Saturday, December 31, 2011

Accidents & Postcards #3

I had this grand plan of getting up today and getting some stuff done around the house—a little bit of cleaning, take some recycling in—and then going out to take a walk around downtown to take a look at the progress on the last few legs of the Cultural Trail, along Washington Street and down Virginia Avenue toward Fountain Square. I also wanted to take a look at Georgia Street to see how that was progressing toward the pedestrian plaza they are envisioning for the Super Bowl.

But it was raining this afternoon when I got up, and it kept raining for most of the afternoon while I puttered around the house and tried to do a little bit of writing; and then around mid-afternoon it looked like it was going to clear up…sort of…so I started to get ready to go out, and put a bunch of recycling in the car, and then headed for the recycling center, which is just down the street. I dropped all of that stuff off, got paid for the aluminum cans, and then headed down to the Super Target in Southport for a few miscellaneous items. I narrowly avoided getting off of Southport Road onto 65 north when I saw some kind of traffic jam that went as far north as I could see from where I was—and as far south, too. Every bit of 65 that I could see from the Southport Road bridge was bumper to bumper, and stopped. I wound up taking back roads up to downtown and got started on my walk around five o’clock.

I parked on Park Avenue between Michigan Street and Mass Ave, one of the few places left downtown where you can still park for free at any time, and then headed for the library to take back a CD that had been with a book that Amy took back the other day. We had listened to the CD one night and forgotten to put it back in the book, so Amy asked me to take it back for her while she and Jackson were in Florida; but the library was closed by the time I got there, so that will have to wait for another day. Then I headed for the South Bend Chocolate Company on Monument Circle for a cup of coffee, and then I got the walk started properly.

There was a Pacers game tonight, so there were people out and about in the Wholesale District, having dinner and making their way toward whatever the arena the Pacers play in is called this week, and it was nice to walk around downtown at night when there were lots of other people milling about. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that, and I had almost forgotten how vibrant our downtown can be when there are events taking place. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like at the end of January, when everyone and their mother is downtown for the Super Bowl. The new plaza on Georgia Street, however, is pretty much just a walkway right now. I guess there will be more going on during the Super Bowl, but for now it’s just another place to walk. I went from there toward Virginia Avenue to check out the progress on the Cultural Trail, but then I changed my mind once I got to the sort-of three way intersection of Washington, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. With the sun down, it was getting colder in a hurry, and it’s a long way down Virginia Avenue to Fountain Square—and then back again. Amy and I had seen part of the Virginia Avenue leg of the Cultural Trail in its nearly-completed state when we ate at Siam Square for her birthday, earlier this month. Driving home, I observed that much of that leg of the trail was complete in Fountain Square itself, and in the downtown section—but that whatever they were going to do with it where it passed over the interstate still had much work to be done.

So instead of embarking on that long walk, I went up Pennsylvania Street and headed back toward the car; and it turned out to be fortuitous that things turned out that way, because as I was walking up Pennsylvania Street, I saw one of the 46 for XLVI murals on the south wall of the Summit Realty building at 241 North Pennsylvania (across the street from the courthouse). It was dark, and my blood was pumping from the walk, and I was feeling good—and then I saw the painting, of one guy in a hat playing the piano, and another guy sitting nearby with what looked like a cup of coffee.

Though the plaque on the building describing the mural proved my first thought incorrect, the painting made me think of what it might have been like in one of those old speakeasies, in the Jazz Age. I got a very Midnight in Paris kind of vibe, like a car was going to pull up next to me and Scott Fitzgerald would lean out and invite me to come have a drink with him and Zelda. Obviously, that did not happen; but I was headed toward Mass Ave, and I knew of a few places up that way where I could keep the feeling of that vibe going.

As I got further away from the Wholesale District, the sounds and footsteps of people out and about with the Pacers game on their minds became fainter, and after awhile it was just me out on the sidewalk, and I turned up Mass Ave and headed toward Agio, which has been closed for awhile now; and even though it has been closed now for some time, it looks almost as though you might be able to unlock the doors and get right to work serving dinner. You’d have to sweep out the leaves that have blown into the outdoor seating section, but all of tables inside are set with plates and folded napkins and silverware, as though the staff had prepped the place for the next day’s service before leaving one night, and then simply failed to come in the next day. It’s vaguely creepy, and reminds me of the way Stephen King describes one of the towns in ‘Salem’s Lot other than the eponymous one—a town that I think was called Momson, where it looked as though the people had just up and left one day, with dinner still on the table.

Then I ducked into the alley behind the Chatham Tap restaurant, an alley that is actually a tiny part of the Cultural Trail. It’s designed for people to walk on, but I would not have been surprised at all if there had been a car back there…the one with Scott and Zelda in it. Alas—again—it was not the case; but I was awfully glad that I had gone ahead and taken the walk that I had almost decided not to. It wasn’t the best day for a walk, but it was still pretty good for the penultimate day in December. Had it been as cold this December as it was last December, the storm that passed through today would have left several inches of snow on the ground, and I would certainly not have been out for a walk in that at night.

You can click here to check out information on those Super Bowl murals at the website of the Arts Council of Indianapolis. They have been painted by both local and national artists, and though they have gone up all around downtown only because of the fact that we are hosting the Super Bowl, they will remain as beautiful and amazing public art in our city for years after the Super Bowl craziness has passed. I have seen only a few of them, and I don’t intend to make a checklist and spend a day tracking down all of them. If I did that, I would miss the beautiful accidents like the one that led me to the “Pennway” mural this evening; and that’s one of the things I like most about walking around, both downtown and here in Irvington. I never know where or when I am going to be inspired by what I see or what happens.

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Evolution of Bob Kravitz

I didn’t like Bob Kravitz when he first started writing a sports column for the Indianapolis Star. (I also don’t remember how long ago it was, but it was awhile. I’m pretty sure it was before they were assimilated by Gannett, back when the Star was as respectable as it was possible to be for a paper run by ultraconservative hillbillies.) I seem to recall his writing as being sort of mean-spirited and sarcastic (not unlike my own sometimes, but remember this was many years ago, and my awareness of self has been a long time incubating), and I got the feeling—I think—that he didn’t much like us. (Back then, I would have been filled with faux pride for Indiana. No longer, of course. Conservatives and other limited people probably feel right at home in a silly place like Indiana; but for anyone even slightly more evolved than that, the place is stifling.)

But Mr. Kravitz’s writing has evolved, as it was wont to do over time; my self-awareness and my thinking have both evolved, too; and I have come to find that I actually agree with some of the things that he writes. He once took the time to write a whole column about the way he writes, and why he says some of the abrasive things that he says. The bottom line was that, even though he was mainly a sports writer, part of his job was also to sell newspapers; and that meant that he would often write things that were designed almost or entirely to get a reaction—to get someone to buy the paper. I like that he copped to that, and I’m stunned that the paper let him get away with it.

And so I wonder how a Bob Kravitz column about the game Indiana lost to Michigan State last night would have read all those years ago. You have to factor out certain things, of course, like the fact that, all those years ago, Bob Knight was still the coach at Indiana. He was disliked as much as he was liked, especially by those possessing no affinity toward Indiana University, and its basketball program in particular. These days, however, Tom Crean is the coach at Indiana, and it would appear that he is genuinely liked and respected across the board. It would have been easy for Mr. Kravitz to be snide toward Indiana under Mr. Knight, and not so much for him to be snide toward Indiana under Mr. Crean—especially given the remarkable amount of progress that Indiana made in just its first twelve games this year.

The column in today’s paper, however, was not at all snide—no trying to sell papers here, just an honest look at what happened last night at the Breslin Center in East Lansing; and what happened was that Indiana got beat. It was the first loss for a much-improved Indiana team, on the road against a Michigan State team that had won 11 straight after dropping their first two games of the season to North Carolina and Duke—not exactly cupcakes. Mr. Kravitz pointed out things that Indiana has been doing well all season, but which they did not do well last night, including free throws, three point shooting, and getting production out of freshman phenom Cody Zeller.

And this was another one of those tests for an Indiana team that has not had much to brag about the last few years. So far this year, they have managed to obliterate cupcakes in Bloomington, stay competitive in games where they don’t dominate, win road games against respectable teams, and play hard and stay in the game with a ranked opponent at home. The icing on the cake was that remarkable win against Kentucky, on Christian Watford’s last-second three point shot. The Hoosiers faced those challenges—and won them all. What they had not faced so far this season, before last night (and with apologies to N.C. State fans), was a road game against a genuinely good team; and it’s the one hurdle they could not clear. Mr. Kravitz is correct, however, when he says that “this group is for real.”

Mr. Kravitz had a column about Purdue’s Robbie Hummel, earlier this year, that I also enjoyed. (I think I may have written about that in one of my NaNoWriMo warm-up posts.) I don’t know if the guy has mellowed with age or what; maybe it’s just that he genuinely loves sports and is inspired by what’s going on with Indiana and Purdue basketball. He’s also written some good columns about what has gone wrong with the Colts this season, and he tends to be critical of Bill Polian, which I totally support. (Bill Polian tried to use some expired passes once, and got pissy with me when I said that he couldn’t use them. Here’s one of the biggest big-shots in the NFL, and he gets pissy over twenty bucks worth of expired passes. Really? I wish I could say that he just accepted what I said and went on about his business, but like most customers these days, he just kept griping and complaining, like a child, until I let him use the passes. I don’t know who coined the phrase “the customer is always right,” but that person clearly never had to deal with actual customers. They have signs on the wall at a Jimmy John’s sub shop that I go to sometimes that say, “The customer is usually right.” [Emphasis mine.] I think even that is giving them too much credit. Based on my experience, customers are—maybe—a percentage point or two slightly more evolved than cattle. And usually wrong.)

But I digress. If you haven’t read Bob Kravitz in awhile, go check out the column. If you had formed a negative opinion of him from his early work at the paper formerly known as the Star, you might be surprised by this one.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Englished, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Girls with Tattoos

When it was first announced that an English version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was going to be made, I was irritated, without being asked to be, on behalf of all of the Swedish people who did such fine work to bring to release both the novel and the original Swedish film. I thought the making of an English version of the film was just a stupid sap to the weak people who refuse to see movies that they “have to read,” and I made up my mind not to see it. And then I was talking to Heather at work one day last week, and after stating my position on the movie, she got around to asking me what about translations of novels, from their original languages into English?

It’s not exactly the same thing, but it got me thinking. I can’t read any language besides English, other than a little bit of French—but not enough to sit down with a novel in its original French and be able to get anything out of it. There is no way that I would ever be able to consume Don Quixote or Crime and Punishment or One Hundred Years of Solitude if it were not for the translations of those novels from their original languages into English; but I can enjoy foreign films without knowing the original language because of two things: subtitles; and the fact that I can see what is happening on the screen.

I knew in the back of my mind that there were movies I had seen and enjoyed that had been re-made into English versions after the original foreign versions had already come out, including The Birdcage, The Departed, Vanilla Sky (yes, I liked it; and yes, I know that I’m the only one who did), Unfaithful, and Twelve Monkeys. Then I searched Google for films in English that had been adapted from foreign language films, and I found a list on Wikipedia that contained quite a few films that I had enjoyed without ever having had any idea that they were originally foreign films. That list includes Mixed Nuts (once again, I am aware that I am the only one who liked this film), Three Men and a Baby, True Lies, Scent of a Woman (it’s possible that I knew this one had been Englished, but I can’t be sure of that), and—hang on—The Lion King.

That was about the point when I realized that my argument wasn’t going to hold up. That there is a film in English that was originally released in a foreign language is not in itself a bad thing; but something was still bothering me about it, about this particular film. The novels have been ginormous bestsellers for years, so why did it take Hollywood so long to decide that they wanted to make movies out of them? Or perhaps more to the point, why did it take the relative success of the three Swedish films to make Hollywood realize that they should make English versions? (According to Box Office Mojo, the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the 24th highest-grossing foreign language film of all time. The two Swedish sequels are 30th and 62nd, respectively.)

You know, though, the more I think about it, the more I think that the argument is completely falling apart. Filming of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo commenced in early 2008, and the third film had been released in Europe before the end of 2009. For those of you scoring at home, that’s three films in less than two years—a fairly torrid pace, even by Woody Allen standards. The first novel was not published in the United States until late 2008, after filming on the first installment had already begun. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Paramount was contemplating a film adaptation shortly after the publication of the first novel in the United States; but filming on the English version did not ultimately commence (with the film now at Sony, not Paramount) until late 2010.

I am going to assume that there is material out there that can shed some light on why it took so long for American studios to get around to making their version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; but I’m not going to take the trouble to locate that information. There’s a concept in the movie biz called “development hell,” and it’s not just a clever name. Note the fact that it was less than two years from the time filming began on the Swedish version of the first film to the European release of the third—and that it took David Fincher and Sony over a year to get from the beginning of filming to the release of just the first film in the trilogy (and never mind the two years between the U.S. publication of the first novel and the start of filmmaking for Fincher’s version).

Based solely on the small amount of research I have done for this post, it seems plausible to me that studios in the U.S.—major ones, at that—had more than a passing interest in making films out of these novels. The Swedes just beat them to the punch. (It would not surprise me in the least to learn that it takes far less time for a Swedish studio to make a film than it does for a major American studio to make a film.) It would seem that English version of these films were inevitable, not the result of the devious behavior of American studio executives who just wanted an easy ride on the (Swedish) gravy train.

Having said all of that, I have almost managed to talk myself into wanting to see this new version of the film—almost. I’m intrigued by some of the casting, including Christopher Plummer, Stellan Skarsgård, Joely Richardson, and Robin Wright—thought not by Daniel Craig or Rooney Mara; and Fincher, of course, is Fincher. Though he churns out the occasional crappy movie (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), his early work on dark, grisly films like Se7en and Fight Club leads me to believe that he’ll at least get the mood right on this one. I suppose the prospects for the English version could have been much worse—what if it had been a Michael Bay Joint?

I still probably won’t get around to seeing Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, though not any longer because I necessarily hold a grudge against the picture or the people who decided that it needed to be made. Hollywood movies are about money, not art; and there is definitely money to be made with these films. I may get around to getting it from Netflix one of these days, and I suppose that I can hope that Rooney Mara is even a fraction as good in the Lisbeth Salander role as Noomi Rapace—but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Descendants

Matt King is a haole with Hawaiian blood that goes back a number of generations, and he is the trustee of 25,000 acres of nearly pristine land on Kauai that has been in his family for all of those years. As a successful lawyer, he is imminently qualified to determine the course of action to be taken with respect to which bid the family should accept when the time comes to sell that land. As a husband and father, he is less successful. He is a prudent, careful numbers guy, and not so much of a family man. When his wife suffers a severe head injury in a boating accident and goes into a coma, he finds himself in the position of having to care for two young daughters he barely knows. He has expended so much effort over the years to provide for his family that he has taken for granted that they will always be there for him, even though he is rarely there for them. Though he seems pretty well put together on the surface to outsiders, he’s actually sort of mess to the people who really know him.

I have a hard time buying George Clooney in this role—had a hard time buying it even as the film went on—but by the end, director and co-screenwriter Alexander Payne had me mostly convinced. He shot the film in cinemascope, to ensure good, tight close-up shots, and that’s probably the key to the film. The sometimes breathtaking location shots are very pretty to look at, but the story is another matter altogether. By way of those close-up shots, Payne forces the audience to look at Matt King as he begins to see the things he has refused to look at for so many years. The dynamics of dysfunction drive the narrative, as tragedy forces the characters to confront truths they seem always to have preferred to ignore.

The hardest part for me was trying to see the film through the eyes of someone who has not read the novel. I read the novel a few weeks ago, and thought it was quite good. Author Kaui Hart Hemmings (who makes a cameo in the film) does a good job of getting to the heart of the things that drive us most crazy about the people we’re supposed to love the most. She does this by writing in first person present tense, which allows Matt King to describe to the reader both what is going on currently, and what led those things to happen. It’s a fine device for a novel, and Hemmings deploys it skillfully, but it’s difficult to bring to the screen, because much of what informs the story is in the main character’s head. That generally translates into voice-over narration, and that is the case here.

And it’s not as though Payne doesn’t do a good job with what he has given himself to work with. In fact, pretty much everything in this film is done very well; I’m just not sure that there’s enough of it. Clooney eases into a role that’s one step removed from the kinds of roles that he steps into with ease—Ryan Bingham in Up In the Air, Danny Ocean, the eponymous Michael Clayton—but by the end of the film, he has mostly nailed it. Matthew Lillard wasn’t as bad as I thought he was going to be. I kept picturing Stu from Scream, but he’s aged fifteen years since that film came out, just like the rest of us. He’s not the actor that Clooney is, but he does just fine in a relatively small role. Shailene Woodley does well in the role of Alex, Matt King’s eldest daughter. She is away at school when we join the story, and the circumstances of that situation are never fully revealed. Woodley plays her as the teenage rebel we presume that she is, but she also shows us with Alex’s guard down, at times when the defiant young woman is overcome by emotions she hardly knew were there.

That’s where I have the most trouble seeing the film through the eyes of someone who hasn’t read the novel. Most of the characters feel vaguely incomplete, which makes it difficult to connect with them emotionally. Too much of the time, I got the feeling that Payne was relying on plain vanilla social conventions to generate emotion and drama. We should feel sadness and sympathy for someone who is in a coma and is probably going to die; we should feel anger and resentment at the prospect of marital infidelity; we should feel consternation (but also, of course, love) for children who buck authority wantonly and often fail to do what they are told; and we should feel contentment when, in the end, people do the right things.

All of those things are lovely and noble; but in and of themselves, they are not interesting. I didn’t quite feel a strong enough connection to these characters to become emotionally invested in what was happening to them—at least not as contrasted with the masterful way Hemmings dissects the same characters and lays them bare for the reader to examine. By way of example, there is a scene toward the end in which a piece of very bad news is related to King’s youngest daughter; but instead of letting the scene play out, with the attendant pain and awkwardness, Payne gives us the scene in a muted montage, avoiding, as he does throughout the film, the hardest things that these characters have to face.

I wonder if the characters might have felt more developed if Payne had used a few more strategic bits of voice-over or allowed the characters to talk to each other a little more in the quiet moments—rather than using so many lingering shots of the landscape. Matt King’s character explains in voice-over, early in the film, that even though Hawaii is beautiful, it has its bad neighborhoods and dirty streets and downtrodden citizens, just like the other forty-nine states; but this bit of exposition is a bait-and-switch. Those parts of Hawaii undoubtedly exist; but they have nothing to do with this story, just as Hawaii itself, both as a place and as a concept, has far less to do with the story than Payne seems to believe. He has constructed a fine—but not great—film, but only a fair adaptation.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Deep Thoughts #67 - Special Topical Reactionary Twit Edition

Twitter should encourage this apologizing for nothing thing nationwide. People would tweet even more meaningless drivel than they tweet now!