Movie Diary 11/30/2010

Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010). In case you hadn’t heard, each of us has a dark and a light side. Go figure. (full review 12/10)

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Robert Aldrich, 1964). A few afternoons of the “Big Money Movie” were devoted to being freaked out by the idea of Bruce Dern getting his hand and head chopped off in the prologue. It still wears pretty well, although – nothing against Olivia de Havilland – it’s too bad Joan Crawford backed out of the reunion with Bette Davis.

Special early hour for the KUOW-FM (that would be kuow.org, too) stint Wednesday morning: 9 a.m., along with Slate.com writers Dana Stevens and Julia Turner.

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Movie Diary 11/29/2010

Alamar (Pedro González-Rubio, 2009). A boy visits his father, a fisherman at a remote Mexico seashore, and for 70 minutes or so we watch the Edenic cycle of catching fish, cleaning them, and eating – a cycle through which a certain mode of living is passed on. Beautiful film. (full review 12/3)

Burlesque (Steve Antin, 2010). It lands in an unsatisfactory zone: not bad enough to be risible camp, not good enough for anything. However processed she looks, Cher retains a sense of humor about the whole deal, and the movie allows her a roof-raising anthem; Christina Aguilera appears computer-generated.

The Portuguese Nun (Eugène Green, 2009). Behaviorally stylized, and a bold you’re-gonna-love-my-movie-or-hate-it approach. Really has some moments, though, and Leonor Baldaque comes across as a poor man’s Sandrine Kiberlain. (full review 12/3)

Rare Exports (Jalmari Helander, 2010). Well, this is something odd – Santa Claus dug up out of the Finland ice, ready to renew his rampaging violence against the world’s children – all measured out with Finnish humor the color of coffee grounds. It also seems to be parodying the kind of movie it wants to be. (full review 12/10)

The Ugly American (George Englund, 1963). A curious study of U.S. bumblings in Southeast Asia, with Marlon Brando looking at sea and an ingenious final sequence – which leaves you understanding why it didn’t connect with the public. The director was married to Cloris Leachman for many years.

What a Feeling!

Hereby announcing a new website to go along with this one. It requires some explanation.

I reviewed a lot of movies in the 1980s, and the review clippings have been sitting in accordian folders ever since. Now, common sense would suggest that this juvenilia be left where it is; I was a mere lad at the time (I was in my twenties, anyway) and still cutting my teeth with the writing thing. However, I have always loved reading old magazines and newspapers, and when I was in high school and college I would go to the library and drift through bound copies of Time and Life. It was always fascinating to read the movie reviews, because they carried on-the-spot first impressions – they weren’t burnished by subsequent history or conventional wisdom.

And I thought it might be allowable to revive my old articles and present them as they were – sort of a diary of the decade in movie reviews. And then annotate them at the end of each piece. Eventually this would become a big, thicket-like record of an extremely peculiar period in film. And so this is What a Feeling!, a website that begins today with ten reviews, but will probably grow to the hundreds. Because people, I wrote about the weirdest, oddest things – at times I will stare at a review and have no recollection that the title in question ever existed, let alone that I saw and wrote about it. Maybe by doing this I’ll begin liking the decade more than I do. (And it launches the day Leslie Nielsen dies – that’s right on the money. RIP Frank Drebin.)

There’s more about the site in the “What This Site Is” tab. I’ll be throwing in a new movie every weekday, more or less. Enter the vortex here.

The Last Refuge (The Cornfield #9)

The Last Refuge is Part 2 of Ken Burns’s 2009 documentary series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. It uses 130 minutes of the series’ 12-hour-plus running time to cover the years 1890 to 1915, a rich period that includes meaty stuff about Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir, the notorious dam at Hetch Hetchy Valley, and the invention of the rather astonishing Antiquities Act of 1906, which created broad presidential powers to set aside land for protection from development (originally intended to keep some ancient Indian sites safe from looting, the Act was promptly used by Roosevelt to place large natural wonders such as Devil’s Tower under federal protection; in 1908 he blithely declared that 800,000 acres surrounding the Grand Canyon were a National Monument, which is surely one of the great fuck-you moments of the Conservation movement).

I haven’t watched the subsequent episodes yet. It’s only a coincidence that I’m writing about it a week after writing about Sarah Palin’s Alaska, another TV show ostensibly about natural wonders that carries a political argument within it. In the case of Palin’s campaign informercial, the methods are crude and the arguments sometimes incoherent, in the way that one can be for a Bridge to Nowhere but also be against it. (SPA should get credit for alerting Americans to the dangers of halibut violence against humans, however.) With Burns, who sticks to his tried-and-true style, the method is calm, measured, and frequently devastating.

Burns is a very fine filmmaker. Something about his style (or his success) has generated sarcasm and skepticism in his critics; I guess he must seem like an old fogey to somebody who’s exploring the boundaries of where reality and fiction overlap or some crap like that. And his commitment to storytelling is out of step with academic ideas of history; Burns is more an heir to the movie storytelling of John Ford, especially in his eye for contradictory characters – the conservative Iowa congressman John F. Lacey, for instance, who became the driving force behind the Antiquities Act and efforts to protect the wildlife of Yellowstone.

In this episode, Burns has people like Roosevelt, who was probably the most interesting human being in the history of American politics, so the storytelling is especially endless. He also has the National Park ranger Shelton Johnson, a poetical type who went into Whitmanesque thrall the first time he saw the Roosevelt gate at Yellowstone, and seemingly has never come out of it. Burns himself can be criticized for lapsing into that mode too often, perhaps; yet there’s something about his dogged rhythms and lucid argument that prevents the scales from tilting too far in that direction.

While watching The National Parks, one is frequently reminded of how Burns uses his subjects to go beyond the thing at hand. It didn’t take long, in watching Baseball, to see that while the massive project displayed a deep understanding of the national pastime by a true believer, it was actually a history of race relations in America. The National Parks is (so far, anyway) full of the expected paeans to the natural world, but it is also fundamentally about a central division in U.S. politics, between development and conservation – but “conservation” isn’t quite right, actually. The division is between people who would exploit absolutely everything until it is cleaned-out and dead, and those who wouldn’t. There is barely a minute of The National Parks that doesn’t remind you of something going on right now.

Pastry and Other Drugs (Weekly Links)

Tangled up in blond

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Tangled. “Both fairy-tale monster and a textbook modern example of bad mothering.”

Love and Other Drugs. “They flirt, they date, they take their clothes off a lot.”

Marwencol. “Something close to awe.”

Kings of Pastry. “Four years of anticipation shatter with one misjudged step.”

And a holiday preview thingie from last Sunday.

Also, after some publishing delays, issue #8 of Rotten is out.

And next Monday, look for a second website to debut in conjunction with The Crop Duster. It will be like totally awesome.

Movie Diary 11/22/2010

Tangled (Nathan Greno, Byron Howard, 2010). Best Disney animated feature in ten years? Why is there a question mark there? (full review 11/24)

All Good Things (Eugene Jarecki, 2010). Seedy true story of death among the New York richies. It’s not similar in style, but this movie might not have existed without the example of Zodiac. (full review 12/17)

Kings of Pastry (D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, 2009). A horrifying competition in France to determine a certain level of greatness in pastry chefs. That’s far too much pressure on these poor people. The movie, of course, is full of suspense. (full review 11/26)

The Agony and Ecstasy of Phil Spector (Vikram Jayanti, 2009). An intriguing film in many ways. Its design might not make a lot of sense, but Spector is some kind of good interview. (full review 12/3)

Sarah Palin’s Alaska (The Cornfield #8)

The longest and best-produced political campaign infomercial in TV history, Sarah Palin’s Alaska is (contrary to the avowed purpose of it) unabashedly in the service of promoting its star, the former governor of Alaska. You may well ask: promoting her for what? Nowhere during the first episode of the program does Palin state she is running for president (or anything else) in 2012. No, Palin is a good example of the modern phenomenon of free-floating candidacy, in which promotion of the self exists outside of a specific goal. It’s one of the many ways politics has merged with Hollywood, where a star can maintain a high profile and influence without actually appearing in any good or successful projects.

This is why her critics were so laughably wrong when they declared her career over on the day she awkwardly resigned from the governorship. Palin understands this stuff perfectly, and apparently intuitively. Having reached a certain level of prominence, the governing of a state became utterly irrelevant to the larger project—not just irrelevant, but a drain away from the big picture.

The surprising thing about Sarah Palin’s Alaska is that, even with this in mind, the first episode is barely underway before the political slaps arrive. Palin and her husband point out that writer Joe McGinniss has moved in next door and ruined their summer (filmed from afar sitting on his porch, McGinniss’s face is blurred out, as though he were a sexual predator on a reality crime show; this is done because he presumably didn’t sign a release form for the production company, but that’s not how it reads). Sarah doesn’t miss a chance to note that the fence extension her husband and his friends have built between properties is a metaphor for how we might keep out illegal immigrants. Or no, she doesn’t say this, quite; she says, “Others might look at it and say, ‘This is what we need on our nation’s border.'” Note the avoidance of owning this as her opinion and the use of a favored construction of political discourse: “Americans are tired of Obamacare and taxes on small business and Democrats who use infants in human sacrifice.” It’s not just my opinion—Americans factually feel these things, and the more times I say this, the more you are accustomed to accepting it as truth.

Now, it is true that throughout this show it is easy to observe the irony of Palin decrying the lack of privacy for her life (because of “kids” and “family,” inevitably) when she’s got a camera crew intruding on their world. Or the irony of her promoting herself as jes’ plain folks when she’s got a sea plane pulling up to her lakefront property and a camera studio in her backyard where she and hubby Todd prepare her Fox News appearances. (Todd: that mysterious, ravaged-voiced Fred Ward character, who comes across like Christian Bale’s assistant in The Prestige: he’s deliberately kept on camera just long enough so that you can’t quite form a picture of him.)

But wait. Apparently it’s not easy to observe that irony. Not for forty percent of the country, anyway. We’ve had a few decades now with irony and satire and sarcasm in the ascendency, and it hasn’t made a spot of difference to the forty percent that thinks Sarah Palin is a terrifically refreshing and feisty gal who represents family values while traveling around the country to soak up the spotlight and millions of dollars in fees (do all the kids travel with her all the time, or is the mama grizzly away from the den a whole lot)? Forty percent of the country does not see a contradiction in Palin’s energetic flaunting of her children and her schoolmarmy wrist-slappings toward those who would mention this reality, as when David Letterman made an actually quite funny joke that referred to her daughter’s out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But to understand such a joke would require an understanding of—all right, I’ll let it go.

The TV show has the kids, or some of them (it’s almost impossible to get a fix on how many of them there are), and Sarah going fishing near a bear enclave, and Sarah going rock-climbing. She reminds us that these rough Alaskan adventures, even if undertaken with expensive equipment and a full camera crew nearby, are the stuff of character-building, and we could all learn lessons from the wild. Yet they actually look like the actions of someone irresponsibly trying things they probably shouldn’t be doing without more preparation and training. In the political world, this means you end up looking glassy-eyed when Katie Couric asks you what newspapers you read; in nature, it means you end up dying alone in an abandoned bus in an Alaskan summer. The remarkable thing is that Palin has made advantages out of even her Couric moments. And however goofy or stomach-turning her TV series might be, there’s surely no downside in it for her. People know what they like, and they like this.

Addendum: Just watched Episode #2. All right, possibly some downside. Palin’s repeated descriptions of the dangers of live halibut inflicting bodily harm carry a faint echo of Jimmy Carter’s brush with a killer rabbit. Plus, after watching her enthusiastically club the fish to death, it is nerve-wracking to see her enter the proximity of whales and otters – nothing seems safe in the lady’s orbit. Strangely, though, as the show goes on the brief but frequent glimpses of Palin’s own fears and anxieties make you suspect that her loud saber-rattling is an enormous act of over-compensating.