Sunday, October 09, 2005

Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming

Noah Baumbach’s 1994 début Kicking and Screaming quickly put me into a skeptical mode—the mannered college types, straight from Whit Stillman, minus the sweetness that Stillman brings to his characters, the witty, too witty dialogue, with its multiple layers of irony; it was all too conspicuously indie—but as the movie moved into its final third, I found myself, to my great surprise, blinking back tears. All along, Baumbach had been working, in his own talky way, to a moment of truth, of post-collegiate life and in the movie’s final moments he hits it, undiluted by irony.

Grover and Jane, in only their second meeting are both intoxicated in a “townie” bar and sharing a moment. As Jane prepares to leave, Grover tells her (apparently she has an appointment with a shrink):
He: I just hope we feel the same way after this moment. After the alcohol wears off. You’ll talk to your shrink; I’ll go back to my friends. I just hope we keep this.
A lovely pregnant pause. And then she: It’s not as dramatic as all that. I mean we’ve got some time. Most of our life, in fact. What do you think if we had a proper love-affair—do you think it’ll last?

This line, in a calculatedly mannered flashback (each flashback starts with a freeze-frame of Jane, since we are obviously viewing her through the prism of Grover’s memory), the fact that the audience knows that Grover and Jane will break up, and be miserable without each other, the perfect pause and the lines themselves weave together perfectly. For me, it was a moment of connection. Later on, Grover decides to join Jane in Prague, in a spur-of-the-moment decision, he has a wild monologue with the ticket-clerk, where he pleads with her to give him a ticket, so that later on he can remember this moment as the time he chose to go to Prague; chose, that is, in full living breathing consciousness, in a spectacular moment of being alive. Josh Hamilton delivers the monologue with his eyes literally shining, his face flushed; when he realizes he doesn’t have his passport and the clerk gently suggests that he could go the next day, Grover makes a bitter face; the moment has passed.

The idea that life is a series of moments, when one is alive is not new and Baumbach’s schematic is a little too structured for my liking. Here, for instance, is Michael Cunningham in The Hours.

Yes, Clarissa thinks, it’s time for the day to be over. We throw our parties; we abandon our families to live alone in Canada; we struggle to write books that do not change the world, despite our gifts and our unstinting efforts, our most extravagant hopes. We live our lives, do whatever we do, and then we sleep—it’s as simple and ordinary as that. A few jump out of windows or drown themselves or take pills; more die by accident; and most of us, the vast majority are slowly devoured by some disease or, if we’re very fortunate, by time itself. There’s just this consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve imagined, though everyone but children (and perhaps even they) knows these hours will inevitably be followed by others, far darker and more difficult. Still, we cherish the city, the morning, we hope, more than anything for more.

Through some mysterious alchemy, some strange weave of his dialogue and his actors, Noah Baumbach has given this passage a marvelous cinematic expression.

UPDATE: Matt Feeney has an article up on Slate today about Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming and Mr Jealousy. About Kicking and Screaming, he writes something that's remarkably close to what I wrote--about why the film resonated with me. Here's an extract from his piece:

In a recent interview in New York magazine, Noah Baumbach says that his new film, The Squid and the Whale, represents a mature turn in his filmmaking: "I wanted to make more emotional movies that were less about being clever." This seems to be a gentle cut at his first two efforts, Kicking and Screaming (1995) and Mr. Jealousy (1997). Baumbach, not unlike the characters in his films, is being unfair to himself. Sure, these movies have a talky, sophomoric cleverness, and they take on the themes—post-college paralysis, romantic jealousy—that apply most to people in their late 20s. You can see why Baumbach, now 37, might view them as artifacts of a shallower, sillier stage of life. But, like the openly autobiographical Squid, Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy are acutely, almost unbearably, personal and emotional films.

And then:

Maybe Baumbach thinks it's just him, but the fantasy of the spunky beauty with the darling overbite who sits across from you in your creative writing seminar and vivisects your short stories but then later admits that they show real talent and then falls in love with you is pretty much universal among male English majors. Baumbach makes this familiar, almost fantastic, story resonate with several deft touches. While the film's primary action takes place in the limbo of the year after graduation, the romance is told in flashbacks of the previous year, styled in a way that evokes the wistful quality of romantic memory. They begin in black-and-white freeze frame, then take on color, and then roll into slow motion before coming fully alive. Baumbach deepens these squirmy courtship scenes with perfect music. (For a time, I wished I were a filmmaker just so I could put Freedy Johnston's "The Lucky One" in one of my movies, but then Baumbach beat me to it.) The nicest touch, though, was finding Olivia d'Abo for the role of Jane. D'Abo's had a checkered career, heavy on straight-to-video action movies, but Kicking and Screaming shows her to be an inventive and charming comic actress. If you still don't have a face to put to your creative-writing-seminar fantasy, rent Kicking and Screaming.

Read the whole piece; I am going to rent Mr Jealousy soon, I think.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Guilty Pleasures

Matt Feeney has a great article in Slate about his "guilty pleasures"--trashy movies that he loves to watch at home when the multiplex gets too funereal. He includes Double Jeopardy, The Devil's Advocate, Cruel Intentions and Wild Things. I haven't seen Double Jeapordy myself but of the rest of three, the only one that I love is Wild Things, with its double-double-double-double crosses and the steamy sex (Aah, Matt Dillon...). I saw The Devil's Advocate in the cinema-hall back in college and I still haven't come around to the view that the movie actually has a point, beyond the grandstanding Al Pacino and the bland Keanu Reeves.

I enjoyed the beginning of Cruel Intentions when the effiminately handsome Ryan Phillipe and the carnal Sarah Michelle Gellar's characters trade sexually charged barbs (yes, as in incest). But once Reese Witherspoon's sanctimonious virginal goody-two-shoes character enters the scene and the movie throws in its lot with her, and the rakish Phillipe actually falls in love with her (as opposed to simply jumping into bed with his sister and having wild incestous sex), I just lost it altogether. The movie that began as great fun--an adult romp--turns melodramatic and all moral. It bothers me--this siding with the moral virgin. After all, why couldn't the Gellar character, with all her appetites, have triumphed? But no, the Ryan Phillipe character is made to suffer moral pangs and so is the audience, whether it wants to or not. Naah, I hated the way director Roger Kumble turned what should have been a blackly comic sexually charged teen-movie (sort of like Wild Things) into a sob-fest.

Enough ranting. Let me move on to my guilty pleasures--movies that I see time and time again simply because I love them. The pleasure isn't actually "guilty" because most of these movies wouldn't be considered "trash" at all. I have a rather sentimental attachment to them and watch them because--well, because they make me laugh and cry. So, without further ado, here's the list

Moulin Rouge
The Last Days of Disco
Shakespeare in Love
The Opposite of Sex
Far from Heaven

The blandness of FlightPlan

On Sunday I trudged up to the Harkins Centerpoint and saw FlightPlan. Why? No reason, particularly—if I said that kind of stuff, I’d say that we were meant to be, FlightPlan and I—just that it seemed to be going on at that particular time. How was it? Hmmm, that’s a question—how to answer that?--well, to tell you the truth, it was extremely dull. Now that’s the first time I’ve ever called a movie dull (simply dull as opposed to say, horrendous) but it’s very hard to find out exactly what’s wrong with FlightPlan. Certainly it’s been made with a lot of attention and detail; unlike the absolutely horrendous (there!) The Forgotten. Also, like The Forgotten, it has an extremely talented actress at its helm, the angular Jodie Foster (not to mention a very similar plot: the disappearance of a son/daughter). What’s with Foster and all the mother roles she’s so into these days? And what’s with Hollywood and all these mother roles in general? Are we so pre-occupied with the loss of children? And the children, why are they either little ethereal angels or irritating screaming shrews (little Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds)? Does the whole post-industrial world bring out some kind of subliminal anxiety in us, which somehow leads film-makers to imagine these scenarios?

Frankly, I have no idea. Some reviews of the movie I read were upset that the movie completely changed tracks mid-way—instead of being a meditation on grief, it turned into a thriller. You know, I would have agreed with that criticism, except that the movie is equally boring in both tracks – just supremely so as an exercise in grief and moderately so as a thriller. It’s just that as a thriller, there’s still some movement of the camera, something to look forward to—the grieving subplot is completely flat. Flat in the sense that there is no remotely palpable sense of loss, no sense of grief, nothing. The movie is like the bland shiny airplane interior it takes place in—bland and dull.

The problem with these kinds of movies is that I can see exactly how they are pitched. It’s like The Forgotten--“Hey, what’d happen if a child just disappeared? Into the blue?”—and bam, a screenplay is produced. FlightPlan has a better screenplay than Forgotten (it’s co-written by Billy Ray, the writer-director of Shattered Glass). Well, better in the sense that it is fleshed out with no gaping holes. But in a way, the writers’ decision to ground the plot around today’s resonating themes (the mother-child bond saving the passengers of an airplane from a hijack attempt) is their worst; it makes the grief sections of the film utterly pallid and the action sequences incredible—and by that I mean not remotely credible.

What’s left then? The actors? Peter Sarsgaard turns up, looking more like a reptile than ever. But he doesn’t really have much to do and his typical under-acting doesn’t help. Jodie Foster? She’s good—as always—but good doesn’t mean anything in a movie like this. It’s a good dull performance in dull movie.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Benjamin Kunkel's socialism

Why, is Slate reviewing Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision? I may be the only one who believes this but I think Michael Agger’s piece is a rebuttal of A. O. Scott’s Times Magazine piece (“Among the Believers”). Scott’s piece (which I enjoyed, by the way) was on “small” literary journals, ones started by bright young things who, in Scott’s words, “get together to assemble pictures and words into a sensibility -- a voice, a look, an attitude -- that they hope will resonate beyond their immediate circle”. But, by design or not, Kunkel seems to emerge as the hero of the piece:

Benjamin Kunkel's first novel, ''Indecision,'' published last month, concerns a young man living in Manhattan and trying, as the title suggests, to figure out what to do with his life. He has a B.A. in philosophy and an active, if confusing, romantic life; he gets by on a combination of office work and parental subsidy. In his author's affectionate estimation, offered over a beer on a recent evening at a Brooklyn bar, this young man, whose name is Dwight Wilmerding, is ''kind of an idiot.'' Perhaps, but he may also be -- the critical response to ''Indecision'' suggests as much -- an especially representative kind of idiot. His plight, after all, is -- for people of his age and background -- a familiar one: an alienation from his own experience brought about by too much knowledge, too many easy, inconsequential choices, too much self-consciousness. Bred in a culture consecrated to the entitled primacy of the individual, he discovers that he lacks a self, a coherent identity, maybe a soul. He feels that he could be anyone. ''It wasn't very unusual for me to lie awake at night,'' he confesses, ''feeling like a scrap of sociology blown into its designated corner of the world. But knowing the clichés are clichés doesn't help you to escape them. You still have to go on experiencing your experience as if no one else has ever done it.''

In his essay in Slate, Michael Aggers takes up the same line about “lying awake at night”, which probably makes it the most resonating line in the book, a line that resonates with what Aggers calls “college-educated males of a certain questing persuasion”, that is. In Indecision, (which, I should mention, I haven’t actually read), the 28-year-old protagonist, Dwight Wilmerding is searching for gravity—lost in a sea of unbelief, he is searching for belief. Apparently he finds it in socialism, declares himself a “democratic socialist” and lives in Bolivia writing press releases on behalf of the proletariat. The key passage in Agger’s review, for me was this:

For starters, it's striking that Dwight's conversion to socialism takes place in South America. Latin America is a place where socialism has had a long, tangled history and, pace Venezuela, the talk that circulates about the regions these days tends more toward free-trade agreements than Maoist rebels. Kunkel has Dwight nod toward socialism's complications, but he never makes the embrace seem more than a nostalgic pose. It's a moral pleasure to be a socialist (especially if you're living in a capitalist economy): The hard part is to engage socialism as a rigorous, powerful, and fraught ideology. Dwight seems committed to his ethic of anti-consumerism, but what's less clear is how his passion for his cause translates into a viable intellectual framework for improving on the economic policies of our globalized world.

Aggers puts it really well. I’ve been taken to task when I’ve asserted that it is fashionable to be a socialist these days—fashionable because it gives a moral pleasure, especially in a capitalist economy. But engagement with socialism is hard and anti-consumerism is not socialism, for all the way in which people seem to equate it. Neither is socialism as compatible with individualism as people seem to think it is. This makes all the quasi-socialism that I find in my colleagues exactly what I suspect it is: a desire to feel superior to society which somehow somewhere also acts as an impetus to artistic creation while at the same time, actively engaging in a kind of non-engagement, that suits everybody just fine.

Egad! Here is Michiko Kakutani’s (favorable) review of Indecision, where she writes in the vein of Hoden Caulfield. Goodness, Mistress Michiko getting facetious? Halleluiah!! Also a review by Jay Mcinerney.

UPDATE: I was under the mistaken impression that Indecision came out in 2002. The impression has now been dumped.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Serenity - a review

With all the extensive coverage that Serenity got on the blogosphere (see these posts by Dan Drezner: here, here and finally here) and Joss Wheldon’s impeccable TV pedigree (Buffy, Angel), I was a little disappointed with Serenity, Wheldon’s movie version of his short-lived Fox series Firefly. Now to be fair, I have never watched Firefly (although people who did keep raving about it). Yet even as I watched Serenity, I couldn’t help feeling: this stuff would be better on TV. No, let me change that – this stuff would be awesome on TV.

What’s the difference between a movie and TV series? Television episodes are heavy on plot and light on action – clearly no one watches a one-hour episode to watch a 15 minute ship-battle sequence. (Also clearly, TV doesn’t have the budget for that kind of thing). The problem is: Wheldon has no idea of how to shoot a space-ship battle. Serenity’s finale has a whopping 20 minute battle and it is easily the movie’s poorest – not even the editor probably knows what’s going on. (I loved Wheldon’s shots of people swaying because of centrifugal forces, no movie I remember has ever had that!).

What Wheldon knows – and knows damn well – are his genres; in Serenity he fuses the western and the space opera conventions remarkably. The result is a giddy Flash Gordon-like adventure story. Serenity reminded me of the first two Star Wars movies (well, episodes 4 and 5, to be precise) – unaffected and completely enjoyable. The problem with Star Wars was that Lucas got bogged down when he started making episodes 1 to 3. Whereas the early Wars movies were fun for fun’s sake, the prequels got mired in their own symbolism, their attempt to be “serious” rather than fun. It didn’t help, of course, that Lucas is a hideously bad writer. (A friend of mine remarked after seeing the Revenge of the Sith: if the first two prequels felt like dying by crucifixion, then the third one felt like dying by poison!)

Wheldon however writes great dialogue (he plays with genre conventions with his quips, the lines in this movie will probably become legends). In the opening scenes of the movie, the exposition, which probably took an episode or two in Firefly, is brilliantly done, with a minimum of shots and fuss. The problem with Serenity is its plot. The kind of suspense that Serenity generates in the first half, when the psychic River has hallucination after hallucination, premonition after premonition, builds expectations up to a breaking point. But the revelation itself – the thing we have been looking for all the while – is a complete let-down; it could have fitted in right at the end of a Firefly episode.

A dense plot would have made the movie too long, and reduced the time for wham-bam action scenes (and this clearly matters to the studios if they want to get teenagers to watch Serenity). So Wheldon probably took one of his ideas for an episode and used that for the movie, with a few modifications. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work. But, hell, I’m going right out and getting my hands on the Firefly DVD set. If it’s anything like Serenity, that’s one hell of a TV show.

Note: This post by Dan Drezner has a got a lot of links, if you want to read about Serenity.