Ten Years Ago: Million Dollar Baby

19 Dec

Jessica Campbell rewatches 2004 Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby for the first time since theatres and addresses memories of Terri Schiavo and Oregon’s 1994 Death with Dignity Act.

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If you haven’t seen Million Dollar Baby, please don’t read this re-view. Go watch it, and then you can read on if you want. Consider this a spoiler alert, and take my word for it that the unsullied viewing experience will be worth it.

No, really, go watch it. I just returned the University of Washington library DVD copy, if that helps anyone.

I’ve written about a handful of movies for this blog, and each time I had plenty to say about how my first look at the movie differed from the viewing a decade later, because of intervening events in culture, or moviedom, or sometimes my own life. Well, other than the obvious “this time I knew what was going to happen,” I don’t have a darned thing to say about that this time. Million Dollar Baby hasn’t aged a day. (Apparently Clint Eastwood hasn’t either; the 84-year-old director/actor/writer/composer/you-name-it has directed nine feature films since then, the latest of which, American Sniper, comes out this winter.) Million Dollar Babywon four Academy Awards—Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood, Best Actress for Hilary Swank, and Best Supporting Actor for Morgan Freeman. It was a good year for Best Picture nominees; I cried at Finding Neverland, smiled at Sideways, hummed at Ray, and nearly jumped out of my seat with glee at Cate Blanchett’s channeling of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. But I left the theater speechless after Million Dollar Baby. In part, I think it has stayed the same for me because there isn’t much in my own life that matches the external/situational material of the plot. And in part it’s because the movie is just so full and so compelling—or perhaps the better word is “merciless”—in its own right.

For the first hour and a half, Million Dollar Baby is a boxing movie. Well, a boxing movie with more Yeats and more wistful touches to the score than most, but still. It’s exciting and suspenseful in the way any decent sports movie is, just with a lot more going on outside the ring. (I don’t even remember what was happening in Cinderella Man except that it had something to do with the Depression, right?) Anyway, Million Dollar Baby sports (see what I did there?) the familiar Rocky arc. 31-year-old Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) starts working out at Frankie Dunn’s (Eastwood) boxing gym in hopes that he will take her on as a trainee. No matter how many times he growls, “I don’t train girls,” she smiles back and, a little while later, asks again. Swank manages to make her seem sweet and polite even when she’s pushing relentlessly. She soon wins over Frankie’s old friend and assistant of sorts, Scrap (Morgan Freeman), and eventually wears Frankie down, too. Maggie lacks experience but is very good (there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise, of course), and she skyrockets under Frankie’s tutelage. During her rise, we meet her god-awful family; apparently working her way out of a trailer park was nothing compared to contending with a selfish mother who tears her down constantly. Margo Martindale must have less than five minutes of screen time, but it’s plenty long enough to induce cringing. Maybe the mother and siblings are presented as a little too horrible; in a movie with some extremely complex characters, it’s jarring to run into people left entirely unredeemed.

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Of course, Maggie isn’t very complicated either. She tells Frankie early on that boxing is the only thing she ever enjoyed doing. Clearly it’s also the only thing she pays much attention to. She has no secrets from the past, no love interest (God bless you for that, Clint Eastwood), no motivations at all except for doing that one thing she loves as often and as well as she can. The movie is similarly focused. We never see flashbacks, and only occasionally shots of characters in their homes. Scrap’s boxing past is revealed through a few lines. We get the most side material about Frankie, but even that is very restrained. We learn that he loves to read Yeats, that he goes to Mass every morning, that he lives alone, and that he has a daughter who ignores his frequent letters because she will not forgive him for something. We never meet the daughter or even find out what caused the breach. Ultimately, Eastwood seems more interested in Frankie than in Maggie. In contrast to her simplicity, Frankie is apparently capable of treating other people with great callousness and with great kindness. It can be hard to tell which to expect in a given situation, or even to tell which he’s inflicting once it’s happening. Eastwood seems to have a self-replenishing supply of gravel in his throat that forces you to learn to read the tiniest changes to his face or tone of voice.

Maggie learns, of course. There’s clearly a surrogate father-daughter aspect to their relationship. I only thought the movie overstated that once, when Maggie takes Frankie to a diner near her hometown and tells him she used to go there with her father before he died. The rest of the time it seems perfectly natural. And, like the whole boxing plot, it leads to what the movie is ultimately about (now SERIOUSLY stop reading if you haven’t seen it and ignored my earlier entreaty): Frankie’s moral dilemma. I hadn’t watched Million Dollar Babysince seeing it in theaters; it was interesting to note how much more vividly I remembered the final half hour than everything that came before it. I thoroughly enjoyed the boxing movie part—a lot of lines are funny as hell, for one thing, which I’d completely forgotten—but the final sequence floored me so much that it overpowered my recollection of the movie as well. A refresher, in case by some amnesiac event you’ve forgotten: Maggie gets her title shot and is holding her own against the opponent, until said opponent, upset that a round went to Maggie, punches her basically from behind when they’re supposed to be heading to their corners. Maggie falls and hits her head/neck against her stool in such a way that she is instantly and irrevocably paralyzed from the neck down.

And just like that, the boxing movie becomes a hospital movie. What I love about this is that it’s true to life. In most movies that are primarily about an illness or death, you get just enough exposition to “establish sympathy” and then most of the time is spent in the medical realm. But in real life, you’re going about your business, focused on something else, then suddenly something terrible happens and your life is overwhelmed by doctor jargon and IVs, and the whole world is hospital-white. This is the jarring experience we get in Million Dollar Baby.Because you’ve invested not just a few minutes but a full hour and a half in Maggie’s life, you experience her injury more like she does.

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We don’t get a sense of how long Maggie sticks it out in the rehab center before she asks Frankie to help her die, but clearly not very. In 2004, I heard that some people who had lived in similar states of paralysis for years were criticizing the movie for the relative speed with which she gave up. Remember Terri Schiavo? We were still in the thick of that monstrosity of a cultural and political debate when Million Dollar Baby was released. I’m not going to tell you what I thought about the Terri Schiavo case and why. Suffice it to say that it was on my mind a lot at the time, and watching this movie ten years later really brought it all back. Because I was still in Catholic high school in 2004, the Schiavo case and even, to a lesser extent, Eastwood’s film were hot topics of discussion. End-of-life issues are hard partly because they’re bound up with people’s religious beliefs, obviously. But it’s also because they force people to think about what life actually is. How in the world are we supposed to answer that? Maggie answers it easily—as the film previously established, all she wants to do is box. If she can’t do that, her life isn’t her life anymore. Frankie (probably like most viewers) has a much harder time.

I’m from Oregon, which in 2004 was the only state in the country in which assisted suicide was legal. There had been a MUCH-debated but ultimately unsuccessful initiative to repeal Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act in 1997, and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft instigated a judicial hubbub in the early 2000s. All this is to say that Million Dollar Baby tackled an issue that was very much in the national discussion at the time and very, very much under discussion in my state. And to its credit, it is not the least bit sensationalist. There’s no melodrama in Maggie’s request, Frankie’s tortuous decision-making process, or the final death. There’s hardly any movie at all after Frankie grants Maggie’s request. Eastwood does not seem to me to be making any particular statement about end-of-life issues, beyond “they’re really, really hard.” The film does not wrangle your sympathies in one direction or another as Frankie tries to decide what to do. His priest, predictably, simply says, “You know you can’t do it.” But Frankie responds that he feels like he’s killing Maggie either way—literally bringing about her death, or condemning her to a slow decay that will kill her spirit.

From one angle, the scope of the movie is Maggie’s boxing career. Its beginning, its heyday, its cost, and ultimately the early death that its centrality to her worldview drives her to. From another angle, and I think this one is more important to Eastwood, the scope is Frankie’s morality. Eastwood clearly does not want us to judge, negatively or positively, Frankie’s life as a whole, since we could only do that if we knew what had happened with his daughter. His dilemma with respect to Maggie is the main event. The problematic past with his daughter pulls him in both directions: he doesn’t want to do anything else “wrong” because he apparently has before and is paying dearly, but he doesn’t want to disappoint or cause suffering to another daughter figure. Characteristically, Maggie takes matters into her own hands after his initial refusal, attempting multiple times to bite her tongue enough to bleed to death. This development changes the balance of the dilemma, I think, because Frankie has no reason to believe she won’t succeed at something like that sooner or later. If she is going to bring about her own death, it might as well be less painfully; and so he brings in the huge dose of adrenaline to put in her IV.

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Frankie walks out of the rehab center that night, and that’s the last we see of him. The film isn’t about what the rest of his life is like, whether he regrets his decision, whether he sees his daughter again, etc. It has the sensibility of a short story—which makes sense, given that it’s based on one of the same title by F. X. Toole (which I confess I haven’t read). That could seem strange in a feature film, but for me it works just fine. The voiceover narration, which I assume is also there because of the prose source material, works primarily because the voice is Morgan Freeman’s. Nobody has a voice like his. It’s comforting, and the result is that Scrap becomes something of a Greek chorus. We do find out at the very end that what Scrap has been narrating all this time is a letter to Frankie’s daughter, which helpfully gives us a reason for the voiceover narration’s existence. Scrap doesn’t have much of a function as a character, except for revealing a few things about Frankie’s past and creating occasions for Frankie to express himself. But Freeman is always a reassuring presence. Scrap is by turns funny and angry and compassionate, always seeing everything—so real that he seems inevitable.

There are a few other characters—Frankie’s pre-Maggie golden boy, a couple of boxing managers, several cocky young men who haunt the gym. Over ten years, I forgot about them all. But they’re like the whole boxing plot: crucial to the building of the world Eastwood insists we feel crashing down around Maggie. That world and its fall utterly convinced me just as much this time as in 2004. The screenplay (by Paul Haggis, who wrote and directed Crashthe next year) is funny, evocative, and efficient. The boxing plot just sweeps you right along until it slams you into a wall. I don’t believe Eastwood uses slow-motion for any other event besides the punch that sends Maggie into paralysis. It’s a clear signal that everything is going to change at that moment. The plummet is vertiginous as hell and not easy to stand up from even as a viewer. Make sure you have a whiskey or a dog on hand for comfort, but steel yourself and watch it again.

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Ten Years Ago: Christmas with the Kranks

18 Dec

Contributor Bri Lafond enlisted in the help of her friend Jim Seals for her re-view of the Grisham/Columbus/Roth holiday laffer Christmas with the Kranks. It does not sound like they had a good time.

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Bio (written by moi):

Jim Seals is a disenfranchised writer and aficionado of nerdy shit (we’re talking full-on Trekkie with a side of RPGs). He is my long-suffering best friend who has to sit through all the terrible movies I (for the most part) enjoy. As such, he is well on his way to transforming into the cantankerous Walt from this horrible movie (which even I didn’t like).

Christmas with the Kranks is a ho-hum mess.

Based on John Grisham’s 2001 novella Skipping Christmas, the film’s central thesis details the alleged comedic misadventures of one Luther Krank (Tim Allen), a middle-aged curmudgeon of indeterminate occupation, as he opts out of the exorbitant rituals of Christmas for a cost-saving cruise. Luther is matched with his aged wife (Jamie Lee Curtis), whose role vacillates from accomplice to foil at a moment’s notice, and is beset by a dictatorial ward boss, meddling neighbors, a vindictive (albeit suicidal) inanimate Christmas decoration, and his own lack of common sense.

The Krank household is short one as their daughter Blair (she of Veronica Mars, though not Veronica, fame) has joined the Peace Corps. Her destination: Peru, and she leaves on Thanksgiving weekend. Leaving the airport, Luther is drenched when he is caught up in a deluge while making multiple runs into the local grocer at his wife’s urging and has the film’s inciting incident when he espies an advertisement for a Caribbean cruise, complete with smiling models and a sign that asks if he is tired of the rain. From there wheels are set in motion as the Kranks forgo the season’s needless expenditures and copious rituals, including the Krank annual Christmas Eve celebration. That is until Blair calls and tells them she’s coming home. “Hijinks” ensue.

Paper-thin plot and inconsistent characterization aside, the film’s cardinal sin is in its pacing. Clocking in at 98 minutes, Christmas with the Kranks takes no chances and goes to the tried-and-true Hollywood standard of a three act structure: Act One introduces us to our two main characters, the Kranks, and ends with Luther smugly distributing to his coworkers a “skipping Christmas” memorandum, which sees Allen spelling out the entire plot to the lowest common denominator in the audience; Act Two sees the couple beset with various comedic set pieces all perpetrated by various disapproving third parties; Act Three sees the couple at odds as each tries to slam together a last minute Christmas Eve celebration for the sake of their prodigal daughter.

Where this three-act structure breaks down is in its execution. The opening two acts, which chronologically speaking covers the time from the Sunday following Thanksgiving—when Blair leaves—up to and including the morning of Christmas Eve—when Blair calls home—is no longer than half an hour, combined. This is in stark contrast to the film’s hour long concluding act, which covers the twelve hours leading to Blair’s return home. It is as if Editor Nick Moore, the assistant editor on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, finished cutting together Acts One and Two, looked at his watch, remembered that this was supposed to be a theatrical release and not a one-hour TV special, and feverishly started padding out the remainder of the film. As a consequence the last act is an odd, ethereal mixture of hurried nothingness as we blow through one “hilarious” antic after another, all the while dutifully calling back to another person that Luther somehow managed to piss off in the previous half hour.

kranks2Yet, never fear, gentle audience member, if one happens to leave the room to, say, reaffirm one’s sanity and is somehow lost amid all the triteness upon their return, one need only ask: How supportive is Jamie Lee Curtis in this moment? Of all the characters, Curtis’ Nora is all over the map. She is so inconsistent that her character arc is less a carefully laid out progression of events and evolving character motivations and more cinematic whiplash writ large. When Luther sells his plan to her, and the audience, for the first time, she listens with a skeptical ear. She voices some not unreasonable concerns—such as discontinuing their annual donations to the church and hospital—and is met with an unreasonable and entirely arbitrary response in return thanks to Luther’s one recurring character trait. However, when those concerns are met, she wholeheartedly signs on to the plan. By the time Luther issues his memorandum, she is an enthusiastic supporter. The subsequent act does see her character question this support somewhat; however, the continued pressure from interested third parties, all of whom have little to gain in their endeavors, does nothing save strengthen her resolve. A resolve that evaporates entirely upon one phone call from her daughter, after which she reverts to the same nagging shrew that sent her husband in the pouring rain not once, but twice for a bar of white chocolate from the grocer’s butcher. In fact, in the third act, she disowns the trip entirely, calling it his “stupid plan.” Nora is either at one didactic extreme or another with no middle ground to transition the narrative between the two.

In competition for the award of Least Consistent Character in a Major Motion Picture Featuring Tim Allen and Christmas is Dan Aykroyd’s Vic Frohmeyer. Much like Curtis’ Nora, Frohmeyer is whatever Screenwriter Chris Columbus needs him to be for that particular scene to work. He is either the sly manipulator, as seen when he quietly engages Luther on what Blair’s absence will mean for the entire neighborhood this Christmas, to domineering thug when he is leading a gang across the street and proceeds to bellicosely shout at Nora, demanding she releases a Christmas decoration, to overly enthusiastic assistant as he exclaims “I better go help Luther!” when the lights go out for the entire neighborhood. This tonal dissonance leads to a distinct lack of a through line. His character’s all-time worst moment is when the filmmakers insult our collective intelligence and expect us to buy into Frohmeyer’s Frank Capra-esque speech near the middle of the third act. Up until this point, we have only seen Aykroyd as a local bully; he has not helped anyone in the neighborhood. But now Columbus needs to somehow end this nightmare exercise in yuletide sadism and has Frohmeyer use an open ambulance as a dais and lecture the entire neighborhood on how great a human being Blair is and that everyone is needed now to make her Christmas magical, in spite of their mixed emotions towards Luther. I suppose we are to intuit from this sequence that the entire movie has seen him doing what he thinks is best for the entire neighborhood, but this is lost in all of Aykroyd’s bluster and posturing.

While none of the remainder of the supporting cast quite reach either Nora Krank or Vic Frohmeyer level of inconsistency, all fall squarely into the category of poorly drawn, one-note caricatures. There are the Scheels, Walt and Bev; he is the cantankerous meddler and she is the cancerous patron saint of good-humor. There’s Patrick Breen’s uncredited character, the effeminate small-time printer who Nora jilts and is seen playing Irish pan pipes at film’s end (because… effeminate, I guess?). We have Wes Trogden, the one black neighbor with actual speaking lines in this entire film, who has that go-to-knee slapper of “man afraid of wife” characteristic. There’s also the rapscallion Spike Frohmeyer (he of Malcolm in the Middle, though not Malcolm, fame), and a couple other forgettables who only stand out on multiple viewings (endured solely for a Ten Years Ago review) thrown in for good measure.

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Then there’s Santa Claus. Yes, it would not be a Tim Allen Christmas movie without Old Nick. This time around, Kris Kringle is played by Austin Pendleton. This is where the movie leaves realism in the rearview mirror and starts merging into the oncoming magical realism lane. We are introduced to Santa during the film’s inciting incident. Here he is seen as nothing more than a roadside Santa selling umbrellas. He attempts to sell one to Luther, who turns him down twice, thus setting up the scene’s all too obvious punchline when he is subsequently soaked with a Niagara-level cascade of water. Then Santa vanishes. He does not turn up again until much later as “Marty” when Nora is purchasing a crate of pinot noir. No one knows who he is, but he has an almost encyclopedic—if not downright supernatural—knowledge of all the characters in the film, and is seen interacting with random strangers with a level of intimacy rarely afford to street corner vendors. The film ends with “Marty” dressed as Santa Claus knocking out a would-be criminal with an umbrella much to the amazement of Luther. If the film had ended his runner there, that would have been an odd addition, one that could have easily ended on Moore’s cutting room floor, but the film doubles down. The last shot, which is an exterior on the Kranks’ house, is of “Marty’s” VW bug taking to the air care of a sledding team of reindeer and racing towards camera.

The inclusion of Santa is not the film’s sole dalliance with magical realism troupes. The Christmas decoration that the Frohmeyers are so obsessed with, this 7’ Frosty the Snowman that belongs to the Kranks, is alive. Not only is he alive, he is also suicidal. We are not physically introduced to the Kranks’ Snowman until later in the film’s ponderous running time. While more screen time than was needed is given to discussing Frosty’s existence and Luther’s refusal to release him, it is not until a gaggle of carolers come, loudly singing Gene Autrey’s “Frosty the Snowman,” that the Kranks, fleeing into the basement of all places, see this monstrosity. In the background we hear “came to life one day” as we see an upward shot on the decoration’s garish countenance. The lighting here is fitting a B-horror film; the subtext is plainly spoken here. Once he has established Frosty, Director Joe Roth continuously cuts to these reaction shots of the creature, each time to lighting changes to invoke a different emotion. Sadly, Roth, like all impertinent children, cannot leave well enough alone and what could have been misconstrued as subtext becomes text. When Luther is attempted to mount the snowman precariously on the rooftop, the object’s coal gaze lights up crimson red, as if those coals are burning, when it starts teetering close toward Luther. Luther begins talking to the creature, begging it to go the other direction. The Snowman takes the plunge, sending Luther down with him, and shatters on the ground below. The last shot on this particular decoration is of Spike standing over him, mournfully, as the coals go out. (Also, it should be noted that as we see Santa’s exit, a CGI snowman on another house is waving us a fond farewell—just in case there was room for any doubt as to the liveliness of a 7’ Frosty the Snowman decoration; thank you, lowest common denominator.)

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Lastly, there is Luther Krank. Krank’s second line in the movie is a complaint, when he mutters that Blair chose the worst travel day of the year. He spends no time with his daughter; he fails to even to tell her he loves her when she leaves and instead merely awkwardly stands there, hemming and hawing with Allen’s copious chins waggling about. Luther is a small man and that is almost all you need to know about him. Although we are never told what his occupation is we are told that he has not made partner yet. (With Grisham’s involvement, we can safely assume lawyer; way to be creative there.) He despises people whose names are not Luther Krank and is seen manufacturing conflict where none is needed with his boorish pigheadedness and total lack of social graces whatsoever. For instance, I have commented on his memorandum earlier, which he hands out to his entire office (including a random bike deliveryman that was passing through to the set of Premium Rush), declining his involvement in the Christmas season. Now, that memorandum did not need to exist, nor should it have been so gleefully thrown around as if he did not care. Luther’s personal life is his own and did not need to be the fodder of water cooler chitchat. If he should have told anyone, it would most likely be his own personal assistant, but that would require him to talk to her as if she was a person, which he seems entirely incapable of doing. No, instead of conversing, he closes his office door and writes this snide memorandum that serves no other point than to manufacture tension in the workplace. (Even his discussions with Nora are awkward and caustic, ending in a glib bon mot that misses the mark of humor entirely.) This habitual need to artificially create conflict is a pattern of behavior that is seen throughout the entire film. For all intents and purposes, he is his own worst enemy.

I suppose now is the time where I wrap this Christmas present of a review up with a neat bow. Perhaps a clever witticism to leave the reader with a smile on their visage? No, I think not. Christmas with the Kranks simply isn’t worth the effort; it is the cinematic equivalent of opening a festive, yuletide sweater from your least favorite aunt the day after Christmas; it might have all the colors of the season, but you truly do hope moths devour it before next year.

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Free-Floating Thoughts (Mostly Bri here)

-Screenwriter/producer Chris Columbus? Oh: this might be decent! Oh, wait… this movie is from 2004. We’re fucked.

-I want all you readers to know that we did some extensive research for this particular re-view. And by “extensive research,” I mean we looked at a calendar. So: Blair is leaving the Sunday after Thanksgiving to go to Peru for the Peace Corps. When the Kranks get back to the house, it is already in full-on Christmas mode with decorations up all over the house. The Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2004 fell on November 29, yet Nora is already decked out in her ubiquitous “Christmas vest” and the house is fully decorated inside. Not completely outside the realm of possibility, I suppose, but that Christmas vest is going to look pretty sorry if Nora plans on wearing it for a month straight.

-Who spends $67 on “ornament repair”? Ever? In their lives? Much less as an annual expenditure?

-Everyone in this movie is a psychopath. That one guy who was an alien in Galaxy Quest—a much better Tim Allen movie—full on closes down his boutique stationary store to stalk Nora into a restaurant and announce to her friends (Caroline Rhea and Felicity Huffman, in the first of their two whole scenes in this movie) that Nora isn’t buying Christmas cards or invitations this year. After Nora explains the situation and that she and Luther are leaving on Christmas day for their vacation, Felicity Huffman has the gall to say: “Oh, well you can still have your party then.” The movie wants us to side with Nora’s friends and see that the Kranks are being selfish, but if I were at this restaurant, with a creepy dude continuing to stare me down from another table and my friends acting bitchy that I’m not throwing a party that they can attend, I’d be like, “Biiiiiiitch: throw your own party with the rest of your broke down Wisteria Lane crones!”

-The “rules” for this skipped Christmas are completely arbitrary and dependent on what the plot needs them to be at any given moment. We’ve established early on that the Kranks will continue their charitable donations for the year (despite Luther’s miserly objections), yet when faced with the Boy Scouts’ annual Christmas tree sales and later with the local police’s annual calendar sales, Luther doubles down and antagonizes both groups. How hard would it be to throw the Scouts’ $20 as a donation and say “No thanks” to a tree? Would it kill Luther to buy a $20 calendar which the police officers (Cheech Marin and Jake Busey) make clear is going to help with charitable activities? Boo.

-There are some bizarre throwaway lines throughout the movie that I’m pretty sure were ad-libbed. For example, shortly before escorting Nora to the tanning salon (where “hilarity” is sure to ensue), Luther complains that he’s never again going to “an Irish pub with fish tacos.”

-There is this stupid runner throughout the movie of Luther having an adversarial relationship with Walt and Bev’s cat. Luther accidentally steps on the cat multiple times and everyone brushes it off as wacky. Having had a cat that lost half her tail after it was stepped on by an errant trick-or-treater one Halloween, I personally have some objections to this being trotted out as “comedic,” but the very cheap-looking CGI rendering of the cat encased in ice is just insulting.

-“We made the front page!” Okay, so, Luther and Nora’s “skipped Christmas” is enough to make the front page of what appears to be a fairly large suburb of (I think) Chicago, accompanied by a production still from the movie showing Luther and Nora in their hilariously tiny bathing suits at the tanning salon. I’m not going to go into all the things that are wrong with this (there are far, far too many), but I will say that the props’ department did a fairly good job putting together a realistic-looking prop for a fairly small scene.

-Are you ready for some symbolism? As Nora reads How the Grinch Stole Christmas to a group of mildly sick-looking children in a hospital, Luther comes in to show off his newly-Botoxed face and lobster-red tan. The Botox (the effects of which last for precisely one scene) is supposed to make Luther appear Grinch-like, but he resembles nothing more than Lucifer himself by way of Miami Vice.

-If I have to hear the words “Hickory Honey Ham” one more time, I may fucking scream.

-Cheech Marin—as in the Cheech Marin—has the god-damned nerve to write “N. Reeky” in place of “Enrique” on the sign they use to pick up Blair and her fiancé at the airport.

-Speaking of Enrique, when Blair calls to say she’s coming home and, by the way, she’s engaged, Blair says to her parents: “You remember him. We went to Brown together. You used to call him ‘Rick’.” This is all seemingly done in ADR, and I have a sneaking suspicion this was added in much later in production because they didn’t want Blair to look like too much of a dumb whore for getting engaged after less than a month of meeting this Peruvian guy. Because what are the odds that she would be in Peru with a Peruvian guy who she happened to know before? But didn’t have a prior romantic relationship with? Moreover, when Enrique finally shows up at the Kranks later in the movie, Luther says, “It’s nice to meet you.” Why do I care about this? This movie is terrible.

-Luther has to learn his lesson, right? So we have this thrown together Christmas Eve party happening and Luther is sulking at the kitchen table when he sees that across the street crotchety Walt and cancer-angel Bev are eating alone. He takes over A GODDAMNED HICKORY HONEY HAM to wish them a merry Christmas when, at this point, he should be walking over there to give them the tickets for the Caribbean cruise which he knows he’s not going to get to go on. However, this clearly wasn’t cinematic enough: the director has to get Luther into the middle of the snow-covered street, literally standing at a crossroads between this poor elderly couple and the joyous celebration occurring in his own home, so that the camera can pull back into a wide shot for the trailer. SYMBOLISM! Ugh: this movie is the worst.

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Ten Years Ago: The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie

21 Nov

Kelly Buetter lets a hyperactive, talking spongemonster teach her lessons about remaining young at heart in the face of adulthood in this week’s re-view.

We, the general populace of cartoon-watching adults, are absolutely spoiled. As I sit here, I am listening to the dulcet tones of moonshine-addled redneck squids while, on deck, I have cartoons about an adventurer and his shape-shifting dog, three kick-ass superheroines, and a show where two kids tricked the grim reaper into being their best friend forever. I could probably find a cartoon exploring every crazy, ridiculous, stupid premise that pops into my mind. But these cartoons would never have had a place in the world if the shows before them sucked. Thus, we must pay homage to them. The Simpsons, Looney Tunes, Ren & Stimpy, all giants in their respective fields. And then there was SpongeBob.

To tell you the whole story about The Sponge would take far too long, so instead I will tell you my personal experience. When the first episode of SpongeBob came out, I was nine years old. I had been an instant fan, looking for any excuse to use the Jacques Cousteau voice or sing SpongeBob’s version of the Krusty Krab Pizza jingle (you’d understand if you watched the show). So early on, there really was not all that much merchandise based around SpongeBob, so I had to find any and all posters and T-Shirts at Hot Topic. Around ’99, Hot Topic was still that kinda-scary store in the mall, and I was always waaay too embarrassed to be around so many *Gulp* teenagers (who would totally think I was a little kid and way too dorky and OMGPLEASEDON’THATEME) to go in. So, I had to have my mom do it. Yes, truly, there is no better way to feel cool then to make your bouffanted, dew-drop glassed, mom-jeans wearing mom to go in an purchase a shirt for you because you’re too much of a chicken. I could feel the leather jacket on my back and sunglasses on my face right then, boy howdy.

Fast forward to 2004, and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is coming out. I am currently in my freshman year of high school, and although it is cool to like cartoons, it is kinda not cool to still like obviously kids cartoons. Most of my friends had discovered anime at this point, or at most, watched most of the [adult swim] lineup. But I was certainly still curious, and so I went with my brother to a matinee. And I loved it. As someone who appreciates adult humor in cartoons, every single little nod, from SpongeBob and Patrick getting drunk on ice cream to The Hoff’s glorious appearance to Patrick in fishnets at the end, every joke was exactly what I was looking for.

And man, if watching this movie again isn’t like reliving 15 all over again.

The plot goes like this: SpongeBob, a fry cook at the Krusty Krab, wants to be promoted to manager of the new second location his boss, Mr. Krabs, is building. Instead, Mr. Krabs appoints Squidward, the dour co-worker and neighbor of SpongeBob, as manager. Meanwhile, Plankton, owner of the Chum Bucket and Mr. Krab’s rival, has a plot to steal the formula for Krabby Patties (and then to take over the world) by stealing King Neptune’s crown and framing Mr. Krabs for it. Crown stolen, they find out that it has been sold to someone in the dangerous Shell City, and SpongeBob and Patrick must steal it back.

Now, that’s what happens. But the biggest concern of the film itself, as is the biggest concern of most of the film’s viewers, is maturity. SpongeBob is considered to be immature (or a “goofy goober”). He has never been able to get his driver’s license, he isn’t thought of as mature enough to manage the Krusty Krab 2, and no one thinks that he will be able to face the perils involved in finding and returning Neptune’s crown. In fact, SpongeBob and Patrick start to lose faith in themselves halfway through, and Mindy (Neptune’s daughter) has to give them “magic moustaches” to make them official Men who will be able to finish the journey. So of course, they lose their moustaches and realize that the ability was in them all along, blah blah blah. We as kids (and kids-at-heart) are supposed to see that we can do anything, even if we like doing silly stuff. But my favorite thing this movie shows us is that there are absolutely no adults in this movie. Adult One, Mr. Krabs, is only looking out for himself and his money, instead of maturely concerning himself with the welfare of others. Adult Two, King Neptune, petulantly wields his power over anyone who dares to point out that he is going bald (played to a T by the himself-thinning Jeffrey Tambor). Even magical mermaid Mindy, future queen (played bafflingly by Scarlett Johansson), instead of going and getting the crown her ownself, with magic, instead makes SpongeBob and Patrick go for her. (To be fair, it is his movie, but one would hope a magic mermaid could do more, you know, magic.)

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie not only examines what it means to be someone treated as immature, but shows that no one is immune from immaturity.

Every person around my age (of the “Millenials” or “Gen Y” or Gen YOLO or WTFever) has been informed that they were too immature, too ridiculous, too self-obsessed. Like SpongeBob, we beg to be taken seriously and seen as worthy of attention. We struggle with school (and the debt that comes with it), we change industries, we move mountains. But still, those movers and shakers are seen as less-than. We haven’t achieved as much as our parents, we haven’t paid our dues.

What, however, of our parents? Hadn’t they heard the same thing? They are our gods, the people we look to for guidance and for approval. They teach us to be adults. But, like Mr. Krabs or King Neptune, they are fallible. Everyone remembers the first time they caught their parents failing, and they finally realized that they are not in fact the superheroes we imagined them to be, but the human beings they really are. But I must ask, what is the great thing about being an adult anyway? Who among us actually wants to be the grownup?

And on that note, who cares what our parents think? Who cares what all the rest of the grownups think? We are finally reaching the point of enlightenment that being an adult sucks, and so we should stop doing that. If we hate striving to impress our parents, we should stop doing that! If we hate listening to lite jazz and watching interpretive dance we should stop doing that!

I walked out of that theater in 2004, realizing that just because I was on the cusp of becoming a young adult did not mean I had to put away childish things. It just meant that to keep enjoying them, I had to be proud of them.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go slip into my feety pajamas and watch cartoons. I hear Gravity Falls is rad as heck.

NOTES SELECTIONS

Movie poster near concessions, “The innermost limits of pure fun”

374 consecutive employee of the month awards (If this is a monthly award, SpongeBob has been working there 31 years)

Somehow an anthropomorphic peanut is WAY less creepy then Chuck E Cheese

Tom Kenny does every voice ever. We should start a show were Tom Kenny and Rob Paulsen just do every single voice

How is Mr. Krabs on fire?

Creepy laughter torture

Ten Years Ago: Kinsey

19 Nov

Despite some evidence to the contrary in her re-view of Bill Condon’s Kinsey, Megan Bertelsen would like readers to note that she did actually like the film as a film.

Kinsey’s Speedy Mustache Ride to Moral Oblivion

I approached re-viewing Bill Condon’s 2004 biopic on Alfred Kinsey, Jr with a fair amount of excitement. And a rum and coke. Well, two. One for Timothy Curry’s performance as a simpering servant of prurience and prudery and one for Timothy Hutton’s anachronistic but fabulously louche portrayal of an ambulatory porn-star mustache.

Kinsey is a meandering tale based loosely upon the life of the zoologist turned patron saint of sexuality studies (particularly for those who deem Freud a driveling douchebag whose impact upon the study of eroticism and human interaction has been immeasurably detrimental to the field’s potential). Kinsey’s body of work still represents the most comprehensive study of sexuality in the U.S. ever undertaken—but Kinsey isn’t particularly concerned with that.

Instead, the film hangs its hat inoffensively on an expiating the sins of the father theme. Ultimately, it’s a flick which reduces a fascinating sociocultural phenomenon and opportunity to interrogate the ideological underpinnings of research methodology to a bland morality tale concerned with a tragic hero’s doomed recapitulation of his father’s sins by reenacting his father’s obsession with sexual behavior and its impact upon society. I’m definitely not saying that I hoped the film would indulge of the fantasy of scientist as cipher, boldly dredging Truth from the dark depths of the unknown. This narrative frame/origin story was present—and equally depressing in its dull simplicity.

Rather, I was interested in what the film afforded at its best moments. The film is intercut with black and white sequences in which the Kinseys are having their own sexual histories taken. These sequences constitute a micronarrative which simultaneously binds Alfred Kinsey into his work, pulls upon the legitimacy of documentarism, and cuts the bodies of interviewees into mouths, eyes, errant tics at the corner of the lips, before undermining the ostensible naturalism by demonstrating that Kinsey and his wife are training their research assistants in interview techniques. These sequences could have been used as a frame for a far more interesting film.

Unfortunately, they are instead subordinated to a predictable biopic narrative in which Kinsey tragically duplicates his father’s life out of a lack of engagement with emotional realities. That’s not to say it doesn’t make a few lunges at being a more interesting film. The film just never quite breaks free of the affective structures which characterize its genre.

When I saw promotional material for Kinsey, my ever-optimistic brain substituted “Kinsey Report” for “Kinsey.” I fantasized about an exploration of methodology, contemporary norms, anything, really, drawing on the resources of film as a form to present and contextualize Kinsey’s body of work and its legacy for sex nerds like me. AWhere the Buffalo Roam for sexology.

And, really, I knew this was absurd—like expecting a Hunter S. Thompson film to focus more on his coverage of racialized housing segregation or the criminalization of poverty than on drugs.

2004 Me, starry-eyed sociology buff and sex-obsessive flat out ignored that small, cautionary voice. I’d sighed over the limited theatrical release of the film, then increasingly twitchily awaited the DVD release. I was anxious, but my expectations were not unreasonable. I knew the dangers of building up a serious anticipatory charge over a film. After all, I had come of age in dark days for geeky folk: in those grim months between the release of The Phantom Menace and Highlander:  Endgame.

I was prepared to be generous. However, Kinsey had so enraged me so much upon my initial viewing that I’d been unable to finish it.

Normally, I’d no more leave a movie unfinished than I would a book. So, as I re-watchedKinsey, I was most interested in figuring out why I would leave a fairly decent flick unwatched for a decade? Re-watching confirmed that the acting and dialogue more than compensate for the uninspired, unobtrusively competent Oscar-bait cinematography. Laura Linney and Liam Neeson as Clara Mackmillan and Alfred Kinsey manage to pull off not only the most convincingly awkward sex scene I’ve ever seen, but also what I consider the rarest of on-screen feats:  an interesting romance. Oh, certainly, there’s a dull courtship bit to sit through, but it’s not insufferably twee, and they pick up steam subsequently.

Beyond this, the film features Veronica Cartwright, John Lithgow, Timothy freaking Curry, and sex as attention-grabbing, if vastly underutilized, resources. As the film progressed, however, I was increasingly reminded that 2014 Me is no better at watching biopics than 2004 Me had been.

When Kinsey came out, I absolutely did not do biopics. I harbored a monumental disinterest in the narrative pruning of lives which biographical work almost necessarily entails—and, really, a bristling disdain for the tedious reconstruction of figures who had done interesting things as intelligible characters for assumed viewers who lacked the empathic capacity to see a person as real or interesting until they had been presented as similar to the people assumed to constitute a viewing audience.

Now, as then, it’s not a lack of facticity or comprehensive presentation that bothers the flat-out-fuck out of me. Rather, it’s the attempt to compress a figure to an ostensibly comprehensive characterization, a grand explanation for everything they may have been and done. A negation of everything that doesn’t fit the structure—a denial of the lived experience, save as can be articulated through a narrative arc structured by the pompously unwieldy pretensions of documentarian legitimacy which stave off any acknowledgement that such undertaking must be deemed, to some extent, fictional.

But really, fuck the academi-speak. This re-view immediately allowed me to confirm that while I find biopics interesting as a concept, they will apparently never be my cup of entertainment tea. But, I went in prepared this time. Between booze and lowered expectations, I hoped calm, forgiving, 2014 me would be able to watch the film with, at the very least, a different sort of irritation than 2004 Me.

I couldn’t help but note, this time around, that Kinsey is a film at war with itself. It gathers up all sorts of aesthetic capital and errant moralizing, then throws it indiscriminately at the viewer’s head as though hoping something, anything, will stick. This can be done effectively—it just isn’t in this instance. I hadn’t noticed this flailing in any conscious way the first time around, and even in re-view, it made me more sad about lost cinematic opportunities than angry over its awkwardness.

This profusion did, however, draw my attention even more strongly to the abysmal narrative which reduced an interesting subject to a clear cause and effect chain grounded in intergenerational strife and…*sigh.* I nearly stopped the film again at the point I had when it originally came out, and for the same reasons.

Specifically, the nadir of the biopic’s mandatory “protagonist plummets into the depths” component featured Laura Linney entering a bathroom to find a distraught and distracted Liam Neeson sitting on the edge of a bathtub, blood dripping from beneath his terry cloth robe. Neeson’s response to Linney’s demands to know where the blood is coming from ended the film for 2004 Me.

He looked up, vague, huge, sheep eyes shining with Oscar-fodder agony—and with just enough befuddled alienation to suggest declining capacity for autonomy (as conventionally understood). He stated he’d pierced his foreskin in an attempt to understand why it afforded pleasure for one of his research subjects. But that there’d been no pleasure.

This could have been presented within the context of other experimentation. Really, in a thousand other ways. Instead, it represented rock bottom. A fall. A fundamental deviation from the “normal” with which the film is preoccupied. It reeked of the narrative need for any excessive deviance from social norms to be punished. The need to frame outliers as tragic heroes. As doomed—not by material conditions, but by their own built-in flaws.

The clumsy pathologization of eroticism, framed by the way Kinsey and his research team had increasingly been portrayed as debauched and unethical or incompetent was an easy out for the film. After all, why delve into the ways in which socialization and economic actualities inflect and compromise research when one can simply default to condemning eroticism as a gateway to decline?

Thank goodness I stopped watching when I did. Had I persisted through the film’s final sequence, 2004 Me would probably have gone on a flat-out rampage. Not content to follow the tired deviance-ends-in tragedy formula which characterizes the way in which so many cultural artifacts address people and behavior on the margins, the film closes on Kinsey embracing sustained heteronormative domesticity as fundamentally natural, beautiful, and the cure for his emotional ills. I don’t even. Just. Argh.

Early in the film, Neeson informs Timothy Hutton, who plays a member of his research team, that Hutton needs to shave his (fairly impressive) mustache. That facial hair represents deceit and obfuscation. The hidden. The corrupt. He points out that the villain of a film always has a mustache. Hilariously, the villains in Kinsey do all, at one point or another, sport a mustache, whereas Kinsey’s allies are clean shaven. As a background conceit this is funny, if a little self-consciously clever. It’s unfortunate that the overall narrative structure of the film is confined by the same moral conflations as the film’s central running gag.

Free-Floating Thoughts

–Poster:  “Lets talk about sex”—precious little of this beyond that which is used for titillation and distancing. So much material, wasted.

–Don’t make judgments=Don’t allow a judgment to show

–Timothy Curry, Timothy Curry for fuck’s sake, as the villain, embodiment of prurience and hindbound assaults on capital-S-Science(!)

–Framing Kinsey’s work as a preoccupation/obsession almost entirely in terms of a mirror for his father (Lithgow) is an easy out.

Actually, I would have happily watched an entire film featuring John Lithgow describing technological advance as society’s descent into lust-addled damnation. The film peaked for me when he characterized the zipper as, “Speedy access to moral oblivion.”

–Film is deeply invested in the linkage between embodied life and the environment as realm of sociality. Legitimizing sexual behaviors by framing them as natural, by virtue…weird shifting between emphasis on diversity and alterity and normalcy.

–Why on earth did the screenwriter think this film needed a villain?! Let alone three??? Casting Timothy Curry as Kinsey’s nemesis? Too motherfucking easy. Lone black actor used to establish Curry’s villainy (as manifest in closet jokes, classism and racism)

–Preoccupation with penis size, thickness of hymen, blah blah blah

Ten Years Ago: The Polar Express

19 Nov

Resident musicologist Max DeCurtins contemplates the American character of Christmas music, hurdy-gurdy playing hobos, and what it’s like to be a Jew watching The Polar Express in his re-view of Robert Zemeckis’s mo-cap fantasy.

As a Jew, I have a platonic fascination with all things related to Christmas. While I can’t speak for any other Jewry of the world, I think most people know that American Jews love Christmas. (We don’t love having to dip into our personal reserves of paid time off to observe our holidays while Christians never need to worry about using their personal or vacation time to observe their holidays, but that’s a matter for another re-view.) Like many American Jews, I don’t come by my Jewish heritage from both parents; I come from a mixed family. Count me among the lucky; were I ever to make aliyah to Israel, the Israeli government would consider me Jewish because my mother is Jewish, and Judaism is a religion inherited, by law, through the maternal line. I know many fellow Jews, dating back to my days as a very involved student at UCSB Hillel, who would not get the same treatment from the Israeli government because they inherited their Judaism from their fathers. Previous generations of American Jews (my mother among them) don’t necessarily find Christmas so attractive because it evokes memories of experiencing—if not outright anti-Semitic sentiment—the feeling of being different from everyone else. It’s why, to this day, my mother has never liked having a Christmas tree in the house, even though my father probably does (presuming, of course, that he can get past the $50 or $60 price tag for a Douglas Fir, which I think entirely reasonable for a few weeks of seasonal beauty in the house). And let’s not forget, of course, that Christmas is a co-opted holiday, which puts it on some questionable moral ground.

That said, something about Christmas still fascinates me. I think because—despite the WASPy assumptions about Christmas that reside in the popular imagination of Americans—the ideal Christmas world depicts a quiet, polite, family-oriented environment enveloped in pillowy snowbanks where we slow down and take the time to appreciate a seasonal change and the good things in life: elegant decorations, friendly company, good food, time not spent at work. Mind you, we find the reality of Christmas in the world located some several thousand light-years away, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a nice thing to think about.

With climate change already wreaking havoc with certain areas (and I think of my parched home state of California), this kind of seasonally indulgent Christmas seems more and more like a fantasy. And yet, I think, in some ways it proves a somewhat useful fantasy, because it holds the allure of what benefit we might derive from slowing down our lives, a benefit that we might yet attain if we could only reform ourselves, and that’s why it endures. What doesn’t, however, endure so well is The Polar Express. Ten years later, I see a movie with an impressive pedigree—Chris van Allsburg, Robert Zemeckis, Tom Hanks, Alan Silvestri—that fails to fulfill the potential greatness that these formidable talents lend their work. It’s the little engine that…almost could.

The Polar Express does a magnificent job of realizing the world of Chris van Allsburg’s book, but somehow it makes for a bizarre and sometimes creepy movie. I should say, rather, that the writers and producers (which include van Allsburg) somehow failed to create a potentially great story for a movie to tell. Americana lives at the heart of this story; set in Grand Rapids, MI, there’s a more-than-implied paean to the American manufacturing behemoth that powered middle-class jobs that enabled people like the protagonist’s parents to buy a house in the suburbs and have the vaunted one boy, one girl nuclear family. The department store that the train passes on its way out of town (bearing, by the way, a distinctly Jewish-sounding name) has a distinct place in American history, evoking a time of fewer TV channels and greater cultural homogeneity. In short, it’s the kind of America that glossed over many injustices but made for excellent nostalgia; nostalgia that the American right has taken up and twisted into irrationality.

What I can’t decide, though, is whether this story, and the movie’s interpretation of it, is, at its core, an apologist take on religion. The protagonist, ever full of doubt, constantly asks the question: “Are you sure?” This, if we read between the obviously widely-spaced lines, clearly means: Are you satisfied with the answer that God is leading you down the right path? Doubt runs deep as a theme in the movie, and I wish I could find a broader message in this theme, such as the crippling effect of doubt that goes unchecked by the belief that we can surmount whatever obstacle currently obstructs our path. If we sit on our couches, paralyzed by self-doubt and fear, we’ll never get anywhere. When Santa finally does emerge, the protagonist has to make a leap of faith before he can hear the bell ring, but the leap of faith isn’t necessarily in service of anything. Belief offers us some help when it comes time to make important decisions: whether to take that job and move to a different city or country, whether to invest money into something, whether to have a baby despite a slight risk of some inheritable issue. These things all benefit from a leap of faith telling us that, after doing as much homework as we possibly can, our decisions will turn out all right in the end. This, I think, could have been a wonderfully useful message to emerge from the movie. Alas, The Polar Express never projects this message beyond a religious mapping; belief in Santa seems to be the beginning and the end of the protagonist’s journey.

I mentioned that the movie, though adapted from a classic children’s book, also comes off as bizarre and, at times, rather creepy. The hurdy-gurdy-“Good King Wenceslaus”-playing hobo appears at various points throughout the film, helping the protagonist avoid danger and saving him from near-disaster, but that doesn’t make his character any less creepy. And Santa’s city at the North Pole had me thinking more of the Overlook Hotel than of Christmas Town. I can imagine few things creepier than a track of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” skipping and echoing throughout a cavernous empty space, as happens when the three children—who don’t even seem to like each other all that much—get out of the caboose and start making their way back to the square. All of these things tie back to the central issue of doubt with which the protagonist struggles, of course, but even in context they seem like creepy ways to depict doubt.

Just as The Polar Express strains against a limited storyline, so too does the visual rendering display its limitations. For all the rich detailing in the landscapes and architecture, the characters themselves display remarkably poor rendering, which might seem like a natural quirk of history given that CGI movies have existed for less than twenty years, but even in 2004 we had already had two Star Wars prequels, all of the Lord of the Rings films, andPirates of the Caribbean, among other specimens featuring well-executed CGI work. It seems to me that Sony would have done better to have contracted the animation to a studio more experienced than Imageworks, at least with regard to mo-cap work.

The voice characterizations fare far better, demonstrating once again that Tom Hanks, who plays what seems like half the characters in the movie, is an indefatigable badass. The elves’ voices in particular inject much-needed levity to counteract the creepiness of their characters’ graphics. The mixture of Jersey and New York accents for the elves on the ground and the British accent for the elves piloting the blimp craft that hauls Santa’s bag of toys makes for a bit of Tim Burton-esque creativity that certainly helped the movie’s case through several re-views.

The Polar Express joins a long list of movies whose flagrant violations of the laws of Newtonian physics color my father’s impression of them, and not for the better. I think he sees such patently absurd mishandling of physics as symptomatic of Americans’ deplorable dearth of proficiency in science. Given that I hold similar views about Americans’ musical education, I can’t entirely blame him. Even granted that, The Polar Express still presents some flatly impossible feats of physics, which I find highly ironic given that CGI animation depends intimately on virtual objects being assigned physical properties and informed by algorithms that utilize physics in minute detail. The movie highlights such tricky aspects of CGI physics, such as the punched paper flakes wafting down from the Conductor’s hole-puncher. Some sequences—such as the tracking of the leading girl’s ticket as it flies away from the train, gets moved by wolves, regurgitated by birds, and eventually ends up back on the train—simply weigh down the movie with unnecessary diversions.

The movie does, however, feature some rather beautiful shots, and here I think specifically of the train sloughing around on the ice as it approaches the narrow gap where the tracks reappear. We get a wide-angle shot from the perspective of the upcoming tracks, and see a majestic sweep of the train’s headlight. The splash of the water as the train soars up out of the valley onto the tracks feels fairly magical, and I think CGI movies have a particular ability to capture this kind of expressive imagination in a way that live action movies don’t. To further emphasize the emotional peak we’ve just reached, the orchestra lets loose with a full tutti. And speaking of the score…

American-ness also finds itself woven throughout the score. The score for The Polar Express, where it doesn’t rely on Christmas songs composed in the first half of the twentieth century, takes a fair amount of inspiration from two Russian composers, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. In places I hear resemblances to The Nutcracker, though I couldn’t say exactly where, as about three-quarters of the ballet never makes it into recordings of the work. Elsewhere, I hear references to Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet, particularly the closing sequence in which the palace of Kashchei disappears. I think a majority of the American public remains incredibly unaware of just how recently their musical idea of Christmas came into being. Our great-grandparents’ generation did not know The Nutcracker; it did not premiere in the United States until 1944, in San Francisco. Rightly or wrongly, The Nutcracker provides for a significant portion of the operating budget of most ballet companies in the United States, just as Christmas shopping provides a significant portion of annual revenue for many retailers, and I think to most Americans, The Nutcracker is Christmas. It certainly explains why the music for most every Christmas movie references The Nutcracker in some way. Christmas music, whether in the form of ballet, carols, or other types of pops orchestral music, seems to occupy its own sonic space, and somehow, no matter the composer, it still ends up sounding like Christmas music.

Alan Silvestri sounds curiously like himself in this score, and the score itself bears some interesting resemblances to the score for Back to the Future, perhaps Silvestri’s best-known work: the little runs of scales in the harp and the celesta that introduce a longer passage of music, for example. And as much as some of the orchestration and thematic elements borrow from Russian music, another influence makes itself very much felt throughout the score, that of Aaron Copland. Aaron Copland—a Jew from New York who composed mostly avant-garde music—has come to represent American-ness in “classical” music, largely on the basis of hisRodeo Dances. This musical ideal took form at the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, not long after 9/11, when we needed to express national solidarity. These days, this music most often sees performance by pops orchestras, tainted, perhaps, by its associations with what many musicians and music historians have come to see as a political-cultural agenda. Though I don’t feel like The Polar Express pushes such an agenda, its score and Copland’s music do share one element in common: widespread use of the clarinet.

The clarinet has always struck me as a particularly “American” sound. It features prominently in Copland’s well-known ballet and orchestral suite Appalachian Spring. Without getting too subjective—if that’s possible when talking about music—the sound of the clarinet evokes youth, simplicity, and wonderment. Having a cylindrical air column, as the flute does as well, the clarinet produces a uniquely plaintive and sometimes child-like tone, unlike the incisive and complex sound of the oboe, which has a conical air column. Americans didn’t invent the clarinet, of course; the Europeans did, but Americans found new uses for it in jazz and blues. The score for The Polar Express closely allies the clarinet with Billy, the boy from the poor end of town who must find new friends to help him navigate unexpected challenges.

While I don’t care for any of the songs composed for the film (as opposed to the iconic Christmas songs recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby), I do think the score overall counts as one of the better aspects of The Polar Express. Like the story and the animation, it too is not without its flaws and limitations. To me, the movie stands as a classic example of a film that held a lot of promise, and maybe even proved memorable in some ways, but that otherwise fell short of its potential.

Ten Years Ago: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

14 Nov

In her re-view of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Maggie McMuffin reveals her fervent anglophilia and Hugh Grant-philia.

Quick question: Would you rather have to put up with a child obsessed with werewolves or a child who becomes an unbearable anglophile?

Trick question! Because if you were my mother, you had to go through both.

Like many American girls, I went through a phase of lusting after older British men. The pasty hunks that Britain churned out during the 1990s were my sexual bread and butter for the last two and a half years of high school, placing me squarely in the company of middle aged women everywhere. Sometimes this led to great things (seeing An Awfully Big Adventure, a movie I would otherwise have missed) and sometimes it led to not so great things (that day I viewed The English Patient and Schindler’s List back to back). Mostly it just meant watching period films and literary adaptations in the hopes of seeing some dude in a wet shirt.

It also meant watching both Bridget Jones movies a lot.

I mean, come on, it had Hugh Grant and Colin Firth fighting each other. It had a London backdrop which, to a small town high schooler, seemed so beyond hip. And it featured a narrator who was awkward and less than perfect but still going after sex. Because Bridget Jones may not have always had a life worth aspiring to, but damn it she presented a future I felt I could achieve. And even when her life wasn’t perfect, it seemed much better than my life. My high school relationship drama was much more Wuthering Heights than Pride and Prejudice, so Bridget’s life seemed like a goddamn dream to me. I read the books. I watched the films. I affected a terrible accent. My best friend and I would carry journals around and write stuff all the time (her way more than me because I’m lazy). When I went off to college, the Bridget Jones books were two that I packed for my teeny dorm room and I opened to random pages to read passages when I felt overwhelmed. I would watch either film whenever it was on television, considering it a gift from the syndication gods. Maybe that’s why I’ve seen Edge of Reason more than the first film.

As I’ve grown up, my life has become awesome in its own way. Like really. My life is fucking grand. Still sometimes full of drama because I’m 24 but it’s different now. I don’t romanticize it like I did in high school where I thought being mature meant having problems. I just hate drama now and while I often have a hard time getting out of it, I still turn to writing to get through it. Something about putting my problems on paper (or computer screen) makes it easier for me to process and I owe that coping mechanism to Bridget Jones.

I left her behind a few years ago. The books are in my mom’s storage unit. The films have gone unwatched. Let’s see if Hugh Grant still does it for me.

This movie is supposed to be Bridget and Mark Darcy’s ‘happily ever after.’ Which is odd because they’ve only been dating 6 weeks, 4 days, and 7 hours. “Or 71 ecstatic shags.” Like, I know they’ve known each other their whole lives but that’s still a very brief time to be dating. Especially since the first movie told us Bridget has spent a good portion of their lives disliking Mark immensely. But hey, they’re heavy in the honeymoon stage. They’ve given things up for each other (or at least Mark thinks Bridget has given up smoking ‘which is practically the same thing’), Mark loves Bridget’s ‘wobbly bits,’ and they’re super adorable. But a relationship without drama is not a relationship worth watching for two hours so let’s get down to petty squabbles.

Okay, they aren’t entirely petty. These are real concerns. Bridget thinks that Mark looks down on her because she doesn’t fit in with his peers, a bunch of upper class lawyer types who think that charitable giving is detrimental to society and encourages people to want to be poor. When she criticizes them at a big function or brings up class issues or isn’t as smart about some things, he doesn’t stand up for her. Sure, he loves her ‘just the way she is,’ but he’s way more prone to proving that in private which honestly isn’t good enough.

Also, someone plants it in Bridget’s head that he’s cheating on her with a 22 year-old ‘with legs up to here.’ Rebecca is quite attractive and, due to being a coworker, constantly hangs out with Mark. Bridget gets a little jealous which turns into very jealous, and when she confronts Mark about the possibility, he doesn’t see where she’s coming from and it turns into this big thing. Mark is upset over the lack of trust and Bridget jumping to conclusions. Maybe he doesn’t tell her she’s wrong because he feels he shouldn’t have to.

(Note: He should. He’s been cheated on and Bridget was cheated on in the last film. Given the history of both these characters, I do think he should have dignified it with a response rather than getting huffy. But then I’ve also been in that situation with partners where a lack of trust plus a lot of evidence that I was right about built up into me needing to just get some reassurances. But this is a modern update of Mr. Darcy so, you know, repressed emotions and all that.)

The other big fight that happens occurs on their mini-break (Bridget Jones movies have taught me that mini-breaks are big deals romantically) where, while trying to come down off a ski mountain, Bridget realizes she hasn’t had her period in nearly two months. What follows is a hilarious scene where she tries obtaining a pregnancy test by miming sex and her stomach growing while speaking in fractured German. After that we get a three-minute argument between her and Mark. They’re both pretty happy about the prospect of a child until they start daydreaming about names and schools, and it turns into this class issue where Bridget makes fun of boarding school twits who are raised to have sticks up their asses (Mark is one of those) and Mark derides public schools for being too lenient and preaching expression over knowledge.

Mark brings up a very good point: “What would be mad would be having a child if his parents can’t have a single conversation without shouting at each other.”

The pregnancy test turns up negative and they both give halfhearted ‘oh how sad’ grumblings before sleeping on opposite sides of the bed for the night.

I realized around this point that I hadn’t seen this film since before I started really dating. I was a late bloomer and didn’t have my first boyfriend/partner/whatever until I was 21. And I recently got out of a relationship that was full of its own ‘ecstatic shags’ but also featured frequent arguments over, well, pretty much everything. So while in high school I thought Bridget and Mark seemed a bit bumpy but ultimately a pair to root for, now I’m thinking that they really should break up. They could be decent friends. They’re obviously going to see each other, having parents who are friends and often inviting them to holiday parties. They could even have sex with one another. But as a long-term relationship, it’s the sort of opposites attract scenario that lends itself to romantic comedies more than reality. Still, at least this movie is being pretty honest about fighting. And Zellweger and Firth have the right chemistry to go seamlessly from gooey and cute to bickering about things. Everything falls apart quickly and these scenes feel quite natural.

Meanwhile, back in London and Bridget’s workplace, Daniel Cleaver has reared his stupidly pretty head and is hitting on Bridget in the workplace. When her and Mark do break up (nearly right after saying I Love You for the first time) he’s ready to strike. She resists him, though, because while he is charming, he’s also a jerk.

By the way, the answer to ‘does Hugh Grant still do it for me’ is a resounding yes. I am embarrassed by how hot I find him in this. He’s slick, charismatic, transparent, and I just want to pull his perfect hair and fuck him. And you know what, there are way more problematic British hotties out there (looking at you, Fassbender) so I’m just gonna roll with this. Everyone be prepared to roll with me. Are we rolling? Good. Let’s get to Thailand.

Oh yeah, they go to Thailand. Daniel has a new show (because publishing is dead and everyone works on TV now) about travelling and Bridget gets assigned to be his partner to bring in male viewers. There’s no commentary on how it’s pretty rad that a 33-year-old woman who owns that she will ‘always be a little bit fat’ is the woman they decide will bring in male viewers but that’s what I’m here for. It’s awesome.

But Bridget’s friends Gaius Baltar, Moaning Myrtle, and (the third one but has that actress done much else?) say she can’t go alone because Daniel Cleaver is a sexy, sexy snake in the sexy grass and so Shazza (the third actress who I can’t attach to other pop culture properties) goes alone with her. They split up on the plane. Shazza goes and hangs with Jed, a young cute dude, and Bridget gets pulled into first by Daniel. He immediately lays on the smarm-charm and requests (false) dirty stories. Bridget is flattered and sort of into it but also against it because she knows better.

He spends the rest of the trip trying to bang her and almost succeeds, with his talk of being in ‘shag therapy’ and being a ‘changed man’ and reciting her poetry and junk. As they work on their travel show, Bridget covers food and temples and other stuff while Daniel goes to a massage parlor. Because if you go to Thailand you have to mention the sex industry. Which is also how Daniel fails to bed Bridget. Even after he overcomes her hesitancy to sleep with someone new because it really marks the end of her and Mark, a Thai sex worker comes to his hotel. She won’t leave because, well, Daniel called her and also called another woman the night before (and apparently tipped really well) so she knows she’s got the right room. He offers a ‘I’m game if you are’ to Bridget but Bridget is so not game and leaves.

(Spoiler alert: Daniel, ever consistent in his love of getting laid, still sleeps with the sex worker. It’s implied he does this even after learning she’s a trans woman. So just remember that if you’re transphobic or a shitty customer to sex workers, you are worse than one of the most dickish characters Hugh Grant has ever played.)

And now it’s time to go back home to London. Shazza’s young buck has given her a ‘fertility snake bowl’ that Bridget ends up throwing in her bag. Unbeknownst to our merry heroines, the snake bowl is filled with cocaine and Bridget is arrested at the airport. She’s thrown in Thai prison, told it may be only ten years if she’s lucky, and waits.

This is a brief sequence and I was thinking maybe it would be more racist than I remembered but it was pretty okay. Sure, the Thai people speak in heavily accented English and that’s a problem but the women in the prison are very lovely and Bridget teaches them the correct words to ‘Like a Virgin.’ She trades her bra for cigarettes. There’s a lot of solidarity. Sure, the story is still based around our white lead, but primarily Bridget is upset about being in jail period, not being in Thai jail specifically. And it’s not some hellish experience that has her wasting away; it’s just a generally shitty one as I’m sure being thrown in prison for accidental drug muling would be. And when she leaves, thanks to some assistance from Mark Darcy (who claims to just be a messenger here but he totally isn’t, don’t act like that’s the case), she brings everyone gifts. It is a touch white-centric and there’s a scene where the women in prison tell stories of abusive boyfriends, making Bridget have an epiphany that Mark’s an okay dude** (which smacks of ‘thank you kindly POC for making me appreciate my life’), but ultimately this whole section of the film could have been way, way worse.

(**However, we should note that okay dude =/= okay boyfriend. And if your standard for good boyfriend is ‘he didn’t hit me or get me addicted to heroin,’ then you need to learn to love yourself more.)

Bridget heads home. On her way, we get one of the best scenes in the film as Mark confronts Daniel in an art gallery about abandoning Bridget at the airport. He challenges Daniel to a duel and they end up fighting like men who do not know how to fight. It’s awkward and they end up in a fountain. Of all the redone/callback jokes to the first film, this is the most important.

Bridget gets home, learns about Mark getting her out, rushes to his home, and finds Rebecca. We learn Rebecca is a lesbian and is actually quite taken with Bridget. She kisses her and Bridget is like nope, totally straight. One time I watched this movie at my grandma’s house and she came home right before this scene. During the kiss she declared ‘Those two women must be lesbians.’ And she said the word really dramatically and that’s always stuck with me. Maybe because my grandma didn’t tend to acknowledge gay people? Like ever? I tried explaining that Bridget isn’t, just Rebecca, but hey lesbians aren’t…oh why am I bothering, grandma doesn’t care. Now I’m wondering if my mom ever told my grandma that I’m not straight and, if she did, if my grandma’s reaction was similar.

Back to the film. Bridget gets in a cab, takes a ‘quick’ detour to find the right outfit, rushes to Mark’s work, declares her love for him, he proposes and we….still don’t see them get married. The movie actually ends with them walking through a cemetery after Bridget’s parents renew their vows and Bridget narrates that ‘happiness is possible. Even when you are 33 and have a bottom the size of two bowling balls.’

So does this movie hold up?

Some of the phone stuff is dated. I realized that no one is ever really going to have to deal with calling their boyfriend to tell him his bottom is adorable and then find out they’re on speaker to some ambassadors. We have texting now. Texting will solve these problems.

And honestly, even though I didn’t get the ‘need to be married’ thing as a teenager, I really don’t get it now. Like, seriously, Bridget and Mark shouldn’t get married. They definitely shouldn’t have a kid unless they both sit down and do some heavy compromising. It’s clear that they love each other very much, but love isn’t enough to save a relationship. And I wish the movie actually went there because it’s not entirely unrealistic about everything else.

And as a romantic comedy lead? Bridget’s pretty great. I still find her absolutely relatable. She’s not just quirky; she’s self-assured and confident but we also get to see her doubting herself in private. And while she does want to get married and be in a relationship, she wants to do it on her terms. She calls Mark out on his shit and how he treats her. She refuses to give Daniel Cleaver another go and consistently fights her attraction to him despite the fact that, once they start flirting, she’s really comfortable around him. (And depending on how you take one scene, he’s better in bed than Mark.) They laugh over his continued love of her granny panties and the tease each other in a way that is unlike her having to stand up against his workplace harassment. But she tells him she doesn’t just want to shag anymore. Sure, he’d be great for that, but it and he are not what she wants and she’s not going to fuck some guy who doesn’t appreciate her as more than a sexual partner.

Bridget’s also always giving herself pep talks, which I like. She tells herself she’s doing amazing journalism, even though they’re fluff pieces. Bridget, despite her body image issues and feeling like a loser in love, believes in herself in a way that a lot of the people around her don’t, and even when her love life fails, she doesn’t stop believing in herself entirely. That’s pretty great.

Other notes

– There are magic mushrooms in Thailand, courtesy of Shazza and her dude. The scene where Bridget frolics in the ocean, patting her face and saying ‘pretty, pretty’ is my favorite thing Renee Zellweger has ever done.

– Colin Firth playing Mr. Darcy three times is always going to be his legacy. And I remember on the DVD there’s a bonus feature where Zellweger interviews him as Bridget Jones and won’t let up about the pond-diving scene. Apparently it was a spur of the moment thing and is mostly improvised and it was hilarious. It’s also based on a scene in the book that didn’t make it into the film because, well, you can’t have Colin Firth play a character and himself. I guess.

– I’ve rolled with the ‘still finding Hugh Grant attractive thing’ through this whole review, but I would really like it to stop now. I’m both too old and too young for this.

Ten Years Ago: The Incredibles

7 Nov

Max DeCurtins revisits the politics of the superhero in Brad Bird’s The Incredibles and finds that the real villain isn’t Syndrome, but complacency. 

It’s November in an election year. As I write this, Americans have just done what I can only describe as unthinkable: They have returned control of the Senate to the Republicans, as well as installed them in a number of House seats, governorships, and state legislatures. As I come back to this piece to tinker and revise, the New York Times reports that the extent of the damage became apparent over the course of Wednesday (incidentally, the exact release date, ten years ago, of The Incredibles, as listed by Wikipedia). Though more than a few editorialists have invoked Seinfeld’s anti-premise to describe this election, I think we all know damn well by now what this election was about: Our corruption no longer feels the need to cloak its existence; almost all major institutions of journalism have reported on the torrent of unregulated money producing substanceless attack ads. Depending on the state in which you live, this means that your television, radio, newspapers, and public spaces were essentially commandeered by Rich Persons Wishing to Remain Anonymous (RPWRA, because acronyms). That we knew perfectly well what was going on, but hadn’t the wherewithal to protest, to refuse to hold the election until the RPWRA either revealed themselves or got the hell out, speaks to the Orwellian times in which our country now finds itself. In countless interviews, the self-proclaimed Priority Number One of most voters was to escape the endless barrage of cheap political theater. It’s sensory degradation in a different guise, and when faced with dehumanizing treatment like sensory degradation, we’ll do anything to make it stop, including—in a spectacular example of misguided action—not voting.

When The Incredibles came out, we had of course just come through another election, the 2004 presidential contest between W. and then-junior Massachusetts Senator John Kerry. It was my first election after becoming eligible to vote, though I had been interested in elections since 1996. At the time, my naïve self thought the country had ample reason to boot W. out of office, and no goddamn hanging chad, idiot state Secretary of State, or court was going to fumble the true outcome of the election, this time. I think, like many, I thought that 2004 would correct the grievous error of 2000. We were wrong. The 2004 election got ugly, but in comparison with the election of 2014, it was a civil, dainty afternoon tea. We didn’t yet know it, but things like swiftboating and the odiously-named Patriot Act offered a mere taste of what would transpire over the next decade.

Complexity in discourse all but evaporated and, if anything, has seen a wider adoption of the language of violence: “death panels” and “job killers” and so on. Privacy would become the last asset of the poor and the last refuge of the RPWRA. Less than a week ago, Mitch McConnell, whose ugly mug we now have to endure for at least the next two years, stood in front of a crowd of Kentuckians and crowed that “They think they’re smarter than us, better than us.” I died a little inside. No, not a little. A lot. Somehow I’ve always thought this the kind of line only uttered in satirical sketches, political movies, and House of Cards. I think that, re-watching The Incredibles, I finally realized just how political the superhero movie is, with its reductionist take on good versus bad, on Us versus Them, and I read it now in an entirely different manner than I did ten years ago.

As we all know, superhero stories have good guys and bad guys. At first glance, the “bad guy contingent” of The Incredibles strikes many, I think, as strangely non-threatening. Syndrome, the movie’s villain, presents us with an outright formulaic explanation of what tipped him from fanboy to fanatic. Even in adulthood he still appears childish. His assistant Mirage comes off like someone paid to put on a pep rally for a political campaign: smart but bored. Against a whole family of superheroes, there’s no real sense of danger to the good guys, at least, in the eyes of this jaded re-viewer anyway. There’s enough traditional bad guy behavior to convince the younger viewers of the movie, but Pixar, famous for creating movies that can operate at two levels of complexity (one for young audiences and one for adult audiences), did something altogether different and unusually abstract for the adult viewers. What’s interesting about the villainy in The Incredibles is that it depends on a subtle idea: When everyone can boast exceptional qualities, then those qualities lose their exceptional character and cease to be meaningful, and, by extension, so do the people who possess them.

As human beings, we have an innate valuation of rare things: precious metals, gemstones, artworks, historical artifacts, and so on. I won’t hesitate to suggest that an intrinsic valuation of rare (and often unique) things defines us; indeed, it may prove an essential evolutionary characteristic of an egocentric species in possession of higher-order thinking. In the rarity of these things we see reflected our own, egocentric sense of our individual worth to the world; after all, who among you is exactly like me? I am like a gemstone: I have something brilliant and valuable to contribute to the world, I will strive to make my sparkle seen, and the world would be a poorer place without my presence. (I exaggerate, of course, and we hardly—if ever—compare our lives to coins and jewels, but we do espouse a line of thinking very similar to this as a component of self-affirmation.) I think rarity also fascinates us because it brings us closer to awareness of our own temporality; its uniqueness and durability outlasts the frail mortality of our bodies, and it surprises no-one that rarefied things have close connections to death: a tomb splendidly adorned clearly indicates, how great was this individual in life.

When it comes to imagining something rare that would confer great value on its possessor, about the most alluring thing any of us can think of is supernatural powers, whether they be of the superhero, Jedi, or Harry Potter variety. Having powers makes one a rarity; those in possession of such powers find themselves in a perpetual minority relative to the masses, whether they are the handful of outcast X-Men, the few thousand Jedi, or those pseudo-Latin-equipped Hogwarts alumni. The superheroes of The Incredibles not only possess rare superpowers, but each of them has unique abilities, cementing their super status that much more. Imagining that we have our own special superpowers marks most every childhood; we can just about all relate to wanting to be able to fly, or to disappear, to have some other preternatural ability. And yet, The Incredibles asks, what if the most fantastical and valuable thing you can imagine has no meaning? It’s a particularly terrible thought, because it leads to questions of moral equivalence and moral relativism. Does putting super power, attained through technology, up for sale to anyone willing to shell out the greenbacks really make all average Joes super, or does it just make the world a really fucking scary place where many people are trod underfoot?

On re-viewing The Incredibles, I found the political and philosophical connections too hard to ignore; the real enemy in the movie isn’t Syndrome, it’s the moral vacuum he threatens to create. It’s a life of complacent conformity; of bureaucracy; of Bob’s job at the insurance company; of government that lives and dies by public opinion, a government that can force a whole subset of people underground (or deeper into the closet); of being overrun by those who generate bogus research in order to drown out actual academic study. It’s a preoccupation with the “Us” vs “Them” dichotomy, often more perceived than real. Helen (Elastigirl) invokes this several times; she tells Violet that “right now, the world just wants us to be normal.” The real enemy is the culture of fear: though Ebola threatens only a very small area of West Africa, alarmists here clamored so loudly for an outright travel ban that—despite the opposition from educated professionals in medicine and public health—a few state governors adopted, then relaxed, ill-advised quarantine measures. We can’t know what an expert opinion in the world of The Incredibles might have recommended, but it may just have provided a counterweight to the political mob mentality that forced the supers into hiding in the first place.

I think it easy to read Syndrome’s plan to change the public’s valuation of the rarity of superpowers—and the people who possess them—as analogous to the various campaigns ongoing in the United States to devalue the work of scientists, teachers, policy researchers, and so on. What Syndrome knows that Mr. Incredible doesn’t is that context determines reality. The right—and the right-wing—in America knows this all too well, and over the course of recent decades they have succeeded in breathtaking ways at changing the tenor of the conversation on issues ranging from abortion rights to taxes, and have set up factories like the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Heritage Foundation to churn out work designed to make ill-informed ideas appear as valid as well-researched ones. Linguist and political scholar George Lakoff writes that morality and politics intertwine intimately through the mediating prism of metaphor, which enables political behavior that is both highly coherent (under the surface, at least) and also deeply emotional; in less academic works he has argued that conservatives have largely outstripped liberals in controlling the context within which Americans must decide how to discern reality, and I think few would deny this assessment.

What I take away from The Incredibles is the message that being legitimately super, and not just playing at it, matters a hell of a lot. Notice that when his chance to play hero finally comes, Syndrome quickly loses to the Omnidroid of his creation; he’s sent flying out of control and crashes into a wall. When our need is dire, pretenders won’t do. And our need is dire: reversing soul-crushing levels of inequality, mobilizing against climate change, improving education, public health and health care, protecting rights such as civil marriage and its benefits and voting, among others. Hacks and spooks and bigots…the Syndromes of the world won’t do. We need people armed with the best, most thoroughly-vetted knowledge who actively seek to implement well-informed policy and who have a minimal tolerance for bullshit. We need people with, as The West Wing’s Sam Seaborn calls it, gravitas. We need people who are legitimately super, who own up to supporting morally defensible causes. The duality of good/bad always on display in superhero movies, often enough manifested as an internal struggle between two competing halves of the superhero’s id, finds itself reflected in the duality of the American electorate; every two years, a different America votes: one younger, more diverse, and overall more liberal, and one older, whiter, and vastly more conservative. And, increasingly, the one American electorate can’t abide the other. This particular election cycle has given us all the evidence we need: when money matters above all else, mediocrity and intemperateness win the day and everything—and everyone—else loses.

As for the mechanics of the movie, though The Incredibles stands the usual assumption about the cultural status of superheroes on its head, and though I think the writers meant us to find this novel, it feels relatively predictable to me. Keeping one’s superhero identity secret hardly qualifies as novel for such narratives. I can’t say it detracts too much, though, for The Incredibles excels in several ways.

Firstly, I think the most positive story in the movie belongs to Violet’s character; in a limited fashion, I can see her self-empowerment as the germ of a type of narrative that ultimately gave us Frozen. She learns that her power to disappear doesn’t have to serve in the capacity of literal self-effacement. Her two superpowers to each of her family members’ one makes her perhaps the most powerful member of her family, which underlines the importance of learning to be assertive. She learns that it’s okay to be different, and that’s a huge lesson to teach and to absorb.

Until I looked up the voice performers, I didn’t realize that the director Brad Bird, who also has 2007’s uplifting Ratatouille in his filmography, voiced Edna Mode, one of the more popular characters from The Incredibles. Knowing this has put a delightfully queer spin on Edna’s character, an impression I’d always had. The writers clearly intended for her personality to outstrip her small physical presence, yet another challenge to the reign of conformity and stereotype that the movie positions as the true evil force to be defeated, as I have explored above.

I don’t get much from any of the other characters, and some of the mild annoyances I remembered now make me wrinkle my nose in distaste. If we find complexity and something uplifting in Violet’s character, we find the exact opposite in Dash’s character, a bratty reinforcement of the idea that boys are hyperactive, unfocused problem children who don’t take interest in school. His name fits his superpower to a T, and if it weren’t for his power he’d probably have been put on Ritalin or Adderall a long time ago. Mr. Incredible himself doesn’t make for a particularly compelling character, though I suppose we could point to him as an emerging example of a different type of masculinity, one that recognizes that strength comes in many forms. To me, though, this feels like a secondary—though still worthy—message among other, more immediate ideas. So although, on re-view, most of the characters seemed rather bland, The Incredibles still holds up on the basis of two characters who have embraced non-conformity and learned to own it, Violet and Edna.

Secondly, The Incredibles has a phenomenal score, albeit one that has the unusual trait of not being especially memorable. It’s not “catchy,” which doesn’t bode well for it when so much pop music resembles processed food—specifically engineered to get you to want more of it. I’m reminded of a discussion captured in one of the special features for Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Two Towers, the second installment in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He’s discussing the genesis of Howard Shore’s leitmotif for the people of Rohan, and Philippa Boyens comments that she knew that Howard had succeeded in composing a great theme for Rohan when Peter, riding in a car from one remote New Zealand location to another, started to hum the theme that Howard had composed. It reveals an interesting trope about what we consider “great” music. One of the more interesting judgments applied to music is the idea that great music sticks with you; the degree to which it doesn’t leave your mind’s ear or you can recall it easily later, sometimes even after not hearing it for years, somehow defines its greatness. This naturally creates a bias against certain types of more “abstract” music, particularly music closely allied to instrumental jazz, as is the score for The Incredibles. Abstract music, which might present less identifiable themes, or might prove harmonically complex by meandering chromatically through many keys, doesn’t naturally lend itself to sticking in your ear. But music is an ephemeral phenomenon, a fact more often than not lost to us, we who have never known life without recordings. Because we can just rewind the track, or hit seek on our iPods, the incentive to listen closely to every minute of music as it unfolds just doesn’t exert the same influence it used to. Didn’t hear that word the first time, or catch that auto-tuned twang? Just play the track over and over, as many times as you need to, until you’ve heard what you want. But back to The Incredibles.

Big band music informs much of the score, but none of it follows the neatly-packaged 32-bar song format that makes other types of jazz and ballad crooning popular and easy to remember. The rest of the score, like the architecture in the movie, owes a heavy debt to spy and caper flicks of the 1960s and 70s. One can almost feel the spirit of the Rat Pack or John Barry’s work for several classic Bond movies emanating from the soundscape of The Incredibles. As with the storytelling, I marvel at the ability of the artistic teams involved with Pixar movies to create multiple layers of complexity and cultural reference for audiences of vastly different ages, and the music and the architecture certainly speak to the more seasoned viewers, and make the movie for me—neither a kid nor a Baby Boomer—a surprisingly engaging work.

Ten Years Ago: Saw

31 Oct

Stevi Costa sees Saw again, and she has some things to say about “torture porn,” serial killer narratives, and the long-running CBS crime thriller Criminal Minds.

It’s Halloween once again, which means it’s time for me to revisit one of the most resilient (and pretty silly) horror franchises of the 21st century. While I wish I were writing about my favorite stupid horror series of all time, Final Destination, I am instead writing about Saw, an early piece of millennial “torture porn.”

First, I wish to discuss this term. “Torture porn” is a pejorative which refers, typically, to horror films that titillate viewers through a combination of graphic violence/gore with nudity. Although David Edelstein technically coined the term in a review of Eli Roth’s Hostel, which fits the definition to the T, it is often retroactively applied to films like Saw, which certainly rely on graphic violence and gore, but rarely on nudity. To call Saw torture porn is a misnomer, although a convenient one. There is nothing sexual about the violence in Saw. It is not erotic to the viewer, or to the serial killer character engineering these acts of violence. I watch an awful lot of police procedurals and serial killer narratives, and Saw’s distinct lack of erotic attachment to violence is notable. In many serial killer stories or true “torture porn” narratives, the camera dwells on the body of the victim, often in close-ups that show the murder weapon penetrating the flesh, and blood/guts/abjecta spraying everywhere. Saw, by contrast, tends to imply most of its violence by showing us, via the villain Jigsaw’s tapes, how his devices work, to heighten the sense of fear about what could happen to a body because of it. We do, of course, see the aftermath of the torture, but rarely the actual act of killing. (This is true of the first film specifically – other entries in the series dwell more on the moment of death.) So there’s not really a moment within Saw in which the viewer can eroticize torture, nor is this eroticized for Jigsaw.

It’s important to make note of his motives here as a serial killer type. Jigsaw is unlike most serial killers we encounter on procedurals or in real life. (NB: Most of my data on serial killers on police procedurals is drawn from Criminal Minds, which is arguably one of the most grotesque shows on television AND I LOVE IT.) Unlike a Ted Bundy or a John Wayne Gacy, Jigsaw isn’t interested in taking personal or sexual power over his victims. Other than the moment of abduction, he interacts with them only voyeuristically and from a distance. His goal, revealed by the tapes and videos he has prerecorded for his victims to play upon waking, is to test the moral mettle of the abductees. As Danny Glover’s Detective Tapp points out, Jigsaw never really kills anybody, actually. He always provides his victims with the option of escape. The tragedy is that most of them are not smart enough (or in Jigsaw’s point of view morally right enough) to win the game. Though voyeurism can have an erotic component to it, and the lingering camerawork of most horror films cements, voyeurism functions less erotically in Saw and more like surveillance in the panoptic, Foucaultian sense. Jigsaw isn’t watching his victims to get off on their deaths. He’s watching to police them into making the right choices. 

Saw is an interesting take on a serial killer narrative because it shifts perspective so frequently over the course of 90 minutes. Viewers experience the narrative through the victims, Adam and Larry (screenwriter Leigh Wannell, pretending not to be Australian, and Cary Elwes, pretending not to be the Dread Pirate Roberts), as they struggle to understand how they came to be chained to pipes in a disgusting bathroom that crustpunk Helen fromWetlands would really love to live in, as well as through the detectives, Tapp (Danny Glover) and Sing (Ken Leung), who have been following some of Jigsaw’s earlier murders. The Tapp and Sing narrative actually takes place prior to the Adam and Larry narrative, which we learn when Tapp and Sing walk into what is obviously a trap, during which Tapp gets his throat slit and watches Sing take a shotgun blast straight through the brain. There’s also a Tapp-trying-to-solve-the-case narrative that continues until the film’s climax, and a small plot involving Larry’s wife and daughter, who might be killed by one of Jigsaw’s disciples (playing his own version of one of Jigsaw’s torture games) if Larry doesn’t murder Adam by 6 pm.

Got all that? Good, because these interlocking stitches of narrative go to show that Saw, as an experimental, low-budget horror film, is anything but linear, and these temporal, spatial, and narrative disruptions make it much easier for viewers to invest in the bottle narrative of the two men trapped in the dingy bathroom, being tasked with death. Further, the shifts in narrative focus also make it clear that this is not a film that’s endorsing the viewpoint of the serial killer or the cops, which I suggest are the dominant ways that serial killer narratives are structured on Criminal Minds. Viewers are either meant to understand the violence from the perspective of the killer (camerawork might follow someone on the street before an abduction occurs, and linger on instruments of violence or acts of violence), or the perspective of the people trying to catch the killer (scenes in which evidence is looked at and discussed, emphasizing the aftermath of violence rather than the violence itself). Saw doesn’t adopt Jigsaw’s cinematic perspective at all – even the stylized scenes of violence to early victims are narrated from the point of view of the cops or the point of view of Amanda, the one surviving victim. Saw is distanced therefore from any pornographic tendencies because viewers are never watching a single perspective long enough to internalize a viewpoint. Rather, it shows that, unlike Jigsaw’s clear-cut moral games, there is a lot more going on to horror than can easily be categorized.

These are the things I like about Saw, but they’re also what makes Saw seem very silly to me. The narrative takes itself so seriously, but is actually quite funny. I am pretty sure that I spent the entire climactic scene where Larry starts to cut off his own foot in order to escape his torture cell laughing uncontrollably. The complexity Saw strives for, in retrospect, strikes me as amateurish, even though I admire the attempt. It’s actually a very small story about a series of interconnected people who’ve spent a lot of time fucking each other over, and it has no stakes outside of itself. Yet, amazingly, as Saw developed into a series, the mythology of Jigsaw grew even more and more elaborate, each film winding around the previous one like some kind of horror ouroboros, and soon Jigsaw’s vengeance against a specific doctor who told him he was going to die ballooned into moral punishment for the real estate bubble bursting (Saw V) and, in something of a return to the series’ roots, the health care crisis (Saw VI). The attempts at stakes and commentary in the latter films is also pretty hilarious to me, and that’s because the early parts of the series, especially the first film, are so much about the personal stakes of a character and the world in which the film is set is so small that there’s ultimately nothing fear-inducing about it. Would it suck to be chained to a drainpipe in a basement and be forced to cut my own foot off? Yeah, that would suck hardcore. But a situation like Saw is never going to happen, and that’s why I find it funny. No serial killer chooses to torture victims into behaving like moral human beings. Other serial killer narratives are actually frightening because they are plausible, and this is why Criminal Minds (which also takes itself far too seriously) is actually scary. Serial killers don’t try to teach people lessons. They strike a series of victims that map onto their own individual neuroses/psychic traumas/etc. They perpetrate violence against these people randomly, and that’s violence from which escape is frequently not an option. Criminal Minds is terrifying at times because the randomness of violence is really real. And because most of the victims are women. And because most serial killers are white men. Anything that ever happens to a woman onCriminal Minds has a far greater chance of happening in the real world than does anything inSaw. I give Saw kudos for choosing to have male victims, and to have Shawnee Smith play the “final girl,” the sole survivor of Jigsaw’s games. But this is also why I find that it isn’t scary at all: it does not conform to a serial killer narrative in a way that would actually produce fear.

And that’s why I can laugh while watching Cary Elwes cut off his own foot and then crawl out of what should have been his tomb on his bloody stump of a leg. It may not be scary, but it is a pretty cool image. Even cooler? The corpse that had been lying between Adam and Larry throughout the entire film standing up, peeling off his latex head wound, and revealing that Jigsaw had been among them the entire time.

Free-Floating Thoughts

- Tapp and Sing are … interesting choices of names for detectives. Sing is played by an Asian-American actor and is a common Asian-American surname, so that’s not so odd. But when it’s paired with Tapp . . . I can’t help but notice that this is a strange combination of verbs to choose. I feel like they shouldn’t be detectives, but rather a vaudeville duo.

- Ken Leung and Michael Emerson from Lost are both in this. New theory: everything that happens in every Saw movie ever actually takes place on the Island inside the Pearl station.

- Returning to Tapp & Sing for a second: These guys are awful detectives. It’s no wonder Sing takes one in the head because the minute they both walked into that obviously very staged crime scene, they should have known it was a trap. If the crew from Criminal Mindshad happened upon this scene, Hotch would have immediately gotten on the radio, announced that it was a trap, and called in backup. Then Derrick Morgan would have taken down Michael Emerson with one clean shot as he tried to run away. Easy.

- My favorite scenes in detective narratives are scenes in which the characters analyze evidence and theorize. This is sorely missing from the detective scenes in Saw, and it’s really disappointing. There’s one brief scene in which Sing looks up some medical records and then triangulates a building on a map and I think it might actually be the most exciting part of the movie for me.

- So, one year, for some reason or another, my husband, editor of this here website, purchased a Billy doll, which Jigsaw uses as his surrogate in all of his video messages. I found this a confusing gift, and so we forgot about it for awhile. But then my husband decided to start putting Billy in random places around the house to see if I would notice. Sometimes, it would take me weeks to notice that Billy was in a new part of the house, which was obviously quite shocking to come upon when you’re not expecting it. The worst/best incident I’ve had with Billy was last October, in fact. I’d had a late night Halloween gig, and didn’t unpack my gig bag for a week. When I finally did, Billy was sitting inside it, ready to terrify me. This is the one time I can saw that something related to Saw had legitimately scared me.

Ten Years Ago: Sideways

24 Oct

In her “re-view” of Sideways, Stevi Costa tells us of her jack-of-all-trades stepgrandfather, revisits her college days in Santa Barbara, and reveals the story behind her back tattoo.

As a life-long West Coast resident, I’ve had the good fortune to always reside within an hour’s drive from “wine country.” My family home is just an hour south of the Napa Valley, the now-moneyed-former-upstart patch of land along the Silverado Trail that changed the face of viticulture in the 1970s. I currently reside in Seattle, only forty minutes or so from some small vineyards in Woodinville. But for a brief time in the early 2000s, I lived in Santa Barbara, California, a place which lauds itself as the “American Riviera” because of its plush coastal location. The beaches are great, that’s true, but just a half an hour up the 101 you’ll find miles and miles and miles of grapes all the way from Solvang to Paso Robles.

It was in Santa Barbara that I first saw Alexander Payne’s Sideways. Because of its proximity to L.A., vast number of celebrity vacation homes and AMPAS voters-in-residence, and the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, UCSB’s two campus movie theatres were often used to house Academy screenings, which were also open to students.

My roommates and I at the time attended many film screenings around campus, Oscar-affiliated and non. It was something to do that was either free or cheap and a good social alternative to getting shitfaced all the time (or, sometimes, a nice warm-up to getting shitfaced). We also liked going to these because my roommate had a huge crush on the guy who organized many of these screenings, so attending gave her opportunities to talk to him. (Reader, she married him!) The circumstances of seeing Sideways were as ordinary as any of the other screenings we attended (although it was our first Academy screening), but seeing the film was something of a watershed experience in and of itself. Sideways was the movie that made me fall in love with wine.

Because until I was in college and nearly-of-drinking-age, I had forgotten that wine was and could be cool. I had forgotten this fact because I grew up making wine.

My grandmother’s second husband was practically a character out of Steinbeck novel. He was raised in the Sierra foothills and eventually made his way to the Italian-American factory town of Crockett, where I grew up. Ed drove an avocado green Chevy pick-up truck from the 1970s and always wore jeans and a plaid shirt with boots of some kind (cowboy or workmen’s boots) and a signature hat: an olive green Smoky the Bear hat with a carefully rolled up brim. He was well-known in town and well-loved. He was a property owner, a journeyman plumber, jack-of-all-trades handyman, and the Scoutmaster of the town’s Boy Scout troop. He also had a unique hobby, which he basically charmed the whole town into participating in at one point in time or another: winemaking.

In the basement of one of Ed’s buildings, he had constructed his own wine cellar, filled with all of the supplies necessary to the craft. A large vat for initial fermentation, a press to clear the skins from the fermented grapes, a half dozen barrels in which each varietal would continue to ferment, bottling equipment, etc.

My father – and subsequently my mother and I – got involved in Ed’s winemaking adventures in Broglio Cellars shortly after he had begun courting my grandmother. I think I was seven or eight at the time. We would wake up early on a Saturday or Sunday, pile into a series of cars, and caravan from Crockett up the interstate to whatever vineyard Ed had made a deal with. The deal was always about access to someone else’s leftover grapes. We’d offer our labor in exchange for grapes, helping the vineyard owner cut expenses in the long run by clearing any bunches that were missed by picking machines. We’d pick a ton or so of grapes before noon most times and load them into the back of Ed’s truck or some other old Italian man’s truck and drive them back to the wine cellar, where my grandmother practiced being Italian by setting up trays of cheese and salami and little sandwiches while we started processing the grapes. Once the grapes were safely fermenting away in the vat, we’d eat Grandma’s indoor picnic spread and drink last year’s wine.

We did this once or twice a year for many years, but when I was fourteen or so I stopped going. I was a shithead about it. I didn’t want to get up early on a Saturday to do things with my family, let alone anything that involved manual labor. My father has a photograph of my utter disdain for this process as his desktop background on his computer. In it, I’m standing in front of a truck load of grapes with my arms crossed, and an expression that would seem to indicate, “These grapes are sour.” Meanwhile, Ed’s friend Hank Triglia stands beside the truck with his hand on the grape boxes, looking out onto the golden hills behind us. He looks majestic. He is so proud of the work he has done and the land that gave us these grapes. It is a perfect book cover for The Grapes of Wrath and I am ruining it. My father thinks this photograph is hilarious.

So I forgot about wine for a long time. I didn’t want to have anything to do with this weird hobby my family had. But in June of 2004, our family winemaker passed away after a long battle with mesothelioma. Ed’s property passed to his children, but he passed his basement winery to my father. Shortly after Ed died, I went on an exchange trip to Italy where talking about my grandfather and the family wine cellar was completely commonplace. Everyone over there has an uncle or a grandfather who knows how to make some kind of booze, and it’s usually wine. Italy, like my California home, has the right climate for grapes: temperate, where warm sunny days are cooled off by sea breezes and thick blankets of fog. Plus, in Italy, nineteen-year-old me got to really drink wine. And do so with practically every meal. In the old country, as Ed would have called it, wine was a way of life.

I came back to Santa Barbara after that summer and made the long drive down 101 and was suddenly so aware of all of the grapes. I may have tried to forget all the things I knew about wine, but they were always there all along. I thought about Steinbeck a lot on those drives – the way in which people would travel on horseback between King City and Paso Robles, how it must have taken days; the weight and expanse of the land; the vineyards that neatly sorted the hills into organized rectangles of cultivated property. And I thought about Ed, and how he knew California in exactly this way.

So by the time the academy screening of Sideways came to UCSB, I was ready to love wine. And to love the places it came from. Sideways, I find, is very much like Steinbeck in its approach to capturing the essence of the part of California in which it is set: Santa Barbara County. It is a special thing to see a movie in Santa Barbara that was filmed in Santa Barbara because Santa Barbara audiences get extremely excited to see themselves on film. Even though it’s a place where a lot of movie stars live, filming there is a rarity. (I recall tittering in the movie theatre at the sight of a hotel in Ventura during Little Miss Sunshine, for instance.) And Payne’s film really does work within the register of the every day. A portion of the film is set in Solvang, a strange little Danish town just a half hour from my college that my roommates and I would take day trips to every few months. We’d have Scandinavian food for lunch and eat ebelskivvers and buy pastries and drive home. So when we watched Sideways,we were watching our world on film – even if it was a world we only visited on weekends. It felt very natural and very real even then because of the Santa Barbara-ness of the film. Many of the actors in the restaurant and winery scenes are not actors, in fact. Just folks who worked in and around the wine industry. (Including a high school classmate, who thought she might become an actress, but instead became a waitress in Los Olivos.) Payne’s emphasis on everyday human beings, and movie stars who don’t look like movie stars, as the subjects of this film make it feel particularly easy and comfortable. Very slice of life.

But what I noticed in my recent re-viewing of Sideways is just how much more natural it feels because of its focus on landscapes, not people. The film dwells on the act of driving to and through wine country, dwelling on long walks down country roads to the Hitching Post II, and on the act of holding a finger of grapes in your hand. Sideways is a film that recognizes the everyday not just in its population, but in where they dwell. The irony of this is that for the characters – Miles and Jack, who are heading up to wine country for a bachelor weekend before Jack’s wedding – this is their escape. This is not the seaside cities in which they reside (San Diego and L.A.). They retreat from the city to the earthy, rural spaces of the wine country in order to shed parts of their lives they don’t feel at home in (marriage, divorce, work, a lack of work) to revel in the down-to-earthness of the countryside. This is, in essence, the same plot as many British novels from the early 19th century, only updated for men in the 21st century. And Americanized via its emphasis not on lush Italian villas, but the ruddy dirt of California’s central coast. It is a strange amalgam of plot and setting from East of Eden and A Room with a View.

It’s an achievement on the film’s part that I am so willing now to compare it to literary works like those mentioned above, and how much Steinbeck has come up in this review. I say this because Sideways is, to some extent, a literary endeavor. Like most of Payne’s films, it is an adaptation from a book. I did read the book a couple of years after the film had come out and I hate to tell you all that Sideways is one of the sad cases where the film is actually better. The book is awful. It’s a screenwriter’s attempt at creating a novel, and all of the characters are utterly terrible – particularly the women. In the novel, Jack pays one of the women they meet in wine country to be Miles’ companion for the weekend, so she and her friend (played by Virginia Madsen and Sandra Oh in the film) end up in what becomes a pretty damn misogynistic portrayal of women’s fidelity, and turns Jack (who is an asshole, but a sweet asshole who’s kind of trying not to be an asshole after he gets hitched) into no better than a pimp. Perhaps that’s the writer’s attempt to make Miles seem pathetic, and therefore likeable, serving to cut through his faux pompousness? I’m not sure. But I think Payne’s adaptation serves these characters much better. He makes the characters make mistakes, but not cartoonishly evil ones, and allows Paul Giamatti’s Miles room to be pompous and sad all at once instead of by turns.

The one thing the book has going for it is the metaphoric conceit that wine, like people, is inherently complex. Some of the film’s most philosophical scenes illustrate this, especially the one where Miles and Maya sit out on Stephanie’s porch, drinking expensive bottles and discussing their favorite varietals. Miles, who is perhaps best remembered for screaming “If anyone orders any Merlot, I’m leaving! I’m not drinking any fucking Merlot!” outside a restaurant earlier in the film, confesses his fondness for Pinot Noir, a grape that’s meticulous and testy, growing and flourishing only under the tender care of a vintner. It’s an unsubtle metaphor for Miles’ own need for love and care, for his prickliness that might get smoothed by someone who can recognize a good set of legs in a glass of wine, like Maya. The metaphor works. We are what we eat and we are what we drink. And wineries all across the country began to realize this after Sideways. Walk into a winery in 2005, and you’d find any number of wine accessories declaring “I’m a Merlot” or “I’m a Syrah,” like the wino version of the oldSex and the City merchandise.

After Sideways, I started taking wine seriously, or at least as seriously as my family of hobbyist oenophiles did. I started talking to my father more about making wine, recommending the movie to him because it had a winemaker’s humor to it that only he and Ed would have understood. I started bringing the family wine back to school with me when I’d come back from family visits. I’d share the story of Ed and Broglio Cellars and its legacy with anyone who came to my apartment and tried a bottle of it with me.

What you need to know about Broglio Cellars wine is this: it is perhaps not good wine, not by any professional tasting standards, but it is wine. And it’s strong both in flavor and in alcohol content. The family wine was pretty popular in my circles at UCSB for that reason.

Eventually, I started writing about wine and the business of winemaking. During my brief stint as a business journalist, I tried to make my beat Pacific Coast viticulture, but my time in journalism was short and there were only so many big stories about the wine business to tell. But I did learn a lot at that time, and I got to drink a lot of good wine in the process.

When I moved out of California, I spent 10 and a half hours in the tattoo chair having a finger of Zinfandel grapes and a spray of California poppies tattooed on my back. The irony of this is that I can’t really drink wine anymore. I have some rather unpleasant sinus reactions to wine these days, so I’ll indulge only occasionally in a glass. (Gin is my preferred spirit these days.) But Zinfandel has always been my favorite varietal. It’s bold and rich, often jammy and spicy, and you just can’t get it everywhere. It grows best in Northern California, in the Napa Valley. And whenever we got second pickings of Zinfandel for Broglio Cellars, we knew it would make an especially strong wine.

Ten Years Ago: I Heart Huckabees

13 Oct

To coincide with 10YA’s upcoming film series (more on that very, very soon), here’s Erik Jaccard on David O. Russell’s existential comedy I Heart Huckabees.

I ♥ Huckabees: A Re-View in Four Theses and an Honest Admission

I am having trouble collecting my thoughts today and this inability to focus, and to decide what I want to say about David O. Russell’s gleeful existential dramedy I ♥Huckabees. In fact, I should say up front that part of the reason I’m having this trouble is that I have so much to say. Ten Years Later, this can only seem like a good thing to me, despite the fact that it’s caused me no lack of trouble in throwing something together. In any case, what I’ve come up with here gels somewhere near the end, but it could never really decide what it wanted to be. So I apologize in advance for any confusion. That said, here you have the fruits of my labor: a review in four disconnected theses and one fairly long honest admission. 

Thesis 1: I ♥ Huckabees is a film at least partly about the failure of liberal politics in the USA.

Motherfucking cocksucker motherfucking shit fucker what am I doing? What am I doing? I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m doing the best that I can. I know that’s all I can ask of myself. Is that good enough? Is my work doing any good? Is anybody paying attention? Is it hopeless to try and change things? The African guy is a sign, right? Because if he isn’t then nothing in this world makes any sense to me. I’m fucked. Maybe I should quit. Don’t quit. Maybe I should just fucking quit. Don’t fucking quit, just, I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do anymore. Fucker! Fuck! Shit!

This idea is something I mentioned a while back, in my May, 2014 re-view of The Day After Tomorrow. The gist of my comments back then were that Huckabees dramatizes a sense of inner turmoil and frustration within the political left in an era when its fundamental premises have been undercut and marginalized by the triumphant emergence of neoliberal globalization as the dominant ideological force shaping human social and economic life. While it doesn’t take issue with the actual structural adjustments and policy initiatives which characterized this massive shift, the film nonetheless expresses a profound despair at the triumph of the logic which underpinned it and at the impotence of the progressive left to challenge it in any meaningful way. While it’s difficult not to oversimplify, the major conflict as I see it expressed in the film can be reduced to a fairly simple choice between a society conceived as a larger interconnected entity with moral and ethical obligations to the whole, or as a society composed of atomized individual actors populating a marketplace (whose primary loyalty is to their own self-interest). The ‘logic’ of the latter is the one that has won out in our twenty-first century social landscape and its enshrinement as the fundamental structuring principle of social reality is the condition against which the film’s existential crises unfold.

I didn’t catch any of this the first time around, content as I was to just sit back and enjoy the film’s random, intermittent humor. But this time through it was everywhere. I saw it Albert’s egotistical battles with his corporate nemesis, Brad, over the cooptation of Albert’s efforts to save some wetlands from development by Huckabees. Tricking Albert into including him in the campaign as a partner, Brad completely squeezes Albert out of his coalition by changing the logic on which it runs. Albert wants to save open spaces for their intrinsic value as natural space—a reminder of our connection and obligation to the natural world of which we are a part. Brad, on the other hand, sees it as capital which can be exploited for financial or political value. I saw it in Tommy’s frustrated rants about petroleum consumption, which for him is indicative of the country’s shameless, self-serving arrogance in the face of the suffering such consumption might cause around the world. I saw it in the maddening—if hilarious—confrontation between both men and a family of prototypical Bush-era Republicans whose blank refusal to consider any reality outside their own sends Albert and Tommy into apoplectic fits of futile indignation. Finally, I saw it throughout the film in the subtle implication that—as a number of Bush administration politicos might have put it in 2004—“the political battle is over. You lost. Get over it or fuck off.”

While I don’t think this is the only way to read these instances of crisis and despair in the film, it’s very difficult for me now to read them only as crises of individual subjectivity. So much of the film is an overt play on this subject, and on the contrast between ‘the blanket theory’ of holistic interconnectedness offered by ‘existential detectives’ Bernard and Vivian Joffe (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) and the ‘nihilistic’ theory championed by their former student, Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert). But even these two competing philosophies—reduced to clumsy caricatures of existentialist thought—seem like relics of a faded twentieth century counterculture that has parlayed its own failed social revolution into a kind of neurotic melancholia. But while each side has devised its own therapeutic method for dealing with this condition, neither can provide much more than a list of useful concepts for analysis. Such is the problem with philosophy, one supposes, but ideas like ego, identity, and holism don’t operate in a vacuum. They require context to give them meaning and in this film that context is a political philosophy which goes out of its way to separate human beings from one another in the name of their own freedom. And maybe the point is not that we’re supposed to buy into the concept of ‘existential detectives,’ but rather that we’re meant to read their existence as an indication that current conditions have created individuals who are essentially sick at the thought there is literally nothing else beyond the world in which they live. If the left has often considered its vocation as an affirmation that other worlds are possible, then part of what Huckabees is getting at is the sheer, flummoxed, uncomprehending anger at being told that your dreams don’t matter, that they’re foolish and dangerous and ill-informed, that the best we can do is look out for ourselves.

Maybe I should quit. Don’t quit. Maybe I should just fucking quit. Don’t fucking quit, just, I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do anymore. Fucker! Fuck! Shit

Thesis 2: I ♥ Huckabees is a film at least partly about the role of art and the artist in modern society.

What happens in the meadow at dusk?

Nothing!

Everything!

I didn’t notice it the first time around, but this time I found myself puzzling over the place poetry plays in the film, and, in grander terms, whether we are to read Albert as a model for the alienation of the poet/creative artists from the modern world. There’s certainly nothing overt in the film to suggest this, but I also think that the way Albert wants to use poetry as a means of communicating some larger truth about the validity of his political work speaks to a long established dissatisfaction on the part of artists over who is allowed to create truth in the world. For example, in a relatively famous 1821 essay titled “A Defence of Poetry,” the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley argues that poets—because they possess a special sensitivity to all things beautiful, pleasing, and harmonic—are no less than the guarantors of moral and social value and the true source of the laws which undergird civil society. As opposed to the prosaic vulgarity of rational science and economics, poetry for Shelley is the form of imaginative art best suited to the expression of higher truths. Shelley’s assertion that poets are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” thus attempts to reassert the centrality of the artistic imagination against the rising tide of empirical science which was then feeding the industrial revolution and transforming European (and in this case, British) society. For many Romantic poets like Shelley, one of the poet’s primary roles in society was to use their overlarge imaginations to see and report on reality for the rest of us. Ever since this time, artists of all stripes have continued to maintain that this is their vocation in defiance of a world which often rudely relegates them to commercial props or ignored seers.

This time it was difficult not to see Albert’s futile—and largely embarrassing—attempts at poetic truth-telling as an amusing play on this tradition. On the one hand, Albert’s reliance on poetry has a social function insofar as it attempts to carve out alternative space for neglected or trammeled values such as the solitary contemplation of nature and its infinite, indefinable qualities. This act has value precisely because, much as the Romantics would have claimed, the dry, formulaic, empirical world of business and technology and social progress actually turned humans away from the truth of the world by quantifying, controlling, and explaining it. If the world becomes suddenly explicable and ordered and controlled, then there is very little for a prophet-genius-poet to do but hammer his or her fists against the wall when their truth—undermined by the ‘factual’ basis of science—falls on deaf ears.  This is why it’s so important that we understand ‘what happens in the meadow at dusk.’ Connection with things bigger than you happens in the meadow at dusk; an appreciation for both your own place in the world and also its overpowering sublimity happens in the meadow at dusk; truth, for all intents and purposes, happens in the meadow at dusk. And if mega-corps like Huckabees pave over every inch of natural space, there will be no more private artistic contemplation in the meadow at dusk. One does not contemplate the sublime in a Huckabees parking lot at dusk. Therefore, Albert’s wants his poetry to mean more than just some lonely, crazy guy reading out words aloud in a concrete wasteland. He wants to be one of those unacknowledged legislators of the world.

On the other hand, though, Albert’s big problem—as it also was with many of the Romantics—is that much of his righteous indignation derives from his inflated ego. The Romantic poet was the beginning and end of all things. Genius flowed through ‘him’ and his strong, overwhelming personal feelings bound him to his reader in a flux of natural power and originality. Albert—threatened by Brad’s charisma and his refusal to acknowledge poetry as essential to the Open Spaces movement—reacts throughout the film in defense of his own personality and its perceived denigration at the hands of Brad’s influence. Most insultingly, Brad, who boasts that he has no interest in art or books, is nonetheless accorded to poet-role by Albert’s flock of Open Spaces collaborators. He speaks and people listen; he hands out kitschy presents and people fawn. He seduces the world with an allure meant only to be the province of the artist. Brad’s artistry—schmoozing, dealing, driving the company profit margin up—is the art of the day and his role as ‘artist’ is verified and legitimized while all Albert can do is stand meekly in front of the one rock he saved from developers—his private, contemplative space—and recite poems which sound like they were written by a 12 year-old: “nobody sits like this rock sits/you rock, rock/the rock just sits and is/you show us how to just sit here/and that’s what we need.’ The courage required to seem this ridiculous is actually one of Albert’s strengths—after all, we do need to learn how to just sit and be—but it’s an artistry that is too easily shouted down and shoved to the side, leaving Albert spluttering and indignant. 

Thesis 3: If Bells, Keys, or Strings are tinkling, you are in a Jon Brion movie.

I kid—Brion is an accomplished musician, producer, and composer, not a screenwriter or director. Also, he does not own the patent or copyright on the sonic tinkle. All the same, watching Huckabees this time around, with its floaty, effervescent score punctuated by tinkling of all kinds, I was repeatedly struck by the thought that I’d heard the score—or some version of it—before.  A little research confirmed for me that I was not actually crazy or dissolving into synesthetic delirium. My first thought was that it all sounded very much like what Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh has done for and with Wes Anderson. Instead, as I learned, it was the other Anderson (Paul Thomas). I also learned that from 1997 to 2004 Jon Brion WAS AN AUTEUR COLLABORATION MACHINE, producing the scores for Anderson’s Hard Eight, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love, as well as Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and, of course, David O. Russell’s I ♥Huckabees (and, later, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York). Now, this revelation doesn’t in any way detract from the achievements of any of these films, which are considerable. However, I feel a certain sense of unnamable disappointment in discovering that all of these films are tethered together by the same master of ethereal sonic quirk. I’ve re-viewed two of the films above—surprisingly, without saying word one about either score—and have treated them both as fantastic one-off marvels of cinematic delight, easy to enjoy and impossible to duplicate. Yet, I now find myself bothered by the fact that one of the reasons I like all of them could be that there is a reproducible tinkle-effect created by the Brion sound sensorium. The dude’s a multi-instrumentalist (like any good composer), so we’re not talking the same tinkle here. But there’s a palpable overlap in what his music does in those movies with what it does in this one. I guess that’s the point, and there probably shouldn’t be anything to complain about here. It’s not like I’m going to stop watching Tim Burton movies because of Danny Elfman or ‘70s Westerns because of Ennio Morricone. Nor should we hold up at the sound of a Brion-esque score simply because we’ve heard those tell-tale tinkles before. The only reason to object to Brion’s influence on all these films is if his scoring somehow flattens them out, reducing them quirky iterations of the same ‘artistic’ or ‘independent’ impulse. There is probably some of this going on—these are commercial products, after all, and each is its own eclectically produced filmic thought experiment—but I’m not willing to judge Brion or his collaborators for indulging in a successful approach, because in each case that perspective is ranged against a different product. It’s the man’s style, diversely applied. Jon Brion, Tinkle Master of your Auteur Dreams.

Thesis 4: Mark Walhberg is at his best as a comedic anti-hero.  

I’m at the fire! Where you guys at?

As an actor with pretensions to both the drama and action genres, Mark Wahlberg is often called on to demonstrate a certain muscular gravitas, and to take himself very seriously. However, I don’t think I’m alone in arguing that Wahlberg is at his best when the size and seriousness which make him a popular action-drama stalwart are put to ironic comedic effect. Because so much of what Wahlberg does as an actor is reduced in commercial blockbusters to his ‘hero’ persona, the moments when he’s given the chance to step outside that stereotype are often gleefully amusing. Such is the case with his character in Huckabees, the tortured firefighter anti-hero, Tommy Corn. To see a big bulky hero of a man reduced to the depth of despair by questions of being and nothingness is inherently funny because it’s so rare to see blockbuster heroes question themselves in this way. Heroes are vulnerable to self-doubt, yes, but usually as a function of their hero-quest, where such doubt becomes the ultimate test of their heroism and the impetus for their redemption. In a funny, postmodern twist, then, Tommy is a hero-character who has begun to question the very category of the hero and to reject such an identity being foisted on him. When the Republican family Tommy and Albert visit want to enshrine Tommy as a hero simply for being a firefighter, Tommy has to remind them that this role does not make him heroic in itself.

One of Tommy’s main problems is that he’s a hero who has begun to question whether there can even be such a thing in our world. As he amusingly attempts to explain to his daughter, it seems impossible for him to be a hero to little girls in the USA when his heroism as a privileged American means that other little girls in Third World countries must suffer to provide the shoes that he heroically provides for his family. Rather than providing the stability, certainty, and strength which his archetype would imply, Wahlberg’s Tommy can only spread uncertainty and confusion and angst, in the process tearing down the very possibility of heroic behavior. Wahlberg’s plays this tortured position with an amusing mix of boyish charm and the same bumbling incomprehension for which Family Guy writers once skewered him.

Another source of the Wahlberg’s humor derives from the casting decision to pair his brute size and strength with Jason Schwartzman’s short, scrawny Albert Markovsky. Nearly everything Wahlberg does in relation to Schwartzman is funny in a slapstick-y kind of way because of the contrast in their sizes. When beating one another in the face with a rubber ball in order to produce an evacuated sense of ‘pure being’ (as Caterine Vaubon terms it), Tommy takes all of Albert’s blows without flinching while Tommy’s first blow knocks Albert off his seat. Similarly, the sight of the two riding their bikes around LA (out of a mutual respect for the environment) is equally as amusing because, again, heroes don’t ride bikes. Nerdy Albert Markovskys, yes, but not the Tommy Corns of the world. While Albert careens around town full of suppressed rage and lust, Tommy is ironically called on to be the soft, gentle giant, a well-intentioned boy stuck in a hulky man’s body. This reverses the expectations we would naturally attach to each character, thus producing the comedy.

Now for my honest admission:

I really like this film, I do. In fact, I probably love it. Just as I did when I first watched it at Seattle’s Guild Theater in the fall of 2004, I laughed my ass this time off at certain parts and thoughtfully considered some of its more poignant and self-consciously serious moments as well. But back then I wasn’t all that concerned with finding any coherent meaning in the film’s presentation of existential dilemmas and the humorous and sad situations they produce. In fact, as I recall, I only saw I ♥ Huckabees in the theater at all because I received a free pass to an advanced screening. So I had no idea what to expect and, therefore, wasn’t disappointed.

This time around, however, I could not help but admit that it is easily Russell’s least coherent film to date and that this makes for a viewing experience that is, if not boring, then at least uneven. Now, I think there are ways to read that make it coherent, such as this fine gentleman’s analysis of the film’s deeper philosophical structure (careful, as it’s likely to make your head hurt). But the only way one can really make such readings work is by squeezing out or marginalizing the film’s many other social and cultural narratives (see above). One might also argue that the genre blurring which is otherwise one of Russell’s unique strengths as a filmmaker is something of a liability here, as it’s never entirely clear what kind of film we’re watching. A variety of different types of comedy vie with one another for prominence, among them absurdist comedy, black comedy, slapstick comedy, and vignette-ish situational comedy, with some farce and satire thrown in for good measure. If this were it, we’d at least have an amalgam of comedic modes functioning under the umbrella of the ‘independent comedy.’ But humor—while foregrounded—is not the only mechanism through which we can or should understand existential crisis in the film. And while its presentation is often comedic, its deeper currents of anxiety, doubt, and cynicism make for darker, dramatic undertones which are then also vying for one’s attention. In other words, this is a very ‘busy’ film that is probably trying to do too many things at once. And while it can certainly be an ‘existential comedy’ if read the right way, it is also nothing more than an at-times manically funny cultural and philosophical hodgepodge which never really sticks its landings because it has eight different feet and landing spots and isn’t always sure where each foot is meant to come down.

The film is also uneven in its overreaching surfeit of ambition and cleverness.  Part of the problem lies in trying to stage a comedy about real human sadness and psychological breakdown in terms of a philosophical dialogue. It’s a neat idea, as is the inspired flight of fancy behind the creation of ‘existential detectives’ (ha!). However, the comprehension baseline from which the film begins is fairly high. It demands that the viewer have an entry point into the complex discourse necessary to make sense of a great deal of the character development, if not the plot action (which is easy enough to follow). This is why a number of people I’ve encountered over the years have reacted to the film in aggressive, hostile terms. Like Jude Law’s Brad, the average viewer is likely to find that the deeper the film drags them into the “manure of human suffering” the more alienated and unsatisfied they feel. Many I spoke to felt that they were being talked down to, or worse, being talked at. This dynamic is part of the reason that the film can seem preachy, pedantic, or full of itself. As my friend and one-time 10YA writer Chris Martin commented to me, the film kind of feels like you’re sitting through a Philosophy 101 lecture.

While this can be disorienting for the average person, it also sets the bar frightfully low for anyone actually interested in philosophy. As is probably necessary for the medium, most of the actual philosophy in the film is watered down, oversimplified, and often reduced to pop culture icons which leech anything actually interesting out of what’s being said. Isabelle Huppert’s Caterine Vaubon is the best example of this, as her simplistic nihilism is the worst type of stereotype of postwar French existentialism. It reduces the existentialist demand that we make ethical individual choices because that’s all we have to the popular misconception that choices don’t matter because there exists no greater guarantor of truth that can make them matter. The only thing missing from Vaubon’s left bank cliché is a black beret and a dangling cigarette.

However, there are also moments where the film’s ambition and intelligence coalesce in wonderful, illuminating ways. For example, the film’s answer to the potential alienation of its less philosophically-inclined audience is to use visual conceits to illustrate existential crisis in understandable, two-dimensional terms. Thus, we get to see Albert’s aggressive psychological defense mechanisms translated from philosophical discourse into an amusing montage of Albert hacking up threatening subconscious projections with a machete. The same goes for the attempt at visually explaining the holistic universe thesis, where tiny particles of being float free of the characters’ faces, mixing and mingling with one another and even, as Tommy points out, exposing the tiny gaps in between. Then there’s the less inventive but still touching visual ploy by which the filmmakers trace Albert’s realization of his own interconnectedness with Brad (via shared suffering) by morphing Albert’s face onto a photo of Brad crying. These moments are wonderful for the viewer because they’re so goddamn simple. Now, simple can be bad and oversimplification doesn’t generally get us anywhere when it comes to real, honest to gosh thinking. However, as a form of storytelling,for the majority of filmgoers who have not read Lacan or Hegel or Heidegger or Sartre, it actually comes off as a kind of useful shtick. While I generally tend to value complexity in thought and style, I have to admit that this film’s true complexities are so unattainable for the average person that it forces us to sit back and appreciate the clever ways it goes about making itself intelligible.

All this said, I’m happiest falling back on my original reason for loving I ♥ Huckabees: at times, it’s inventively, side-splittingly, riotously funny. It is most funny, I’d argue, at moments when the unevenness I describe above flattens out and reaches a convergence point at which we can see the genius—so common to Russell’s films—in searching for comedy in dramatic situations and drama in comedic ones. This tension has always characterized Russell’s work, from his early independent films (Spanking the Monkey, Flirting with Disaster) to his more recent, award-winning Hollywood successes (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle). When these moments occur—you could probably pick and choose your favorite absurd quote—you find yourself on the floor laughing, and perhaps staying down there for fear of having to pick yourself up and then seriously consider the seriousness of what was actually said.

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