GOOD NEWS - Yes, I've been a bit slack with this site lately, but the reason should be obvious enough, if you've ever been through this yourself...
Agnes Montserrat McGinnis - Born Saturday, June 14th, 2:20AM. Nine pounds, nine ounces, twenty-two inches long. Mother and daughter are fine and resting.
Dad, on the other hand, is a total basketcase. Should you feel so moved, there are Amazon.com wishlists in US and Canadian dollars at the bottom of the left-hand column. If you're so moved, that is...
There are also new movie and DVD reviews up.
TONS OF NEW MOVIE REVIEWS - Down With Love, If By Chance (Casomai), The Shape of Things, Swing, Man on the Train, Spun, Levity, and Ten. I liked Man on the Train, Swing, and If By Chance (Casomai) more than a lot of my peers, I think. I adored Ten - more on that later. Also, some new DVD reviews: The Emperor's Club, The Hot Chick and Murder in Greenwich. I can't believe I actually compared The Hot Chick to Pasolini.
I've also been a bit distracted lately with personal matters, so posting has been light, despite the stacks of clippings gathering on my desk and the release of the summer's two biggest hits - X2 and The Matrix Reloaded. If you're at all curious, here's the skinny on it all, on a part of this site that I've been working on for years. Time (and maternity) willing, I'll try to get some posts up this week.
Also, the I Am Curious (Yellow/Blue) contest detailed below is still running - get your entries in now!
#0143 - CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER - There's a whole mess of new DVD reviews up - Catch Me If You Can, I Am Curious (Yellow/Blue), The Jack Ryan films, Silk Stockings, The Swimmer, Extreme Ops and The Way Home. I've been going mad with DVD reviewing lately, thanks to an impending re-design of the paper's entertainment section, and a massive backlog of discs compounded by the fact that another half-dozen seem to arrive every day. Yesterday alone, I was sent at least that many MGM westerns, a pile of war films and a third pile of regular releases. And the summer release season hasn't even begun yet.
I'm not complaining - hey, my only problem is where I'm going to put the stuff I'm keeping. I would, however, like to sit down and blithely watch something I'm not obligated to write about sometime soon. I actually felt guilty last night when I sat down to watch a disc of Donnie Darko I'd picked up on sale last month, knowing that it wasn't part of the review pile that's hiding my expensive but never-used turntable next to the TV set.
This week presented me with an unusual dilemma: For the first time since I began the column, I gave a Criterion Collection release a bad review. To compound my sense of mild guilt, in no time at all, Marc Weisblott was picking on my pan on his blog, knitting it into a somewhat ambling shot at the paper, and the city it serves, for being so anodyne - or at least that's what I think Marc was saying. It all has something to do with Sweden, the Swedish co-owners of the paper, and our hometown's rather zipless, vaguely Nordic yet style-free public image. Nonetheless, I've got this very nicely packaged Criterion disc set, and discernible no urge to add it to my rapidly-growing collection. What to do?
I'm still not sure what I was expecting from Vilgot Sjöman's I Am Curious (Yellow) and it's companion piece, I Am Curious (Blue) - it's a milestone in the history of battles against artistic censorship, and has the dubious reputation of being one of a small group of films of varying quality - including Candy, The Killing of Sister George, Salo, Last Tango in Paris and others - that pushed back the barriers of what could be shown in a movie publicly and in the courts. On some days - dark, pessimistic days, I have to admit - I have to say that I think it's a dubious legacy we've inherited.
The praise of intellectuals like Norman Mailer for the film ("one of the most important pictures I have ever seen in my life") has always been coloured for me by Mailer's rather adolescent-sounding references to "pornies" in an interview he did with Madonna years ago - the sort of giggling, prurient awe that always manages to strip away the years and make men like Mailer seem like boys thumbing through soggy stroke mags they keep at the back of the garden shed. Even Gary Giddins' laudatory essay included with the Criterion package is strangely devoid of the sort of barely-restrained, breathless praise you'd expect from a critic asked to hold forth on a longtime favorite.
Giddins admires Lena Nyman's performance as "brave", mostly for making herself a lightning rod for moral critics of the film - by "engaging in the faux-sex of I Am Curious, Nyman had crossed a line, and was perceived not as an actress, but as a 'whore'" - and appearing unflatteringly nude onscreen, showcasing a body that even defenders of the film like Stanley Kauffmann called "porky and stolid". One thing's for sure - I doubt if the sex, faux or not, showcased in the film would be considered erotic today; I doubt if it was back then. My overall reaction to the film on a, let's say, primal level is best summed up by the scene where Lena informs her boyfriend that she's given him scabies. Mmmm - scintillating.
Yet contrary to what Marc implied in his blog, I didn't watch the film hoping for an arousing experience. If I'm allowed to be disingenuous, even as a movie critic, I was hoping as I always do for a couple of hours of intermittently interesting, even entertaining, ideological gamesmanship. Sjöman's film was once as well known for its political message as any putatively erotic content, a critical but committed paean to Sweden's experiment in socialist government, fueled by the raging, "youthquake" zeitgeist then sweeping the west. As I said in my review, the films (whose colour schemes were references to the Swedish flag) was a major pillar in the popular myth of Sweden as a swinging, leftist utopia-in-the-making, and girls like Lena Nyman - re-cast in some fervid male imaginations as lissome, sexually eager SAL stewardesses - as shock troops in the Sexual Revolution's blitzkrieg. With Sweden at the epicentre, a tidal wave swept through the west calling for the roll-back of laws dictating public and private morality, a wave that hit the shore here in Canada when future Prime Minister, then Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau made his famous, pithy comment that the state had "no place in the bedrooms of the nation".
Today, the politics of I Am Curious (Yellow), as embodied in Lena, the film's sexual and political Candide, seem depthless, hectoring, and desperate. It was hard for me to find the heroine sympathetic, as she flailed between her two onscreen paramours (the controlling Sjöman and the indifferent Borje), petulantly quizzed bystanders with plodding questions like "Do we have a class system in Sweden?", and raged at her father. Lena's major conflict in the film, besides her romantically banal entanglements - is with her father, a man she apparently depises for unheroically fleeing Republican Spain and the anti-fascist cause after only a few days, years before she was born. (Would that make him a prematurely disillusioned anti-fascist?)
It's hard not to see Lena as an all-too familiar type - the Boomer political and spiritual seeker, praising tolerance with an intolerant voice, enthusiastically embracing any movement or ideology that seems new or at least offensive to the establishment. In the middle of her pastoral "idyll" with Borje, Lena tries to sell her decidedly apolitical lover on the philosophy of the latest "genius" she's discovered, a deep thinker who's re-written the Ten Commandments to include a decree that birth control and abortion are essential civic rights for women. As has been pointed out again and again, this sort of "liberation" was a godsend not so much for young women but for men in general, removing responsibility and consequence from sex, multiplying the sexual marketplace many times over, making casual sex a kind of duty, and the male aversion to emotional committment an "enlightened" attitude. Far from fulfilled and free-spirited, Lena comes across as troubled and ashamed, and who can blame her?
The bottom line is that, having spent a joyless night watching both of the Criterion discs, including the supplemental material that made me push of my rating to two and a half stars - Criterion almost never disappoints in this department - I don't have any urge to keep my copy of I Am Curious (Yellow/Blue). I don't want to sell it, and I can't think of anyone who I can give it to, so I'm making an offer to any reader who wants to own a copy but doesn't want to pay the roughly sixty bucks the set costs in the stores. Write me an e-mail with a thirty or forty word explanation of why you need to own to own Criterion's deluxe edition of I Am Curious (Yellow/Blue) and I'll send you my copy, free of charge. I'll take care of shipping, but I'll want to post responses here on my blog. Use the e-mail link on the left, and remember - amusing is good, but earnest is hardly anathema; I'd like to be convinced that Vilgot Sjöman's film isn't an embarrasingly dated relic of a social cataclysm that we're still struggling to recover from, almost two generations later.
(posted 12:14am | 05.07.03)
YES, I'LL BE GOING TO THIS.
NEW DVD REVIEWS: Bloody Sunday, Treasure Planet, The Singing Detective, The Lost Honor of Katarina Blum, "The Family Guy" Seasons 1 & 2, "Futurama" Volume One, Little Big Man and A Man Called Horse. A real bonanza of stuff this week, and I haven't even touched the teetering stack of John Wayne reissues sitting next to the TV - the subject of a future posting. I've become fascinated by The Duke lately, and now's as good a time as any to ingest a heaping helping of his enormous filmography.
Also, I'm aware of all the folks who love "The Family Guy", and I didn't have much nice to say about it. I'm sorry - I just can't crack a snicker or a guffaw when I watch the show; it's just such a patent "Simpsons" rip-off, and it's amazing to me that no one acknowledges the real achievement of something like Mike Judge's "King of the Hill", especially as Groening's show splutters through a years-long creative drought. Hey - I always thought "Beavis and Butthead" was way funnier than smug, alt-weekly fare like "Life in Hell", anyway.
NEW REVIEWS: DVD reviews: Beatles Anthology, Rolling Stones: Just for the Record, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Beauty and the Beast, Drumline and The Transporter. Marion Bridge: Beware Canadian movies set in overcast, off-season Maritime locales. You'd think that the whole of our East Coast is crying out for government-subsidized Paxil. Better Luck Tomorrow: The scholastic olympics team goes all gangsta on your ass. I tried - I really tried - not to use the words "Asian-American" in this review. I failed, but it would have been nice if I didn't feel obliged to mention it at all.
#0142 - BLOOD ON THE SPROCKETS - While their city was being bombed and their army gradually routed, the people of Baghdad watched movies - whenever they had power, that is. This Australian news service story tells us that the most popular film in the Iraqi capital is Mel Gibson's The Patriot, his critically-drubbed Revolutionary War re-write of Braveheart, followed by Ticker, a 2001 straight-to-video film about a terrorist bomb planted in San Francisco, starring Steven Seagal .
The News.com story tries to make a telling point by describing Gibsons' film as being "about a militiaman who reluctantly takes up arms for his country after seeing brutality by British troops." The implied frisson in seeing San Francisco under threat goes without saying, I suppose, in a city under daily attack.
"During an evening of airstrikes, provided there's electricity, customers want to wind down and be taken in by a story in which the good triumph over evil, like us against the Americans," says Ali Hassan, a Baghdad movie-seller.
Other popular action stars in Baghdad are Wesley Snipes, Jet Li, James Bond, and Jean-Claude Van Damme in films like Maximum Risk. "Look at our fighters," says video-seller Fellah Hassan. "They're the ones who most resemble Wesley Snipes or Jet Li, not our enemies."
The article is dated April 8th, and was likely written and researched in the days beforehand, so I have to assume that Hassan was fondly imagining the heroic, superhuman resistance that the Iraqi military, militia and fedayeen, as directed by Ringo Lam instead of their lacklustre generals, would offer the U.S. and British forces. Today, after that fantasy has apparently dissolved, it's tempting to imagine a sudden surge in viewers for films, like Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, from the dispirited aftermath of Vietnam, though I think that's probably unlikely. Fantasies die harder than the men who imagine them.
Back on the home front, war films have been doing less well, lagging in box office well behind slope-browed comedies like Bringing Down the House and Anger Management, though attendance figures overall have dipped. In the Orange County Register, Barry Koltnow takes a look at the anemic winter movie season and the hand-wringing industry response.
Koltnow's take is hardly an objective or careful, statistics-based analysis of the box office slump, but I don't think most moviegoers would find much to disagree with in his criticisms. As far as he's concerned, when an audience fails to turn out for the admittedly uneven fare released in the fallow months leading up to summer blockbuster season, they're voting with their feet (or their behinds, as it were), opting to stay at home rather than subject themselves to any or all of the following factors:
1) The movies stink. If The Core only makes $20 million, the studios should feel "lucky they got that much."
2) The prices stink. It's one thing to pay $14 for The Hours or Chicago. It's another to pay that much for Boat Trip.
3) The commericals stink. You pay $14 dollars to see a sitcom reject like Boat Trip, or a third-rate video game like The Core, and you still have to sit through fifteen minutes of commercials. Yes, there's something wrong here.
It's hardly the manifesto of a consumer revolt, but it probably speaks to people like my wife, who is happy to forego a trip to the movies, even in the last months of her pregnancy, untroubled by the prospect of not seeing the inside of a multiplex again, at least until the kid is old enough to demand a matinee of Lilo & Stitch Meet the Chubb Chubbs. Above it all, though, Koltnow has one note for the studio executives sweating over poor movie attendance: "THERE'S A WAR GOING ON, YOU IDIOTS."
The war has done nothing to help attendance at war movies, though, according to this N.Y. Times piece. The most recent titles - war or war-related films like Tears of the Sun, The Hunted and Basic - have brought in disappointing returns of $43, $32, and $21 million dollars respectively since their release. Since these are the kind of figures executives have come to expect from opening weekends alone, the fiscal calculus of the industry has no choice but to deem them flops.
A fourteen-percent drop in overall box office revenue compared to the same period last year suggests that Koltnow may be right - the war has pulled people out of theatres and in front of their TV sets, or maybe just anywhere they can escape war news of any kind. In any case, the days of World War Two, when war films were a guaranteed draw, are long over. The Times piece quotes film studies professor Jeanine Basinger, author of a book on WW2 films, suggesting that the days when the public saw war films as information as much as entertainment are long over.
"During World War II," Basinger says, people "needed movies to help you see and understand events they were hearing about. (Today) we are kind of inured; we have seen a lot of blood and combat."
It's an interesting idea - and perhaps a bit frightening in all of its implications - that at a time when a scant minority of western audiences have any first- or secondhand experience of the horrors of war, they assume a familiarity with it based entirely on the superior technical and special effects prowess of modern movies, a vivid wartime vision built from blood packs, squibs, prosthetics, pyrotechnics, CGI, sophisticated camera moves and harsh, assaultive editing. This virtual, mental battlefield imagery is simply, easily plugged into the vast, blank spaces surrounding the grainy satellite feed from actual combat zones, fleshing out the scraps of aftermath and hastily glimpsed firefight provided by CNN.
The critical and box-office success of Black Hawk Down - apparently distributed as a training video by Saddam's military, to no apparent effect, it would seem - just after 9/11 was followed up by We Were Soldiers and - I think the Times may have got this one wrong, actually - Behind Enemy Lines, back in the now long-ago era of mourning and purpose during and just after Afghanistan. No one would deny that something changed in the months after the fall of the Taliban, best understood right now as a sense of satiety that overcame the political left, the extreme right and, so it seems, most of western Europe.
The appetite for war films receded along with the notion of widespread support for war - against Iraq, against terrorism, against any belligerence, in fact, that had a possibility of increasing the sense of conflict between the west and the muslim world. Africa, of course, was allowed to seethe away in its own hopeless cauldron of endless civil and tribal wars, and France was able to unilaterally, and without UN notice, send troops to the Ivory Coast - as long as the factionalized status quo was maintained - while decrying a decisive American action in Iraq.
Is it any wonder that Joe Roth, producer of Tears of the Sun, is at a loss to suggest just how you'd make a successful, popular war film these days? If it's true that, regardless of the setting or the story, a war film always addresses the current or next war in the same way that generals are supposed to be fighting the last film, just how should a war movie look like nowadays to speak to a wide audience? Obviously, special forces missions gone all humanitarian (Tears) or amped up military procedurals (Basic) just don't do the job.
There are rumours that a film about the special forces troops that rode around Afghanistan on horseback, calling down air strikes using cutting-edge laser and satellite gear, is in the works, and the Pfc. Lynch story is apparently due for TV movie treatment, but until they appear, it's hard to imagine how the movies will tell the stories of these short, lurching wars, so full of apocalyptic threat, swift collapse, and uncertain long-term outcome. "We might see these skirmishes more often," Roth told the Times. "Anyone who is thinking about making a war movie has to think twice."
In the meantime, we've all had a chance to watch the war on kludgy, bit-mapped sat-phone feed and Warhol-like stationary cameras staring in real time over Baghdad's skyline every day on CNN, an "entertainment" that Charles McGrath, editor of the N.Y. Times Book Review, deems a critical failure in a recent Sunday Magazine piece called, succintly, "Bomb".
McGrath thinks the whole televised war show extravaganza had promise - "There were the Navy Seals, zipping over the waves in jet-powered speedboats to take over offshore oil terminals before the Iraqis guarding them even knew what was happening. How cool was that!" - but quickly bogged down, when it became hard to follow the plot:
"Why weren't the Iraqis throwing down their arms and coming out to greet us, the way the game plan said they would? Pretty soon it was pointless to flip on the TV in the hope of learning what the score was. No one knew the score, and no one knew anymore even how to keep track of the score. That stationary-camera view of the Baghdad skyline, meanwhile, was becoming more and more familiar and depressing, as we saw it now at dawn and again at midday, with plumes of smoke curling in the background or esle with windblown sand whipping past. And what was that nondescript building in the foreground anyway? A parking garage?"
Even when the enemy armies did throw down their arms, or rather bury them and slip quietly away from their lines, and the Iraqi people came out to tear down statues and enrich their lives with a bit of Ba'ath party loot, it did no good. McGrath, and a good part of the show's audience, had lost interest, and peevishness overcame exhilaration, with bad reviews to follow. "We should have known it in the first place," McGrath writes. "War - the subject of so many great movies and novels and of at least one first-rate sitcom ('M*A*S*H') - is the very opposite of what makes for good television."
Television, McGrath reminds us, has no narrative, and so viewers can find themselves "in the position of Stendahl's Fabrizio, who in The Charterhouse of Parma stumbles into the battle of Waterloo without a clue as to what's really going on." TV is also adverse to showing us "fear, panic, confusion and stupidity, which are the very fabric of war", though for some reason McGrath is willing to give Al Jazeera a provisional exemption from this criticism. Novelists, he suggests, are war's greatest chroniclers, because "they can acknowledge war's great secret - that it's absurd and at times profoundly comic."
TV, says McGrath, relies on "emotional porn", those clumsy little moments when some blow-dried anchorperson - he deputizes Katie Couric to stand in for her profession - unconvincingly projects empathy toward some unfortunate person on the other end of a closed-circuit interview feed. It's awful and shallow and unconvincing, he implies, assuming, it seems, like he's the first person who's ever come to this conclusion.
While the war was raging, journalist Michael Wolff made a name for himself by peevishly asking, at a CENTCOM press conference, why the military wasn't telling journalists the whole, unvarnished, truth, making the fruit of their intelligence completely available for their delectation. What could reporters learn at the million-dollar Doha press centre that they couldn't learn at Pentagon or State Department pressers back home? His question struck a nerve with the frustrated reporters in the pool and with skeptical media in "Turkey, France, Canada, Italy, and at The Nation magazine." Looking back, Wolff was proud of his moment of dissent: "I’d addressed something like the existential issue of our own purposelessness, but for the latter, I seem to have, heretically, raised the very issue of meaning itself."
In no time at all, Wolff was on CNN, then Fox, and after being excoriated by Rush Limbaugh, found 3000 angry e-mails in his inbox. A couple of vaguely comic government civilian types first cajoled, then issued toothless threats (“Don’t fuck with things you don’t understand.”). Threats or no threats, Wolff had gotten his story.
What it boils down to is that Wolff was shocked - shocked! - to discover that military media flacks are less than reliable, unforthcoming by principle, and concerned with presenting a competent and believable facade while giving away as little valuable information as possible. In his eyes, this makes CENTCOM spokesman Gen. Vincent Brooks as risible as the war's comic foil, Muhammad al Sahhaf, the Iraqi information minister. It was the "Five O'Clock Follies" all over again, and Wolff's mission was to tell the world.
Meanwhile, back home, a divided public either hungrily consumed every bit of low-fi, scattershot, "compromised" news it could get, or made Charles McGrath's despairing realization that "no one knew the score" a cornerstone of anti-war protest. For all their public rancour, both sides were doing the same thing - processing the scant war news through their own mental imagery of war, imagining dusty firefights, friendly fire, collateral damage, the sudden shock of precision munitions next to the even stranger spectacle of life going on in the vast, unbombed suburbs and neighbourhoods elsewhere in the city, where families sat down and watched bad war movies in the midst of real war. The only difference between the two was whether they reacted to the war their imagination had helped build with resignation or revulsion.
In either case, I would say that the public response to the war was a lot more sophisticated than Wolff, McGrath, or the beleaguered producers of underperforming war films suspected. The war in Iraq was lethal, but the war at home - for public opinion and political consensus - was vicious and divisive, and may prove as pivotal in the history books, if not more so. While Wolff came across as a bit too pleased with his existential raid on meaning, McGrath is somehow convinced that only a novelist, and not a potential reader, or merely an observant spectator, is capable of divining the comic, confused, stupid, fearful aspect of war. They both seem a bit guilty of the sin of pride, and a wild underestimation of how deep and far the franchise on imagining war and interpreting news has spread amongst a far from passive audience.
(posted 12:35am | 04.19.03)
NEW DVD REVIEWS: Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, Straw Dogs (Criterion Edition), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and The Truth About Charlie.