Essay: A Simple Guide to Making Movies Better!

The major studios believe that movies can be improved by adding the illusion of a third dimension during post-production.  Most of the films that utilize this technique come off as transparent cash-grabs, diverting audiences' attention from iffy storylines, shoddy direction, and the obscene amounts of money that are routinely sunk into otherwise forgettable experiences.

But 3D has met with some resistance, partially because it is added after the fact.  Only a handful of films have been shot in 3D, which adds a level of thoughtfulness to the visuals in terms of their design, and technically looks more convincing.  Post-production "3D" effects tend to be far less convincing.

I'd like to offer a few ideas to the film industry as alternatives to 3D.  Each of these will help improve the experience of going to the theater and boost box office revenues without the expensive and often unsatisfying addition of 3D.

Sparkly Things: All animals - humans included - are distracted by shiny objects.  Directors and production designers should be encouraged by studios to stock their sets and costumes with more brass and chrome.  Films set in the '20s and '30s can take advantage of the Deco era's fixation on silver and copper.  Male characters should always be checking large pocket watches and females should wear a lot of bangles and jewels.  Get creative, Hollywood!  After all, your audiences are only a few genes away from dogs entranced by sunlight reflected off water.

Hidden Genitals: People like penises, vaginae, and breasts.  Slow scene?  Too many deadly dull "character moments"?  Complex imagery?  Avoid these attention span-killers by digitally pasting male and female erogenous zones into backgrounds and sets.  Turn the movie into a veritable "Where's Waldo?" of sex organs and mammary glands.  Judd Apatow has guaranteed a penis in each of his films; I think the studios can do even better than that and increase audience engagement at the same time.

Free Pizza: Give out a personal pan pizza with every ticket.  Do I need to elaborate?  Calories make people easier to please.  The introduction of pizza, therefore, actually increases the quality of every movie.

Make Movies Shorter: Two hours?  The average teenager can send four to five Tweets a minute, watch 20 to 25 YouTube videos in an hour, or issue seven or eight solid cyberbully threats every 30 minutes.  Let's not rob the cinema's core audience of their valuable time, or discourage them from returning to the theater.  Feature films should be cut down to 45 minutes, max.  Also, offer iPad stations in the lobby for emergency access to social networking sites and online gay-bashing.  These kids are our future and the movie business needs to keep up.


Essay: Some Jokes Will Kill You

Some people respect athletes because they know that professional sports is something they will never be able to participate in.  That kind of reasoning is at least a part of why I respect comedians.

I used to want to be a stand-up comic.  This was between the ages of about 10 and 14.  I don't know what I was thinking.  Probably that it is nice to be funny.  And it is nice to be funny.  But being funny and living the life of a comic are two concepts that only overlap like a very marginal Venn diagram.  I still appreciate comics, probably even more than I did throughout those formative years, when I listened to George Carlin cassettes nonstop and checked out Steve Martin, Shelley Berman, Nichols & May, and Bob Newhart records from the library. 

Now I understand the horrendous burden of being a stand-up, the naked exposure of the profession.  The emotional risks outweigh those associated with most other creative fields.  If you make a bad film, you can easily be spared the experience of seeing it in a theater with an average audience.  If you write a bad book, you aren't going to see your readers throw it against their living room walls.  If you are a visual artist, you'll likely catch wind of your peers' analysis.  For stand-up comedians, the metaphor of death carries more than just a kernel of accuracy. 

When a comedian has a bad night, or a bad audience he or she is said to "die" onstage.  This is something I've never experienced, but can only imagine as potentially feeling worse than death itself.  One thing I understand about comics is the personal nature of the material.  Stand-up places you in front of a (usually) paying audience who are there to hear what you have to say.  It's just you and your words, with only a microphone to amplify them.  There is no medium between you and the crowd.  It's just you.  So just imagine doing that, first of all.

Next, imagine that your act incorporates personal experiences, anecdotes, values, and opinions - all of which are part and parcel of any comic's routine, even if they are radically exaggerated or altered versions of the truth.  But a comic's usually not funny if he's not telling some kind of truth, so it's always safe to assume that stand-up material is in some important sense "personal."

Next, imagine that on top of the nakedness of the performance itself, and on top of the personal nature of the act, there is an "acting" component.  Every comic has his or her own persona.  Surely this comes out of the comic's own personality, but it's a version of their own personality and most likely does not reflect their own conversational manner. 

So there are three things I can never do: stand up in front of people and entertain; make personal ideas and stories deliverable in an amusing and oral fashion; and shape an onstage "character" for the purposes of delivering said ideas and stories.

Imagine constructing this multilayered act over a period of several years (many comics don't gain widespread visibility for decades - or ever), only to meet with unreceptive - or outright hostile - audiences.  Imagine what it really means to "die" onstage, to have your work torn apart by the silence of an unresponsive crowd.

Not that every comic deserves acclaim.  Many don't.  But having recently seen several major comics live - including David Cross, BJ Novak, Maria Bamford, and Brendon Small - as well as a number of less-successful ones, I have a renewed understanding of what it means to be a comedian.  It's far from easy, despite the potential for very lucrative rewards.  As a writer, who does his work in solitude, I cannot fathom the kind of pressure I would feel if I had to translate my written words into a live act - and I have extraordinary respect for those who face the risks of doing so.  I could never boo a comic, no matter how bad the jokes.


On DVD: Kisses

Lance Daly's short feature film is a miniature jewel that sparkles with effective moods and situations, anchored by two remarkably intuitive performances by pre-teen, non-professional lead actors. In an arc that takes us from the depressed working-class outskirts of Dublin, down the River Liffey into a fable-like vision of the city itself, Daly's film recreates the unmistakable and easily-forgotten sensation of what it feels like to be a child experiencing that first taste of freedom in a world that discovered to be larger than ever before imagined - a place where anything can happen.

The story is simple. Dylan (Shane Curry) and Kylie (Kelly O'Neill) are next-door neighbors in a run-down suburb. One day, they escape their abusive families and leap aboard a small riverboat, whose pilot takes them all the way to Dublin. On top of the city's unfamiliarity to Dylan and Kylie, it's Christmastime to boot, making Dublin a sheer wonderland, alight with festivity. The two go to the mall, buy clothes, and go ice skating. Still, they can't escape the city's underbelly: at one point, after unsuccessfully searching for Dylan's older brother, they are pursued by adult male predators. The next morning, their options seem extremely limited, in stark contrast to the wild possibility of the previous evening.

Lance Daly constructs a simple enough narrative utilizing a variety of cinematic tools. The film is shot in widescreen; composition is excellent. The opening and closing sequences (set in Dylan and Kylie's ugly neighborhood) are shot in black and white. The slow fade into and out of color as the duo enter and leave Dublin is almost unnoticeable. These technical choices are next to nothing, however, when it comes to the notoriously difficult business of working with child actors. Daly was either extraordinarily lucky, or he was wise enough to cast young actors whose personalities melded ideally with those of the characters. Maybe it was some of both. The end result is a pair of on-the-nose performances that effortlessly create distinctive characters. Curry's Dylan is an inward, prematurely hardened kid who barely emotes at all, while as Kylie, O'Neill is voluble, emphatic, and adventurous. They are well-matched opposites whose mutual affection grows as the story progresses. Yet by the film's end we begin to sense that these two aren't exactly "meant" for each other. They are two very young people who have shared an important moment, but who will ultimately grow up pointed in different directions, despite their having experienced something unforgettable together.

At a swift 74 minutes, Kisses is nonetheless a full, complete film. The story of Dylan and Kylie concludes with an inevitable return home. The concluding sequence is shot in a way that might be a bit much; it's still moving, though, and memorable. I just wish Daly had pulled back ever so slightly on the use of slow-motion; but I often react this way to slow-motion. It's a minor point. Aided by his outstanding young actors, Daly's film is elegant, heartfelt, imaginative, and real.

On DVD: Wild Grass

In Alain Resnais' Wild Grass (Les herbes folles), many things happen that are impossible to describe. Resnais' famously idiosyncratic style and clinical approach to psychodrama render plot and behavior so charged with the potential for literally anything to happen, that I find myself at a loss for words - especially since this intuitive unpredictability is the chief feature of the film's tone. Resnais' characters speak, make choices, and interact with one another in ways that at first seems "normal." But the tension that creeps under the surface, and the filmmaker's visual choices - among other factors - subtly alter the plot and dialogue in wholly unexpected ways, placing attempts at gathering meaning and significance tantalizingly beyond arm's reach. I do not suggest that Resnais' films are in any way devoid of tangible content, but at least in the instance of Wild Grass, that content is only partially accessible to this writer. Wild Grass is rich in incident, visual information, oblique thematic gestures, obfuscatory dialogue, and hard left turns against the grain of expectation. There is a lot to process here, and the film demands multiple viewings and a lot of meditation.

Resnais' style in Wild Grass is not enormously different from many of his other films: the camera is fluid, there is some tricky editing that achieves unusual effects, and characters' motivations are often veiled. These elements are a large part of what make Wild Grass ceaselessly fascinating; they also prevent a really incisive discussion of the film based on a single viewing. What is intended for the big screen often cannot be translated into words, and a master of cinematic form such as Resnais will confound a writer every step of the way. Writers more confident in their craft than I will go to great lengths to create strings of sentences jam-packed with the language of critical theory, fooling readers with a web of "insights" that only stand as an obstacle to the film itself. What they won't admit is that there is something going on here that is simply impossible to translate into their chosen medium.

Nonetheless, I will describe a few of the most important things that happen in Wild Grass. First, a woman named Marguerite Muir (Sabine Azéma) has her purse snatched outside a Marc Jacobs in Paris. Next, Georges Palet (André Dussollier) finds Marguerite's discarded wallet in a parking garage. Palet, a married man who lives with a dark and undisclosed secret, seeks to return the wallet personally to Marguerite. When she proves elusive, Palet leaves it with the police. Marguerite retrieves the wallet from the police and then feels compelled to thank Palet, which leads to a series of awkward phone calls and attempts at communication. Palet finds himself revealing some of his deepest desires, including his passion for airplanes; as an amateur pilot, Marguerite eventually agrees to take him up in her small plane. By this point, Palet's wife (Anne Consigny) and Marguerite's friend Josepha (Emmanuelle Devos) have been drawn into this odd relationship, which has gone through a number of iterations before finally achieving a strained mutual understanding.

Wild Grass moves in the slow but irresistible manner of a lava flow, and the film's depiction of elemental human desires suggests the bubbling action of submerged primordial impulses. Color is of immense importance, varying from neutral earth tones to crazily gaudy neons; the production design is meticulous and forceful in this regard. The loving, fluid widescreen camerawork of the great Éric Gautier and a remarkably graceful editorial style (thanks to regular Renais and Polanski collaborator Hervé de Luze) merge in some striking imagery, particularly during the film's final sequence, which concludes with a pulse-pounding series of pans and cuts across an alien, barren landscape before delivering a final blow with one of the most jaw-dropping lines of dialogue of all time.

At age 88, Alain Resnais is in no way off his game. Wild Grass challenges viewers to engage with cinema in an unusually intense way. Nothing is to be taken for granted, nothing is done for the sake of storytelling convenience, and every assumption we have about the conventions of filmmaking is challenged whenever possible. The inventive and eclectic score by Mark Snow matches the rapid shifts in tone, from the comic to the foreboding, and there is an unnamed narrator whose relationship to the film's characters and events is wholly nebulous. There are suggestions of infidelity that may or may not have happened, a group of singing pilots, occasional dental work, and expensive shoes. Wild Grass is an investigation of deep-set human brain activity - the ways and means by which we perceive and process information and experience. As a counterpoint to the easy solipsistic "answers" provided by most films, Renais has composed a searching, fascinating question.

Read the full review here


On DVD: Reflections on Woody Allen's "Shadows and Fog"

Woody Allen's continued output of a picture per year is both impressive and baffling.  Impressive that a man in his mid-seventies can maintain this kind of productive energy.  Baffling because the vast majority of his films over the past decade have been just awful.  A few have been mediocre, with only two (Small Time Crooks and Match Point) being anything like memorable.  Maybe he's on autopilot, continuing to produce at the same rate he's been producing for his entire career (40 pictures in 44 years).  Allen is on record as saying that he doesn't really look back at his films once they've been released, so maybe he's unaware as to the cumulative impact of his last ten years of work. 

Whatever the explanation, I have avoided his last few releases, but have recently begun reviewing Allen's back catalog by looking at a few titles that I originally had fuzzy reactions to.  One of those is Shadows and Fog (1991), a comedy-thriller that has a mixed reputation.  In some ways, that's understandable; it drags in places and might over-rely upon its wonderful design work.  But it's a captivating film on a couple of important levels.  

It is one of Allen's most visually beautiful films, second only to Manhattan.  It is probably the only Allen movie shot entirely on built sets.  The black-and-white photography (and the overall look indicated by its title) hearkens back to silent German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s.  Costumes and music are also carefully applied here, creating a pastiche effect that nonetheless carries Allen's own thematic interests along with it.  It is an homage, but it's not only an homage.

The story combines elements from
The Threepenny Opera with a Kafka-esque tale of frustration.  It's night, and a strangler is on the loose on the outskirts of an unnamed early twentieth century city.  Kleinman (Allen) is dragged from his bed by a budding lynch mob and thrown into a plot to trap the killer.  He is never informed of what he is meant to do by the vigilante group that rouses him.  Spinning off into the night on his own, Kleinman encounters a couple of dozen characters in his search for his purpose in tracking the killer, including a circus performer turned one-time prostitute (Mia Farrow), the town doctor (Donald Pleasance), and a number of rival vigilante gangs who have their own ideas about how the killer should be captured.

Kleinman is never informed of what these diverse plans are, buffeted by the competing would-be lynch mobs, and is never asked to do anything specific to aid in the killer's apprehension.

Within this framework, Allen gets at some weighty concepts in his usual witty and felicitous way.  If the killer represents a specific, measurable evil, then Shadows and Fog suggests that human irrationality (in the form of the vigilantes) will wind up preventing the apprehension of that evil and will pervert social justice to boot.  The vigilante groups spend most of the film engaged in in-fighting and wind up accusing Kleinman of the killings.  While they pursue Kleinman, the killer strikes again and again.  Eventually, Kleinman joins forces with a circus magician (Kenneth Mars), and captures the killer with magic, implying that something as spurious and untenable as a magic mirror is still more powerful than a committee of self-important buffoons.  But evil proves uncontainable, as the killer quickly disappears again into the night.

That Woody Allen is able to access such interesting themes - themes that have a special resonance now, in the Age of Terror - while maintaining an entertaining, visually compelling cinematic experience is a testament to this filmmaker's ability to tell a story from a very eclectic toolbox.  For all of his trademark mannerisms and one-liners, Woody Allen will ultimately be remembered as a filmmaker of wide-ranging interests and abilities; despite certain flaws,
Shadows and Fog highlights that range.

On DVD: The Gates

Like a lot of people, I have mixed feelings about The Gates - both as an art project and as a film. Generally speaking, I am a fan of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's work. I like the scale of it, the concepts behind it, and the temporary nature of it. I like that you can be "in" their work by virtue of being surrounded by their projects' acreage. While The Gates is ambitious and laudable as an involving piece of public art, I don't think it matches other Christo projects, at least not in terms of the relative appropriateness of place, materials, and scale. This documentary, which ably traces the development of the project over the quarter century between its conceptualization and execution, is only able to retain viewer interest in proportion to that viewer's reaction to the work itself. However, the film's first third is undeniably fascinating.

This film utilizes footage shot over a twenty-five year period, beginning with a very involving half-hour. Christo and Jeanne-Claude first approached New York City with
The Gates project in 1979. We see their original meetings with lawyers, city officials, and a variety of citizens' and neighborhood groups. The initial conversations with the city go quite well. The artists receive support from the New York City Parks Department, as well as a prominent African-American social psychologist, who the pair, working with savvy city officials, intends to use as a wedge to gain the favor of Harlem residents. Despite the support of key city officials and other community leaders, the project is ultimately rejected following public meeting at which certain very vocal New Yorkers loudly oppose the project on a number of bases: the park is itself a work of art, which The Gates would deface; the stanchions will obscure the park's natural beauty; park wildlife will be adversely affected. There was no particularly convincing case made against The Gates at these meetings. The long and short of it is that New Yorkers don't want anyone touching their stuff. But it was enough for the Parks Commissioner to ultimately reject the project.

This important first segment of the documentary was expertly shot by Albert Maysles, who uses film to place you right in the middle of these conversations and debates, and it's a funny thing to watch 30-year-old arguments over an art project that was just recently, finally, finished. I don't think attitudes have fundamentally changed since then. What's valuable here is the inside look at the intra-city politics, departmental bureaucracy, and behind-the-scenes ego-smoothing that go into positioning a major public project.

We jump forward a couple of decades to Mayor Michael Bloomberg finally green-lighting
The Gates just a few years ago. Christo and Jeanne-Claude leap into production mode, overseeing the fabrication of the steel stanchions and the gathered fabric rectangles that form the gates themselves. They also get very busy selling paintings and sketches depicting the in-progress project (this being one their key methods of fund-raising for The Gates, which they apparently paid for themselves).

The last two-thirds of the film were shot by other filmmakers, and their footage doesn't have the crisp immediacy and clarity of Maysles' work. It looks like it was shot on video, lending a cheaper "TV" look to the image. Beyond that, it just doesn't have the characteristic confidence of Maysles' eye, which always knew where the camera should be placed and how to move it. Once
The Gates is actually unveiled, the film's final 35 minutes are spent "touring" the project and picking up vox populi commentary. This goes on for far too long.

The documentary ends on an uncomfortably smug note. After a series of reactions from New Yorkers and tourists alike, the final comments come from a black man dressed in denim, who offers his own concise, thoughtful remarks on
The Gates. The camera then pulls back to reveal that he is a Central Park hot dog vendor, as he says, "I liked their umbrellas better, but this was okay." Would these words have been worth citing had they come the mouth of a well-dressed white person? Probably not. A considered opinion coming from the mouth of a working class black man is "funny"? The way his words are positioned reveals grotesque snobbery on the part of the filmmakers.

Read the full review here


On DVD: Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! 4

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim's hugely experimental and even avant garde comedy series has now ended after five seasons, which means at least we have another DVD release to look forward to next year, in addition to this fall's forthcoming "Chrimbus Special," a one-hour show set to air on Adult Swim in December. This fairly limited run is probably a good thing, as is the show's short, fifteen-minute format. For me, Tim and Eric never overstayed their welcome or were anything like tiresome; but the show's length helped prevent that. The duo's abstract, crude, juvenile, improvisational, intuitive comedy can verge on the grating, but the potential for irritation is also a part of their style and is an important element of their satirical point of view. The source of much of Tim and Eric's comedy comes from television itself. They satirize the conventions of commercials, music videos, situation comedies, instructional videos, and even improvisational comedy. Tim and Eric love to linger upon the most debasing, awkward, artificial, and otherwise uncomfortable moments that these forms of "entertainment" have to offer, and while lingering there, they add their own flavor of horror: David Lynch-inspired sound effects, rapidly inter-cut images, and alarmingly Photoshopped imagery such as a pig's face or another person's eyes grafted to a character's face.

Tim and Eric embrace the horrific in a way that, while often funny, also gets right to the point of their real interest: the shame caused by television, or maybe mass media as a whole. Not to get too academic here, but Tim and Eric themselves walk a fine but interesting line with regard to this shame. Take a look at their frequent co-stars, David Liebe Hart, James Quall, and the late Richard Dunn, among many others. These three performers have sketchy backgrounds in public access television of the very sort that most interests Tim and Eric; while each of them is clearly not a trained or talented performer in a conventional sense, they also relish being in front of the camera, even if it is for all the wrong reasons. The mixture of perverse fascination and exploitation that comes with these co-stars' appearances is an inherent and troubling part of Tim and Eric's overall concept for the show: a tour of television as a vehicle for debasement.

This disc, which collects all ten episodes of the show's fourth season, showcases Tim and Eric in top form. I felt that the third season suffered a little from repetition and slowness, but each episode of the fourth is a well-crafted miniature. Tommy Wiseau, creator of the notorious
The Room, "guest directs" a memorable episode. John C. Reilly returns as Dr. Steve Brule. "The Universe" has Tim and Eric as talking-head astronomers who know nothing about the cosmos, ending with a fantastic monologue by Eric's character ("I do this every night with your son"). Josh Groban sings the songs of Casey and His Brother. Peter Stormare is perfectly cast as the spokesman for the Cinco Boy. The Cinco D-Pants ("D" for diarrhea) are a bit much, and the Brule segment on the human body doesn't work, but these are rare misses in a creative, strong season.

Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!
is one of the most unique comedy programs ever broadcast on mainstream television. I love it because it feels like the product of minds unfettered by concern over convention, format, propriety, narrative, or political correctness. This kind of freedom holds the potential for formless disaster, of course, but Tim and Eric have disciplined, sharp minds and their comedy, for all of its graphic crassness, is the product of a very particular and committed point of view married to a perfectly appropriate batch of creative tactics. 

(Note: The image above is by Jason F., who works in acrylics and whose fine work is available here.)


In Theaters: My Dog Tulip

My Dog Tulip doesn't so much interpret J.R. Ackerley's loving and lovable short memoir as a filmed story, so much as it provides the book with moving illustrations. Animators Sandra and Paul Fierlinger share writing and directing credits here, their first feature-length film. Despite the charming and promising source material they have chosen to work with and the evocative power of their design sense, the Fierlingers don't do enough in terms of dramatizing Ackerley's story, choosing instead to stay dangerously close to the text (delivering much of it verbatim in the form of narration and dialogue), which stiffens the narrative from a cinematic perspective. English reserve and understatement were developed and perfected on the page; when read in voice-over (even by an actor as gifted as Christopher Plummer), the particular effects of these traits are diminished.

J.R. Ackerley was a major literary figure in mid-twentieth century England. He edited the BBC's literary journal, The Listener, for decades, and published several acclaimed books. One of these is My Dog Tulip (1956), a memoir that chronicles his relationship with a pet Alsatian (German Shepherd), a dog so difficult, loving, and demanding, that she consumed the vast majority of Ackerley's social and emotional life. Ackerley's book is a joy to read, an extremely witty and subtly touching story of a very unusual and deep friendship.

The Fierlingers' film places Ackerley (voiced by Plummer) and Tulip in a world in which animation only partially dramatizes the book's narrative. Most of the film is essentially silent, with voice-over narration drawn directly from the book being read over animated action. In other words, there is not much dialogue per se, just narration. Once in a while, other characters speak, such as Ackerley's sister Nancy (voiced by Lynn Redgrave) and the veterinarian Dr. Canvenini (voiced by Isabella Rossellini). For the most part, the story is expressed through the uncomfortable combination of off-screen narration and on-screen action, hence the impression that we're watching an illustrated novel instead of a full cinematic interpretation of the book.

Visually, the animation embraces a sketchy, throwback style that is not technically brilliant, but bears a coherent color palette, an intuitive design sense, and good composition. Tulip's movements are particularly realistic in the midst of human characters whose features are elongated and caricatured, which lends her an almost heightened level of emotion and expressiveness. The earthy colors capture the look of the English seasons, and the rubble, ruin, and rebirth of post-war London.

However, that still leaves the larger question of storytelling, and unfortunately, in its dramatics, My Dog Tulip is too static and stiff. The act of interpretation is usually what justifies a book's adaptation to film, and here the Fierlingers come up a little short. The film's narrative momentum rests solely with narration lifted directly from Ackerley's memoir, which renders the film version somewhat redundant. And beyond that bare fact, there's the trickier question of tone that I alluded to earlier. Ackerley's book comprises a delicate mix of dry English wit and understated tenderness that works extremely well on the page; transliterated to the somewhat abstracted medium of animation, some of that effect is sadly lost.


On TV: Question: Did I Not Like "Lost"?

For our first anniversary in 2008, my wife bought us the first season of Lost on DVD.  At that point, the show was in its fourth season and I wasn't interested.  But my wife had seen the first two seasons and insisted that I would be hooked, and after four or five episodes, I was.  From then onward, I watched the series in its entirety, right up until the finale just a few months ago, thoroughly caught up in the plot's many layers and twists.  For quite awhile, Lost made television fun again.  It had been a long time since I'd followed a show that closely.  Several good friends liked the show, too, and theorizing about Lost became a shared pastime.

During the sixth and final season, I had developed some ideas about the show and how it would end.  Those ideas turned out to be nonsense.  The show ended after a series of four or five episodes that demystified the show's mythology to such an extent that it was rendered inert.  The episode about Jacob and the Man in Black as children almost ruined the entire season by itself.  The final two episodes, too, were weak-kneed in terms of their ability to maintain a high level of plausibility within the increasingly fantastic world of the show.  Specifically, the resolution of the final season's parallel universe was cowardly.  I had always been suspicious of the show's occasional reliance upon Christian allegory, and the final episode verified those suspicions at the same time that it tore down the promise of the entire series.  (It's not the "Christianity" that bothered me, it was the allegory, a lazy way to deliver messages that are usually more interesting and memorable when expressed in unique ways.)

Still, although I felt that the finale did not do the series justice, the end of the series left me feeling positive on balance.  It had been an extraordinarily entertaining show and I allowed for the great difficulty that must have been endured by the show's creators and writers to maintain such a consistently high level of excellence.

Now, four months after the show's conclusion, I find myself reflecting on it with a strangely altered perspective.  I can't pinpoint when, why, or how the change occurred.  But when I think about Lost now, I think of a silly program that never understood what it was about.  I think of a show that, in its final season, rolled over for its fan base rather than staying true to its own thematic and stylistic nature.  I think of characters and actors who weren't necessarily likable (with several significant exceptions).  I think of a show whose desire to shock and misdirect outweighed its ability to maintain thematic cohesion.

Above all is the disappointment I feel over the last third of the show's final season, which comprises a group of episodes that suddenly and retroactively sapped all of the interest from the seemingly unstoppable momentum of everything in the preceding five-and-a-half seasons.  These last episodes' pacing was off; characters behaved jerkily (especially Ben); the unexpected started to feel unwelcome, as what I perceived as the show's "natural" resolution was agonizingly twisted from its hard sci-fi origins into a quasi-religious parable.

While watching the final season, I imagined that, once the show was complete, going back and watching it all over again would be an even richer experience, and that I'd be able to identify new clues and information in the earlier seasons that only really began to resonate in the later ones.  Now, I feel the opposite: that the earlier seasons were richer to begin with, and that their impact upon re-watching them will be weakened by the soft, mealy-mouthed resolutions offered by the sixth.  Maybe at some point in the future I'll want to revisit Lost again from the beginning.  For now, however, the show remains a object lesson for storytellers about the dangers of ungovernable expectations and the risks of establishing a mythology without knowing exactly where its roots lie.


Essay: The Art of Work and the Work of Art

I like to work, but am opposed to having a job.  Almost everyone works, in some capacity.  But "having a job," or working for someone else, is a guarantor of conformity.  The perceived necessity of having a job with benefits is the main distraction of adult life in America, where it's all about school, work, family.  At this moment, the question of jobs is particularly sensitive and charged.  Those without jobs, a club whose membership has grown appreciably over the last two years, are desperate for them.  They require income, food, health care, and shelter, for themselves and their families.  Protecting the brood drives the unemployed to aggressively pursue gainful employment; individuals without dependents may feel a bit more freedom to change careers during times such as these, when economies contract and markets change their shape.

But whatever the larger economic climate, those of us who are destined for another kind of productivity are stymied by the overwhelmingly dominant mindset that requires us to go to work for others.  Forty hours per week - the heart and meat of every weekday - are given over to work that ultimately, mostly, enriches others.  Our personalities, our interests, our talents, and our dreams are systematically subjugated in chilly environments that reward our toil with money and, sometimes, easy access to health care and modest investment opportunities.  I am not among those who hold Capitalism responsible for this sort of thing; nor am I saying that this set-up is definitively “bad.”  The problem is that not everyone is meant for this kind of life.  Capitalism is a useful concept, but it is borne out by human beings who make conscious choices as to how the system functions in its specifics.  Capitalism exists elsewhere, in places where the value of individual freedom of expression and freedom of mind in general are valued more highly than it is here.  The problem is cultural.  The problem is American.

If you grow up inside your head, testing ideas and experimenting in fields of creative and personal endeavor, you may wind up producing or discovering something that changes the world.  It may take a while.  People around you may have no idea what is it you are trying to do.  You yourself may be confounded by what you are compelled to pursue.  Paths of creative and scientific pursuit - paths originally trod centuries ago by driven, committed amateurs - have been professionalized to the extent that defining an individual way forward is not only untaught in either our public or private education systems, but is wholly absent from our common social discourse.  In the United States, we often suggest to one another that somehow, if someone is talented enough, they will rise to the top.  The idea that our society is intrinsically strong enough in its dynamics to "automatically" move the deserving into their proper place is a piece of outdated social Darwinism that smells vaguely of the totalitarian.  Yet this is a commonly-held trope that I continue to hear repeated in the context of conversations on the broad subject of "talent."

Capitalism reinforces and rewards hard work by individuals in operating in capacities that have the greatest social value.  In our society, these are the people whose work takes us away from quotidian concerns: athletes, actors, and musicians; or they are people who have the power of determining their own pay: corporate executives.  Occasionally, hard work by artists and scientists and other amateurs is rewarded via the marketplace.  More often, people in these fields are merely faced with raised eyebrows and suspicious glances, especially when they suggest that they should be paid for what their brains do.  Odd, given the money earned by people who answer telephones, throw balls back and forth, and pretend to be imaginary characters.

I have spent much of the last decade entangled in professional misdirection that has not brought me any closer to where I want to be in life.  This was a mistake on my part, and I'm responsible for it.  But it wouldn't have been made if I had been surrounded by differing - or even a variety of - expectations and attitudes.  Instead it was: school, work, family.  When it came time to earn a living with a college degree in English and Creative Writing, my options seemed limited - they weren't, but it seemed that way.  So I took a job in the publishing industry, because it looked like a place where a budding writer could learn something.  I did learn something: I learned that the publishing industry had virtually nothing to do with being a writer.  I also took jobs working in the non-profit world, and learned that writing grants was not only a depressingly salesman-like process, but that it sapped me of the mental energy required to do other writing when I wasn't at work.

More recently, as I've become more aware of my place in the world as it relates to the general workforce, and my complete unsuitability as a member of it, I've taken a series of small, tentative steps toward a different kind of existence - one that is not career-minded in relation to sources of income, and one that involves wholly unremunerated work as a writer.  But, the situation allows me great energy to write, and it affords my writing exposure to a small but consistent audience.  I should point out that this all amounts to nothing more than experimentation in terms of "how to be a writer."  I’m not there yet.

This set of personal circumstances is far from the only impetus behind the reflections herein.  I have a number of close friends who are in similar straits, struggling to balance the expectations of a social structure hostile to their strengths, and talents that refuse to lie still.  They work as hard as anyone I know.  Of course, I also know people who excel in professional or corporate environments, too, and probably belong there.  But the failure of suburban America, and the values that have incubated there, is its inability to find a place for people who wish to operate outside the common school, work, family mode of life.  There is no place for them there.  In cities, there are more opportunities, but what if we don't wish to live in a city?  What if we would like to live in the countryside?  As much as we would like to pretend that the Internet has eliminated the need to live where we work, it just isn't true.  But the main problem remains one of education, comprehension, and an ability to view the world through a multiplicity of lenses.  Hemmed in, bound by either arbitrary or unimaginative conventions, artists and other individualists face a challenge that is more stifling and impossible than all the tragic opera and bohemian mythology could ever express.


Essay: Recurring Nightmares

This is a loose selection of ideas that are rattling around in my head right now, looping back on themselves every so often.  Most of them are unresolvable, and some of them are going seem painfully obvious. 
  • All forms of mass communication separate us or otherwise highlight separation; they almost never bring us together.
  • The role of writers in public life is almost non-existent; this has some relationship to item #1.
  • Most journalists are moral and intellectual prostitutes.
  • Life in suburbia is a competition to see who can be the most mediocre.
  • In fifty years, the Obama presidency will probably be regarded as average.
  • I am a member of a generation of whiners, although I strongly suspect better things will emerge from the members of my generation than from the ones that immediately precede and follow it.
  • Movies are getting worse and television is getting better.  Movie theaters and bound books will largely disappear during my lifetime.
  • That line from All The President's Men - "Follow the money" - applies to every single aspect of American life, past, present, and future, and don't ever fool yourself into thinking it doesn't.
  • A childhood friend of mine is currently on trial for plotting a murder for hire.  I think about this all the time and might write something about it later - not about the trial, just about how it makes me feel (weird).
  • As I begin to pass the target age demographic for mainstream Hollywood movies, my hatred of them grows exponentially.
  • Why have I just now, in my 30s, discovered comic books and video games?  What the hell was I doing in my childhood?


On DVD: Nightmares in Red, White and Blue

Nightmares in Red, White, and BlueThe Monster Show, even though neither Skal nor his book are ever cited. This is important, because many of Skal's ideas have been broadly adopted by other film historians in the decade-and-a-half since his book was first published, and are repeated almost verbatim by the ones interviewed for this documentary. A key concept posited by Skal is the attribution of the oscillating popularity of the horror genre over the last century to various social and political problems and changes. This concept has gained traction among film writers and scholars, and it's troubling to me that Skal himself is not one of the talking heads in Monument's film, and that the whole gist of movie rests upon his ideas, sans attribution. This is not plagiarism, but one would imagine that a film taking its thesis from a pre-existing source would have drilled down to the origin of that source. is a relatively entertaining documentary by Andrew Monument that efficiently surveys the history of American horror films via film clips, narration by Lance Henriksen, and original interviews with film historians and some of the foremost practitioners of the genre. It is also visually clunky, and often repeats ideas originally expressed by film historian David J. Skal in his influential book
A chronological survey, Nightmares begins with Lance Henriksen intoning that the first American horror film was 1912 adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, a film that did not earn an audience. Skipping ahead two decades, Nightmares tracks the first significant stage of American horror development with the rise of the great monster films produced at Universal Studios in the 1930s: Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), with The Wolf Man (1941) coming a bit later. In the 1950s, horror blended with science fiction, as fear of the atomic bomb began to pervade all aspects of American life. The morass of Vietnam begat a more graphic horror style that continued into the 1980s and has recently seen a massive revival.

Director Andrew Monument gained access to some fantastic filmmakers as interview subjects, whose insights are more engaging and grounded than those of the film historians featured here. The filmmakers include John Carpenter, Joe Dante, George A. Romero, Larry Cohen, Roger Corman, and Tom McLaughlin. Their anecdotes about the inspiration they find in the genre, and their experiences manipulating its conventions, provide some of the documentary's best material. Carpenter dissects horror as an identification of the "location of evil." Romero categorizes his series of zombie pictures as analyses of how people behave when things go wrong (i.e., fear-based reactions that lead to chaos).

Nightmares is problematic in two important ways. First of all, the documentary does not present film clips in their original aspect ratios. Older 1.37:1 footage is zoomed to fit the documentary's 1.78:1 frame, and widescreen 2.35:1 clips are cropped for the same reason. This is a distractingly bizarre choice for a documentary about the history of the movies. It tarnishes its own subject.

The other jarring visual aspect in
Nightmares are multiple montages of the gruesome moments from the history of the genre. At least twice, we are subjected to extended batteries of vivisection, impaling, gouging, spurting, and decapitation. These sequences strip the clips of their original shock/horror value and amount to a blunt-force assault on viewers' senses and stomachs. They are excessive at the same time that they betray the footage in its original form.

contains some entertainment value, and will certainly be of interest to genre fans, especially for its filmmaker interview footage. But the documentary as a whole doesn't have a particularly compelling point of view. Its reliance on the uncited work of David Skal and its discomfiting visual choices make it suspect as a genuine "tribute" to the work of others. 

On DVD: Ugly Americans: Volume One

Ugly Americans has an enjoyable irreverence about it and its EC Comics-inspired design is inventive, but this animated Comedy Central program lacks both characters we can latch onto and consistent comedy value. The premise is built around an alternate version of New York City in which monsters, demons, and all manner of fantastic and mythical creatures live side-by-side with human beings. The non-human creatures are "managed" (from a civic point of view) by the Department of Integration, which helps place them in jobs and receive education and training. The show's main protagonist, a human named Mark Lilly, works for the Department of Integration, and rooms with a zombie named Randall.

The first volume of
Ugly Americans on DVD collects seven episodes, which is admittedly not a long run for a half-hour show. (The show has been renewed and new episodes begin airing on Comedy Central this month.) Since most major network half-hour comedies run in seasons of about twenty-five episodes, it's hardly reasonable for a new series such as this to hit its stride after only seven shows. This DVD release doesn't do Ugly Americans any favors, since television programs are often clunky in their first seasons. Characters are still being shaped by the writers and actors, story arcs continue to be fleshed out, and the question of tone is often a tricky one. This is all a very long way of saying that I feel both premature in passing judgment on such a new and unpolished show. But the fact is that these first episodes aren't terrific.

The show's creators have assembled an appealing visual experience: a monster-ized NYC, designed using the recognizable color scheme and heavy outlines of EC Comics' artists of the 1950s. It's whimsical, creative, and rooted in an under-appreciated legacy. The writing, however, leaves much to be desired. The show's sense of humor derives from that stonefaced, 1990s-era, monotonous style perfected by shows like
Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. What makes this harder to accept is the fact that the show's main characters are quite flat, without any history, dimension, or personality. The writing assumes that it is funny enough - or that the show's premise is strong enough - to float these under-developed characters through these episodes. Unfortunately, neither is true.

I'm glad that
Ugly Americans has been given further opportunity to develop its world and (hopefully) its characters. I actually look forward to checking in with the show again - perhaps when the next DVD is released. The premise is promising. The show is not wholly without laughs. It will be interesting to see whether this next set of episodes ordered by Comedy Central reflects the writers working out the kinks in the show's characters and milieu.
Read the full review here

On DVD: The Law

Jules Dassin's The Law is a mildly ribald, occasionally funny, often meandering tribute to Gina Lollobrigida's cleavage. Although such a tribute is surely well-deserved, the film doesn't work hard enough to deserve our involvement in it. Dassin assembles a variety of colorful characters (portrayed by an admittedly stellar cast) in a musical-comedy setting, but doesn't have the gumption to truly turn them loose. They are mostly caricatures, operating within the imagined boundaries of Dassin's conceptualization of a European sex comedy; as an American expatriate, Dassin doesn't appear to have any special understanding of the milieu he is depicting. Dassin's lack of sufficient cultural understanding here is not helped by the fact that this Franco-Italian co-production is set in a small Italian fishing village, with mostly Italian actors, but is performed (or dubbed) in French.

Dassin rests the film's credibility upon the deployment of an eponymous southern Italian drinking game, which, I learned from the DVD's extra features, is alleged to have its roots in ancient Rome. A strange iteration of role-playing, "the law" is a miniature version of the body politic, with one participant being designated "the boss" and another designated his or her deputy. These two then conspire to manipulate the behavior of all the players, with the chief object of interest being access to booze, which is controlled by the boss. The game is depicted in
The Law's first half hour, and the participants, as per the norm, are all male.

But the film is dominated by a female character named Mariette, played by Gina Lollobrigida as a willful skank who, along with her mother and two sisters, is employed by the town's de facto leader, Don Cesare. It is implied that Don Cesare enjoys carnal relations with each of his female "support staff," and although Mariette harbors a kind of affection for him, she dreams of leaving the town and enjoying a more respectable existence. Enter a character known only as "the agronomist," played by Marcello Mastroianni, an urbane professional from the north of Italy who has arrived in the area to drain the marshes and thereby rid the town of endemic malaria. Mastroianni looks askance at the entire town, Mariette included, despite her flirtatious advances. Thenceforward, we are asked to see Mariette as a "boss" of sorts, manipulating her friends and neighbors to carry out her wishes in an effort to achieve her own private ends.

Surrounding this central plot are a group of loosely connected subplots, involving a sleazy power-hungry quasi-gangster played by a sneering Yves Montand, the dalliances of the town's sheriff, and the troubled affair between the judge's wife (Melina Mercouri) and the Montand character's son. These subplots suggest that Dassin wanted to create a portrait of the town on a broad canvas, using an approach similar to what Robert Altman would later become known for. This ambition is betrayed by a lack of character development, a reliance on stereotypes and clichés, and unearned emotional crescendos that ring hollow.

The movie has its share of humor and melodrama, and Lollobrigida has enough sex appeal for ten women - or ten movies. The local color is interesting if not totally credible, and it's fun to watch Mastroianni and Montand in early-ish roles. Dassin specialized in taut narratives driven by characters overwhelmed by anxiety; the leisurely pacing of
The Law and its lighter, somewhat nebulous tone seems to have gotten the best of him here. Too many characters and a lack of a focal point prevent this otherwise breezy film from leaving a lasting mark. 

Read the full review here