Thursday, March 31, 2005

Batter My Heart, Three-Legged Man

Now y'all know I am prouder of that pervy pun than of any single sentence in my entire dissertation. After all, how else do you commemorate the date on which John Donne, quite possibly the greatest of the 17th-century English metaphysical poets, died (in 1631), and Ewan McGregor, quite possibly the most charming actor in the history of Scotland, was born (in 1971)? And what do you mean, you don't see the parity?

Donne is such an entracing poet, filling his verses with unexpected similes and egghead allusions that flatter both heart and head; if Hollywood could figure out how to adapt poems into movies, he'd be just as much a household name as Shakespeare is. His sermons are also divinely interesting, even if you're not a liturgical lass or a fella of faith. Donne himself was notoriously torn throughout his life between the Catholicism into which he was born and the Anglicanism he embraced later in life, enough so that he became a Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral before he died. One of his greatest poems, Holy Sonnet 14, captures the brute desperation of a tortured skeptic better than any other text in our literature. The agony you hear in the verse, controversial indeed from such a prominent ecclesiastical figure, was part of the reason almost none of Donne's poems were published till after he died.

But this ain't no seminar table. And it ain't no country club, neither. This is Nick's Flick Picks, and we're into sacrilege and desublimation. Or maybe we just sublimate different stuff—like Ewan, for example, who sang like an angel in Moulin Rouge! and like a hellcat in Velvet Goldmine, nailing both roles. He's one of those underrated actors who seems like a totally different performer from role to role (at least when the movie holds his interest *cough*Obi-Wan*cough*). One day he'll get his due. And say this for Ewan: he might have been born on 3/31, but he's been more than happy to trot out the old birthday suit all year 'round. (As well he might; I mean, dang.) And so, I say to Ewan:

"Batter my heart, three-personed God; for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurped town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but O to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betrothed unto your enemy.
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again;
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me."

Sure sounds different with this in mind, don't it? —

And who knew that Derek was Ewan's enemy—unless, of course, they mean my other betrothed? Ah, you learn something every day.

Oh, and btw, y'all, I'm heading out for a faraway family occasion for a few days, but don't you worry. The inanity will strike back some time around Sunday night.

Photo from The Pillow Book (top) © 1996 Canal+/Channel Four Films. Photo from Velvet Goldmine (bottom left) © 1998 Miramax Films. Photo from Moulin Rouge! (bottom right) © 2001 20th Century Fox Pictures.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Man with a Movie Camera

As in, does anybody put one to better use than Stuart Dryburgh, the English cinematographer who celebrates his 53rd year today? At least in his two collaborations with director Jane Campion, Dryburgh managed to create startlingly modern images that nonetheless hearkened back to the earliest days of photography—not just in the stop-motion trick shots in The Portrait of a Lady or the wedding-picture scene in my all-time favorite movie, The Piano, but in all of the tight close-ups, gleaming skin tones, aquefarious blues, sepia mists, and daguerreotype purples. These are easily two of the most gorgeous English-language movies of the 1990s, and aside from a weakness for wild angles and a few self-quotations (like Barbara Hershey framed at her piano in Portrait), their styles are admirably distinctive. Don't tell me you can look at these images...

...and not want to see the movie that they are from. In fact, don't admit to me that you haven't seen the movie that they're from. Don't even live like this. LOG. OFF. and go rent it. Really, you should be renting out the 35mm reels and projecting those babies on the side of your house, because the available DVDs for both Piano and Portrait are hair-risingly careless in their transfer quality and packaging materials. But that's a fight for another day. Just savor these images. Look at that closeup of Holly Hunter's hand caressing her piano keys through a crack in the packing-crate. Tell me that isn't from a silent movie.

Meanwhile, my man Stuart has not exactly had the career I would have expected since the two-shot with Campion. The same year as Portrait, he lent some nice photography to John Sayles' sprawling and subversive Lone Star (another great rental), but for some reason, he's been dicking around ever since in a bunch of romantic comedies, whether agreeable (Bridget Jones's Diary), forgettable (Kate & Leopold), or downright execrable (Runaway Bride, whose look was as garish as the writing, the performances, and the premise). The forthcoming Aeon Flux may or may not inspire confidence.

Come back to the 5 and Dime, Stuart D, Stuart D.! Obviously, this dude works well with women directors and he's a genius at the 19th century, so I'm hanging my hopes on Liv Ullmann's forthcoming adaptation of A Doll's House, starring Kate Winslet (!), John Cusack (?), and Tim Roth (mmmm...). Meanwhile, I can't be playing favorites, so here's some luscious Portraiture to look at on your way out, including the most remarkable dying scene in recent memory, when John Gielgud's character yawns himself into permanent sleep. Happy birthday, Stu. You changed my life, man.

Photo of Dryburgh © 1996 by Samuel Goldwyn Film. Photos from The Piano © 1993 by Miramax Films/Artisan Home Entertainment. Photos from The Portrait of a Lady © 1996 by Gramercy Pictures/Polygram Filmed Entertainment.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

He's the Top

The best English director whom the mainstream still hasn't heard of, and whom the American art-house keeps shrugging off, is the preternaturally prolific Michael Winterbottom, who turns 44 today. In the last ten years, Winterbottom has produced 13 full-length features, and most of them have been terrifically good. You have to reach back to Fassbinder—a hero to Winterbottom, by the way—to approximate that kind of track record. (Or maybe you don't, but I can't think of any rivals.)

Mike recently wrapped principal photography on his upcoming, appropriately tricksterish adaptation of the great 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy, which will hopefully upset literary purists as much as Tony Richardson's Tom Jones did in the early 1960s. Before we find out, there's obviously plenty of good-to-great Winterbottom to explore at the rental store. Go know!

  • Butterfly Kiss (1995) is a road movie about two women caught in a sort of sadomasochistic endgame, with Amanda Plummer (Pulp Fiction) as frenzied as she's ever been as the bondage-wearing, nerve-rattling serial killer in the couple. Sounds wildly over the top, and every once in a while it is, but there is an impressive emotional sincerity to the film, and the feeling of being a caught in a relationship you can't get out of is scarily well-evoked. This is thematically somewhere between Monster and Heavenly Creatures, and if it isn't quite their equal in quality, it's still not easily ignored.

  • As much as Butterfly Kiss intrigued me, I really got on the Winterbottom train with Jude (1996), his bracing adaptation of Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. The essential coldness of the story has not been diminished, though the spirit, intelligence, and enormous charisma of Christohper Eccleston, Rachel Griffiths, and not-yet-a-star Kate Winslet warm the whole thing into something remarkably human and brilliantly accessible. One of the very best of the mid-90s costume dramas, in no small part care of cinematographer Eduardo Serra (The Wings of the Dove, Girl with a Pearl Earring).

  • Welcome to Sarajevo kind of got lost in December 1997, with Miramax leaning so heavily behind Good Will Hunting, but it should have helped Winterbottom cross over. The portrait of English and American journalists covering the standoffs and urban massacres of the Bosnian War is tense and evocative in the spirit of good Costa-Gavras. You do come to care about the characters, especially when Stephen Dillane's taciturn reporter makes a heroically illegal (and vaguely audience-pandering) attempt to smuggle a young Bosnian girl back to England as his child. Whatever its occasional limits, there's no arguing with the editing, the performances, or the well-earned sobriety of the piece.

  • Winterbottom does Hardy again in The Claim, although this time The Mayor of Casterbridge has been transplanted to a McCabe-era Pacific Northwest. Regular Winterbottom screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce does a splendid job both of adapting the novel and of particularizing it to its new context, and the acting by Peter Mullan, Sarah Polley, Nastassja Kinski, and where-did-he-go American Beauty alum Wes Bentley is excellent. (Even Milla Jovovich pans out in this film.) Laurels, however, are reserved for Michael Nyman's score and for cinematographer Alwin Küchler, a hero in the making who would return to Winterbottom's side for Code 46.

  • The Berlin Film Festival prize-winner In This World is both a typical and an atypical Winterbottom picture. Its non-actor cast of mostly displaced Afghanis strive for weeks to smuggle themselves to faraway Europe, with uneven results. Filmed in a heartbreaking series of close quarters, agonizing waits, brushes with disaster, and rays of hope, In This World cuts right to the heart of modern problems of asylum, fugitivity, and border-crossing as a means of staying alive. The music is occasionally sentimental, but the editing and the (non-)performances never are, plus the photography and the sound design are modestly scaled miracles. Maybe Winterbottom's best.

  • Released in the US last year to exactly no fanfare, Code 46 has a decent chance of a belated, Blade Runner-type cult following. Formally, it's a film at loose ends, to be sure, which is perfectly consistent with its story and themes. In the near future, tolerable life conditions are found only in the largest, best-fortified cities (echoes of In This World), emotions are downloadable and injectable like antibodies, and the normalized practice of human cloning leads to an epidemic problem of unconscious incest (echoes of Jude). Bear in mind, though, that "incest" isn't a bad synonym for the totally inbred self-absorption of our wealthiest cities and states—yes, even now. If you're a sci-fi fan, even on an occasional basis, you'll marvel at how fully (yet cheaply) Winterbottom and his crack visual team have invented a future. If you're a Samantha Morton fan, you'll remain one. This title is still on the New Releases shelf, right between Closer and Collateral. Stop ignoring it.

In my own Winterbottom adventures, I still have his modest pop success 24 Hour Party People to go, as well as Wonderland, which looks to be his stab at a Hannah and Her Sisters-style female dramedy. (Thanks, Tim!!) 9 Songs, released last year, was widely derided for its mind-boggling amounts of unsimulated sex between its actors, all in the service of not much story—but when it eventually makes its way to America, I'll give it a go. Winterbottom excels at films about journeys, even when they're only internal, which pretty much means that I'll follow him anywhere.

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Years, The Waves

The anniversaries keep coming, folks, but we are back on the serious tip. And I have to admit, I'm feeling a little melancholy about this one, because 64 years ago today—March 28, 1941—was the day that Virginia Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse. It's troubling enough to remember anyone who took her own life, much less one of the greatest writers the language has ever seen. (My favorite Woolf novel is generally whichever one I have read most recently.) But it's hard for me to recall the circumstances of Woolf's death and not think in terms of parallels to our current global moment. The massive revival of warfare around the world played a huge role in prompting Woolf's deep, final depression, the last of several serious bouts she experienced during her life. At times, a story like that gets repeated so often and grows so distant in our collective past that it becomes a way of romanticizing a writer's spirit—how Woolf felt the world so deeply that she couldn't bear the war, etc. But living as we do today, both in the thick and on the precipice of what seem like countless conflicts and disasters, it seems remarkably easy to grasp how she might have felt. I'm not trying to bring down the room on Monday morning or make it sound like I personally am in any sort of grave state. But this year, Woolf's death doesn't seem like a literary anecdote so much as a cautionary tale, not just something she did but something anyone now living might do.

Consider this passage, plucked virtually at random from Jacob's Room, one of her most luminous novels. Remember her gift for connecting the most basic issues of personal identity and experience to the broadest conundrums of ethics and of life. The narrator is speaking rather specifically here about sexual politics, but it reads just as well as a statement on the limits and needs of human compassion:

It seems then that men and women are equally at fault. It seems that a profound, impartial, and absolutely just opinion of our fellow-creatures is utterly unknown. Either we are men, or we are women. Either we are cold, or we are sentimental. Either we are young, or growing old. In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows....

Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.

Photograph © 1902 by George Charles Beresford, c/o The National Portrait Gallery, London. Passage from Jacob's Room © 1922. Harvest Book Edition (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1960), pp. 71-72.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Mimi Agonistes

After the birthdays we celebrated yesterday, this one might seem like a step down, if you're not thinking that "Can't Take That Away (Mariah's Theme)" and A Streetcar Named Desire inhabit the same cultural plane. But Mariah is 35 today, and somebody oughta notice. And listen, I am not going to sit here and lie to you and pretend that I don't know all the words to "Can't Take That Away (Mariah's Theme)," or that I haven't brought that shit home in the shower a time or two. And when I do, I like to think that somewhere, a pauvre, feckless, post-"nervous exhaustion" butterfly is finally getting her wings.

All of which is part of a larger admission, which is that one of my curses on this spinning ball of sand and spit is that I'm a Mariah Carey fan, and I cannot help it. We in Mariah's camp—which is different than Camp Mariah, and if you're a fan, you know what that is—we hang in there for her. If this girl wants to smash dishes and spin out on TRL, I'm still there. Yeah, Glitter was hard, even for us, but Wisegirls worked out just fine, with Mariah channeling Diane Ladd from Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. And if I'm really going to stick my neck out, the Glitter soundtrack needed no excuses. That was a great 80s album that just happened to be born 15 years too late. I will spend my entire life answering the question, "Where were you on Sept 11th?" with the honest answer, "Buying the Glitter soundtrack at Sam Goody, the minute the store opened" and for that alone, Mariah owes me.

So now, to even the stakes a little on that debt, and by way of a birthday present, and in the spirit of my fandom that has not strayed, I do have a couple of suggestions for Mariah that I really think would help her recapture some of that luster she's been missing:

  • Honey, you gotta lay off the airbrush. I won't even say anything about the poses or the outfits of your typical photo spreads, because even they would be permissible if your skin weren't consistently re-pixellated into something quite so Polar Express. The album covers are the worst offenders in this regard, and the new one is like an all-time low. As many songs as you sing about being at peace with yourself, let's allow that message to sink in a little, now that we're 35 years in. Cyborg≠sexy.

  • Honey, I am not gonna call you Mimi. We already had this discussion when you briefly tried to rechristen yourself "Honey B. Fly." Don't gimme that Eternal Sunshine look, you know I remember. And now you're doing it again. Your name is Mariah.

  • OK, the reinvention/emancipation thing. The butterfly motif has gotten a lotta play, but I got it at the time: emerging from that marriage, coming off a big-ass haul of Grammy nominations in '96, you were doin' it for yourself, ringing on your own bell. Then we kind of gilded the lily with the whole rainbow mythology, as in, "Over the----" and "I've finally found the end of my----." And now, The Emancipation of Mimi. Girlfriend has been "liberated" more times than James Brown, Bobby Brown, and "the good people of Afghanistan" all put together. At some point, you gotta bring to the table who you are now, instead of who you're still becoming. (Note that when Madonna is ready for a reinvention, she just does that shit, and we all go along with it.)

  • "Genius of Love" by the Tom Tom Club: it's bedtime. I don't know how you scored two #1 singles by sampling the same hook from the same song, but you got away with murder. No love lost, you know: "Fantasy" and "Heartbreaker" were amazing. But three times is not the charm. Cast wide thy nets.

  • The Mariahisms. These have to be read to be believed, as they are, quite literally, the stupidest things in existence, and when I say that, I am not forgetting either Jessica Simpson or that brand of PB&J that comes all together in the same jar. Mariah, your webmaster oughta know.

  • (I changed my mind about the Mariahisms. I love them. They are too reliably funny in their absolute empty-headedness. The all-star run that stretches from "Complete and Total Joke" through "Dramaticking" is a highlight, as are the moments when she explains what "Okaaaaaay" and "Oh My" mean, and the notion that Mariah Carey invented scare quotes. But really, the best is saved for last: check out the explanation of "You Love Me." You guys, this is a trove.)

Mariah, I gotta go. But I'm glad we had this talk, because I think eventually things will come around for you. Don't you want to have the Cher career, where you drop off the radar for years at a time and then make everyone love you again in one fell swoop? Rinse, repeat? [You love me!] It could happen.

Touched by an Angel?

I just got these photos developed yesterday, and look at what I noticed.

Here's my partner walking up the stairs from my/our basement, amidst moving, about five years ago (I don't develop photos all that often):

Seems mundane enough, right? But look closer:

What's with the halo???

Leia to Luke: "I know...somehow I've always known."

Derek: my own little angel in America! The Great Work begins!