Culture Notes: Loss

Peter Brunette. A word here to mark the passing of someone I never met. In person, that is; I knew Peter Brunette through cyber broadcasts we made in the mid-1990s for the original, pioneering version of (today I guess these would be called podcasts), and his avuncular  voice was always a pleasure to hear. (Among other qualities, the man knew how to pronounce the term chef-d’oeuvre, which he dropped – somehow not pretentiously – a few times.) An academic who wanted to write outside the jargon chamber, Peter wrote books about Italian cinema and Wong Kar Wai and also reviewed for the Hollywood Reporter, a cheekily broad spectrum. I owe him, because he got me to do the Billy Wilder volume in the University Press of Mississippi’s “Interviews with Film Directors” series, of which he was the General Editor.

I had “Friended” (oh that word) Peter on Facebook a couple of months ago, and lately he had been posting missives from his European travels between the Cannes and Taormina festivals; reading the words of someone who was doing exactly what you should do if you can swing it – roaming around the south of France and Spain in the space between already-pleasurable professional assignments – was delightful. He posted something at Facebook the day before he died, about the coast of Sicily and the view of Mt. Etna, and it was easy to see that these things were being gazed upon by someone who appreciated them. I wish I’d known him better. (Stories at Indiewire and The Hollywood Reporter give some details.)

Toy Story 3. Everybody loves Pixar. But that shouldn’t stop us from understanding how exceptional they really are. Toy Story 3 is not up to the level of the previous films in that series; it dawdles at first, as though aware of how much goodwill its audience already has for it. But then it gets good, and for a while it gets great, and in a sequence (without doing too much of a spoiler) that involves the city dump, it gets devastating and stays that way through the end. The climactic moments of the landfill sequence are about death, and about recognizing it and accepting it. The scene is superbly “shot” and paced so as to deliberately pause the movie on the edge of the abyss, in a way that recalls some of the greatest movies ever made. And it’s about cartoon toys. This is a kind of wizardry that goes far beyond technical prowess. But then you already knew that about Pixar, which has so frequently examined the various stops along the way on the life cycle, including the final station.

Hex Story (Weekly Links)

Barbie and Ken, in a film by Harmony Korine?

Reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Toy Story 3. “The bittersweet secret.”

Jonah Hex. “A serious cow pie.”

Trash Humpers. “Like a ‘Blair Witch Project’ filmed by lunatics.”

Ondine. “Beautifully damp.”

Please Give. “They don’t miss an opportunity to buy cheap.”

The Oath. “An absorbing character study, if a very depressing film.”

Micmacs. “Soft caramel candy.”

City of Your Final Destination. “A sense of exhaustion.”

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Although it focuses on one personality—and what a personality—”Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is in many ways a movie about show business itself. In an early scene of this close-up documentary, we see the 75-year-old comedy trouper examining her calendar. If she doesn’t have something booked virtually every day (and usually more than one gig a day), she gets very, very uptight.

That need—the need to be needed, to be working, to be in demand—is the engine that drives Joan Rivers, and the movie. We watch as Rivers hustles from one event to the next. Here she’s performing profane stand-up comedy at a New York club, here she’s getting roasted on Comedy Central, here she’s paying tribute to George Carlin at the Kennedy Center, here she’s flying to Wisconsin for a snowbound gig at a casino.

Having already made her name and a lot of money, why does Joan run? The movie can’t really answer that, but the portrait is both impressive and sad. Her daughter Melissa, who also went into show business (with her mother’s “support, but not encouragement”), sagely notes that Joan treats “the career” as another member of the family.

Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, who usually do serious work such as the Darfur documentary “The Devil Rides on Horseback,” followed Rivers for a year. One of the running threads is Joan’s participation in “Celebrity Apprentice” on TV, a move her managers are skeptical about but that Rivers turns into a career boost. The film does an able job of recalling its subject as a pioneering female comedian in the 1960s (a fact Rivers hates to be reminded of), success that led to her being named the permanent guest host for Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”

We also hear about the disasters—the way Carson stopped speaking to her when she accepted an offer to host her own talk show, the suicide of her husband. But the filmmakers are most interested in Rivers as an object in motion today: how Joan cuts through life, in the here and now. That spectacle can be quite entertaining, perhaps more than her stand-up routines. She’s cutting, sometimes wildly funny, and desperate.

One thing the film doesn’t go deeply into: Rivers’ extensive plastic surgery. Yes, the film begins with close-ups of Rivers applying makeup to the mask that is now her face, but other than that, her weird appearance in recent years is taken for granted. But perhaps that expression of neediness speaks for itself.

And: I talk with Steve Scher on KUOW’s “Weekday” about movie ideas of heroism and the national need to see Barack Obama kick ass: show is archived here, and the “Cultural Moment” section begins 16:25 in.