Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Long Road to Doc

Actually, the road isn't too long anymore, with only 20 days to go before my defense, on June 20. All y'all well-wishers out there warm my heart every time you offer an encouragement or a kind word, so you—just as much as Madonna & Co.—are really getting me through this last push. Really, thank you!

Of course, "last push" is deceptive in two directions. Defending on the 20th means I have to have absolutely everything handed in to my advisors by June 13th at the latest, so I'm down to two weeks of writing and revising. At this point, 233 pages are written, of which 143 are in their final, proofed form. So I still have to copy-edit, rephrase, and in some cases restructure those other 90, plus write the last 30 pages of Chapter 3, all in the next 13 days. (O, unlucky number!) And then, even if I pass the defense, which pretty much everyone in our department does, it's usually on the condition that you revise again, based on your advisors' recommendations. So it ain't really over till that whole kaboodle goes to the Dissertation Filing Office on or before August 1. That's just some background for people who've been writing in to ask how these things work.

In terms of how this whole process feels, especially in these last weeks, the best answer I can give is, you don't ever get to being Doc without also being Happy, Grumpy, Sleepy, Sneezy, Bashful, and Dopey along the way. Refer to the diagram above: the Dissertation Fairy wakes up every morning, waves her capricious hand, and sets the mood of how your writing suddenly looks to you, how you feel about your entire idea and everything you've done to try to prove it, and what other factors in your life are either helping or hindering you from doing good work.

Today, the Fairy was pretty kind. I am 50% Happy and 50% Sleepy. These days, that's a good ratio. (Sunday, I was 60% Grumpy, 10% Sneezy, and 30% Bashful...as in, how will I possibly ever show this swill I've written to people I respect?) To make this all a little easier to follow, because I'm sure you are all positively entranced, I've added the Dwarf-o-Meter up top.

(Finally, just FYI, there will be only light blogging between now and Monday... beyond dissertation hysteria, I'll be in New York City helping my partner move and then down in Georgia with half the Cornell English Department, past and present, watching Lady and Lord Shazizzle get married. On that day, which is Saturday, June 4, you can infer that I am 100% Happy.)

Sunday, May 29, 2005

You can reach me at...

Ever feel like you are not the person people perceive you to be? Ever wonder if you're horrendously disappointing people?

I'm not trying to get all deep and morbid on y'all. Actually, this is just a funny way of setting up the fact that I finally registered for a SiteMeter, which is the little Rainbow Flag-looking gadget you'll now find at the bottom of the sidebar. (It looks like one of those Out and Proud decals, and that's cool, too.) Anyway, the little feller is able to tell me what websites lead to the most traffic on my site, and even better, in the cases of search engines, what search terms people used to find me. By far the most common are a buncha variations on "Nick Davis" or "Nick Davis film reviews" or "Nick picks flicks," all of which suggest to me that people cannot remember the exact syntax of my tongue-twisting site name, which is my own bad. But look, y'all, I dare you to come up with something better that isn't taken.

From here, it gets funnier. When you discount all the stuff based on my name, the runaway most common search term is "three-legged man." Normally, I guess I'd be flattered at this quirk of Google, but y'all know it's just about that John Donne/Ewan McGregor piece I posted a while back, on the shared anniversary of Donne's death and Ewan's birth. Brothers don't tend to stay around longer than 0:01 when they click on my link—apparently, they don't all have metaphysical poetry in mind. (Not that I did either, at least not exclusively.)

The pattern continues, in more surprising form. Like, someone just hit me up by Googling the term "erotic stripshow." It only works in quotes, i.e., as a holistic phrase, but do you know that I come up first on a Google search of "erotic stripshow"??! This, it turns out, is because of a stray line of plot description in my capsule review of Secret Things. This wayfarer of the cybernetic ocean didn't get off too well, either; another 0:01 visit.

The third most popular search term is "Katharine Hepburn's brownies," though the amount of violence done to the proper spelling of Ms. Hepburn's name is enough to make anyone agog, Kate especially. (Did y'all know she used to return fan letters with the misspellings, typos, and syntactical errors circled in red ink, if there were too many for her to stomach? True story. Can't really see Reese Witherspoon or Scarlett Johansson doing that.)

So, I guess that's my site in a nutshell, at least according to Google: a 24-hour cabaret of well-endowed men doffing their duds while the oven preheats. Maybe you thought you knew what you were reading, but you haven't been paying enough attention between the lines.

P.S. It just occurred to me that an unwitting side-effect of this post is that all of the above phrases will be even better-represented on this site, only increasing the likelihood that people will use them to get here. As in most moments of crisis or ambivalence, my mind inclines toward what Paris Hilton would do or say in the same situation, and I'm pretty sure that she would advise me that no publicity is bad publicity.

So, make yourself at home, y'all. Here's a sifter and a dollar bill.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Good Vibrations

Taking my own advice, my best news is that Dissertation Chapter #2 is about to go on lock-down: that'll be two down, one more to go, plus the Intro and the Epilogue. One day I'll actually get to go places, do stuff, write real reviews, and for goodness' sake, talk to all of the friends whom I thank in my Acknowledgments!

Meanwhile, here's some props to 19 folks who aren't in my acknowledgments but should be, since they're on the Mix CD that's been pushing me through these last two chapters. Granted it's my own music, so there's no reason I shouldn't like it, but I do like to think I can make a good mix. What I'd really like to do is try out one of my CDs as a dinner party, so we could finally learn what Mahalia Jackson has to say to Steve Perry, and Reba McEntire could compare gunshot wounds with 50 Cent.

For those of you who wanna get so so def amidst your own writing project—this mix ain't party material, but it still bounces—here's the recipe. Song titles are links to their respective albums:

1. "Beethoven (I Love To Listen To)," Eurythmics
The pounding opener to the Savage album, this is my favorite Eurythmics track, unless that prize goes to "Missionary Man." It's certainly my favorite Eurythmics video: Annie goes from being a bored, knitting housewife who looks like Phyllis Logan in Secrets & Lies to a pimped-out drag queen throwing flour around her kitchen before hitting the street. Special accent: the whirring of plane engines that starts the track also makes it ideal for opening the disc. Nick's Flick Picks thinks of these things.

2. "Cake," The B-52's
Another under-appreciated gem from another '80s staple. The dames have exclusive vocal rights on this one, and right outta the gate, Cindy is tearing into it like it's "Hero Worship." Then she and Kate drop everything and just swap recipes like the tin-roof Southern divas they are. "If you wanna better batter beat it harder!": a good mantra for dissertation-writing.

3. "Jesus Met the Woman at the Well," Mahalia Jackson
If you don't own a copy of Mahalia Jackson Sings America's Favorite Hymns, how can I help you? Don't go with, "But I'm not religious." Me either, but I do worship Mahalia, who is to gospel what Aretha is to R&B. Which is to say, Queen Bee. And she can be funny: Mahalia drops a lot of consonants in this song to keep you from figuring it out (is she embarrassed?), but the song is about a polygamist who cozies up to Jesus with her latest boyfriend in tow, until the Big Man calls her out and sends her running. Classic.

4. "Running Up That Hill," Kate Bush
I didn't party with Kate Bush for a long time, because all I knew was the "Love & Anger" track from The Sensual World, and I wasn't moved. Plus, with my Stevie Nicks addiction, I already had that grown-up-lit-mag-queen niche filled up. But then I heard this track about a year ago, and I immediately wanted a window to break and a moor to run out upon. This chick made the Casio work for her! And didja know 2Pac was a huge fan? Thus quoth Tupac: Resurrection.

5. "Africa," J.C. Ojwang
Bernardo Bertolucci's Besieged is a good film, but the soundtrack is classic. JC Ojwang, a singer I haven't been able to learn much about (including what country in Africa he is from), begins the movie with this offhand anthem about African nations and peoples. I'm guessing he's from central Africa, given that Burundi, Uganda, and Tanzania/Tanganyika are all paid tribute to. I don't speak the language, but you don't hafta, when the music is this great.

6. "Groove Is in the Heart," Deee-lite
If ever a song needed no justification, no elaboration, it's this one. I couldn't ask for another, either, Lady Miss Kier. Your groove I do deeply dig.

7. "Lullaby," The Cure
I am still feeling Disintegration after all these years, but this is one of the few songs that survives in isolation from the context of the album. Creepy stuff about being gobbled by hairy-mouthed Spider men, but you can tell Robert Smith is having fun singing it.

8. "Don't Stop Believin'," Journey
Elsewhere, I'm linking to Amazon copies of the original albums these cuts came off of, but in Journey's case, you've just gotta go with Greatest Hits. You're sparing yourself a lot of album-only tracks that need sparing, but also, why deny yourself the "Don't Stop" - "Wheel in the Sky" - "Faithfully" hat trick? I've always had a soft spot for this song, even though now it makes me want to cry, because this is what's playing when Aileen and Selby go rollerskating. When the track picks up again over the end credits, given what you've just seen, you just want to die. Peacefully.

9. "At Seventeen," Janis Ian
An old stand-by, because it just hits the triple-crown: gorgeous melody, gorgeous lyrics, gorgeous delivery. She was 24 when the song came out, and most people never write a song this good, ever. It's like her own little suburban sociology dissertation in 4½ minutes. My dissertation aspires to be this good. But then, on the other end of "How I Spent My Adolescence"...

10. "Fancy," Reba McEntire
I blogged about this song a few weeks back when it showed up unexpectedly on the radio and made my whole day. I remember when Reebs threw this down on Oprah, "nigh on 15 years" ago, and I'm not sure that audience was really Reba's base, but she won them all over, as she did me. This shit is fierce: "You know I might have been born just plain white trash, but 'Fancy' was my name!"

11. "Inside of Me," Madonna
Obviously, as Madonna fans, we live and die by the 80's stuff. (Why aren't "Dress You Up" and "Angel" on The Immaculate Collection?? Sorry, private beef.) Still, I might have to give it up to Bedtime Stories as her most coherent, sexy, and relaxed album, and this is one of my favorite tracks. The song totally doesn't require it, but you can have some double-entendre fun pretending she's singing it to her ol' boy Jesus, now that she's on her way to Kabbalah. In Madge terms, it's an anachronism, but that's what deconstruction is about, toots.

12. "Twilight," Elliott Smith
I'm more of an Elliott person than a Rufus person, for those of y'all who oscillate. Then again, I barely know any of Elliott's stuff. I need to get on that. But I first heard this track in, of all places, a screening room at the Angelika in NYC, while waiting to see Open Water. Why can't Regal ever play this kind of stuff over the speakers instead of all those Coke ads with NASCAR drivers? (Oh, by the way, if it weren't for Cassandra down at #18, this would be the most beautiful song on the mix.)

13. "Heart and Soul," T'Pau
Another one of those 80s songs you know and love, even if you don't know you know it. (If you don't love it, you're only hurting yourself.) I have storyboarded an opening credits sequence to a movie I am sure I will never make that involves this song, a ballet dancer, and a Xerox machine. The world will never know. P.S.: I love the Amazon user comment that calls T'Pau "Kate Bush meets Def Leppard." Righto.

14. "Bugaboo," Destiny's Child
This song isn't boo compared to "Bootylicious" or "Independent Woman," or even "Jumpin Jumpin" on the same album, but it makes me laugh, because Beyoncé takes it into her little hummingbird mind to trill out on completely plodding phrases like "Throw out my pager!" MCI and AOL even make product-placement appearances in the chorus of the song, though after the WorldCom thing and the TimeWarner dump of AOL, they might want to digitally insert new companies. If you're a telecommunications CEO, you can call Beyoncé's daddy with your best offer.

15. "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," Susan Tedeschi
We've got a breathtaking Neil Young cover coming up on the album, but here's a pit-stop in a breathtaking Bob Dylan cover. It's not that I don't love Bob, but Susan Tedeschi, barely 30, sounds a good deal older while she brings this one home. You won't catch me hating on Christina Aguilera, ever, but that Best New Artist Grammy didn't necessarily go home with the right gal. Meanwhile, my friend Amanda made best-ever use of this song as the caption to her Yearbook photo as a senior in high school: "I ain't saying that you treated me unkind/ You coulda done better, but I don't mind/ You just kinda wasted all of my precious time/ Don't think twice, it's all right."

16. "In da Club," 50 Cent
I don't know that the world was exactly in dire straits without 50 Cent, but then, this is a "Gin and Juice"-level club hopper. He must've liked the track, since "Candy Shop" is basically the same gig. It isn't like Dre's productions ever really change that much. But who's arguing? If you're transcribing long drop-quotes of theory, having this track in the background gives 'em that little bit of Extra. (Thanks, Safire, for that all-purpose term.)

17. "Honey Molasses," Jill Scott
A two-minute mood insert with soft but killer percussion. "In a circle of passion, we/ Paris, Italy,/ Japan, Africa, Rome/ We made music/ We trombone..." Dang, Jill, who did you like that?

18. "Harvest Moon," Cassandra Wilson
Quick quiz: What is the most beautiful song interpretation ever? If you've ever listened to a Neil Young song and thought, "That would even be beautiful, if a different voice were attached," then this midnight serenade by Cassandra Wilson is your ticket. If Neil doesn't love this, he's just jealous.

19. "Dedicated to the One I Love," The Mamas & the Papas
Cass, Michelle, and gang have been well-represented in the cinema these past few years. Chungking Express makes "California Dreamin'" seem like the most exquisite object ever created. Beautiful Thing makes Cass' case for sainthood, even in a pits part of Manchester. Then Morvern Callar—the best English-language movie of the last five years—drops "Dedicated" right where I'm dropping it: at the end. Though it's better if you don't know it's coming. Hopefully you've already seen it. Otherwise, forget what I just said. Just listen to the track, man.

This entry has been brought to you courtesy of many lunch, snack, and blogging breaks from Ch. 2. Think my musical tastes are all right, or do you find that they run toward the wack end of things? Call it like you see it. I still love my CD, though.

Keep on Raising That Roof...

Jecca and Willy have their beautiful baby, Karen and Jerry announce their engagement, and now the infamous Dr. S. who lingers in my Comments section gets a tenure offer from her esteemed institution of learning. And a week from today, Lady Shazizzle herself will be Lady Shazizzle Manganelli. And the latest crop of Cornell graduates are sliding their tassels to the other side of the mortarboard right about now... as is the Class of 2005 at Wells College. Right on, graduates! (Forget about "plastics" - be a humanities scholar!)

Meanwhile, you go, Dr. S. You go, Lady & Lord Shazizzle. Who else has got good news? That's what Comments are for... (cue: "Keep smiling, keep shining...")


I know a lot of cat people, but I'm sorry, y'all, this is crazy. I know a lot of cat people, but I'm sorry, y'all, this is crazy.

Apologies to Nanette, Cleo, Monty, Taag, Slash, and the other cats in or near my life. It's all in the spirit of saying you are irreplaceable. (Even though I am allergic.)

Friday, May 27, 2005

It's a Boy!

We already knew it would be, but Henry Emmett Hutcheson joined the world yesterday. Henry got lucky, with an all-season lifetime pass into one of the cutest, nicest families in Ithaca, including his impossibly adorable brother Otis.

From the looks of things, Henry's gonna be just as cute. Love those eyebrows.

Congrats to the Fantastic Four of the Hutcheson clan. I can't wait to meet the little man!

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Sing Out, Gwen

Priscilla Owen's confirmation, the burning crosses in North Carolina, the looming cloud of John Bolton, the U.S. Army's lies about Pat Tillman, the foolishness of Scott McClellan, and the New York Times still burying the lead on Ismail Merchant. (For those of you who did not get a secret decoder ring to go with the newly printed obituary, the sentence "En route to the festival, Mr. Merchant met Mr. Ivory, and they formed a partnership to make English-language features in India for the international market" translates to "In 1961, Ismail Merchant met the man who was his lover, friend, and artistic collaborator for 44 years, until his death." Thank God these gadgets still come in the Cracker Jacks boxes.)

How this country and this world stand so much, I don't know. But these are the days when you get out the Gwendolyn Brooks anthology, both to enjoy the luscious perfection of the writing and to remind yourself that some people did manage to understand some things about the world before they left it, and out of sheer generosity—and with hope—they put it down for the rest of us. "Paul Robeson" is in every way a great poem, but linger on those last six lines:

That time
we all heard it,
cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day.
The major Voice.
The adult Voice
forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge
and other symptoms of an old despond.
Warning, in music-words
devout and large,

that we are each other's
we are each other's
we are each other's
magnitude and bond.

Among other things, this poem is about acknowledging the dastardly pain in the world, and its sinister history, but getting back to the idea that our universal companionship with each other actually matters. Someone in this world will eventually sing again the way Paul did. Even though we miss her, Gwendolyn is still singing, too.

P.S. Some people, including certain newly-minted federal judges, make it a habit and a point of pride not to learn this lesson. Gwendolyn, that sly fox, has already beat them at their game. Fanning through the table of contents, I am reminded that she also wrote a poem called, ahem, "Priscilla Assails the Sepulchre of Love." The poem ends this way ("she" is the speaker's own body):

I keep my keys away that she
May never have to find

The enameled winter of your heart,
The pastels of your mind.

Nobody, and I mean nobody, did it better, Ms. Brooks.

Where Have All the Good Films Gone?

I'm getting pretty sick of hearing about the box-office doldrums lasting week after week, because the aesthetic doldrums have been lasting even longer. By this point in 2005, I have seen 23 films in their first U.S. release, and I haven't cracked beyond a B+ on any of them. My Top 5 at this point would be
  1. Off the Map
  2. Palindromes
  3. Star Wars, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
  4. Downfall
  5. Crash
and only the top two really and truly captured my imagination. Granted, not every year gets a midwinter masterpiece like last year did, but by this point last year, I had also seen Osama, The Return, and Dawn of the Dead, all of which hung on for my Best of Year feature in late December. Off the Map, as shrewd and heartfelt as it is, wouldn't have come close to that list. In fact, it also trails plenty of other Winter and Spring 2004 releases, any of which would be riding the top of my list amid the past few months' competition: Dogville, Kill Bill, Vol. 2, Good bye, Lenin!, Crimson Gold, and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring.

When's the reprieve? I thought I had a chance tonight, scraping out 2½ hours I can't really afford to catch Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows, which only half-deserved its rapturous reviews. There are a few other titles playing downtown which I'm hoping to catch before they jet out of town, but I'll be surprised if Look at Me, Walk on Water, or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room reinvent the wheel.

Among the urban releases that haven't made the hike up to Ithaca yet, I hold out the greatest hopes for these:
  • Lucrecia Martel's The Holy Girl
  • Arnaud Desplechin's Kings and Queen
  • Marco Tullio Giordana's The Best of Youth
  • Kim Ki-Duk's 3-Iron
  • Nimród Antal's Kontroll
  • Susanne Bier's Brothers
  • Bahman Ghobadi's Turtles Can Fly
  • Park Chan-wook's Oldboy
  • Jonathan Nossiter's Mondovino
I would love to put the Antonioni/Soderbergh/Wong anthology Eros on this list, but I am doubt-plagued. As for the multiplex, I don't hold out the faintest hope for anything until Batman Begins, even though I'm enough of a sucker that I'm sure I'll show up for Cinderella Man and Mr. and Mrs. Smith before then.

Anyone who can write in and convince me that good things come to those who starve will be my new best friend. First-hand evidence is especially welcome.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

R.I.P. Ismail Merchant

This tribute to Ismail Merchant just appeared at IMDb on the occasion of his death, at the age of 68. I'm a huge fan of Howards End, of Anthony Hopkins' and Peter Vaughan's performances in The Remains of the Day, of Richard Robbins' scores for lots of their movies (especially Remains), and of so many of the performances and stories they brought to the screen. And when she's on, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala is a superlative scripter.

One quibble, and I hope this doesn't seem like too nasty a time to mention it: why hasn't the couplehood of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant ever been more openly acknowledged? I totally understand people, gay or straight, who don't want to discuss their sexuality or their relationships, but to not even have the fact on the table, when they are already fixed as a duo in the minds of their public? It's not as though Merchant-Ivory had some enormous, heterocentric fan-base that was going to erode if they came out, and at some point, I think it would have been nice to have this on record. I wonder if Merchant's obituaries will speak to this at all. Even the IMDb capsule alludes to their "career together (both personally and professionally)" in a remarkably oblique way. Ah well. Not to snack on the sour grapes, especially on a sad day. But my heart does goes out to James Ivory—now a widower, even if some PR people wish that I didn't think of him that way.

P.S. The AP report on Merchant's death, just up at the New York Times, concludes: "Merchant was unmarried and had no children." Jackasses.


Conscientious Objectors

Walk on Ithaca Commons, and this is the kind of thing you'll learn about: Naval Petty Officer Pablo Paredes and U.S. Army Sgt. Kevin Benderman are both enduring military court martials and public prosecution for refusing to serve in the war. Paredes refused to board his ship in Dec. 2004 on its way to Iraq, and Benderman, having already served one tour of duty in the 3rd Infantry Division, balked at orders to return for a second tour. The stories and ongoing legal cases of both men are worth reading, discussing, and, if you can afford it, supporting with a donation. Paredes and his lawyers have mounted a powerful argument that the war itself is illegal, and that refusing to serve is in fact the duty of law-abiding citizens. The site for Benderman, who seems to be having a much harder time of it in court, allows you to write a letter of encouragement, which can either remain private or be entered in the Congressional Record as an official statement of solidarity.


100 vs. 100

Click over here for Time Magazine's recently published list of the greatest 100 movies ever made. Richard Schickel and Richard Corliss, who split the film-reviewing duties at Time, composed the list in tandem, even though it seems they don't always agree about each other's picks. It's kind of an interesting list, about 50% films that are always on these lists, 30% unique inclusions that still make their own case, and 20% novelties. Obviously, responses to a list like this are just as subjective as the list itself, maybe more so; my own ranked canon of 100 films is here if you wanna know. That's my standing, full-length response to rosters like Time, but to keep on the ground they've established, here's what I think about some (okay, many) of their choices:

Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Camille, Casablanca, Chinatown, Citizen Kane, City Lights, Double Indemnity, Dr. Strangelove, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, , The Fly, The 400 Blows, The Godfather I and II, His Girl Friday, King Kong, The Lady Eve, Man with a Movie Camera, Metropolis, Notorious, Persona, Pinocchio, Psycho, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Raging Bull, Singin' in the Rain, Smiles of a Summer Night, Some Like It Hot, Star Wars, A Streetcar Named Desire, Sunrise, Talk to Her, Taxi Driver

(These are fun, spunky choices, but I wonder...)
Barry Lyndon - Gorgeous, but few people's favorite Kubrick
Chungking Express - Wong's deserving, but is this the film?
Closely Watched Trains - Delicate and memorable, but unexpected
Farewell My Concubine - Opulent and biting, but a tad remote
Kandahar - Hugely intriguing, but manifestly flawed
The Last Command - Great film, but the best of Sternberg?
Mouchette - Great film, but the best of Bresson?

(I've seen it, but I'm not seeing "it")
Brazil - Beyond the ingenious art direction, I'm mostly unmoved
Bride of Frankenstein - Some of the camp plays to me as clunk
Charade - Perfectly titled: a lazy, hollow coo over its stars
City of God - Gripping and important, but has its own problems
Detour - Sometimes overheated B-grade pulp is just that
Finding Nemo - Truly perverse to choose over the Toy Storys
A Hard Day's Night - A key work in a quickly exhausted aesthetic
It's a Wonderful Life - No Mr. Smith or It Happened One Night
The Lord of the Rings - Zeitgeist much? Too early, and too uneven
Miller's Crossing - Deserves another try, but I wasn't hooked
Sweet Smell of Success - The milieu was great, but the story let me down
Umberto D. - A major gaffe of mawkish Italian self-romanticization
Unforgiven - A good but tautological film, perpetually overrated

(Now I have another reason to catch these)
The Apu Trilogy - I've only seen the sublime Pather Panchali
Baby Face - News to me, though I love Stanwyck
Berlin Alexanderplatz - Who's got ten hours free?
Children of Paradise - At four hours, a relative finger-snap
The Crime of Monsieur Lange - The favorite of a good friend
The Crowd - A truly shameful omission
Day for Night - Widely reputed as a cinéaste's treat
The Decalogue - The first insallments didn't convert me
Dodsworth - Nat loves this
Drunken Master II - A long-deferred pleasure
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - Why can't I get excited?
Ikiru - That's one Kurosawa I haven't seen...
In a Lonely Place - The buzz all says it's my speed
Invasion of the Body Snatchers - Looking forward to this
It's a Gift - Promise me that W.C. isn't annoying
Kind Hearts and Coronets - I'm bad with British film
Léolo - On a to-see list I made in 1998!
Mon oncle d'Amérique - Resnais fascinates me
Nayakan - My ignorance about Indian film is appalling
Ninotchka - Garbo + Lubitsch = What's not to love?
Olympia - Not ones to shrink from a controversy, these two
Once Upon a Time in the West - My students often beat me to this
Out of the Past - These two sure love their noir
Pyaasa - Can't say I'd heard of it till now
The Searchers - Literally sitting on top of my TV
The Singing Detective - I miss a lot of TV series, even on DVD
Tokyo Story - I know, I know...
A Touch of Zen - Never heard of this one, either
Ugetsu - Never seen a Mizoguchi; just shoot me
Ulysses' Gaze - I've had it on tape for years
White Heat - Cagney's is billed as one of the greatest perf's
Yojimbo - Kurosawa just isn't my bag, but I'll try

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

It Ain't About Me...

...it's about my friends, two of whom are having big days. First, the good news: Dwight Codr is defending his dissertation this afternoon, on his way to completing his doctorate and setting up shop as a new professor of 18th Century British lit next year at Tulane University. Those little critters down in New Orleans are lucky dogs.

Then, the bad news, though it's all relative: my friend Ann just left for a summer in her hometown of Madison, WI. So, bully for Madison, but it sucks to be me. Ann is another of these spectacular poets I've met in Ithaca, on top of which she is my willing accomplice at all manner of fair-to-abominable movies that no one else will put up with. She also has the brilliant habit, of which I am undisguisedly envious, of summing up her reactions to movies in single, hilarious sentences. Most recently, after Crash, which I liked and she didn't: "I feel like Paul Haggis is sitting at his typewriter, calling over his shoulder, 'Hey baby, can you help me think of something racist to say to an Asian person?'"

Part of Ann's genius is that her pop cultural obsessions and her poetry need not be exclusive. So for all y'all Looney Tunes fans out there, and for all you poetry journals that aren't getting what you're missing, and for anyone who bulks up the credit card debt with things you don't need and know ahead of time won't work, and for anyone who has ever felt like you repeatedly make the same mistake or spend your life chasing the impossible (but secretly enjoy this), here is:

Special Overnight from ACME
Look to the edge and heave
of the road: spot that bird
kicking up its heels, dust—purple
headdress of feathers, beak
the orange of Seville—choke
on the gum of longing: it just won't be
swallowed. I see pillows straining
with down, thick broth, my teeth
gartered at its pebbly thigh. I lose track
of myself, my spending. Boxes pile
on my porch, seething, each scheme—
catapults and earthquake pills, rocket
skates and lassos; the French
forks and knives only good
for what one's already got—
stuffed into the thick privacy of cardboard:
The UPS man says, Sign here
and, Whew, sure is hot. Hot as my stomach,
I could slap it against his face
like an ear, a limp hand. Something's dying
in most of my ideas, maybe me,
but I was born ready. Sometimes I run
in place, in slow motion, face
the mirror: there's the stretch of my face
and crooked jaw snap. This is me
in 2-D, fierce as anything in this desert
but nothing so succulent as this noisy
flash. So light the fuse, trip the switch.
Please, it's all happening. More. Again.

© 2005 Ann Buechner. Don't be stealing the flava without consulting the source. If you're interested, I'll see about putting you in touch.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Cannes Post-Script

Okay, I wasn't done on the Cannes beat. Right now, in the two non-profit theaters in Ithaca, two of last year's Cannes victors—Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows (Best Actor) and Agnès Jaoui's Look at Me/Comme une image (Best Screenplay)—are just now making their local premieres. So it may not behoove me to get too excited about the prospect of seeing this year's slate of contenders anytime soon. Still, Cannes is nothing if not appetizing for the future, and these were the films from this year's crop that I am most eagerly anticipating at an arthouse near me:

#1 A History of Violence David Cronenberg is one of my absolute favorite directors, as well as the subject of my first dissertation chapter—the chapter on which, incidentally, I completed my final revisions today. (Yay!) Any new Cronenberg movie is enough to get me excited, but especially when the reports are so bewildering. Even the bullishly intrepid Mike D'Angelo couldn't quite decide on a number rating for this one. If it's as weirdly discomfiting—and therefore as compulsively watchable—as Dead Ringers or Naked Lunch, color me ecstatic. (IMDb Page)

#2 Manderlay "Most anticipated" movies are not the same as the ones I expect to be good, and I must say I have some serious skepticism about this project. I enjoyed Dogville quite a bit, and I've found that it holds up to repeat viewings, but it seemed to me like more of a one-off than a solid premise for a trilogy. Still, whenever anyone's got anything to say about race, class oppression, the history of slavery, etc., I'm hooked, even if what they have to say is nonsense. Topics covered + Lars' history = I'm ready to pay attention. (IMDb Page)

#3 Hidden/Caché My experience with Haneke is a little scattershot: I've only seen Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, and Time of the Wolf, which made my Top Ten list last year when it opened Stateside. (The Piano Teacher would have done the same if 2002 hadn't been such a superlative movie year.) The reviews for this film were exceptional, I love a solid formalist thriller, and French-Algerian relations are another one of those subjects for which I have a standing weakness. Which reminds me, is anyone ever going to swing a US release for Tony Gatlif's Exils, the French-Algerian drama that won Best Director at last year's Cannes? At least Caché already has US distribution in place. (IMDb Page)

#4 The Wayward Cloud This one has been building huge buzz since Berlin, and I can only live so much longer without having seen any of Tsai Ming-liang's movies. They sound right up my "Weird" alley, with a camp/homoerotic bent (always a plus). And look what happened when I went searching for a photo: I found this image of what is, indeed, a man either caressing a woman's vagina with a watermelon, or possibly trying to insert it. Whaa? Color me intrigued. Incidentally, The Wayward Cloud was only in the "Market" section of Cannes, not in any of the official programs, but Mike D'Angelo and others still wrote it up, and I'm still stoked. Which reminds me: what am I going to do next year without Cornell cinema?? (IMDb Page)

#5 The Child/L'Enfant Any film that won the Palme d'Or would have a leg up on my viewing list, but my interest in the Dardennes' work has been steadily growing. Thus far, I've only seen Rosetta; their last picture, The Son, was a critical favorite around the world, but it played for two seconds in Ithaca, while I was out of town and then took its good time coming to DVD. So I'm actually eager to see any of the Dardennes' recent work, up to and including this latest. I love filmmakers who can squeeze a lot of affect out of a seemingly simple aesthetic, which is different than squeezing a lot of affect out of a fussily "simple" aesthetic, as with most of the Dogme films. (IMDb Page)

#6 Match Point Remi Adefarasin! Say it three times fast, 'cuz he's the genius cinematographer behind the ice blues of Onegin, the inky shadows of the palace in Elizabeth, and the high-society chilliness of The House of Mirth. Now, he's working for Woody, who, say what you will about his lack of a stable aesthetic, at least works with some interesting D.P.s. And Remi showed he knows how to light Scarlett Johansson in this winter's beguiling In Good Company. And, if all the reports are true, it seems that Woody remembered how to write. Say that it's so! (IMDb Page)

#7 Don't Come Knocking I will see any movie where Jessica Lange plays a long-lost flame, and that's lucky for me, because there were two of them at Cannes. I am particularly excited about Don't Come Knocking because, like Lange herself (maybe my favorite American actress), writer-star Sam Shepard and director Wim Wenders are such mercurial talents. Sometimes they just... stall. And other times they generate something really interesting, like the last Shepard-Wenders collabo, Paris, Texas. I didn't love that film, and there's a self-romanticizing streak in both men's work that can spoil even a good thing, but I'm still intrigued by what this movie's got to offer. (IMDb Page)

#8 Three Times As I wrote earlier, Hou Hsiao-hsien's appeal kind of eludes me. I did think A Time to Live, a Time to Die was lovely and involving, especially in the final sequences. Maybe I was just tired, but I remember The Puppetmaster being quite a slog, and I usually love long, quiet movies. Millennium Mambo had me for a while until that film, too, seemed to get stuck in an endless rut of gossamer mood accents. But I'm always hoping I'll come around, because so many people see so much in Hou's work, so if Three Times ever makes it to an American theater—with Hou, you can never take that for granted—I, for one, will show up. And I'll try. I'll at least take three bites before I decide I don't like it. (IMDb Page for Hou Hsiao-hsien)

#9 Down in the Valley Some interesting reviews are building behind this film, which none of the critics seem to describe quite the same way, and whose secrets they seem to be glad to preserve. Hmmmm. Edward Norton and I have been seeing other people for a few years now. Am I the only one who thought he started sending out this weird Self-Importance vibe, right around the time he started turning in the same performance in film after film? Even in 25th Hour, a film I really liked (and apparently he did, too), he seemed bored and uninspired to me. If this film restores the Edward I loved, I'm prepared to take him back. Also, I'm getting these nasty, risky, Blood Simple sensations from reading the write-ups, and if that's a fair comparison, it's a good, good thing. Oh, and Ellen Burstyn's in this, too. Yay! (IMDb Page)

#10 Battle in Heaven/Batalla en el cielo Also known as, when bad reviews create unwittingly good buzz. I kept reading that this project was way too self-consciously arty, full of gratuitous and overly explicit sex, recycling the same old shit about modern anomie and the spiritual emptiness of existence, and marred by director pretension. In other words, it got the reviews that Pola X and L'Humanité got at Cannes '99, and demonlover and Irréversible got at Cannes '02. I loved three of those, and thought L'Humanité was just fine (sorry, Manders). So, as these rotten-tomato reviews piled up, my stomach started growling. (IMDb Page)

#11 Broken Flowers By all rights, this film should be higher on this list. If Jessica Lange isn't my favorite actress, Tilda Swinton is, and they are both in this movie. [This is the sound of Nick's head exploding.] Plus Sharon Stone and Julie Delpy, two good eggs, and Frances Conroy, who I'd been writing off until her sharp work as Kate Hepburn's snootily progressive mama in The Aviator. But one of my qualms is named Coffee & Cigarettes, Jim Jarmusch's last picture, which somehow thought that 11 arch vignettes about people who are bored with each other would be something besides arch and boring. And my other qualm is called Bill Murray, who has somehow found his way onto the Tom Hanks fast-track as Our New Beloved Actor. Yeah, Murray was great in Lost in Translation, but when people I trusted started plugging his "brilliant" work in The Life Aquatic, I felt like the schmo who's trying really hard to see the Virgin Mary face in the pancake syrup. It just ain't there, man. I'll be there on opening weekend, but more Ghost Dog and less Rushmore would be a good recipe for pleasing me. (IMDb Page)

#12 The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada I figured this would be the Life and Death of Peter Sellers of this year's festival, especially since it got slotted into the same, ignominious last-day press screening. But reviews were kind, I'm a Barry Pepper fan, and the project sounds like it's going for that whole Cormac McCarthy revisionist-border-mythology thing. I got a little churlish about the prose in All the Pretty Horses but had to confess after I finished it that the book had a soul, and a memorable kick. If Jones' movie has one or both, more power to him. (IMDb Page)

If anyone is wondering about some conspicuous absences, I am only half-excited about Last Days, even though it seems like a better subject for Gus Van Sant's recent aesthetic (ya know, kinda formalist, kinda gauzy) than either Gerry or Elephant provided. The French thriller Lemming sounded interesting, especially with Charlotte Rampling and Laurent Lucas in the cast, but Caché sounds much more inventive and much more topical. Atom Egoyan pretty much lanced my mid-90s interest in his films with the grueling duo of Felicia's Journey and Ararat. If I ever get around to his earlier films I have on tape (Calendar and Family Viewing), I might get piqued again, but if indeed that happens, Where the Truth Lies doesn't seem like the kind of film I'd want as a follow-up. And the Jury Prize notwithstanding, Shanghai Dreams sounds like the sort of wistful, overly stylized Chinese cinema that tends to bore me to tears (see: Springtime in a Small Town, Zhou Yu's Train, etc.)

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Everybody, Cannes, Cannes!

The Cannes Film Festival mostly ended today, with the announcement of its competition awards. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian, film-directing brothers behind Rosetta, La Promesse, and The Son, collectively became only the fifth filmmakers to win a second Palme d'Or, this time for their film The Child. (Their predecessors in that rare distinction were Francis Ford Coppola, Bille August, Shohei Imamura, and this year's jury president, Emir Kusturica.)

Among the Dardennes' acclaimed features, I have still only seen their earlier Palme winner, Rosetta, which got something of a bad rap in 1999 because everyone thought that Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother was a shoo-in to win. I actually think Rosetta is the superior film, though out of the competition films that year, I would have stumped even harder for Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai or David Lynch's The Straight Story.

Anyway, it's hard to say too much about this year's Cannes crops, since I've only seen Sin City, which I found relentlessly two-dimensional and, save for Mickey Rourke's witty performance, utterly inhumane. I can direct you, though, to some kick-ass Palme winners from Cannes pasts. For my own breakdown of the best (and worst) top prizewinners in Cannes history, click here. For a quick cheat sheet, I've seen 41 of the 66 winners, and these are the fifteen titles that I consider genuine masterpieces, in order of preference:

#1 The Piano, dir. Jane Campion (1993)
#2 Taxi Driver, dir. Martin Scorsese (1976)
#3 Taste of Cherry, dir. Abbas Kiarostami (1997 - my review)
#4 The Ballad of Narayama, dir. Shohei Imamura (1983)
#5 Apocalypse Now, dir. Francis Ford Coppola (1979)
#6 The Conversation, dir. Francis Ford Coppola (1974)
#7 Dancer in the Dark, dir. Lars von Trier (2000 - my review)
#8 Viridiana, dir. Luis Buñuel (1961)
#9 La Dolce Vita, dir. Federico Fellini (1960)
#10 The Wages of Fear, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot (1953)
#11 Blow-up, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni (1967)
#12 Under the Sun of Satan, dir. Maurice Pialat (1987)
#13 The Third Man, dir. Carol Reed (1949)
#14 Pulp Fiction, dir. Quentin Tarantino (1994)
#15 Chronicle of the Smoldering Years, dir. Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina (1975)

Now, stay tuned for the Venice and Toronto Festivals in September. (We already know that Ang Lee's gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain is set to debut at Venice, along with a few other leaked titles, but most of the lineup won't be known for a couple of months.)

Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Phantom Menace

I.e., my dissertation, which is gonna gobble the whole weekend. (I've gotta hand in part of it before a lightning-speed trip to Hartford on Monday to look for an apartment.) I'm just saying so's you won't be looking for Blog entries till about Wednesday, when I should be getting back to Ithaca.

By then, Cannes will be halfway over, Revenge of the Sith will be about to drop, and I'll hopefully have a beautiful yet affordable place to wax ecstatic about. So, don't be a stranger.

(Not that you should be hitting my blog for Cannes updates anyway... you should be reading Mike D'Angelo's film grades as they roll in and his full coverage which follows a few hours behind. The New York Times film critics are also joining forces for an engaging Cannes blog.)

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Katharine Hepburn's Brownies

My favorite actress of all time, Katharine Hepburn, would have turned 98 today if she hadn't died in the summer of 2003, at the impressive age of 96. I caught onto Hepburn's career in my very early teens, right around the time her magnificent, funny, and slightly cantankerous memoir was published. I have admired her forever and seen almost all of her movies, barring the soft made-for-TV stuff she started taking in the 80s and 90s. The still above is from her greatest dramatic performance, as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, available on DVD for ridiculously low prices. For your initial Hepburn primer, I'd also include her terrific 1938 double-header of Holiday and Bringing Up Baby, her slithery Southern gothic in Suddenly, Last Summer, her heartbreaking misfit in Alice Adams, and her witty but biting Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter. If you're hooked by then, watch her in absolutely everything else, even shit like Rooster Cogburn. If you're not hooked, I can't help you.

Unless I can, with her delicious brownie recipe. I wasn't kidding about having been obsessed with her. When other 14-year-olds on the army base at Hanau, Germany, were playing soccer or whatever, I was rocking the microfiche in the public library, excavating this recipe from some back issue of Ladies Home Journal. These brownies are scary delicious, because there's proportionally so little flour that they are gooier and feel more chocolatey than your average morsel. So, in her own words (and really, what better way to celebrate her birthday?)...

2 squares unsweetened chocolate
¼ lb. sweet butter (i.e., one stick)
1 C. sugar
2 eggs
½ tsp. vanilla
¼ C flour
¼ tsp. salt
1 C. chopped walnuts

First, melt chocolate and butter in heavy saucepan. Remove from heat and stir in sugar. Add eggs along with vanilla and beat like mad. Stir in flour, salt, and the chopped walnuts—not smashed up, you know, just chopped up into fairly good-sized pieces.

Now mix all that up. Then you butter a square tin (8 x 8 in.) and dump the whole thing quickly into the pan. Stuff this pan into a preheated 325°F oven for 40 minutes. After that, take out the pan and let it cool for a while. THen cut into 1½ x 1 squares and dive right in.

Photo © 1962 Republic Entertainment, Inc.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Donnie Darko Redux

Donnie Darko has had another go at me, or I have had another go at it. The Director's Cut of the film played theatrically at Cornell tonight, and I am so glad that my friend Anna convinced me to shelve my grading for a couple hours and go. Donnie Darko looks more and more like one of the essential American movies of this decade. Any movie that keeps its secrets this beautifully—even after two viewings, even with 20 semi-"explanatory" minutes added, even with a plot that seems so overdetermined from the outset—any movie like this will be reckoned with for years to come.

Part of the ingenuity lies in Jake Gyllenhaal's performance, which pours itself so effortlessly into that eerie, impossible gap between Donnie's two selves: the charismatic inquirer who might just save his glazed-over suburb, and the seriously troubled soul whose anguish is cheated, reduced, if we only laugh with it, laugh at it, or lionize it. Gyllenhaal himself is both arresting-looking and utterly average; his acting is neither invisible nor strenuous. It is exactly, uncannily the performance the film needs.

Part of the ingenuity lies with Richard Kelly, the writer-director who was only 26 years old when this film opened—which means he can't have been more than 24 or 25 when he filmed it, and that he must have been younger than that when he wrote it. Somehow Kelly knew to stuff cotton in his ears whenever anyone near him said that you can't juxtapose a camp exchange between two Sparkle Motion mothers and a fearsome surrealist vision. That you can't recruit a cast this heterogeneous and ask them all to mesh together, and to take this teen-targeted hybrid curio so seriously. That you can't crash a jet engine into a family house, twice, in a movie that has almost no budget. That you can't use the synthiest of 80s pop bands as the discomfiting wormholes into the dark suburban hollow, with its sense of something going wrong, something complicated being canned for easier consumption. That you can't use music this way and yet also make it deliciously, nostalgically seductive. That you can't cast Drew Barrymore as a high-school English teacher, and a good one. That you can't cast an imaginary rabbit as the anti-Harvey, or cast an imaginary rabbit as anything, and still have your movie hold together. Fuck "hold together": emerge out of nowhere as the deserving and concurrent sibling of Mulholland Drive, as the movie American Beauty might wish it had been.

Donnie Darko scuttles all brands of fundamentalism without once seeming didactic, puffed-up, or politically motivated. It somehow mocks and embraces religiosity at the same time, and braids that rich agnostic thread with an equally judicious, equally questioning approach to psychiatry and secular "therapy." The movie treats the whole idea of genre like an antique, a distant memory, while assiduously flirting with nearly all available genres: science fiction, teen comedy, family drama, mystery, horror...

It is the first movie in eons to offer a pristine, unimprovable character performance where you least expect one, in the form of Mary McDonnell's priceless Rose Darko. And just when you think your amazement at McDonnell outstrips the film's interest in Rose, Kelly gobsmacks you by handing her the entire end of the film on a tiny, indescribably fragile platter. McDonnell works the same quiet, subtle sorcery here that Toni Collette did in The Sixth Sense, but she's even quieter, and even greater.

Donnie Darko knows its period, well beyond its shimmering tunes or even April Ferry's spot-on costumes. The 1988 context isn't for nothing. The squelching of conscience, the national covenant not to know things is what Kelly conjures, unobtrusively but ungratuitously, in those Bush-Dukakis debates, in the cresting wave of "self-help" as something you pay other people to model for you, even do for you.

Donnie Darko is a kind of minor miracle. I wonder what it's all about. Here was my best guess, crystallized in the movie's quick cut to a paperback of Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Hawking's book was as much a paradox as Donnie Darko is, a profoundly subversive artifact that wormed its way into clubhouse argot and soccer-mom consciousness. Hawking suggested entirely new dimensions and relations in our universe, and still, for 99% of us, what the book amounted up to was the production of a new public eccentric. A minor celebrity who wrote a book that now naps on the shelf of Barnes & Noble. The film, tilled in the soil of suburbia rather than science, asks the question: what if the universe as we live it, not just as we theorize it, really isn't as we imagine it? In making the mundane as bottomless as the cosmic, Donnie Darko has the guts to remain a riddle itself. The looping, immensely idiosyncratic, uncertain narrative (still an enigma, don't you worry, despite the added footage) is a rebuke to the know-nothing era it spoofs, but a rebuke, too, to the cynical Y2K belief that somehow we know better now. The movie doesn't sell a theory, it implies one. It doesn't resemble Hawking's book, with its sellable lingo of the unknown; it resembles Roberta Sparrow's, which is frightened, fragmented, out of time. The movie forces you to wonder, maybe again or maybe for the first time, about immense questions which Kelly nonetheless refuses to put into words.

Anna, who had not seen the movie before, felt something else, and I found her thought brilliant, so I hope she'll allow my embellishments of it. She felt that the movie makes both palpable and terrible that very sensation which Donnie most fears: what would it feel like, the moment of dying alone? Donnie Darko circles and spins, it reveals and re-veils, it's funny and scary and sad and sharp, and in the middle of all that is this lonely soul who remains lonely, and who all but wills for himself the kind of final, essential instance of solitude he's been wondering about forever. The movie, stranding us among genres and implications, forcing us into our own private relationship with its uncanny spectacles, makes us, as we watch, even with friends or in a crowded theater, alone.

I like Anna's idea more than mine. (That is usually my experience of Anna's ideas.) Where I think our ideas intersect is how they embrace the notion that a movie can distill something intimate, in a unique and specific way that a book or a word might not have achieved. I am reminded of another of my favorite images from this movie, which is clearly in love with the inventive, descriptive, and emotive power of movies. What if the wormhole, the "liquid spear," isn't something that only Donnie can see? What if we can all see it? What if it's that silver screen we're looking at as we watch Donnie Darko? Richard Kelly has made one of those terrific movies about what movies are, and what they do: they transport us, into other worlds, but also into our own mystifying insides.

All images © 2001 Newmarket Films.

Labels: , ,

Monday, May 09, 2005

Angels Fall

That crashing sound you hear is not coming from Crash, the upscale contemproary drama which opened just fine over the weekend, and which I'll be catching this Tuesday afternoon. And those horrified gasps have nothing to do with House of Wax, which y'all knew was gonna be bad, and which even I am not going near. (The Jacket? Word. The Amityville Horror. Sure enough. But House of Wax? Even Nick's Flick Picks draws the line sometimes.)

Naw, that flaming ruin on yon horizon is Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, which all but entered Cutthroat Island territory this weekend with a big, fat, wet box-office bellyflop: $20 million for a movie that cost $130 to make? Ooh, child. When you add in foreign grosses, the rest of the U.S. run, and DVD residuals, I guess Ridley and his lower-rung producers will still be glad they sprang for this mess, but that is some high-profile swan-diving we're seeing. Color me surprised.

I'm actually kind of glad that Kingdom suffered such a dramatic collapse, 'cause the film needs some drama, any drama, anywhere, about anything. Here's what I posted to the Cinemarati roundtable after seeing this thing: I didn't like, dislike, enjoy, embrace, reject, resent, resist, or feel this movie. It was over there, and I was over here. This movie happened to be happening in a room that I was also in, at the same time. Of all the movies I have ever seen, it was one.

And here is a totally revealing, totally on-the-money conversation between my Blogger pals Modern Fabulousity and Brilliant at Breakfast, who basically conclude exactly the same thing. My question now is, are we done with the whole "Sword 'n' Sandals" bit for a while, after so many failures in a row, or is Vin Diesel really gonna hit us up with that wack-ass Hannibal/Carthage movie he's been threatening for a while now? I will personally hajj myself out to the Holy Land if God will reward me by blocking that junk. Especially since Vin's trying to get cute and direct this crap himself, and have the whole thing scripted in Aramaic, by the perp who wrote Amistad and King Arthur. Heaven forefend, people.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

It's Sunday, May 8...

...do you know where your mother is? I'm about to head home from campus and give my strong, amazing, funny, courageous, and sweet-souled mother a call.

I owe somebody else a call, too, who is going to be a mother for the first time in just a few months. My friend Amanda is going to have the luckiest little son or daughter, who, if genetics are worth anything, will hopefully inherit her sublime sense of humor, her automatic way of seeing right to the heart of something, and—even if she sometimes experiences this as a frustration—her incredible ability to become passionate and interested in an endless series of subjects, crafts, people, places, books, ideas, whatever.

I'm also thinking about Amanda today because Mother's Day is the traditional occasion when Cornell's graduating M.F.A. recipients in Poetry and Fiction read their work for the public. (That's where I'm heading home from now.) Amanda brought the house down four years ago when she was on the docket, and though she is liable to deny it, she's as good a poet as any you've ever read. She knows how much I always liked this one, as did The Cortland Review. (You can hear her reading it if you click on the link):

Sonnet While Killing a Chicken
The most important thing a girl can learn
is how to kill a chicken for a meal
to please a man, so she begins to turn
the bird by neck and bound feet—this skill real,
precise, my mother wringing damp bath towels
and snapping them on our rumps like the neck
snaps in the hand, wings sputtering, bowels
release shit. The bird, its broken neck thick
with draining blood, is lowered to a tub
and bathed in scalding water. Feathers pulled
like flowers from roots. Feet sliced off. Wings nubbed
like a girl's new-formed breasts. Tender meat culled.
The chicken flat on its dead back. The knife
just above its neck. The girl. The first slice.

And here's one more, since you can't ever read just one poem, especially by Amanda. For anyone who's ever let fly with a surprising outburst or an imperfectly timed remark, I think you might feel this one, which comes care of The Salt River Review. (Note: I have certainly never made an uncouth or ungenerous remark, just so that's clear.)

I Keep a Small Fool
I keep a small fool in my mouth.
In public, my tongue moves in and out
like a depressor, the fool bobbing
on the end, a cuckoo
chiming the hour with words.

The food I lay to my lips is to appease him,
the way, in some cultures,
people leave apples or water for spirits.
The fool will have nothing of it-
not the round, bitter cask of orange,
not the quick sizzle of frying meat.

I used to think enough whiskey
might drown him, but he knows
to plug his nose, float against my teeth,
wait until I wag him out
like a child's chewed-up food

and he speaks and he sounds just like me
and I sit back and listen,

Someday I might put razor blades in my salad,
a tart sprinkle of arsenic over toothpaste,
knock him over with a bunch of big vitamins
and swallow him like a pill.
Someday I'll just chew that fool up
and pick his fibers from my teeth.

Talk to you soon, Manders, and Mom, too. Hope everyone's enjoying the sunny day.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Man Behind the Curtain...

...is Wyatt Bonikowski, who is as kind as he is smart and as smart as he is kind. Which translates to extremely smart and extremely kind, for those who don't know him. I just found out about Wyatt's blog yesterday, just visited this morning, and therefore just discovered that in addition to writing some fascinating papers on war trauma, psychoanalysis, and modernist fiction in our Ph.D. program, Wyatt has also been working on pieces of short fiction for years, and has even had some of them published. As it happens, Wyatt is as humble as he is kind and smart, so I don't think my own cluelessness is the only reason I hadn't known any of this before.

Anyway, I'm adding Wyatt to the blog-roll in the sidebar, and I'll encourage y'all to hit his site and check out his stories if you get a chance. And also, Wyatt is collecting phrases for a new story he's working on—specifically, phrases that people tend to mis-write because the way we colloquially pronounce them has shifted away from the actual wording. For example, "all the sudden" instead of "all of a sudden," or "for all intensive purposes" when we mean "for all intents and purposes." If you can think of more of these, give Wyatt a holler.

It's Just How I Talk

All right, y'all, we've gotten to the bottom of the "y'all" thing. I took a Quiz called What Kind of American English Do You Speak?, linked from my friend Wyatt's blog, and here were my results:

Your Linguistic Profile:

50% General American English

30% Yankee

20% Dixie

0% Midwestern

0% Upper Midwestern

You only have to answer 20 questions to get your answers, though there isn't any breakdown about which answers got calculated how. So we know about y'all, but I'll just keep on guessing about what other 15% of what flows outta my mouth is technically DixieSpeech. (It's true that my tired, low-energy students one day balked at being told they were sitting like bumps on a dill pickle. Props to the indigenous metaphors of Franklin, Tennessee!)

Oh, and yes, I also find the "five types" of American English to be almost shockingly parochial, but what are you gonna do, it's a blog quiz.

Another online quiz tells me that if I were a novel, I would be The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (which I have not read). What this means about me is apparently this:

Deeply rooted in a religious background, you have since become both isolated and schizophrenic. You were naively sure that your actions would help people, but of course they were resistant to your message and ultimately disaster ensued. Since you can see so many sides of the same issue, you are both wise beyond your years and tied to worthless perspectives. If you were a type of waffle, it would be Belgian.

Um, no religious upbringing, so I dunno about that. I'm a graduate student, so "isolated" and "schizophrenic" are total no-brainers; no props to this quiz for figuring that out. You'll have to ask my students how resistant they're feeling to my "message," and if any of them wouldn't mind telling me what my message is, I'd sure like to know. Good to know I'm wise and worthless at the same time (also = graduate student). I don't know about the waffle thing, y'all.

Friday, May 06, 2005

"He Was Some Kind of a Man"

Ah, if only Blogger headlines could be audio files...

Those chimes you heard at midnight were ringing in the birthday of Orson Welles, the big daddy of Hollywood exceptionalism. Ensconced within the tradition, but a constant gadfly to the same tradition, Welles' directorial career is both a fascinating and a baffling thing to study. Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Touch of Evil all stand with the all-time bests, and they're entertaining as all get-out. I can imagine someone not cottoning to one of 'em, but it's hard to imagine not liking any of them.

And don't forget Orson the actor: dapper Harry Lime in The Third Man and decrepit Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil are two of the absolute killer late-breaking character roles in popular cinema, blowing the top off both films. Orson as Hank has gotta be on my short list of best supporting-actor performances ever in an American movie.

At some point this month, I'm'a try to squeeze in his Palme d'Or-winning Othello, which has a pretty love it/hate it reputation, but Orson never threw together a movie that wasn't entrancing, even when it doesn't work. (I still contend that The Lady of Shanghai doesn't work, and my memories of Macbeth aren't so comfy, either.) Still, right up there with Hitchcock, Sirk, Sternberg, and Ophuls, here's a director who perfectly fused pleasure and artifice. You can rent anything from the back-catalogues of helmers like these, and you won't be asking for your money back.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Toni! Tony!

Sorry, couldn't think of a Toné to round it all out.

First up, I am excited that Toni Morrison has been included as one of the jury members for this year's Cannes Film Festival, where the roster of films looks deliciously strong. New stuff from David Cronenberg (a Nick's Flick Picks favorite), Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, Atom Egoyan, Jim Jarmusch (will it be as good as Ghost Dog?), the Dardenne brothers, Amos Gitaï, Gus Van Sant, Hong Sang-soo, and a bunch of other reputable folk. Even Hou Hsiao-hsien will be represented—a lionized master whose films often (I cannot tell a lie) put me to sleep. But you never know when I'll finally turn that magic corner of comprehension, right? And speaking of turning corners, the new Woody Allen film Match Point (yes, even newer than Melinda and Melinda) will be screening out of competition, and it's the first Allen film in eons that has legitimately strong buzz from people who have espied it. I can imagine Toni Morrison being into Egoyan, given his recurring obsessions with incest, local history, racial politics, and dense memory collages. Still, I'm sure the film everyone will ask her about is Manderlay, Von Trier's follow-up to Dogville, set on a slave-owning plantation in the American South. More about Cannes later, especially once the Festival starts, on May 11.

The day before that, on May 10, the Tony nominations will be announced. (It doesn't seem right that so many distracting arts-related awards and events are happening right when I'm wrapping up my dissertation, but we endure, do we not.) Nick's Flick Picks isn't much for musicals, partly because it's so hard to experience them if you can't actually trek down to NYC (or wherever) to see one. Thankfully, you can still read a play even when you can't see it performed—a different experience to be sure, but a complete kind of experience in itself once you're practiced at it. I suppose you could strike an analogy to listening to cast albums for shows you haven't seen, but I don't know s*** about music, many CDs still don't include the "book" passages between songs, and in general, that just isn't my bag, man.

Only five new plays debuted on Broadway last year, which will now compete for the four slots in the Best Play category. John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, a parable—which all but swept the off-Broadway Lortel Awards the other day, and was just published in paperback on April 26—has been a front-runner for a while. Winning the Pulitzer didn't hurt, and nor has the solid box-office. I'm glad to learn that the script is such a corker, with finely wrought dialogue, sharp ironies, and structural smarts. Shanley offers a tightly shaped piece that still leaves all kinds of leeway for actors to create hugely independent takes on these characters. Certainly Doubt is my favorite Pulitzer winner since Wit, even if it's not on a par with the various plays Suzan-Lori Parks should have been honored for. (Let it be said, too, that Will Eno's runner-up script for Thom Pain (based on nothing) would also have been a deserving winner.) If Shanley winds up in the winner's circle, as many people are predicting, I'll be pleased as punch for him.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, though I haven't read August Wilson's unpublished Gem of the Ocean, I still feel comfortable believing that Donald Margulies' stolid, same-old same-old Brooklyn Boy has got to be the dog of this bunch, and I hope it gets edged out of a nod. Margulies can turn a phrase, at least enough of the time, but there isn't a single moment in Brooklyn Boy that feels new, in theme, story, or character. Indeed, the closer we get to the conclusion, which I guarantee you've seen in a dozen other scripts, the play's utter conventionality only becomes more obvious. I wouldn't be surprised if the talented cast and director brought something to this, but honey, it ain't on the page.

Michael Frayn's Democracy hasn't a prayer of winning, but its serious subject and esteemed author should guarantee a nomination. The play deserves it. Frayn doesn't exactly break any ground with Democracy, but unlike Brooklyn Boy, the play uses fairly standard devices to specific and unique effect. As scripted, the depth and crowdedness of the multi-level stage offer a succinct portrait of a political machinery that is both vast and incestuously interbred. Willy Brandt remains a little remote, but the play does a good job anatomizing that remoteness, and explaining how and why a certain kind of bland charisma can get a politician quite a long way and also, inevitably, stoke a powerful backlash of disappointment. Frayn encourages us to think through the connections among ambivalence, ambition, and espionage from the beginning, instead of playing the "spy" card as a standard-issue plot twist the way I Am My Own Wife did last year. As a result (and for other reasons, surely), his play isn't the rare curio that Wife was, but that's why I like it so much better—it fits the proportions of its subject, and it teaches us something without getting precious.

All of which brings us to Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, the fearsome and thrilling dark horse of the category. Here's a play you will not forget, even in print (though you may need to be near a university library, or at least near www.amazon.co.uk, in order to read it). I read it three weekends ago, and everything about it gets so intense—story, structure, setting, and stakes—that the script practically crackled every time I turned the page. This is a fierce piece, as brave in its unforeseeable humor as in its soul-deep scares and intellectual punch. Doubt is electric but The Pillowman is nuclear, at least in terms of immediate visceral effect. In terms of layering and implications, the plays strike me as roughly equivalent, and I have a sense that both will age just fine. Sure is nice to feel like Tony voters have two thoroughbred Broadway plays to pick from in a single season; many is the year when they have none.

Incidentally, two of my all-time favorite American plays will almost certainly be competing in the revival category: David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross and Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. It says everything about these ingenious writers that Mamet and Albee have both written plays I like even better—that would be The Cryptogram in Mamet's case and A Delicate Balance in Albee's (maybe All Over, too). Now, if I could only make it down to New York City and see some of these flaming goddam masterpieces—and, let's not forget, if I could only afford to see them—I'd really have something to be psyched about.

P.S.: If you know anything about me, you know more Tony nomination predictions will be offered in due course.

P.P.S.: If you already know The Pillowman, you'll definitely want to check out painter Paula Rego's triptych of canvases inspired by the show. Creeeeeeeeepy...

The State of My Discontent

Meanwhile, now that I have expressed my Marxist sympathies, I am sure that my recent letter-writing exchange with Sen. George Allen (R-VA) is going to go over even better inside his office. But here goes. About two weeks ago, I wrote e-mails to Sen. Allen as well as Sen. John Warner, the other Republican senator from my home state of Virginia (still my official residence, since I have that option as a graduate student, and Virginia elections are always in more dire need of Democratic votes than New York elections are). The point was to voice my objections to the recent "nuclear option" proposal that would outlaw Senate filibusters in response to federal judicial nominees, and basically allow a simple majority of sitting Senators to dismiss existing Constitutional protections and vote in whatever candidate they want. You can all see where that one's going, right?

Sen. Warner, the more moderate of our two GOP Senators (and a former husband of Liz Taylor, dont'cha know), has been publicly described as "on the fence" about this measure. So, it's a little disappointing that I didn't hear back from his office at all, but I hope he's gonna do the right thing. By contrast, I at least give Sen. Allen's office credit for replying, though in a predictably uninspiring fashion:

Dear Nicholas:

Thank you for contacting me regarding proposals to change the
filibuster rule in the Senate. I appreciate your concerns and value the
opportunity to respond.

The United States Senate has a very important function of confirming
Presidential appointments, particularly to the federal bench. Any
qualified individual nominated for a seat on a federal court should get a
full and fair hearing both in the Senate Judiciary Committee and on the
floor of the Senate. I believe that a vigorous debate about judicial
nominees is appropriate, but the blatant obstruction of a judicial
appointment is both unfair to the nominee and unfair to the process. It is
the role of the Senate to advise and consent, not to delay and obstruct.

As you may be aware, recent discussion has mentioned the possible use of a
parliamentary change that would allow for a vote on judicial nominees.
This “Constitutional option” or “nuclear option”, as some have referred to
it in the media, would allow the Senate to have a simple majority vote as
required by the Constitution on a judicial nomination. Currently, some
Senators are choosing to filibuster judicial nominations in order to
prevent a final vote on their nominations. Under the current rules,
filibusters are defeated when a motion of cloture is passed by a
supermajority of 60 votes. Therefore, in order to have a simple up or down
majority vote on a qualified judicial nominee, the Senate must first pass a
motion of cloture which far exceeds the 51 votes required by the
Constitution. The Constitutional option would permit the Senate an up or
down vote following the ruling of the Senate’s presiding officer. This
common-sense approach will allow the Senate to consider the qualifications
of a potential judge, while still affording the minority the opportunity to
make its views known.

I recognize the importance of debate within the Senate chamber and its
longstanding tradition in the Senate. I support the use of the
“Constitutional option” should judicial nominations continue to be
flagrantly obstructed. I have always encouraged free and open discussion
by my colleagues on all of the issues. While I am aware that it is their
responsibility to make their views known on behalf of their constituencies,
it is also important to recognize that it is our duty to the nation as the
Senate to ensure that judicial nominees get a fair up or down vote.

Once again, I appreciate you contacting me on this matter and hope you will
not hesitate to contact me again about issues important to you. If you
would like to receive an e-mail newsletter about my initiatives to improve
America, please sign up on my website (http://allen.senate.gov). It is
an honor to serve you in the United States Senate, and I look forward to
working with you to make Virginia and America a better place to live,
learn, work and raise a family.

With warm regards, I remain


Senator George Allen

You can imagine how nonplussed I was upon receiving this note today, so I spent a half-hour writing a reply. Upon sending it, I was informed electronically that Sen. Allen's Reply-To e-mail is non-functional and that his office only accepts correspondence through the pre-set interfaces on his website. One selects from a pre-scripted set of Subject Headings and is asked to keep the message limited to 10,000 characters (that latter part seems reasonable enough).

But then, I always hear that hand-written letters get more attention in Capitol offices than e-mails do, anyway, so I'm still going to take some time today or tomorrow to write this thing out. But here's the substance of what I plan to say. Comment below if you have editorial suggestions or additions.

Dear Senator Allen,

I read and appreciated your reply to my message, but I am still very
dissatisfied with your position; while I do not expect at this point that
you will change it, I want you to know why I am disappointed in your

The 60% cloture vote is important because it requires a consensus that
supersedes the obvious party lines by which Senators of both camps so
often vote. You write in your message that the "common sense" option is
to take judicial confirmations swiftly to a vote, but to me, it is "common
sense" that a federal judicial appointment, which has potent and
irrevocable effects long after the terms of the Senators, Congress, and
President who make the appointment, should require more than a party-line
stamp. Enormous pressure exists on Senators of both parties to align
themselves with party-endorsed candidates and initiatives; I am not so
jejune or unversed in this process that you can convince me that fair,
open, and germane "debate" is all that these judicial hearings will
ultimately be about. The political and party-serving motives are
enormous. The public knows this. What the "nuclear option" is about is
letting whichever party is in power push through some far-off-center
judicial nominees without any effective check in the entire process.

As your Senatorial constituent in Virginia, I am extremely sad and
increasingly angry about the recent wave of impulses to modify the U.S.
and State Constitutions, as well as basic Congressional procedures, in the
most sweeping ways. The proposed federal- and state-level amendments to
deny marriage rights (and possibly even civil unions) to gay and lesbian
couples is already a gross and unnecessary slight to millions upon
millions of conscientious, contributing American citizens--not just the
gay and lesbian couples who want to be married, but gays and lesbians who
don't want to be married (who nonetheless feel the discriminatory sting of
the Amendment) and absolutely anyone, married or unmarried, who feels that
human dignity, equal rights, separation of church and state, and the
pursuit of happiness are important. Now the "nuclear option" arises with
even more potential to wreak broad-based and unfortuitous change on
American society. When do these trends stop?

Please take a moment to re-consider what these truly grievous initiatives
are really about, and whether there might be some other way to reconcile
the problems they ostensibly seek to fix. What about judicial nominees
who don't immediately send the opposing party into such organized
resistance, because the nominee has broad enough appeal and qualifications
so as to merit the kind of fair, sensitive, and interested debate you
describe in your message? Why not increased education, job support, legal
rights, and public statements of belief in the value of America's gay and
lesbian citizens, so that marriage doesn't become such a solitary,
flashpoint issue in the public discourse around gay Americans, and so
Americans who currently imagine some spectral threat to their own ways of
life can understand that gay marriage and gay civil unions do not hurt

I know and I appreciate that you work hard. I will look forward to the
day when the measures being debated in the Senate make me want to write
letters of enthusiasm and gratitude, rather than letters of disappointment
and heavy-hearted pleading. I hope you are at least listening, though I
take hope in having received one response from you already. I will look
forward to another.

Nicholas Davis
Fairfax Station, VA

Anyway, I'll look for y'all in the handbasket, right around the time it starts getting real hot.


Eggheaded Birthdays

I don't want my own private birthday girl Lis Marks to be feeling left out, but I'm going to send her felicitations in private. And yet, above and beyond the delicious Lis, Cinco de Mayo just got hotter with two more birthdays... including another Marx, who just spells his name a little differently.

Karl Marx (left, above) was born this day in 1818, in Prussia (Germany). Marx was only 30 when he and Friedrich Engels published The Communist Manifesto... so what exactly have all of us been doing with our time? Page-per-pound, The Communist Manifesto is just about the quickest chute toward economic illumination and political consciousness you're ever likely to find. English translations, minus the invariable prefaces and appendices, run about 40 pages, and that's with large type, y'all; you can even read the whole thing at the link I posted up top. I'm not saying you're going to run out and buy a red flag, but if you haven't stopped to think about what capitalism actually is and what discontents it produces, this'll turn your head. Next, you graduate to Das Kapital, published in 1867, but I haven't hit that one yet either, so y'all will have to fill me in on that.

Marx passed in 1883, which means he had a good long life of rabble-rousing. Danish philospher Søren Kierkegaard (right, above), by contrast, only made it from May 5, 1813, to November 11, 1855. There is some poetic justice here, since so much of Kierkegaard's philosophy hearkens toward the beauty of living and art, the melancholy of trying to sustain or repeat these ecstatic experiences, and the cosmic dictum that carries us all from the human world into a higher, indescribable plane. If that sounds dry to you, his writing is a trip, not just because he is so taken with aesthetic pleasure and beautiful experience (Repetition is full of florid accounts of erotic love and of theatrical enjoyments), but because he largely rejected the form of the tract for a series of playful, oblique forms of writing. Again, to take the example of Repetition (another short book—see how much time I'm saving you?), the whole thing is written as an exchange between a humorously self-deluding pedant/advisor called Constantine Constantinus and a young male poet in the throes of love, who basically lives out the Wes Bentley line, "Sometimes there is so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can't take it." Søren is not here to dictate what his book means to you, or even to imply how much of these letters are to be taken ironically, literally, foolishly, or humorously. Which means that your own tone and style of reading and interpretation is part of what the work is about, and that reading Repetition is consequently a ton of fun. Right up there with eating cake and blowing out candles.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

End of a Personal Era

Jacob Zulu and Juliette Binoche notwithstanding, though, I gotta take a little moment here to say that today was my very last day teaching Cornell undergraduates. Not that I don't have plenty of grading ahead of me, but I'm officially out of the Cornell classroom, 5½ years after my first TAship and 4½ after my first very-own seminar (English 108 crew!). Like all teachers, I whine and worry about my job, but like most teachers, I also love it beyond expression, and Cornell has been a great place to teach. I held my stuff together in class, but y'all know I was sad, because it's the Curse of the Nerdy Teacher to be sad when one's teaching gig is temporarily up.

So, when my former students get to procrastinating on their future assignments, or treading water in grad school, or killing time at their desk-jobs, or doing whatever else it is that prompts one to Google oneself, I hope y'all find this page, and I hope you let me know what you're up to! As an English & Film teacher, it offends my narrative sensibilities to meet cool people for such a short time and then not know where the story goes from here... so fill me in, why dont'cha? And thanks for being such a collectively great and memorable bunch...

Ankur Agarwal - Nick Ahuja - Lizzie Altschuler - Neil Becker - Sarah Bender - Danielle Billotti - Kate Bossart - Erin Brewster - Amy Bravo - Greg Brown - Sarah Burger - Joe Calamia - Monica Celedon - Lindsay Chandler-Alexander - Jane Chao - Kelvin Chao - Jocelyn Chen - Jonathan Chin - Peter Choi - Mary Chu - Matt Clarey - Dan Cohen - Christopher Crump - Riki Cullingford - Anya Degenshein - Gaea Denker-Lehrman - Colin Farrell (no, not that one) - Joe Fastiggi - Leili Fatehi - Brian Folan - Kat Galasso - Rachael Gan - David Gelston - Sonia Gil Montero - Deepti Gooriah - Dara Gordon - Eric Gregory - Eric Grysko - Pam Gusmanos - Jason Harger - Natalie Harris - Mustafa Hassanali - Jake Holwerda - Naoshi Homma - Chris Hopkins - Kelly Hsu - Henry Huang - Jordan Karlik - Aron Katz - Zeynep Kayhan - Alexander Keith - Jeff Klein - Jazzmin Lamas - Nabilah Lari - Enrique Leal - Harrison Leavens - ShawnaKim Lowey-Ball - Christopher Luise - Neel Lund - Talia Mayer - Karen Mayr - Shaun McCready - Ryan McGarry - Joanna Mecca - CJ Minchoff - Ariam Mogos - Andrei Naumov - Abby Nedrow - Heather Nelson - Josh Newman - Jay Olivarez - Jasyn Polowitz - Rohini Ravindran - Brian Rodriguez - Louis Schneider - Kyle Silk-Eglit - Dante Simone - John Sorrell - Dave Stanford - Tom Stokes - Katrina Stoll - Ben Towbin - Saul Uranovsky - Keri VerSchure - Flo Vineberg - Rob Willim - Catherine Wilson - Misha Zatsman - Lily Zhang

Dang, I didn't mean for this to look quite so much like the Vietnam War Memorial. But don't think I don't remember you! (Give me a holler, though, if you're living on the QT and don't want people you don't know scanning your name.)

At risk of sounding like Tiny Tim: Best of luck to all of you!!

Truth and Reconciliation

Truth: John Boorman's In My Country is a terrible film, and of a particularly galling kind: a film about a manifestly important subject that botches every single avenue by which the film might also make itself important. You would think that the Western popular cinema's convention of filtering Third World suffering through the milky, lamely "enlightened" eyes of First World journalists would have gone out of style by now, the same way terms like "Third World" and "First World" should have gone out of style. But no, they're all still here, and the inherently wrong-headed device is back with a vengeance in In My Country.

Note the photo still I've reproduced here. Not only is Boorman's camera fixed on Juliette Binoche's Afrikaaner poet-journalist and Samuel L. Jackson's Washington Post reporter, when it might well be photographing some of the victims testifying before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Even within the shot, some anonymous journalist is also pointing her camera at Binoche and Jackson. This is narcissistic, neo-liberal cinema at its most relentless and, simultaneously, at its most timid. And dont'cha know, screenwriter Ann Peacock will eventually whip up a romantic plot between Binoche and Jackson—in much the way you can whip cream cheese into something airier but just as heart-clogging. Through this added cul-de-sac, the film not only divorces its focus even further away from the TRC proceedings but actually begs an analogy, however fleeting, between Binoche's confession of adulterous guilt to her husband and the tens of thousands of testimonies by Apartheid apparatchiks who mauled and despoiled their country and maimed and killed their fellow citizens. In other words, check your sense of proportion at the door.

Sure, there are plenty of scenes where formerly abused Africans (mostly black, but not all) recount the terrible kernels of their suffering under Apartheid. If you're wondering how close the movie brings us to these characters, you'll get some sense from the end credits, which bills these characters with monikers like "Crying Woman." Classy; right up there with that "Jewish Woman" whom I so fondly recall from Croupier. The dismal lighting and in-and-out sound design can be generously ascribed to what I'm sure was a paltry budget, much less than a film on this subject deserves. Benefit of the doubt is hereby extended. But for an experienced director like Boorman (Deliverance, Hope and Glory) to edit so numbly—preserving the Scooby Doo rule that the shot must change whenever someone new is talking—is beyond comprehension. So too is the use of Hollywood's perpetual, racist, Trader Horn musical tracks of low bongos, whispered chants, and ominous, "exotic" woodwinds to communicate heart-of-darkness evil. It doesn't matter that the villain so stigmatized is, in this case, a white torturer instead of a jungle savage: In My Country is so busy using absurd sound cues, histrionic close-ups, cheap emotionalism, and stunted Western commentary to signal who's Good and who's Bad that you don't even need to listen to the TRC testimonies to know what the movie wishes you to feel. It's an especially low point in ersatz "political" cinema when the most extraneous ingredient of a film about the Truth and Reconciliation hearings are the hearings themselves.

The one sleight-of-hand the movie almost pulls off concerns another of its cringe-inducing stock characters: ever hear the one about the wide-grinning black man who lives for whiskey and dance, and who drives white people around until they ultimately thank him with the gift of a new flask? In the final moments of In My Country, the execrable surface gets ripped off this character, and we're forced to ask some questions about him, which is utterly novel in the context of this determinedly one-dimensional film. Of course, the minute this fruitful twist arrives, the character dies, and five minutes later, the movie ends, amidst some meaningless voiceover pablum about South Africa not being a country but a place inside our hearts (yep, all of us).

Reconciliation: So, hold what was good about that one scene, skip In My Country (whose meager box-office implies that you already did skip it), and venture instead to the library for the script of Tug Yourgrau's The Song of Jacob Zulu, which played on Broadway in 1993. You may have forgotten this work, lost as the play eventually was beneath the concurrent hype for Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Yourgrau's play, written while Apartheid was in its final death throes, tells an infinitely tougher and richer story than Boorman does. The play centers around Jacob Zulu, a fictionalized version of a real black South African teenager who, in concert with radical guerrillas of the ANC, bombed a travel agency in 1985 and was put on trial for killing six people. Jacob's trial offers the pivot and main reference-point for the narrative, but the play interpolates scenes from his childhood, his coming into consciousness of race, racism, and resistance, his fraught encounters with South African police, and the seemingly impossible choices that a child who grows up this way must face.

The Song of Jacob Zulu neither canonizes Jacob as a martyr nor pretends that his crime was inexplicable. Originally commissioned by Chicago's justly famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the play navigates its way around the Scylla and Charybdis of faux-liberal apologism and blind vilification, largely through the inspired use of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the renowned Zulu a capella group. Like a Euripidean chorus, the Ladysmith singers extol, denounce, exhort, lament, warn, assuage, and remember Jacob throughout the play. Yourgrau consulted with Ladysmith's key members throughout the writing, so their involvement is fully organic to both the story and the mode of presentation.

Even on the page, the Tony-nominated Jacob Zulu is an impressively theatrical feat as well as an especially enlightened, notably uncompromised statement about the moral briar-patches engendered by racist regimes. Sadly, it wasn't just the Angels hoopla that killed Jacob at the New York box office; opening just weeks after the first World Trade Center bombing in '93, the play made everyone nervous for the wrong reasons. A pity, that. But thank goodness artists still exist who pose the questions we need to ask, cutting to the heart of germane issues, even if we don't always thank them for these gifts or recognize them when they're in front of us. And thank goodness these artists keep searching for the truth even as dumb Hollywood machinery keeps churning out pap that avoids most of the issues and smothers the ones it even half-raises.

P.S.: There may be hope for Hollywood yet. The TRC drama Red Dust, starring Hilary Swank and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Melinda and Melinda) has been doing well enough on the festival circuit. After Swank's second Oscar win, it seems hard to imagine the film won't see the (commercial) light of day eventually. Even better, USA Today reports that Morgan Freeman is shepherding an upcoming project where he will play Nelson Mandela—perfect casting if I've ever heard it. No title or start date yet, but it's an inspiring idea (and explains, too, the bank-rolling project choices of The Big Bounce and Unleashed, et al.)

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Director Commentaries

Bolivian-American director Rodrigo Bellott brought his movie Sexual Dependency to Cornell's campus tonight, which always augurs for an interesting evening, since how often do you get to watch a movie and get to ask the director a question as soon as it's over?

Turns out you don't always went them around, though. Bellott's movie already wasn't my cup of tea, even though it so easily could have been, and it still provides some worthy talking points. Delivered entirely in split-screen (with one notable exception), the movie begins with the fraught, uneasy deflowering of a Bolivian school-girl at her friend's birthday party and then follows that anecdote with tangentially related episodes wherein peripheral characters in the previous mini-narrative have their own confrontations with the disquieting, often vulgar, and occasionally traumatic forcefield of human sexuality. The temporary protagonists include a Colombian teenager forced by acquaintances to sleep with a prostitute; a Bolivian fashion model and her boyfriend, who studies engineering in the US; an African-American woman archaeologizing her tortured self-image; and a white, chiseled football player hiding his homosexual desires from his hyperlibidinal teammates. (The university where all of the latter characters live out their dramas is Ithaca College, Bellott's alma mater, which made him and his film hometown favorites for tonight's crowd.)

Sexual Dependency is a series of promising ideas that keep going wrong, until the whole film feels like it's gone wrong, and you have to generously reconstruct what was worthy about it. It often feels like a thunderous exercise in stating the obvious: machismo imprisons Latin men and frequently degrades Latin women; black women in America are left out by prevailing cultural beauty standards; repressed homosexuality is the quiet cousin to homophobia, and both are quick inroads to sexual violence, etc. Taking for granted the severity of these axioms, they don't in themselves make for good drama, even though the film keeps wanting the facts of violence and hatred to compensate for its gimmicky structure, its dismally improvised dialogue, and its bald appropriations of images and ideas from easily identifiable sources, from Nan Goldin to Alejandro González Iñárritu.

Having basically asked the audience for a warm response in his introductory remarks, Bellott bathed in their softball responses afterward. Collectively, this was the type of audience that hears "20 minute standing ovation" or "86 hours of footage shot" and coos and ahhhs on cue. He worked hard to sell the relentless split-screen as a democratic gesture for allowing individual interpretation, ignoring the fact that the side-by-side points of view are often barely distinguishable, as well as the fact that his film clearly erodes audience "choice" by floating such a mammoth and universalizing thesis about sexual alienation. All the potential strengths of the movie's premise are stunted and coarsened until they are its weaknesses, and hearing Bellott's shaky defenses for his specularizing of rape and his convenient trading in racial stereotypes only made the experience more disheartening. To hear that the amateur actress who plays Love, the Bolivian fashion model, is now a Playboy cover girl is sad enough; to hear her director champion her choice as a symbol of "human freedom," in the wake of a film that pretends to expose the wounding violence of Western sexual life, is much, much worse.

I had a more positive interaction last week with the filmmaker, digiphile, and experimental visual artist Lynn Hershman-Leeson, recently anointed with a Cornell Professorship-at-Large. I was pretty agnostic about Hershman-Leeson's debut feature, Conceiving Ada, a celluloid-digital hybrid that impressed in concept more than it electrified in execution. I was much more taken with her zany follow-up Teknolust, which takes the piss of its own convoluted premise by styling itself as the first absurdist comedy of the post-cloning generation. It's a small film but a spritely one, and I gave it some nods in my 2003 year-end NicksFlickPicks Honorees.

I left Hershman-Leeson's public lecture with more questions about the technological motives of her non-cinematic work and some ambivalences about her overall approach to gender, which seems problematically radical and conservative at once. That said, she was forthcoming, collegial, and wholly open to debate throughout my interactions with her—she seemed much more aware than Bellott does that her work engages tricky questions in a tricky way and is therefore wide-open to critique. And she's a great and wide-ranging film fan, which was nice to find out about someone who has trudged through all the unglamorous sides of the industry. In fact, when an unfortunate chain of events led her to my own negative online review of Conceiving Ada, she was absolutely generous about accepting what I'd written and complimenting the site: a really classy woman, and a lesson in humility to Nick's Flick Picks.

Nonetheless, even if I cross paths with Rodrigo Bellott at the bagel shop tomorrow, I still ain't buying Sexual Dependency. "Weak sauce," said my friend and viewing partner Ann. (Her blog entries would be a lot shorter than mine.) From what I hear, Sexual Dependency has catalyzed a mini-revival of filmmaking in Bolivia, and I hope that's true, but I wish the country's ticket back into the world multiplex were a little easier to like.

Or maybe I am just an incorrigibly nasty person.

Photo still from Sexual Dependency © 2003 BoSD Films. Photo still from Teknolust © 2002 Skouras Films/Blue Turtle/HotWire Productions.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Here's Your One Chance, Fanny, Don't Let Me Down...

No worries; she didn't.

First, though, please recognize the headline as a mad-prop to Reba McEntire. I don't dip into the Country & Western end of the pool all that much, but when "Fancy" popped onto the radio of my local Ithaca bus this morning, I knew it would be a good day. What a friggin' great song. "Fancy" is like "Livin' on a Prayer": faux-working-class kitsch with such absolute conviction you want it immediately installed in the Library of Congress. And has there ever been a more merciless mid-song lyric line than "The welfare people came and took the baby, Mama died, and I ain't been back"? Genius. Work it, Reba.

But, from Reba to Ingmar (as ever, right?). Tonight I had the much-delayed pleasure of seeing the Swedish master's great Fanny and Alexander for the first time, in a restored 35mm print that might even have been 70mm, it looked so ridiculously gorgeous. How beautiful was this? So beautiful I started laughing, twice. Truly, I've never seen such a ravishing color print of a 20-year-old movie. This must be the print that Criterion used for the typically de luxe DVD set they released a few months back, which I'll now be buying as soon as ye olde budget permits.

But enough about the celluloid and the merchandising. The film is a jaw-dropper: one of the best films ever about theater, one of the best about family, one of the best and subtlest about the adolescence of an artist, and surely the only Bergman film likely to please fans of Persona, Dynasty, and Lemony Snicket. The time is the first decade of the 20th century. The opening moments have as many hues of red as Cries and Whispers does and the same eerie, cavernous quiet as The Silence, and yet it's clear from the outset that Bergman is headed in warmer directions. The hushed preparations for a holiday dinner give way before long to a thoroughly charming theatrical interlude and then to a sprawlingly sharp-minded family circus that George Eliot might have written in an atypically frisky mood, perhaps after a few mugs of nog.

The mini-saga that follows is full of wisdom and chill, widows and ghosts, finery and asceticism, possibilities and impossibilities. The human canvas is probably Bergman's richest since the comparably fizzy Smiles of a Summer Night, even though the familiar abyss of Bergmanesque terror and doubt is still palpable beneath both movies. Recognizable faces pass in and out, from a yarmulked Erland Josephson to a young Lena Olin; my favorite Bergman actress, Harriet Andersson, turns up in a small but enthralling role as a housekeeper with unreadable allegiances. Schumann and Britten on the soundtrack, sparingly but perfectly used. An angry doorknob, a gender-queer clairvoyant, a joyous abduction that is tersely subverted by a hauntingly incongruous shot. The middle hour is the least adventurous, but even then, watching Alexander learn to watch people—women, men, in that order—is like watching a young Ingmar Bergman assemble his genius through equal parts intuition, mischief, and dread.

As self-referential as Fellini's , and comparably fun in its own very different way, Fanny and Alexander is simply the best film I've seen since Contempt in February, or maybe since The Travelling Players last June. It's my 16th Bergman movie; Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg, for better or worse, are the only directors whose work I have visited more often. Fanny thus joins, in order of their production, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Persona, Shame, and Cries and Whispers at the highest rank of my personal Bergman pantheon. (The others I've seen are Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring, Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, The Silence, Hour of the Wolf, The Magic Flute, Face to Face, Autumn Sonata, and After the Rehearsal.) Next up for me will be Scenes from a Marriage, with its sequel Saraband due to hit US theaters this summer. Meanwhile, for anyone looking for a 3 hour and 8 minute visual and narrative feast...you've found it!

P.S. Also, for any poor soul keeping track, Fanny is the fourth of my New Year's Resolution films that I've checked off in '05. Any suggestions for where to go next on these two lists are more than welcome!

Thanks to Gary Tooze and his terrific website DVDBeaver for the image captures; as Gary attests, they are from the R2/PAL DVD released abroad before the Criterion set, so the image quality only gets better from here, folks.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

In the Streets & Under the Streets

Why not start a new month, especially May, on a romantic note? Yesterday I enjoyed a rare look at Frank Borzage's Street Angel, one of the three silent films for which Janet Gaynor won the first Best Actress Oscar. The others, even better, were 7th Heaven, also directed by Borzage, and Sunrise, directed by F.W. Murnau, and the consensus "classic" of the bunch. Street Angel may not be in Sunrise's league of technique or innovation, but then, few films are—and besides, both the Borzage pictures, for all their bathetic devices, are absolute joys for their touching blend of performance, framing, and camera movement. 7th Heaven has an absolute stunner of a crane-and-dolly shot, especially for 1927, where Janet Gaynor sprints down a long spiral staircase and into the Parisian sidewalks, in flight from her nasty sister Nana (and you know what that name means). Street Angel has more interesting pans than tracks, but in both films, the camera movement catches your eye and speaks to the restless largeness of the emotion in the shots without overdoing it. Borzage was a real talent. Gaynor, who later scored some sound-era successes like the original A Star Is Born, is a totally winning and technically accomplished actress, though it'll take a while for you to even get past those enormous, limpid eyes of hers. And Charles Farrell, her co-star in both films, was maybe the cutest man I've ever seen in silent pictures. That both she and he were gay adds some har-har irony to their late-1920s reputation as the heterosexual screen couple of the moment, but their chemistry is so strong that you can understand their popularity. (If you'd like to rent Street Angel, your only hope is the fabulous website ClassicFlix.com, a sort of NetFlix for early-cinema buffs, though its collection extends all the way from silents to late '60s cinema. An embarrassment of otherwise-unavailable riches, with major classics thrown in for charm.)

If you're into a grittier take on street life than Borzage is peddling, or if you're just in the mood for a humdinger of a documentary, Marc Singer's Dark Days is now available on DVD from Palm Pictures. A triple prizewinner at Sundance 2000 and honored, too, by the Independent Spirit Awards and the LAFCA, Dark Days spends its 84 minutes among the lives of the homeless community in New York City who reject the streets and sidewalks and take up instead in the safer, roomier, and altogether stranger environment of some abandoned train tunnels stretching for miles north of Penn Station. Constructing their own lean-to houses, plugging into the urban electricity grid, ingeniously devising practical rituals and social networks for combatting the inky, rat-infested blackness around them, these are some tough, funny, clever, and seriously interesting subjects. English director Marc Singer was already living among them for months before he even decided to make this doc, with several of the tunnel's denizens serving as his crew. The images, almost without exception, are stunning, and the mini-narratives are exquisitely edited and pregnant with feeling. This is a true one-of-a-kind piece, amply absorbing a mid-film crisis and an unexpected resolution. Dark Days is just about the opposite of an early-summer entertainment, but before you get started soaking up the sun, check this thing out and let yourself feel lucky.