Tuesday, May 31, 2011


I’m not sure that I ever would have forced myself to watch this picture if it had not been for a long profile article about Paul Haggis in The New Yorker. Haggis is a filmmaker and former Scientologist, and he left the “church” over a flap to do with one of their spokesmen making a statement that made it seem as though the “church” supported California’s discriminatory and illegal anti-gay law known at Proposition 8. Standing up for gay people and renouncing churches (even goofy fake “churches” like Scientology) are both good things. This would be a much better world to live in if both of those things happened a lot more often. I gained a tremendous amount of respect for Haggis after reading that article, and that respect was what finally made me break down and jump Crash to the top of my Netflix queue.

It remains to be seen, though, whether or not I can write objectively about the film. I was deeply disappointed in the cowardly voting of the members of the Academy when they gave the 2005 Best Picutre Oscar to Crash instead of Brokeback Mountain; and though it is not the fault of either the film or Haggis that the majority of the voting members of the Academy are frightened homophobes, I bore the film an irrational grudge anyway. Eventually, though, I came to the film in my own way, propelled by a newfound respect for its writer-director. I enjoyed much of the film (particularly Terrence Howard’s role), but not all of it; and now that I have seen it, I can unequivocally state that Brokeback Mountain is, without question and beyond any shadow of a doubt, vastly superior to Crash.

The film probes the inner workings of human nature, examining the ways in whch a varied group of people react to instances of overt and covert racism (as well as corruption and abuse of power). It does this against the backdrop of Christmas in Los Angeles. The lives of many of the characters intersect at various points throughout the film, an affectation meant to illustrate the point that even in a bustling, populous city like Los Angeles, it’s a small world after all. It’s not a documentary, or even a docudrama, so suspension of disbelief is required; but despite being a narrative film, the events that take place occur in the world of the real—which means that what takes place, while unlikely, is technically possible. This requires a different brand of suspension of disbelief than if one were watching, say, Harry Potter. When the narrative consists of wizards and magic wands, suspending one’s disbelief is akin to turning a light switch on or off.

The suspension of disbelief that comes with a narrative film set in the world of the real also comes with an asterisk. There is an implied bargain between filmmaker and audience: The audience will accept that this is a work of fiction, provided that the filmmaker keeps it real. When the sense of realism begins to shift toward idealism, then didacticism comes into play. The terms of the bargain change. Haggis manages these themes on the thin end of the wedge here. Every major character in the film is first examined either as racist (or corrupt or abusive, but mostly racist) or not, and is then shown later in the film from the reverse angle; and while this is reasonably compelling from a dramatic standpoint, it falls short of the profundity for which Haggis is clearly striving. It’s almost as though Haggis wanted to see what the Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder hit “Ebony and Ivory” would have sounded like if Spike Lee had written it for Tupac to record.

Is there, in fact, good and bad in everyone? Of course there is. Do people react to those forces in different ways, sometimes randomly? Of course they do. But there is random and then there is random. As Hannibal Lecter is quoted in The Silence of the Lambs, a series of supposedly random occurrences can also be read as “desperately random, like the elaboration of a bad liar.” And while that is not the same as me calling Paul Haggis a bad storyteller, I will grant you that the two just might be kissing cousins.

But it’s also possible that there is something else at play here. I think it’s also possible that Haggis might be using the religious backdrop of Christmas in order to subvert his main theme with a much more interesting subtext. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear that each of the characters is destined to suffer through something bad happening to them before their better self is revealed; and those bad things happen to just about every character in the film, both major and minor—or, the Jews wander in the desert for forty years before getting to the promised land. But for all of that, only one character seems to rage against the seemingly pointless series of unpleasant events. That character takes it upon himself to stand up to the unfair treatment, staring down death and refusing to give up his dignity or his rights at the point of a gun.

Maybe there is no promised land. Maybe there is only the good luck and bad luck that we achieve on our own or bring upon ourselves. The film doesn’t answer those questions, and it does not attempt to. The whole point is to provoke thought, and this it does quite well. The problem is that Haggis directs with a heavy hand. He seems to understand that he is working with very difficult material that is constantly on the verge of slipping from his control; but instead of trimming the material to a manageable amount, it is as though he is demanding to be allowed to say everything there is to be said about the themes he has chosen to treat. And yet chaos is integral to his themes, too. So we come back to the elaboration of a bad liar.

These characters run into each other too much. Haggis clearly means to show a cross-section of Los Angeles, but he almost winds up creating a grittier version of Stars Hollow. It’s very thought-provoking and would probably reward multiple viewings much more than would be expected for a film that relies so heavily on shock value, but Haggis is trying to do far too much with the material. The intention and effort are both admirable, and the film is very good; but ultimately it falls short of the greatness to which it clearly aspires.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Deep Thoughts #57 - Special Topical Race Day Edition

In a perfect confluence of disparate rivers of poo, the guy doing the race invocation actually name-checked Izod, the IndyCar title sponsor.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Deep Thoughts #56 - Special Topical Plain Old Saturday Edition CONTINUED

I previously assumed I would not be raptured, but I just went to the food court for pizza and my total was $7.77. So I guess you never know.

Deep Thoughts #55 - Special Topical Plain Old Saturday Edition

Which is goofier? Applying deductive reasoning to the Book of Genesis to explain the rapture, or believing that intelligent design is valid?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

All Sales Final—No Returns or Exchanges

These Borders stores have got to quit going out of business. They’re positively wrecking my goal of getting rid of more books than I acquire over the course of this calendar year. I have acquired eight new books this year, and five of them are from going-out-of-business sales at local Borders stores. Two of the others were gifts, which means that other than the Borders books, I’ve only bought one book this year. Unfortunately, the stack of books in the outgoing pile has just as many qualifications as the stack of books in the incoming pile. One I got from a girl at work who had two copies of it and gave one to me because we had been talking about it and I said I hoped to get around to reading it one day but didn’t want to buy a copy. Two are Consumer Reports guides that are only going away because I recently acquired newer editions (although I have not added those two newer editions to the stack of incoming books, which I suppose I should do since I’m counting the old ones in the outgoing pile—and which will make the incoming pile even bigger, damnit). The others are books I have owned for some time and have never read and decided to read because I didn’t think I really needed to own them any longer—and those are the ones I’m trying to get rid of first, books that I bought in the first place for no good reason except that they were in the bargain bin or the clearance section and I thought that one day they would be useful for something and that spending a buck or two on them would not be a problem.

Financially speaking, at least, I was correct. I’m not going to go broke buying ten bucks worth of books here and there at Half Price Books, or grabbing a bargain book now and then at Borders. The problem is physics. Books take up space, and I don’t have a lot of space in my house. I do, however, have lots of books for which I have no real use. Whatever interest I might once have had in film has plateaued. I still like movies, but I will never make a career of making them (or writing them); and that means that I really don’t have much use for a book about the Cannes Film Festival that was written twenty years ago. Biographies of George Lucas or Stanley Kubrick? They’re there. Do I need them? Nope. Have I read them? Nope. I suppose it’s possible that I will read them one day and find that I really do want to keep them, but my interests have shifted. I still have that biography of Rudy Giuliani, which I want to get rid of but can't bring myself to read. It's awfully long, and I just can't get my head around spending that much reading about a douchebag who is the second most successful person in history to make a career out of milking 9/11 for all it was worth (after Osama bin Laden).

We’re going on halfway through 2011, and I had hoped the outgoing pile would be significantly higher than the incoming pile by now. It probably doesn’t help that I have taken a break from reading books of my own that I want to get rid of because I have been slogging through Stephen King’s It, for what I think is only the second time ever, because I wanted to experience the vibe of it to see if that vibe was the same kind of vibe I have been thinking should run through a long novel I have been thinking about writing about Irvington. That, and I can’t seem to tame the stack of magazines that sits next to the stack of library books next to my reading chair, which I also can’t quite seem to tame (the library books, not the chair). I even reduced the number of magazine subscriptions I take, down to two from five (or three from six, if you count Film Comment, the new issue of which I buy every time it comes out, but which I do not have delivered to my home by the postal service), but—thanks again, Borders—I have recently added quite a lot of literary magazines that were on sale, and a couple I got in Kansas City at the Barnes & Noble at Country Club Plaza, which has the best selection of literary magazines I have ever encountered (except maybe for Elliott Bay in Seattle, but it’s been a long time since I was there, and I may just be romanticizing its excellence at this point, though I don’t believe this to be the case).

So Borders is giving it to me from both directions—punishment, perhaps, for all of those Rewards Certificates from back in the day. One of my credit cards used to be a Borders Rewards card (though the issuing bank has since ended that program), and I would earn a $5 Borders Reward certificate after accumulating a certain number of points, aggregated based on dollars charged to the card, not including interest or balance transfers. One time, there was an error—it’s been so long now that I don’t remember the source of the error—and a number of Borders Reward cardholders got a LOT of Rewards Certificates one month. I got so many that they came in one of those manila envelopes with a metal clasp at the top. Buried in amongst the Rewards Certificates was my credit card statement. The total value of the Rewards Certificates was just north of $800, if I recall correctly. The bank eventually decided that it wasn’t worth the time and trouble to try to get the certificates back from the people who got them; and they sent out a letter saying that we could spend them, but that we should limit how many we used at once, so as not to overwhelm the poor sales associates at the Borders stores. I don’t remember all of the books I added to my stacks with those Rewards Certificates. I imagine that it was the bank that paid for those certificates, though, and not Borders—so these going-out-of-business sales coming right when I’m really trying to reduce my inventory of books is just a coincidence. I think.

One of the guys at work is convinced that all the Borders stores are going to go away, and at first I resisted that idea on principle because I have always thought the Borders stores around here were superior to the Barnes & Noble stores. However, now that River Crossing and Downtown have gone away, I’m not sure I care anymore. Those two were far better than any of the others—the newest one at the Castleton Square Mall is horrible—and even though the one on the south side is adequate, I’m almost never down there anymore. From where I sit, it doesn’t seem to matter much anymore whether Borders exists in Indianapolis or not. Its best stores are gone, and if the one at Castleton is anything to judge by, any new stores they might build—not that I can imagine that they would build any new ones anytime soon—aren’t going to be much to write home about. And even though the Barnes & Noble is still there at Clearwater Crossing, I still have to find a new place to get Poetry and Film Comment because that Barnes & Noble doesn’t carry either magazine. They carry Zone 3, a five dollar literary journal published by Austin Peay State University, but not Poetry. You know who does carry Poetry? The Barnes & Noble in Avon, and the Barnes & Noble at that goofy Metropolis “mall” out in Plainfield.

There wasn’t really any point to any of this. I just felt like writing about it. It has taken a really long time to read (it clocks in at nearly 1100 pages), and it wasn’t nearly as good as I was hoping it would be. It’s from the pre-intervention phase of Stephen King’s career. The first half of Hearts in Atlantis, a post-intervention book, does the theme of the loss of childhood innocence way better—and in only about 250 pages.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Best. Bumper Sticker. Ever. #3

Gas Prices Stink

The sticker was circular and pink, with a gas pump in the middle, the first two words above and the last one below. And believe it or not, it had been slapped on the back of an SUV. Yep. Someone bought a gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle and then had the temerity to complain about gas prices. That's the kind of ignorant idiot who will vote for Mike Pence for governor. That will be the true barometer of Indiana ignorance. When the 2012 election results are certified, check the number of votes for Pence for governor and you will find out, to a person, how many people in this state just don't know any better.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Top Ten Films 2010

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Late again.

10. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I caught the last twenty minutes of this by accident one afternoon when I had to give out passes for a fire alarm, or some such thing; and those last twenty minutes were so intriguing and well done that I immediately wanted to get the novel and read it and then watch the rest of the film—which, eventually, I did. The film does a very good job of efficiently compressing the story told in the tightly-plotted, rapid-fire novel; and Noomi Rapace, though not a spot-on match of the girl described in the novel, delivers a striking performance, gifting the audience with one of the most compelling characters in years.

9. Blue Valentine
The feel-bad movie of the year—hands down; and yet, it’s so cleverly presented that it’s hard to look away. The story is told in non-linear fashion, but to say that director Derek Cianfrance is channeling his inner Tarantino is to understate just how helter skelter the movie really is. Ultimately, though, that’s also part of its charm. Cianfrance cuts between time and place with absolutely no transition, leaving it to the viewer to make the connections between one scene and another. It’s awfully well made, but it’s awfully harrowing, too. Very challenging - for an American film.

8. The Kids Are All Right
At this point, you almost have to ask yourself what exactly Annette Bening has to do to win that elusive Oscar. She earned her fourth nomination for her role as the uptight breadwinner in this dramedy about a lesbian couple whose kids reach out to their sperm donor and wind up getting to know their dad. What might have kept her from winning here is that Julianne Moore was also very good, playing the laid-back, fun half of the couple. Moore has nearly as many noms as Bening, and also no wins. The film is a little too perfect in places—almost like an advertisement for a new Pottery Barn store in Stepford—but the strong acting and strong writing more than make up for that.

7. The Illusionist
A hand-drawn animated film with almost no dialogue—and what dialogue there is, is in French. Okay, if you got that far, then maybe you can get your head around a story about an aging illusionist (it’s not just a clever title) who no longer impresses audiences with his simple sleight of hand—but continues to go from place to place in search of those audiences anyway. For a time, his path crosses that of a young girl who is just starting make her own way in the world, and they settle into a vaguely symbiotic father-daughter relationship. By the end, of course, things have changed; but what is unique (and refreshing, and ultimately very satisfying) is that those changes happen organically, which opens up lines of existential thinking that are almost never triggered by animated films. Pound for pound, one of the more rewarding films of the year.

6. Nowhere Boy
I’m not necessarily convinced that this is a great film; but as so often happens with movies that are steeped in music from the 1960s, I really liked it (even if, technically, this movie was steeped more in the music of the 1950s). Aaron Johnson doesn’t resemble John Lennon so much as he resembles Buddy Holly, but he’s got the swagger we might imagine that Lennon had when he was young. But more than anything else, the film portends Lennon’s tragic end and gives us something of an idea of what informed his thinking, his politics, and his music. Great supporting turns by Anne-Marie Duff and the inimitable Kristin Scott Thomas effectively bolster the eponymous role played reasonably well by Johnson.

5. Inception
So yeah, it turns out that this film was everything it was cracked up to be. Pretty much a non-stop cavalcade of sharp visuals and snappy sounds—and it also had a reasonably compelling (if perhaps unnecessarily complicated—this is Chris Nolan, after all) story and some fine acting. In fact, I think there’s one performance in particular that really helped to elevate this film from unfathomable schlock to very watchable chaos. Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt both do a good job of getting into their roles and chewing scenes—but it’s the appearance of Ellen Page that brings that little bit of levity that is necessary for something this dire to work. I sort of hate to say that she humanizes the film to some degree, because that sounds hokey; but it might also be the truth. Nolan generally packs too much into his movies, but he also finds ways to make those overstuffed kerfuffles eminently appealing—and that’s the most important contribution Page makes to the film. (And just try to take your eyes off of Marion Cotillard. Can’t be done.)

4. Rabbit Hole
This was supposed to be a thoroughly bleak, utterly heart-rending exploration of what happens when two parents have to confront their worst nightmare; and yet, while it was certainly not the happiest film I’ve ever watched, it wound up being far more uplifting than I ever would have guessed. The writing is so good that, in the midst of the all the gloom, there are actually places where you can safely laugh out loud. Post-Botox Nicole Kidman is a little scary to look at sometimes, but her acting chops are still in good working order; and Aaron Eckhart seems to get better with every role. The surroundings are a little too Pottery Barn, and the ending has a kind of muddled tone that betrays the fearlessness of the rest of the film; but those are minor quibbles, and they’re not enough to derail what is otherwise an exceptional film.

3. The Fighter
I can’t even remember what my quibbles were with this one. No, wait…it was a couple of the songs on the soundtrack, and some of the montage sequences. The acting was incredible, particularly Christian Bale as a crackhead has-been boxer who pretends to be his brother’s trainer. Mark Wahlberg is the brother, and he gives what I thought was a really underrated performance as blue-collar fighter Micky Ward. Wahlberg was understated in a movie full of scenery chewers, but it plays well thematically. Melissa Leo was just fine as Micky’s mother, but Amy Adams really stole the show as his girlfriend. I don’t know that she has done a finer piece of work. I absolutely fell in love with her while I was watching this film.

2. The Social Network
You could choose to take this film just as an entertainment, regardless of its veracity, and you would certainly be none the worse for wear. It is well written, well acted, and brilliantly edited; and there’s even an arrangement of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails fame. So about that veracity, then: it’s way too complicated to try to explain in a brief blurb like this. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin used as source material a book by Ben Mezrich called “The Accidental Billionaires.” If you read the book, you will find many, many chapters and sections that begin with phrases like “We can imagine that…” or “We can guess what happened next…” Mezrich supposedly got much of his information from Eduardo Saverin, the co-founder of Facebook who supposedly got screwed over by Mark Zuckerberg. Thus, you would think that a movie based on such a book would paint Zuckerberg in a bad light. In reality, though, not so much—at least, I didn’t think so. Time magazine named Zuckerberg their 2010 person of the year, and there’s quite the fawning portrait of him in the Person of the Year issue. The truth about Mark Zuckerberg is probably somewhere between the character portrayed in the film (brilliantly!) by Jesse Eisenberg and the character they wrote about in Time. The Social Network builds on a strong foundation of cinematic elements; and while the little details might be compressed or altered (or possibly even imagined), the broad strokes that Sorkin paints with are accurate. The result is an extremely impressive film.

1. Winter’s Bone
This film was based on an actual work of fiction (the novel of the same name by Daniel Woodrell), but it might be more authentic than The Social Network; and the reason for that is director Debra Granik’s meticulous approach to her craft. Set in a bleak no-man’s-land in the Missouri Ozarks, near the Arkansas state line, the story tells of Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) and her family—in particular, her meth-cooking father, who has jumped bail and disappeared. When the sheriff comes to her door and tells her that her father had put up the house and land for his bond, and that the family will lose both if he fails to turn up for his court date, Ree—all of seventeen—decides that the only thing she can do is find her father. What follows his a harrowing journey of discovery that is frighteningly effective at reframing the concept of loss of innocence. The authenticity builds from the foundation of Granik’s decision to shoot on location and to convince locals to appear in the film and allow the crew the use of their homes. The story gives itself up reluctantly, because the people who live here do the same with their secrets. By the time you get around to the end, it’s entirely possible that the revelations are foregone conclusions; but the real payoff comes when you realize that after everything you have seen, life is going to keep on keeping on for these people. There is only survival to strive for in this part of the world, and perhaps not even that for very long.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Catching Up with Jackson

So here are some random shots of Jackson that I have taken this year. I know I haven't been real good about posting pictures on a regular basis. I haven't stopped taking pictures, I just haven't forced myself to sit down and get them organized and posted. However, I did manage to find some time on this trip to Kansas City, so here you go. These go as far back as February, and I promise to do my best to get around to a select handful of shots from November 2009 to the end of 2010, to close the gap.