substantial elements of (a) space travel and (2) grief. Evidently there is a good deal of specifically parental grieving—the only one of the mentioned movies YHB has seen is Moon, in which isolation, rather than grief, is the theme, although there is a sort of parental loss as well. What’s most interesting to me, honestly, is that these are a bunch of specfic movies involving outer space that I had little interest in seeing, and didn’t see. If the fundamental theme is parental grief, and the movie is largely focused on the acting of that grief, then I think I made good choices, there. I would not have enjoyed those films.

At any rate, whenever I hear an argument that indicates a trend in popular culture, or rather in a subset of popular culture I’m interested in, I respond primarily by looking for counter-examples. Not that counter-examples would indicate that the trend doesn’t exist, but enough counter-examples might indicate that (to take the current example) our culture right now doesn’t primarily think of Outer Space as a place to go and grieve for losses (or face inner demons, or work through isolation). And it turns out there are a lot of movies with substantial outer-space elements unaccounted for in the lecture.

In the last five years: Life, The Space Between Us, Rogue One/Force Awakens, Star Trek Darkness/Beyond, Jupiter Ascending, Space Station 76, Guardians of the Galaxy, Last Days on Mars, John Carter, Ender’s Game, Riddick, Stranded and Upside Down. In addition, there is dimensional travel to other planets in Fantastic Four, Doctor Strange, and Thor and its associated movies, as well as the origin of the Man of Steel, although they aren’t really Outer Space movies within the meaning of the subgenre, not having spaceships or spacesuits. Still, that’s an awful lot of space-travel movies in five years, isn’t it? Something like four a year? And they are pretty much big-budget Hollywood movies, or biggish budget anyway, not indie pics. I had originally been thinking there weren’t very many, but, wow, yeesh, a ton. Of which I personally have watched, er, roughly, in general terms, four. Well, six, if you count Doctor Strange and Thor, which I don’t think I do, really.

So, I don’t go see movies much, anymore, which I knew and y’all probably guessed, and I don’t even see that many movies at home these days, either. And I think to some extent, that is exacerbated by the currently popular style of acting, where the camera focuses on a wordlessly grieving face for a very long time. That’s what people like and admire in acting, and I don’t deny that the actors seem to be good at it, but wow do I find it irritating.

So I see the Star Wars movies, which do have grieving-child moments but tend not to linger on them quite so much. The grieving-child bits were by far my least favorite bits of the Marvel movies as well—it was peculiarly out of place in Guardians, but at least it didn’t take up too much screen time. The others, well, I don’t bother seeing so much.

I suspect that the main theme motivating the filmmakers is isolation, rather than grief, or rather I suspect that the opportunity to write about isolation is what makes Outer Space a tempting location for a writer to set his or her exploration of grief or inner-demon-facing or whatever. It seems to me that isolation is probably a pretty fruitful theme for our internetty world over the last decade or so, and of course part of the point is that it is difficult to be isolated in a movie set in the present day (there are exceptions, of course) and that isolation is something that people find intriguing, scary or perturbing. The image of being (as in Gravity) adrift in a spacesuit is a powerful one these days. And then the filmmakers give the actors something to do of the kind people like to watch and give awards to, and there we are: mourners in space. Also also: giving your character a history of major loss that is as yet unredeemed and unconsoled is your basic cheap writer’s trick. I hate it.


I’m curious what Gentle Readers who actually watch movies think. It seems to me that there’s no lack of monster-fighting in space. Life, Star Wars, Jupiter Ascending, Guardians of the Galaxy, John Carter, and Riddick all have monsters, evidently, although I can’t actually remember any recent Star Wars baddies that are recognizably monstrous off the top of my head. Well, cyborgs are a kind of monster, I suppose, which means that there is something monstrous about all those machine-helmeted stormtroopers, but they aren’t monsters, I think, the way Jabba the Hutt was a monster. We’ve had at least a century of but man is the true monster specfic, though, to the point where it’s more of a cliché than a twist. In Star Wars and the others, the real monsters, human or alien (or both!) are doing real monster stuff, like trying to blow up the world. Or worlds. Or whole universes. Or gaining Ultimate Power and enslaving everyone else. In Gravity and Interstellar and such (so the lecturer convincingly said) the true monsters are time, solitude and the laws of physics.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 5, 2017

Two Films with but a single thought

So, Your Humble Blogger doesn’t see a whole lot of movies these days. Particularly, of course, during rehearsal process for a play. As it happens, I have seen two movies this year, both picked more-or-less at random by myself and my Best Reader. They were both made in the last five years, both European films, both released last Spring in the US. I saw them both through a streaming service, where they turned up as recent and of interest. Here are other things they both have in common:

They both feature a famous lead actor (one male, one female) who have been winning awards for decades. Each plays a crabbed and elderly racist. Each lead character has not recovered from the death of a spouse; each has a testy (at best) relationship with an only child; each has one grandchild who is around, oh, eightish, very cute and smart and curly-headed. The child is the same sex as the lead character; the grandchild of the opposite sex. Each lead has withdrawn into themselves, attempting to keep a shell of the rituals of earlier, happier times. Each has money troubles. Each fends off a romantic approach that is supposed to be risible due to the age of the people involved. Each is shown attending religious services and with a relationship with the clergy at their local place of worship, which each also have financial troubles.

Each lead character winds up in a business relationship with a young person of colour, who is a small-time marijuana peddler. Each steps away from the kitchen whilst baking at one point, and each has someone else put marijuana into the dough without intending to. Each has a scene where elderly women unknowingly eat the tainted treat, with ensuing hilarity. Each wind up selling marijuana-laced pastries of various kinds. Each lead finds money troubles solved by the tremendous popularity of hash pastries. Each finds worse trouble and danger (from the police and from the dope-dealing organizations) than before. Their kitchens are destroyed and their loved ones are threatened. Each eventually helps the police to bust the local supplier.

And, of course, each overcomes their racism, expands horizons, learns, grows young at heart again, and generally wins the hearts of the audiences. That could go without saying. Oh, and there’s a trip to the seaside with the grandchild, in each film, of course.

Still. That’s a lot of similarities between two pictures made a couple of years apart. It’s also worth noting that I liked one of them a lot better than the other.

The one I liked is Dough, with Jonathan Pryce. The one I didn’t so much like is Paulette, with Bernadette Lafont.

They are, in fact, very different movies with very different tones—the French one plays up how truly awful the lead is, and she really is financially desperate and chooses to sell drugs to make money. There is a (presumably) realistic depiction of below-the-poverty-line life. The violence is real and horrible. The happy ending is that Paulette and her family and close friends escape France altogether. The British one stars Jonathan Pryce, who is clearly a good old fellow despite his racism and grief. He is a professional baker, and while his bakery is in danger, he has a comfortable house and his son is a financially successful attorney—he won’t starve. What is at stake is the bakery, which was his father’s, and which is failing and being squeezed out by an evil developer. It’s the developer in this one, by the way, who is the real baddie; the dope supplier is a relatively minor figure. The violence is mild and mostly cartoonish, and the happy ending is that he keeps the bakery and stays where he is.

I think that difference in the ending is really emblematic of the difference in the two pictures. Dough is fundamentally traditionalist and formulaic. It is optimistic, and that optimism is based on a sort of deeply-rooted trust in tradition, played out within the film by the prayer traditions (the film delights, f’r’ex, in pairing the Jewish Orthodox ritual of hand-washing with the Moslem ritual of foot-washing) and the defense of the small mom-and-pop storefront over big corporations, among other things, and in the film-making itself by adherence to the expected formulas of traditional film-making. There are no surprises in Dough. Not in the overarching plot, not in the construction of the scenes. It’s all exactly what you expect it to be. As, I think it says, the world is, even if it looks unfamiliar at times. Paulette is surprising (in places) and uncomfortable, and often unpleasant, and I think it says the world is like that, too.

Anyway, I just thought it was odd that I came across two such similar movies on such similar topics, both made within the last five years, almost certainly without either set of film-makers knowing anything about the other one. And, of course, it’s also odd because of what certainly appears to be the impending legalisation of the marijuana-laced pastries in question.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 11, 2016

Film Report: Heavens Above

Your Humble Blogger happened across a terrific movie recently: Heavens Above. It’s a British film from 1963, starring Peter Sellers in one of his comic-actor roles rather than his clown roles, and he’s flat-out terrific in it. It’s easy to forget that he was a skilled comic actor, in addition to being a marvelous clown, because he is remembered now mostly for Clouseau and perhaps The Goons. And, I suppose Being There, which is one of the comic-actor roles, but by that point I think people thought of it as an exception to his usual style. Early in the career, though, he did a good deal of each, and was really good at both.

The thing about this movie, though, is that Peter Sellers is nowhere near the funniest thing in it. His role isn’t quite a straight man, but the fun comes from surrounding him with hilarious people in outrageous parts: Eric Sykes and Roy Kinnear are hysterical as stereotypical gypsy layabout thieves (um, yes, racism in this picture and plenty of it, sorry about that) and Irene Handl and Miriam Karlin may be even better as their wives; the clergy range from wonderful (Cecil Parker, George Woodbridge and Kenneth Griffith) to convulsively funny (Ian Carmichael). Bernard Miles plays a viciously nasty butler; William Hartnell plays a priggish and condescending Major; Miles Malleson plays a pompous and complacent psychoanalyst. What is that, ten terrific comic roles? And that’s not counting the supporting roles that are important but not on the whole comic: Isobel Jeans as the rich and persuadable widow and Brock Peters as the fervent and idealistic garbageman.

Digressions: Kenneth Griffith’s few scenes as a charismatic Welsh clergyman in this 1963 movie were especially delightful for me as I recently rewatched his wonderful role as a charismatic Welsh clergyman in The Englishman Who Jumped in a Lake and Was Sent Up the River from 1995. On the other hand, Roy Kinnear’s genius of rolling shiftiness is not helped by having recently seen his son Rory Kinnear in last year’s Man Up—it’s a romcom that I didn’t like much anyway, but Rory was really creepily like Roy, to the point that I couldn’t even. William Hartnell is quite good in this and not in any way The Doctor; it was less distracting than John Pertwee in Ladies Who Do, but then I haven’t seen that many First Doctor episodes. Somehow I have never seen either Ian Carmichael’s Jeeves-and-Wooster series or his Lord Peter series, or at least I don’t recall them enough for his face to be more than a vaguely recognizable British 60s film face, like most of the others. End Digressions.

The plot… the plot… oh, who cares.

No, that’s not right. There is a plot, and it works—due to a mixup in names, the wrong Reverend John Smallwood (the prison chaplain, not the nice well-bred idiot) is given the parish of Orbiston Parva, and finds the population to be narrow-minded, bigoted, grasping, self-deluded, self-satisfied and pretty much one hundred percent unChristian. His drive for real lived Christianity (generous of spirit and treasure; loving of Gd, self and others; humble in everything except pride in the Power of the Lord) turns everything topsy-turvy. He upends the town economy, gets the local factory shut down and nearly destroys the British economy altogether. He is the living embodiment of faith, hope and charity; he ruins everything he touches. He forces everyone to acknowledge that which we can’t live with: the fundamental incompatibility of our aspirational goals and our comfortable lives. The thing is, and this is where Malcolm Muggeridge’s fingers get into the pot I believe, it’s not as if our aspirational goals really are compatible with uncomfortable lives, either. It is simultaneously a terribly funny movie and a terribly bleak satire. I loved it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 19, 2016

Bestness and bullshit and the Oscars

So, the Oscars. There’s a fundamental problem with the Academy Awards, and that fundamental problem is that they are total bullshit. There is no sense—none—in which it makes sense to identify a Best Picture or a Best Performance for the year in film. There just isn’t. There’s just what the Academy chooses to honor. We know that, but at the same time, that honor is a competition, and when the Academy chooses to honor one thing and not another, it is, but in wording and in essence, saying that this thing is the Best, and it is Better than the other things. Even in sports, it’s not clear that the Champion is in some reasonable sense the Best, but in film? It’s bullshit. We know it’s bullshit, and it is bullshit. I mean, if Lupita Nyong'o was the Best Supporting Actress in 2013, was she better or worse than Penelope Cruz in 2008? The question is bullshit, and we don't even ask it.

That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t give out Oscars! I love the Oscars. They're great fun. And there’s nothing wrong with picking a performance or a film and saying This was great! We want to make sure people have a chance to see this! There isn't anything wrong with them saying, in effect, that they have limited ability to draw people's attention, so they have to pick a few performances to do that with, and they've decided on these. They may not be the best, but they're damn' good and that's reason enough to give those actors a little gold statuette and the attention of a billion people for a few minutes. They already changed the verbiage (instead of the winner is they say the Oscar goes to in order to, um, something) so it's not as if there's a problem there.

Why is this bullshit problem linked to the #oscarssowhite problem? This is of course just Your Humble Blogger's angle on it, but it seems to me that the problem is that people both inside and outside of the Academy somehow believe the bullshit, or pretend to themselves that they believe it, that the twenty nominated performances are the best twenty performances of the year. And if they are, in any sense the best, then (a) sure, it could happen in any particular year that those particular performances were given by white actors, either by coincidence or because of systemic differences in opportunity, and (2) you can't do anything about it without rigging the nominations to keep a deserving nominee from getting their deserved nomination. In truth of course, it's all bullshit, and they are just picking twenty really good performances to draw attention to, and they could easily ditch every single nominated performance and replace them with new nominations, and get a perfectly good cohort of nominees.

Digression: I could swear that at some point I wrote on this Tohu Bohu about the idea (which come to me only a few years ago) that if one year the entire freshman class of Harvard (f'r'ex) were at the last moment not to matriculate (being, perhaps, bodily assumed into heaven, or put up against the wall and shot, or something along those lines) the University could easily just admit the next two thousand people on the list and no-one would be able to tell the difference. Not the faculty, not the staff, not the eventual putative employers or investors. Applicants numbers 2,001 through 3,999 are distinguishable from those in that top rank only by the admissions office, and then only because they have to choose. That's pretty much obvious, right? And this applies to a large number of things—it's not entirely true of community theater casts, but it's more true than you would think. It's true for party primaries. It's true for many hiring searches, including every one I've ever been involved with. It's not true for, you know, marriages, or friendships, but those are different. End Digression.

If we all admitted that there are a dozen or more performances in each category that are terrific and worth paying attention to, and that it's only the exigencies of the awards event that require a short list, then, I think, we could more easily adjust to the notion that we should keep a special eye out for non-White, non-Anglophone performers. After all, those are the ones that casual filmgoers are most likely to miss. And we could stop talking about how somebody got robbed. Nobody is taking those honors away from anyone. Yes, somebody is sixth in the voting, or seventh, or tenth, but so fucking what? Nobody thinks it's the tenth-best performance. It's a great performance, is what it is, so awesome.

See, it's astonishing to me that Angela Bassett didn't get nominated for her supporting performance in Chi-Raq. Not because it's a great performance, which it really, really is, but because if you were The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and you had eaten shit last year over twenty-out-of-twenty white acting nominations for 2014, you would naturally, I think, look to see whether Angela Bassett had been in any films in 2015. And she was! And she was terrific! So put her on the list! But no, I suspect that many individual voters got caught up in wondering whether it was a better performance than Kate Winslet's or Alicia Vikander's. Was it better? That's a bullshit question! The question is was it great? It was great. They were all great. We know that there are many more great performances than nominations, and if we leave behind the bullshit about ranking them, we can decide to include a few great performances that aren't by white American and English actors without panicking about robbing anyone.

And when we choose not to draw attention to any of those great performances by actors who aren't white and American or English (or occasionally Australian) we can understand what it means and why it's insulting and mean-spirited. Right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 12, 2016

Two Movies: My Old Lady and Chi-Raq

I had high hopes for My Old Lady, a film of an Israel Horovitz play starring Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith. I mean, I love Kevin Kline and Maggie Smith. And the two of them are terrific in it, in a way—I suspect that many Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu would enjoy the movie enormously. I did not.

I had moderately-low hopes for Chi-Raq, a Spike Lee Joint starring Teyonah Parris and Nick Cannon. I mean, I’d never heard of Teyonah Parris or Nick Cannon. I suspect that many Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu would hate this movie passionately. I loved it.

Well, I should say: Chi-Raq was a mess of a movie. A total mess. Not even a curate’s egg. Poorly thought out, sloppily made, with big chunks of it not working at all. The gender stuff, ugh. He doesn’t really seem to understand politics, or gangs for that matter. The bits that worked, though. Wow. Stunning, powerful stuff. I really felt put through the wringer afterward. My comment, and I don’t suppose this is original to me at all, was that Mr. Lee is not a good film-maker, but is clearly a great film-maker.

One thing that stood out to me about these two movies is that the play adaptation (My Old Lady) uses very little of the vocabulary of theatrical style, while Chi-Raq uses great double-handfuls of it. I don’t know the play of My Old Lady, which seems to be solidly in the extremely popular subgenre of unpleasant people say hurtful things to each other theater. That stuff was immensely popular for two or three generations of American theater, and I pretty much loathe it. The movie was fully naturalistic, with both acting and dialogue that was meant to feel like the sort of thing we come in contact with all the time. I mean, it was set in Paris and all, but it was set in an actual Paris, a plausible Paris. It took pains to convince us that every plot point, every interaction, every line, every gesture and facial expression, every kiss or collapse could have happened exactly as we saw it. Mr. Horovitz spent his artifice in concealing the artificial nature of film-making (or theater-making) (or storytelling in general) rather than in drawing attention to it.

Spike Lee, on the other hand, makes no such attempt. The mirror he holds up to life is full of distortions and exaggerations. His characters talk in rhyme. A narrator addresses the audience directly, wandering through the film unseen (mostly) by the other actors. Text messages appear on the screen in little boxes. He uses music, dance or synchronized movement to create spectacle. He dresses his characters in costumes they would never wear to give an impression of character or situation or simply to create a visual picture. He’ll speed up or slow down the action, to draw your attention this or that way. It's a Spike Lee Joint: it’s propaganda and provocation, and he wants you to know that from the beginning right through to the end.

Also familiar from the theater: the story is Lysistrata, transplanted to contemporary Chicago. The Spartans and the Trojans are street gangs in overlapping neighborhoods of the South Side, not residents of rival cities in Greece. For me, this is a comfortable technique for retelling classic or Shakespearean stories. Some of the reviewers seemed to have difficulty with it, for some reason, focusing unduly on the ways in which the gangs were unlike the Greek armies, or on the way they were unlike actual street gangs in non-movie Chicago. The disconnect they felt between the realistic trappings (for some scenes) and the Classical references is, well, something I’m over, now. Still and all, it should be said that Mr. Lee didn’t do a very sophisticated or rigorous job of working out the details of his frame. More like, slapped it on and ran with it. It works, when it works, and then in other bits, it doesn’t. That happens.

But the thing is, a big old messy fantastic failure like Chi-Raq is much more to my taste than My Old Lady, with its delicate smallness of vision. Part of that is political, yes—I have little sympathy with the sons and daughters of affluence that Mr. Horovitz lavishes such detailed attention on. They are dislikeable, and I dislike them. Mr. Lee’s ragged caricatures aren’t terribly likeable, either, I suppose, but when Lysistrata and Miss Helen and the rest of them set to burning down their world for the sake of peace, I root for them. I root for the vicious and unfeeling gang leaders to have their inevitable epiphanies and redemptions, and I want so much to believe in those redemptions that I do believe in them, in a way that I cannot believe in the much more plausible (because so much smaller) redemptions of the nasty little people in My Old Lady.

And then, I’m rooting for Spike Lee. His grandiose pretentions as well as his politics. I like that his films are provocations. I like feeling like I’m learning something about my own country and my own culture. I suppose I like being mau-maued, when it’s done with humor and spark—I mean, I don’t like being mau-maued, but I am aware a good deal of my liberal white suburban milquetoast-privilege is my ability to go through my life worrying about the sorts of things Israel Horovitz is hocking about (infidelity narcissism and syrah) rather than the sorts of things Spike Lee is hocking about (sponging a child’s bloodstains off asphalt). I’m more willing to forgive Spike Lee for the scenes that are painfully stupid and terrible than I am willing to forgive Israel Horovitz for the scenes that are a little slow and dull. Is that fair? Yeah, I think that’s fair.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 8, 2015

The Family That Watches Bad Television Together

What, Gentle Readers have been presumably asking, did Your Humble Blogger hate most about the recent season of Doctor Who? The answer is everything. Everything was the thing I hated most about this season.

Yes, but what else? you ask. And the answer is: Everything else.

So, both things?

Yes. Both things were the worst, my friends. Everything was the worst, and also everything else. Ugh.

And yes, I watched the whole thing. Does this make sense? Mostly, for a show—or a dystopian novel trilogy, an album, a series of lithographs, whatever—my way of thinking is that if I don’t like it, I shrug and move on. There is an effectively infinite number of books to read; if I’m not enjoying one, it’s on to the next for me, and no hard feelings. There’s no sense in being cranky about things not being to my taste, is there?

Digression: I’m not going to write here about how much I hated the shows, and why, and what could be better. I could just say that as far as my own experience goes, it has only been downhill since Last Christmas. I will take a momentary digression, though, to acknowledge that it has to do with my own Sources of Viewer Irritation and Viewer Pleasure. I also recently watched Web of Fear, an episode from 1968, and enjoyed it quite a bit, despite its obvious flaws. The filming is terrible, dark and murky; the makeup is amateurish; the acting is… not all up to a high standard; the pacing is beyond terrible, and the special effects, my goodness gracious me, the special effects. Oh, and the robot yeti are clearly guys in big fuzzy suits. My tolerance for that sort of thing turns out to be very high, and in fact the terrible special effects are a sort of Source of Viewer Pleasure of their own. I cannot (and don’t want to) justify my high tolerance for that sort of thing in comparison with what turns out to be a very low tolerance for clever-clever-stupid plots and clumsy-important retconning, not to mention my now-pretty-much-zero tolerance policy for Long Farewell Scenes. I understand that people are different, one to another, which is what makes the universe interesting and fun, so if you enjoyed this stuff, Gentle Reader, I’m glad you enjoyed it. End Digression.

Doctor Who is different, for me. Not because I’m a fan, because my fandom is at this point mild and nostalgic; I have written before about my fandom and the new series. I dropped out of the community of fen twenty-five years ago, and while I did watch and mostly enjoy the new shows, I am not part of the fandom generally.

My daughter, though, is a trufan. Well, not really, I suppose, by mimeo-zine standards, but certainly an honest-to-goodness, fanfic-writing, talking-about-this-week’s-episode-at-school, dressing-up-for-the-con Whovian. Part of a community, in fact, more or less the exact same way I was in 1986. Which is awesome! I believe I saw Castrovalva for the first time on the same day as the other forty or fifty fans in my metropolitan area did, and went to the fan club meeting in the back of the used bookstore and talked about what we liked and what we didn’t. Those club meetings were somewhere between fantastic and awful, like high school generally, but balanced more toward the fantastic. Had I missed the episodes, I would have missed the party. I figure much the same for my daughter. Giving up on the newly-produced Moffatt-era episodes as they are broadcast pretty much would mean separating herself from the community and its conversations. That’s not something my Perfect Non-Reader is ready to do. I support her in that.

And, it turns out, I watch the episodes with her, because it’s a thing we do together. It’s a different kind of community I am part of, now, and it is so worth it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 23, 2015

Five Years On: Is DVD dead? or dying?

So, five years ago today, Your Humble Blogger asked Is DVD dead? or dying? In that note, I specifically asked In 2002 (I think it was) video stores were dumping VHS tapes and I bought a bunch of movies at two or three bucks a pop. We’re certainly not there yet for DVDs. But will we be there by 2015? Clearly we are not there.

On the other hand, the trend away from physical media is ongoing, and certainly the DVD is no longer the standard. People (particularly Young Persons) watch movies or television way more on-line than on DVD. The BBC is shifting to download from DVD sales; the linked article claims that their revenue from DVDs is half what it was three years ago, but also quotes an analyst who predicts that the DVD revenue will be twice the download revenue through 2019. So DVD clearly isn't dead as a format, but at the same time, it's no longer the format. To quote myself again from five years ago: In 2010, if you prefer something other than DVD, you kinda need a reason. But in 2015, maybe not so much. And in fact, in 2015, you need a reason to prefer a DVD. There are plenty of those reasons—the extras and audio commentaries and deleted scenes and whatnot, which the most popular streaming services do not, as of yet, include—but if a twenty-glob-year-old just wants to watch a movie, I think they would check Netflix first before thinking of a DVD.

Digression:What you really need a reason to do is watch a film in a theater. I hardly ever feel the desire to do that, these days, much less actually do it. I get tempted by events (mostly NTLive stuff—Jane Eyre on December 8th) (not so much the Doctor Who specials) but hardly ever actually go even to those. Oddly enough, I don't think the movie theater is a dying medium because the distributors will encourage these sorts of events (and encourage the production of the sorts of movies that give people a reason to go to a bigger screen with a crowd of people) but I kinda feel like it ought to be dying. If movie theaters died out, surely dating couples would have to purchase theater tickets, right? End Digression.

The thing I found interesting, on going back to my note, was that I specifically asked myself about gifts: on the twenty-third of November 2010, I noted, if someone wanted to give you a copy of a recent movie or television show, they would give you a DVD. If you didn't like DVDs, well, that was your problem—that was how people gave each other movies. On the twenty-third of November 2015, if someone wants to give you a copy of a recent movie or television show, they give you a DVD. People more frequently watch movies through some sort of streaming or download, but they give them on physical media. I assume that's partially because you can wrap a DVD, but it also seems to me that the main services aren't set up to encourage you to purchase a download/stream of a movie for someone else. I assume you can do it through Amazon's service or the iTunes store, but I've never done it or (I think) seen an ad for doing it. Netflix encourages people to give subscriptions, but I don't think you can pay an additional charge to give access to an individual movie to a non-subscriber. I'm not even sure you can send a subscriber a direct link to a specific movie on the Netflix site, as opposed to just telling them to search for it.

I should say: two of the Young Persons I asked pretty clearly thought that giving a movie as a gift was an Old Person thing to do anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 5, 2015

Movie Report: Ladies Who Do

Your Humble Blogger happened to—OK, it goes like this: I read the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’s Life of the Day, which I heartily recommend, if only for the incredible dry humor in the prose. Lovely, lovely. A few days ago, what came up was a television actor named Harry H. Corbett; in 1963 he appeared in a film I had never heard of called Ladies Who Do. A title that really grabs you. Or grabbed me, anyway, enough for me to look it up and read what it was about. And the idea of the film was so great that I went looking for it, and while it isn’t on either of the subscription services I pay for, it is on YouTube in its entirety. And I watched it, and it was fun. So that’s all right, d’y’see?

OK, the idea of the film that’s so good… Our main character is a widow with two jobs: she cleans offices in the early morning, and during the day she keeps house for an elderly man (well, older man—not an invalid, just the kind of older man who is used to having someone to clean for him and do a bit of cooking in the middle of the day). Mrs. Cragg (for such is her indelibly perfect name) happens to show him (through a plot device) a telegram thrown away by the land speculator in the office complex she cleans for. The Colonel (of course he's a colonel) is a gambler with a taste for day trading and pieces that information together with other things he knows and makes a killing on an investment—puts his house up as surety and clears the equivalent of a hundred thousand dollars in one day.

The two of them take this money and form a syndicate with three of her neighbors who also do for offices in the City. They bring the Colonel waste paper, he sifts through it and puts pieces of information together, and makes a killing. Nobody knows how he is getting his information (he handles the actual investment, the Board of Ladies remaining secret) but he becomes a major player in the City. Soon they are all absurdly wealthy, but keeping their jobs as sources of information.

Time for a plot twist: the first transaction that the telegram was about turns out to have been Ryder taking over a company that owns the block of flats in which the Ladies Who Do all live, and he is going to knock it down and put up offices. Of course, the syndicate suffers a major financial setback just as they need to thwart the plan, so other methods come into play—the movie largely ends with a long set piece on the block with the women and children delaying the workmen until the deus comes out of the machina and everyone can be happy.

Well, I say ends, it ought to have ended there, but we got another scene afterward to the detriment of the movie as a whole… in fact, the whole thing is only nearly-great, and I’m not altogether sure why. The cast were all good, but not perhaps quite good enough; the screenplay (by Michael Pertwee, the brother of Jon Pertwee, who is also good but not perhaps good enough in a supporting role) is funny but not really crisp. The pacing may be the real problem. I’m not sure. But my assessment really is that the idea of the movie is much better than the execution of the movie.

Which to my mind means an opportunity to remake the thing, and do it better.

The problem, alas, is that the main gag is simply not plausible today. People don’t leave inside information unshredded in their rubbish bins. It’s too bad. There are presumably ways to get around it, but part of the fun of the whole thing is that the various speculators don’t suspect the cleaning crew at all and aren’t careful around them because they don’t even see them properly. I suppose it’s just possible that cleaners would overhear things as they work while the traders burn the midnight whatsit trading with Tokyo and Seoul, but another part of the fun of the thing is that the Ladies know nothing about finance whatsoever, at least at the beginning, and have no way of making sense of what they are picking up; they don’t see the men at the desks any more clearly than the people at the desks see the women scrubbing the floor.

Ah, well. The whole plot wouldn’t work. Doesn’t mean I’m not going to try to cast it.

Wanda Sykes.

Let’s see… if Ms. Sykes is not available, the thing could be written as a vehicle for Whoopie Goldberg, but that would make it a very different movie. I think Wanda Sykes could pull off the comedy of it, and do the arc from not knowing anything about the financial world she scrubs for combined with an utter mistrust of success to becoming a ruthless businesswoman and a match for Ryder or indeed anyone. There are other people who could do the part, of course, but I’m seeing Wanda Sykes.

The three neighbors are complicated. In the original, they are the dimwitted one, the firebrand and the one with the hats, and I’d kinda like to keep that, but of course there’s no particular reason they have to be. They could be the klepto, the hypochondriac and the pregnant one; or the sexpot, the church-goer and the transwoman. The important thing is that they are thoroughly working-class outsiders who could not pass for investors if their lives depended on it. If we keep the original trio, I think the dimwitted one (with the harridan mother brought out as a secret weapon) could be… I have no idea. Tracey Ellis Ross? Tia Carrere? Rosie Perez? Can we borrow Rita Moreno as the harridan mother? Because that would be awesome. Rosie Perez would actually be better as the firebrand (presumably instead of ranting about capitalists, she would rant about the 1%, which works just fine). And as the one with the hats, the matronly conservative one… Marla Gibbs is still working? Damn! She’s perfect. Or, let’s see. Hm. Cassi Davis? Mo’Nique? Jo Marie Payton? As another option, it would be fun to have, say, Rosamund Pike playing the one with the hats as a Hungarian with no English whatsoever. I don’t think I’d go that way as a first choice, as it would take some careful writing, but it might pay off, I suppose.

It is too late, alas, for Roscoe Lee Browne to play the roguish Colonel. I’d kinda like to see Edward James Olmos try it, but I don’t think he’s got the twinkle. Wait… Ron Glass. Oh, yeah. Ron Glass. Got it.

That leaves the wide-boy role, Mr. Ryder, the self-made Young Turk who has left the barrio (or ghetto or slum) and is making real money, or at least faking it. This is where I have no clue—it should be, ideally, a young man (under 30) who can pass as white. Guillermo Díaz? I don’t even know what shows or movies I might be watching that would have those actors. My Best Reader observed that having the wide-boy be East Asian or South Asian might also work. It’s a different version of the gag where the cleaning ladies think of Mr. Ryder as white, and are surprised to discover that he doesn’t think of himself as white. Opportunities there, I suppose. Aasif Mandvi is probably too old. Evidently there’s a person named Booboo Stewart? And that one guy from that one TV show, um, Randall Park. Right?

Ah, fuck it, I’ll just cast Emma Stone.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 26, 2015

Time Tourists... nothing problematic about that.

So, last week Your Humble Blogger and his family watched The Aztecs, a first-season Doctor Who (yes, from 1964) and really enjoyed it. I should probably add that in the four years since I wrote that my Perfect Reader did not enjoy Robot, the kid has become an obsessive Whovian, and we watch an episode of the show pretty close to three or four evenings a week. We are working our way through New Who (she’s at the end of Season Five, I guess it is, and has taken to mumbling curse you Stephen Moffatt over and over again, which I suppose is nothing to worry about) and I insist on taking a break from the stuff I saw fairly recently to either watch stuff I haven’t seen in twenty years or stuff I never saw at all. So this is the first full story I have watched from the William Hartnell era.

The thing that struck me about it was that the gang of them (the Doctor, his granddaughter and the two high-school teachers who accompany the First Doctor at this time) blunder into trouble as historical tourists, put themselves into danger, and then manage to escape—they don’t save anybody else that’s in trouble, just themselves.

They attempt to save a couple of people from getting cut open on the altar: one of them hurls himself off the ziggurat in shame at losing the honor of being sacrificed, and the other is presumably killed after they flee. They convince the High Priest of Knowledge that human sacrifice is perhaps maybe not so good—or at least that the increase in frequency is potentially problematic—but he winds up leaving the city to wander in the wilderness and meditate on his new doubts. Barbara learns to accept the Doctor’s lecture that "history cannot be rewritten! Not one line!"

It’s a terrific episode (mostly because of the main villain’s wonderfully over-the-top Richard III of a High Priest of Sacrifice) but very different not only from New Who but from “my” Who. I was thinking that in New Who if they wound up in an Aztec city, they would find Daleks or Cybermen, or probably both—but in fact, during the eighties as well, when the Doctor went into the past, he found some sort of alien danger. That original notion of the Doctor and his friends as purely time tourists did not last long… which is probably just as well, considering.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 9, 2015

Hatchet Job: Last Christmas

Worst. Episode. Ever.

I am speaking of the 2014 Christmas Episode of Doctor Who which made me so angry that I actually wrote a blog post about it. And then had to find the blog in order to post it. I’m that upset.

To begin with: OK, it’s a Christmas episode. Fine. I get that. They’ve started a tradition of Christmas episodes, and it’s good for ratings, and fine. Fine! Fine.

Chronologically, within the story timeline the first thing that happens is that the Doctor, who is alone and in some sort of red-rock deserty sort of place, gets a Dream Crab in the face. We don’t see this, by the way, it’s before the beginning of the episode, but we find out about it later. What is a Dream Crab? Dream Crabs lull people into a happy dream while they suck their brains out. Er, they, the Dream Crabs, suck out the brains of the people. Or at least people, we aren’t told whether Dream Crabs can eat Dalek brains or the invisible gaseous brains of the Nestene Consciousness or whatever. But we do know that it’s about keeping the victim happy. “The Dream Crab induces a dream state. Keeps you happy and relaxed, in a perfectly realised dream world, as you dissolve. Merciful, I suppose.”

So how do you fight a Dream Crab? You have to (a) figure out that you’re dreaming, and then (2) somehow reject the happy dream. Then the Dream Crab falls off and turns to dust. So: we have our alien villain, and it’s not a bad one, if not terribly original. The challenge will be for the Doctor to realize that he is in a happy dream, and wake up from it. One more thing about the Dream Crabs and their dreams—because they are (of course) telepathic, with some sort of gestalt identity, if multiple people are being eaten at once, they will be in the same dream. That is: If I am being eaten by a Dream Crab, you may or may not appear in my happy-being-eaten dream; if we are both being simultaneously devoured, we will both be in the same dream. This makes it a little more interesting, in my opinion, because it must be more difficult to create a shared relax-and-be-slowly-killed dream for three strangers.

I know, I’m taking Dream Crabs seriously. But I’m watching Doctor Who. And that’s the fun of the thing, innit? To take this week’s preposterous premise seriously and see where it leads us? And that shared-dream business leads to an entertaining scene with the “Helman-Ziegler test” to see if it’s a dream by having the various dreamers all open different copies of a book to the same page to see if they match. I liked that.

But I was telling the story chronologically. Evidently, the next thing that happens is that Clara (do you know about Clara? She’s the Companion these days, but at the end of the season she has chosen to stay home while the Doctor goes on travelling) gets a Dream Catcher in the face, too. This is later explained (or “explained”) as The Dream Crabs must have got to me first then found you in my memory. Does this make sense at all? It does not. Am I bothered? Yeah, a little bit, but so far I can live with this. The Dream Crabs then hit four other humans, nearly simultaneously, so that the shared dream with the Doctor and Clara now has to make room for six. Got it? What’s that? Do we know how those four were found? No. They aren’t found in Clara’s memory, or the Doctor’s, and they’re pretty random (they could be from anywhere in time or space, but in fact they all share a billion cultural referents so, you know, they could be from anywhere in time and space that is familiar with My Little Pony and the Alien movies, and they all have British accents, and please, Mary, they’re about as random as the Giants starting rotation) but somehow (as collateral damage, we are told) they get the Dream Catcher in the face. Boom! Now we have six people who are dying or will die if they don’t figure out that they’re in a dream and then reject the lull-you-into-happy-death dream premise. OK?

All right, so I have problems with the episode already, if you haven’t figured that out, but now we come to the actual show itself. The bit before the titles is presumably the moments in between Clara’s blammo and the Random Four. The dream state is funny with time, of course, so we will ignore how long things may actually take in the actual world: let’s just keep in mind what is happening in the actual world while we’re watching the dreams that we don’t (yet) know are dreams. At the moment, then, we have two people caught in the dream: the Doctor and Clara. And it’s easy enough to keep them happy, one would think… get them together. So there’s Clara and the Doctor arrives. Only first, Clara comes across Santa Claus. This is later explained as being a subconscious resistance to the dream state, and that’s actually kinda-sorta cool: the brain is being forced to be happy so comes up with an obviously false happiness, which can alert the dreamer that it’s a dream. It’s kinda-sorta annoying, too, but it’s the Christmas episode so fine, fine, fine, we have achieved a reason to have Santa Claus in a Doctor Who episode. OK. Fine. I’m fine with that. Really. It’s cool. Santa. Father Christmas. Fine. This falls well within the parameters of taking the preposterous premise seriously.

But when the Doctor arrives in Clara’s dream, the two travel to a research station at the North Pole to join the four randomly-selected middle class British dreamers who are dreaming they are scientists. The audience, by the way—this is a television show made for an audience, I don’t think that’s a spoiler—doesn’t know that we’re in a dream at this point, has no reason to, hasn’t seen a Dream Crab or heard of them. So what are our scientists doing at the North Pole to lull them into happyhappyhappiness whilst the Dream Crabs suck out their brains through a straw? Are they snogging supermodels, cheering on a victorious England footy team in the World Cup and winning Nobel Prizes in Cleverness? Are they unlocking the secrets of the universe and simultaneously inventing hover-egg-nog? Are they dreaming a little dreamy scientist dream of happiness and happiness and calm serene euphoric happiness, such as we are told is the Dream Crab weapon?

No. They are dreaming of terror, and bewilderment, and death. They are dreaming of Dream Crabs. They don’t know what those are until the Doctor explains them, of course, but that’s even scarier. They are dreaming of a nameless alien terror, they are dreaming of a fear you can’t even look at, they are dreaming of their own animated corpses. Good work, Dream Crabs! That’s the stuff! I know nothing would lull me into tranquil beatitude faster than being menaced by a faceless goo-dripping parasite wearing my own body. Natch!

But then we, the audience, don’t know this is a dream, because we are fucking idiots, so that’s all right. But there’s a plot twist! Clara, in the dream that we the audience don’t know is a dream, is captured by a Dream Crab (well done with that placid elation stuff, you alien life form, you, that’ll lull the rest of them into shitting themselves sideways halcyon receptivity) and sent into a dream of her own. Which we are explicitly told is a happy dream. Which features her dead boyfriend. I’m just going to let the whole contents of this dream pass, because (a) evidently lots of people wanted one more scene with the dead boyfriend and I can’t argue with fanservice, and (2) I just can’t. I really just cannot even can. Not even a little bit can I. Although—and this totally is just occurring to me as I am writing this—this is the bit where we find out that two people whose gooey bits are being simultaneously ingested by Dream Crabs are in the same dream, because the Doctor heroically plants a Dream Crab on his mush for just that purpose, to get into Clara’s dream and invade it to warn her that it’s a dream and she’s dying and all. But the Random Four aren’t in this dream at all and the dream has no place for them, despite the later-revealed fact that they are all still being dream-devoured all through this bit, so gestalt geschmalt.

Well, anyway, Clara and the Doctor wake up, only as I say they’re all still dreaming and Clara and the Doctor are just dreaming that they woke up, and then everybody wakes up, only they’re actually still in a dream, yadda yadda yadda, long past the point where we can care at all about any of it, because it’s being shoved in our face that it isn’t actually happening. And then everybody really is saved, and everybody really does wake up, right? And the Doctor is back in the deserty place, wakey wakey, Dream Crab turns to dust, and back to the TARDIS and to Clara, who is still asleep with the Dream Crab on her face, because something something something, and he stuns the Dream Crab with his sonic screwdriver, which is something you can do, evidently, if you’re awake, and it turns out that—gasp!—she’s eighty-three years old! The Doctor has been away for decades! Gasp! Clara and the Doctor are saying goodbye one last time before she leaves the show forever!

OK, a moment please, please just give me a moment, just give me one fucking moment before the big reveal that this too is a dream. The end of the previous episode was the good-bye where Clara stopped travelling with the Doctor. This whole episode, then, is setting up a second good-bye scene.

Wait, did I say a second good-bye scene? Because this is Clara, who has already died twice, legit died, totally died, with death scenes and everything. And then the Doctor died, oh yes died, last regeneration, no possible future, end of the road, with a long and incredibly sentimental good-bye scene. And then in the first episode of this season, the dead Eleventh Doctor calls her on the telephone to have another good-bye scene. So there have been [makes David Tennant teeth] five previous good-bye scenes between the Doctor and Clara, and that is so totally not counting the one where she tells him to go away and never come back when she’s all mad at him at the end of an episode and then forgives him at the beginning of the next, which doesn’t count because I had forgotten all about it before I looked in the wiki to see if I had lost count of how many times she had died. So this one, with the terrible old-age makeup, is the sixth good-bye scene for Clara, who I am now calling the Goodbye Girl by the way, because that is all she ever fucking does is have death scenes and say good-bye, and I am fucking hooting at the screen at this point because it is so stupidly obviously another fake-out.

And yes! It’s another dream! Because the happy dream that the Dream Crabs have decided on for the Doctor and Clara, the dreamy happy happy dreamy dream happy happy dream that is going to make them so happy they won’t mind having their brains slowly liquefied and sipped by goo-dripping killer-spiders, and believe me at this point in the episode I know from brain-liquefaction, the final lullaby of dreamland is that Clara is old and dying, abandoned and alone. It’s hard to decide who would be made happier by this, Clara or the Doctor. What do you think? Is Clara’s happy dream to be old and lonely, but to see her dearest and last friend one more time when she is too aged and weak to travel with him? Or is it the Doctor, who can bask in the warm glow of knowing that he absent-mindedly condemned his companion to sixty-years of slowly maddening isolation? Either way, what a sure bet that neither would want to wake up from that banquet of joyous delight.

Oh, yeah. They do wake up. And she’s young and goes into the TARDIS with him. The end! We are assured that she will be back next season! Hurrah!

So why am I so pissed off? There have been bad episodes of Doctor Who before. I mean, Stones of Blood, innit? I think my ire is earned specifically by fact that every single thing we know about the Dream Crabs is demonstrably false. Literally, actually, really everything. They don’t give happy dreams, and they don’t do that gestalt thing that is the only reason why the Random Four exist in the plot line at all. Even the bit them hanging from the ceilings doesn’t make sense with the Doctor in the deserty bit (which other sharper viewers recognized as the set from a dream sequence in an earlier episode, by the way) where there wasn’t anything above from which they could swoop. They invent a baddie, an at least moderately interesting baddie, and then thoroughly obliterate that invention. It’s not, perhaps, as offensive as when it turns out that everyone who was ever made into a cyberman over the fifty years of the show just didn’t love anyone enough to resist the way Dead Boyfriend did, but this a new baddie and everything about them is violated in the space of an hour. It’s… contemptible. It’s shoddy, and it’s cheap, and it’s lazy, and it’s contemptible.

And this is in the service of… what? Another fake goodbye scene for the Goodbye Girl. The writers of Doctor Who these days, it seems, simply have no way of getting the audience involved in the story without a tearful good-bye scene. (The Dead Boyfriend? Has died in each of the last three episodes. I am not making this up.) Stephen Moffat and his stable have one tool in their box, and it’s a cheap, unearned jerk at the heartstrings and I have gone from bored with it to angry. And to completely and thoroughly destroy the episode’s own premise for manipulative melodrama felt, to me, like a monumental betrayal. Not just a crappy episode, where they fall short of their aim, or aim in the wrong place entirely, but an act of destruction. And not one I will find easy to forgive.

Now, about that Christmas episode of Downton Abbey

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 12, 2014

!yretsyM a s'tI

So. I griped about an episode of Sherlock two years ago, because goodness gracious me what a lousy episode that was. This past week’s episode (The Sign of Three) (whoops, I think that may auto-play, curse it) (whoops again, as it’s now week-before-last’s because it takes me so long to write these things) was not a lousy episode at all, but quite fun, other than the way that cinematographers hate YHB and my Best Reader. But Benedict Cumberbatch is extraordinary at both line delivery and a certain TV-friendly physical quirkiness; Martin Freeman is of course the most likeable man in the world; and Rupert Graves is really unfairly handsome. And much of the dialogue was good. So that’s all right, d’y’see?

So the thing I’m going to be talking about here—and full and total plot spoilers, OK?—is not intended as a criticism of the episode. It’s intended to be an observation about the genre, and a genre convention. I have talked before about the danger of reading mystery novels frontwards rather than backwards; the excellent backwards explanation for the evidence that we find becomes an utterly perplexing and implausible sequence of choices for a murderer to create that evidence. And The Sign of Three may be even worse than the one with the banker who pretends to be a dentist and then leaves a loaded gun in the hedge.

So. Here’s the thing forward from the (attempted) murderer’s point of view.

Jonathan Small grieves for his brother’s death in combat under the command of Major Sholto. The Major, it seems, had led a group of raw recruits into an ambush; they all died and the Major was injured, with facial scars and evident trauma. It isn’t clear whether he was invalided out, was cashiered or chose to retire; at any rate, there was a major media kerfuffle at the time, followed by death threats, after which the Major… retires to a country estate? Is he remarkably wealthy? Anyway, he becomes a paranoid recluse, rarely emerging from his undisclosed secure location in the middle of nowhere. So, when Mr. Small decides to kill Major Sholto, he has set himself a difficult task.

Step One: he finds and seduces at least five women who work for the Major or have recently worked for him. I don’t know how he finds them, but he does. He finds them and seduces them in hopes of getting information that will help him in his murder. Only, when he seduces them, he first looks in the obituaries, picks a recently deceased man, gains access to the dead man’s apartment and then picks up the woman and brings her back to that apartment to winkle her employer’s secrets out of her. Five times. With five different dead guy’s flats. Until he finds out that the Major will be leaving his secure undisclosed location to attend the wedding of John Hamish Watson. Success!

Step Two: Mr. Small spends several days observing one particular Grenadier on parade, doing so clumsily enough that the Grenadier sees a consulting detective about being stalked. Then he finds or creates or has made a very thin, strong, long knife. Long enough to puncture the internal icky stuff; strong enough to be stuck in through the high, wide, tight belt of a Grenadier’s or Fusilier’s uniform (because the point is that he wants it to work with the Major; the Grenadier is for practice) (let’s grant that Mr. Small would surmise that the Major would attend the wedding in uniform rather than in a suit, because character and so forth) and thin enough that it would not cause bleeding when the aforesaid belt was holding the torso together. I don’t happen to have such a knife around the house, but maybe it’s a thing professional photographers have? I dunno. Anyway, he then attempts to murder the perfectly innocent Guardsman for whom he has no animosity, just as practice, you know, and stabs him in front of Sherlock Holmes and John Hamish Watson, the latter of whom is the groom at that wedding we were talking about before. But why not? Because of course the blade is so good that the Grenadier barely feels it until he takes off belt, at which point he nearly bleeds to death.

Step Three: Mr. Small somehow gets the job as wedding photographer at that wedding. I think that he is referred to as the ’substitute’ photographer at some point, but I’m not absolutely certain about that. Anyway, he gets that job and then carries out his plan, stabbing the Major through the belt again, in front of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson and then continuing to photograph the wedding.

There are other plenty of other questionable plot points—the Major is a security-obsessed recluse who the would-be assassin cannot reach, but who hires a succession of people for a variety of temporary jobs around his house and grounds; the woman who leaked the wedding info was sufficiently concerned about her patient’s confidentiality to lie to the consulting detective she hired, but spilled the beans to some guy she met at a bar; the photographer, after having stabbed the Grenadier for rehearsal, carries on with his plan despite the Grenadier’s recovery. None of those plot holes (if they are holes, because arguments) are read-it-forward problems, though, as they make as much or as little sense in either direction. No, these are the ones that make sense backwards—Why were five women seduced in dead men’s apartments? To try to get information about Major Sholto out of them—but not forwards—How do I get information about Major Sholto? Pretend to be a bunch of dead guys and seduce his employees.

I do want to emphasize again that it didn’t ruin the episode for me. It was a good episode. I enjoyed it. I didn’t enjoy the Hound one, but I enjoyed this one. It’s just a thing about mysteries, is what it is.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 30, 2013

TV Report: Half a Hollow Crown

Your Humble Blogger has been meaning to write about The Hollow Crown, the BBC production of Shakespeare’s Henriad that has recently aired on PBS. Alas, I haven’t yet finished watching it. I watched the Richard II and didn’t like it much, and then I watched the Henry IV, Part One and liked it quite a bit.

I disliked the R2 in large part because of how heavy-handed it was. For Richard to think of himself in terms of Christ imagery, well, that’s in the text. For the whole production to buy in to that, well, I think that’s not likely to be a very interesting production. But for—this example is at the end, so, er, spoiler, but also I was all cross about the heavy-handedness throughout, and it kinda built up to this—but for the dead king to be arranged in his coffin specifically to look like the Brunelleschi crucifixion, and then to have the camera actually pan from his body up the wall of the cathedral to the crucifixion fresco… well, it felt to me as if the director was saying Hey assholes! He’s a Christ figure! Get it?

Which I kinda resented.

The H4i, on the other hand, I quite liked. And the scene that has really stuck with me is IV,ii (a public road near Coventry), the one where Falstaff is tramping along with his troop and Hal meets him on the road. So here’s what I liked: it’s a movie, right? So of course Hal is on a horse, and the Earl of Westmoreland by his side is on horse, and of course Jack Falstaff is on foot. He wouldn’t have a horse, would he? If he did have the money, he wouldn’t spend it on a horse, and he wouldn’t keep it if he did, and besides, his job is to march with his men. So, there he is, on foot, and there Hal is, on horse. And Hal is in a hurry, Westmoreland is pressing him and he is himself (at last?) eager to go and prove himself on the field. A moment to bandy words with Old Jack is pleasant enough, he isn’t going to stop. And Jack is showing a brave face on it all, but he is old and fat and out of shape. So while he jogs alongside the horses for a couple of minutes, increasingly out of breath (“food for powder, food for powder”) and desperate, there’s no way he can keep up with Hal now, and soon enough he is left behind.

Which wasn’t heavy-handed at all.

Why not? The H4i scene sounds every bit as heavy-handed as the R2; they are both essentially literalizing the metaphor (or theme) of the text. Surely Hal literally leaving Falstaff behind, the old fat man unable to keep up with his erstwhile protégé who is now up on a high horse, presumably any Gentle Readers who haven’t seen the thing will think it’s as terribly clunky as the crucifixion of R2. And yet, it wasn’t. Not to me.

Can I justify that? Sure, I can justify it. But still.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 17, 2013

insert the dead-horse-beating gif here

An update for no reason whatsoever to my Oscars note from 2010, the one where I talk about Actress Movies. What’s an Actress Movie?

This is the movie that gets made largely because there is one great role, [and] that either never gets wide distribution or fades very quickly from it. There is an Oscar push, not only because the performance is terrific but because that is the only chance to make any money from a deserving flick. If there were no awards, no-one would ever hear about these movies.

I called them Actress Movies even when the role is played by a male actor because it was my belief that there are more Actress Movies with female leads than male leads, and also that the Oscars tend to nominate women from Actress Movies more than they do men—as an example, I would call The Impossible an Actress Movie but not Zero Dark Thirty; I would call Flight an Actress Movie but not Lincoln. Is it subjective? Yeah, in a big way. But I think it’s a real thing anyway.

So anyway, in the last three years there were, of course, fifteen nominations for Best Actress and also fifteen for Best Actor. I count seven of the fifteen nominations for Best Actress as being in Actress Movies: Albert Nobbs, Blue Valentine, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (?), The Impossible, The Iron Lady (?), My Week with Marilyn and Rabbit Hole. I put question marks next to the two I am most on-the-fence about, but five are definitely Actress Movies by my thinking. For the men, I count six: A Better Life, Biutiful, Flight, The Master (?), 127 Hours and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (?). Four definite, two arguable. Anyway, seven to six for the women’s side. Among the other kind of movies I put: Amour (?), The Artist, Beasts of the Southern Wild (?), Black Swan (?), The Descendants, The Help, The Kids are All Right, The King’s Speech, Les Miz, Lincoln, Moneyball, Silver Linings Playbook, Social Network, True Grit, Winter’s Bone (?) and Zero Dark Thirty. That’s sixteen (actually seventeen nominations, as Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence were both nominated for Silver Linings Playbook) with five that are questionable—tho’ all five of those questionable ones have female leads.

Hm. So of the twenty-nine movies, we have thirteen Actress Movies. Or maybe eighteen. Or nine. A bunch, anyway.

I should add that I have nothing against these movies at all, and that I am often more interested in those movies than in the other kind. I read somewhere—I wish I could remember where, but I cannot—that if a playwright wants to write immortal plays—plays that will still be performed after fifty or a hundred years—the secret is to write one great bravura role against which a great middle-aged actor will want to measure himself (or herself, of course). Ensembles are fine for getting a show produced now, but when a production company is kicking around a season or a Broadway run, the edge goes to the show that will lure a Name. That’s what an Actress Movie usually is—something that Meryl Streep or Annette Bening or Jeff Bridges or Gary Oldman can’t resist. Ideally, of course, there’s also other good things about the movie, but not necessarily.

I don’t really have a point here, actually, but I happened to notice the note and thought I would bring it up to date.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 6, 2013

Cut it the fuck out

OK, look—I know that y’all understand this, but I gotta rant for a minute. I get that it’s funny that the guy that will be playing Doctor Who is closely associated with a role famous for being inventively sweary. I like swearing! I’ve been meaning to get around to watching The Thick of It specifically for the sweary bits.

Which were written by a fellow named Ian Martin, assisting Jesse Armstrong and Armando Ianucci, as I understand it.

It certainly appears that Peter Capaldi did a terrific job with delivering the lines, mind you. Lovely swearing there. Lovely rhythm, lovely intensity, nice use of volume dynamic. Well done, actor. That’s what actors do, you know, is deliver lines written by other people (sometimes called ‘writers’), bringing both their creative powers and their skills to bear. It’s a task Mr. Capaldi will be doing as the Doctor, too: saying words written by someone else. Different words. Mr. Martin will not be writing sweary bits for him for this character.

I had been telling people that they would not choose any actor who was strongly identified with a particular character for that very reason—people who know perfectly well that actors read from scripts still have difficulty with the concept. I suppose it’s a mark of the skill exhibited by them all.

More on this actors-delivering-lines stuff soon.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 1, 2013

Movie Report: The Amateurs

Your Humble Blogger happened to watch a movie last night. Not a current movie, of course, no, but a movie. It’s called The Amateurs, it’s written and directed by Michael Traeger and it’s not a bad movie. A little slow-paced for my taste, but the cast is terrific and it’s sweet and rather funny. So that’s all right. The plot of the movie, though, wound up intersecting with some recent news, and since I was looking for a reason to link to Irin Carmon’s excellent blog post Things that look like feminism but aren’t, I think I’m going to talk about it a little bit. Caution: not entirely safe for work, depending of course on your workplace. And, um, spoilers.

So. The plot of the movie is that a bunch of guys in Small Town USA decide to make what they call a porno, by which they mean a feature-length movie with lots of hard-core sex, which will be their ticket to riches and fame. The details aren’t terribly important, but for the purposes of this discussion, it’s half-a-dozen men—middle-aged single men without daughters (one has a son)—who decide to make a movie with lots of sex in it. Oh, and it’s probably important that they have very little capital to spend. It’s important to the movie that one of the fellows is gay, but I don’t think that’s relevant to what I’m going to be talking about. You might disagree. Oh, and it’s worth saying that there are two female investors in the movie, two dumpy middle-aged women without noticeable characters (other than it being funny that two dumpy middle-aged women are willing to put up money for a porno) and who are along with another three guys not involved in any of the practical planning of the porno. It’s the six men who, and this is where I start coming to my point, have to find the performers.

Now, because the guys have very little money, and are besides that totally incompetent, they are not able to hire professionals. Instead, they look around their small town for people they know. Part of the gag is that, while all these guys are all enthusiastically pro-porn, they are also old-fashioned prudes in a lot of ways; they find it very difficult to actually ask women if they are interested in a job being filmed having sex. And another part of the gag is that they are surprised and in fact shocked that there are women who say yes. There is something deep here about our culture and filmed pornography and sex and so forth, but the movie has no idea what it is.

OK, I’m going through a list, now.

  1. Charlene, who is twenty and works at the register of the DQ-equivalent, consents. She’s not enthusiastic, but she says that she is bored out of her mind in the small town, and that she fucks around a lot just out of boredom, so she might as well get paid for doing it in a movie. Plus, the opportunity for fame and riches appeals to her—she seems to recognize that it’s a very slim chance, but she sees no other opportunities at all. She winds up not, in fact, filming a sex scene because of Plot.
  2. Ellie, who is a young woman who works in the mattress store in town, consents. The initial consent is off-camera; in a later scene she puts certain conditions on her involvement, which are agreed to. Her scene is filmed (off-screen, of course) and is watched by the six guys. It isn’t clear whether anyone else sees it. We see her afterward, and she seems pleased about the whole sequence of events.
  3. Veronica, the young woman who owns the mattress store, consents. She is actually one of Ellie’s conditions, and is in the scene with Ellie; we see her afterward, happy and with Ellie.
  4. Peggy, who is middle-aged and has a son, is approached but not actually asked when it is made clear that she would not consent. In fact, the screenplay goes out of the way to indicate that asking her to be in it would have offended her, and kinda congratulates our protagonist for backing off before coming to the point.
  5. V, who is a middle-aged (advanced middle age? Sixtyish, let’s say) stripper, consents enthusiastically. She is bored by the preparations, but appears to enjoy the activity (which happens off-screen) and shows no regret at all. It is implied that she also is a prostitute, although that isn’t made, er, explicit, but that should probably be taken into account in this particular money-for-filmed-sex transaction.
  6. Helen, who has no visible means of support, is the most interesting case. She is initially approached and refuses; in a moment of high emotion she resolves to go through with it (being in need of the money) and does so. It is clear that she feels humiliated by the whole thing, and later she asks to be removed from the film, which they do. This consent issue is complicated, though, because by the time she asks, they have already removed and destroyed the film of the scene. You see, one of the six guys is in love with her, and when he learns that she has agreed to be in it, she is heartbroken and asks for the film. They give it to him and he throws it in the fire. When she, later, hears about this, she (I guess) realizes that he really does love her, and they are married and live proverbially ever after.
  7. There is also a scene where one of the Six Guys asks a bunch of women at the beautician’s, which we cut away from, but which doesn’t result in any participants.

And then, of course, because The Amateurs is that kind of movie, the only copy of the finished porno is destroyed before anyone can see it because of Plot. So there are no consequences, properly speaking, at all.

But what interested me is that the movie can’t seem to make up its mind about porn and consent anyway. I think the movie is trying—quite rightly—to say that women who want to be in porn movies can be making the right choice for them, and that women who do not want to be in porn movies can be making the right choice for them, and that the fundamental issue is not sex at all but consent. But it cheats. It thinks that Helen and Charlene ought not to have consented, and so it allows them to not participate (or to have the participation expunged). Doesn’t that take the power of consent away from them? And once you are looking at it like that, doesn’t the movie take away Peggy’s power of consent by not actually asking her? Not to mention that (it being a comedy and all) there is no regret or remorse—other than Helen’s, where her mistaken consent is overridden. There’s no sense that women ought to make their own foolish or ill-informed choices just like human beings.

And see, this is where that article by Irin Carmon comes in. It’s one thing to have an opinion—it’s fine to have an opinion—but it’s another to disregard the choices made by the people who are actually making the decisions and living with the consequences of them. I can’t say what is properly feminist or not feminist, or what’s not feminist enough, or what’s not as feminist as it looks. But I think that if we were to get into the habit of respecting people’s choices, and supporting people’s choices over their own lives even when those choices are regrettable and wrong, then that whole feminism thing would suddenly get much, much easier.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 26, 2013

Pinning the Tail

Your Humble Blogger didn’t watch the Oscars. I didn’t have a bet on it, and there wasn’t anybody I was particularly rooting for or against, and my Best Reader and I are working our way through the Tenth Doctor episodes. Plus, I’m old. I am not the demographic they are looking for.

This was particularly driven home to me when I heard about the “We Saw Your Boobs” song. Evidently—y’all can correct me on this—as part of a segment that was more-or-less terrible things that Seth MacFarlane ought not do as host of the Oscars (which of course gives him an out) Mr. MacFarlane sang a ditty about all the Oscar-nominated actresses who have appeared topless in movies. It was, in fact, a terrible thing to do, and Mr. McFarlane did it. If you want to read commentary, Amy Davidson’s Seth MacFarlane and the Oscars’ Hostile, Ugly, Sexist Night is a good one, as are Allison Wright’s These Things Are Not Okay and Margaret Lyons’ Why Seth MacFarlane’s Misogyny Matters.

Anyway, I didn’t see the thing. So why am I writing about it? After all, it’s not like I’m going to add anything useful to the commentary that’s out there. Well, except that none of the commentary I have seen mentions that the tune for the song was the we figured it out portion of “Seven and a Half Cents” which (as Mr. MacFarlane knows) is from The Pajama Game, a show in which workplace harassment plays no small part. Worth pointing out, I think. But other than that, why would I write about it?

The answer, Gentle Reader, is that I am not writing about it. I’m writing about Queen Vashti.

The Oscars began on Purim local time, you know. And I was at a purimspiel the night before, hearing the annual travesty of the book of Esther when something occurred to me about Vashti. Purim morning, reading the internet, I learned a midrash about Vashti that I hadn’t known before. And I was kinda sorta thinking about writing those two things up, and I had decided that I wouldn’t bother. And then Seth MacFarlane sang about Scarlett Johansson’s boobs, and… well, I feel I should write about Vashti.

Hm. I don’t know whether non-Jews know about Vashti at all. I know the Esther story comes up a lot in some Fundamentalist circles, but I assume that there’s a good deal of editing involved… anyway, the story starts with King Ahasuerus (gesundheit) at a feast, his heart being merry with wine, asking his chamberlains

(1:11) To bring Vashti the queen before the king with the crown royal, to shew the people and the princes her beauty: for she [was] fair to look on. (1:12) But the queen Vashti refused to come at the king's commandment by [his] chamberlains: therefore was the king very wroth, and his anger burned in him.

He seeks advice from the kings and princes:

(1:16 )And Memucan answered before the king and the princes, Vashti the queen hath not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the people that [are] in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus. (1:17)For [this] deed of the queen shall come abroad unto all women, so that they shall despise their husbands in their eyes, when it shall be reported, The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not. (1:18) [Likewise] shall the ladies of Persia and Media say this day unto all the king's princes, which have heard of the deed of the queen. Thus [shall there arise] too much contempt and wrath. (1:19) If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, That Vashti come no more before king Ahasuerus; and let the king give her royal estate unto another that is better than she. (1:20) And when the king's decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his empire, (for it is great,) all the wives shall give to their husbands honour, both to great and small. (1:21) And the saying pleased the king and the princes; and the king did according to the word of Memucan: (1:22) For he sent letters into all the king's provinces, into every province according to the writing thereof, and to every people after their language, that every man should bear rule in his own house, and that [it] should be published according to the language of every people.

So. Vashti is commanded to show her beauty. She refuses and is banished, which leaves a vacancy for Esther to step into, and then the story begins. Vashti disappears from the story and is never heard from again. That’s all we actually know about her from the Scripture.

Of course, that’s not enough, so the everybody elaborates over the ages. First of all, it’s made clear that Vashti was commanded to appear wearing the royal crown and nothing else. In fact—and plausibly enough for Persia at the time—the Queen was being required to dance naked for the King’s royal guests, and possibly more than that. This indicates the licentiousness of the court, of course, although why we need sexual licentiousness to indicate the degeneracy of a court that has wine in golden goblets for 187 days of feasting is an interesting question in itself. Still and all, that’s the command, and it is understood, then, to be demeaning and disrespectful. Yes?

But that’s not enough. Because the Sages of blessed memory don’t like Vashti, and want (unsurprisingly, when you think about it) to set up Esther and her virtue in contrast to Vashti and her (nontextual) vice. But if Vashti is, as the Sages say, a whore, then why did she not come to service the King’s guests? And this is where the thing I had never learned comes into play: because of her tail.

Her tail?

Yes, her tail. Rabbi Josh Waxman of Parshablog writes in How did Vashti grow a tail? about the evidently well-known commentary in Megillah 12B

“Vashti the queen refused”—let us see [why]. She was a whore! For Master said: both of them (Vashti and Achashverosh) intended to sin. If so, for what reason did she not come? Rabbi Rossi bar Chanina said: This teaches that she developed an outbreak of leprosy. In a brayta they teach that (the angel) Gavriel came and fashioned for her a tail.

This tail serves two purposes: first, it brings into the story Divine action that is otherwise quite conspicuously absent throughout. But also, it humiliates Vashti, taking away her sexual power, which is the only power she is allowed by the Sages of blessed memory. That power is viewed wholly negatively, of course, so she receives all the blame of being a whore, and the humiliation of being a freakish failure at it. Frankly, there are times when I’m not very fond of the Sages of blessed memory.

But here’s the point: I just learned about Vashti’s tail this week. I wasn’t taught that as a kid. I was taught that Vashti was proud and haughty, but not that she was a whore with a tail. And my kids? My kids are being taught that Vashti is a role model. A secondary heroine of the story. The purimspiel every year at Temple Beth Bolshoi gives her a whole song to express how her self-respect demands that she leave the King and his contemptible demands. My kids are being taught that the proper response to Show us your boobs is not shame but self-respect, along with contempt for the jerks who demand it. I was struck, during that purimspiel, but how much our reactions to Vashti change along with the world. How much Vashti changes. How much I have changed.

Now, I still have to admit: I like boobies. I am extremely susceptible thereto. As Mr. MacFarlane brings out, even in serious movies a flash of boobies will focus my degenerate mind on the flesh rather than the substance. I watched the first episode of Game of Thrones the other night and found it unpleasant mostly because it successfully caught me in its nasty voyeuristic boobie games. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean it was bad filmmaking, or that the actresses are worthy of contempt. Given the cultural context, exposure as vulnerability can be tremendously effective.

Furthermore, in situations where the flashing of boobies is entirely voluntary and fun, I’m all for it. I don’t think changing our views to disallow Vashti the flaunting of her boobies (or her shoulders) is a solution at all. The point is that it’s Vashti’s choice. She should never feel compelled to strip at her husband’s command, even when her husband is the king. She should strip when she wants to strip, and gain whatever benefits accrue to herself, whether that is the acclaim of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or the Super Bowl halftime show or just a fun night at home with the sweetie.

And—remember Memucan the Prince of Persia? His point was that we tend to pattern ourselves after the rich and famous. And we do. When the host of the Oscars makes dismissive boobie jokes about actresses, that's a pattern for us to match. When Ahasuerus demands that his wife show her beauty to his buddies, that's a pattern for us to match. We shouldn't do it as much as we do, but we do. And (as the estimable E.J. Graff writes in Social Climate Change) to raise our children (and ourselves) healthily, we need to swim in unpoisoned cultural water, and that ain't easy.

It means, among other things, giving Vashti her own song in the purimspiel. It means, among other things, saying that Seth MacFarlane is, like the Sages of blessed memory, trying to pin tails on women that do not have them. It means, among other things, telling actors—men and women—that they can reveal themselves and their bodies in their work as they choose, with our respect.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 11, 2013

Dream Casting

Your Humble Blogger spent a couple of snowed-in hours watching Shakespeare in Love again. It’s a fun movie. I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen it since it came out in the theaters, and I had come to think of it as overrated, which is possibly true, but then it got rated as overrated, so perhaps it’s now underrated. I mean, it’s just a fun movie, but it is a fun movie.

And, of course, much of the fun is that absolutely magnificent supporting cast. I mean, yes, Judy Dench’s Oscar-winning Elizabeth R is a glorified cameo, but it’s such a good glorified cameo! And the men in their glorified cameos—Simon Callow, Rupert Everett, Antony Sher, Patrick Barlow, Martin Clunes, Mark Williams. In addition to Geoffrey Rush and Tom Wilkinson in actual supporting roles. And IMDB tells me that John Inman is in the thing, which I did not spot at all.

But the reason I am bothering telling you so is that Jim Carter plays one of the small supporting roles: a drunken actor who had been given the role of the Pirate King (Ethel’s father) but who is recast as the Nurse. And, as we’re seeing little bits and pieces of the play within the play, I’m thinking: Jim Carter would be awesome in that part! So. I want to see Jim Carter play the Nurse in R&J. Make it happen, someone.

January 6, 2013

Movie Report: The Decoy Bride

So. Consider what you know about the plot of a movie, knowing only that it is called The Decoy Bride. You know, for instance, that there’s a bride, and then that there’s a decoy bride. A groom can be assumed as well—a movie about a same-sex wedding with a decoy bride couldn’t be called The Decoy Bride, although now that I think about it, if one of the grooms has, say, and elderly and prejudiced aunt who they decide to trick into thinking… it could be a funny movie, but it’s the wrong title. Now, The Decoy Bride has got to be the one where the groom is going to marry the wrong woman, and needs a decoy bride for some reason (in the actual movie, it’s to avoid the press) and then he winds up accidentally marrying the decoy and then has to get the thing anulled, and meanwhile he falls in love with the decoy, and the intended bride falls in love with somebody else. All of that is perfectly obvious, right?

So I said before the movie started that I was going to be disappointed if they didn’t get the groom into a wedding dress, and disappointed I was. And they were nearly there: the groom (who was played by David Tennant, by the way) had saved the decoy bride from drowning, and they were both soaked, and they had to go back to her place and take off their wet things. We’re nearly there! All we need is for her to take his clothes away (to hang them on the line or whatever) and then for somebody to knock at the door. What would his fiancee think if she finds him in his underpants in this woman’s apartment? He has to hunt for something to wear and there isn’t anything—business, here, I would think, about him trying to fashion a garment out of random bits of things (the sofa throw and an apron from the kitchen?) while doing the just a minute, can’t find the key through the door—and then a quick cut to the outside of the door and we see over the shoulder of whoever is there (not the fiancee, of course, but a… policeman? A little old lady collecting for charity? Lots of possibilities) as he opens the door wearing the dress.

That’s all I ask. The titular decoy can come in at that moment and give him something more reasonable to wear; he doesn’t have to run around the rest of the movie in the dress. Although, of course, funny if he did.


You know, in that other movie, could you call it The Bride was a Beard?

I’m thinking, also, that (a) the whole thing is a misapprehension and that the old lady who everybody is trying to fool is actually gay-positive, which the audience knows from an early scene, or (2) the BeardBride winds up with the wrong rich old lady. Ideally, really, a rich old lady who is actually a man in drag.

You know, The Bride was a Beard might be a better movie that The Decoy Bride

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 1, 2013

Drag, it's a drag

Your Humble Blogger has never been particularly interested in watching filmed versions of Discworld books. I know there are a few of them, and they are presumably available, and I haven’t bothered. Much of the fun is in the writing, with the notes at the bottom of the page and all, and I don’t think that a good cast would make up for missing those jokes. As I was rereading Monstrous Regiment recently, though, I was thinking that it might be fun on film. Since the main running joke of the thing is that—

Um, spoiler, right? If you haven’t read the book and think you might enjoy reading it and that the putative enjoyment would be better if you were surprised by the surprisey bits, then perhaps not so much reading this note. OK?

Anyway. The main running joke of the thing is that practically all the men in the thing turn out to be women in drag. There are a few men dressed as men, and (at least) one man dressed as a woman, but almost the whole character list are men who turn out to be women. Which is the sort of thing that would be funny on film. It often is.

In, then, musing over the possible cast choices, it occurred to me that a company would have some difficult choices to make. The main cast should all be played by women, I think—Polly, of course, and Tonker and Shufti and and Wazzer and Lofty. I would think that Igorina and Maledicta and Jade should be played by women, I suppose, depending on how much they are going to be actually visible. If they are almost totally animated, then they could be voiced by anyone who can do the voice well, right? But what about the rest of them? I was thinking particularly of General Froc and the rest of the brass, which are the sort of part where you really want to get some extremely well-known person doing a cameo. But an extremely well-known woman would be obviously a woman in drag, and that might ruin the surprise; and an extremely well-known man would obviously not be a woman in drag, and that might ruin the joke. Or you could disguise the celebrities under so much latex that they are completely unrecognizeable, which might ruin the cameos. And of course you could forgo the cameos, which would make the scene much less amusing.

And then, well, then there’s the Sarge. Sargeant Jackrum, who may well be the devil in disguise, and who is (a) one of those stout fellows who is an almost perfectly spherical mass of muscle, and (2) the last and final person to be revealed to be a woman in drag. Well almost the last. The last that’s a surprise plot point, anyway. In a filmed version, probably the actual last. But at any rate, the Sarge is a huge character throughout the story, and even after it turns out that every single man in the whole thing is a woman in drag, it’s still a good scene when we discover that—to our surprise—the Sarge is a woman in drag. So who plays the Sarge, and how do we handle that?

My initial inclination was to have Dawn French play the Sarge and give up on the semi-surprise at the end. My second inclination was to have Robbie Coltrane play the Sarge and trust his acting ability to make the reveal work for the audience. My third inclination is to… I haven’t had a third inclination yet.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 28, 2012

Movie Report: Brave

Your Humble Blogger watched Brave yesterday. I enjoyed it a lot; there were certainly flaws, here and there, but it was largely an enjoyable movie. It was also an interesting movie. And since what interested me the most is tied up in the plot (naturally), the rest of this note is full of spoilers.

I’ve seen quite a few children’s movies, but there are a lot more that I haven’t seen. When I compare this movie to the general run, it’s true that my impression of the general run is not complete. I’ve seen 33 out of the top 50 box office grossers in the animation genre; if you adjust for inflation, it’s probably a bit more. I’ll call it two out of three of the big-deal, wide release toys-in-the-fast-food-joints cartoons, the group that Brave is in. So when I say that this movie has the best mother ever, I am willing to concede that there are movies I haven’t seen, even movies I have heard of, that might have better mothers. But seriously? Best mother ever.

First of all, she’s the best Disney Mother ever, even before she is turned into a bear. Yes, that’s a low bar that she clears by being (a) alive and (2) reasonably bright. But really, she saves her daughter’s life. She is queen, and while the movie makes fun of her for her emphasis on regal queenliness (and princessliness), it also shows her using that majestic mien as a tool of governance. And she is an active participant in governing, insofar as there is any governance of the clans in the movie. Certainly she is the diplomatist of the clan; the correspondence goes to her.

But then, when she is in bear form, she is even better. Mostly because she utterly kicks ass as a bear, including a massive paw-to-paw fight with an evil enchanted bear, but also because she is able to back down from her prideful stubbornness without giving in where she is right. And that’s pretty impressive—the mother and daughter are both represented as being wrong in the (somewhat draggy) middle of the movie, and the problem is solved when they both recognize that and move to a new, forward-looking, progressive, and open-ended solution. The daughter comes to see that her actions were selfish, and comes to care for the good of the clan; the mother comes to see that her viewpoint was blinkered, and comes to a new understanding of the good of the clan. An understanding that does not require her daughter’s total self-abnegation.

Because the mother’s transformation is not skin deep. She is truly transformed, and is reborn naked into a new world. Transformation is what happens in stories, of course, and in a kid’s movie it’s nice to see that transformation taken seriously, but the movie manages to make that transformation without making it a betrayal of the earlier, pre-transformation character. It would have been easy to make the post-bear character another fun-loving chaotic (masculine) figure of disorder; they did not. The transformation gave her an understanding of those figures, but did not turn her into one, herself. To the extent that the movie follows the Apollo/Dionysus thing, it keeps some respect for the Apollonian forces of order and restraint, even while clearly siding with the Dionysian revelers. Because, you know, kid’s movie.

Which brings me to my real point: I don’t know much about the actual moviemakers, but it sure seems to me like a movie made by people who really, really like Studio Ghibli movies—transformation, the young female lead, the witch (who was a clear homage), stuff I can’t describe well about the use of landscape—but who are Hollywood filmmakers deeply immersed in Hollywood filmmaking, fully a part of the Western tradition. People who aren’t going to slavishly imitate the Studio Ghibli movies, people who have thought about the movies and internalized what they liked, and made a movie that is fully Western and fully Hollywood while also showing that Ghibli influence. And while it oughtn’t to be at all surprising that there are people like that making movies, and maybe there are others, I haven’t noticed any.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 10, 2012

A quote for all occasions, or at least a lot of them.

There’s this scene in the movie Carrington that has stuck with me. If you haven’t seen it—and I know you haven’t, which is too bad, because for all its flaws, it’s worth seeing—Jonathan Pryce plays Lytton Strachey, mostly during and after the Great War, and deals in some measure with Mr. Strachey’s opposition to that war. He attempts to be classified as a Conscientious Objector, but is instead invalided on medical grounds. It’s implied that his outrageous persona is in developed in part as a performance to get the C.O. classification, but which he grows comfortable in for its own sake. At any rate, there he is, Bloomsburygrouping around at home while the war is going on and on and on. He knits socks for the boys, and (my recollection of this may be enhanced by the years since I saw it) the knitting is a provocation against martial masculinity while simultaneously being a sincere attempt to provide comfort to the young men who (not incidentally) he finds so attractive.

Anyway. He and Dora Carrington are, as I remember it, strolling through the a copse or something and come across a garden party. I don’t have any sense of the details. I remember, possibly inaccurately, the two of them, in the shadow of the trees, and the Bright Young Things in the sun, chattering and eating and running, giggling and shrieking and dancing. And Jonathan Pryce does this moue inside the preposterous but historically accurate beard, and pronounces: “Thousands of boys are dying every day to preserve this. D’y’know?” And then, slowly and with great precision: “God damn, confound, blast and fuck the upper classes.”

I have found the video! I don’t know how long it will be up, but try watching from about 5:00 to 5:30 or so.

Anyway, I was reminded of that today for some reason.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 23, 2012


Look. I wasn’t going to complain about this, but why didn’t Sherlock know that the plaster cast was fake?

I don’t mean that Sherlock, I mean this Sherlock, the twenty-first century updating that is largely enjoyable and quite clever. But the Sherlock Holmes in this series (as written by Mark Gatiss and created by Mr. Gatiss and Steven Moffatt) is the kind of hyper-observant detective—the Sherlock Holmes type, in fact—who not only notices that a grotty napkin somebody uses to blow his nose has a phone number on it, but that the phone number was written before the napkin was used to blot a coffee spill, and that the numbers were gone over in pen after the coffee spill to keep them legible. But when he looks at a plaster cast of the footprints of a gigantic hound, he doesn’t spot that it’s a fake.

Digression: it’s an enormous hound in the episode. In the original novel, the quote is “… the footprints of a gigantic hound”, not an enormous hound. I wonder if Basil Rathbone sees the footprints of an enormous hound, or if it gigantic in that one, too. I don’t think it’s one of the great nonexistent quotes (Play it again, Sam or Judy, Judy, Judy) but it’s odd that it seems to have come down in our cultural memory as enormous, rather than gigantic. That said, I am presumably the only one who would have found it incapacitatingly funny had our Henry combined them and said he had seen the footprints of a ginormous hound. End Digression.

The episode was bad in other ways as well. It would have been disappointing had the solution been that there really was a genetically-enhanced super-dog escaped from the secret government lab, but so it was disappointing that there was a chemically enhanced super-hallucinogen escaped from a different secret government lab. The focus on the security of the secret government lab was deflated by the news that one of the scientists had accidentally taken an experimental animal home; the later discovery that one of the other scientists had been wandering around with his super-hallucinogen for twenty years without attracting the attention of the security forces didn’t really come as a surprise. Nor did we bother asking why none of those security forces had done any investigating at all of a random critic turning up dead in the woods just outside the minefield, nor why the murderer didn’t seem worried about his employers possibly investigating another corpse in the same spot. We didn’t bother because at that point we already knew: evidence had been superseded by a chemically enhanced super-hallucinogen from the secret government lab. Nothing anybody saw needed to have actually happened, and nothing anybody did needed to have a sensible motivation, because, hey, chemically enhanced super-hallucinogen from the secret government lab.

But the conversation with the punter with the plaster cast was before all that. And it didn’t make sense to begin with. Why was he so reluctant to show the cast, which he was carrying around in a knapsack, presumably to show as part of his tour? If he just didn’t want to give it away for free, why didn’t he tell the out-of-town couple that they could see his proof on the tour? Or just hint that a fiver would open his knapsack? Why did he require the psychological pressure at all? I am also curious whether he knew it was a fake, either because he faked it (the most obvious reason) or because it was given to him by someone he assumed would fake the thing (the pub couple are the obvious culprits) or because he’s just the kind of person that assumes that everything is fake. Or does he think it’s real? Would he be disappointed to know that there isn’t a megadog in the woods? Given the super-hallucinogen and its plot-destroying properties, perhaps he thinks it’s real because he thinks he made it himself.

I haven’t watched the last one yet. I hope to enjoy it. I’ve enjoyed four of the previous five, some more than others, and even the Hound one had some good things in it. The fun of them is in the interaction of Holmes and Watson (and Lestrade, to a lesser extent, and in places Mycroft); the detection is less entertaining. But less entertaining shouldn’t be infuriating, and this was infuriating in a way that, for example, a timebombcrossbow or a jumbo jet full of corpses was not.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 27, 2012

Studio Ghibli and the rest of the Hollywood elite

OK, I don’t really want to turn this Tohu Bohu into whinging about Republicans, but… have any of you actually watched this?

Lou Dobbs, on Fox Business, claims that the release of two children’s movies with a liberal theme is an invidious attempt by liberal Hollywood to suborn the loyalty of decent Conservative children to support the agenda of Our Only President. Of course, one of the films was not made in Hollywood at all, and both of them are based on decade’s-old books. Oh, and his series of clips where Our Only President talks about fairness—a fair shake, a fair deal, paying one’s fair share—don’t actually match up with the clips from the movies, which don’t mention fairness at all.

Now, I know that this wasn’t a serious bit. Mr. Dobbs could not keep a straight face through the four and a half minute segment. His three talk-radio-host guests ranged from boisterous silliness to weary submission, but it was clear that none of the three thought this was a serious bit. I have two problems, though.

First, I can’t quite figure out what is funny about the segment. I mean, if it wasn’t Lou Dobbs on Fox, I could imagine that it was intended as a parody of lunatic anti-Obama paranoia. It still wouldn’t have been funny, to my way of thinking, lacking the kind of satiric madness that the Comedy Channel folk still occasionally flash, but that would clearly be the intended joke. As it is, the only think I can think of is that it was a kind of wink-wink joke about how much time these channels have to fill, kind of like the inane banter graphic that the Red Sox broadcasts used to flash.

And (B), if you were Lou Dobbs or his producer, wouldn’t you be worried that people would think you were, you know, unhinged? I mean, people who broadly speaking agree with your bizarre political demagoguery (or they wouldn’t be watching), but who, you know, have heard of Dr. Seuss before? Really, this is as much as I have watched Lou Dobbs in ten years, but… I’m a little worried about him. He does remember that Japan is on a whole different continent, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 13, 2012

The long, long road to Downton Abbey

Your Humble Blogger would just like to ask—since I expect to be watching the second series of Downton Abbey entirely online, do I have to wait for the official site to present it? I mean, I feel quite certain that the remaining six episodes are available in flavorful torrenty goodness and have been since a few minutes after they aired in Britain last autumn. It may not be legal to download those files and watch them, but it’s certainly feasible.

On the one hand, of course, I wish to support PBS and their investment (with ITV) in Downton Abbey, and I certainly have no interest in quote-unquote stealing from them or making their business plans more difficult than they need to be. On the other, it’s not clear to me how watching the episodes on the PBS site actually helps PBS in any way. Surely, if anything, it’s a strain on their resources. I mean, when they do finally post Episode 2, there will be millions of people attempting to stream it all at once; those who have already illegally downloaded and watched the thing will be making room for those who have not. The polite thing would be to grab it now, and watch it tonight, right?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 9, 2012

Two Movies

Since Christmas, Your Humble Blogger recently watched two recent movies (amazing but true! …as long you are willing to consider a movie that was at Sundance in 2004 as recent) about women’s rights. It seems worth writing a note about them.

Digression: First of all, of course, women’s rights are rights; I feel goofy calling them women’s rights as if they were rights that were in some sense reserved for women. Iron Jawed Angels was about female suffrage; the right to vote is not a woman’s right but a citizen’s right that was unjustly denied women. Similarly, Made in Dagenham is about women machinists on strike; the right to (meaningful) collective bargaining and workplace action is not a woman’s right but a worker’s right that was unjustly denied women. Furthermore, as is so often the case, when women are denied a right that ought to be universal, men’s rights are not strengthened but weakened. If I am in a democracy where any large class of citizens (vaddevah dat means) are disenfranchised, that hampers not only the election of a representative legislature that will take into account the diversity of experience in the country (or state or town) but the ability of the elected officials to respond to the underrepresented minorities and still be reelected. Expansion of the franchise is good for the democratic society, and furthers the creation of a democratic people; narrowing of the franchise therefore rather than diluting my vote, weakens my society. Similarly, inclusion of women in collective bargaining, union representation and workplace action enhanced, rather than competed with, male worker’s rights, on the unfortunately rare occasions where it was attempted. On the other hand, there is a history there about the specific denial of human rights to women, and of women acting to enhance their own rights, and that has gone by the name women’s rights (or women’s liberation), so if I say these movies are about women’s rights, not only will people know what I mean, but it will place these movies and their stories into a context that is appropriately specific to women. Right? So complicated. End Digression.

So. Two movies. I only liked one of them, but that’s probably my problem. Well, and I have a tremendous fondness for British films of this sort, and of the kind of acting that this movie presents. Seriously, Bob Hoskins makes me giddy, as does Miranda Richardson in many of her scenes, and the magnificent Kenneth Graham, and John Sessions, and Joseph Kloska and Miles Jupp as two dunderheaded undersecretaries, and a bunch of other people, because that is how British film of this kind works. I mean, it’s a particular sort of presentational acting. In the other movie, Hilary Swank as Alice Paul does a great deal of emoting, and is perhaps more naturalistic and heart-tugging, but I don’t really like that. Anjelica Huston is the only one in the Alice Paul movie who performs in something like the British style, and as far as I’m concerned she completely steals all her scenes.

Which mention of Anjelica Huston brings me to the observation I wanted to write about: these movies both feature an older accommodationist woman, who provides the final pivot of the plot when she reverses course and supports the more revolutionary lead. In the Alice Paul movie, it’s the great Carrie Chapman Catt; in the machinists’ movie, it’s the great Barbara Castle. In both cases, the moment is clearly a construct of the movie; neither Ms. Catt nor Baroness Castle were quite as accommodationist as they are portrayed. But it’s a great moment in this kind of movie, and I certainly don’t begrudge the movie-makers those moments.

The question that comes to my mind, though, is to wonder if anybody, in watching these moments or similar ones (and there are similar ones in such movies) wants to grow up to be the accommodationist who knows the right moment to stop accommodating. Because I gotta say damn I love and admire those people. Yes, the fighters-from-outside are great, and I admire them whole-heartedly. But it’s the guy who has been getting inch-by-inch progress, all the while telling people that they have to wait for more, and who then finds the moment to go all in—that’s the guy I love. It’s why LBJ was, against all odds, a great president (as well as a terrible one, but that’s a different story); why Tony Blair was, against all odds, not a great Prime Minister. I don’t claim to any insight on when those moments come (I can’t help thinking that one was missed on the Affordable Care Act, but it’s certainly possible that the moment will come next time) and there are the tragic figures who live their lives without that moment coming at all, but when it happens, it’s so fucking great. When Carrie Chapman Catt finally walks in to the Oval Office and tells Woodrow Wilson that it’s now or never, the answer was now.

That doesn’t just happen in movies, does it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 8, 2011

Film Report: Yiddle with his Fiddle

Your Humble Blogger watched Yidl mitn Fidl the other night. It’s the classic Yiddish film, the most commercially successful talkie in Yiddish, with not one but two songs that became klezmer standards (or at least very popular songs to play and record), and of course, the defining role for Molly Picon, the Yiddish Helen Hayes (Helen Hayes, when hearing the title, said she always wanted to be the shiksa Milly Picon). So. I finally watched the movie. And it was… interesting.

OK, first of all, there’s a lot of great stuff. Molly Picon was wonderful— she’s playing a teenage (or so) young woman who spends most of the movie pretending to be a boy, and she is funny, sexy and utterly charming. So that’s all right. The two great songs (the title song and Oy, Mama, bin ish farlibt) are great songs, but the demands of the movie make the sound and performances less terrific than some of the other recordings. This is a common problem with songs that can be lifted out of shows, not just in Yiddish but in a lot of the early musical movies. Anyway, they are great songs. There’s also a terrific scene where the musicians help a bride run away from her arranged marriage, with the wedding guests dancing ecstatically and making so much noise that the klezmorim are able to slip away unseen (and more important, unheard). There’s also a lovely running gag with the clarinet player trying to tell stories of when he was in Vienna, or Tel Aviv, or Constantinople, when everybody knows he has never been out of Masovia. The clarinet player is a marvelous character, actually, though I had the impression that neither he nor the bass player (who is Yid’l’s father) had ever seen their instruments being played and had no idea what the process what supposed to look like. Also, neither of them were given enough to do, except in the drinking scene.

That drinking scene, by the way, is wonderful as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough: when Yidl gets up and totters across the room, I readied myself for an extended comic dance, but she just totters across the room and out of the scene, and then totters off to sleep in a haystack. Similarly, when Yidl makes her accidental theatrical debut, she tells a few jokes and reprises a few bars of the title song, but we would certainly have gone along with a full fledged song-and-dance. Given that Ms. Picon was more than capable of it, the disappointment was substantial.

Here’s another thing about the movie, a thing I have to admit I didn’t notice at all until I read a note about it later: there’s no anti-Semitism in the movie. Which, you know, given that it is set and filmed in Warsaw in 1936, is pretty remarkable. But then, there aren’t any non-Jews in the movie at all, and I’m pretty sure that not only does nobody speak any language other than Yiddish, there isn’t anything written in any other language. Not only are there no Poles or Russians or Austrians in the shtetl, which you might expect, there aren’t any in Warsaw! I can’t remember now, but I’m pretty sure that even on the boat to America (all movies end on a boat to America, don’t they?) the signs were in Yiddish.

I’m not sure that counts as an alternate universe, but it surely must have been escapism.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 13, 2011

Movie Report: Shrek Forever After

So. I watched the fourth Shrek movie. It was terrible. And it wasn’t terrible in the fourth-movie they’ve-run-out-of-ideas way, it was just terrible.

Now, to be fair, I’m not a huge fan of Shrek anyway (not in my top five William Steig books, in the first place) and I didn’t see the third movie. Also, there are loads of movies I think are terrible that are extremely popular and whatnot, so there’s that. But I found it just depressing.

The movie is an It’s a Wonderful Life deal, except that they got the whole concept wrong. At the beginning, Shrek is being worn down by the combination of fatherhood and fame (tho’ the fame part is pretty minor), blunders through a catastrophic first birthday party for his triplets, and storms out to get drunk. There he runs into Rumpelstiltskin, who offers him one day of irresponsible ogre-ishness for one day of Shrek’s childhood, which turns out to be the day he was born. We discover that in a World Without Shrek, Rumpelstiltskin rules with an iron fist and a squad of Wicked Witches, and blah blah blah. The point is that Shrek has to meet Fiona, woo her and get True Love’s Kiss before the day is up, or the world will stay bad. Or something. Anyway, that’s the set-up.

To begin with, Shrek is an asshole. Now, part of that is that he’s an ogre, and he is established in the first movie as grouchy and self-centered (but with a heart of gold). Still, throwing a fit during your kid’s birthday party is asshole behavior, and I had alreadly lost sympathy for him before that happened. Secondly, what we are shown of his life leading up to that point is in fact pretty miserable. He seems to take no joy in his kids, his wife, or his best friend. We don’t see him talk to anyone about his misery, or attempt to ameliorate it in any way, but just an increasingly slump-shouldered resentful stalk though a horrible life. And third, if you don’t mind my skipping ahead, the Happy Ending is that he realizes how much he loves his life and that everything was great exactly as it was, which, you know, we had seen that it wasn’t.

In It’s A Wonderful Life, most of the movie is taken up with showing George’s actually wonderful life. Yes, his dream of traveling the world is put aside for other people, but we see several instances of George being happy and enjoying himself, particularly when he successfully helps someone. He also runs a successful Building and Loan company, and it’s that business (and the good it does for the middle-class folk of the town) that he sacrifices for. Then, when it looks like the company is going bust, it looks like all the sacrifices were for nothing, right? That’s when he wishes he had never been born.

Now, I know that Shrek doesn’t actually wish he had never been born (which is another problem with the thing), but when he hits that same point, we don’t see anything good about his life. We are told that his life is actually good, but we certainly don’t see him enjoying it. And while we may have some residual good feeling for Shrek from the previous movies, in the beginning of this one we don’t see him choosing to make sacrifices for anybody’s good or to achieve anything at all.

And, as follows naturally enough, the world being ever so much worse because Shrek wasn’t in it comes more as a coincidence than from lack of Shrekness. That is, the one thing that made a difference in the world was that Shrek failed to save Fiona from the Dragon’s Keep, and even that only made the difference because her parents had then traded their kingdom to Rumpelstiltskin for her freedom. We do see the supporting cast in misery (not terribly funny misery), but their misery is attributed to Rumpelstiltskin’s reign rather than Shrek’s failure to rescue them. If he did. I suppose he did, back in the first movie, from Prince Charming, but Prince Charming is absent from this movie, so I dunno.

Anyway, my point is that they screwed up the formula, and not in any clever way but as far as I can tell through just not understanding what this kind of movie is about. I found the ending even more depressing, exactly in that way—y’all do remember what happens at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, right? They save the Building and Loan, and while George is embraced by his loving friends and family, they have in fact solved the problem that caused him such misery. At the end of this movie, Shrek is embraced by his loving friends and family, who, you know, sing and dance over the end credits. The only thing that’s solved is Shrek’s attitude.

I found this particularly irritating because, you know, having triplets or even one baby in the house is damned difficult work, and a new parent is very likely to experience depression, anger or just ordinary difficulty with it. And the writers seem to be making an example of the worst possible responses to it. Shrek doesn’t tell his wife he is upset. Instead he pretends (badly) that he is not miserable. Neither Shrek nor Fiona seek assistance from their friends. They do not, together or separately, attempt to find a way for either of them to make their outside interests work together with their new family life. They don’t separate the things that they need to endure (such as diaper-changing) from the ones they don’t (the intrusion of the tour bus). They, in fact, do no communicating or even thinking at all.

Well, sure Gentle Readers are saying, they’re ogres in a comic animated movie. And maybe that’s fair. Some people liked the thing. And no, I don’t think that cartoons necessarily need to fully depict family dynamics, or that Bonanza was a realistic depiction of life in the old West. I suppose what depressed me was that they quite accurately depicted the problem, very recognizable and sufficiently familiar to be depressing, including a fairly realistic depiction of the main character making it worse. Which was enough to put me in a bad mood, unsuitable for the action-adventure part of the movie. And then to cap it off, they claimed to solve the problem by magically making Shrek not an asshole. Which, you know, is an improvement, sure, but the real improvement was that the thing was over and I didn’t watch any more.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 23, 2011

A movie question

Your Humble Blogger was wondering—have any of y’all seen the movie Robots? It’s a Fox animation movie of a few years back. The plot, broadly speaking, is that a young inventor leaves his home in the small city to go to the Big City and something something the great inventor, something something big corporation. Oh, and they are all robots. That’s important, because in addition to working for the Big Company—OK, I’ll start again.

In the world of the movie, the elderly and kindly inventor Mr. Bigweld is the head of Bigweld Industries, which evidently is the sole source for robot spare parts. The robots, then, are entirely dependent on Bigweld Industries whether they work for the company or not. When Our Hero goes to the big city to try to get a job with Bigweld Industries, he discovers that (a) nobody has seen Mr. Bigweld for a long time, (2) Bigweld Industries is discontinuing spare parts so that robots who can’t afford upgrades will, effectively, die, and (iii) Bigweld industry no longer hires inventors, as new innovations are frowned on. We learn early on that Bigweld Industries has been taken over by a Bad Guy. We eventually meet Mr. Bigweld himself, who is a virtual prisoner, reduced to amusing himself with (very cool) dominoes tracks. Our Hero asks Mr. Bigweld to help him fight the Bad Guy, but Mr. Bigweld sadly refuses, saying that its no use, there’s no way to win, things aren’t like they were, the Bad Guy is in charge, etcetera etcetera.

OK, now YHB was not watching very attentively. In point of fact, I wasn’t watching at all, but half-listening, and I seem to have missed a bit where they explain how the Bad Guy got hold of Bigwell Industries, and why Mr. Bigweld thinks that the Bad Guy cannot be defeated. I mean, obviously the Bad Guy was defeated, surprisingly easily. And it’s a standard, almost a genre convention, that the Bad Guy takes control of the Corporation from the elderly, kindly founder. But usually there is some, you know, method involved. There isn’t any mention (as far as I heard) of stocks and shares; there’s no blackmail that I picked up on, there’s no chicanery or dishonesty (other than hiding his goal of sending all the obsolete robots to the chop shop, I mean, and something odd about his mother that I didn’t catch).

I mention this because the idea of the greedy corporate masters taking over the inventor’s company is an important trope in our culture, I think, and I wonder whether the filmmakers got this one wrong or I did. I mean, really, I think they did, but it’s likely that I just missed something in the movie because I wasn’t paying attention, and it’s also possible that I am missing something in the formula. But I’m curious about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and how they relate to our ideas of work and money. I mean, I understand that the movie has a Dickensian concept of economic structural problems, that is, there are no structural problems but only the greed of cold-hearted men. The ending, where the kindly Mr. Bigwell showers the robots with presents and hope, still leaves everything in his power. The difference is that the powerful man is kindly, not greedy, so that’s ok.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 11, 2011

Temptation Sale, buy one get one

The following is an actual tagline printed on a DVD box for an actual movie:

In A World Of Seduction & Power, Temptation Has Its Price

The upper case article and preposition are in the original, as are the, you know, words.

Has its price? Like, not its cost, but its price? I would like some temptation, please—Oh, that’ll be twenty-nine ninety-five. How much would you pay for temptation? Not for culmination or consummation, mind you, but for temptation itself? Well, I’m fond of temptation, but I don’t think I could pay more than ten. —Ten, are you mad? Look at this temptation! Hand-crafted temptation like this costs thirty dollars just to create! I couldn’t let it go for less than twenty-five, and at that I am cutting my own throat.

Er, OK. But what does it supposed to mean? And if temptation has its price in a world of seduction and & power, is temptation in a world of prunes and prism and powerlessness free? I mean, surely in a world lacking in seduction, temptation would be rarer and thus the price would increase according to the supply curve. In a world of seduction (& power!) temptation should be as common as dirt, and cheaper. Possibly much cheaper.

I am so totally going to watch this movie. Thank the Divine it’s rated R, at least.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 8, 2011

Appalling, Endearing, Amusing

Your Humble Blogger happened to watch Pirate Radio a little while ago. I enjoyed it a lot, by the way—there’s the advantage of terrific music, but there’s also the Richard Curtis thing, which is what I wanted to talk about here. I have mentioned one of his works before, but I don’t think I have ever really talked about him as a writer, and a damned good writer.

I love Blackadder (particularly Seasons Two and Four), and I adore The Vicar of Dibley, and I am completely smitten with The Tall Guy, and I am crazy about Four Weddings and a Funeral, and I am fond of Notting Hill and I rather like bits of Bean and I enjoyed Love, actually very much, actually, and of course I split my proverbial over Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Death, and there isn’t much I like better than Robbie the Reindeer in Hooves of Fire. That’s quite a list, right there, isn’t it? There are probably a handful of screenwriters that have a comparable list, but not more than a handful. So what is it that Richard Curtis does well that puts him in that rarified company? I mean, he’s funny, of course, but he’s not the funniest writer around or even in the top ten. And he does romance well, but I don’t think he’s in the top ten there, either.

I’ll tell you what I think he does very well indeed, possibly better than anyone else: creating characters that are objectively appalling, but who are nonetheless endearing and fun to watch. John Howard Davies, who worked on Bean and The Vicar of Dibley as well as Fawlty Towers and Steptoe and Son and a million others, is quoted in his Guarniad obituary as saying that “All the best sitcom characters are relentlessly horrible”. I don’t completely agree with that—it would be possible to list ten great sitcom characters that are not horrible, or at least not relentlessly horrible—but certainly there are lots of great sitcom characters that are relentlessly horrible. But relentless horribility is not enough. There are lots of lousy sitcoms with lousy horrible characters. The trick, the amazing trick, is to have a character that is utterly appalling, relentlessly horrible, foul and vile, but who we in the audience love nonetheless.

The horrible characters in Four Weddings and a Funeral make a potentially cloying movie much better as does the remarkable room-mate in Notting Hill. Rowan Atkinson was even more appalling playing (essentially) himself in The Tall Guy. But it is (as Mr. Davies says) the sitcoms that make the best use of this talent.

Blackadder himself is perhaps the best possibly example of the appalling character who is endearing in his horribility, and he is surrounded by people who are appallingly stupid, appallingly vicious or appallingly insane. Dibley is populated by people who are appallingly selfish, appallingly stupid or have appallingly foul personal habits.

In Pirate Radio (aka The Boat that Rocked) the boat is inhabited by vain, obsessive, self-important twits. Misogynists at best, the DJs (particularly) treat anyone and everyone around them as the butts of their own pleasure. Not only are they manipulative and abusive, but manipulation and abuse are their first resorts, their habit, their delight. Their only redeeming quality is that they like pop music. Think about that—they may be venal, nasty-minded and petty, but they like The Kinks. In another writer’s hands, I would have been utterly depressed within twenty minutes, and probably shut the thing off before the half-hour mark. Mr. Curtis can make me enjoy being on the boat with these people and even root for them, even as I laugh (rather than cringe) at their appalling behavior.

Of course, it’s all a matter of taste—my Best Reader, for instance, can’t stand the appalling people in Fawlty Towers; I find them hilarious. I can’t stand the characters in Seinfeld, who are perhaps the most universally beloved relentlessly horrible characters in American history. Different people like different things, because people are different one to another, and that of course is what makes the universe interesting and fun. But for me, Richard Curtis tops the list at creating those characters that are both endearing and appalling, the great achievement of sitcomitude (and which, by the way, can even survive the characters Leaving The Bar, which is another matter altogether).

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 19, 2011

Who dunnit this week?

Your Humble Blogger was reading a 1971 play in which a television network brings together a bunch of stereotypical mystery novelists to collaborate on a television series, and then people start dying and so on and so forth. Hilarity ensues. Except it doesn’t seem to, and besides, the problem with a play that is mocking all of these outdated mystery styles is that forty years later Your Humble Blogger is mocking the 1971 stuff as much as the parody 1930s stuff.

But it occurred to me that it’s a terrific idea for a reality show. I mean, in theory, because I don’t watch them myself so I don’t know how they really work. And since I don’t watch them myself, I may well have missed a version of this that bombed. So there’s that. But here’s my version:

The show gathers together eight (or so) mystery novelists into a secluded house outside a small town in, probably, Vermont. The contestants are all published novelists with a series of books featuring a detective; part of the deal is that the TV show will talk a little about each detective. In each episode, as I understand the formula, there is a sequence of challenges that the contestants must rise to, with one or more of them getting either a Benefit of some kind or safety from elimination for the week. These challenges will of course have a mystery-novel theme of some kind.

But the great part is that the first challenge each episode is to solve the murder of the contestant that was voted off at the end of the last episode, and we get to see the murdered novelists come up with the murders, scatter clues and play the corpses.

Or, I suppose, the stuff over the course of the show indicates both a murderer and a victim, and at the end of the episode we see the designated murderer have to dispose of the victim in such a way that the other housemates will be mystified. I’m less keen on this idea, actually, because (a) having an unsuspecting victim is actually creepy, and (2) the other way provides more opportunities for the team of writers to help an eliminated novelist whose ideas are either totally unworkable or just bad television.

If the idea worked, you know, you would have the reality-tv show crew and the mystery-fan crew watching. I suspect that half-a-dozen mystery novelists shut in a house for a month would generate lots of dramatic scenes of interpersonal whatsit, although I do not actually know any mystery novelists, so that’s not necessarily an accurate assessment. Still, it shouldn’t be hard for the production company to find eight mystery novelists that (a) have published three or four books in a series, (2) are in need of the money and publicity that such a stunt could provide, and (iii) would themselves make good television. I mean, if they can do it with cooks.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 15, 2011

Greatest Voice Actors

So. I came across an IMDB list of 50 Greatest Voice Actors of All Time, and I was startled by how terrible the list is. It wasn’t until I had griped to my Best Reader about it that I discovered that it was just some guy posting his own list in that Web 2.0 way, and that it wasn’t put together by IMDB personnel. Ah, the New Web.

Anyway, the person who put this together put Mel Blanc at the top spot, which is obviously correct. There will be a large amount of whitespace below Mel Blanc and above whoever is number two. Sadly, this list has Dan Castellaneta at the second slot, which is just crazy. Mr. Castellaneta is responsible for creating the voice for one of the most beloved characters in history, true, and that’s surely good enough to get him in to the top fifty, and you could make an argument for top twenty or so. You could presumably make some sort of argument that would put Mr. Castellaneta ahead of James Earl Jones. Such an argument would be wrong, but you could make it. I don’t see an argument for putting either of them in the top ten. James Earl Jones doesn’t even make the list I linked to up there, which should tell you something about the list.

Oh, and the rightful owner of the second slot? Orson Welles.

But I’m stuck with a question about the criteria for a list of Greatest Voice Actors, which is what counts as voice acting? Clearly it has to be acting, that is, you can’t be playing yourself; Dylan Thomas reading his own poems does not count as voice acting. Vin Scully is not a voice actor, nor is Rush Limbaugh. However, I think that all part-playing for audio, that is, where the actor will not be seen should count. We should count Stephen Moore in Hitchhiker’s; we should count Ian Holm in the BBC Lord of the Rings; we should certainly count Norman Painting from The Archers. I don’t know where that puts them, but they count. A trickier question is John Gielgud, who recorded plays that he was in, recorded plays he wasn’t in, recorded highlights from plays, monologues, poems, old discarded memoranda, shopping lists, telephone directories and technical manuals, all with the superb beauty of the Gielgud Voice. What of that counts, and what does not? My inclination is not to count recordings made of stage performances, even if the cast sits down to make a separate recording for radio or audio only. I’m not sure I can justify excluding those, but they just seem not to fit. I also would throw out highlights from or monologues from—those are obviously voice acting, but they also seem not the thing. But if they are doing a radio play and cast an actor for the radio play, does it matter if there was also a stage play of the same name? Somehow, my answer is maybe. And that may be enough to keep John Gielgud out of the top five.

As for the rest of the top five, I think Frank Oz is the only person who you could seriously argue challenges Orson Welles for that second spot, having originated two (at least) beloved icons. I would round out my top five with, I think, June Foray and Harold Peary, although there are several others who could make a claim—I need to mention Gertrude Berg, because I will be sad if I don’t, even if I think she winds up in the second five.

So what do you think? What counts? Who is at the top of your list? Am I rating Harry Shearer too low? Who am I just blanking on, that I will kick myself for forgetting?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 7, 2011

Movie Report: Fourth Pirates

Your Humble Blogger enjoyed his semi-annual movie theater trip recently, and by enjoyed, I mean had a good time despite the terribleness of the movie. That movie was Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth in the unerringly lucrative series based on a theme park ride. I should probably remind Gentle Readers of this Tohu Bohu’s policy toward spoilers, which is that I get to talk about whatever I want, so if you don’t want to know details of the plot (as well as details of characterization, set decoration, or punch lines) stop reading now. On the other hand, I don’t know that knowing the plot points would have much affect on a viewer of this particular film. Your call, isn’t it?

I went in to the theater with low expectations: I thought PotC: At World’s End was bad, and that PotC: Dead Man’s Chest wasn’t entirely wonderful. PotC: Curse of the Black Pearl was entirely wonderful, of course, and there are some good things about the series that do not consist entirely of reminders of the wonderfulness of that movie—or of the theme park ride, which is also wonderful. Actually, some of the wonderfulness of PotC:CotBP were simply reminders of the wonderfulness of that movie, although there were certainly also bits where it was the way they incorporated the original material that caused me such glee, not simply the inclusion of it without imagination. For instance, in PotC:OST, they included the evil monkey to no purpose whatsoever (unless it was gratuitous 3D, it now occurs to me, as I saw it in good old-fashioned flat-O-vision) other than reminding you that there was an evil monkey in the other movies. There was no punch line, no plot point, just a monkey grimacing at the camera.

That lack of imagination, though, is typical of sequel degredation generally, and frankly I liked the first one and the series enough to make a degraded fourth movie entertaining despite that. No, this movie had a different problem, one that I also associate with sequels in an ongoing series, and that problem is an overstuffed plot.

Near the beginning of this movie, to take an example, Captain Jack Sparrow has a swordfight with his double, or at any rate with somebody pretending to be Captain Jack Sparrow. It’s a great idea, and while it is very poorly filmed (and to be a great scene, the great idea would have to be very will filmed indeed, because (1) we have established that the lighting in the room is dim so that the imposter will not be exposed, and (B) the concept unfortunately brings to our consciousness the idea that we can’t tell Johnny Depp in that costume from some other person in that costume, such as for instance a stunt double—but I am digressing from my point, and I did have one) it is the sort of thing that could work well in this kind of movie. It turns out that the person impersonating Captain Jack Sparrow is a woman, which is a nice bit—and that she was Captain Jack Sparrow’s lover, which is predictable, really—and also that she is Blackbeard’s daughter, which isn’t so much predictable but is tiresome. And she’s one of the best of the new characters, frankly.

The main maguffin is the Fountain of Youth, which is a pretty good maguffin (even if it is, in the event, poorly filmed and imagined). Blackbeard is after it. Jack has been after it since the end of the last movie. The King of Spain is after it. George the Fourth is after it. Barbossa is after it. Some of those people are working together, or appear to be working together, or are forced into temporary alliances. Well, no, actually the King of Spain’s Crew pretty much comes ex machina, having no noticeable characters or hindrances. So. Fountain of Youth.

Only in addition to that, Blackbeard has the Black Pearl, and both Barbossa and Captain Jack Sparrow are after that, so there’s another plot point. And Barbossa is seeking revenge for his lost leg, so there’s another. And then there is a romantic subplot between a missionary and a mermaid. Did I mention the mermaids? There are mermaids. Also zombies. And Ponce de Leon’s lost treasure, which they don’t even really bother making a plot point. And there is an ongoing theme about salvation and sin; two characters are independently trying to save Blackbeard’s soul, in the traditional sense of repentance and whatnot. Also, mermaids.

There’s just way too much plot here. And not only does that make the movie too long (a hundred minutes should be plenty for an action flick) but each separate bit of the plot gets mushy through not having enough time to carry it out. For instance, why is Blackbeard’s daughter impersonating Captain Jack Sparrow? Because no pirate would sign up for a woman captain (yes, they would, but fine) and he was the only one she felt she could get away with impersonating. Not that she has seen him for years and years, mind you, and he is also under sentence of death, so it’s quite a risky choice, sure, but as I say, fine. Only—why is she recruiting at all? Why not Blackbeard himself? Oh, no pirate would willingly sail for Blackbeard. They fear him too much. But are willing to mutiny, and then the whole even-pirates-fear-and-shun Blackbeard bit is dropped completely. And honestly, what pirate would at this point sail for Captain Jack Sparrow? And why doesn’t Blackbeard have a full crew? Why do they need to spend (evidently) weeks in London—in London—recruiting?

The real low point, though, is the romance between the missionary and the mermaid. The missionary man is dull, and while he might be good-looking if we could see him properly, it’s difficult to tell in the dim light. Certainly he lacks charisma. The mermaid is, one supposes, prettyish, although there is something unpleasantly pre-pubescent about her under the circumstances, and anyway she is not a startling beauty (not in a film that has Penelope Cruz, and in a series that had Keira Knightly, Zoe Saldana and Naomie Harris, anyway). She finds him different than the other humans on the boat (duller, I suppose) and he is drawn to her, um, not really sure, her vulnerability? Anyway, every time the movie turns its attention to them, the forward momentum utterly stops, and I would have looked at my watch, if I had a watch. Do we care what happens to them? I certainly didn’t, but also the movie clearly didn’t, as it simply cut back to a (thankfully) brief capping scene in which she drags him underwater, either to use some mermaid magic to cure him from his otherwise mortal wound, or, one hopes, to devour his corpse along with her sisters. We don’t find out, and we don’t care.

This is not the fault of the actors in question, by the way—it’s conceivable that some young star could have shone through the murk, but it’s just as likely that any potential stardom was never given a chance. And while it clearly is the director’s fault in many ways, mostly I blame the script. We have plenty to follow in this story. There are two navies and a pirate ship converging on the Fountain of Youth in addition to Barbossa and Captain Jack Sparrow, and there are crosses and double-crosses still to be wearied through, and for crying out loud we don’t need a supporting character romance as well.

What I would suggest would be this: first, take out all the stuff about George IV, and start from the point of view of Penelope Cruz, an incredibly hot woman who is pretending to be Captain Jack Sparrow to recruit crew for her father, Blackbeard. Put in a scene between them, making clear that nobody will work for him—possibly put in a quick and comic scene where Penelope Cruz attempts to impersonate each of the Pirate Lords in turn, and falls disastrously short. Then, once she is successful in that particular drag, the worst possible thing happens: Captain Jack Sparrow himself arrives. They duel. He nearly vanquishes her before Blackbeard arrives and knocks him out; he awakes on boardthe Queen Anne’s Revenge. Why have they kept him alive? Who is chasing them through the sea? What does Blackbeard have in the double-locked cupboard?

I figure Captain Jack Sparrow to dive overboard and be picked up (possibly inadvertently) by Barbossa; I like the idea that he is after the Black Pearl, miniaturized and locked in that cupboard. I would jettison the Fountain of Youth as a plot point at all, unless you make it a true maguffin in that everybody is talking about getting there but is no closer to it at the end of the movie than they were at the beginning. I would have ship-to-ship combat in which that cupboard is endangered, I would have hand-to-hand (or, ideally, hand-to-hand-to-hand between the three Captains) in which the Pearl in a bottle is endangered, I would have Blackbeard’s daughter at least plausibly question her allegiance to him and consider (or, again, plausibly pretend to consider) joining one or another of the other Captains, and most of all, I would have Blackbeard’s madness not focused on something silly and obvious like the Fountain of Youth but something totally crazy. Why does he keep the miniaturized ships? Is he, perhaps, recreating the Spanish Main of his lost youth in an abandoned lock somewhere, complete with treasure beyond the dreams of avarice, made so small it can be carried in a pocket but potentially embiggened and cashed in?

But all of that doesn’t matter, really. A writer could come up with a better idea—could come up with a hundred better ideas. The trick is not to include all hundred of them in the movie.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 31, 2011

Why all the period films?

So Mark Lawson writes about Timeless taboos: why 19th-century novels appeal to film-makers in the Guarniad, presumably because there needed to be something in the paper in case the Sri Lanka failed to come to a shockingly sudden and exciting conclusion. Also, it seems there will be new films of Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations and Anna Karenina, and why not.

Why not, alas, isn’t much of an analysis, and so Mr. Lawson writes about all the usual reasons—the original texts are in the public domain, and thus cheapish; the name are familiar, and thus have a likely audience (the same as sequels and nonliterary remakes, only cheaper, see above); and most of all, the works are simply good, and filmably good. Mr. Lawson goes on, however, to make a point that the headline writer gets completely wrong: these works and many like them rely on transgression of taboos that no longer exist. Class divides, adultery, breeding, money. “Fiction is driven by friction and taboo but, in most parts of contemporary society, we have created a society in which there are few obstacles to people doing what they want or being with the person they desire. ”

Here’s the thing—I think Mr. Lawson almost gets to a really interesting point, but doesn’t quite. There are still taboos, of course. Mr. Lawson talks about the recent movie and film centering on a mother’s dislike of her son, and he bemoans the “depressing regularity” of child abuse turning up in crime dramas. I wonder of Mr. Lawson simply can’t see the rest of them, the taboos that exist but are ingrained into our culture. Taboos against polyamory, for an obvious example, or drug dealing, or prostitution, all of which have turned up on American cable shows recently. More, off the top of my head: incest, poverty, obesity, autism, abortion, depression, mental illness of various kinds, infertility, drunkenness, low libido, heavily accented English, post-traumatic stress disorder. Some would make better movies than others, of course, but some of that is in the handling. I can recall a recent romantic movie where the point was that the woman was obese, and another where the point was that the man had Asperger’s syndrome. Another where the point was that the man had a sort of unspecified mental illness, something bipolarish, although I saw that one (not the others) and they didn’t play up the social aspect where she had to explain to her friends about his behavior—but they could.

No, what I think Mr. Lawson is missing, here, is that those Victorian stories have their characters violating taboos that the audience does not share, and thus the audience maintains sympathy for the lead female who wears trousers, or sleeps with the gardener, or practices medicine. We react to Society’s censure by increasing our identification with the character; were we there (we think) we would be on her side. The story of a woman who (f’r’ex) attempts to put herself through law school by dancing at a strip club, and her romance with the scion of an old New England family—I think the audience would have to be constantly reassured that the exotic dancer does not ever, ever, ever give a blow job for a fifty, not even when she needs to buy the second-hand Contracts text. Even then, I suspect the movie couldn’t be a wide success unless the audience is at the very least allowed to believe that the stripping is unusually demure, with T and A at least notionally covered (as with Gypsy, now that I think of it).

Now, Gentle Readers, I don’t mean to exempt myself from this stuff. I want characters I can like and identify with, as well as characters I can enjoy hating. Villains, too, benefit from this stuff, as the stern guardian seems much less unreasonable when he is preventing the heroine from dating a drug-dealing ex-con. And many of the taboos are taboos for a reason—I would strongly object to my daughter eventually romancing a drug-dealing ex-con, honestly, or dancing at a strip club to put herself through law school. Or going to law school at all, actually, although that I would keep my mouth shut about. Anyway, my point is not that I think people should make more mainstream movies, romances and comedies, set in the present day and dealing with current taboos. No, I think that difference is a perfectly good reason to enjoy period movies. As are the thing about copyright, and the thing about the low-risk audience, and the thing about (some of them, anyway) being really good.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 8, 2011

Not a doctor, but The Doctor. The Definite Article, you might say.

Your Humble Blogger, as I believe I have mentioned here before, spent five years or so as a Doctor Who fanatic. Maybe more—I can’t be sure when I first started watching (or why, frankly), but it was certainly by 1983, right? And I maintained fanatical levels of devotion until, oh, 1989 or so. Something like that, anyway. I remember learning that they weren’t going to make any more episodes, so I was involved enough in 1989 to have heard that, but I don’t think I was broken up about it, really.

My Doctor, of course, is the Fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, the one with the hat and the scarf. You know. The one Americans like. Or Americans of my generation, anyway.

I watched the first season of the New Doctor Who (with the Ninth Doctor, Christopher Eccleston), and I enjoyed it a fair amount but not as Doctor Who; it didn’t really feel like the old shows. Or it didn’t succeed in making me feel like a teenager. Something like that, anyway. The production values were too good, the writing too serious, the scary bits too scary, the characters too obviously straining at a third dimension. As it were. Actually, despite the Fourth Doctor being my Doctor, I probably enjoy many of the Third Doctor episodes best, as they are even more goofy, lighthearted, shoddy and entertaining, with the dandy Doctor riding Bessie and finding trisilicate keys and fighting Sontarans and reversing the polarity of the neutron flow. I mean, the Fourth Doctor does all that stuff, too, and I love it, but he also does thing like come to grips with his mortality, and face ethical conundrums. Still, the Fourth Doctor is my Doctor—if you asked me what does Doctor Who look like, and you didn’t let me explain that he regenerates and that he is just called the Doctor and so on and so forth, I would have to say: curly hair, toothy smile, scarf, hat.

So. My Perfect Non-Reader is nine, now, nine-and-a-half, really, and I thought that maybe it was time to start watching the Doctor together. Because I would enjoy that a lot, really. And even though we don’t currently subscribe to that video-delivery service, YouTube provides. So we watched the first episode with the Fourth Doctor: Robot. Big robot, eventually a Giant Robot, disintegrator guns, fascist scientists, the Brigadier, and a tank that is very, very clearly a plastic toy. That tank is one of my favorite things in the whole series. If you didn’t start watching until 2005, you may not understand how a toy tank could be one of my favorite things in the whole series, but then one of us doesn’t really get Doctor Who.

Alas, my Perfect Non-Reader didn’t really enjoy the show, either. Perhaps it’s a twenty-first century thing. Or, you know, maybe I built it up too much, because after all, it’s just a cheesy tv show. And she has a lot less experience with cheesy tv shows than I did at her age. Which was before I started watching Doctor Who, anyway. It occurred to me, afterward, that perhaps what we should do is start with The Sarah Jane Adventures, which are, after all, children’s shows. That worked better. We watched the whole first episode, and I think she had a good time. The production values were good enough for her to enjoy, while not being, you know, very good at all, really, so that’s all right. My favorite trick where a human pulls off a rubber mask and is discovered to be a hideous alien who is much larger than when wearing the mask is handled reasonably well, although I do miss the mask.

We haven’t watched another episode of either show yet (and we haven’t finished watching the Superman movie, either, which is a higher priority now), but the experience has reawakened my fondness for the whole thing. I had (did I talk about this at some point? Oh yes, briefly) gone sort of sour on the whole Doctor Who thing, what with it becoming all popular and so on. Part of the fun, when I was fifteen, was being—well, part of the fun was clearly being fifteen. But part of the fun was being on the Inside of something. I was a Person Who Knew About Stuff, I was Different From The Rest. I mean, I wasn’t, really—I was watching a show that was on one-sixth of the available television channels, taking up more audience share than the Law and Order universe ever did—but it felt like I was, and in fact people who didn’t watch the show hadn’t ever heard of it. Now, it’s different. I neither have indie cred (since the show is popular) nor cult cred (since I am one of those lame guys who only really knows the Fourth Doctor and bits of the Third). The only thing left to enjoy is the actual show itself. Which, it turns out, I can enjoy. So now that’s all right.

All of which is to say that I have started wearing my scarf again. Well, it’s my Best Reader’s, really. She knitted it—my recollection is that I taught her to knit on the first few feet of that scarf, but that’s just my recollection, and may have little to do with any events outside my head. But she hasn’t worn it in years, and I lost my more sedate scarves somehow, so I have done the old-married-couple thing and taken possession of it. It’s a great scarf, too, about eighteen feet long, I suppose, very warm, and in handsome colors of dark blue, dark green, black and ivory. And since my hat these days is a brown floppy-brimmed one, almost a Borsolino style, I think it looks pretty good.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

November 23, 2010

Is DVD dead? or dying?

Your Humble Blogger is curious to know Gentle Readers’ gut reaction to whether DVDs are dying. Would you say, again, just looking to your gut, that they will be through in five years?

Netflix announced their new pricing recently, saying Netflix members are already watching more TV episodes and movies streamed instantly over the Internet than on DVDs. They would know, presumably. I remember, oh, it must have been more than ten years ago, say, oh, 1999 or 2000, a friend (and Gentle Reader) handing me a DVD he had carried in his luggage on a cross-country flight and making a comment about how impressive the bandwidth was, taking only a few hours to download transfer all those bytes from the West Coast to the East Coast. NetFlix made that obvious to everyone a few years later. And now it’s different, evidently.

Now, I’m not saying that there is no reason to prefer DVDs to downloads or streams or any other source of data. It’s that—there are reasons to prefer VHS tapes to DVDs, aren’t there? But if you do prefer VHS tapes these days, you need a reason to do so. If, f’r’ex, somebody were to want to give you a copy of a recent film, they would assume that it would be OK to give you a DVD. In 1990, you could assume that people who watched movies at home could watch a VHS tape. There were people in 1990 who didn’t like VHS, who preferred something else for some reason or another, but you needed a reason. In 2010, if you prefer something other than DVD, you kinda need a reason. But in 2015, maybe not so much.

Or not. In 2002 (I think it was) video stores were dumping VHS tapes and I bought a bunch of movies at two or three bucks a pop. We’re certainly not there yet for DVDs. But will we be there by 2015? Because I finally bought The Nightmare Before Christmas on DVD, like some sort of wild animal in the wilderness.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 30, 2010

I've Got a Little List

Back to some things we were talking about a while ago, John Scalzi, on his in his AMC column, asks Does Your Favorite Sci-fi Movie Do Right by Its Female Characters? Actually, that headline is not the column; the column is more interesting: he asks if 14 of the most popular Science Fiction movies from 2005-2009 pass or fail the Bechtel Test. One passes it easily, nine utterly fail, and he gives four technical passes or fails.

The reason I find this interesting is that, once again, it isn’t necessarily the case that each of those movies would have been improved had it passed the test. It is the case that the experience of moviegoers would have been improved had more of them passed the test. It’s a cumulative problem. The point is not whether any individual movie passes or fails (although of course there are many movies that would be improved vastly if the moviemakers weren’t blinded by sexism), the point is that in the aggregate, there is an experience being transmitted, and it ain’t a good one.

Of course, there are plenty of movies that do pass the Bechtel Test, but I don’t think he’s cherry-picking here. I think he’s reflecting a list of popular movies. Some fellow who is now eighteen, who has been a fan of science fiction movies during his teenage years, will likely have seen—what—all fourteen of those movies? Hell, I’ve seen five of them. This fellow probably sees, oh, twenty-five movies a year; during his teenage years he will see two hundred movies or so. How many of them will fail the Bechtel Test. A hundred? A hundred and thirty? When he starts to make movies of his own, when he starts to imagine movies of his own, does that not have an effect?

The point here is not, by the way, to excoriate moviemakers, or movie audiences for that matter, who have certainly shown that (in the aggregate again) they are perfectly willing to go and see movie after movie that fails the Bechtel Test. Your Humble Blogger’s point is to note that this kind of thing, what John Scalzi is doing here, and the note from Benjamin Rosenbaum on Identity and Othering in “The Ant King and Other Stories” and all that quantitative analysis and nineteenth century positivism, this kind of thing really is a valuable tool for thinking and viewing the world.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 28, 2010

not quite a real blog note

Your Humble Blogger has no actual ideas for a blog note today.

More accurately, YHB doesn’t seem to be able to take ideas for blog notes and make them into blog notes. So here are three things about movies.

Joe Posnanski recently posted a list of 100 movies that were his favorites, or the best, or something like that. I didn’t look at it very carefully, but I did count up that I have seen eighty of the hundred. That seems to me remarkable. I wonder how many movies I have seen in my life… On one level, it makes sense that movies on his list would be movies that were on many other lists, and would therefore be movies I would have heard of and been interested in seeing, and would in fact have seen. On the other hand—eighty out of a hundred? Doesn’t that seem like a lot? I mean, I have never gone on a program of watching Great Movies, not really, so why would I have seen so many of his list? Unless I really have just seen a lot of movies.

Speaking of Great Movies, or at least movies I like a lot, I saw Brick a few months ago and have been meaning to blog it. It is a wonderful movie, or at least a wonderful movie for YHB. The idea is to film an old-fashioned hard-boiled detective movie, very heavily leaning on the old literature and films, particularly Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op stories, but set in a sunny California high school. The gaudy patter is magnificent, and utterly surreal coming out of the mouths of (notional) teenagers (the movie convention that has teenagers played by people in their twenties adds another layer of strangeness). The hard-boiled scenes take place under brilliant sunlight with acres of blue sky behind the actors, utterly reversing the expected closed-in claustrophobia of film noir. While the actual story is reasonably interesting, most of the fun is from watching how they integrate, subvert, reverse and reference their various materials.

Now, I had heard about the movie when it was released in theaters, and I had been at least vaguely interesting in seeing it, but I actually watched it because one of the instructors at my Place of Employment made a copy available for students in an Intro to Cinema class. I sought out the instructor after watching it, both to thank her for the opportunity to watch it, and to ask how she was using it. Because it seemed to me that you had to watch an awful lot of movies, an awful lot of old movies, to get what was going on. She told me that it was the first movie they watched—her students were just out of high school, and would watch it as a movie about a murder in a high school. Then, over the course of the semester, they would keep seeing things that would take them back to Brick. I have to admit, I am skeptical. I meant to ask one of her students about it, but never got a chance.

I have talked to students about two movies from last year that I watched on DVD this summer: Disney’s Alice in Wonderland and Sherlock Holmes. I enjoyed both of them, somewhat, but unlike a lot of people (and like, I would guess, more than half of my Gentle Readers) I have read and enjoyed the original texts, as well as some of the film versions. Both of the movies, it seems to me, depend on the audience being willing to enter into a new world in which everything we know about the original text turns out to be wrong. This is a fairly common way of dealing with an old beloved text, of course, and is the first time through it for neither. The difference is that Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is a world where the Great Detective is actually a Hollywood action-hero star in addition to being, you know, Sherlock Holmes, and that’s a world that is pretty darned entertaining, what with explosions and chases and preposterous plots of various kinds. In Tim Burton’s Alice, alas, much of the movie seemed to allude to an Underland that actually existed, but didn’t make any sense—and besides wasn’t terribly interesting or entertaining. Oh, the visuals were magnificent, sure, and some of the bits in the actual movie were exciting or at least passed the time in between the visual bits. But—the world of Tim Burton’s Alice was a world where Lewis Carroll’s Alice was never published, and the stuff that we know was a distorted childhood memory. Right? But we never see the undistorted version. We see the remnants of the undistorted version after fifteen years of tyrrany and misery under the bloody big head, but very little of it connects to the book itself.

I could do a whole serious of notes about adaptations, book to movie, book to book, movie to movie. I could do that, if I could take the ideas and make them blog notes. I find the topic endlessly fascinating. But I’ll end this sort-of-note with the line about the new Sherlock Series with Benedict Cumberbatch, from co-creator Mark Gatiss as quoted in The Observer: “there will always be more versions if you don’t like ours.”

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

July 22, 2010

Hold me back, take away my library card.

So here is where I need your help, Gentle Readers.

I finally watched Avatar on DVD on our little screen at home, but it’s too late for you to do anything about that. I went up to wash it off me in the tub, and naturally in picking a Bathtub Book, I went for the original novel. Which, as I have said, is one of my favorites. And I’m enjoying it, and I’m thinking that’s the way you do it. I mean, sure, have your main character boink the chief’s daughter and become a fighter of legendary skill, and sure, have him control the largest possible exotic beasties in a way makes him the foreordained of legend, but you don’t stop there! You have him become the freaking Messiah, the Mahdl’T, the Lasagna Alamode, the Kumquat Haagendasz, He who can prepare many dishes so they are all ready at once, the Shortnin’Bread of the Way and the Rightful Duke of the Planet, and ultimately the Padedbrah Emperor of the Known Universe And Its Suburbs.

So, anyway, I’m digging on this book, and at this moment I am writing to you, Gentle Readers, I am digging on it enough to want to read the next one in the series.

Which is where you come in. Because I have only the dimmest of memories of Doon, Meshuggeneh, and those memories are not what you would call positive. But I am tempted, for the first time in a score of years, and it turns out my library has the thing.


Stop me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 31, 2010

Help me raise a child, win valuable prizes!

Gentle Readers, YHB needs a little help and advice.

Here's the situation: since we have discouraged the Perfect Non-Reader from watching a lot of television over the last five years or so, and don't watch television ourselves when she is around, she has almost reached the age of nine without developing any movie-watching skills. This is a problem, not least because my Best Reader and I like watching movies and would enjoy watching movies with her. So we have decided to develop a Cinema Syllabus for the summer, aimed at coming up with a dozen or so movies to watch with her and discuss.

So. We need suggestions. Ideally, I would like to come up with a list that covers some different genres and time periods, and that leans toward cultural literacy. I don't imagine that we're going to get to everything, and if it is successful, we can keep watching movies together every now and then after we get through the syllabus. And keep in mind—the Perfect Non-Reader is not terribly interested in Romance and other Grown-Up stuff, and we don't want to soak her in gore, either, so there will be lots of stuff we will not teach her this year.

And what's also really important for this project is that we are giving her a background for movie-watching in the future. I can't help thinking that she will enjoy Westerns on the whole more if she doesn't start with Blazing Saddles or Unforgiven—or The Shootist. Maybe seeing Frankenstein before seeing Young Frankenstein or Dawn of the Dead. You know? I don't feel like she has to see a Nelson Eddy movie before watching Night at the Opera, because I don't think she would enjoy seeing a Nelson Eddy movie.

So keep in mind that she is (1) a kid, and (b) culturally illiterate. She has seen Star Wars. And Treasure Island. But that's pretty much it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

May 14, 2010

Anonymous, the movie

Today’s Shakespeare News is that Roland Emmerich—yes, Roland Emmerich—is directing a movie about the man who wrote all those plays. No, not William Shakespeare. That would be too easy.

See, here’s the thing: it’s not like I care very much who wrote the plays. I tend to think it was William Shakespeare, because, you know, he said he did, and there is no evidence whatsoever that he didn’t in the contemporary record. But I don’t care very much, and if it turned out that it was someone else, well, it doesn’t change the text at all, so that’s OK. But really, the reason why I tend to think that William Shakespeare wrote the plays is because almost everybody who writes trying to persuade people that it was someone else is a dickish snob.

I don’t mean that it’s impossible to believe that W.S. was a front without being a dickish snob. It’s certainly possible. And I suppose it’s even possible to care about it enough to try to talk people out of their belief in the Stratford fellow without being a dickish snob. I haven’t seen it happen, though.

And I have to say that I don’t expect it to. Part of that is simply that I find it a bit dickish just to keep hocking about the whole thing, trying to persuade me that I am Wrong Wrong Wrong; I try to keep an open mind about things, but I do get defensive when attacked. And a lot of the writing on the topic that I have read (or skimmed, or began and given up on, more likely) seems like an attack on the deluded fools who are so simple to believe that William Shakespeare—a nothing from nowhere, practically a peasant—wrote those plays. And more than that, an attack on the poor deluded fools who believe that they enjoy the plays without grasping the True Key of Understanding. In all honesty, if it isn’t possible to enjoy them properly without knowing who wrote them, then the pseudonymity of authorship implies to me that they plays aren’t very good, and that we shouldn’t care about them at all. But of course lots of people have enjoyed the plays just fine whilst believing they were written by William Shakespeare, going back to their first productions when presumably the whole audiences were taken in (except the Queen, of course, and other select aristos).

That’s the snobbish part, of course. Not just that there’s the classic snobbery of locating all positive attributes in the hereditary aristocracy, although that is very prominent in Anti-Stratfordists. But there’s another kind of snobbishness, the inner-ring delight in having Special Knowledge, being among the elect who are In On It. They transfer that delight to an inner ring in Elizabeth’s court, duping the groundlings who didn’t get all the political undertones. That’s pretty dickish, too. I do get the inner-ring temptation, of course, and it’s a powerful one, but the right thing to do is resist it, not promote it.

Mr. Emmerich’s movie appears to be based on a recent book by Charles Beauclerk. Mr. Beauclerk is (unless there’s something that doesn’t show up in the family tree) a descendant of Edward DeVere, the current favorite in the Shakestakes; since he argues that his ancestor was not only the greatest playwright in the English language but an illegitimate son of Elizabeth I, which would make him an heir to the Tudor line, and quite possibly a Pretender to the Crown. When his father dies, of course; his father Duke of St. Albans and head of the Royal Stuart Society (which lists among its aims opposing republicanism). And, according to Wikipedia, Charles Beauclerk was banned for life from the Palace of Westminster for misbehaving in the House of Lords.

I should add—Mr. Beauclerk recently came to speak at an event held by my employer, and by all accounts didn’t, you know, do anything to get himself banned. I saw the man briefly as he walked through the library; he seemed a bit like a dickish snob, but then, so does YHB, probably. And while I am spending time mocking Mr. Beauclerk, he didn’t have anything to do with the 1998 Godzilla movie, so there’s that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 8, 2010

More about Oscars, because nobody is tired of the Oscar talk

Well, and as Your Humble Blogger is still thinking about the Oscars, I might as well write my response to Kim Elsesser’s Op-Ed at the times suggesting Gender-Neutral Oscars should be extended to the acting categories. My initial response was that it was a terrible idea, practically speaking, as the nominees for Best Actress were generally from obscure movies that would not, if it weren’t for the Oscars, ever be seen by anybody other than critics. But when I went to give examples from this year, it turned out to not be so true: two of the five nominations were in mainstream popular movies, and one of the other three was the sort of controversial film that might have made a splash in the absence of a potential Oscar nominee. The remaining two (Carey Mulligan in An Education and Helen Mirren in The Last Station) were the sort of things I was thinking of, but were roughly equivalent to two of the Best Actor nominees (Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart and Colin Firth in A Single Man). In fact, while only two of the five films that had Best Actress nominees were Best Picture nominees, that was true of Best Actor as well. So it was roughly even this year.

To make the language easier on myself, I’m going to make up a term for a particular kind of movie. This is the movie that gets made largely because there is one great role, that either never gets wide distribution or fades very quickly from it. There is an Oscar push, not only because the performance is terrific but because that is the only chance to make any money from a deserving flick. If there were no awards, no-one would ever hear about these movies. I’ll call them Actress Movies—and I’ll keep calling them Actress Movies even when talking about the ones for male actors (such as Crazy Heart and A Single Man) because (a) I think they fall into the same category, and (2) I think, before doing the research, that there are way more of these for Actresses than Actors. OK? So, having found essentially two Actress Movie nominees on each side for last year, I am left wondering if that assessment is right.

Last year, I count Kate Winslet in The Reader, Angelina Jolie in Changeling and Melissa Leo in Frozen River. Of those, The Reader got a Best Picture nomination, and Changeling was a Clint Eastwood picture, so you could argue them, but I count them. On the left side, Richard Jenkins in The Visitor and Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, neither of which got Best Picture nominations. Hm.

The year before: Laura Linney in The Savages, Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth I part II, Julie Christie in Away from Her and Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf. Four out of five. Total tickets sold: five. On the left, Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises and Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah. I don’t count the Daniel Day-Lewis, but you could, although you have to note the Best Picture nomination.

Another year back: three at least on the women’s side, and the men’s side very difficult to count. Oddly enough, and I didn’t notice this at the time, the Best Actress, Best Actor and Best Picture nominees comprise 14 different films with only one overlap (Helen Mirren in The Queen). I wonder if there has ever been a year with no overlap at all.

We’re in the Oscars for 2006 now, and it’s clearly 3 out of 5 Actress Movies on the right and either one or two on the left (I wouldn’t count Capote as an Actress Movie, but it’s close). Another year back and it’s three of five for the women (including Annette Bening in Being Julia, which may be the canonical example of the Actress Movie) and maybe one on the men’s side. And another: four out of five, and one for the men. The 2002 films are tricky—is Frida an Actress Movie? I’m going to say not, which leaves one real Actress Movie on that side, and on the men’s side, at least two and arguably as many as four. That’s the first time we’ve seen it tip that way, isn’t it? Let’s just finish up the decade, though: 2001 films have two on each side and the 2000 films have two for women and three for men. So for those years, it was pretty even, or even tipped toward the men, but overall I think I was right about my instinct.

The point, essentially, is that I think that there are a limited number of slots for those nominations, and if there was one category for Best Acting, the Actress Movies would lose out. Except, thinking about it, that I’m not sure they would—the Academy might focus even more strongly on those, leaving the Best Director and Best Picture nominations for more popular movies. Hm. Perhaps I’m wrong about this.

By the way, a quick trivia question: What is the most recent movie to have performances nominated for Best Actress and a Best Actor both? When was the most recent year there were two such movies, and what were the movies?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

My Year in Movies 2009 (and 2008)

As the Oscars passed me by, I thought it might be time to do my Year in Movies 2009, in which Your Humble Blogger details all the movies I have seen so far that came out in that year. I had been thinking, last night, that it was Not a Good Year for movies for YHB, but that turns out not to be so true. Here are the flicks, as best as I can remember them.

  • Coraline: Certainly the creepiest movie of the year, and a strong contender for Most Disturbing Movie Ever. Of course, that’s a personal thing, mostly because the great Neil Gaiman and the great Henry Selick happened to hit my sensitive subjects: needles, eyeballs, spiders. Ick. And definitely would have been my top animated pick over Up (see below), but then I haven’t seen Ponyo or The Fantastic Mr. Fox yet.
  • District 9: My comment about halfway through this one was that it was more like the specfic I had been reading lately than most specfic movies are. There were some flaws, sure, but I enjoyed it a lot. I was pleased to see that they avoided the scene where the infected human lead and his wife meet and, well, that wouldn’t have been a good scene however it went.
  • Invictus: This was enjoyable, although I was disappointed in the portrayal of the rugby, which was the last four or five hours of the movie. Also, I felt that it was a mistake for the stadium people to install a digital clock that makes a really loud thud noise whenever the display changes. On a more serious note, I was irritated by the pointless ghost scenes of Mandela in prison, and was very impressed with the supporting actors. Also? Needs Moar Cricket.
  • Julie and Julia:Too much Julie. Stanley Tucci was brilliant (as he so often is), and Meryl Streep was a hoot. On the whole, I didn’t find the movie as annoying as the book, mostly because of the bits that were based on the other book.
  • Inglourious Basterds:What a mess. Good bits, but it sure seemed like it aspired to profundity without wanting to make any actual statements. Yes, I see, we-the-viewers are contemptuous of the Nazis in the movie theater as they cheer for the soldier on screen killing Americans, and then we cheer for the Americans on our screens killing Nazis. Yes. It is possible to construct highly self-referential situations at once reductive and regressive. But all of that was distracting from the fun, which this movie promised me and did not deliver.
  • Love Happens: Was I on a plane? I can’t remember why I saw this, but it was terrible.
  • Monsters v. Aliens: This was quite close to being a good movie, but it never happened. It just didn’t.
  • Up: A lot of fun, with some really brilliant bits at the beginning. I never really warmed to the boy, though, and it is probably one of my more serious character defects that I fear and loathe dogs, so that kinda detracted from the experience for me. I mean, a good movie, all in all, but not a Great Movie. Loved the beginning, though.
  • Watchmen: See, here’s the thing. YHB inadvertently picked up from the local public library not the theatrical release, which I probably would have thought was too long, nor the Director’s Cut for people who have lots of time, but the Ultimate Unending Uncut Version, where they threw in extra footage of people standing around and some extra stuff they had in a can in the shed, and I think they may have just shown some clips of people looking at each other more than once, and, and, well, all of this in addition to the acting being terrible, just terrible, and, the point is, I gave up during the prison riot. Maybe if I had seen the short version, I would have enjoyed it, particularly if I had seen it in the theater, but not this version. As a side note, I also shut off Zack Snyder’s film of 300, which makes me two-for-two on his. And I don’t give up on movies that often.

That’s it for the year. So far, anyway—I do most of my watching at home now, so it’s likely that I will see more 2009 movies over the next few years. There are half-a-dozen or so I really do want to see at some point. The only ones I saw in the theater were Coraline and Invictus, by the way.

It seems I never did a 2008 list, either. I won’t go back and fix it, but for y’al’s information, the movies I have so far seen from 2008 are Bangkok Dangerous, The Bank Job, Be Kind, Rewind, Burn after Reading, Death Race, Hellboy II, Hulk, Igor, In Bruges, Leatherheads, Milk, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Tale of Despereaux, Tropic Thunder (much of it, anyway), and Wall-E. I think Wall-E stands out as my favorite, but Miss Pettigrew was wonderful, and both Milk and Be Kind, Rewind were good as well. The others range from has-good-bits to oh-dear-me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 14, 2010

Book Report: My Movie Business

Gentle Reader will remember that I am peculiarly fascinated by adaptation, particularly the adaptation of written fiction to stage and screen. One of my contentions is that it is possible to make a good movie that is close to the work it is taken from, but that it is probably easier to make a good movie that departs from the original quite a bit. Fidelity becomes an obstacle, one that can be overcome, certainly, but often at tremendous cost. I think it’s a fascinating task for a writer, and when I spot an occasion where it is done well, I always want to find out how the writer went about the process of adaptation, how the decisions were made, how the writer understood the pressures of the medium, and to what extent the adaptor is satisfied with the finished adaptation as his work, as well as the original author’s.

In some cases, of course, it’s the same person, which makes it even more interesting, and in at least one case, the writer wrote a book about it. That’s John Irving, who wrote My Movie Business about the adaptation of The Cider House Rules into a movie. I knew the book existed, vaguely anyway, and when I reread the book last summer I finally got off my bottom and went to look for the book. I had to ILL it, actually, but thank goodness my ILL librarian is wonderful.

Alas, the book was not as wonderful as I had hoped. Too much of a build-up, I guess. There is a lot of good stuff, and he did talk a lot about the essential question I had, which was how did he decide what to keep? Because what they wound up doing was ditching three-quarters of the book or more, and compressing the rest into a short period (fifteen years into one, etc), and taking out lots of stuff here and there. And it works as a movie, and as an adaptation of the novel, which is pretty incredible. So it’s interesting to read Mr. Irving’s rumination on the various drafts and versions. Evidently for a long time (the movie took twenty years or so to make) the screenplay had no love interest for Homer at all; when he brought back the character of Candy, he tried to make her unsympathetic to increase sympathy for Homer (who needs it). It’s a good choice, but not the only choice, and there’s a sense of some regret throughout the book there and in similar situations he was compelled, ultimately, to make a single good choice and leave behind all the other possible choices.

So there was some good stuff in the book. The book as a whole wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be, though. It was more a collection of anecdotes than a book about adaptation. Some of the anecdotes were terrific and some not so terrific. And it made John Irving himself seem like one of those people who doesn’t quite realize how unusual it is to be a Best-Selling Novelist, somebody who is popular and critically acclaimed and reasonably well-compensated and all. Just as an example, here’s a bit from page 121: “Imagine writing a novel and having someone else, without your approval, design the jacket. But that’s how it is in the movie business.” That’s how it is in the novel business, too, for most people.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 8, 2009

Putting the spoof before the horse

A copy of Strange Interlude just passed over the counter here, and as always, whenever that play (or indeed any of Eugene O’Neill’s plays) comes to mind, I think of Groucho Marx pointing with his cigar, waggling his eyebrows, and saying Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.

It got me thinking about how often I become familiar with a spoof or parody or even a reference to a thing before I encounter the thing itself, and how that colors my experience of the thing. I mean, I saw Young Frankenstein before I saw Frankenstein; I learned a bunch of opera motifs through Gilligan’s Island. I think I probably saw Prufrock before I read the one that starts “Let us go then, me and you/when the evening has dropped like an old shoe/the first of what must inevitably be two”, but I honestly don’t remember. I saw Murder by Death before watching any of the Charlie Chan movies, and I think before watching any of the Nick and Nora movies, although I had seen (and I think read) both Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. Can’t remember whether I had seen The Maltese Falcon, by then. I definitely saw The Maltese Falcon before watching The Cheap Detective, but I hadn’t seen To Have and Have Not or The Big Sleep, or even Casablanca.

I don’t think my enjoyment of Casablanca or Frankenstein was ruined by that experience. I’m not sure about the Charlie Chan movies; there is so much that makes those a truly guilty pleasure that Peter Sellers being screamed at by the moose head on the wall is probably small potatoes. And if there are a few songs that have been ruined for me by a filk or parody, well, they are just songs, anyway. So maybe it’s just Eugene O’Neill. I was thinking there were more, but now I come to write the note, I can’t think of any.

Are there movies or books or plays that were ruined for you by exposure to the parody first? Tarzan? Michael Jackson? How Doth the Little Busy Bee?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 11, 2009

TV Report: King Lear

So. Your Humble Blogger has finally managed to watch the King Lear I was hocking about a couple of weeks ago. And it was… ok.

Sir Ian McKellen was very very good in places, although somewhat less impressive in others (in my arrogant opinion, of course). The rest of the cast was much less impressive. I did like Sylvester McCoy’s Fool, most of the time, although the effect of actually hanging him on-stage (as it were) is dramatically lessened by the transfer to television. Not his fault, really. Monica Dolan’s Regan did an excellent job of differentiating her character from Frances Barber’s more cookie-cutter Goneril, although the idea of playing it as Tracey Ullman-plays-Helena-Bonham-Carter-as-an-alcoholic-Sloane-Ranger was a trifle irritating. Still, I have seen enough performances where the sisters are indistinguishable from each other or from other performers in other productions; this was memorable and effective. Romola Garai’s Cordelia was luminously beautiful, really startlingly gorgeous, but (a) so what, and (2) that doesn’t really justify shoving her breasts into the camera all through I,i. Again, probably not her fault, really. I didn’t like Kent at all, I didn’t like Gloucester at the beginning, and although I liked him more once he was blinded, it wasn’t enough. I didn’t like Edgar or Edmund.

I hated the costumes. First of all, the similarity made it hard to tell one male from another; they were all black, white and grey, except King Lear at the beginning, but of course we didn’t have any trouble telling which one was King Lear. And the costumes were just bad; the worst was the Duke of Albany wearing a fucking bathrobe into combat. No, I’m serious. Lots of gold braid and medals and comfy, comfy terry cloth. And when the Fool gets stripped of his outer stuff, he seriously appears to be wearing contemporary slacks and a shirt; it was incongruous and distracting. And the sets, too, I didn’t like them, either. Again all grey and black, with nothing to really distinguish the atmosphere of the various castles. There was no way to tell at a glance that we were back in Albany, or in Gloucester, or where. Nor were they the same place, so it wasn’t some sort of thematic or metaphorical point. They were just similar, and confusing.

But I don’t really want to emphasize the things I dislike. It’s just easier to describe them and talk about them; I often will see a show I like and spend several hours talking about the aspects that failed to work. The character, Sir Ian’s Lear, is wonderful and tremendously effective. Less so on the heath (where also the sound mixing problems were particularly bad; it was difficult to make out what anybody was saying with all that rain); more so (as I expected) after the storm. His Lear was not as serene in those final scenes as some interpretations have him; he maintains a certain asperity, a certain impatience, a certain imperiousness. Do not abuse me he says to Kent, at the end, and it snapped out like, well, like a king. And I was weeping, just a trifle, at the recognition scene; I always weep at that.

The thing about Sir Ian is his incredible physical inventiveness. He delivers the verse extraordinarily well, of course, but there are others who might do it even better; nobody does the physical stuff better than him. It’s not just that he is good at the naturalistic part of physical acting, or that his body is capable of expressive gestures, not just with his face or his hands but his legs, his shoulders, his torso. It’s that he clearly is fiendishly good at coming up with bits of business, of physical acting, and then investing them with meaning and performing them with strength and care, which ultimately (for me) add up to a kind of mesmerizing reality for the character that I have never seen anyone equal. It was astonishing on-stage, of course; seeing his Richard III remains the best theatrical experience I’ve had. But in films, as well. Good ones as well as bad.

In this Lear, there’s an ongoing bit with a handkerchief that is wonderful. He seems at several points to be on the verge of a seizure; I was worried that he was going to go all the way, have a stroke on the heath in the storm, and then perform the rest of the play with the left side of his face limp and drooping. That would have been heavy-handed. What actually happened was not: his increasing stiffness, an increasingly drippy nose, and (I think) some increasingly broad gestures with his arms. “I am not ague-proof” he says, sniffling into that handkerchief, which will soon become a rather disgusting white flag. But in between, he cradles poor blind Gloucester like a baby, and then puts felt on his back hooves and steals up on his sons-in-law, stamping and rearing.

There is always a temptation for an actor to give a character some little fun physical attribute: a limp, a twitch, a habitual gesture, a stiff knee. It’s fun to put on, and it can seem so meaningful. And, you know, it can be. But what Sir Ian does (imao) goes way beyond that. I’m not altogether sure how to describe it. I can identify good physical actors, sometimes (in movies both Nicolas Case and Keanu Reeves are inventive physical actors, when they aren’t phoning it in, as is Johnny Depp, of course) but I don’t know that I could tell you what exactly makes for good physical acting.

I suppose, for me, it’s invention; it’s figuring out what to add to the words without detracting from the words. I’m not terribly good at it, myself, although I wish I were. I try to remember about it, give my character a walk, a way of standing, a way of sitting. But the thing is that I have to walk, and stand and sit (so far; I haven’t had to play a part whilst in a neck-high urn yet). I was able to talk my director for Liaisons into having Valmont and his valet cross swords during a bit of a conversation, just for a thing to do, and I think that worked. And there are sometimes little things; in April, my character trailed his fingers in a fish pond that was actually several mirrors. That’s an easy bit of visual trickery, as by folding the fingers under, it looks a bit like they are sinking under the surface, and then I pick them back up and shake them out a bit.

I try to think of things like that, but my imagination is usually limited to minor stuff, bits with my hands, a funny walk, fiddling with props. The bit where Sir Ian takes the bit of cheese from his pocket and lays it gently on the ground, and then stamps on it with his bare heel—well, that’s not even one I particularly liked, and I’m saying that I couldn’t have come up with it, or with anything like it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

March 17, 2009

Fillum and Theeyater

Sorry so quiet lately at this Tohu Bohu. Busy, busy, busy. Enchanted April opens on Thursday, for one thing, and there are all kinds of other things as well.

Here’s a quick thing to pass along from rehearsal last night: one of the two-person scenes was going slowly, and our Dear Director diagnosed the problem as the actors listening, then thinking, then speaking. That is, person A would speak (I have a thorn in my foot), and person B would listen, process the information, decide how to respond, and then speak (a thorn?), followed by person A listening to the response, considering and then speaking (yes, I did say a thorn), followed again by person B considering and responding (well, I didn’t stick it there) and so on. Although all of the considering and so on was fine acting, she said, it was slowing down the scene.

This, of course, is one of the difficult things about acting to a script; the audience wants both (a) not be carried along by the dialogue without having to wait while the actor/character thinks, not a very entertaining spectator sport, and (2) to believe, at least temporarily, that the dialogue mimics actual conversations that actual people have (assuming it’s that kind of show). Actually, I think it’s a bit more complicated than that (who guessed?), and that the audience wants to believe that the dialogue is the dialogue that they would have, if they were in those conditions, because they are really that clever and funny and impassioned and persuasive and poetic, underneath.

But anyway, what I wanted to ask y’all about was your reaction to the Director’s next statement about that pacing and acting: that would be great on film, said she, but not it doesn’t work on stage. Now, on one level, I was just impressed by this as actor-handling, as both of the actors in that scene have worked in film. Still, I was wondering if it made real sense. I mean, when I say that thinking isn’t a spectator sport, clearly lots of people like those shots in film where a person is thinking, acting with her forehead and the corners of the mouth. The reaction shot. I’m always a bit irritated with them, honestly, although I don’t mind watching Person A while Person B is speaking, or watching Person A do that forehead-and-corners-of-the-mouth thing whilst carving the roast or manipulating the cards. But I recognize it as a thing that Great Film Actors win lots of awards for doing.

On the other hand, I think (I think) that in a dialogue, the pauses for thinking in between lines would be excruciating, however foreheady the actors were. Or is that just me?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 23, 2009

Oscars, Oscars, one, two, three

So. I used to really enjoy the Oscars. I mean, not so much the show itself—it’s supposed to be awful, as far as I can tell, although not as bad as what I watched for a while last night. But I used to enjoy the awards, the discussion about which films and performances would be nominated and which would be robbed, and which would win, and the whole thing. Somehow, not so much anymore. I figure it’s largely because I see so few movies these days, and very very few in the theaters.

It came as a surprise to me, actually, when I discovered that I had seen three of the five nominees for Best Original Screenplay. Gentle Readers may remember that I spoiled In Fucking Bruges, and then I saw Milk on Xmas Eve, and WALL-E on video. I liked all three of them, actually, and although I enjoyed WALL-E the most, and it was really well-written, I would have enjoyed a Martin McDonough victory the most. And presumably there is some question whether Mr. McDonough will make more films, which Andrew Stanton, not so much. Of course, there’s another sense in which I want Martin McDonough to get disgusted with film and go back to the theater, but then, I’ll get to see any of the films, eventually.

The winning screenplay was for Milk, and I don’t mind, because it was a good screenplay, as far as I could tell, although I have a sense that I would have been weeping all the way through it even if it stunk on ice. My complaint about the movie is that I wanted more Moscone and less White; I have never really had a sense that I got Mayor Moscone in any of the versions of the story I have read or seen. Perhaps that’s just me, as certainly other people seemed to be happy with the amount of Dan White, as Josh Brolin was nominated for the role despite the performance being, to my eyes, perfectly good but not terribly interesting. Ah, well.

In the other writing category, I found it interesting that two of the five nominees were playwrights adapting their own successful stage plays. Although, oddly enough, Peter Morgan was a succesful screenwriter (and television writer) who decided to write a play, Frost/Nixon, which became a huge success and then was adapted for the screen; this is the opposite of Mr. McDonough. As for Mr. Shanley, he of course won for Moonstruck and was inexplicably passed over for Joe versus the Volcano, as well as having a long (although not notably award-filled) career as an Off-Broadway playwright before Doubt took off. David Hare was another nominee; he has recently had more success in film than theater, but I still think of him as a playwright. Mike Leigh, on the other hand (we’re back in Original Screenplay again), I think of as a film director, although of course he started as a playwright.

But the point is that I saw three of the five nominees for Best Original Screenplay. And two of the five for Short Animated Film. And that’s it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 4, 2008

Who wouldn't like a fairy tale city?

Your Humble Blogger finally saw In Bruges, Martin McDonagh’s first movie. Mr. McDonagh, if you remember, is the fellow who wrote The Cripple of Inishmaan, as well as The Beauty Queen of Linnane and The Pillowman and other blood-drenched plays of recent acclaim. I’d been wanting to see the movie partly because of Mr. McDonagh’s genius at dialogue, partly because of the cast, and partly because of the medieval architecture. You know, Bruges. Or fucking Bruges; I’m guessing that somebody somewhere along the line said “Martin, lad, you can’t call the fillum In Fucking Bruges, they won’t be able to put it on the fucking marqee, will they?” And presumably Mr. McDonagh agreed to cut the title down to its current state, and the signs were printed, and all. I’m not sure why they bothered. I mean, I loved the movie. But as my Best Reader asked at the end of it, who did they think was going to buy tickets to this?

I don’t suppose any of y’all saw it. It’s too bad. Not that I think many of you would have liked it, I suppose. But it would be nice to chat about it.

There are a lot of things I’m interested in particularly that Mr. McDonagh is playing with. For one thing, as a playwright making a movie, the questions around the basic differences between the forms come up, whether he wants them to or not. And as a playwright, and one with a gift for dialogue, he naturally has a lot of the drama come from conversations between his main characters. And as a moviemaker, he also has those characters shoot at each other. I had been about to write that it was cinematic in being very much in Bruges, with a substantial sense of place. Thinking about it, though, I could imagine a good theatrical production providing a substantial sense of place, and of the movement through the old city, in a way that might be even more effective. No, the thing doesn’t feel like a filmed play, but I think that has more to do with the guns than the scenery.

Another thing is the poetry of profanity, the rhythm and feel of it. The fine gradation of abuse. There’s a lovely scene, near the end, when the old hit man and the boss are sitting at an outdoor table of a bistro (is that the right word? I might call it a cafe, but that seems wrong. They serve food, and coffee, I’m sure, but most of the patrons are having beer or liquor) discussing, well, the old hit man was supposed to kill the young hit man but he didn’t, and now the boss has to kill the old hit man for disobeying him, and the old hit man is trying to explain why that’s all right. Anyway, the old hit man, whose name is Ken by the way, is talking to Harry, his boss, and saying that the young hit man is, you know, young, and although he is terribly, terribly guilty, there is the possibility of redemption in his future, while for Ken and Harry, not so much.

Ken: Harry, let’s face it. And I’m not being funny. I mean no disrespect, but you’re a cunt. You’re a cunt now, and you’ve always been a cunt. And the only thing that’s going to change is that you’re going to be an even bigger cunt. Maybe have some more cunt kids.
Harry: Leave my kids fucking out of it! What have they done? You fucking retract that bit about my cunt fucking kids!
Ken: I retract that bit about your cunt fucking kids.
Harry: Insult my fucking kids? That’s going overboard, mate!
Ken: I retracted it, didn’t I?

OK, but I really liked it. And keep in mind, Ken is not going to live through the night, and he knows it.

That basic idea, by the way, of change, redemption, guilt, all that, is the heart of the film. As writers do, he’s brought it to a froth by raising the stakes beyond our ordinary lives. I mean, for one thing, they are all killers. Ray (the young hit man) has earned the wroth of Harry because when he killed a priest (on Harry’s order), he accidentally killed a little boy as well. Harry’s code of honor says that you don’t walk away from killing a little boy, so Ray has to be killed. When Ken refuses to kill him, Harry’s code of honor says that Harry has to go and kill Ken, and what’s more, do it himself, rather than sending yet another hit man. Harry’s relentless honor results, of course, in more deaths than just the two hit men he’s aiming for, and he has to abide by the results of that in his code as well. Ken believes in the possibility of redemption, although not for himself. Ray doesn’t really believe in the possibility of redemption, although he doesn’t know what he believes, and is coming (I think) to regret not knowing what he believes, as he has nothing to tell him how to behave. He isn’t able to adopt Harry’s inflexible code, but he doesn’t have anything to replace it with that might provide him with some structure.

Lastly, speaking about the inflexible code that the hit men live with (or can’t live with), the three of them are unbelievably homophobic. I’m not sure that homophobic is even the right word. There is a thing, gayness, that doesn’t so much have anything to do with sexual attraction between men, but deviation from the Code or the expectations of manliness in any way. Light beer is referred to as “gay beer”, for instance. For another, a punk who gets his gun taken away from him is referred to as gay, by virtue of his having had his gun taken away from him. It’s not absolutely clear that he isn’t gay, or at least interested in having sex with men. Of course, having sex with men isn’t necessarily gay, particularly if the sex is rough and/or non-consensual. I’m not saying that there isn’t homophobia at the bottom of it, what with the idea of homosexual men being a fundamental violation of the rightness of things, but the homophobia is curiously divorced from the actual homosexual men or actual homosexuality and transferred to light beer and incompetence.

Well, and it’s probably obvious to Gentle Readers that I want to go on and on about this movie, ideally to people who have seen it and all. But I doubt that’ll happen.

I also say a movie called Seducing Dr. Lewis, which turned out not to be a bad porno but a rather sweet, gentle French Canadian movie along the lines of Brassed Off or Waking Ned Devine. I’d enjoy chatting about that one, too (the class issues don’t get resolved so much as dropped, what’s up with that?), but I figure there’s really no chance anybody will have seen that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

October 24, 2008

Stage, film, magic

OK, a quick question for those of my Gentle Readers who have seen both The Illusionist and The Prestige. For those who haven’t, the rest of this is chock full o’spoilers. On the other hand, it’s just about possible that people who have no interest in seeing either will be interested in the general topic of which my quick question is the specific.


Both movies are about nineteenth-century stage magicians (this is false; The Prestige straddles the century’s edge and The Illusionist could be after the turn, if only just), and both depict dramatic moments on-stage. In The Prestige, the filmmakers chose to present the stage magic more-or-less realistically; in The Illusionist the filmmakers chose not to. That is, we in the film audience (with our sensibilities) watching the film of the performance of The Illusionist can tell that post-production trickery was used. In fact, they make rather a big deal out of the fact that there was simply no way that a performer of that time could have done those tricks.

The main trick in The Illusionist is the projection of three-dimensional insubstantial moving images onto the stage and into the aisles. I rather doubt this could be done effectively now (at a profit, that is), but certainly at the time it would not have been possible. In addition, the orange tree trick, which could have been done mechanically, was clearly and obviously done with CGI. The other trick I remember is with the Crown Prince’s sword, which would have been easy to do if he could have got to the building in advance with his stuff, but the plot would seem to prevent that. Anyway, that’s not the important one; the important one is the projection.

By contrast, in The Prestige, every trick is presented as if they were done by skillful stage magicians. There is only one trick that is clearly done with editing, and that’s the central trick of the movie, the Transported Man, and once we discover the trick to the trick, it becomes obvious how the magicians can do on stage what requires editing in the film. Borden can do it because there are two of him, and Danton can do it because he has Tesla’s duplicator. In both cases, film is making up for the shortcomings of real life as compared with the fictional world of the movie: there is only one Christian Bale, and Nicola Tesla never made a duplicator. The presentation of the tricks, though, is consistent with the world, even though there is some trickery involved; we see what the audience would see.

In the world of The Illusionist, there is no magic. Yes, it’s a fictional world in that the historical figures of the Duchess and the Crown Prince didn’t exist, but there are no inventions or supernatural powers. Except that part of the intent of the filmmakers (I think) is that the audience is supposed to be in suspense as to whether Eisenheim really does have some sort of supernatural power. And then at the end we discover he doesn’t, that it was all a trick.

Just as a side note specific to the movie, the plot involves Eisenheim palming jewels off the hilt of the Crown Prince’s sword at a point well before any of the rest of the plan could have been arranged. Was he stealing jewels on spec? Did he have a plan for what to do if the Crown Prince noticed that the jewels were missing? That’s the sort of thing that I complain about as working backwards, as an explanation for why the jewels were found where they were, but not forwards. But that’s not what I’m on about here.

What I’m on about is the question of showing the stage illusions as plausible stage illusions or as obvious film trickery. I was very put off by the film trickery, as I assumed that there would be an explanation for it, and there never was. But it has been suggested to me that the idea might have been to make the film audience be as wonder-struck as the stage audience of its time would have been, which you can’t do with the tricks of the time. Imagine that you were transported in time to a magic show in 1900; you know enough about stage magic that you wonder how the trick is done, not if it is a trick. You are impressed, perhaps, with the slight of hand, the technical expertise (particularly given the limitations of materials), and the stagecraft, but you won’t be seeing the same things the audience of the time sees. You have been changed by movies and television and technical advances in stagecraft. So showing you (in your twentieth century movie-watching audience capacity) what a stage audience in 1900 would have seen is not going to cut it.

I find that a really interesting idea, but I don’t buy it. Maybe because I didn’t think of it myself. But I’m wondering if any Gentle Reader saw the movie and is willing to comment. Should we see what the audience saw? Or what the audience thought they saw?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 2, 2008

Movie Report: Enchanted

So. My Best Reader and I had been looking forward to watching Enchanted, which looked clever and fun. And it was clever and fun, and we both enjoyed it. But nobody wants to hear about that. You all want to hear me rant and complain, don’t you? Look what we’ve come to. We can’t just enjoy a perfectly good movie without becoming incensed, and then, to cap it all, we can’t just enjoy a perfectly good incensation, but have to spread it around Blogovia. Well, fine. I was incensed, OK?

Before the incensage, here’s the plot. OK, never mind the plot. It doesn’t matter. Devil Bunny needs a ham, and for reasons not entirely clear, thinks it will obtain one to take a Disney Heroine out of an animated movie and plunk her into the modern world. Go it? The climax of the movie is at the Kings and Queens Ball, where the modern folk dress up like storybook kings and queens, and it’s held at the top of some tall Manhattan building, because they quite rightly let the art director make the plot decisions at that point, and besides, Devil Bunny still needs that ham, and maybe the ham is at the top of the Empire State Building. Why else would those people be climbing up the outside of the building? Look, you’re not focusing on the incensedom. All you need to know is that there’s a Ball, and a Disney Princess type, unfamiliar with the real world, and—one more thing—the Guy Figure has a young daughter. Eight years old? Something like that. OK? Got it? Question? You, the one wearing a shirt. Yes? No, the Guy Figure has no distinguishing characteristics of any kind. That would ruin the movie. Can we get back to the incensement?

The Disney Princess (who I’ll call Giselle, because that’s the name they gave her in the movie, although, you know, not real important to becoming incensified) goes to the Precocious Girl and says I’m going to the Ball! However shall I prepare? and the Precocious Girl pulls out a fucking credit card, and there follows a montage of the two of them going shopping in fancy Manhattan salons, and getting her hair and nails and makeup done. And then, unsatisfied with this, there follows a tearful heart-to-heart between the Disney Princess (who I guess I’m not going to call Giselle, even though it’s her name, because it would ruin the rhythm of my ranting, unlike, for instance, a bunch of rambling parenthetical met remarks) and the Precocious Girl, where they reveal that neither has ever gone shopping with a mother, and yes, it really is the best thing in the world for a mother and a daughter to buy expensive luxuries on credit.

I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP. Neither am I making this up. I’m really not. It’s a very cute, sweet movie, and then wham! a paean to consumerism. And, may I just add, one which has no actual place or meaning in the story. I mean, there is supposed to be some sort of idea that when we get to the ball, all the real, modern folk are dressed as storybook characters, and that the storybook character is dressed like a real, modern woman. Only what she is actually wearing is an unflattering schmatte that, like all modern gowns, is obviously made with storybook princesses in mind, so it doesn’t work. But even if it did, it would work much better to simply have the Disney Princess arrive, unexpectedly, in modern drag, right?

But even if the plot necessitated such a scene, the correct thing to do would be to rewrite the plot so that it no longer necessitated such a scene, because the inclusion of such a scene is obscene and wrong. And I am calling it obscene and wrong without even knowing whether the stores portrayed in the movie as containing the Secret to Life’s Happiness are fictional or real, with Disney making back a large portion of the production cost from the product placement. I’m guessing the latter, but I neither shop in Manhattan nor do I watch much television, where (I’m told) shopping in Manhattan is a frequently depicted activity. Although not, generally, in children’s television. At least, that I’ve noticed.

And then, perplexingly, the Kings and Queens Ball was clearly planned to climax at midnight with the Kings and Queens Waltz, for which the attendees were instructed to find a partner other than the one they had come with. And if that sounds preposterous, I assume its preposterousness was designed to distract the viewer from noticing that the Kings and Queens Waltz was in four-four time. But it was a good movie, and all, other than that sort of thing. So that’s all right, Best Beloved. Do you see?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 12, 2008

Two Movies with but a Single Thought

Last week, Your Humble Blogger saw two movies. These two movies came out in the last couple of years, and they have a lot in common. The central character in each movie is played by a former child/teen actress; the characters are in their early twenties, and are both former college hotshots who have taken jobs that were not what people expected them to take. Their bosses are played by film-acting legends, both as outrageous larger-than-life comic forces. In each case, the boss offers the young woman an unusual career path; in each, the young woman is reluctant to take it. The major question in each film is what career path with she choose?

One of the movies I liked, and the other I loathed. I loved one of the film-legend performances and loathed the other. The movies, of course, are The Devil Wears Prada and Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium.

I hated Devil and I loved Magorium; I loved Meryl Streep’s performance and hated Dustin Hoffman’s.

When I say I watched them, I missed the middle third or so of Devil, because I couldn’t take it. Watching the sadistic abuse of the poor young woman and her associates was a horrible experience which I could not willingly prolong. Fortunately, I was in my own home, and my Best Reader was willing to sit through the middle bit. I eventually rejoined her and finished it out. I missed a few minutes of Magorium, too, but not very much. The sadism in that, though, was limited to a kid running around with a lemur on his head, and that was brief and I think out of focus.

In the days since, I’ve come to think of the theme as being an interesting one. Women my age (YHB is thirty-glob at the present time) must have that as a common experience they weren’t entirely prepared for. Women my parent’s age were unlikely to be hotshots headed for a rewarding career. Those few that were, well, I would guess that most of them either actually followed that career or left work altogether. Women born into the 1970s, though, were more likely to be prodigies headed for a brilliant career of one kind or another. Most of their lives didn’t turn out like anybody expected. Most people’s lives don’t, after all.

There are a lot of movies (and books and so on) in the 30s and 40s and 50s about men who find themselves in soul-less jobs, having nearly abandoned their dreams. Other movies are about the dangers of ambition. The issue is attacked in a variety of ways, comically, poignantly, violently. But the question comes up, again and again: my life is not what I thought it was going to be, so now what? By the time my father was at that point in his life, he probably had internalized enough of the stories to be able to include it in his perception of the universe. It’s still hard, but we have stories, so we can deal with it.

Many of those stories are still available to women, of course, but it makes perfect sense that the absence of those stories about women’s lives is a void that is currently being filled. Not only are there aspects that are wildly different (there’s the baby thing, of course, but also a vast difference in the romantic expectations both from the woman and her partner, as well as other differences related to societal expectations), but there’s the simple fact that it’s easier to apply stories to yourself if the character is ‘like you’ in ways that are important to you. So the earlier stories about men’s career choices, or the ones still being filmed, don’t fill that void.

It seems to me that have been, over the last decade or so, an increasing number of movies that involve a female protagonist’s career path, but that most of those still had as their fundamental plot question which guy will she choose? The lead in The Devil does make romantic and sexual choices, and those choices (like her fashion choices) help the audience understand her predicament, but they are contributory. In Magorium, there is a sort of romantic choice, not between two men but whether to take one or stay single, but again that shows us aspects of her fundamental choice (of career), rather than being the focus of the movie.

But then, Magorium is a kid’s movie, and as such isn’t likely to have a lot of sex in it. And for all I really know, there have been lots of movies over the last two decades to deal with this issue, and I don’t know anything about them because I don’t see very many movies, and when I do pick movies, I’m much more likely to pick a romance (or romantic comedy) than to pick a movie about a young woman facing a career choice. I’m arguing that from two movies that the theme is popular, and I’m arguing that it’s newly popular without evidence of any kind. But I’m right anyway, aren’t I? Or am I? What movies (or best-selling books) help me and which hurt me?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 29, 2008

The pitch: she's a Nazi, who writes movies! Wait, where'd everybody go?

Your Humble Blogger ran across the name Thea von Harbou today, for the first time, as far as I know. What an interesting person.

She was from an aristocratic family, became a writer and then an actress in Germany before the first World War, and then wrote for the movies. She married Fritz Lang and became one of the most prominent screenwriters in Weimar Germany. Then she joined the Nazis (I think there’s a fair line to be drawn between those like Frau von Harbou who joined the party before Hitler took power and those who joined after), split with Mr. Lang, and remained a prominent part of German movie-making under the Nazis.

After the war, she is held as a collaborator. The story is that she directed a production of Faust while in prison. She cleared rubble from the destroyed cities of her homeland, and then worked doing German-language dubs of American movies. In 1954, she attends a showing of one of her early films, and afterward slips, falls and is dead a few days later.

I think you could make a hell of a movie out of that. Now, you’d have to make it clear how evil she was, which might make it a trifle less Oscary, but still.

The images. She wrote a novel called Metropolis, which she later adapted into a movie that is … um, quite well-known. Oh, and a thing called M. The things you could do with those images.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 27, 2008

Year in Movies 2007

The awarding of the Oscars reminded me that I have not yet done my traditional reckoning of my experience of the years’ movies. It won’t take long. Your Humble Blogger has been out to the movies three times this year. Stardust was wonderful, Pirates mostly stunk, with some good bits, and Charlie Wilson’s War was perplexing, good but by virtue of straddling a line between nearly great and nearly awful. My Best Reader and my Perfect Non-Reader went to see Rattattaatatttoouille without me, which was fine, but it means it’ll be a while before I get around to seeing it.

We also saw several movies at home, largely courtesy of Red Box, although the library assisted as well. Two of those (Surf’s Up and The Transformers) Your Humble Blogger watched from the other room, wandering in and out and generally failing to engage. Of those, Surf’s Up actually looked better than I had expected, although too long and not charming enough, and The Transformers appeared to stink on ice. Speaking of stinking on ice, what happened with the Harry Potter movie? Was it really as bad as it seemed, or were we just in lousy moods and unable to enjoy it? Now, Order of the Phoenix was my least favorite of the books, so that may well have entered in to it, but seriously. No fun was had.

Things get better. I’m not really that cranky. Honest. It’s cool.

I enjoyed Music and Lyrics quite a bit, and although I would have written it with substantial changes, particularly to minor characters, it was a success. Amazing Grace (which is about the abolition of the slave trade in England) had some substantial weaknesses, but on the whole was enjoyable and moving, Romola Garai was lovely (as was Rufus Sewell, but that goes without saying, yes?), and Michael Gambon and Albert Finney got to have juicy bits and go home early. Hot Fuzz was good, and I enjoyed it, although not having actually watched a lot of Hammer Horror or modern action flicks seemed to be a drawback. And Waitress was a good movie, but it was not a romantic comedy, and so when we snuggled in to watch it, we wound up disappointed. We enjoyed it despite that, so it’s clearly an excellent movie. But expectations needs must be managed.

And that’s it. Ten movies, so far, from the year. And unlike in previous years, not so many box office smashes or Oscar nominees. Ah, well. These things, they happen. I blame the Youngest Member.

We also caught up a bit on 2006 movies, through the magic of the shiny disc. In addition to the six I saw on the big screen (and the one we saw on an airplane, and I didn’t watch all of that), we have now seen eleven flicks from 2006. To categorize quickly, I liked Pan’s Labyrinth, Children of Men, History Boys and Stranger Than Fiction, kinda liked Casino Royale, The Prestige, The Holiday and Nanny McPhee, and didn’t like Superman Returns, My Super Ex-Girlfriend or Nacho Libre.

I’ve occasionally thought I should blog all the movies I watch, just like I blog my books, although (a) that is beginning to seem a lot like work, and (2) I am largely just blogging books to build a list of Things I’ve Read, and I don’t honestly care about a list of Movies I’ve Seen, this post, last year’s post, the one from the year before and the one from the year before that notwithstanding.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 14, 2008

May Def, Milestone Day, morris dance, mean distance, mister disaster, million dollar, must die

All right, so there’s this movie that opens today called Definitely, Maybe that had one of the worst trailers I have ever seen in my life. I mean, fairly frequently, my Best Reader or I will respond to a trailer by naming the amount of money we would need to be paid to sit through the full movie, but this was … priceless. I felt as if I had already sat through the whole movie by the end of the trailer.

The plot, which was extensively detailed in the trailer, is that there’s the fellow, and his daughter, and she’s all precocious and cute and all, and is starting to ask uncomfortable questions about sex and love. So to distract her, he tells her the story of how he met her mother. Only—this is the clever part—instead of actually telling that story, he will tell her three stories, about three women that he met, obscuring their identities, and she will have to guess which one is her mother. Doesn’t that seem as natural as all get out?

The mother, bye-the-bye, isn’t dead. Why would you think she was dead? No, the family is just undergoing a brutal and bitter divorce. Ha, ha. What fun! Nothing like a little family law to make a rom-com sparkle.

Anyway, within the movie are three romantic stories, with three different actresses playing names-have-been-changed-to-protect-the-people-who-will-undoubtedly​-have-to-give​-depositions-in-the-visitation​-rights-matter-and-I-hope-to-Betsy​-that-they’ve-lawyered-up, and neither the audience nor the girl knows which woman will be the True Love (until the papers are served).

So, fine. It’s not the worst movie ever made. The worst movie ever made may well be Kate and Leopold. The thing that makes the whole idea of this flick tolerable is the obvious plot twist that at the end, all three of the women are her mother, that people grow and change, that he fell in love with her all over again and over again and over again, very sweet, Happy Arizona Statehood Day.

Only none of the reviews I’ve skimmed appear to hint that there is a plot twist at all. So either they are being very discreet or the film-makers have missed the only possible point to the movie. And the thing is that I have no easy way of telling which is the case without actually seeing the movie, which as I say is not to be contemplated. So, if some Gentle Reader wants to take one for the team, all I’m saying is, better you than me.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 10, 2008

Book Report: Pygmalion

In the last few weeks, Your Humble Blogger has watched the movie of My Fair Lady, read the play Pygmalion, and then watched the 1938 film of Pygmalion. I’ve seen My Fair Lady a zillion times, of course, and seen it performed on stage at least once. I’ve read Pygmalion many times as well, although I’ve never seen it performed. And I had never seen the 1938 film.

In order to keep them clear, I’ll call the 1913 playscript the play, the 1938 film and its screenplay the film, and the 1964 movie of My Fair Lady the musical. This leaves out the book and lyrics of the stage version of the musical, but I have the impression that it is largely identical to the movie, with no major added or missing scenes. Yes? The play, the film, the musical. Created in that order.

I started with the musical, as most people do. I may, in fact, have started with a live performance, but I saw the movie when I was quite young, and had the album and so on. Wonderful songs, wonderful music. Wonderful characters. Wonderful show.

A little later, probably in my early teenage years or even as a pre-teen, I read the play, along with lots of other George Bernard Shaw. I advise people to read Mr. Shaw’s plays when they are young, to have the opportunity to be excited by the ideas, before you come across them elsewhere. Anyway, I adore the play, despite the loss of the wonderful songs. And in many ways I prefer the play to the musical. The play is in five acts: Act One is in Covent Garden, during which the main characters all meet; Act Two is in Henry Higgins’ses house, during which Mr. Higgins takes on the task of passing Eliza Doolittle off as a Lady; Act Three is in Mrs. Higgins’ses house on an at-home day, during which the phonetic success is revealed to be woefully inadequate to changing Ms. Doolittle’s apparent class; Act Four is in Mr. Higgins’ses house again, following the successful imposture at the ball; and Act Five is in Mrs. Higgins’ses house again, with the final confrontation between our Pygmalion and our Galatea. It ends with Mr. Higgins, self-deluded, maintaining that Ms. Doolittle will return to his house, while Ms. Doolittle leaves with all the other supporting characters.

This differs from the musical in several minor and three major ways. I won’t go into all the minor ones, such as moving Act Three from Mrs. Higgins’s’s to Ascot, or moving Mr. Doolittle’s scenes back to Covent Garden, but the major ways are all interesting, and I think all detrimental. First, the musical has the famous “Rain in Spain” scene, or rather, several scenes showing Mr. Higgins actually training Ms. Doolittle to speak loik a laidee ’na flahr shup. The second is the addition of a scene at the ball itself, showing the triumphant pretense. The third is the addition of a scene at the end, where Ms. Doolittle does return to Mr. Higgins. The first and third occasion wonderful songs, and the second adds a wonderful minor character, so I understand thinking they are worth it. But they aren’t.

The second one is the least troublesome. It isn’t necessary, really, other than to introduce Zoltan Koparte, a Hungarian blackguard who declares that Ms. Doolittle is a Hungarian Princess. Yes, yes. It’s funny, but it takes away from the whole task, and essentially means that Mr. Higgins has failed to pass Ms. Doolittle off as a Lady. There is something not quite quite about her. It’s a triumph, yes, but it’s not the triumph that they were looking for. That goes unnoticed in the excitement, and it’s true she isn’t “found out”, but I think it takes away, just slightly, from the point of the play. Not a big deal, but then the scene isn’t that great either, is it?

The third is the most obviously problematic. Mr. Shaw, in his essay that tells what happens to the various characters after the curtain, has Ms. Doolittle marrying Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and setting up a flower shop and greengrocer. They remain friends with Colonel Pickering, who supports them in the shop for years before they are able to make a profit at it, and more or less with Henry Higgins, although Ms. Doolittle and Mr. Higgins are always bickering whenever they are together, and so don’t socialize as much as they might. I think that’s true to the story and the situation. Having Ms. Doolittle return to Wimpole Street immediately after the play’s Act Five is clearly a capitulation. If she isn’t entirely repentant and contrite, she certainly isn’t independent and strong. Mr. Higgins, of course, hasn’t changed at all. It’s impossible for me to be happy with her return; she won’t be happy with him, and even if he is happy with her, it’s not a healthy sort of happiness, but a transfer of his childish petulance from his mother to Ms. Doolittle. If we are to believe that he will treat her with any consideration or thought at all, there is nothing in any version to show it.

And the first… it could be done well, I suppose, but in the musical it’s mostly done with a sort of sadistic glee at just how nasty and vicious Mr. Higgins is. It makes the audience complicit in the abuse, verbal and emotional, and invites them to join in the general amusement at Ms. Doolittle’s victimization. Her exhaustion and misery are lovingly depicted for the delectation of the audience, and for Mr. Higgins as well. And all of that, to me, heightens the disturbing nature of the new ending. It’s a depiction of the Stockholm Syndrome, more than anything at that point, a retreat into the hell she knows rather than the outside world, and (distressingly) a sense that she really doesn’t think she deserves to be treated any better than that.

So. I’ll repeat at this point that Your Humble Blogger loves the musical. It’s wonderful. But the major changes from Mr. Shaw’s play are, to my mind, detrimental to the work and reveal a more disturbing attitude toward Eliza Doolittle (and by implication, women generally).

So. There I was, secure in my notion that, despite the wonderful songs, the musical had (in some sense) ruined Mr. Shaw’s play, or at least violated the distinctive Shavian sensibility. And then I saw the film. The film, you see, already has all three of the major changes between the play and the musical, as well as many of the minor ones (down to dialogue, blocking and bits of business). And the screenplay is adapted by George Bernard Shaw. Oh, there were other writers, too—Mr. Shaw isn’t solely responsible for the changes. But he signed off on them. He left his name on the thing, and didn’t kick up a fuss about it. I think it’s fair to say that those changes were given the Shavian Stamp of (perhaps-grudging) Approval. So that explodes my whole sense of the thing.

I still maintain that the changes are detrimental; if I were offered the chance to put on the show, I would put it on the way it was originally written. If I saw a production that incorporated the changes in the film, even another film or television production, I would complain about the changes. And when I watch the musical again, I will sing along with all the songs.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

February 4, 2008

Yes, we can, but not all of us did

Y’all have had the opportunity to watch the Obama video that has been turning up all over the place. I think it’s a terrific video, but I thought I’d just set down for Gentle Readers my experience of it.

I came to it through the link from Eschaton, to a site called dipdive, which at the time had essentially no text, simply the video with no explanation. And, here’s the thing: I’m old. I stopped acquiring new music (as opposed to old music) at least ten years ago. I stopped watching broadcast television around that time, too. I still watch the occasional movie, but of the umpty-’leven movies that come out in a year, I generally see fewer than a dozen, including watching at home the next year or the year after. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve been on a bit of a movie-watching binge, what with being sick and all; I watched Topper, King Solomon’s Mines (the 1937 one), Torn Curtain, Shall We Dance, Pride and Prejudice (the 1940 one) and My Fair Lady.

So. I do know know what looks like. I more or less know who he is, and I can’t swear that I haven’t ever listened to his music, although, again, the last ten artists on the shuffle I’m currently listening to are Carmen McRae, the Hi-Fives, Duke Ellington, Kate Bush, the Kingston Trio, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Mabel Mercer, Paul Simon, The Who, Eurythmics and Lena Horne. Or is that eleven? Anyway, I’m (a) old, and (2) not interested in keeping up with music. And white, which plays a part in it, too. But what I’m saying is that my first thought the beginning was not That’s but That’s some black dude with a great look. And then as the thing progressed, I was in the frame of thinking that whoever had put this together had got a bunch of people with great looks together to do this thing, making a sort of Mosaic of America kind of thing. That framework prevented me from, for instance, recognizing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar other than as a guy that looked kinda like Kareem. Nor did I recognize Scarlett Johansson, other than as a conventionally pretty young thing. I did notice that many of the people were unusually good-looking, but that seemed like a normal sort of thing. Here’s the point: Your Humble Blogger totally failed to recognize any of the celebrities in the video. Zero. On the first time through. None. At all.

And I loved it. I thought is was wonderful on half-a-dozen levels, a magnificent thing, really moving, and I hoped that with people like Atrios pushing it, the video would get a lot of play and go (as they somewhat disgustingly say) viral. Then I found out who the dude at the front was, and that it had debuted on Good Morning America (or whatever), and that they had essentially infinite resources to make the thing, and I watched it again and recognized half-a-dozen of the people (although I must admit that most of the celebrities I did not recognize, and still don’t know what they look like, nor particularly care), and I was disappointed. Really profoundly disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s still a lovely piece. It’s not only moving rhetorically, but it’s interesting artistically, using sampling and riffing in a way I find inspired. It’s certainly not a bad thing for celebrities (whether YHB celebrates them or not) to use their various talents or even just their celebrity to improve the country and its politics. And I love the way that the video lauds rhetoric itself, makes the act of speechmaking not only respectable but essential, transformative in itself. All great. No complaints about the video. But my experience of it was a trifle depressing.

Also, there’s this: I have been meaning to write about the way that YouTube (and to a lesser extent, other video sharing on the web) may be very interesting in this political cycle. I had seen a parody ad “for” Mitt Romney which I thought was absolutely hilarious, and it occurred to me that this is something new. In the last few cycles, say two generations or so, almost everything we saw came from the campaigns, filtered somewhat through the news media, with some added stuff from the late-night television comics (which I wanted to write about as well). I think this year, though, it’s likely (not certain, but likely) that some campaign-related video put together by some goofy kids will go all bacteriological or whatever, and that the Al Gore invented the internet catchphrase of this time around will come from nowhere. And the campaigns have this total loose cannon stuff out there, exploitable but not controllable, and they are in a fascinating bind because of course any particular hilarious video has very likely been put together by some loser with a criminal record who also has been editing together anime porn to the Buzzcocks, so the they can’t link directly to the video, but once it catches on, can the candidate refer to it in a stump speech? In response to a reporter’s question, can she admit to having seen it? Can he admit to not having seen it? Lots of fun to be had. But it turns out that this video has nothing to do with that; it’s a good old-fashioned (if brilliant) campaign song.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 28, 2008

two-shot, both survive

There is nothing more powerful in human motivation than the urge to be on the inside. To be in the know.

Digression:If you have never read C.S. Lewis on “The Inner Ring”, you should; if you have read it in your youth, you should read it again. It is worth reading every ten years or so, I imagine for your entire life. There will be times when you disagree with it (I hope), but there should never be a time when you won't engage with it, when it has nothing to say to you. End Digression.

One of the less dangerous aspects of this desire is the pleasure taken in knowing how things are made. The secrets of construction, the way that the lights are hung to generate that eerie blue glow, the pocket the dove is hidden in before the trick, when they switch the duck for the duct tape. I've read enough about film-making to know something about how films are actually made, and although I get to feel smug about it a lot, it has led to a certain inability to enjoy a few particular aspects of film-making. Such as.

You are warned, you know. I'm going to ruin a bunch of movies for you. Stop reading now, Gentle Reader, and you will avoid that feeling of smug dissatisfaction that will mark you as the possessor of inside information and distinguish from those who simply enjoy the movie. Can you stop reading here? My advice to you, Gentle Reader, is to do so. Nothing you learn from here on in will be of the slightest practical use. Nor am I going to reveal anything that is in the slightest a secret, or that you could not figure out if you put your analytical skills to it. You should, rather, be content with the illusion.

Are you still here? Draw near, Gentle Reader, and I will tell.

So, almost everyone knows that movies are filmed in several takes; the director goes through the scene several times with the camera rolling and then prints those takes that he thinks best captured the scene. Furthermore, in post-production, there's an editing process that indicates when the audience is seeing the actor who is speaking and when the actor who is listening, when the close-up and when the two-shot, etc, etc. Yes? This is all well-known. And it should be obvious that unless there is a continuous shot, different takes can be spliced together to make one scene. This leads to continuity problems, where a pen that was moved, unnoticed, between takes appears in the scene now on the left side of the desk, now on the right.

Nothing sinister so far, you say? True.

Now, in many films there is a scene where two characters are talking, perhaps outside, and much the time we see one character over the other one's shoulder, alternating between the two characters, and (in editing) interspersed with shots where the two are together, seen from a bit further away. If you are filming that way, you can either be very clever indeed with placing the cameras so that the camera over Jane's shoulder will not be visible in the shot from the camera over John's shoulder, or you can simply set the camera over Jane's shoulder, run the scene, and then move the camera to over John's shoulder and run it again. Yes? Much easier. And then run it again with a camera far enough away to give you a sense of their surroundings. Your editor then cuts these three points of view together (perhaps with several takes from each) to come up with the actual scene that an audience sees.

But here's where things go bad: when the camera is over John's shoulder, we can only see Jane, right? And John is played by a Very Important Actor who is not going to stand around “acting” when he's not on camera, is he? No, he's going to go back to his trailer and prepare for his next scene. So there's a stand-in for the blurry shoulder or sleeve, and somebody to read John's lines, and the actress playing Jane does the scene for the camera, and then retires to her trailer while they move the cameras and do it for John and the stand-in and John's drama coach reading Jane's lines.

Not every such scene is shot like that. But enough that a Very Important Actor who is willing to be his own stand-in for such scenes is considered kind and helpful and all that; I've seen it mentioned in more than one memoir. And once you know that, it's hard to forget it. And with astonishing frequency, when I see a scene like that, it is very clear to me that the two actors are not in the same room. Sometimes the lighting is different, and sometimes the sound is different, but mostly I just become convinced that the actors are not interacting, just acting. Usually such scenes are either confrontations or romances; it ruins the scene entirely when I decide that they filmed it separately.

And now, you too, Gentle Reader, will have to think, is Dumbledore really talking to Harry? It sure doesn't seem like it, does it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

December 20, 2007

Also, It's a Wonderful Life

Your Humble Blogger used to watch a lot of Christmas Specials on television, but I kicked that habit (and kicked the television-watching habit generally) and haven’t seen very many in recent years. I understand that there are now half-a-dozen new ones a year, for various channels. I’m wondering if they still follow the same pattern:

  • There is a threat to the Christmas celebration of a fairly large number of people, ranging from a part of town to the entire world.

  • There is a child, who is either ill, homeless or bereaved.

  • There is someone who does not have the Christmas Spirit. That person is often a banker, but could be anyone in a position of authority: a corporate executive, a store owner, or the personification of a supernatural force, or even royalty.

  • The Person without Christmas Spirit has an associate or assistant who does, secretly, have the Christmas spirit, but is for most of the plot sufficiently cowed to acquiesce in the PwCS’s plans.

  • In the end, the PwCS takes the Christmas Spirit into his (or her) heart, and learns to keep Christmas in his (or her) heart all the year round.

  • The child does celebrate Christmas, with more material plenty than ever before.

It’s a syndrome, not a disease. I mean, that there’s a set of symptoms, and if the show has, say, four out of the six symptoms, then it’s got Christmas Special Syndrome, whether it has the other two or not. And of course not all Christmas Specials have the Syndrome, and not all the ones that do have the Syndrome are the worse for it. YHB’s absolute favorite Christmas Specials are How the Grinch Stole Christmas (the original animated special, of course), which is clearly Syndromic, A Charlie Brown Christmas, which is not, and the Vicar of Dibley Christmas episode from the third series, which is also not. At all. Also, The Christmas Carol is Syndromic, I think, as is The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, if you stretch a point.

So, Gentle Readers, what are your favorites, and do they have the Syndrome? And have I forgotten some symptoms?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

September 9, 2007

Book Report: The Shootist

The spine of The Shootist caught YHB's eye on the library shelf, mostly because of the movie, of which I had fond memory. For those Gentle Readers who don't remember or didn't see the movie, and don't mind the plot being given away (those Gentle Readers who object to spoilers should (a) probably not be reading these Book Reports unless you have read the book, and (2) stop reading this Book Report at the end of this parenthesis, just after the bit where I mention that both the book and the movie are very good), the Shootist is John Bernard Books, an aging gunslinger who discovers he is dying of cancer in 1901. At the end of the first chapter, not only had Glendon Swarthout informed us that the Shootist is John Bernard Books, an aging gunslinger who discovers he is dying of cancer in 1901, but had given us a gunbattle and some kick-ass dialogue into the bargain. I figured it was a book I wanted to read.

Digression: One of YHB's narrative-fiend habits is to note how much we know at the end of the first chapter (and how long that first chapter is), and then to note when the author is finished setting up the plot and started telling it. There's a way of thinking about storytelling that divides the story into before and after the phrase and then one day... comes up. There were three little pigs who lived with their mother and then one day... There was a hobbit who lived a comfortable life under a hill, and then one day... Now, you could tell the same sequence of events, with that part in a different part, but it wouldn't be the same story. There were three little pigs who left their mother's house to build their own houses. The first little pig made his house of straw, the second little pig made his house of sticks, and the third little pig made his house of bricks. And then one day...

I want and then one day... to make its appearance in the first chapter, preferably in the first 25 pages. Unless I'm reading Dickens of course. End Digression.

Having zipped through the wonderful novel, I went back to watch the wonderful movie. It's the sort of movie called a minor classic. Books is played by John Wayne, in his last movie, not long before his own death from cancer. Lauren Bacall plays Bond Rogers, the tough lady whose boarding house becomes his last home. Gillom Rogers is none other than Little Ronnie Howard, big now, and nearly ready to give up acting altogether. The doctor is Jimmy Stewart, memorable and comfortable. If all that sounds good (and it does to me), its a movie to make sure to see.

On the other hand, watching it again just after reading the novel, I was expecting it to be about John Wayne, not John Books. That, too, could have been a powerful thing—Books is famous, and famous for something that is old-fashioned and now frowned-upon. People thought it was a perfect merging of actor and role. Not so much a merging as the book being submerged under the persona. The opening of the movie uses clips of John Wayne from old movies (was that common? I think of that as all nineties and postmodern and stuff) before the opening gunbattle. Now, in the book, Books is set on by an old claw-handed bandit, who he shoots in the belly. Before he rides off, he offers to kill the bandit quickly, rather than leaving him to die slowly in the desert, but the bandit refuses, and in fact begs Books not to kill him. In the movie, Books tells the (younger) bandit that he won't die, but he'll have a hell of a bellyache. Right away, it's a different character, and a different world. So I was very suspicious.

There is some of that in the movie. Books is twinklier, more sympathetic, and a the roughest edges are taken off. But the main difference, the thing that really changes the movie, is the Ron Howard character, Gillom Rogers. He's the wastrel son of the boardinghouse widow, drinking and cursing and wanting to learn to shoot. He starts out idolizing John Bernard Books and ends up ... well, in the book, he ends up killing him, and enjoying the feeling of killing, and being on his way to becoming a shootist himself. In the movie, he ends up killing the barman who shoots Books, and then throws the gun away. In the book, he keeps the guns. In the book, Gillom is a thief and a liar, and one of the tragic moments comes when Books finds himself so debilitated that Gillom can knock him down. In the movie, Gillom is a goodhearted kid, trying on misbehaviour to see how it fits, and in the end, it doesn't fit at all.

There are other changes, of course. Books spends his last days both fending off other people's attempts to cash in on his fame and cashing in himself, selling his horse, his clothes, his watch, his image and even his corpse to scrape together a few hundred dollars to send Gillom off East to school, his mother's last hope of keeping him out of trouble. In the book, Gillom steals the money. In the movie, we see some of Books gathering the money, and we see him put it in an envelope (if we're paying attention), but that's it.

So the boy's character is changed, and that changes everything else. In the book, John Bernard Books is, finally, a failure; he manages eventually to get himself killed to avoid the agony of cancer's final days, but he never manages to make the human connection he desires, and for all that he makes an attempt at redemption, its practical outcome is that Gillom becomes rich, vicious and (presumably) famous. In the movie, though, it's clear that Books is redeemed. The whole world is turned over—instead of Books (and others) being a remnant of a foul and vicious time, they are shadows of a glorious past. Instead of the modern world being (for all its cupidity and stupidity) showing the possibility of a world without so much violence, it's a pale shadow, less manly for being less violent.

I'd like somebody to remake the movie. It's a grand part, and there's no reason why my vision of it should be the only one, but there's no reason why John Wayne's should be the only one, either. Robert Duvall would be excellent, as would James Garner or Nick Nolte. Each would convey different things, play up the violence or the stubborness or the pain or the age or the regret. If it were a play (and it wouldn't work as a play at all), every American actor would have to try his hand at it sometime in his sixties. As it is, John Wayne—and Ronnie Howard—are all we get.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 28, 2007

Book Report: Stardust

Perhaps here would be the appropriate place to attempt a comparison of the books and film adaptations of The Princess Bride and Stardust. Sadly, Your Humble Blogger hasn’t time, or really will. I am starting paid employment today, and although it is part-time, raising the Youngest Member is still full-time, and then there’s the Perfect Non-Reader, and my Best Reader, and myself, and there’s this house, too. It’s likely that blogging will be a low priority matter for a little while, until I reach equilibrium again. Or, maybe, work will spark me to greater bursts of energy, which will spill over into the blog. Or the Youngest Member will start sleeping through the night. We’ll see.

At any rate, the essay in question would have to look at the way the framing devices in the book and movie of Bride work, and how the film of Stardust uses narration and the new opening scene in London to invoke an entirely different sense of storytelling. And how characters are pushed and pulled depending on their (perceived) box-office drawing power. In Stardust, particularly, Michelle Pfeiffer would never have bothered to play the character as it was in the book, and Robert DeNiro presumably was enticed to play an All-New Part Written Just For Him. It’s how these things get made. Which is fine. But there it is.

The ending of the Bride adaptation was successfully taken from (one of the) ending(s) in the book fairly directly, in large part I think because William Goldman is a screenwriter who understands about endings. Neil Gaiman has written for the screen, which meant, really, that he didn’t insist that the sweet but low-key ending in the book would work on-screen. Personally, I liked having everybody all together in the witches’ lair, and the Zombie Septimus swordfight was wonderful, really inventive and clever and preposterous and funny and lovely, but on the whole the Boffo Ending took too long, and the epilogue took too long, as well, since there wasn’t any particular point to it (unlike the epilogue in the book, which I don’t think would have worked better, but at least had a point to it).

On the whole, though, the adaptors successfully (imao) took the risk of adding lots of stuff to a book, while Bride was much closer, in large part because it could do that and still work as a movie. I would love to read (or even someday write) an essay on the details of that, scene by scene. But I doubt it will happen.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 21, 2007

Book Report: The Princess Bride

I reread The Princess Bride just a bit before David Moles brought it up a couple of weeks ago in connection with the Stardust movie. I wasn’t aware of the connection people were making, or I don’t think I was, but it’s likely that it seeped through into my decision-making as I was looking through my shelves at bathtime.

This isn’t exactly the place to compare (1) the book of The Princess Bride, (1a) the movie of The Princess Bride, (2) the book of Stardust, (2’) the movie of Stardust, but I will say that I vastly enjoyed all four of them, and will almost certainly continue to enjoy all four of them again and again and again and again. That should tell you what sort of person Your Humble Blogger is, I’m afraid.

For whatever reason, on this I found the William Goldman bits less powerfully depressing than I usually do. Perhaps it’s because I am aware that the actual William Goldman does not actually have a son, and that the William Goldman bits are every bit as fictional as the S. Morgenstern bits, that is, every bit as fictional as the good bits. Also, I have a daughter now, and have had the experience of wanting her to like a particular book or movie, and been disappointed. With the movie of The Princess Bride, now that I think of it. And I’ve had moments when I haven’t much liked the Perfect Non-Reader, and know that those moments pass, and that the moments will likely pass with the character in the William Goldman bits.

Another thing that came to mind—at the time that the movie of The Princess Bride came out, the stars were not stars. Cary Elwes was an unknown, having been in a handful of movies, not yet having had a recurring role on the X-Files, a flourishing voice-over career, or the occasional role as a heavy or film-maker in odd independent films. Frankly, he’s still a bit of an unknown, but there it is. Robin Wright had been in a minor soap, hadn’t married Sean Penn, hadn’t played Moll Flanders or Mrs. Forrest Gump. Chris Sarandon was, and is, the first Mr. Susan Sarandon, that guy who was in that movie, and that tv show, and that play. Recognizable, always working, but not a star. Christopher Guest was an SNL alum with one successful movie. Billy Crystal was an SNL alum with one moderately successful movie. Carol Kane was recognizable, but not a star. Wallace Shawn was that guy that Woody Allen called a homunculus, or the guy who had dinner with Andre, or the playwright. His profitable career as a voice actor hadn’t begun, nor had his innumerable television guest appearances. Mel Smith and Peter Cook were known to devotees of British Comedy, but weren’t particularly familiar to American audiences. Fred Savage hadn’t started his Wonder Years. Mandy Patinkin was a Broadway star, but was probably best known for Yentl, by which I mean, he wasn’t well-known at all. He hadn’t kicked himself off two successful television shows. Peter Falk was a star, of course

The thing is that I can’t read the book without thinking of the brilliant casting job they did for the movie, and I forget that most of those actors were not the obvious choices they seem to be in retrospect. Also, when somebody watches the movie now, almost everybody is a well-known character actor, and almost all of them became well-known character actors after appearing in The Princess Bride, and in part because of their roles in The Princess Bride. That’s ... interesting, isn’t it?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

August 8, 2007


So. Your Humble Blogger doesn’t go out to see a lot of movies, these days. Which means I don’t see a lot of trailers. Now, I could watch a lot of trailers, because they are all on-line, but why would I bother, since I don’t go out to see a lot of movies. All of which is to say that I’m out of the loop on upcoming movies, and was unaware that Ken Branagh was directing another version of Sleuth, this time with Michael Caine in the role of Andrew Wyke. Mr. Caine, of course, played Milo Tindle in the Joe Mankiewicz 1972 film with Laurence Olivier as Andrew Wyke. The play (by Anthony Schaffer) opened in London and then on Broadway in 1970 with Keith Baxter and Anthony Quayle.

What I’m saying, this is not obscure or recent. I could well assume that anybody with any interest in theeyater or mysteries, or both, or even in film or mysteries and certainly both, knows the play/movie, and knows all of the plot twists. Sure, it’s possible that somebody will have heard of the movie or the play but not have read it or seen it, and that a spoiler would utterly spoil it, but it’s not very likely.

Or wasn’t. Now, presumably, there are thousands of people—well, dozens, anyway—who have seen the trailer and have at least a mild interest in someday seeing it, and would enjoy it more if it isn’t spoiled.

And if you are one of those people, now would be an excellent time to stop reading. Well, a couple of paragraphs earlier would probably be even better, now that you mention it.

Everyone that’s still here knows the plot, yes? So I can say that the reason Michael Caine seems to me better suited to play Wyke than Milo is that his voice is one of the most recognizable voices in film, which made it absolutely clear that Inspector Doppler was Michael Caine in a funny wig. I don’t know if Jude Law can pull of Inspector Doppler, but I think he’s got a better shot at it than Michael Caine. On the other hand, Michael Caine is not plausibly homosexual at all (sorry, boys), which will make the last quarter or so of the film difficult. He may prove me wrong. Oh, and I should say that Mr. Caine can swish with the best of them, I just don’t think that he can indicate his growing attraction to this young man. I don’t actually think Mr. Caine portrays that kind of attraction particularly well in any event, now that I think of it. Of course, I haven’t actually seen Alfie, but by report the effect in that is that Alfie is having a bit of fun, but isn’t actually in love with anybody except himself. And other than that, there’s—what—various killers, soldiers, scapegraces and troublemakers. I should watch Hannah and her Sisters again; I remember his crumbling character, but don’t remember his crush on Barbara Hershey. And I should see Deathtrap again, where he does play a man with a crush on another man. And which is a joke on Sleuth, mostly, anyway.

Where was I? Oh, yes, spoilers. So if the first thing to talk about is Michael Caine’s taking on the other role, the second thing is how the new screenplay (by Harold Pinter) will change the plot twists to surprise those of us who know, for instance, that—

OK, seriously, anybody here still going to have the movie, the play or anything else spoiled by revealing detailed plot points? No? Sure? Good.

So there are essentially four quarters to the play. Act One opens with approximately three-quarters of a fuckload of exposition, followed by the Phony Break-in (I). In the first major twist, the Phony Break-In turns out to be a blind for the Murder (II), and the curtain comes down as Wyke gloats over Milo’s dead body. Act Two opens with Inspector Doppler (III) sleuthing out the murder, and it is revealed that Wyke did not, actually, kill Milo, but is somehow being framed for it anyway. The last major twist reveals that Doppler is actually Milo, who has actually framed Wyke for an entirely different murder, and will send him up unless Wyke plays his Gruesome Little Game (IV).

We know from the trailer that Mr. Pinter has kept the Phony Break-in (I), and he appears to have kept the Murder (II). I am assuming that he has kept Inspecter Doppler (III), because if he hasn’t, then it isn’t Sleuth at all. And you could just end the movie at the end of Inspector Doppler (III), but why would you want to? That isn’t clever. No, all I can figure out is that they have found some way to make the Gruesome Little Game (IV) startling and new and different. Or not, you know.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 20, 2007

Book Report: In the Frame

As I was rereading In the Frame (the painter one—no, not the Scotland painter one, the Australia painter one) this time, it occurred to me that it would make quite a good movie. Oh, you’d have to change a lot of it, of course. I think I’d make the Australian painter the main character, with the English one the supporting, rather than the way it is in the book. But the main plot would work: a painter discovers a criminal ring that sells mid-to-high quality paintings (say, US $200,000 area, for the movie) to visitors to Australia, finds out the suckers’ addresses and other parts of the collection, and then robs their houses, taking back the (forged) paintings and lots of loot besides.

And the main set piece would work: During the running of the Melbourne Cup, our heroes break into the bad guy’s art gallery to get evidence. They make various efforts to set up an alibi that they are at the racetrack (including buying what turns out to be a winning ticket on a longshot, funding much of the rest of the plot), and take advantage of the city’s near-total absorption in horserace fever to make their daylight raid. It’s lovely, and would work well onscreen.

Which led me to wonder why there haven’t been more Dick Francis movies. In fact, there has only been one theatrical-release movie, a 1974 film of Dead Cert directed by Tony Richardson. There was a six-episode series for UK television in 1980 that adapted some Sid Halley books and I suppose shoehorned Sid into a few others to pad it out. Then there were three movies for Australian TV with Ian McShane, including In the Frame. They all seem to have been pretty weak. And that’s it.

It seems odd to me that there haven’t been more. I mean, yes, Mr. Francis does not need the money or the publicity, so if he doesn’t want to see his things ruined, then he shouldn’t sell them to the flicks. On the other hand, he has sold them to the flicks, a few times. If there were no Dick Francis movies, then I would get that. But to let a few be made for television and not let Hollywood at them seems odd. Of course, it’s possible that he sold the TV rights to some of the early stuff before he was able to tell publishers what to do, and that the stuff that was made in the eighties is the result of that. Still, it seems odd.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 18, 2007

Movie Report: Stage Beauty

Your Humble Blogger finally got around to seeing Stage Beauty, the film of Jeffrey Hatcher’s play Compleat Female Stage Beauty. I enjoyed it a lot, much more than I had anticipated. There was a bit of annoying Acting! but not as much as there might have been. And there was a lot of very interesting stuff, about the theater, and the audience, and sex, and gender. Mostly about sex and gender. Those Gentle Readers who miss the discussion on Jed’s famous How do you know your gender? thread can start all over again with this movie.

The story is about Ned Kynaston, a Restoration actor who has been trained from youth to play Shakespearian heroines in the old style from before they closed the theaters. The movie opens, more or less, with Othello V,ii. We will see that scene many, many times over the course of the movie, with different actors and characters; it’s the scene where the Moor kills his young bride. “Put out the light, and then put out the light.” Mr. Kynaston is a wonderful Desdemona in that old style, he is a superstar diva with groupies, etc, etc. But the next thing you know the King (Charles the Two, curse him) has put a stop to cross-dressing on the public stage, and Mr. Kynaston is out of a job, etc, etc, women playing women, etc, etc, und so weiter und so fort.

One thing that struck me about the movie is that for a movie with a lot of men who have sex with men, there aren’t any homosexuals, the way that I think of them. Mr. K himself likes to have sex with men whilst dressed as a woman; when asked what men and men do together, he responds that it depends which one is the woman. His primary lover, the Earl of Buckingham, says that he fucks Desdemona and Cleopatra and Ophelia when he fucks Mr. K, and if he is not a beautiful heroine, there is no attraction. Even the ponce Sir Charles Sedley, who is only mildly put off by discovering a street whore is a man, is not attracted to men dressed as men. There are women who are attracted to Mr. K only when he is dressed as a woman, and a woman who is attracted to him in both guises, but they are not (shown as) attracted to women dressed as women. There aren’t any women dressed as men—well, the King’s mistress, Nell Gwynn, is dressed as a man for one rather amazing scene, while the King is dressed as a woman, for amateur theatricals rather than for sex, although it is rather distantly implied that their cross-dressing is a kind of foreplay as well.

And, of course, there’s the fact that for us, watching the movie from our twenty-first century perspective, the lace and ribbons and wigs and makeup and jewelry of a gentleman’s dress appear very, very feminine. Sir Charles, specifically, is crimped and primped within an inch of his life, and is withal the most lecherous man in the show, and perhaps the most masculine. Depending on what constitutes masculinity. And the most feminine? Hard to say. Nell Gwynne is crude and vulgar, but feels a sort of sisterhood that feels culturally womanly, if not necessarily feminine. Possibly it’s Maria, although one of the gags of the movie is that she can’t portray the Compleat Female Stage Beauty properly, the way Ned Kynaston can.

Beauty, femininity, masculinity. The play shows not only how they are cultural constructs, but how they are fluid and ill-defined, only dimly understood and resisted as much as accepted. But powerful, anyway.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

June 12, 2007

Movies, films, flicks

Yes, it’s every Gentle Reader’s favorite time, that bit where Your Humble Blogger writes a few lines about a bunch of videos. OK, fine, but look, I could be writing whole entries about this stuff.

  • It’s probably a deficiency of some kind, but I think that the Kids in the Hall’s I've lost my indian drum! bit is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television. I’m not a huge KitH fan, generally, as their most skit-like things often don’t work at all, and their completely bizarre stuff either works or doesn’t, as bizarre stuff does. Oh, and if you don’t find it funny, don’t worry—it’s like Zippy the Pinhead. It’s not that you didn’t get it, it’s that you didn’t think it was funny. There isn’t anything to get.
  • Why is it that (in movies, anyway), people think if they can just get onto an airplane with a suitcase full of money, their law-enforcement problems are over? I mean, Your Humble Blogger hasn’t ever worked in an airport, but it’s hard to believe the conversation doesn’t go something like this:
    FIRST SECURITY GUY: Damn, that’s a heavy bag
    SECOND SECURITY GUY: What the hell’s in that?
    1ST: Yeah, let’s open that fucker up!
    2ND: Holy Fuck!
    At which point, either they just take the fucking suitcase or they call some real police in. My guess is they take the suitcase. I mean, here’s you, with a trail of dead bodies behind you (most of them you didn’t kill, I know, but tell it to the judge), and the airline tells you that your luggage seems to be missing, and they can’t explain it, but it doesn’t seem to have gotten onto the airplane back in Wichita Falls. Who are you going to tell that you are owed two million dollars in stolen money? Of course, you could just take it as a carry-on, because certainly nobody is going to question a fifty-pound carry-on that x-rays show contains nothing but bundles of paper the size of dollar bills. Particularly on an international flight. Nope. You get to the airport, you’ll be just fine.
  • So, I finally watched Fever Pitch, and even though I had very low expectations, I was disappointed. For one thing, they totally did not show what it’s like to be a baseball fan. All the fans in the movie talk about being fans, but they don’t talk about baseball. Nobody started an argument by saying that Jason Varitek was better then Jorge Posada, or that David Ortiz should be playing first base so that Manny Rodriguez could DH, or that Mo Vaughn was a fat, lazy, overpaid selfish bastard who was a liability on the field and at the plate. I know that Mo Vaughn hadn’t been on the Sox for ten years at that point, but that is what being a Red Sox fan is like. There are guys in the bleachers who will tell you what a bum Harry Hooper was, and how Cy Young was a lazy, overpaid, bastard and they’re glad they got rid of him.

    For another thing, they totally did not show what it’s like to not be a baseball fan in Boston. I know the female lead wasn’t Boston born and bred, but the movie implied that she had been living there for five years, more or less, so when the male lead tells her he’s a Red Sox fan, she should know what he means.

  • Ushpizin is a profoundly good movie. I disagree with the main characters religious opinions, and I don’t really trust the ending, but the religious struggle of a man with a vile and violent history and a deeply devotional faith is not only instructive but surprisingly cinematic. I was disappointed that Ben Baruch dropped out of the movie, though, as he was on his way to becoming one of film’s great schnorrers.
  • In mentioning good movies, I saw and enjoyed I Know Where I’m Going. It’s true that it goes downhill after the opening titles, but that’s just because the opening titles are so unbelievably wonderful. And the rest of the movie is very good. If you like that sort of thing. If you don’t think that war-time British romance movies are swell, then you’ll probably be annoyed by the annoying things rather than charmed by the charming ones. Also: pipers.
  • Your Humble Blogger’s reaction to the movie of the The History Boys, to no-one’s surprise, was primarily frustration that I am too damn cheap and lazy to have gone to see the thing on stage. Well, and it was the right decision, too. But, damn.
  • The interesting part of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was the bit about making the murderer live with the slowly decomposing body of the victim. Very Lorca, if I’m getting that right. Sadly, there was a lot of other movie to fit that in. Ah, well. Lovely scrub brush. Sometimes I miss the desert.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 29, 2007

The silver screen, or at least the silver disk

While Your Humble Blogger doesn’t feel compelled to note in this Tohu Bohu every movie watched, now and then we watch enough to pile up some comments...

  • I was disappointed that Bandidas wasn’t more fun. It was fun, but it wasn’t fun enough. The odd thing, though: if you have Penelope Cruz and Selma Hayek, and the two characters are the elegant European-educated Do�a and the ignorant peasant girl, wouldn’t you cast Ms. Cruz in the former and Ms. Hayek in the latter? Still, they probably had more fun doing it the way they did. The other thing of note is that as a grown-up, I find it awkward to watch the bits in movies like this where they hint that it will degenerate into hard-core pornography, when I know that the movie is rated PG-13. And, you know, I am perfectly capable of renting hard-core pornography, if I so choose, and presumably have chosen this instead. And besides, I’ve seen Frida, I’ve seen Ms. Hayek topless, so the whole is-she-about-to-lose-her-top wink-wink came off very ... actually, very priggish.
  • I can’t believe that American Dreamz wasn’t at least watchable. I mean, it’s a brilliant idea—in an attempt to play for ratings, an American Idol-type show pushes an Ay-rab through to the finals, which will have the President of the United States as a guest judge. What they don’t know is that they Ay-rab is, in fact, a sleeper Al-Qaeda agent, activated by his success to get a chance to assassinate the President. Meanwhile, giddy with his own new celebrity, he can’t tell whether he is trying to win for his cause or for his fans. He’ll have to betray one side or the other. It could be played as a suspense thriller or as a farce; either way, it’s a great idea. Lousy movie, though. Or, at least, it seemed like a lousy movie to me. It’s possible that a lot of that wasted time was actually hilarious spoofs of actual reality shows, which YHB does not watch, and so I just didn’t get the joke.
  • Good Night, and Good Luck was a lovely film. Seriously, David Strathairn shone with the light of his inner justice, he was wreathed in the luminous cigarette smoke of truth, he squinted into the krieg lights of, well, they were actual krieg lights. It was odd, though, because it seemed to be a call for journalists today to go up against our own McCarthys, and it did a terrible job of explaining who Edward R. Murrow was, and why he could go up against Joseph McCarthy. Or of how powerful Sen. McCarthy really was, or seemed to be. Or of how Sen. McCarthy actually fell, and any connection between that fall and Mr. Murrow’s stand against him. The Senate turned on him because of some corruption unconnected with anything Mr. Murrow was reporting on, and because he was a drunk, and because he hung around with young gay men. Now, you could argue that they felt they could afford, politically, to turn on him because Mr. Murrow gave them cover, but George Clooney doesn’t make that argument, or any other. As a result, it seems like it was just ... out there. A gutsy thing that Mr. Murrow did, that he more or less got away with doing. That’s all.
  • I wonder if any brilliant comedian of this time could have anything like the career Peter Sellers had. I just watched Carlton-Browne of the F.O., in which Ms. Sellers plays a corrupt prime minister of a small mediteranean island, a greasy Greek slimeball. It’s a terrible part, and he’s hilarious. Other than being funny, though, what’s astonishing to me is that he gives the impression of being obese, without wearing a fat suit. There’s something about his costumes, and the way he holds his head, and the way he moves, that all give an idea of obesity, to the point that now and then I’d see a full-body view of him and think oh, right, he’s not fat.

    The thing that really struck me, though, is that Peter Sellers is at his absolute best when he is sending up ethnic stereotypes. I’ve seen him playing joke Frenchmen, joke South Asians, joke Americans, joke Chinese, joke Germans, joke Spaniards, joke Mexicans, joke Italians and of course joke Englishmen. Most of these were of course terribly offensive, sure. And I’d rather live in a culture that doesn’t (in general) hire white actors to portray joke Asians in yellow makeup. If that means that we don’t have any more Peter Sellerses, that’s fine. The world is full of tradeoffs, and that one isn’t close. Still, it’s a loss.

  • Saw Spiderman 2 and wished I hadn’t. Oh, and since I saw some sort of extended director’s cut on video, was there a bizarre thing in the theatrical release of the movie where the dishonest jerk Peter Parker was hiding from his landlord and not paying rent (because he’d rather play hero than hold down a job), and seemed to be considering banging the landlord’s daughter in lieu of rent? And then the landlord, the landlord malnourished daughter, Peter’s money trouble and Peter’s aunt’s money trouble just drop out of the movie as if there had never been any point in wasting our time with them? How, exactly, was Peter paying his rent?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

April 10, 2007

About reviews and reviewers

So, here’s an odd question: To what extent do you want a movie (or music or theater) reviewer in a daily newspaper to express his own preferences and interests, rather than her estimation of her audience’s?

That is, say your hometown newspaper’s movie review has a kink for (f’r’ex) women wearing gloves. The correct thing for such a reviewer to do about such a kink is to keep her mouth shut about it, right? I mean, it’s all right to mention it, or even to have it as a sort of running gag, but we don’t want her to review the movies based on how they appeal to her glove fetish. Right? I mean, if when she sees a movie with beautiful black elbow-length ones, she doesn’t want to give it five stars, even if she knows that she’ll be buying this one on DVD and watching it over and over again, with the blinds down. Her personal preferences, in such a case, should be kept as separate as possible from her reviewing job.

On the other hand, take an example of a reviewer who really thinks that (again, f’r’ex) fart jokes are funny. When a new Will Farrell movie comes out, it there are a bunch of good fart jokes, that’s a movie that should get some extra stars, yes? There’s no reason, there, for the reviewer to hold aside her own taste. Why not? Because it’s a taste that lots of the potential movie audience seems to share. So, from these examples, it seems as if the reviewer should consult her own tastes insofar as those tastes represent common ones. But that can’t be right, can it? I mean, if a reviewer appreciates, say, a well-edited movie, and is irritated by a movie where the editing is for crap, should she not take the editing into account in the review, just because most of her readers don’t really understand movie editing at all?

OK, what about good acting. Jane Reviewer likes good naturalistic acting, and Joan Reviewer likes good stylized acting. Does Joan have the responsibility to learn to recognize what Jane would like, and if not appreciate it for herself, up the recommendation because it has good naturalistic acting? What if Jane really can’t tell good stylized acting from ham acting, because it all looks fake to her? Is she automatically a crap reviewer? Would she be a better reviewer if she just panned everything that wasn’t in the naturalistic style?

I’m not talking about good magazine essays, by the way, which aren’t meant (mostly) to persuade the viewer to see or avoid a movie, so much as to persuade the viewer to adopt the writer’s views on that movie, movies generally, and the entire culture. No, I mean the daily newspaper, which reviews two or three movies every week and gives them a certain number of stars, or thumbs, or motion-sensitive laughing pumpkins. You might say that such a newspaper should hire a reviewer that shares tastes with its readers, but (a) how can you be sure either what the applicant’s real tastes are or what the readers’ tastes are, and (2) every reviewer must have some element of her taste that is unusual, if only an appetite for seeing more movies than the rest of us could bear to sit through. And if Jane Reviewer doesn’t start the job with a kink of some kind, surely she will develop one after the first fifty movies, yes?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 20, 2007

lights, camera, action

As has become more or less the rule, Your Humble Blogger watched six movies in theaters over the last year. I suspect that at least some of the movies in question will not be nominated for any Academy Awards this time.

It's a little hard to decide which was the Bestest Movie of The Year. In my general categories, the top one is unalloyed joy, and I don't think any of the movies really got in there. On the other hand, both Keeping Mum and Rocky Balboa should be in a category called, oh, had a good time, better than I might have expected, really. The category of liked bits of it quite a lot, but was disappointed, a bit contains V for Vendetta and Flushed Away although V should really be in a category of Problematic: fun to talk about without being a good movie, which could also include Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, which would keep the latter out of the stunk on ice, even though there were still some nice bits, and it really ought to have been a lot better category, which otherwise contains Over the Hedge.

I also saw Nanny McPhee on DVD, and it was quite good, I thought, although strangely the worst thing about it was the performance and character or Nanny McPhee herself as conceived and executed by the otherwise estimable Emma Thompson. The rest of the cast was excellent, including the children. In fact, they did a very good job of making the children both (a) child-like and (2) different, one to another.

My other DVD watching included another chunk of films from 2005, and when I looked at the list, I was startled to discover that I have watched eight of the ten top-grossing movies of that year. Five of those were on DVD, and I certainly did not pick them by virtue of their success in selling tickets. In fact, I was shocked to discover that Mr. and Mrs. Smith had sold that many tickets. On the other hand, clearly the ubiquity of the advertising for those movies had something to do with my choice, as did the ready availability of those titles, which was due to their ticket-selling success as well. On the other hand, aside from the eleventh-grossing movie (King Kong, which I saw in the theater as part of that gross) and the nineteenth-grossing movie (Million-Dollar Baby, which I saw, if I remember correctly, between Oscar nominations and the Oscar awards), I saw none of the next ten top-grossers, and I doubt that there's that much difference in the availability or advertising presence of the first and second ten movies. Still, sort of odd to see myself in the mainstream there.

To follow up on 2005, I was pleased by Mrs. Henderson Presents and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, two very different movies. Henderson is about WW-II theater/vaudeville, and is very sweet, funny and poignant. Much worth seeing, particularly for yet another reminder of what life during wartime is like when the war is not a minor skirmish on the fringes of the empire. KKBB is funny, knowing and quick, and succeeds in the unusual pursuit of having a genuinely dim-witted protagonist. Robert Downey, Jr., plays a fellow (almost typed felon, which would have worked as well) so far over his head that they would have to drag the reservoir for him, and his stupidity is neither the good-hearted naivete of stock noir protagonists or the lucky blundering of spoof comics but the echt dimness of, well, dimness. They go into the unalloyed joy category for 2005 along with Were-Rabbit and Bride and Prejudice.

Other than that, Your Humble Blogger watched Soap (seasons 1-3), House (season 1), and Doctor Who (season 1), all of which I enjoyed to a greater or lesser extent. Watching television series on DVD works quite well for me, as it turns out, and an hour (with commercials removed) is about how much television I want to watch in an evening. Often we break up a movie over two nights, and there have been several instances where we did not bother to finish what we started. There were also a handful of movies we enjoyed that reach back further than 2005, including the wonderful Triplets of Belleville, the good-but-not-quite-great Billy Elliott and the exactly-what-it-looked-like About a Boy.

Finally, it was not in 2006, but in 2007 Your Humble Blogger watched a film called The Americanization of Emily which appears to have been made in an alternate universe. Can any Gentle Reader explain how it got through to this one? And as its director and lead actor and actress are still alive and working, are they now dopplegangers? I hate to think of who would replace Paddy Chayefsky, but can you imagine a sequel, set in the current state of affairs?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 18, 2007

A movie, not puffed

Your Humble Blogger watched the movie The Wrong Guy t'other night. It's a clever little low-budget Canadian comedy from the late nineties, written by and starring Dave Foley and David Anthony Higgins and directed by David Steinberg. It's odd, though, because despite having a good cast of funny people and clever situations and good writing, it's not all that funny a movie. It's a B or perhaps a B-, and I'm not sure why.

The two big gags are that Dave Foley's character believes that he is on the run from the law as the main suspect in a murder, and that David Anthony Higgins' lazy and avaricious policeman is totally uninterested in actual law enforcement. They're both good gags. The first one is a good plot driver, as the semi-fugitive makes his incompetent way to the border, getting himself almost killed a few times and eventually falling in love. The second one isn't a good plot driver, but is funny anyway; when the real killer finally crosses the state line, the cop shows palpable relief that the feds will take over and he can go home. When the feds keep him on the case with an unlimited expense account, he "follows up leads" in New York instead of following the killer. I'm not sure the two gags work well together, though. I mean, the false fugitive would have been perfectly safe had he been a real fugitive, since the cop wasn't interested in chasing him. It throws the thing off.

Also, for some reason, the gags on the way are funnier in concept than they are in the movie. Our hero finds himself in a small town, where he falls in love with a pretty, pure-hearted but poor girl. Her father, you see, is the town banker, but he's being squeezed out by the rich farmers, who are going to force him out of business and plant corn where the bank is standing. A creepy conspiracy theory buff picks up our hitchhiking hero, who of course can't give his name or where he is going. A variety of contrived coincidences where the real killer meets up with our hero in various locations. The hotel clerk who finds our hero's suspicious behavior suspicious, but is totally taken in by the real killer. I don't know why they don't work better than they do, but they don't.

Do you know any movies like that? Movies that seem like they should be good movies, but somehow don't work, and you can't figure out why? Usually, it's either the cast or the writing, for me, although sometimes a really badly edited and directed movie will have ruinously bad pacing. But for those, it's clear why the movie fails. This one, I can't nail down a reason.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

January 9, 2007

Puff Piece: Hugh Laurie

So. Over the last few months, I've been watching DVDs of a couple of television shows featuring the great Hugh Laurie. They are somewhat different. The first is an American drama/soap opera in which Mr. Laurie plays a brilliant and irascible diagnostician (oh, and crazy dope friend); the second is a sketch comedy series he co-wrote and co-starred in with Stephen Fry. Watching the two of them over a shortish period has put me rather in awe of Mr. Laurie as an actor.

House, the medical thing, is an annoyingly terrible show with annoyingly brilliant bits. Mr. Laurie's character is wonderful, mostly wonderfully written, and almost always wonderful to watch. The rest of the characters range from annoying to uninteresting, with occasional good bits for most of them. The show revolves, or ought to, around two kinds of scenes: Doctor House giving snap diagnoses of common conditions based on offhand observations of minute symptoms, and Doctor House coming up with possible diagnoses of extraordinarily rare conditions (or combinations of conditions) based on a whole slew of conflicting and usually disgusting symptoms. I prefer the former, particularly as Mr. Laurie and Doctor House deliver the diagnoses in very funny, terribly rude, and often unexpected ways. The writing and performance mesh perfectly, and his exasperation, misanthropy and arrogance are entertaining to watch, as long as you are not the poor sap in the walk-in clinic who has the doctor glance at your left wrist and tell you that you have glaucoma and besides, your boss is sleeping with your husband. Or whatever. It's a hoot. The other ones are less amusing but are actually engrossing (in addition to being out-grossing) and if they are implausible, they are entertaining enough that I don't mind.

Sadly, the rest of the show is a soap opera about a handful of unpleasant hospital administrators and doctors, who waste my time with their interactions as if I care about them and their fictional futures. La. In addition, the implausibility that works in the show's favor when it turns out that the patient has leprosy (the father, you see, was not actually on secret missions so much as he was tramping around the undeveloped world having indiscriminate sex with whoever he met) works against the show when I am supposed to care whether the ludicrous hospital CEO will be vanquished by the risible chief of surgery. There is an important difference between implausible and fun, and implausible and lame. I surmise that these bits are there to provide opportunities for Dr. House to be inventively and wittily abrasive, except that the setups take up time that could be spent showing Dr. House actually being inventively and wittily abrasive. Ah, well. I am nearly at the end of the first season, something like twenty-'leven episodes, and I don't plan to watch season two.

I was so impressed by Mr. Laurie's performance as Dr. House, though, that I decided to seek out A Bit of Fry and Laurie, which I had known about and never bothered to find and watch. I've seen six episodes of the first series, and they are amateurish, inconsistent, self-indulgent, and very very funny. I was surprised to see that Stephen Fry, for all that he is a very funny man and clearly a terrific writer, is not much of an actor. He plays a very narrow range of characters extraordinarily well, and when he goes outside that range, it's usually a disaster, or at least his performance is. Mr. Laurie, on the other hand, successfully embodies a much wider variety of characters, changing voices, physical habits, classes and rhythms as well as any sketch comedian I've seen (with the exception, I suppose, of Michael Palin, who somehow was always more persuasive in his lower-class characters and madmen than the other Pythons). That doesn't mean that Mr. Laurie is funnier than Mr. Fry, even in my perception. Most of the best bits of Fry and Laurie (so far) have hinged on Mr. Fry, when he is either playing Stephen Fry or one of the overeducated professionals he does so well. Or, particularly, when he is doing both, since the whole show is predicated on an enjoyment of meta-humor, of part of the joke being that Mr. Fry and Mr. Laurie are doing the whole absurd skit comedy thing. They particularly like beginning a skit with an elaborate set-up only to stop the whole thing three or five lines in. There's a classic bit where they apologize for having to leave out a particular skit that was one of their favorites, but it does have a lot of sex and violence in it, such as the bit where Mr. Fry hits Mr. Laurie with a golf club, which wouldn't be so bad, but he does it very sexily. And so on.

One thing that struck me, watching these old shows, was that Mr. Laurie does seem to give Mr. Fry the business quite a bit about being homosexual. Mr. Fry is, as I now know, homosexual, or perhaps (I don't recall, although I have read an essay by him about it) bisexual with a long-term boyfriend. I don't think Mr. Fry was Out when these were broadcast in the mid-eighties, nor do I know if he was out to Mr. Laurie. Still, when Mr. Laurie's character calls Mr. Fry's character a great nancy or a bumboy, it's hard not to read into it a sort of needling that I think they both might have found very funny. Or not. It's hard to read.

Anyway, of the two, I vastly prefer the earlier, funnier works. I have also seen Mr. Laurie in Blackadder (he is a regular in III and IV), Jeeves and Wooster (with Mr. Fry again), Ben Elton's excruciating snoozefest Maybe Baby, Peter's Friends, and small parts in half-a-dozen movies and television shows. He was certainly good in them, funny in many of them, but not startlingly good of the go-out-and-see-what-else-the-man-has-done sort. He is that sort of good in House, which is good, because it got me to the Bits.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus:,

November 28, 2006

Book Report: 84 Charing Cross Road

I am trying to remember if I’ve ever read 84 Charing Cross Road before. I’d seen the movie, years and years ago; it’s a wonderful movie, and YHB highly recommends it. If possible, go back and time and see the movie before seeing Silence of the Lambs; it’s best to not have the stray image of a psychotic cannibal behind the well-mannered clerk. It will also help you enjoy other Anthony Hopkins roles, including the psychotic cannibal, if you start with one of the quiet ones.

Anyway, the book. It’s lovely, but surprisingly slight. It left me unsatisfied. That, perhaps, is the fault of the movie, but still.

I have been to Charing Cross Road, made the pilgrimage to 84, where there was a Burger King, if I remember correctly, and later a wine bar or something. There were a handful of wonderful used bookstores in the Charing Cross Road, and another couple of shops for new books that were wonderful as well, although beyond my pocketbook. Of course, the point of the book (and the movie) is all in not going to London, which in honesty is a magnificent and powerful pastime that is somewhat spoiled by going to London. London is wonderful, don’t get me wrong, and if somebody will pay for us to spend three months there, I’d take it greedily and ache for more, but not going to London, oh, one could spend a whole lifetime doing that, and the ache there is ever so much more pleasurable than the other.

Plus, you simply can’t get a good cup of tea in London.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

November 26, 2006

Action! Cut! Print!

Your Humble Blogger has, for one reason and another, seen a fair amount of movies over the last n days.

  • I enjoyed Billy Elliot a lot, but there was far too much acting. When I say that, what I mean is a scene or lengthy part of a scene where the actor is given nothing whatsoever to actually do but just look at the camera (or worse, away from the camera) and indicate his or her rich inner life. Please. The acting is generally done very well, more’s the pity, because if the actor sucked, it would be edited out and the movie would be ten minutes shorter and ten points better.
  • I suspect no Gentle Readers have seen Serendipity, because it was a huge hulking great floperooski of the first order, but it’s worth seeing. John Cusack is all John Cusack-y, which he does very well, and Jeremy Piven is incredibly Jeremy Piven-y, which nobody does better. The plot, if you must know, involves Him and Her meeting briefly, sparking enough chemistry to rival Dow, and then separating without knowing last names, addresses or telephone numbers. They muddle through their lives for a few years, and then, just before entering into loveless marriages, decide that the One For Me was that person I met that one time, and embark on serious searches for each other. The cleverness lies in all the ways that they very nearly find each other during the search. Unfortunately, the plot requires that Him and Her do not meet again until the final scene, so no more chemistry, sorry about that.

    Oh, another thing about Serendipity. The main characters are all absurdly wealthy urbanites. I mean, the sort of person for whom spending a couple of thousand bucks on a fruitless search is an annoyance, rather than actually impossible or even an ongoing disaster. I was totally alienated by that, again and again during the movie. I mean, not a big deal that they buy gloves at Bloomie’s, but getting married at the Waldorf-Astoria? Heck, going to Manhattan and staying at the Waldorf? Without thinking about it? Damn.

  • I’m just getting around to Season One of the new Doctor Who. You know, there was a time when I was a fanatic. I have knitted more than one Doctor Who scarf. I wound up dropping out of fandom while I was in college, when it didn’t seem worth the effort, and I never got back into it. So I have seen (I think) a total of three episodes with the previous two Doctors, and have seen perhaps two-thirds of the Peter Davison era. So when I decided to go ahead and watch some Doctor Who again, it seemed wrong somehow to skip all the stuff that everybody thinks is lousy and go to this modern revision. You know, like a n00b. I still find it strange, and may very well go back and watch all the crap episodes, not because I think I’ll enjoy them, but because, um, you know. Being a fan isn’t meant to be enjoyable, you know. As for the new episodes, I’m enjoying them a lot, although there is Too Much Acting.
  • I watched most of Arthur, and what struck me as I was watching (and enjoying) it was that if it had been a play, it would have been revived twice on Broadway by now, and every community theater in the country would have had a go at it. Since it was a movie, it would clearly be a Bad Idea to remake it, and the remake (fortunately hypothetical) would suck. Why is that? It’s just how it is.
  • Bob le Flambeur was OK, but it wasn’t all that good. But then, I’m like that. If I’m watching a heist movie, I want it to be about the heist. Not only did the movie not really care about the heist, the main character himself forgets about the heist entirely on the morning in question. I know, I know. It’s like Gosford Park, it’s shooting down the whole idea of the movie being about the heist, or the murder, or whatnot; it’s about the ordinary lives of the people who happen to be caught up in the plot. Only, me? I like heist movies because of the heist. I’m old-fashioned that way.
  • It occurred to me whilst watching Flushed Away that the most entertaining bits of the movie were the flashes of brilliant set decoration and other background gags, and that even if I get the thing on DVD in a year’s time, my little screen will not repay close watching. Even worse, it would really require frame freezing, which would be lame on our television, and not really practicable in the movie theater. Still, Gentle Reader, if you do go see it in the theater, I advise you before you begin to ignore the main characters (who are, fortunately, uninteresting, badly voiced and generally doing dull things in the service of a dull plot) and focus on what’s behind them, which is very entertaining.
  • If you only see one movie about serial murderers living as vicar’s housekeepers this year, make it Keeping Mum. Heck, if you weren’t planning on seeing any movies at all on that fascinating subject, it may be time to rethink your lifestyle. On the other hand, there is a lot of cognitive dissonance involved. At the same time as the viewer is thinking “Rowan Atkinson is doing a fine job here, funny but not over-the-top”, one is also thinking that at any minute he is going to inadvertently sexually assault a sheep or something. Similarly, it’s hard to watch Patrick Swayze (who does a fine job as well, very funny and nicely loathsome) without thinking “That’s Patrick Swayze? Eargh. He didn’t age well, did he?” Fortunately, all you need to think about when watching Maggie Smith is something like “How wonderful to live in a universe with Maggie Smith in it!” Of course, since she could equally play the sweet little old lady that she seems to be playing and the hilarious maniac she really is playing, and has often played both, there’s no real need to worry about it, is there?
  • I know you all know this already, but Chicken Run really is one of the best movies in recent history.
  • Do you think there’s an alternate history universe where the script for Mr. and Mrs. Smith was made into a movie? Seriously, has there ever been a better movie for the game of trying to deduce what the script writer had actually intended, a long, long time ago in a factory far, far away? I’m convinced that there was an early draft where there was an actual character with lines directing the assassination attempt. Also, there was presumably some reason why the big shoot-out was in a department store, probably involving the chief assassin and some bit of cleverness involving the products.
  • chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

October 12, 2006

Book Report: The Day of the Triffids

Your Humble Blogger had never read The Day of the Triffids before, nor seen the movie. I know, I know. Ambulatory plants that spit poison and kill. Why hadn’t I read it when I was fourteen? Why wasn’t it at Shlock some year? Now that I think about it, it very well might have been at Shlock some year, and I just didn’t go.

Anyway, the book is wonderful. Yes, there are bits where the plots stops while the characters discuss theories of community, but those bits are fairly short. Much shorter than in Heinlein, for example. In fact, the book read a lot like a Heinlein, only better and less annoying.

The opening is particularly magnificent. Our Hero, Bill Mason, is in hospital with his eyes bandaged. We don’t yet know that an ambulatory plant spit poison at him, but we know that today is when he gets the bandage off and finds out if he can see. Only there’s something wrong. Nobody came to wake him up and give him breakfast. Everything outside is eerily quiet, too. He wants the doctor to come and take his bandages off. Just the night before, there was a startling meteor shower, and everybody was watching, oohing and aahing, rubbing his nose in his possibly-permanent blindness, which just increased his anxiety. Now, what does he do?

That’s a fantastic beginning. The next bit—can this be a spoiler for anybody else? I hadn’t known it. But then, Gentle Readers are warned in general that I will throw spoilers in these notes if I feel like it. And, of course, the book is fifty years old, and likely you have all seen the movie—is that Bill takes off his bandages, and he can see, but everybody else has been blinded by the green meteor light. OK, they’ve been blinded by the magic plot stick, fine? Feel better? The polarity of their neutron flow has been reversed, and their dilithium crystals are cracked, their Necklin rods are bent and they have lost mitochondrions. Anyway, they’re all blind. Pretty nifty start, eh? And if it’s downhill from there, at least it’s starting a good way up, and coasts at a pretty good speed.

I’ll mention one other thing that struck me, which is that Mr. Wyndham uses as a plot device a thing that seems to have been a pretty common feeling in the fifties, that the Soviets were Up to Something, and we had no idea what. The Iron Curtain was going to stay down for decades, and nobody would ever be able to get information out. Now, of course, in these post-Soviet days, that bit is just quaint, but I think even when I was growing up, there was lots of cultural and scientific exchange. The Soviets were the Evil Empire, sure, but the Iron Curtain was more of a decorative grillwork (sadly, electrified). So that idea of secret scientific advances had pretty much died twenty years or so after this book. I always think it’s a bit humbling to read old science fiction, to be reminded that the obvious future is not what actually occurred, and that the future that’s obvious to us probably won’t occur, either. If we’re lucky.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

May 28, 2006

Good, bad, indifferent

In the middle of Anthony Lane’s nastily hilarious review of The DaVinci Code movie, he observes, “Movie history is awash, of course, with fine pictures that have been made from daft or unreadable books; indeed, you are statistically more likely to squeeze a decent movie out of a potboiler than you are out of a novel of high repute.”

Oddly enough, Your Humble happened to see a couple of very bad movies this past week, and I had a not altogether unrelated observation to make: Why do people remake excellent movies, but never crappy ones? There are loads of movies that had perfectly good concepts, but which were badly written or badly executed or badly performed, and you would think that a good film-maker would take one look at a movie like that, see where they went wrong, and be able to make a much better movie, a good movie in fact. Taking a movie where the writing, the performances, and the direction, are all magnificent and making even a halfway decent remake seems much much harder.

Take The Ladykillers. The basic premise is only OK: A group of criminals rents a room from a little old lady, steals a massive amount of money and then they split on each other and the little old lady thwarts them, resulting in the criminals getting killed and the little old lady winding up with all the loot. It’s a good concept, but it’s obvious on first glance that the movie depends on the execution. In the 1955 movie, written by William Rose and directed by Alexander Mackendrick, the wonderful performances by Alec Guinness and particularly Katie Johnson are untouchable. The screenplay is wonderful, the pacing is superb, and the supporting performances are all quite good, and have moments of brilliance. So even if a filmmaker is an absolute genius, and gets the perfect cast (which he wouldn’t), and all the money in the world, and everything goes absolutely perfectly, and every wild vision of the remake gets onto the screen just as it was in his head, you will end up with ... a disappointing, but pretty good movie.

Now, the Coen Brothers/Tom Hanks remake does not have all those things coming into place. Well, at least not in the first half-hour, after which I stopped watching. It wasn’t awful, it just wasn’t really ... no, it was awful. I like the Coen Brothers, or at least I absolutely adore about half of their movies, and I like Tom Hanks, but blech.

But my point isn’t really about this, as for all I said above I can’t really blame the Coen Brothers or Tom Hanks for wanting to remake the movie, and they clearly had a lot of fun with it, and a fair amount of people seemed to think it was good. No, my point is about the other lousy movie I saw last week: Mr. 3000. Now, this is actually a very clever idea for a movie: a baseball player who is a self-centered jerk quits in the middle of a pennant race when he gets his 3,000th hit, telling the assembled sportswriters that they can all go fuck themselves, now, because they have to put him in the Hall of Fame. Nine years later, he’s five votes short when the Archive discovers that a three-hit game got counted twice (don’t worry about it, it’s plausible enough for a movie) and he retired with 2,997 official hits. Faced with having to buy a ticket to get into the Hall, and his self-identity as “Mr. 3000” crumbled, he makes a comeback at 47 with his old team, now in the cellar, to try to get 3 more hits in September. Along the way he learns humility, teamwork, and all that he missed when he was in the game.

Bernie Mac plays the aging jerk, and he’s actually terrific, as far as he goes, but the movie is so badly written and paced and slapped together that it just doesn’t work. Even the good ideas (Paul Sorvino as the silent stone-faced manager, and Michael Rispoli as the sidekick) are butchered or buried. And even Mr. Mac isn’t so good that I couldn’t imagine somebody else, ten years from now, being even better. Worst of all, I have no sense that anybody connected with the movie liked baseball or baseball movies in the slightest. In other words, a remake would not only almost certainly be better than the original movie, but could very easily be a really good movie. But will anybody make it? No. Because nobody remakes crappy movies.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

May 25, 2006

Mutants: Threat or Menace?

OK, I’ve never been a big fan of Mick LaSalle, but surely his review of X-Men: The Last Stand takes the proverbial. I don’t expect to like the movie much, myself, but surely it’s a little ... insane ... to object to it because mutants are bad.

No, seriously, his main objection to the movie is not that it’s “noisy and busy” and “grim and self-important”, although he does make a point of that. No, in almost every paragraph of the review, Mr. LaSalle emphasizes that “mutants and Homo sapiens not only can't get along but shouldn't get along”, and that the movie’s bogus tolerance is what is really wrong with it. Now, perhaps Mr. LaSalle was attacked by mutants as a child, and is now entirely incapable of rational thought on any tangentially related subject, but ...

Quite aside from the absurdity of the argument (are even the X-Men that much more dangerous than people with guns?), there’s the basic idea that a summer blockbuster should be graded on its socio-political premise in a newspaper review. Sure, if the Nation wants to examine the subtleties of the summer blockbuster, they should go ahead (and they do a much better job of it than Mr. LaSalle, putting the thing into, you know, cultural context), but this is a newspaper review. Get the proverbial grip.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

February 10, 2006

no, no, I get to define things, me, I do

Every now and then, the fact that people are different, one to another, and perceive different universes, still manages to surprise Your Humble Blogger. Manohla Dargis, in a New York Times review of Firewall called An Aging Action Hero With a Flair for Computers and a Family to Protect, says that “It's not a little painful, then, to watch Mr. [Harrison] Ford in "Firewall," a rote retread of the kind of family-in-jeopardy flicks that helped define his career.”

Now, I’m not commenting on “Firewall”, which I ain’t seen and ain’t going to see. Nor is this a vendetta against the New York Times Arts and Leisure section, which as you are aware, Gentle Readers, gets right up my nose on occasion, but still forms an enjoyable part of my readload. No, it’s just that my immediate reaction was that Mr. Ford’s career is defined by Indiana Jones, and may possibly have been redefined by “The Fugitive”, and that neither of those were family-in-danger movies. And when I mentioned to my Best Reader how preposterous it was that somebody might say that Mr. Ford’s career was defined by family-in-danger movies, she immediately said “Witness”. I dismissed it as a minor movie, but you know, that was wrong. Sorry, Best Reader.

That is, I think it’s perfectly plausible to consider an actor’s first Oscar nomination as, in some sense, a defining role, even if I think the movie is forgettable and forgotten, and if it pretty obviously ranks no higher than tenth of his movies’ Pop Culture strength. That is, behind three Indy movies, three Star Wars movies, Blade Runner, the Fugitive and American Graffiti. And no, I don’t count the last Indy movie as a “family-in-danger” movie; the old man was doing fine on his own. Nor does the Fugitive count, as the family is not so much in danger as dead. Of course, one could argue that “Witness” isn’t a “family-in-danger” movie, either, as the family in danger isn’t his, but that seems stretching.

More to the point, Mr. Ford has saved his movie family in, if I’m not missing any, “Witness”, “Patriot Games”, “Air Force One” and possibly “Mosquito Coast”, although in the latter movie they are primarily in danger from his character. I saw Mosquito Coast in 1986, and “Witness” in, probably, 1988 or so, and haven’t seen the other two, so my view of Mr. Ford is pretty much entirely missing that aspect of his career. So I kinda just forgot about it. In fact, I haven’t seen any of the last five movies Mr. Ford has carried. The one I saw was a romantic comedy, which wasn’t terribly successful, and didn’t help define his career at all. In fact, as it turns out, I count 26 movies in which Mr. Ford has either been the star or a major supporting role, and I’ve seen, um, 16. If I’m counting correctly. Mostly from the beginning of his career, meaning I have seen fourteen of the fifteen movies made up through 1990, and two of the eleven made since. And I was all upset that somebody was defining his career all wrong. Um, perhaps I’m not so much an authority as I thought.

I’m just saying. My perception of the universe is incomplete. Sometimes I forget that. It’s good that I’m reminded of it. Sometimes it’s nice to be reminded in the context of a topic that doesn’t matter at all.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

February 2, 2006

More movies, illustrated

I know, Your Humble Blogger hardly ever does this, but what the hell. Metasilk made a pretty out of movie posters (well, and DVD boxes), so here’s mine. Note that I am not defending these as the Bestest Dozen Ever, but they are movies of which I am fond, movies I’ve seen more than once and enjoyed more than once.

By the way, should you feel inclined to create your own similar image table, the source comes from Hot Free Layouts, which does the searching for images and table creation for you, free (as they imply in their name), with only a handful of smallish textish ads. This does not constitute an endorsement of their site.

The images are Amazon’s, hosted on their server, which I understand is Not The Thing, really, but I would guess that Amazon doesn’t mind. Certainly we are unlikely to overwhelm their servers. Of course, I usually go to some effort to avoid linking to Amazon, but that’s mostly because I would encourage y’all to buy books from either bookstores with shelves and all or from on-line sellers with nicer plans for world domination. Should y’all choose to purchase any of these films

Actually, now I think about it, there are several troubling things about this whole business. Still, I’ve done it. To help me get over it, Gentle Readers, tell me about movies. Have you seen all twelve of my grid? Did you dislike any of them? What’s the matter with you? Have you no taste?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

January 31, 2006

2005 Movie Wrap-Up

Well, and the Oscar noms are out, and Your Humble Blogger has seen six—six!—of the nominated films. Oh, none of the ones nominated for Best Picture, and none of the nominated acting performances, or directing, or writing, but then who saw any of those? No, I have seen two of the three Animated nominees, and am still bitter about not getting to see the third, and I have seen a movie with nominations in sound editing, sound mixing visual effects and art direction, one with nominations in makeup, one with nominations in costume design, and one with nominations in makeup, sound mixing, and visual effects. That’s eleven nominations, in all. Not bad, particularly considering that those six movies were the only 2005 movies YHB saw in theaters. Yep, a clean sweep; every movie I saw last year got an Oscar nom.

Well, and that isn’t quite true. In addition to those six, I saw five movies on DVD that were released earlyish in 2005. Ah, Netflix. Technically, that means I have eleven 2005 movies, totaling only eleven nominations, but still that ain’t too shabby.

Of those eleven, my favorite was clearly Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, with Bride & Prejudice coming a surprisingly close second. The problem is that those were the only two movies that were unalloyed joy. The category of liked bits of it quite a lot, but was disappointed, a bit includes The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, King Kong, The Corpse Bride, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The category of stunk on ice, even though there were still some nice bits, and it really ought to have been a lot better included Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, Rock School, Millions, Madagascar, and The Brothers Grimm. And that’s the whole year in movies.

Oh, I suppose one more thing. Since the 2004 Movie Wrap-up in this Tohu Bohu, YHB saw Very Long Engagement, which was rather nice but not as wonderful as I wanted it to be, and the first half of Life Aquatic, which was not unpleasant, but which didn’t make me want to see the rest, and as much of the unwatchable Merchant of Venice as could be stomached.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

December 24, 2005

Kong is King, more or less

Well, and Your Humble Blogger saw Kong. And it was ... long. Really, really long. It wasn’t tedious; there was a lot of stuff in there, and most of it was entertaining and well-made, but by the time Kong stands on top of the Empire State Building and beats his enormous gorilla chest, I was exhausted and fidgety. I wasn’t cheering. I wasn’t yawning, mind you, and I wanted to be cheering, but my head kinda hurt, and I was ready to get out of the movie and breath fresh air.

It’s a matter of sitzfleish, of the ability to sit still and watch a movie for three hours. I don’t have it. I was thinking that the thing was made more or less like a miniseries, with a big dramatic build-up and a big, slow ending for each of the three hours, and if I had the DVD on, I would know when to stop the thing and pick it up the next evening, or even just stop for a stretch and a top-up on my tea mug. There was lots of suspense, and lots of wow, and really by the time they got Kong in a net, I was all done with suspense and wow. I didn’t want any more. The rest of the movie was annoying to sit through, not because it was annoying as such, but because I was all done with it. I mean, how many minutes did we watch the writer watching his play? I recognize that those scenes served a purpose, and one purpose that they served was that they drew out the tension before we saw Kong again. Yep. But mostly they were between me and the exit, and I just wanted the monkey to climb the tower and get shot by biplanes.

While I’m whining, I should mention that one thing I thought Mr. Jackson and company did remarkably well was individuate Kong. That is, Kong was not just a twenty-five foot tall ape, he was Kong. I had the sense that if, later in the movie, we met another twenty-five foot ape, I would recognize that it was not Kong. At least as easily as I recognized that the blonde screamer wasn’t the lead. I’m not talking about believing that there really was a big monkey; I’m always ready to do that. I’m talking about believing that this particular big monkey is Kong, and not just Big Monkey. Of course, it doesn’t do to think too much about what life on Skull Island was like before Our Heroes arrived, but then I didn’t demand that sort of thing from the movie.

The other thing I noticed was that Mr. Jackson (and his colleagues) did a lot of rather marvelous looking lighting, early in the movie, that was totally not naturalistic, and was not intended to look naturalistic. I was thinking, at the time, that this was probably setting us up not to notice when the special effects required some odd lighting later on, but if that was true, it worked, and I didn’t notice it. Also, the juggling looked totally fake.

Other than that, I enjoyed the movie, at least for a couple of hours.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

December 13, 2005


Your Humble Blogger finally saw De-Lovely. If y’all had forgotten, or more likely never heard, about De-Lovely, it was last year’s Cole Porter bio-pic, the one with Kevin Kline, the one that was trashed for using a variety of theatrical techniques. I was terribly excited about it when it came out. I’m a huge fan of Cole Porter’s songs, I’m a huge fan of Kevin Kline’s acting (and singing), and I am a fairly big fan of the sort of theatrical techniques that the reviews seemed to dislike. I was also interested to see how the movie would handle Mr. Porter’s bisexuality; the idea that the topic is controversial was absurd, but it’s a matter of some interest to me personally.

So it’s too bad that the movie stunk so much.

When I talk about the theatrical techniques, I’m talking about the sort of thing I think would work much better on stage, and I’m not sure why that would be. The basic frame is that Mr. Porter, at the moment of his dying, is greeted by ... Death? The Lord? Gabriel? ... a faintly ominous but courteous and not overtly threatening director/producer, who takes Old Cole (if you will) into a theater where he is beginning rehearsals (or something) for, well, for the movie we’re watching. Old Cole complains, suggests, and acts! as he watches various scenes from his life played out, sometimes naturalistically and sometimes in one or another non-naturalistic style. It’s not always easy to tell what’s what.

The bio-pic part begins with young Mr. Porter meeting his wife-to-be at a party in Paris. This is terribly confusing. There’s no way to know when it is, other than how people are dressed. Kevin Kline is middle-aged, with enough makeup to make him plausibly youngish, but we can’t really tell how old he is, and besides, we don’t know when he was born. Then he and his buddy (who are playing the piano and singing) go into “Well, Did You Evah”, and the audience/partygoers respond as in a musical, joining in on the chorus in practiced harmonies and taking solos in turn. Actually, he meets Linda Thomas in 1918, when he’s twenty-seven or so, and he doesn’t write “Well, Did You Evah” until 1939. If you don’t know anything about Mr. Porter, you won’t know that, but also won’t know whether Mr. Porter is, at that stage, a professional songwriter, a well-known amateur songwriter, or just a fellow who has written a few songs. In fact, he was a well-known amateur songwriter, which is a difficult thing to imagine, but there it is.

The thing that’s really confusing is that although there are elements of a musical (everybody immediately knows the words and has lovely voices, and when they sing, they sing in harmony, as if they’ve been rehearsing for weeks) but also elements of the movie-with-music (the characters are at the instruments, and have a reason to be singing rather than the song being a mode of expression). In the next number, again Mr. Porter plays the piano and sings (anachronistically) to Ms. Thomas (Ms. Porter to be), but this time when he gets up from the piano to dance, there is still piano music. On the other hand, the dancing belongs to the movie-with-music genre; it’s a goofy guy dancing in a park, out-of-the-ordinary behaviour. It’s difficult to settle into the movie, because it’s hard to tell what kind of movie it is. The devices don’t seem to have any real logic to them, or even any compelling sort of illogic. They just happen, and sometimes they work and more often they don’t.

Similarly, the use of recognizable performers (Elvis Costello sings at one party, Robbie Williams at another, Alanis Morrisette appears as an ingénue, etc, etc) doesn’t work, partly because they aren’t terribly good or interesting renditions, but partially because they were out of place without there being much point to the out-of-place-ness. Was it a comment on how influential Mr. Porter’s music remains? Was it a comment on how we in the audience bring our own cultural frames to the story and to the music? Was it a cynical grab for publicity? I dunno. I would have been satisfied with the last, by the way, had it been handled with skill and grace.

In the end, then, there were a lot of Film! touches that failed to dazzle me, which leaves me with the characters, plot and acting. The plot was haphazard; they (I assume deliberately) chose to tell the story as if the audience all knew it already, and didn’t force it into a narrative. Which is too bad for me, but there it is. The characters were, well, Cole Porter was the genius-who-can’t-really-love sort of character, and Linda Porter was the wife-who-needs-love character. I found his promiscuity annoying, and I found her passive-aggressive reaction annoying, where she tells him that it’s fine but then sulks. There wasn’t much made of the fact that he sleeps with men, particularly, other than that it opens him up to blackmail. I mean, he was in the little secret society of gay theater people, but he was in that because he was in the theater, anyway, and nothing was made of what it is like to be in that society. Certainly there was no sense that he disliked any aspect of it. And other than Mr. and Ms. Porter, there were no other characters worth mentioning. The men were pretty but faceless, the buddies were buddy-like, the stooges were stooge-like. Not even entertainingly written—I was particularly disappointed in Monty Woolley, who they barely bothered to write at all. As for the acting, well, and it was good. Kevin Kline, particularly, was likeable in an unlikable part, wearing old-guy makeup and being all wistful an stuff. Ashley Judd was also good, although she had much less to do.

The frustrating thing is that it might have been really good. The idea of having Old Cole make a musical about Cole Porter, using his own music, and having an interfering Director/Producer battle him for creative control, well, I think that’s actually a good idea. Lee Blessing could really do something with that. I might have Old Cole want to tell the ‘true story’ and the Director just want butts-in-seats. Or make Mr. Woolley the Director, maybe, wanting the show to be about homosexuality, while Old Cole wants to keep the closet door closed. Something. Anyway, allow the major characters, particularly Ms. Porter, to comment on their roles and how they want to play them, and what they want to sing. It could be really good. It would only work on stage, I think, although that may be my own bias.

And, of course, it might stink. I mean, somebody thought this movie was the way to go, and it sure sounded good to me. Ah, well. There’s always another movie.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

December 1, 2005

Jodie, anyone?

Having joined the NetFlix cult, I’ve been watching the first season of Soap nearly every night for the last few weeks. It’s a wonderful show, and just right for watching before bedtime. It’s funny, and it’s mostly lighthearted, and there’s enough of a story arc to make us want to go back without enough suspense to keep us up late watching just one more episode. My Best Reader hasn’t seen the show at all, and I haven’t seen it in twenty years or so, so a lot of it is new to both of us.

The thing that makes me uncomfortable, though, is not the risible hair situation but the character of Jodie Dallas. For those of you who have forgotten, a young Billy Crystal played the gay son of Mary Campbell. For those of you who have really forgotten or who never knew in the first place, Soap is the story of two sisters: Jessica Tate and Mary Campbell. These are the Tates, and these are the Campbells. Um, never mind. Anyway, Mary Campbell’s first husband, Johnny Dallas, died and she remarried Bert Campbell (who killed Johnny Dallas, but that’s not important now); Bert has trouble dealing with his two new stepsons: Danny, who is running with The Mob, and Jodie, who is gay. The boys have difficulty dealing with their new stepbrothers, as well, but that’s not relevant to my discomfort, either.


On one level, it’s strange and impressive that there’s an openly gay character in 1976 television. Of course, the joke in the first half of the season is how awful it is for his mother and particularly for his stepfather. On the other hand, Bert’s distaste is played for laughs; what’s funny is that Bert has to live in the house with this, you know, homo. Jodie is sort of a straight man (heh heh heh) for this bit. So there’s this cool thing where there’s a gay regular character, but there’s this uncool thing where it’s portrayed as awful to have a gay child, but again there’s this cool thing where parental lack of support for gay children is portrayed as comically bad. Mary, by the way, clearly continues to love and (reluctantly) support Jodie, which is nice, but I don’t want to make too much of that, because she also thinks that a gay son is her failure.

And then there’s the stereotype thing. Jodie is effeminate, appears to enjoy cross-dressing, and is comically dependent on his macho (pro quarterback) boyfriend. When the quarterback starts seeing a woman (as a beard), Jodie decides to have a sex change. Now, I know very little about transsexuals and transvestites, but I know that neither is correlated exactly to homosexuality, and it’s clear the writers just made Jodie a bundle of sexual deviancy stereotypes. Then, when the quarterback tells Jodie he’s getting married, Jodie attempts suicide and then gives up on the sex change idea. See, for all that there’s this more or less positive gay character, it does make it appear that the sex change is, well, a whim, not something he actually wanted, which makes it a bad transsexual character. I don’t want to make too much of the suicide, because, you know, it’s Soap, and they have to overload it with soap-opera stuff, because, you know, it’s Soap.

And (by the way, Best Reader, what follows is SPOILERS) over the four years of the show, Jodie essentially stops being gay. By which I mean first he sleeps with one woman, then he moves in with a woman, then he gets hypnotherapy, then the whole show collapses. Now, as I said, I haven’t watched the show for a while, so I don’t remember if, for instance, Jodie is treated as being bisexual, or what, but I have a vague recollection that it was really a betrayal of the character.

Why does all this matter? Well, and it doesn’t, really. Only I knew that Jodie Dallas was gay long before anyone I actually knew in real life came out to me. In fact, I think it was 1988 before anybody came out to me; looking back, it’s just possible that one of my high school chums hinted it, but not so’s I understood. When I was a teenager, the gay people I ‘knew’ were Jodie Dallas and Niko from The Mask of Apollo, and maybe that guy from Brothers. For YHB, who as they say is straight but not altogether narrow, there’s no doubt that my attitude towards gay men in real life was affected by the fictional gay men I came across. I know that Soap was a prisoner of its time, but there are things that not only make me cringe but make me wonder how I saw them back in the proverbial.

Do any of y’all, Gentle Readers, know if Jodie Dallas is one of those Stepin Fetchit characters that were embarrassing at the time to anybody with eyes and experience, or just one of those John Prentice types that are embarrassing mostly in retrospect? I was too young at the time to know, and besides, I grew up in the desert.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

October 8, 2005

There are no Angels in America

Well, and Your Humble Blogger has finished watching the television adaptation of Angels in America. I thought we could go over it a little, because I’m still struggling.

First of all, I think the play is one of the greatest theatrical works of a generation or more. It’s an amazing piece. I saw the national touring company of Part One (Millenium Approaches) ten years ago or so, and shortly afterward I saw a very good college production in a small black box theater. I’ve never seen Perestroika on stage. I have read them both several times. I enjoy reading plays, tho’ I don’t do it much these days. I usually find it easy to imagine a staging as I read, even for plays such as Angels that have a lot of stuff to imagine.

Back when the plays were coming to Broadway, YHB was still hoping to become a professional stage actor. I hoped to play Roy Cohn someday. Of course for ten years or so I was working on my acceptance speech for the Antoinette Perry award for Featured Actor in a Play (I also kept updating and polishing my acceptance speech for the nomination of the Democratic Party for the office of President of the United States and the Charge to the Graduating Class at Swarthmore College; they are all three somewhat out of date at present, but I don’t think I need to work on them). My point is that these plays were Big Deals back then for Theater People (or Theatre People, the bastards). I don’t know what they are now.

Anyway, I was wondering if any Gentle Readers had seen the video without first seeing or reading the plays. I wonder how much my own response to the film is rooted in it being not-a-play, and how much is in the specific interpretation on film. I do think that the marvelous special effects take away from the power of the thing; when the Angel looks like every other woman-with-wings in any movie that has women-with-wings, it’s hard to invest her with angelness, but when she is hanging from a wire harness with obviously phony wings, she is an angel. As one of the characters says, it’s the magic of the theater.

Also, the fact that they could, and did, film all around the City meant that there was a tremendous amount of space. Things happened where they happened, in people’s apartments, or on the street, or in the hospital, or in Antarctica, or in heaven. In the theater, it all happens on stage, which means it all happens in the same place. There’s a sense of closeness. Early on, when Prior and Harper hallucinate together, and then start talking to each other, it’s an amazing moment, because I (in the audience) am shocked into a perceptual shift between the two scenes sharing the stage and there only being one scene. Similarly, there’s an amazingly powerful (and brutal) scene in Part One where the two couples are fighting, the lines interleaved, one couple in a hospital room, one in an apartment, but they are commenting on each other’s fight, and on each other, although they don’t know it. On stage, when I saw it first, Prior was in a bed up left, Harper was standing down right, and Joe and Louis (who have just found each other, although they won’t admit it) pace and circle. They walk in and out of each other’s space, they dance, unknowing, they leave their partners and match each other in their anger, and it’s magnificent and heartbreaking and it can’t be done on film.

Now, there are lovely bits of filmmaking that the theater couldn’t do. The precision of the lighting, the incredible makeup work. But then we need the film to do that stuff, because we can’t supply it ourselves. If the makeup isn’t perfect in the movie, we don’t fill it in ourselves, we complain. If the rabbi is clearly a woman in drag, well, that’s not really a problem in the theater, but for the movie they had to get it right. Which they did. Although I’m cross that they cut the rabbi’s scene in part two, but there it is. They had to get the thing down to six hours, and they didn’t want to rush the gorgeous scenery, of which there was plenty. They cut Roy Cohn in Hell, too. And some other stuff. Did they leave in the line about how we are all Reagan’s children now? I loved that speech.

I don’t know. It was good, it was brutal and funny and heartbreaking, and despite not liking Al Pacino’s choices as Roy Cohn (he reminded me of Big Boy Caprice, which may be my favorite of his roles) or particularly liking Meryl Streep’s Ethel Rosenberg (although her Hannah Pitt was excellent), when she sang tum balalaika I cried like anything, and when she helped (Ben Shenkman as) Louis say kaddish I cried again. Oh, it’s a beautifully written play. It’s a magnificent play, with magnificent language. It’s a play that should be read, although after you see it, I think. I would call it Shakespearean, only it isn’t, it’s Kushnerian, it’s its own thing, sui generis. It takes into itself how people actually speak day-to-day (as with a wonderfully stunted, almost Mamet-like conversation between Louis and Joe in a bathroom in the federal courthouse) without limiting itself to naturalism. People in the play speak the way they ought to speak, the way we might be able to imagine them speaking. That’s easier to accept on stage, I think. But then, all of this is pretty much me saying ‘play good, movie bad’, and although I think there is a good deal of truth to that, it isn’t a helpful bit of simplicity.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

September 14, 2005

Another frivolous question

Here’s a question, Gentle Readers. You know how Help! and A Hard Day’s Night are both brilliant movies? I mean, even if you don’t particularly like The Beatles, these are funny, funny movies. I suspect you could forward through most of the songs and still enjoy the movies enormously. They aren’t just good because of the Beatles, or because the Beatles are good actors (although Ringo is a very funny man, John is wicked, and George is, well, George). So, has there been any band since that time for whom making a movie was a good idea?

I mean a movie like Help!; not a documentary or a concert movie, but a movie where the main characters are band members playing fictional versions of themselves, and that has a plot of some kind. The closest I can think of is Tommy, which is sui generis, and although the band appears, they aren’t playing the band. And, honestly, I’m not altogether sure that the movie of Tommy was a good idea after all, but I don’t think there was a better way to get the soundtrack made. The Spice Girls made Spiceworld, which I haven’t seen but have heard was actually nearly watchable, but was generally agreed to be a bad idea. The Pogues movie was clearly a bad, bad, bad idea, and if any Gentle Reader has the soundtrack on CD I will give them an absurd amount of money for it right now (For that matter, do any of you have in digitizable format the Pogues cover of “Wild Rover” that appeared on the B-side of “Sally MacLennane”? That must be mine, and soon).

The various members of the boy bands have been in various movies, but that’s not the same thing. Nor is it the same thing when the band exists for the purposes of the movie, such as the Monkees (OK, it was for the TV show, but still) or Josie and the Pussycats or The Commitments. I mean, why isn’t there an REM movie, or a Pretenders movie? I can’t believe that the guys in, oh, Queen never said “Hey, let’s make a movie like Help!” I know Sting wanted to be in the movies, why not a Police movie? Could the Dixie Chicks not have hired any (lefty) writer and director they wanted?

My Best Reader suggests that video killed the movie star, at least for that sort of thing. Every band needs to make movies, three-minute movies, but movies, and any successful band makes dozens of them. Maybe that gets it all out of their systems. Or maybe they all discover that actual movie-making is tedious and unrewarding, except the ones that decide they want to be Actors! and make actual movies where they play thinly disguised versions of their stage personas but without the band. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that movies really are crap these days, and with the music business what it is, and the movie business what it is, and Richard Lester dead and all, it really is a bad idea. But you’d think ...

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

August 26, 2005

based on the novel

So, rereading Cold Comfort Farm reminded YHB what a great job the filmmakers did creating the movie of the book. I'm very interested in the problem of adaptation, generally. I think it's one of the great challenges of our technological and social moment, when people want different versions of things in different formats, and there may be a real demand for a particular story, world and characters in the form of a book, a movie, a videogame, a website, an audio production of some kind, a DVD (which may be identical to the movie, but may not) and possibly others. I know, much of this is not new, and adaptations are as old as the theater, but the combination of a proliferation of forms, and a more or less discrete consituency for each form makes it both quantitatively and qualitatively different.

Anyway, that's all musing, but it does bring up a question as old as the moving picture: should an film adaptation of a book or short story be "faithful" to the original, or should the film makers cut loose? The answer, of course, is that either way can work, and that it depends on the book, the movie, and the team involved. That's a lame answer, but it's the right one. Luckily, though, the answer can evoke another question, or even better, a couple of Top Fives.

Top Five Close Adaptations:

  • Cold Comfort Farm: Book by Stella Gibbons, film directed by John Schlesinger and written by Malcolm Bradbury. Not only do they keep almost all the plot, but almost all the dialogue is taken directly from the book. They do combine several minor characters, and cut out two or three sub-plots. Mostly what makes this perfect is the realization of the characters by brilliant, brilliant actors, primarly the magnificent Eileen Atkins as Judith, Ian McKellen as Amos, and Freddie Jones as Adam. Oh, and Rufus Sewell is the perfect Seth. The look of the thing is great, but mostly it is the book come to life, which is pretty much the definition of the category, right?
  • The Maltese Falcon: Book by Dashiell Hammett, film directed and written by John Huston. It's good. It's very good. Oddly enough, Humphrey Bogart isn't much like Sam Spade (tho' he is wonderful), and Mary Astor isn't convincingly slick, but everybody else nails it. Again, it's the characters and actors that make this work so well, particularly Peter Lorre as Joel Cairo, Sydney Greenstreet as Caspar Gutman, and Elisha Cook as the gunsel, Wilbur. They chicken out at a key point, but they didn't have much choice, since it involved nudity and it was 1939 or so.
  • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: Book by A. A. Milne (and The House at Pooh Corner), film directed by John Lounsbery and Wolfgang Reitherman and written by eight or ten people under the aegis of Walt Disney. I'm aware that some Gentle Readers will object to this film's presence on the list. Yes, there are songs (by Sherman and Sherman, and they are quite good) and some of the chapters have the plot all wrong, but on the whole they get the characters and dialogue very nearly right. They take a few liberties (the gopher is, as he says, not in the book), and most notably they get Tigger out of the tree in a way that is unique to animation. Still, the bulk of the movie (or movies, as it is really a series of shorts) is just a realization of the stories, and it works very well indeed.
  • Scrooge: Short Story (A Christmas Carol) by Charles Dickens, film directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and written by Noel Langley. It’s been perhaps ten years since I saw the movie, and longer than that since I read the story (I think I’ll dig it out this year), but my recollection is that it’s quite a close adaptation. It works, in part, because Alistair Sim is so wonderful as Scrooge, but also because Dickens’ writing is incredibly cinematic, both in character and in atmosphere.
  • The Shawshank Redemption: Short Story by Stephen King, film directed and written by Frank Darabont. This is one of a very few instances where I read a story, liked it, and then saw the movie adaptation and loved it.

By the way, I’m not considering adaptations of plays, obviously, and as with all Top Fives I am almost certainly forgetting something that ought to be on the list.

Top Five Free Adaptations:

  • Field of Dreams: Book by W.E. Kinsella (Shoeless Joe), film directed and written by Phil Alden Robinson. They took the basic idea of the baseball field in the corn and undead evil pirate ballplayers (ok, undead dishonest White Sox ballplayers) and made an entirely different story around it. The book is about the protagonist's desperate and crazy attempt to be with his father again, and all the plot points are leading up to the father's appearance, and the closure that brings. The movie is about the fellow discovering that he needs closure with his father, and discovering that he really is a father at heart, too. And, of course, saving the farm. Anyway, by having different (but related) concerns than the book, the movie works, and brings something new to the nearly identical plot points.
  • The Wizard of Oz: Book by L. Frank Baum, film directed by Victor Fleming and written by Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Wolf. Teenage Dorothy and ruby slippers and singing, and the whole thing being a dream after all, but really the bulk of the movie is taken right from the book. Well, except for all the bits they left out, and the new bits. And what makes the movie, after all, is E.Y. Harburg's song score. That's the most creative, and what makes the movie a new and wonderful thing.
  • Fistful of Dollars: Book by Dashiell Hammett (Red Harvest), film directed by Sergio Lione and written by Victor Andres Catena and Jaime Comas Gil. I know that this is more directly inspired by Yojimbo, which was also very freely adapted, but I haven't seen Yojimbo yet. Anyway, what both films do is take Mr. Hammett's basic idea of an unnamed outsider coming in to a corrupt and violent town and eventually cleaning it up by pitting all the gangsters against each other, and place it in another place and time. Some of the plot points are still there, in a way, but mostly the filmmakers just took the idea and ran with it. Of course, that's what they did with Last Man Standing, too, and that was dreadful.
  • The Princess Bride: Book by William Goldman, directed by Rob Reiner and written by William Goldman. Perhaps it's cheating to have the screenplay by the author, but it works. Mr. Goldman writes himself a new frame, totally changing the audience's view of the story, and cuts mercilessly at the plot. At the same time, the actors do a marvelous job of bringing the characters to life, particularly Andre the Giant, Mandy Patankin and Wallace Shawn as the Gang of Three. Much of how well the change-of-frame works is due to Peter Falk as the grandfather, but the part is written to play to his strengths.
  • The Big Sleep: Book by Raymond Chandler, film directed by Howard Hawks and written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. They make a total hash of the plot, and the whole thing is turned into a sort of screwball comedy, but dang, does it work. In fact, they make a good movie from an OK book, which is hard to do.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

August 12, 2005

Incoherent Rambling

YHB happened to be watching television the other day (for the next month or so, I will be with satellite television and without broadband; for the last year I had broadband but barely had broadcast TV. I prefer the other way. There are way more channels on the internet.) and saw one of those home-improvement shows about selling a house. In this show, they take a house that hasn't been selling, and spend a couple of days and a few hundred dollars to make it much more attractive to buyers. The thing that struck me that was more sort of generalizable out of house-selling (there were some very odd things about house-selling, but there it is) was how tricky it is to do game-playing with people who are not rational. Which is most people.

Selling the house is actually not bad; there are four or five components of the buyers' decision that you can probably more or less identify: location, layout, condition, space, light. Different buyers will place different weights on each of those components, of course, and in fact each of the components could be broken down into components, which different buyers give different weights to. Still, you can probably identify, highlight and possibly improve some of the components, and can probably (perhaps with the assistance of an expert) price the house to more or less maximize your payoff. On the other hand, in addition to the four or five components that make a lot of sense, there are probably four or five components for each buyer that are completely wacky and may be unpredictable. Things like a room that reminds the buyer of his childhood bedroom, or a neighborhood like that one in that movie.

Now, two of my close friends have recently been in situations where they really wanted specific people who they didn't know to react in a particular way. In each of those situations, there were clearly a few components of the strangers' choice preferences that could be estimated, and possibly improved. On the other hand, there were clearly other components, and we couldn't tell what they were, much less how to deal with them. One of the situations was fairly easy, and it was clear that the rational stuff was going to play a big role in the choices. In the other, the stranger on the other side of the metaphoric gameboard persisted in a strategy that made no sense to anyone.

You see, I like to play games. I'm not a heavy-duty strategy gamer, but I do like to play the odd game of Settlers, El Caballero, or Anti-Monopoly. I play cards a lot, particularly Hearts and Gin. And I used to play a lot of poker. The thing with all these games is that you need to predict what other people will do. You also use actual moves to extrapolate what their choices were, and thus what their choices will be in the future, and thus which choice they will actually make. All of this is based on an understanding of the people you are playing with. It's easier if that opponent is rational, but a consistent and predictable pattern of specific irrationality works just as well. A fellow who stays in with an inside straight can be beat, and if you know that he stays in with an inside straight you can beat him bad.

There's a sort of grey area there, between rational and crazy. It's understandable behavior, doing the wrong thing, but for a reason. The smell of cookies in an open house will put a lot of people in a good mood, and people in a good mood will be more likely to buy the house. Of course, some people will get all cranky; you can't win 'em all. But there are some pretty basic ways to manipulate people's semi-rationality. In fact, that grey area is pretty much where games are played. You try to shape that area for other players, and they try to mess with yours. This is also true, if not voluntarily, in the games that make up real life. But what do you do when the other people leave the grey area and head out for left field?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

Post Script: Still carrying a floppy to the library. They tell me broadband is two weeks away.

Charlie and Mr. Willy Wonka

YHB doesn't see a lot of movies, or at least hasn't seen very many in the last few years. I did see the Tim Burton Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, though. I'm a big fan of Mr. Burton's flicks, and of Mr. Dahl's books, and it seemed to me that Mr. Burton was ideally suited to Charlie. Mr. Burton's particular strength, amazing strength, is in coming up with astonishing visuals and then bringing them to the screen so perfectly that they appear to have been printed directly out of his dreams. I'm thinking here of the enormous and ominous tree in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, of the Giant lifting the tilting house in Big Fish, of the dance with the Joker in the pale moonlight in Batman. The ability to first imagine Mr. Willy Wonka's factory, and then execute that vision seemed to me to be central to a movie version. In fact, although Mr. Burton does a magnificent job with the factory (and more particularly, with the Buckets' house), that doesn't carry the movie.

What Mr. Burton (and his screenwriter, and Johnny Depp) failed to do, sadly, was to strike the proper balance in the character of Mr. Willy Wonka himself. It's a tricky balance, as I've said before, in making Mr. Wonka (who is, in some sense, the villain in the piece) just the right combination of scary and silly. In the book, his eccentricity is charming, and although he is clearly not just indifferent to the fate of the naughty children but gleeful about their comeuppance, there is no question that he is, on the whole, kindly. The movie of my youth has Gene Wilder portray a forbidding but charming eccentric; the viewer wants to be on his side, even in the startling and marvelous scene in which he explodes with fury and throws Charlie out of the factory with nothing. This movie has a Willy Wonka who is dangerously psychotic, even when he is charming. He gives the impression that he might at any moment go for your neck. It's a riveting performance, magnificent in a lot of ways, but it ruins the movie.

Well, it doesn't ruin it. I enjoyed the movie. It was fun, and there were a lot of wonderful things (in particular, David Kelly totally nails Grandpa Joe, and is a wonder to watch throughout the first part of the movie, when he has something to do). On the whole, though, it wasn't a lovable movie, and without being a lovable movie, what was it?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

July 18, 2005

Book Report: James and the Giant Peach

Your Humble Blogger had forgotten how short James and the Giant Peach is. That's not bad, actually; I prefer a skimpy book to a padded one. Other things I had forgotten about James include the Cloud Men (who take up three or four chapters), the Glow-Worm, the bunch of lies James tells in New York, and the nastiness of the squabbling between the Earthworm and the Centipede. I did remember, well and vividly, loathsome Aunt Sponge and detestable Aunt Spiker. Somehow, I particularly remembered Spider's grandfather being stuck to the ceiling with paint, and the family bringing him fresh flies from the web, although the occasion for the anecdote was the Cloud Men throwing paint at the Peach Gang after they smashed the rainbow, and I had totally forgotten the Cloud Men.

I wonder whether what I remembered and what I forgot was influenced by the brilliant movie version. The book is better, of course, and more ... booklike. I read the book umpty-'leven times as a child, and adolescent and a grown-up before seeing the movie, so it would be odd and disturbing if my memory of the movie replaced my memory of the book. I'm aware it did to a certain extent. The little man at the beginning who gives James the crocodile tongues looks in my mind like Pete Postethwaite, rather than like the bald, bearded, pointy-eared fellow in the Nancy Ekholm Burkert drawing. The rhinoceros that kills the Trotters looks like the mechanical rhinoceros from the movie. That's more or less OK with me; the visuals matter a lot less than the plot. It's much more troubling if the plot from the movie (mostly the same, but without the Cloud Men and with undead pirates) took over my head.

Still, it's a great movie, and a great book. And that ain't bad. chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

Post Script: Sorry about the lack of link, Gentle Readers, but I'm in Dial-up world for the nonce.

June 29, 2005

Puff Piece: Countdown

Richard Whiteley has died. Now that might not mean much to you, Gentle Readers, but it gives me a chance for a bit of a Puff Piece, such as been sadly lacking round these parts. In addition to being the answer to a terrific trivia question (who was the first person shown on a Channel 4 broadcast), Mr. Whitely personified (to YHB at any rate) one of the facets of English television that I like so much.

Countdown was forty-five minutes (with one commercial interruption, if I remember correctly) of minor manipulation of letters and numbers. There were two games: a letters game and a numbers game. In the letters game, one contestant asks for either a consonant or a vowel, which is flipped off a stack and put onto a board, then ask for another, then another, and so on until nine letters have turned up. Then there’s thirty seconds of music and scribbling, after which the two contestants reveal the longest word they made from those letters, usually seven or eight letters, usually two or three letters longer than the longest word I found. Then we go to the panel, two people, one of whom is actually a lexicographer, who may have come up with a longer word, or may not have, depending. They do this three or four times in a row. Seriously. Just “May I have a consonant, please? A vowel? A consonant? Another consonant. A vowel, please. Another consonant, a vowel, a consonant and a final consonant please.” Then a comment or two, thirty seconds of music, then “What did your come up with, then, Jim?” “A six, Richard.” “Ah, and how about you, Sarah?” “A seven, actually.” “Excellent, well, let’s start with Richard.” And so on. Three or four times in a row.

Then, for a break, they do a numbers game. The contestant picks numbers, again off two stacks. This time, there’s a stack of small numbers and a stack of large ones (25, 50, 75 and 100), the contestant gets six of them. Then there’s a random three digit number revealed, which is the target number. The contestants have thirty seconds (with the theme playing, of course) to combine their six numbers using the four basic functions to get as close as they can to the target number. So, for instance, if the numbers are 3, 6, 4, 2, 25 and 50 and the target number is 742, you could do, um, [(6+4)(25+50)] - 4 - 3 for 743, right? I never ever ever ever get these. In thirty seconds, I usually can’t get within thirty, much less within five. The contestants always are within five, and often hit the button. Anyway, they see who gets closest, and then (I’d forgotten about this) the girl who flips over the letter part comes up with a better way, and then back to the letters game.

They do the letters game eleven times, and the numbers game three times, and there’s a tiebreaker nine-letter anagram that goes to the first one to get it. That’s it. It’s a simple, difficult game, and they get contestants that are very good at it. And they play it over and over again.

And this is the clever bit—they don’t fuck it up. They just bring on the contestants, play the game, bring on more contestants, play the game again, come back tomorrow and we’ll play it again. They didn’t make it easier, or harder, they didn’t add a third game, they didn’t make it more visual, or double the money. Actually, I can’t remember them talking about prize money at all. I suppose there must be prize money involved, but I have no idea if it’s in the thousands or if it’s twenty quid and coach fare. All they do is play the game.

And, you know, if you don’t like it, there are three other channels.

As for YHB, well, if it were on tv here, I suspect I would not only arrange my afternoon so I could watch it (or else invest in some of that new-fangled automated recording technology) but stop everything else and sit with a pad of paper scribbling and humming the music.

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

June 7, 2005

World Famous, in Poland

I’ve had a soft spot for the late Anne Bancroft ever since I happened to see An Audience with Mel Brooks on cable in 1983. He was pushing his new film, To Be or Not To Be, which as it happens may have been the last of his movies to be really good, but anyway he did an hour of stand-up, taking questions from the audience full of famous actors. And plants. In fact, the whole audience may have been planted. The questions were obviously plants. At one point, a woman wearing dark glasses and a scarf asks “Is it true you are married to the most beautiful woman in the world?” “Certainly not,” says Mr. Brooks, “I’m married to Anne Bancroft.” The woman was, of course, Ms. Bancroft, who then came forward and did a bit of shtick of some kind with her husband, I forget what. Anyway, I thought it was great, particularly for a woman of a certain age, once glamorous, to participate in that sort of joke about herself. Of course, I was pretty young at the time. On the other hand, I still think it’s a good bit.

Anyway, despite my affection for her, I’ve never really been knocked out by her films, with the sole exception of 84 Charing Cross Road, a real three-hankie job. Yes, yes, the Graduate. I wasn’t knocked out. Yes, yes, the Miracle Worker. I wasn’t knocked out. I kinda liked her in Torch Song Trilogy, although by 1988 I considered myself hip enough to disdain the movie version. I was vaguely interested in seeing her play an updated Miss Haversham, although as I pointed out at the time, you knew she could do it, and you knew Robert DeNiro could do Magwitch, and it would be far more interesting to see them switch parts.

Well, there it is. I can’t help thinking that she was about to do one more brilliant role, that there was one more fantastic part left for her, and she never got around to it. Still, I suppose there’s hardly any good actor you can’t say that about, and those that you know didn’t have one more role left in them, well, that’s even more depressing, isn’t it?

chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,

May 26, 2005

Card, playing, right?

So, Gentle Reader, I’m sure that you have already decided that you have better things to do than to worry about that essay everybody keeps blogging, where Orson Scott Card debunks the Force. Or something. His conclusion appears to be that “it might not be such a good thing if the Star Wars films become the first movies to lead to a real-world religion.” Ohhhhhh-kay. Let’s put that to a vote, shall we? Everyone who agrees with that, go out through that door, and everyone who thinks it would be just swell for the Star Wars films to lead to a real-world religion go through this door over here, and wait in the padded room until the nice man in the white coat comes with lunch.

No, really, what he’s examining is why people call themselves Jedi. That is, he notes that some people have filled in “Jedi” on census reports and, according to Mr. Card, consider the Force their personal savior. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhh-kay. I’m putting the over-under at, oh, let’s be generous, twenty. Everybody who thinks that there are fewer than twenty people in the world who realio trulio think of themselves as Jedi and consider the Force as their personal savior, go out through that door, and everybody who thinks there are more than twenty such people go through this door over here, and wait in the padded room until the nice man in the white coat comes with dinner.

Well, now, I think that’s the end of that issue, yes? Oh, no, I forgot, I was going to mock Mr. Card a trifle more. You see, Mr. Card refutes the Force, or its followers, or whatever the fuck he’s talking about, with lots of references to RatS. So, now, Gentle Readers, what to you figure is a fair over-under for number of people who relio-trulio think of themselves as Jedi, and came to do so only after watching RatS, but before Mr. Card’s column on or around the 21st of the month? Let’s see, think think think ... would one be too high? Is it possible that somebody might seriously think that more than one person seriously adopted the Jedi faith due to its portrayal in EpiThree? No, it isn’t possible. No, I can’t really imagine that Mr. Card thinks that, either.

So, um, what was he thinking, exactly?

February 28, 2005

Films, Actresses, Roles

OK, so one of the things about being a nerd, is that when Your Humble Blogger looked at the results of the Oscars, the immediate thought was “how often does that happen?”, followed by research to see whether the perceived departure from pattern is real or illusory. And it turns out that, in fact, in 76 years, only once before has a film been awarded an Oscar for Best Picture, for its lead actress, and for its director, while that director was nominated for his lead performance, but lost. Seriously, though, it seemed unusual to me that the Best Actress role was in the Best Picture, but that the Best Actor was not, so I looked it up. And it turns out that not only is that pattern unusual, but it’s unusual that the Best Actress role was in the Best Picture. I mean, I was sort of aware of that pattern, but not how entrenched it is, or for how long.

The last time a lead actress won the Oscar for a role in a Best Picture was ... can you guess? Do you remember? Yes, it was 1998, when Gwyneth Paltrow won for Shakespeare in Love. Joseph Fiennes was not nominated for his role, and the director, John Madden, lost to Stephen Spielberg for Saving Private Ryan. It retrospect, of course, Mr. Fiennes had far more to do with the success of the movie than Ms. Paltrow, but there it is.

The previous instance was seven years earlier, when Jodie Foster won for The Silence of the Lambs. Her support in that instance was Anthony Hopkins, who won for Best Actor, and the director, Jonathan Demme, won as well. Two years before that, Jessica Tandy won for Driving Miss Daisy, which won Best Picture despite its male lead and supporting actors losing, and its director not even being nominated. In 1983, Shirley McLaine and director James L. Brooks won for Terms of Endearment, Jack Nicholson won for his supporting role, which would now almost certainly have been nominated in the lead category.

In 1977, as I mentioned above, Diane Keaton and Woody Allen take home Oscars for Annie Hall, but Richard Dreyfuss gets the Lead Actor award for The Goodbye Girl. Two years before that, everybody wins for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Then there’s a bit of a dry spell, going back to ... guesses? Come on, don’t be shy ... 1942, when Greer Garson wins for Mrs. Miniver. William Wyler, the director, wins, but James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy) beats out Walter Pidgeon.

In 1939, that year of years, Vivian Leigh, Victor Fleming and Gone with the Wind beat the stiff competition, but Robert Donat beats Clark Gable (and Jimmy Stewart, and Lawrence Olivier, and, um, Mickey Rooney). In 1936, it’s The Great Ziegfeld and Louise Rainer, but William Powell isn’t nominated (Paul Muni takes it for his Pasteur) and Robert Z. Leonard loses to Frank Capra (for Mr. Deeds). And then there’s 1934, when It Happened One Night to Claudette Colbert, Clark Gable and Frank Capra.

And that’s it. Out of 77 Best Pictures, eleven won Oscars for their leading actresses. That’s up against twenty-seven times the Best Picture has won for a leading actor. And if you take out the three sweeps, it’s twenty-four to eight, or three to one. On the other hand, you could look at it like this: out of 77 Best Pictures, only 35 have won an Oscar for either of their leads.

All of this, by the way, is cobbled together by hand, so I may well have missed some or gotten some wrong. The database is not user-friendly; I can’t send a query to just show me the information I’m looking for. They claim that they will have some sort of statistical search at some point, and presumably this sort of nonsense would be easier at that point. Which would let me do a similar search for writers; I suspect that about half of Best Pictures haven’t won Oscars for writing, either. A quick look shows four out of the last ten, right?

As for the films and roles, I think it’s interesting to what extent the eight movies really have female protagonists. I still think that Million Dollar Baby is about Frankie, with Maggie providing the motion of the plot, but there are plenty of reasons my own biases would lead me to that view of it, and other people to see Maggie as the protagonist. I also think Shakespeare was about, you know, Shakespeare, and Ziegfeld about Ziegfeld. I also think Annie Hall wasn’t the protagonist of Annie Hall, but I haven’t seen it in years. Miniver, Endearment, and Wind all definitely have female protagonists. I haven’t seen Daisy, but she’s the lead in the play. For the doubles, Ellie supports Peter, and Nurse Ratched supports McMurphy, but Lecter supports Clarisse. Well, not supports. You know.

Thank you,

May 14, 2004

Puff Piece: Between the Lions

Your Humble Blogger should remember to do puff pieces with much greater frequency; I’m not really as cranky as I seem on-line. And, as it happens, my Perfect Non-Reader is learning to read Between the Lions.

Now, just the title works really well for me. The lions in question are not, however, Patience and Fortitude, but Cleo and Theo, and their cubs Lionel and Leona. They do inhabit the Barnaby B. Busterfield III Public Library, and they host a show about learning to read. Well, cute little announcer bunny is the emcee, but that isn’t important.

Anyway, if you have fond memories of Sesame Street, the show is far more like Sesame Street than Sesame Street is these days. It also has something of the old Electric Company about it, and it also has a touch of the Reading Rainbow. Lots of little segments wrapped around a goofy storyline involving reading a book. In addition, each episode focuses on a particular vowel sound, and words that contain it. Those words and sounds show up in the main segment, and also in the segments with Martha Reader and the Vowelles, the Adventures of Cliff Hanger, Chicken Jane, Gawain’s Word, the incredibly catchy song with all the names, and, of course, the trouser-defying magic of the Great Smartini.

The whole thing is extremely silly, and seems to have a words-can-be-fun attitude, which is my attitude as well, of course. They have a liberal helping of Stuff for Parents (frankly, I hope my Perfect Non-Reader never does come to understand why I laughed when the Baha Men took the dog books out of the library) and general silliness. The adventures of Sam Spud, Par-Boiled Detective always end with a distressed viewer. “Mom! The talking potato with no mouth is back, and his incessant wordplay is making me queasy.” “It’s educational television, dear,” says the mother, absently, from the next room. “I’m sure it’ll help you in school. Somehow.”

The web site is also tremendous. In addition to having about a billion songs and clips and things to print and so on, they have half-a-dozen recommended books to go along with each of the seventy episodes. Not bad.