25 February 2014
Oh, this is my favorite thing all week: reviews written by noted New England Puritan Cotton Mather in the New Yorker. To wit:
Verily, I am of two Minds when it comes to “Catching Fire.” On the one Hand, the killing of Children is largely forbidden by Scripture. On the other, so is coddling them. All Sins being Equal before God, I will split the Difference and give this Film two Stars.
They’re almost as good as those written by Focus on the Family in the good old days, before their website clued into the snort-inducing nature of their prudery. (The site still offers enumerated lists of bad words; for example, did you know that American Hustle has more than 110 uses of the f-word?)
Ahh. Now this perks up the fact that we have one of those dread-inducing faculty meetings with an agenda full of things that make my colleagues want to throw tantrums.
18 February 2014
Very mild spoiler alert. If you, like me, are waaayyyy too busy in your work life to binge-watch and have yet to start the new season, and you don’t want to know even the slightest thing about this first episode — well, you’ve been warned.
The season opener is just as chockablock as you might imagine — intrigue undertaken by ruthless people capable of 3-D chess — all of which makes you question whether you can stand watching this level of immorality within government and media organizations.
The one thing missing: those moments when Frank breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to us, sharing his scary brilliant philosophy.
But then, at the very end, as Frank gets dressed in front of the mirror, he says in that voice, “Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you wish I had,” and he explains exactly why he committed one of the most stunning plot turns of this episode.
What he says, of course, is chilling; because Frank Underwood (that’s F.U. to you) tells it like it is. And yet. This intimate moment is like all the other ones he shares with us: he takes off his mask, reveals his thinking, rationalizes his moves. But he also frames the whole thing in an elaborate metaphor that — well, when it comes flowing out of his mouth, with all those turns of phrase and that ballsy certainty, us viewers become implicated in the crimes.
How is it possible that when he peels back the safe-for-the-public face and speaks to me directly, Frank makes me feel … relief?
How delicious. Can I also say that Claire’s clothes (and moral ambivalence) are just as gorgeous and watchable as in Season 1? I can hardly wait for more.
15 February 2014
This is not my favorite of David Thomson’s books (his New Biographical Dictionary of Film is endlessly pleasurable) but it’s certainly the most beautiful. And what an excuse to flip through these gorgeous photographs, cooing over your favorites, putting all the others on your Netflix queue.
Have I mentioned I’m grading papers this weekend?
The book also makes me want to find images of my own, exemplary of those breathtaking little moments in film that stop you short.
As a result of reading his bit about my favorite film of all time, The Third Man (1949), I found myself scrolling through images online. Thomson loves that last scene, in which the beautiful and enigmatic Alida Valli walks toward the camera and past poor Joseph Cotten, who wants her to love him. The zither music plays unrelentingly.
Tell me: do you have a favorite moment from a favorite film — a crystalline, perfect, deeply pleasurable moment that somehow brings forth all manner of emotion when you recall it?
13 February 2014
Between the guacamole and the lemony cocktails, we’re doing just fine. How are you?
Also, I’m proud to announce a new triumph in the grilled cheese sandwich: roasted jalepeños. I also used a little cream cheese, an excellent strong/aged cheddar, minced scallions, and a few pickled jalepeños to give it a little dose of something pickled. Chiles in my area are not very spicy at this time of year, and I removed the skins & seeds after roasting them, but there remained just enough of a burn in the sandwich to make them delicious with a bowl of tomato soup.
Stay warm and dry, friends. Best of luck finding a good film for this cold, wintery night — I’m thinking about watching Jane Campion’s classic An Angel at My Table. And then maybe tomorrow I’ll start grading that sad pile of papers I received from my students before the storm started.
8 February 2014
Important: can you explain it to me?
I ought to feel bewitched by this beautiful and haunting film — the debut by Julian Roman Pölsler — but I also feel annoyed, as if it circles around a metaphor or a broader statement about something that I can’t figure out. Please help.
The Wall is basically a one-woman show (streaming on Netflix right now) about a woman (Martina Gedeck) whose friends invite her to stay in their hunting cabin one summer next to a breathtaking Austrian lake, surrounded by spectacular peaks. But when she wakes up the next day, she finds that an invisible wall surrounds her, separating her from every other human being, including them.
Her story of survival goes beyond being remarkable — what would you do if you found yourself without any access to human contact? The film reminds you of the skills you probably don’t have: the ability to milk a cow, gut a deer, mow a field of hay using only a scythe, help the cow give birth. I’m not sure it’s possible to watch this film without getting a little survivalist yourself: must watch YouTube for advice on how to help cows in labor, just in case.
All of this combines a great atmosphere of dread/horror with science fiction (where did the wall come from?) and her heavily narrated tale of psychological transformation. But what does it mean, in the end?
I’m also sorry to say that huge narrative gaps. I understand the impulse to survive, but why isn’t she more interested in the metaphysical questions? Is this woman’s tale of survival intended to have a feminist edge — and if so, why can’t I find it, what with my nerve endings constantly attuned to such things? Why doesn’t she just keep the sweet little white kitty inside the house? Why do I just not buy the sudden arrival of a [identifying information withheld] later in the film?
Please tell me you’ve seen it and have ideas about What It All Means. Surely there’s something I’ve missed. I want to like this film but find myself oddly annoyed at the cloaked significance and narrative leaps.
3 February 2014
I went to the Esquire site to read an article about Philip Seymour Hoffman — because I’m crushed that he died as well as how he died — and stumbled onto this series of photographs.
Only a few photographers use this ancient method anymore. The tintype became popular during the 1860s as a cheap and comparatively quick way to take photographs (think a 19th-c. version of the Polaroid). And if you’re familiar at all with eerie 19th-c. portrait photography, as you look at them you won’t be surprised by the strange beauty you find there.
What you will find is mostly a bunch of very young and very beautiful actors, of course. But when the photographer turns to older actors (Glenn Close, Willem Dafoe, PSH), the images get a lot more interesting.
So let yourself enjoy some of Hollywood’s faces as we rarely see them. It’s as if the chemical process of developing the plate finds a way to caress, and get stuck in, the wrinkles and cotton shirts and unusual mouths and leather jackets of these people. The camera especially loves grey hair and light-colored eyes, because the light gets lost there and turns the image into a haunted house.
Oh, PSH, you’re gone too soon.
1 February 2014
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my mini-marathon of female buddy movies, it’s that these films are not inherently feminist (I’m looking at you, Romy and Michele) except insofar as they feature women at the center. But the best ones offer both feminist critiques of male domination and a vision of what happens when you push women to the edge.
If F. Gary Gray’s Set It Off doesn’t quite rise to high filmic art, it makes for perfect marathon material, especially after seeing Thelma and Louise. The themes in both films match up — these films show women who’ve been jerked around by men, bosses, the police, and the system – but become even more critical when they treat Black women rather than white. Their rage is all the more justified because they’ve been fighting two battles, not just one.
If any of them who should have made it out of their housing project, it’s Frankie (Vivica A. Fox), whose immaculate straight hair, professional wardrobe, and talents as a bank clerk have won her raises and promotions at her job. But when one of the guys from the neighborhood shows up at her teller’s window and initiates a bank robbery, she tries to talk him out of it — a conversation that the police and the bank manager see on the security video later. How can they know she wasn’t involved as an inside man? Of course they fire her, and refuse to offer her a reference.
Just like that, all those years of professionalism go down the drain. Worse, she’s reduced to working alongside her lifelong friends cleaning office buildings in downtown LA during the night shift.
Each of them has a story like this one. T.T. (Kimberly Elise) struggles as a single mother to pay for childcare on her lean income. Cleo (Queen Latifah) is openly gay and has developed the tough persona of one who deals with homophobia on a regular basis. And then there’s Stoney (Jada Pinkett). It’s bad enough that she’s willing to do anything to find the money to fund her brother’s entry to UCLA. But then he gets shot and killed by police, mistaken for one of the project’s bank robbers, and all the police can do is apologize weakly.
In other words, the film’s setup follows that of Thelma and Louise: it highlights the ways that women get beaten down by men — sexually, economically, psychologically — and have so much of their potential taken out from under them. But there are marked differences between those earlier white women and Set It Off‘s Black women. Whereas Louise is able to get thousands of dollars from her own bank account, these four have nothing. When you add racial discrimination to gender bias, the women’s rage is all the more infectious.
Frankie knows exactly how to respond: rob a bank. She knows how banks work; she knows how to avoid the mistakes made by the guys in the project who got Stoney’s brother killed. Most of all, she’s clearheaded about the morality of it. “We’re just taking away from the system that’s fucking us all anyway, y’know?” The main question, after their first hit goes fast and furious and they escape with thousands of dollars, is how many more banks to rob.
In the meantime, Stoney gets hit on by a slick banker (Blair Underwood) while casing the joint. Keith is tall, rich, educated, and good-looking. A Harvard grad. With a glamorous apartment. She struggles on their dates to hold him at arm’s length — why? Is it because the attraction is so one-sided? because she’s worried he’ll learn about the grittiness of her life and her job as a cleaner, or about her sideline as a bank robber?
I’m not sure, but I’d like to say Stoney’s hesitation springs from Keith’s patronizing tones — his “I’ve got the wind at my back” cockiness, his overly slippery eagerness to transform her into Pretty Woman, to “take her away from all that.” No one can convey that kind of motivational ambivalence better than Underwood, who could win a nationwide contest for Guy I’d Most Like To Date Who’s Most Likely To Have An Evil Side. At one point he even takes a detour on their way out so he can buy her a glamorous dress and shoes. On their dates, he asks Stoney loaded questions like, “Do you feel free?” “I don’t feel free,” she replies. “I feel very much caged.” And clearly her dates with him don’t help.
But to be fair, the bank jobs don’t help, either. They start fighting amongst themselves, allowing them to reference Thelma and Louise and The Godfather and thereby raise questions about how it will all end.
I’ve already mentioned that Set It Off doesn’t climb to high art, but what it does achieve is a far more powerful indictment of racial & gender discrimination than in Thelma and Louise, and a conclusion that (like its predecessor) goes places you wouldn’t expect. In fact, I began to realize that the film’s weaknesses reflect the same kind of low expectations from Hollywood that are turned into themes in the film. For all those reasons I urge you to hunt down a copy (not easy! I had to inter-library loan mine) and watch it as a double bill with T&L to get another glimpse of the female rage made possible by feminism in the 1990s.
In retrospect, Set It Off and Thelma and Louise reflects that great, pre-ironic feminist moment in film when narratives could evoke the enraging, impossible constraints placed on everyday women. It reminds me of the most disturbing aspects of Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism, which describe how media began to undermine the feminism with ironic winks at the audience while peddling old-fashioned sexism. Can I just say, again, that I miss the old-fashioned female rage?