Thursday, February 28, 2008

Salman Rushdie...

...on Akbar.


Yakuza-Eiga: A Primer, Part Seven

Paul Schrader's seminal article is now available online, not on Film Comment's website but on his.



One great irony is that the blogs many of us most admire, from 2Blowhards to About Last Night, are those that, like an Englishman dressing for dinner in the middle of the jungle, Quixotically strive to maintain the literary standards of Old Media. I say “irony” because all the trends of the new medium supposedly push the other way, encouraging ever more narrowly focused niche or affinity-group writing that is pleasingly hassle free because a community of understanding can be assumed. It does not require authors to define terms or fill in the context that would make the subject understandable to people who don’t share their experience; in effect creating a new shared experience. But that, to me, is writing. The rest is journaling in public.


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Oscar bummer...

The Hollywood Reporter's headline was not bad: "'No Country,' four gold men."

In an AP story, one of my UCLA colleagues was quoted:

Dark times breed dark movies.

Is there a reason that the material this year was so desperately sombre? As Jon Stewart quipped of "Juno," the one lighthearted film of the bunch, "Thank God for teen pregnancy!" But film experts are split on whether it's a reflection of our national psyche, or merely a coincidence.

"The material has always been dark," says Richard Walter, screenwriting professor at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. "People just forget. This is what drama has been, going back to Homer: blood lust, despair, jealousy." Not that Walter is a huge fan of this year's best picture winner, which he found ponderous. "I call it 'No Movie for Bored Men,"' he says.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Not quite ready?

Release of Jodhaa Akbar "suspended" in parts of India. Perhaps Ashutosh gave his countrymen too much credit.


Sunday, February 24, 2008

It has been said...

...or probably has, that being a journalist or critic, or a writer of any kind, is a career adopted to make sense of always being restless and uncomfortable; perpetually unsatisfied. You can claim to be a "generalist" or even a dilettante if you want to be cheeky. But what happens when writing itself is one of the things that hasn't panned out? What do you move on to from there? Perhaps to nothing special, which is what G.H. Hardy says the vast majority of people settle for. To whatever course happens along. Which in practical terms means not trying to steer a particular course or make choices.

But it's awfully hard to opt for that except as a pose when you've been infected with (or have inherited) the nagging idea that there must be something special; that if you have the sensibility to recognize it nothing else will do. I think of it as related to the impulse that translates as good taste: when I look at the various options I have an instinct for the one that is truly the best. And if that means that if you can't afford the movie camera you know to be the best, and therefore don't buy any, this supposed talent is not exactly a blessing.


Spoiler alert

Hitch on The Raj Quartet


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Yakuza-Eiga: A Primer, Part Six

David Brooks: "McCain is also a renegade and a romantic. He loves tilting at the establishment and shaking things up. He loves books and movies in which the hero dies at the end while serving a noble, if lost, cause."


Playing Catch-Up: "The Bourne Ultimatum"

After all the palaver, on David Bordwell's blog and elsewhere, about the down-side of director Paul Greengrass'"queasy cam" visual style, I finally took the bold step of renting and watching the film, and I liked it fine. On the small screen, at least, the shooting style is very good at getting a lot of information across quickly and clearly. Can't imagine a few whip-pans making anybody bilious in this day and age. I would have said that on the strength of this, Greengrass would be the ideal director for the 24 movie, except that I doubt he could ever bring himself to make (nor the critics to praise) a film about an agent who believed in what he was doing. As in Michael Clayton it's the negativity that lifts what is basically one long chase out the realm of pulp in the minds of its supporters.

Matt Damon, meanwhile, is up to no good.


Easier said than done...

A nifty assortment of quotations from novelist and critic Wilford Sheed, including this one:

Cultural conservatism: “Cultural conservatism is becoming an older writer: anything else is cosmetics anyway. If he whores after the new thing, he will only get it wrong and wind up praising the latest charlatans, the floozies of the New. His business is keeping his own tradition alive and extending it into its own future: an old writer can grow indefinitely, what he cannot do is keep up.” (Essays in Disguise)


And ours...

Tulkinghorn sends along a link to an item on the classical music blog of New Yorker critic Alex Ross, who in turn quotes a reader delirious at having discovered the work of Olivier Messiaen:

He writes: I'm not even going to try to describe the effect it had on me, other than to say there are a few cultural encounters that have marked me forever---understanding Cezanne for the first time, my Merce Cunningham epiphany, my first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth viewings of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flowers of Shanghai---and the Turangalla now joins their company." This is obviously my cue to see Flowers of Shanghai!


Thursday, February 21, 2008

Jodhaa Akbar--sort of...

Of all the movies that have been tough to sum up recently in a 200-word capsule review, Ashutosh Gwarariker's 3 1/2-hour historical epic Jodhaa Akabar (scroll down) establishes a new high water mark. I fussed over this one for two days before admitting defeat.

I now hasten to point out (because I've gotten in trouble in the past for criticisizing the critics) that none of this is the LA Weekly's doing. They have proven themselves plenty ready to run full-length Bolly-reviews---provided I can get in to see the movies a few days in advance of the deadline for opening-day publication. And that's the rub.

Advance press screenings are still such a hard and fast convention of the way movies are covered in the US that, by refusing to acknowledge it, Indian distributers are all but declaring that they have written off the American "mainstream" market. Apparently it is felt that the films are successful enough already when released on a four-wall basis with minimal advertising (JA came in at # 19 this week on the Variety top-50 chart) . Who am I to say they're wrong, even though this sounds to me like a classic self-fulfilling prophecy.

Perhaps we should pitch in to buy paperback copies of James Clavell's Taipan for the CEO's of Eros, UTV and Yash Raj? This is a classic pulp business novel (with added cool elements of sex, swordplay and piracy) about a Scots entrepreneur who becomes the dominant gweilo wheeler dealer in colonial Hong Kong (based upon the real-life founder of Jardine Matheson) by paying attention to the way his Chinese partners think and operate. A lesson worth pondering. at any rate.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Denby on that pesky ending...

Hat tip to GoJoe for this Key Quote from David Denby's New Yorker re-review of No Country for Old Men:

"The spooky-chic way the Coens use Bardem has excited audiences with a tingling sense of the uncanny. But, in the end, the movie's despair is unearned; it's far too dependent on an arbitrarily manipulated plot and some very old-fashioned junk mechanics. No Country is the Coens' most accomplished achievement in craft, with many stunning sequences, but there are absences in it that hollow out the movie¹s attempt at greatness. If you consider how little the sheriff bestirs himself, his philosophical resignation, however beautifully spoken by Tommy Lee Jones, feels self-pitying, even fake. And the Coens, however faithful to the book, cannot be forgiven for disposing of Llewelyn so casually. After watching this foolhardy but physically gifted and decent guy escape so many traps, we have a great deal invested in him emotionally, and yet he¹s eliminated, off-camera, by some unknown Mexicans. He doesn¹t get the dignity of a death scene. The Coens have suppressed their natural jauntiness. They have become orderly, disciplined masters of chaos, but one still has the feeling that, out there on the road from nowhere to nowhere, they are rooting for it rather than against it."

We couldn't have said it half as well.

Denby's last point is perhaps the crucial one, embracing many of the film's defenders as well as its makers.


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

No genre for old men

When I was researching Chinese martial arts movies, one of my intermediate goals was tracking down and watching all the movies shown at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in their landmark retrospectives of 1980 and 1981, as memorialized in the now OP volumes A Study of the Hong Kong Martial Arts Film and A Study of the Hong Kong Swordplay Film (1845-1980). I did pretty well, too, although it took me a while to realize that the 1980 film credited to director Du Qifeng, The Enigmatic Case, was actually the first feature of the millenial autuer now known as Johnny To. (Thankfully the local cultural authorities abandoned a few years later the befuddling practice of transliterating only the Mandarin forms of Cantonese names. Bending over to vote 'Yes' on the Handover?)

With the release on DVD and VCD of many of the key Cantonese wuxia movies, such as Moslem Sacred Fire Decree and Sacred Fire, Heroic Wind, the circle is almost closed. All the major King Hu films are now available on DVD. When HK Flix gets the elusive disc back in stock I may even be able to revisit the best movie ever directed by "swingy arm" kung fu superstar Wang Yu. My guess is that those "local cultural authorities" have mixed feelings about the fact that the most distinctive products of the region's cinema are now almost universally accessible, wide-open to misinterpretation or, worse, to "kick ass" appreciation. Like academic film professionals everywhere, the HK gatekeepers are always on the lookout for uncertified intruders.

The point being that while film buffery is often seen as a young man's game, to really take the cake you have to be in it for the long haul. Way back in the early '90s one of the journalists I squired around New Orleans as the unit publicist on John Woo's Hard Target was a personable kid from San Francisco named Sam Ho. Now the director of the Hong Film Archive, Ho has based this mouth-watering new film series on an article he wrote for the HKIFF almost a decade ago. It kicks ass with go-go boots, and who could argue with that?


Monday, February 18, 2008

Critical PC, Special Zombie edition

David Edelstein makes it too easy: "[In Diary of the Dead] Debra explains that she’s finishing [her boyfriend's film] The Death of Death to reveal the truth that the government and its lackey mainstream media have suppressed—although it’s unclear how the population could remain oblivious to marauding zombie cannibals. Is this a metaphor for the atrocities happening oceans away, in Iraq?"


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Playing Catch-Up: "Zodiac"

How do you craft a compelling thriller about an unsolved murder case? The approach chosen by director David Fincher and company in Zodiac was making the real subject the state of mind of the investigator: implicating us in his obsession, making his frustration the key to the movie's tone. Very impressive, and much less pummeling than the grimly methodical visual overstatement Fincher is known for.

The question that lingers for me is exactly why this case is still regarded as unsolved. What exactly is the distinction between circumstantial evidence and...whatever the other kind is? One of the investigators interviewed on the above-linked site says there are three ways to prove guilt: "An eye-witness, a confession or physical evidence." And this is apparently deemed to be so even when, as in the Zodiac case, a suspect is implicated by dozens of pieces of so-called circumstantial evidence that lock together in a way that couldn't possibly be accidental. (This is assuming that the cool objective manner of the movie isn't a snow job and that the evidence has been fairly summarized.)

A possibility the movie hints at is that the supposed suspect was an unusually subtle and crafty version of the cop movie old standby the false confessor, teasing the police and making himself the center of attention, expending considerable ingenuity to deliberately implicate himself, knowing full well that there was no direct evidence for anyone to find. There still seems to be enough left over, after everything is eliminated that might be susceptible to that kind of fabrication, but how much do you need for reasonable doubt? And with that I guess I've answered my own question.


Finishing "The Fountainhead"

As a fabulist and satirist, Ayn Rand works fine; if you let go of the notion that her stuff is in any ordinary sense realistic, there are many sharp flashes that seem true.

Especially the negative stuff, the Toohey chapters: she has a great eye for manipulation disguised as idealism. And since the '60s in the US some of his attributees no longer seem over the top at all. Her exaggerations for effect have become reality.

Practical men deal in bank accounts, real estate, advertising contracts and gilt-edged securities. They leave to the impractical intellectuals, like me, the amusements of putting the gilt edges through a chemical analysis to learn a few things about the nature and the source of gold. They hang on to Krem-O Pudding and leave us such trivia as the theater, the movies, the radio, the schools, the book reviews and the criticism of architecture. Just a sop to keep us quiet if we care to waste our time playing with the inconsequentials of life, while you're making money. Money is power. Is it, Mr. Wynand?

In a contemporary movie version Toohey would be a Cultural Studies professor. His acolytes would be Washington Post columnists, school board members, ACLU lawyers. One can only hope that the Hollywood types supposedly working on an Atlas Shrugged adaptation are smart enough to approach it in this spirit.

There may be something after all to the idea that Rand appeals to young people who boil her ideas down to the theme of "self-actualization"---even though this points directly to the patronizing thought that she her limited role is to inspire and be outgrown. Or perhaps to the thought there is no real program here to be adopted; that we always have to be thinking and re-thinking how the ideas should be applied. Which suggests that she is consistent to the extent of respecting the freedom of thought of her readers.


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Apparently I'm just not hip enough... grasp the fruity import of No Country for Old Men:

I take this story as first and foremost a statement on the fact that we live increasingly in a post-modern culture, in which values are no longer rooted in objective standards. Such a world is certainly "No Country for Old Men" — that is, it is alienating to those who still hold to the "old" objectively-based value system; because in a truly post-modern world-scenario (as is depicted in the film), the very concepts of "good" and "evil" have lost all meaning. ... we abandon a rational, moralistic view of life, we lose all sense of purpose and meaning in the process, and evil wins by default. Now THAT is a meaningful ending!
ELSEWHERE: John Podhoretz on No Country For Old Men:
[Chigurh] is very frightening, even though he has a Prince Valiant haircut. He stops at a gas station and threatens the owner by flipping a coin and demanding the man call heads-or-tails for his life. It is a powerful and portentous scene, but like most of No Country for Old Men, it seems set in some amalgam of The Twilight Zone and Waiting for Godot. The Twilight Zone aspect gives the scene an unsettling kick; the Godot evocation offers pretentious viewers the illusion that they are watching something meaningful. .

Sheriff Bell is trying to figure out what is happening, but he is a small-town lawman and not equal to the task of dealing with Chigurh. But given the supernatural prowess McCarthy and the Coens have bestowed on Chigurh, it would take a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Porfiry Petrovich, and Professor Van Helsing to keep up. Chigurh is just a Hannibal Lecter knockoff who seems to have taken a Calvinist community-college course in providence and predestination.

Given the injustice to Yeats of associating his great poem "Sailing to Byzantium" with this tawdry swill, I wish the Coens had used a more suitable title, like, say, The Texas Highbrow Massacre.


Sunday, February 10, 2008

Creeped out

Not to be taken bluntly literally (of course), but the creepiness of aspects of the Obama campaign seems at least distantly related to the subject of Liberal Fascism raised below. First there was this leftie Hollywood trance video; all those celebs chanting along with the words of their guru. And all the words are platitudes. Then from InstaPundit we get a link to a page that documents the cult-like aspects. Follow the Joe Klein link:

"...there was something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism — "We are the ones we've been waiting for" — of the Super Tuesday speech and the recent turn of the Obama campaign. "This time can be different because this campaign for the presidency of the United States of America is different. It's different not because of me. It's different because of you." That is not just maddeningly vague but also disingenuous: the campaign is entirely about Obama and his ability to inspire. Rather than focusing on any specific issue or cause —other than an amorphous desire for change —the message is becoming dangerously self-referential. The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is."

Background here. Thirteen million hits.


Saturday, February 9, 2008

He hates the assumption that he is a left-winger

This interview spoke to me. Key quote:

I manage to survive trendy dinner parties by keeping my mouth shut, nodding at the received wisdom of the bien-pensant, and avoiding nasty and surprising arguments. Anything for a quiet life. But the political education I received from old Catholics like my grandfather and even from old Marxists I met at Communist party meetings in the 1970s has made me contemptuous of the simplistic banalities of the modern progressive élites. They lack intellectual rigour and ethical integrity, their politics are bland and sentimental, their hatred of Christianity is fundamentalist.


Ayn Rand on the Art of Criticism

"What achievement is there for a critic in praising a good play? None whatsoever. The critic is then nothing but a kind of glorified messenger boy between author and public. What's there in that for me? I'm sick of it. I have a right to wish to impress my own personality upon people. Otherwise, I shall become frustrated---and I do not believe in frustration. But if a critic is able to put over a perfectly worthless play---ah, you do percieve the difference! Therefore I shall make a hit out of---what's the name of your play again, Ike?"---Jules Fougler, dramatic critic of the Banner, in The Fountainhead.
A reader elsewhere, who apparently thought I hadn't noticed, pointed out that Fougler is one of the bad guys and therefore unreliable. A better way to put it is that he is a satirical negative example. A few chapters later Rand gives us the sounder views of Mr. Howard Roark.
"What you feel in the presence of a thing you admire is just one word---'Yes.' The affirmation, the acceptance, the sign of admittance. And that 'yes' is more than an answer to one thing, it's a kind of 'Amen' to life, to the earth that holds this thing, to the thought that created it, to yourself for being able to see it. But the ability to say 'Yes' or 'No' is the essence of all ownership. It's your ownership of your own Ego. Your soul, if you wish. Your soul has a single basic function---the act of value. 'Yes' or 'No,' 'I wish' or 'I do not wish.' You can't say 'Yes' without saying 'I.' There's no affirmative without the one who affirms. In this sense everything to which you give your love is yours."
"In this sense, you share things with others?"
"No. It's not sharing. When I listen to a symphony I love, I don't get from it what the composer got. His 'Yes' was different from mine. He could have no concern for mine and no exact conception of it. That answer is too personal to each man. But in giving himself what he wanted, he gave me a great experience. I'm alone when I design a house, Gail, and you can never know the way in which i own it. But if you said your own 'Amen' to it---it's also yours. And I'm glad it's yours."


A program of study...

When my daughter (Brown '11) and her boyfriend exchanged favorite books, and his turned out to be The Fountainhead, I decided to re-read this not-quite-guilty pleasure of my own teen and college years---though it was not as solid a favorite as Atlas Shrugged, which is almost the longest book I have read twice (that would be A Suitable Boy).

More later, but for now: I enjoy Rand enormously as an ideological pulp writer but have never been an acolyte. It doesn't strike me as a problem that her Social Darwinist/Libertarian "Fourth Way" doesn't work for me as a realistic prescriptive program. She is right about too many other things along the way for this to be much of a concern. She defined the tone of her own fiction as "Romantic Realism" and its aim as "the projection of the ideal man as an end in himself." It isn't a mixed and muddled view of man as he is---much less a kitchen sink wallow with man at his depressive worst. And what a relief that is! We have way too to much of that stuff already.

It could also be argued that Rand was a gifted, even prescient satirist. As I recall my left-intellectual mother was particularly offended by The Fountainhead's portrait of the manipulative left-intellectual architecture critic Ellsworth M. Toohey (missed a trick there; why not middle initial "P"?), which mom considered cartoonishly unrealistic---as if that was incompatible with an element of truth. From our post-deconstruction vantage point it's fun to imagine some of Toohey's more extreme pronouncements getting worked up into full-dress Cultural Studies essays for scholarly journals, in the spirit of the delicious Lingua Franca hoax:

"Personal love, Peter, is a great evil---as everything personal. And it always leads to misery. Don't you see why? Personal love is an act of discrimination, of preference. It is an act of injustice---to every human being on earth whom you rob of the affection arbitrarily granted to one. You must love all men equally."

I've also enjoyed a element I had forgotten, the backstory given to Hearst/Kane-style tabloid newspaper baron Gail Wynand, as a Gangs of New York teenage thug in Hell's Kitchen c. 1895, battling arch rivals The Plug Uglies. The editorial philosophy of Wynand's flagship paper, the Banner, looks ahead to the rub-their-noses-in-it ethos of today's celebrity sleazies:

"It overstressed the glamour of society---and presented society news with a subtle sneer. This gave the man on the street two satisfactions: that of entering illustrious drawing rooms and that of not wiping his feet on the threshold. The Banner was permitted to strain truth, taste and credibility, but not its readers' brain power. Its enormous headlines, glaring pictures and over-simplified text hit the senses and entered men's consciousness without any necessity for an intermediary process of reason, like food shot through the rectum, requiring no digestion."

(Rand is remarkably good at expressing disgust, especially when describing bad writing:

Sentences like used chewing gum, chewed and rechewed, spat out and picked up again, passing from mouth to mouth to pavement to shoe sole to mouth to brain...)

Recently I pulled out a long-borrowed copy of The Conservative Mind, in order to finally read a detailed overview and perhaps determine if I actually am one. But I haven't made much headway; it's one of those exhaustive "First the earth cooled" histories. A few more preliminary steps remain to be taken before I can wade into waters that deep.

I hardly ever buy and read the big official conservative bestsellers. Anne Coulter's Godless was the last, because from what I had heard it touched on some issues that were of direct personal concern, such as the rise of militant atheism and religious intolerance. (The book turned out to be not quite what I expected, though still interesting: a mostly persuasive depiction of liberalism as a secular religion.)

Another book that interested me on the basis of its advance buzz was Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. This is part of the official description of the book on Amazon:

Contrary to what most people think, the Nazis were ardent socialists (hence the term "National socialism"). They believed in free health care and guaranteed jobs. They confiscated inherited wealth and spent vast sums on public education. They purged the church from public policy, promoted a new form of pagan spirituality, and inserted the authority of the state into every nook and cranny of daily life. The Nazis declared war on smoking, supported abortion, euthanasia, and gun control. They loathed the free market, provided generous pensions for the elderly, and maintained a strict racial quota system in their universities-where campus speech codes were all the rage. The Nazis led the world in organic farming and alternative medicine. Hitler was a strict vegetarian, and Himmler was an animal rights activist.

I wrote a few years ago about some "personal concerns" that seem to apply here:

As Stanley Hauerwas says, 'politics names the order of disguised violence.' This suggests an interesting angle on the comments of film scholar Noel Carroll quoted below, questioning the familiar notion that 'everything is political:'One way to interpret this assertion is as an intellectual power grab, a way to claim jurisdiction over the subject under discussion. As a child of radical socialist parents, who participated in most of the big marches of the 1960s and even spent a summer as a CIT at Camp Ahimsa, the Summerhill-ian youth camp run by the CNVA (the Committee for Non-Violent Action), I saw first hand how the 800-pound-gorillas of the Movement used the purity of their committment as a weapon to browbeat potential rivals.So I've been convinced for years that a hunger for personal power lies behind a lot the high-minded talk we hear about 'community' and 'consensus,' like that currently emanating from the 'progressive' wing of the Catholic Church in America, as manifested in various RCIA and Liturgy Council meetings I've witnessed. A dead giveaway was the assurance that prayer wouldn't work unless all the Children of God did it the same way. (People who dared to kneel were berated from the pulpit.) Rule by consensus creates a fertile field for domination by the most powerful personality in the room. That this is in itself a form of violence, and an interesting covert twist on Social Darwinism, is rarely acknowledged. 'Everything is political' is a strategy that has metastasized into a first principle for ideological bullies. I say it's spinach.

Whether this will prove to be enough to pull me through all 400-plus pages of Liberal F. remains to be seen...


It's a secret....

I've been saying to myself for a while that I'd love to be able to make a living without having to write. The concept being that I would then stop writing altogether and wait patiently to see what (if anything) eventually moved me to start up again. I had begun to suspect that I had only kept on doing it for at least the last couple of decades because it was the only thing anyone was willing to pay me to do.

When I started to get work as a critic in my twenties, first in Maine and then in Boston and Los Angeles, I was happy to be able to stop working in stores and restaurants, to say "So long, suckers" and saunter off to do something that seemed like fun; that I had been doing on my own in my spare time. But over the years it has been ground down into a chore. I hardly ever look forward to doing it anymore. Nowadays I put much less energy into writing than into making up excuses to avoid writing.

A couple of years ago I drove up to San Francisco to interview the wonderfully charming and ridiculously prolific novelist and screenwriter Ni Kuang. When I marveled at the obvious delight he still took in his work and confessed, as one writer to another (an old school interviewing move), that while I was sometimes pleased to look at a finished piece and realize that I had written it, the actual writing was always an unpleasant struggle, Ni sifu beamed at me like a kindly uncle: "That's because you haven't found your niche."

It was not my place to fill him in on exactly how old I was, or to go into detail about the many different forms of writing I'd tried over the years that had not turned out to be my "niche." But I've returned to that thought many times; wondering if I got off on the wrong foot thinking of myself as some sort of reclusive intellectual when I get antsy almost instantly sitting at a desk and am not even all that smart.

Can people live out most of a life operating on a false assumption? God only knows. More on these and other more cheerful subjects in the weeks and months ahead.