Archive for the ‘ film ’ Category

Winter’s Frog

It’s frustrating how little occasion there is to be serious.  Life would be unbearably heavy, people think, if we gave real weight to every situation.  But I think it’s unbearably heavy when there’s nothing in it.  When there are no moments of solemn reassurance, no ritual of real experience, no ties that bind.  We’ve struggled so hard in the West to extricate ourselves from the entanglements of other people.  Each individual be praised.  But there comes a certain point when you’re all alone in your little island, and there is a force field of privacy that keeps people at bay.  It’s unseen, unspoken, but oh so very real.

 Perhaps that’s something about the East that is gloriously necessary in the wide and empty fields of grain and purple mountains’ majesty.  There is a short film currently touring the festival circuit that speaks of death–the death that we die and the death that creeps into our silence about that death.  It’s called “Winter’s Frog” and stars Gerard Depardieu and a darling Asian lady whose name I wish I knew but not really because then she’d be a person not an idea that I could chew on incessantly.  The story is about how she saves the old man’s life by giving him symbols and signs, rituals and rites to guide him through his wife’s passage into another realm.  His wife died.  Died when they were all alone, the two of them, in a huge winery and empty vineyard.  The Asian lady arrives at his door for a tasting.  At first, he refuses.  But then, inexplicably, he relents.  And by the time the last frame fades away, you’re left with a charming hope that the significant moments of life will not die silently one by one unnoticed.  There will be eyes to see and ears to hear.  And together, they can pass through the fiery ordeal.

So here’s to the winter’s frog, the sign of eternal life, and the hope that someday the West will learn how to say the words we feel and take hold of the unfathomable meanings by the tail.

Art from Ashes, edited by Lawrence Langer

Read the intro in this book for more on the importance of words and symbols to carry our collective gaze and although us to approach life's abyss.

Crying for Dreams

the giving of the bell

the giving of the bell

Polar Express made my cry.  Rather, I cried during Polar Express.  A particular moment in the film.

I wasn’t feeling well, stumbled downstairs to join my mom, sister, and sister’s boyfriend for a Christmas warm-up.  You know, the part where you start watching all the classic Christmas films to get yourself through the last few days and weeks of finals or work before you get to just forget about all the mercenary ties that keep you from living the life of love and family that was always meant to be.  Not that I have strong feelings about this or anything.

Well, I made it in time for the last few minutes of the show—one which I had taken peculiar delight in deriding for some years.  The animation looks like the people are swimming through air, have regular Botox injections, and generally exist as cursed zombies stuck being living flesh and plastic dolls.  Not that I am qualified to offer such an opinion.

In any case, there came that sudden, surprising moment when the Boy picks up the bell.  It doesn’t ring.  He chants a mantra: I believe.  Corny, yes.

Until, there.  There in the the reflection of the silver is the face of Santa.  I don’t love Santa, but I cried.  I cried as the Boy turned and saw him standing by his side, in the flesh.  I cried for all the times that I’ve wanted to see my dearest hearts desires, the ones that being an adult means you have to be embarrassed for having, to see those desires so deep in your soul they turn painfully sweet under the pressure–to see those desires materialize right there.  Right there beside you, as the most natural thing in the world.  More natural and superseding than all the other rigamarole that we call “living.”  Just sheer LIFE.

There are things I want to believe about the world, about people, about myself that psychology, economics, politics, education, linguistics, marketing, and the weatherman have told me are just never true.  I want to see a reflection in my bell, a reflection beside my own face.

Ed Wood’s Masterpiece

After many recommendations from friends, I finally got to see the movie Ed Wood last night.  It was fantastic!  I don’t think I’ve ever been so attached to cinematic characters in quite a long while.  Martin Landau’s and Johnny Depp’s performances were heart-wrenching.  I know, love, and work with people like them; people who have such a heart and passion for storytelling, such a clarity of vision and sense of purpose: and no money or help to make it happen.

I would argue that most artists have a sense of the sensation of their own lives.  In a hyper-reactive way, they can commune with the drama of their Selves, and, in the act of doing so, they pull out the drama in each Other.  My own heart comes alive in new ways when I read a story or view a film that touches a chord in my soul that’s hidden away from the glaring light of the working day.  Creatives like Ed Wood are the unfortunate canary in the cage—their own demise is a signal of the loss of breathing room in our culture’s search for riches.

No, of course Ed Wood’s films aren’t a gold mine.  And they should probably never be remade—-not because they are the worst films of all time, but because they are valuable exactly as they are.  Tim Burton’s rendition of his life puts it right up in your face: every person’s voice and story is important, simply because it exists.  Not because you can make money off of it.

How do you cut yourself free of the Puppetmaster Dollar?

How do you cut yourself free of the Puppetmaster Dollar?

But, in the same moment, making money is absolutely vital.  And the film shows with unflinching sorrow the merciless Puppetmaster Dollar, pulling the strings of Ed, Delores, Vampira, and—most agonizingly—Bela.  And the show goes on.

Not the shows that we want to make, but the show of our lives.  As the title of my blog indicates, this life is not a dress rehearsal.  It is the big performance.  There is no going back.  You are on stage and the cameras are rolling, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve never done improv before, everybody is already watching you.

Tim Burton maintains an excellent conceit to help us understand this concept in the film: everything about the movies that Ed makes (or anyone else for that matter—Vampira, Criswell, etc.) is devastatingly realistic.  And everything about their real lives (the morphine, the cross-dressing, the self-promotion, the Brown Derby fundraisers, the premiers, etc.) is over-the-top dramatic in the delicious generic vein that Ed Wood tries so hard to create in his pictures.  The intense pock-mark lighting, the extreme camera angles, the alienating long shots, the high contrast black-and-white, the outrageous props hanging on the fringes of the frames—-all these glorious tricks of the trade make you stare in awe at the drama of the mundane.

The ultimate crushing irony of Ed Wood is that his life itself was the best picture he ever made.

Ed Wood's glory and failure: he couldn't see himself for what he was.

Ed Wood's glory and failure: he couldn't see himself for what he was.

A Halo or Horns? The Playboy Club

Disclaimer: The following post will require that you be willing to engage in adult content, film theory, and iPhone apps.

The slippage of meaning in words is part of what makes it fun to talk.  Think Shakespeare and his irascible puns; think Conan and Colbert and their commentary; think Derrida and differance.  Okay, maybe don’t think about linguistic theory.  Think about sex.  And porn.  And erotica.  And titillation.  Yes, when they are in italics that means the word itself, the letters in a row—not what you’re picturing in your head.

Despite their slipperiness, I’d like to say a few words about how important it is to try to hang on to the distinguishing feature of words: that they really do help us get a grip on reality.  And keeping a grip on reality is really important if you want to have anything to do with it.

The Playboy Club---cultural examination or tantalizing temptation?

The Playboy Club---cultural examination or tantalizing temptation?

This fall, NBC is premiering a new show called The Playboy Club; lots of people are petitioning that NBC refrain from premiering pornography on mainstream network television.  Not a new idea, this petitioning of a network or corporation to refrain from selling or distributing material considered detrimental to society.  It’s at the very heart of American democracy that a lot of names on a piece of paper with lots of words on it has the power to effect change.

But—and here’s the key—the words need to have meaning.  They have to make mutual sense among the parties involved.  And herein is the problem with the above petition, and many others like it, that have identified a perceived threat to society’s health and tried to do something.  Using words to describe, to literally “write in the air,” something that they don’t mean…well, it means nothing.

Ok, so that was a bit of pedantic explanation.  Let’s break it down a bit.

1. The Playboy Club is not porn. It is a drama with lots of sexual content, but it is not porn. Porn is (and I consult the most reliable source on the planet, my iPhone dictionary app): obscene writing, drawings, photographs, or the like, especially those having little or no artistic merit.  And, although I don’t intend to entertain a debate about what qualifies as artistic merit, I can answer the follow-up in line, “What is obscene?” Well, again according to my iPhone, something obscene is causing uncontrolled sexual desire.  It is important to understand and uphold the distinguishing power of words.  One word (porn) indicates content that is designed to arouse and satisfy nothing but sexual desire.  Therefore, it doesn’t apply to a television “drama about a time and place that challenged the existing social mores and transformed American culture forever…[where] all that glitters is not gold.”

2. Furthermore, The Playboy Club is not endorsing porn.  Pornography is primarily a private indulgence—-hidden from view.  The show is examining the life and culture of [un]fulfilled sexual fantasies, which takes place in a specific place: a club.  A club is usually full of people.

Ok, so now that The Playboy Club is off the hook, is it innocent of all the damaging affects to society of which it stands accused?

The Jefferson Memorial----temple to words of liberty and great (ironic) example of "aura"

The Jefferson Memorial----temple to words of liberty and great (ironic) example of "aura"

3. No, The Playboy Club is not innocent of all charges.  By airing a show full of erotic and provocative dialog and imagery, it is tempting the audience to involve in sexual fantasy—and once involved, the viewer will want to realize (fulfill) the fantasy.  Since I spared you linguistic theory earlier, allow me to walk you through some basic film theory:

  • The very act of watching television creates a sense of “aura”–the type of glorification associated with heroes and idols and temples–around the content.  The figures are forever out of reach, ensconced in a beautiful shroud.
  • Human beings are physiologically and psychologically wired to want (1) to bring things closer and (2) to reproduce them—even more so now than in any previous era because of the ethos of immediacy and replication in which we now live and move and have our being.  See re-tweets, web cams, and FaceTime as exhibits A, B, and C in the affirmative evidence.
  • Our natural response, therefore, to something interesting that we see on television is “to pry [the] object from its shell, to destroy its aura [as] the mark of the ‘universal equality of things.'”  So says, Walter Benjamin, who theorized about this stuff back in 1936 when Hollywood glamour was at its height.

4.  Therefore, The Playboy Club does represent a risk for society’s detriment.  We’ve just looked at how we want to actualize what we see onscreen.  Why are there so many annoying commercials for cleaning products?  We see the product, want the product, buy the product, and the producers make more commercials so that we will again see the product, want the product, buy the product, and so forth.  Our first-world wealth and American independence empowers us to feel entitled in just that way.  And the same principle that sells Lysol plays out with dramas that have lots of sexual content.  The more we offer onscreen, the more people want it.

5. But, people are stupid and selfish.  When they want something, they don’t often check to make sure that it has integrity.  Men that want to be surrounded by beautiful women who will do any sexual act they please don’t usually stop to make sure that those women are there by choice.  They don’t often think about the repercussions for their personal relationships.  Women that want to be sexy and beautiful and petted by wealthy men don’t usually stop to make sure that the man will follow through on his promises, that he won’t beat her, and that she can leave when she wants.  And they, too, may never consider the repercussions for their personal relationships.

So, The Playboy Club may not be porn and it may not endorse porn, but its existence as a network television show will surely create a situation in which people will be set up to privately indulge their fantasies.  And the track record of humanity’s stupid and selfish traits indicates that such an indulgence will probably put many, many people at risk for exploitation, victimization, and personal injury–on both sides of the “fourth wall” that we like to think separates us from role playing and reality.  (This is not the show’s intention—otherwise, why would the same producer who brought us Law and Order: SVU be willing to back it?)

iPhone---is it a good things to have the whole world in our hands?

iPhone---is it a good things to have the whole world in our hands?

While the Playboy revolution of the 60s was important for pushing people to recognize themselves as sexual beings (versus the domestic automatons of the 50s), the shame that continues to surround the culture of sex keeps even 2011 sexuality hidden. And that hiddenness that covers the natural human insistence that our dreams come close and replay on loop, that hiddenness more than anything, is what empowers exploitation. It’s not the content itself that’s the threat; it’s our human propensity to reach out and grab hold of it, regardless of the effects of that action. The petition should not be about the “pornography” of The Playboy Club.  It should address the aura of the TV—the way we respond by extending our reach, ripping it out of the cultural conversation, and trying to replicate it in reality, as if we could hold the whole world in our hands.

The Piano (1)

The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)

The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)

Ada and her Piano haunt you utterly—the same way our sexual selves haunt us by day and through the night, never letting go.  Ada is a Scottish immigrant to New Zealand sometime in the vicinity of Heart of Darkness, Jane Eyre, and Wuthering Heights.  She has a young daughter and a piano.  The daughter interprets for her; and so does the piano.  Ada hasn’t spoken a word since she was 6 years old.

Her new Husband vow he will not mind her silence, half believing that she is faking the affliction and will have no reason to continue in the face of harsh settlement conditions.  He tells her father in Scotland that he can send Ada and her daughter and he will make them into a family, free of charge.  No dowry is mentioned.

When Ada arrives, she discovered her husband to be a cold man full of all the high expectation and ironic knack for communicating with English fluency and accomplishing very little shared meaning in the exercise.  Unheeding of her insistence that the piano must come with her—even if it means leaving her clothes and kitchenware—he leaves it alone on the beach, a heavy burden he won’t take the trouble to bear.

But the Whaler sees.  When the Husband leaves on business for a few days, Ada convinces the lonely man to guide her and her daughter back to the beach.  Unwilling at first, he finally acquiesces and in the listening, he is lost.  As she plays and plays and plays through the afternoon and evening, late on toward night, he feels a tender longing fill him, body and soul.  Being very much silent himself, he says nothing, but he barters with the Husband for the piano upon his return.

Thereupon ensues a love triangle–or perhaps, quadrangle, for the Piano is involved as much as any person is.  Through the remainder of the tale, Ada, the Husband, the Whaler, the Piano, and the daughter grapevine their way through all the triumvirate trappings of the human self.

There are infinite opportunities for commentary, and I plan on unfolding them throughout the next few days and weeks in a series of posts.  If I have piqued your interest, view the film on Netflix Instant Play (I doubt a local rental store will carry it in stock).  Then, come contemplate with me the deep humanity, the thought vs. action, sexuality vs. gender performance, the feminine vs. the masculine, the independent vs. the mainstream, the object vs. the agent (Soul)…

After 25 Seconds

I finally understand why chick-flicks are so important.

Merle Oberon and Leslie Howard---begad!

Merle Oberon and Leslie Howard---begad!

I just finished reading The Scarlet Pimpernel for, like, the fifth time.  (Since I first read it in high school X many years ago, not, in, you know, a row…)  And I didn’t really want it to end.  The first time I read it ravenously; I couldn’t wait to see what happened!  This last time, I lingered long over the last chapter.

The prose isn’t anything fantastic.  Lots of repetitious phrases, and if I was the editor way back in 1905, I’d’ve said it wasn’t ready for publication.  So many repetitious phrases with variations like “the man who had won her heart,” “whom she loved with all her soul,” “the dearest being in the world,” “nearer to her than life,” etc. etc. etc.

the best frame in the world: a two-shot

the best frame in the world: a two-shot

…but, you know? Those phrases are why I didn’t want to stop reading.  The book is about two people in love.  Not only two people in love, but two married people in love who fall in love after they are already married.  It’s got the sweet charm of Golde and Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof: after 25 years, it’s nice to know.  Except, for Marguerite and Percy, it’s 25 months, haha!  That makes it all the more delicious.

It’s very nice to know about two people being in love.  That’s why chick flicks are important. Love isn’t just a nice way to live life; it’s the stuff of life itself.  I’m not envious of Romeo and Juliet, or even Marguerite and Percy for that matter.  I don’t really want to kill myself for love or be traumatically and uselessly devoted until I have to be carried back home by the man I went to save.  But I want to know that love exists, that love is happening.  Somewhere, between someones.  Even 25 seconds after closing the book, I’m ready to be told again.

For the Love of Red October

There’s a short list of movies that I am always in the mood to watch; at the top is The Hunt for Red October—for all its formulaic glory.  After coming home late from a baseball game last night, my family suggested that we put it in.  Butter-saturated popcorn and IBC root beers in hand, we snuggled down to watch a movie that we can all quote by heart.

Why is that?

The sheer volume of movies produced in the early part of last century and the sheer volume of new series constantly promoted on network and cable TV would imply a need for constant change and stimulation.  On the other hand, most of those movies and series could all be summed up in generic codes: chick flick, action, adventure, thriller, horror, comedy, drama.  (And within those, as Netflix informs me in my “Recommended” tab, there are infinitely finer distinctions, such as critically-acclaimed-strong-female-lead-foreign dramas.)  The formulas have endless variations.

I could contemplate how generic code complies with the human need for uniform variety–whatever the hell that means—or I could simply explain why, of all those possibilities, my family and I continue to return to The Hunt for Red October.  And, as any audience response theorist would champion, I think it comes down to our daily lives, the society in which we live, the questions we face every morning, and the need for reassurance at the end of the day.

It particularly struck me last night that this movie about the Cold War was released one year after the Fall of the Berlin Wall.  It was such a blatant political affirmation of the demise of the U.S.S.R. and the triumph of American ideals: driving from state to state in a pick-up truck.  And yet all its obvious politicizing doesn’t explain why I have loved this movie since I was far too young to even comprehend what politics was.

the mind game of men

the mind game of men

So then I turn to another reason I have often touted: there are no woman in the film (with the notable exceptions of a nagging wife, a precious little girl, and a fuzzy black-and-white image).  During my high school days at the end of a long gab session after gym class, I would relish the total absence of “drama” in The Hunt for Red October.  Women are put forth as the necessary objects of male sentimentality, bravado, and inspiration, but their own feminine weakness and ambiguity is obscured by the rising tides of cool male analysis and straightforward tactical procedure that apparently transcends all political codes or cultural constructions to reach the heights of “universal knowledge.”  Bullshit.  It would be a delightful exercise to argue why women are at the center of an almost entirely male movie, but I’ll leave that to another day of academic pursuits.  Suffice it to say, that female role models or a safe haven from femininity’s worser aspects do not justify my unwavering devotion to Captain Ramius and Bart Mancuso.

I am, I confess, I little starstruck.  For all my neglect of female considerations, perhaps that is the one inexorable aspect which I must concede: Sean Connery is damn attractive.  As an object of feminine fancy and masculine aspirations, he fits the bill.  But how can a seventy-year-old actor could hold my fifty-year-old father and my fifteen-year-old sister equally spellbound is a puzzle worth solving.  And, therein, I believe is my answer to our love for Red October.

Our lives are hard.  My dad works every day to bring money home for our family.  My sister works everyday to prepare herself for the eventuality that she, too, will one day work to bring home money for herself.  And I work everyday to graduate from dependency to independence.  We don’t complain–and are actually very grateful to ourselves for the effort and our bosses for their monetary acknowledgement of that effort–but a working life is damn difficult.  The stakes are high because our world is no longer tied to the simplicity of growing your own food, making your own clothes, and building your own house—for which I am also grateful.  But the intricacies of our modern economies make us increasingly dependent on what is left over when our hands are tied: our brain.

a submarine: the ultimate metaphor of modernity

a submarine: the ultimate metaphor of modernity

And that’s why at the end of any given day of the week, we will all sit down to watch The Hunt for Red October.  It is a story of men who live or die by their minds.  Their hands are tied.  They cannot support or release their emotions by a punch to jaw or a swift flight down an alley.  They must wait.  In many days of silence, in tiny cubicles of living space, under the watery weight of a world in which they can no longer fight for survival alongside the  other organic bodies.  Enclosed a metallurgical casket of sorts, dead bodies and living minds, they must maneuver complicated man-made mechanisms, both real and imagined, in order to resurrect themselves on shore after the long voyage.  They are never given all the information they need.  They are never given leisure to research or contrive other options.  They are never given the full support of the citizenship they have inherited from the hundreds of generations trying to carve civilization out of a spinning planetary orb.  They are alone in the battle, friend or foe for the taking.

Now, that was rather prosaic of me, but I think my case is born out in the characters of Marko Ramius and Bart Mancuso.  Two men given enormous responsibility and an incredible dearth of resource.  Each moment is a crisis decision: murdering the political officer, breaking contact with the fleet, fleeing to a dangerous canyon, tracking a silent sub, breaking off to pick up an analyst crazy enough to jump out of a helicopter in a storm to get aboard, starting a conversation with the man you are ordered to kill, sending one ping and one ping only please.  Now, of course, one could argue that’s just their job, that if you get involved in the military, that’s what you get.

But I think the  understated performances of Sean Connery and Scott Glenn reinforce the idea that this is normal life.  There is nothing epic about humanity trying to survive.  In a poignant irony, the things that thrill our inner selves—the Montana homestead, the pick-up truck, and the fishing pole—are silenced and displaced so that we can actually retain our lives.  And how many times does every working person do this to themselves every day?  How often must I not read or write or travel or make love or sing or dance or garden or paint or cook because I have to work.  Or not even work, but preserve my opportunity to work.  Preserve my right to work. Preserve my ability to work.

The complex economy and politics we have constructed to accelerate our wealth, productivity, and power may have come at the cost of our own selves—at least our bodies and souls.  This thought, again, is nothing new; hundreds and thousands of other people have chafed under “modernity.”  But just because it isn’t a new thought doesn’t mean I am already comforted.  And watching The Hunt for Red October is comforting.  Because I face this true cost of living every day, it is comforting to see men facing crisis decisions with little or nothing to offer, take a gamble, and come out on the other side—no thanks to the strong arms of the world powers.  Perhaps it is an American political ideal to nurture the hope of the individual in the face of everything else; perhaps it is a school-girl crush to take refuge in masculine prowess; and perhaps it is unrealistic to feed on impossible probabilities.

But feed I must or my heart will fail.