Posts Tagged ‘Movies’

Manhattan Canyon

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

Manhattan Canyon is a short film by my friend Greg King. It’s up on the IFC website. I’m posting about it because, aside from it being both brilliant and beautiful, it relates to my Walking Broadway project of a while back. It gets at something about the large scale patterning of New York, that I’m fascinated by. Greg did the video work on SITI Company’s Hotel Cassiopeia, and like Joseph Cornell, the subject of that play, he has a relationship to both New York City and beauty that I am always deeply moved by.

Greg is an artist with whom I have a certain degree of intimacy; The largest object in my living room is a painting by Greg. I see it every day I’m here in New York. It is a work of art that I live with. I think it’s important to live with art. To allow it to permeate one’s daily routine. Alter how you go about your business. Not as background. Decoration. Some sort of conspicuous bourgeoisie status badge.

When people come to visit the apartment, I often take them around to show them the Paul Jenkins watercolor, the Robert Wilson charcoal, the Harvey Wang photo, the Jan Sawka Beckett posters, etc. Not because I want to show off (I hope). But because I want to introduce them to the pieces of art I live with.

I’ve never been one to understand how one can read a great book, see a great movie, listen to a great piece of music, see a great production just once. It’s like meeting a good friend once.

So here’s a link to Manhattan Canyon. The IFC site is a bit obnoxious but the film is worth it.

Manhattan Canyon

The Dark Knight (part 2)

Thursday, July 31st, 2008

Here are a couple of other thoughts that didn’t really fit in the first post.

One of the things that is interesting to me about “The Dark Knight” is the viral marketing of the film itself. The campaign, which was aimed specifically at the Batman fan base, used websites that appeared to be political sites for Harvey Dent. As something other than an ardent fan, I wouldn’t have even noticed such a thing, but for fans it was the beginning of a trail of digital crumbs that led to the first images of The Joker. These images then got passed around as both “Look at this cool image” and “Look how cool I am that I figured it out” capital. A lot of this passing around was directed at other fans (read “nerds”), but it is the percentage of it that got into the mainstream, non-nerd public which really impacted anticipation of the film. It turns out that we’re all only a couple degrees of separation away from a comic book nerd. So they made the nerds work for the info, and then let them run with it.


Speaking of brilliant: The plot of The Dark Knight involves a “social experiment” by The Joker. It’s one of the most inventive and interesting aspects of the film’s story, and handled quite well I think. What it immediately made me think of is another experiment that is of deep significance to current ethical thought in America. It is the so-called “Milgram experiment.” If you aren’t familiar with it, please follow the Wikipedia link I just gave you and find out more.

Here’s why I think Milgram is so important right now. Arguably, the United States lost whatever moral legitimacy it had in Iraq the day that the Abu Ghraib story broke. As shocking as it was to us outside of Iraq, to Iraqis the proper noun “Abu Ghraib” was already familiar and loaded. At that point, it was over.
However, in the States, free from past associations, there was an immediate, and largely successful spin campaign to contextualize the incident. The story-line was simple: The abuses were the result of bad apples. I don’t believe anyone who wasn’t actually in one of the pictures, has ever been held responsible for what is an ethical catastrophe.

However, everything that I’ve read or seen about those American “bad apples” points to the fact that they are completely normal, and deeply misunderstood. And what Milgram shows us, is that put in the right set of circumstances, most normal people will do things that seriously violate their own sense of right. Milgram is evidence that, all things being equal, the “bad apple” argument is unlikely to be right, and when there are systematic abuses, it behooves us to look at the system.

It is comforting to blame the bad apples because it allows us to participate in our supposed good appleness. This is dangerous and doesn’t allow us to deal with the fact that most of us would have behaved the way those soldiers at Abu Ghraib did. In this light, Milgram seems depressing, but I find it deeply hopeful. I think there are 3 responses to Milgram (and these are in order of priority):

1. As a society, take pains to avoid creating Milgram type situations.

2. As an individual, take pains to recognize and avoid getting into Milgram type situations.

3. As an individual, if you find yourself in a Milgram type situation, be in the percentage that disobeys.

It is on this last point that the hope is brightest. In the Milgram experiment there was a percentage who stopped. They were in the minority, but they existed. This statistical thread is what gets humanity through things like the Cuban Missile crisis. The way that this was presented in The Dark Knight is not only moving, but thrilling. The result of The Joker’s experiment seems to fly in the face of Milgram, but I would argue that it doesn’t. All you need, on each boat, is one individual who has the wiles to get control of the button, and is a member of Milgram’s minority.

And here we’re back to the idea of a hero as the person willing to transgress. The person operating on the basis of their own moral convictions. We feel all cool about Batman in this sense, but it’s the same species as The Joker and Clockwork’s Alex.

Free will: Can’t live with it. Can’t live without it.

There are no easy answers to any question worth asking. My ambivalence towards “The Dark Knight” is centered on the feeling that although it is bringing up some pretty interesting questions, it is also, at times pretending that there are easy answers to them.

The Dark Knight (part 1)

Tuesday, July 29th, 2008

So I’ve been having a lot of conversations with people about the second installment of the re-invention of the Batman film franchise: “The Dark Knight”. These conversations have led to a kind of formulation of some thinking about the film and what it represents so I’m going to try to spew some of that here:

Because I’m going to focus on a particular criticism here, let me preface this by saying that I enjoyed to movie and think it’s a thought provoking piece of entertainment with one foot (we’ll get to who’s) solidly in the realm of actual art.

It is not a new or original thought/observation that there is a shift well underway in the American cinema. It is a move from the novel to the comic book as primary source material. This has been going on for a long time, and much has been said about it. The aspect of this that I’ve been thinking about lately however is how the this shift has led to a reduction in the level of complexity within the stories that are told on our screens. What I mean by that is that comic books (and I am including graphic novels in that term, even though I realize that there is a distinction) are by their nature simpler in their construction than novels. I do not mean by this that they are less intelligent, legitimate or valuable. But there tends to be a certain simplification of issues.

Example: I recently saw “Wanted”. (Disclaimer: I have not read the graphic novel it was based on) The conceit of “Wanted” seems to be centered around an ancient and secret society of Assassins (which is what the “Assassins” were as well) who’s targets’ names are encoded into the fabric woven by a devise known as the “Loom of Fate”. If the “Loom of Fate” says that someone should be killed, there is no question about it. The rest is simply technique. The plot centers around an abuse of this loom, but nevertheless the plot doesn’t function unless there is a preexisting confidence in the “Loom of Fate”. What I’m saying is that this is a simplification of the entire moral problem of an assassin by eliminating the thorny “why.” This is not substantively different from the obviously less complicated situation of “Superman is the good guy.” I see this fundamental simplicity over and over in this material.

However, I also notice that there is a fetish, within comic book culture for a SENSE of complexity. An APPARENT ambiguity. This is where we get to Batman. The idea of the Dark Knight is that there is a fundamental moral ambiguity within him. Is he really a good guy? It seems that this is an attractive quandary in this culture. What I would argue is that this question isn’t being asked. Not really. In the case of Batman, there is never ANY doubt on the part of the audience (as distinct from the citizens of Gotham) that Batman is good. He is not a Dark Knight. He’s a White Knight in a bat-suit.

“Hellboy” is also a good example here (again, although in this case, I’ve glanced at the primary sources, I haven’t read them). The character himself who is supposed to be the son of the devil, whose destiny it is to bring about the end of the world, is never faced with a significant quandary about which side he’s on. Posters all over New York showing him with the caption “Believe it or not, he’s the good guy” are entirely misleading. There is NEVER any question which side he’s on. There is a momentary cognitive dissonance that comes from a character that looks like he does, being a good guy, but never an actual moment of ambiguity. The worst thing you can say about him is that he’s a lazy, beer swilling jerk, and although there’s something interesting about his low brow concerns, the implied question of actual evil never comes up. He’s an angel in a devil-suit.

Purely by coincidence I re-watched “A Clockwork Orange” (the new DVD edition) a day or so before seeing “The Dark Knight.” And I think this is why the thought about the distinction between comic books and novels crystallized for me. Anthony Burgess wrote the novel “A Clockwork Orange” as a complicated response to, among other things, a brutal rape his wife experienced. The resulting novel is not simply about justice or social responsibility. It is, most centrally, about free will. The book, and even more so Kubrick’s film, is constructed around the complicated dynamic resulting from a character who is simultaneously attractive and repellent. Alex is both. I would somewhat arrogantly assert that any reading of the film that collapses him to one side or the other is simply evidence of cinematic illiteracy (hence the copy-cat crimes that resulted). Now anyone who has seen both films realizes that the reason for bringing up “A Clockwork Orange” in a discussion about “The Dark Knight” is that Alex has a strong relationship to Heath Ledger’s deservedly acclaimed portrayal of The Joker. This is not an accident. I understand that there were conversations to this effect between director and actor.
Ledger’s performance is amazing. Absolutely top shelf. And I don’t think it’s already becoming legendary only because of the actor’s tragic death. But I would argue that part of what is so arresting about The Joker is that there is actual, genuine ambiguity in our feelings towards him. Like Alex, we are simultaneously attracted and repelled by him. As a result, he walks away with the movie, and as much as I like it, I think that’s a problem.
I can’t help imagining a film in which Batman is also as complicated. Where I honestly question, on a fundamental level, whether what he’s doing is ok.
In “Batman Begins” there is a moment where Alfred directs Bruce Wayne’s attention to news footage of the violent high-speed chase that Batman caused the night before. Alfred’s admonishment of “It’s a good thing no one was killed” actually gets the character off the hook. How would we feel about Batman if Alfred came in and said “5 people were killed last night” and has to deal with the fact that Wayne/Batman actually thinks this collateral damage is worth it?

Why do I bring this up?

Because these films are claiming to be storming the wall separating entertainment from art. And if we apply the useful distinction that entertainment confirms existing assumptions, and art questions them, the question of Batman’s ambiguity is the question of whether or not he’s in a work of art or not.

Batman is a mythological character. Our historic proximity to his invention (and inventors) doesn’t change this. But what I think is often misunderstood is that the nature of mythology is that as source material, it is almost completely inert. It’s value and interest depend entirely on what artists do with it. To say that Batman is interesting is like saying the the marble of which Michelangelo’s David is hewn is what’s interesting about the sculpture. Obviously the stone does have certain values, but it is next to nothing compared to what the artist did with it. Our perceptions of a character like Odysseus and Agave have more to do with Homer and Euripides than with these figures themselves.
Until Dark Knight for example, I never gave the character of The Joker much thought (sorry Jack), but what Mr. Ledger et al have done has changed what this mythological character is. He is alive in our culture now in a way he never was before.

I think that Batman is potentially a potent character for our time. I think it’s marble worth carving. I think he could be a hero to struggle with the dark moment of the soul that we are going through as a society. The Dark Knight suggests this, but I think the bar is higher. The bar that Heath Ledger set. I want to see a movie about Batman.

All that being said, let me repeat that I like the movie, I love what it made me think about, and it has resulted in some fascinating conversations with friends.

More coming soon, in part 2 of this post…

New York Moovee Daze

Friday, January 25th, 2008

The bulk of the time since getting back to New York was spent working on the new SITI piece “Who Do You Think You Are”. It’s exciting work and I can’t wait to get back to it. We’re taking a few weeks away from it before we go back to Arizona for the second SITI residency there where we’ll finish the play and premier it on March 1st.

In the meantime, I was supposed to go to Paris to act in a film. That got nixed because the director decided that he wanted to do my scenes in a more improvised style and I don’t have the French to do THAT. So I’ve ended up with some time on my hands. Which means, as usual that I let a lot of it run through my fingers. I’m not complaining. Wasting time is not a waste of time as far as I’m concerned. It’s giving me a chance to check in with all kinds of “Back-burner” things, but it’s at the expense of some of the “front-burner” stuff. Se la vie!

One thing that has taken up some time, is the fact that the Oscar nominations have come out. I had seen several of the films that had important nominations, but there were some holes. So I’ve been filling them in.

This gives me an excuse to talk about the Oscar movies for a bit.

I haven’t seen Atonement or Juno as of this writing, but the other three nominees for Best Picture are all exceptional films.

• Despite the fact that my friend Jordan Lage makes an appearance in it, I had not seen “Michael Clayton” until it was nominated. It’s an amazing movie. It captures a finely modulated sense of frustration about life that is so subtly rendered that it was hard not to identify strongly with the characters. I’m not one who usually finds this an important criteria for enjoying a film, but this was rather uncanny. There are things about the title character and his situation that I identified so strongly with and have never seen dramatized before. The entire cast is fantastic. Clooney, Wilkinson and Swinton are being singled out for very good reasons. It is a testament to her chops, but if this was the first thing that I had seen Tilda Swinton in, I would think of her in a totally different way. For someone who is the embodiment of a certain kind of internal metal, to perform the complete lack of it is stunning. Tony Gilroy’s direction and screenplay are both not only inspired but driven by a clear passion for these flawed people and what they say about the world we live in. Mr. Gilroy also directed last year’s excellent, and otherwise nominated “Bourne Ultimatum” and is quickly becoming someone I pay attention to. Next time, I don’t think I’ll wait for a stupid Oscar nod to go see his movie.

• “No Country for Old Men” is, in my opinion, the most mature movie the Cohens have produced. I’m not sure if it’s because they’re doing an adaptation for, what I think is, the first time, but the film has a steady intelligence that cuts through their normal wit to punch you straight in the gut. It’s not that the wit is gone, it’s just modulated, and as such, moments that would make you laugh in another of their movies become something quite different here. Somehow in what is a disturbingly violent movie, they get you to care about almost everybody who enters the frame. This is why the violence is so disturbing. It is not a cartoon. Even the seeming stock charactors like the hotel clerks or gas station attendants (not to mention Tommy Lee Jones’ jaded cop with a hard past) come off as people who are worth caring about, and this is part of what makes Javier Bardem’s psychopathic hit man so chilling. He’s hurting people. And he knows it. No movie of this genre has ever scared me before. This movie scared me.

• I don’t know how to start talking about “There Will Be Blood”. It is a remarkable film. It is cinema. Although Anderson has been inviting comparisons to Wells and dedicated the film to Altman, it made me think of Kubrick at his best, and that’s hard to do. Daniel Day-Lewis stands tall in the middle of this masterpiece, and if he wasn’t a giant of world cinema before, he is now. It is a performance of historic proportions. There is much that can (and is being) said about this movie, but the most cogent thing, if you haven’t seen it, is “Go see it.”

What all three of the afore mentioned films confirm that whether a film (or any work of art) is uplifting, is not dependent upon it’s content, but upon the level of the artistry with which they were crafted. What is hopeful, is that in such a dark time in our culture, we can still make substantial works of art.

Looking over some of the other nominations:

• Mr. Depp certainly deserves his nomination for “Sweeny Todd”. I’m not always a fan of Tim Burton’s stuff. When I like it, I really like it, but there are times when he leaves me cold. I liked “Sweeny Todd”. Liked it a lot. It’s wonderfully twisted. The parallels to “Charlie And The Chocolate Factory” are both disturbing, and surprisingly fun to think about. I also love the fact that all over America it’s got the goth kids talking to the musical theatre kids.

• Mr. Hoffman’s nomination for “Charlie Wilson’s War” is deserved. It’s a wonderful turn in a good movie. I’m not a big Tom Hanks fan, but I actually liked him in this film as well. I was surprised. The film itself is interesting. I kept wondering if the general American public is actually understanding the connections between the story of the film and our current nightmare. There are a couple of scenes in which the screenplay is about 1 degree of separation away from mentioning Osama Bin Laden. It’s weird because I’m usually a big fan of ambiguity and allowing the audience to do the work, but I found myself wanting a more explicit line drawn.

• Julian Schnabel’s “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly” is one of the best films of the year. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it in the Best Picture category. The Best Director and Adapted Screenplay nominations are well deserved. This is another must-see, run-don’t-walk picture. It’s absolutely brilliant. On paper, it looks like it’s going to be a total drag, but it just simply soars. Filmed in the hospital where the story actually happened with some of the actual people who took part, playing themselves, this is a remarkable achievement.

• It’s nice to see Pixar’s second Brad Bird picture, “Ratatouille”, get some attention here. Recruiting Mr. Bird is one in a long line of smart things John Lasseter has done. The movie is a delight. I find it particularly moving because of the allegory that Bird is making about being an artist in America (I’m not making this up. I’ve heard him talk about it in interviews). The idea that we’re trying to make something good for people in an environment where the folks in charge are trying to kill us, is very resonant.

• Despite this post, I don’t really put a lot of stock in the Oscars. They’re fun. I enjoy them, but I don’t think they have a lot of meaning. What meaning they have is their ability to direct attention into directions that it wouldn’t otherwise go. Almost every year I can find something in the nominations or awards that makes me angry or bewilders me. This year is no exception, and here it is: Why no “Simpsons Movie”? What the…? I’m not going to go out on a huge limb here defending The Simpsons as important American cinematic art. I would argue, and not alone, that the show represents the very best of what American Television has to offer. This is not the same thing as being great cinema all on its own. That being said, there is something very interesting going on in “The Simpsons Movie”. It’s not just that it had a certain pop culture penetration. A careful examination of the film reveils that these people worked very carefully to ride the aesthetic line that separates Film and Television. I didn’t fully realize how carefully this was done until I got the DVD and saw it on a TV. The movie is in a different world from the TV series. If only on this basis, I think the film has something very important to offer to the conversation about cinema in the United States. This is ignoring it’s value as a fun movie that hangs twenty, while surfing the huge wave of American pop culture like only The Simpsons can.
Now even if you don’t buy this, are you going to argue that “Surfs Up” is better? Really? REALLY? “Surfs Up” should be considered for an Academy Award and “The Simpsons Movie” shouldn’t. That’s what you’re saying? I wouldn’t mind it at all if “The Simpsons Movie” lost to “Ratatouille” or “Persepolis” (which I haven’t seen but intend to). I really wouldn’t mind that. But for Matt G. et all to not even be nominated is just crazy.
Disclaimer: There may be some technical reason why “The Simpsons Movie” was not nominated. If that is the case, I don’t know about it. If I find anything out, I’ll report back. If any of you know, then enlighten us.

• The other movie that I think could have gotten more attention is “Once”. This lovely little film is something that there was a lot of buzz about in certain circles, but a more prominent Academy notice could get a lot more people to see it.

Ok. That’s enough for now. I’ve still got some movies to go see, so I’ll be back with more, but for the time being let me just say that it’s a nice time to be a cinemaphile. There’s some great stuff being made out there. The writers strike may move a lot of production overseas but that’s not such a bad thing. The standards are good and we may be getting back to somewhere near where we were before the industry was hijacked by the blockbuster. But that’s a rant for another time…

Go to the movies!

Melbourne 1

Monday, November 19th, 2007

It has been a long time since I’ve done many things. The long-haul 747 flight over the pacific is one of them. The last time was back in late 2001 on the way back to New York from Japan after directing the Japanese version of MOBY DICK. So this last weekend I flew (with Barney) from New York to Melbourne (via: Los Angeles and Auckland).
The design of the Boeing 747-400 has not changed significantly since the last time I was on one. Despite everything, I generally prefer the big jumbos to the smaller planes one flies domestically or over the Atlantic on. Leaving aside issues of carbon footprint, which is like saying “leaving aside the hungry piranhas in the bathtub I’m about to get into”: I like the size of these planes. Room to move around. Room for air to circulate. I recently heard (I think on NPR’s Science Friday) that there is a huge difference between the air purification and “scrubbing” systems on airplanes with two aisle and planes with only one aisle. Something about ozone build-up in single aisle planes. Apparently it contributes significantly to the fatigue one feels after long flights. So the 474 is better (leaving aside the ravenous fish in the tub).
The culture that develops inside a plane like this, and my own emotional journey during the trip have always fascinated me. There is a certain rhythm to the trans-pacific flight, and although there are as many reasons to cross the pacific as there are people in the cabin, most of the reasons are not trivial in their lives, and none of these people can do anything about the fact that we’re in this fat tube for a double digit number of hours. So there’s this weird charge in the air.
I’m someone who always (until recently) watched the movie(s) on long flights. Mostly because tt occupies time, and being rather close to omnivorous in my cinematic taste (or at least tolerance) I was often interested in the film. Back in the day, I would listen to the in-flight music as if my life depended on it.
But all this has changed. The iPod and now the twin powers of the iPod and iPhone have put the control of what I watch and listen to, literally in the palm of my hand. This has totally changed my domestic flying. Loaded up with music, TV shows, and podcasts, the biggest problem is battery power. The iPod itself is fine in this regard, but the iPhone (which I use mostly for video podcasts) eats up it’s power faster than I would like on a long flight, and unlike the iPod actually has a job to do at the other end of the trip. With the prospect of re-entering the double digit number of hours world of the 747, I didn’t want to have to mess with this, so I bought a simple little devise that clips into the iPhone’s dock port and allows me to charge it with a couple of AA batteries.

So the NY to LA leg of the trip is on a double aisle (I’m not sure what model) plane other than a 747. I’m doing my iPod-iPhone shuffle. The movie on the flight is NO RESERVATIONS. (Quick dismissive review: A thoroughly formulaic vehicle for Catherine Zeta Jones, this romantic drama/comedy seems more like an essay question in a screenwriting 101 exam than an actual movie. Although there’s a fairly good performance by that young actress we all loved so well in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, the movie is almost breathtakingly predictable. CZJ’s character is a hard-edged no nonsense chief at a top NYC eatery. She is then forced to take custody of her Niece while simultaneously having to deal with the handsome scoundrel of an Italian trained (she cooks French) sous-chief, who has suddenly been hired to work in her kitchen. I don’t think I was even mildly surprised by anything that happened in this movie. And it’s not that unpredictability is the central criteria of cinematic quality, but this film is so devoid of delight that a little unexpected something would have at least woken it up. Even the supposedly high pressure NYC kitchen seemed really laid back and slack to me. Don’t bother with this one. Nuff said.)
In accordance with the ancient laws of flying behavior, as soon as the credits begin to roll, I’m out of my seat and in the bathroom. This is because by the time I come out, there’s a sizable line. People are watching the movie, and dumb as it is, they wait till it’s over to go to the bathroom. Meaning that a good number of people suddenly need to go to the bathroom at the same time. These are the ancient tidal patterns of a flight and you need to know them if you want to avoid various discomforts.

Now it’s changing though. On the Quantas 747 that we flew over the pacific, like on most long-haul aircraft these days, the entertainment system gives you a huge range of choices, and all of them under your control. Dozens of films, TV shows, games and what have you. This actually changes the whole equation for someone like me. Not only can I choose what I want to see and when, but if I get sleepy while watching something, I can just pause it and go to sleep. When I wake up, I continue it or watch something else. And since everyone is watching it asynchronously, there’s never a post movie bathroom rush. This simple level of control makes a HUGE difference. When Barney and I boarded, we were dismayed to find that we were in the middle two seats of the bank of four in the middle of the cabin. But although we both came close, neither of us lost our minds, and I think a lot of it has to do with the entertainment system.

Now there is another problem that is trickier. Barney and I have very different builds. I have a bigger body than his. It’s not just that I’m carrying more excess poundage than him. I have a bigger skeleton than he does. Now if walked into a clothing store, no one in their right mind would suggest that he and I should have to buy the same size cloths. It’s crazy. An even if we bought the same outfit and paid the same amount for it, we would not be expected to buy the same size. So why is it that we are given the same size airplane seat, and told to just deal with it. I don’t fit in economy class air-plane seats. There are a few that are close, but none that I actually fit in. My shoulders stick out past the sides and my head is well above the part of the seat-back that is supposed to support it. On this last fight the seats had those head-rest things that you can pull up and bend around your head, but I couldn’t get it high enough to actually support my head the way it was designed to. This sucks. It’s discrimination pure and simple. Show me how it isn’t. I’m not an unusually big person. I mean I’m big, but I see bigger people than me walking around all the time. It sucks. I know there are people with bigger problems in our society, I’m just saying this is one of mine. It sucks.

One more gripe: The hotel Barney and I are in here is fantastic. We have a gorgeous room on the 15th floor with a spectacular view of the Yarra river with the botanical gardens and the bay and the Victorian Arts Center etc. We’ve been sitting out on the balcony every night, watching the sun go down and the stars and city lights come out. However: Internet access is 11$ an hour! I mean that’s just crazy! There’s a 66$ for 5 days deal but when I looked into it, Barney and I would have to each get it because it’s a per computer deal. I’ll go more into this in a future post, but the point here being that this should have been posted 24 hours ago at the latest, but I’m having to hunt down public WiFi.

In the meantime… G’day Mate! (I can’t believe I just wrote that)