Monday, July 13, 2009

Glib in Manhattan

Ariel Levy's profile of screenwriter-director Nora Ephron in the current New Yorker (you need to be a subscriber to move beyond the firewall) shows a woman thoroughly comfortable with her intelligence and taste. She's got all the right connections: box office bombs like Lucky Numbers and Bewitched haven't hurt her ability to get financed, even when her godson is head of production; she's adored by a certain female demographic; she can get Meryl Streep in any of her films; she loves Ernst Lubitsch. Which only proves that all the taste that money and nature can provide still produces Sleepless in Seattle and You Got Mail.

The key is this excerpt from her autobiography provided by Levy, in which Ephron describes the aftershocks of her insane father's death:
"And when that happened, I don't know how to say this except...it was a moment of almost comic relief. It seemed entirely possible, in character, understandable, and I think we all filed it under Will I Ever Be Able to Use This in Anything?"

This is a family coping mechanism that was explicitly instilled. "Everything is copy," their mother used to say, which was related to her expectation that all suffering be reconfigured into a funny story be ore it was brought to her attention. "Take notes," she directed Nora, from her deathbed.
The list of writers who've drawn from the well of family tragedy is longer than those solely reliant on the fictive muse; but in Ephron's movies pain has a clammy aftertaste. Grief is mined for sitcom punchlines. Lubitsch's movies exist in a tinker-toy world of his own making, but The Shop Around the Corner (the inspiration for You've Got Mail) draws finely shaded regret beneath the verbal foreplay (Frank Morgan's offstage suicide attempt hints at the consequences of drawing too often on decorum). The new Julia and Julia sounds promising, although the presence of RoboStreep makes me wonder whether we'll get this instead.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Friday, July 10, 2009

It's been nineteen years and three months

1990 had some of the worst Number One singles in rock. It wasn't at all a bad year for pop music generally: as a high school sophomore I grooved to every hit on Rhythm Nation, thought it a minor triumph that a song as cool (in both senses of the word) as Depeche Mode's "Enjoy The Silence" cracked the Top Ten, and enjoyed great one-offs like "Groove is in the Heart" (my first concert alone with friends), Jane Child's "Don't Wanna Fall In Love," and Black Box's "Everybody Everybody." I was just discovering "college rock": Electronic's "Getting Away With It," Peter Murphy's "Cuts You Up," Michael Penn's "This and That," and the Jesus and Mary Chain's "Head On." Hip-hop, alas, meant "Bust a Move" and little else. Prince meant Graffiti Bridge (I also owned the "Thieves in the Temple" cassingle).

But the stately grace of Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 U" stands out. Part of the reason it lodged four weeks at the chart (and, even more shockingly, I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got topped the album chart) is that it was so obviously an anomaly. The arrangement remains mired in 1990, of course: the clattery drum machine, echo, the strings. But if it's impossible to separate the experience of listening to the song from watching its dramatic video, it's equally impossible to evaluate O'Connor's rendition of the so-so Prince song without considering the effect her voice had on listeners. As the third ballad in a row to top the chart (Tommy Page's "I'll Be Your Everything" and Taylor Dayne's "Love Will Lead You Back" preceded it), "Nothing Compares 2 U" was akin to dropping Isabella Rossellini's Dorothy Valens from Blue Velvet into your high school prom (David Lynch cannily stages the shocking sight of a naked, cigarette-burned Rossellini after Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern come home from their woozy slow dance at a friend's house). In its keening purity, the way it tosses around the line about going to the doctor as if it was a rowboat in a hurricane, the voice refuses to allay its intensity. Jane Dark hits it: "If there is a novelty to O’Connor’s reading of the song, it lies in its pointed monotony."

This unnerving performance, plus her baldheaded-and-barefoot schtick, made her a huge MTV star and something of a hero to fans of Top 40 and college rock; she was so special we could all like her. She offered crumbs to everyone. Not that 1990's other chartbound fare didn't offer similar examples of sustained melodrama: a curly-haired Whitney Houston clone named Mariah Carey would dominate the summer and fall; and a Swedish duo wrote an unexpectedly restrained power ballad for Pretty Woman called "It Must Have Been Love" that became the year's biggest soundtrack hit. And before you get too enamored with O'Connor's novelty, remember: "I'll Be Your Everything" and Taylor Dayne (a tough broad whose first hits consisted of post-Expose freestyle and who coulda been a contender had she ducked Diane Warren) stuck around to remind Sinead who she'd cut in line. Also: second single "The Emperor's New Clothes" -- in which O'Connor took songwriting credit for the sanctimony and clear conscience -- didn't even scratch the Top 40.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Two Lovers, directed by the aptly named James Gray, demands some patience. Gwyneth Paltrow plays a variant on her depressive in The Royal Tennenbaums and seems in places to channel the mannerisms of her Sylvia Plath from Sylvia too. Joaquin Phoenix, possessor of the loudest mumble in Hollywood history, is torn between submitting to the demands of his working-class parents, who want him to marry a perfectly normal and charming Vanessa Shaw, and loving crazy old Paltrow. Gray is very good at filling in the details of Phoenix's Brooklyn neighborhood and vague artistic ambitions. The performances by Isabella Rossellini and Moni Moshanov as the parents ring true; their tolerance of his restlessness only stretches as far as normalcy will allow. A couple of scenes are among the best I've seen this year: a dinner at a swanky Manhattan restaurant at which Elias Koteas clearly suspects an attraction between his lover Paltrow and Phoenix but is too secure to even hint at his unease; and a rooftop confrontation in which the two leads fight and cry, pinned down by a darkening sky and egged on by Gray's restless camera. Paltrow is always Paltrow, though: a spectator checking out her own performance with approval and well-timed empathy (had Shaw played her character the movie would have been a real triumph). It works this time because she doesn't seem quite real to Phoenix either. I admired Gray's commitment to proletarian family drama in The Yards (2000) and Little Odessa (1995) without responding; committed to a late nineteenth century brand of determinism, he snuffed the life out of his well-observed portraits. Maybe the schlocky heart of this material loosened him up (in one of the DVD bells and whistles, he offers perceptive remarks about the treatment of love in American movies). He's also more attuned to nuance than ever: Phoenix's attraction to Paltrow, it's clear, emboldens him enough to lead Shaw on. Although I squirmed in my seat a few times, this is a modest film that gets better when you reflect on it days later.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy 4th of July

This is how I feel lately -- slightly worn and bloated too.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Cheeky!

Johnny Depp and Christian Bale have the finest sets of cheekbones in moving pictures today, and they sure get a workout in Michael Mann's Public Enemies. Bale's in particular are a wonder; thanks to the way they frame his expressionless lips he could be gnawing the inside of his mouth into corned beef. Not to be outdone, Depp loosens and contorts to him to fetching effect, especially when he holds a tommy gun or makes promises to Marion Cotillard that even Clark Gable and William Powell couldn't utter without making their mustaches wither.

Glowering in fantastic clothes -- that's all Mann gets out of Depp and Bale (like Clint Eastwood in the seventies and eighties, Bale's recent stint of non-acting has acquired a patina of respectability). While Mann is too obsessive about art direction and such to ever conform to hackdom, his scripts show a second-rate mind susceptible to the influence of pop psychology and mytho-poetic macho twaddle. But Mann's recent forays into genre pictures has flattened his ambitions. Collateral was surprisingly boring, Miami Vice redundant, but Public Enemies is his most anonymous work yet. For reasons I can't fully explain, Mann abandons his usual sharp eye for men filling widescreen spaces; it took more than an hour for "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Homer, and the other members of the Dillinger gang to register as faces, and not a jot more. A gangster pic without a colorful supporting cast is like a Western without a saloon brawl. The rest of the action is listless (a nightime shootout in a forest goes on a couple of minutes longer than necessary), and the transitions jarring. Does Mann mean to suggest that Dillinger spent almost ten years in jail for a petty crime, escaped, assembled a first-rate crew, robbed banks successfully, and became a public icon? It's a blur.

Within this posturing lies the seed of a good movie: the creation of a federal police force that grafted developments in forensics and criminology onto vigilantism. In borrowing much from the criminals they wanted dead or behind bars, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI took its cue from the weaselly, plump, neurotic man at its head who wanted his G-men to wear smart suits as they shot crooks in the back. A film about the chicanery of crime fighting -- the implicit cooperation between the Mafia and the FBI in taking care of small fry like John Dillinger -- sounds exactly like the kind of project to which Mann would be irresistibly attracted (the corporate maneuvering in The Insider has the verisimilitude of a Louis Auchincloss novel); and in Billy Crudup's weird, very entertaining performance as Hoover (and being J. Edgar Hoover was a performance, as the press-savvy chief recognized in a career spanning ten presidential administrations), I saw material rich with comic potential. Since Mann isn't known to giggle at meal times, I wouldn't doubt that this ironic approach was beyond his sensibilities. Better an interesting failure than an inert one, though.

Crudup, by the way, has fabulous cheekbones.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

On the fortieth anniversary of Stonewall, cops raid a bar in Ft. Worth last Saturday, arrest seven people, and beat the shit out of one customer. Dan Savage has the lurid details, and the appropriate phone numbers to call. Why did the police react so belligerently? They were hit on, according to the police chief:
"You're touched and advanced in certain ways by people inside the bar, that's offensive," he said. "I'm happy with the restraint used when they were contacted like that."

July

Fewer great historical events are brought about by the power of the new than by the enduring strength of the old. It is altogether more serviceable for us to search for the destiny of nations in the permanence of their culture than in the transience of their political systems. That is why the novelist can always teach us more than the political scientist, because the realm called fiction is ruled by what is real, and the territory called fact has to make do with the dubieties of the fancied.

-- Murray Kempton
"As The World Turns"

Sunday, June 28, 2009

More MJ

The best Michael Jackson obits I've read:

Marcello Carlin (he hears Martin Fry and Trevor Horn in "Beat It"; about Off The Wall: "a pop-up encylopedia containing everything everyone should reasonably or unreasonably need to know about pop and how to walk it and breathe it").

Rick Juzwiak: "I'd never give the public that much credit if I hadn't observed countless examples of the unmitigated joy that results en masse when anything from Thriller is played at a party, no matter the attendees, no matter the occasion and still to this day."

Chris Molanphy dissects the probably-unsurpassable chart facts of Jackson's career. I reminded friends yesterday that Bad scored an astonishing five Number One singles (most of which I think are meh, but that's another story).

Rob Sheffield rushes home from a high school dance to watch Michael. I'm not sure I believe it, but it's touching and emblematic.

Hua Hsu drinks and stumbles his way through an evening of Jackson ("ifferent versions of Michael Jackson had already died years ago. Sometimes he had reinvented himself and found his way back toward his fan's good graces, sometimes he had only grown more illusive and erratic-seeming").

Singles Jukebox reviews

New bits on Kanye West ft. Mr. Hudson (people really do love 808 & Heartbreak), Calle 13 ft. Ruben Blades, the inexplicable Phoenix, and Wale ft. Lady Gaga (Wale and Drake are neck in neck for Most Egregious Squandering of "Promising Newcomer" Status).
Bravo, Frank Rich:
No president possesses that magic wand, but Obama’s inaction on gay civil rights is striking. So is his utterly uncharacteristic inarticulateness. The Justice Department brief defending DOMA has spoken louder for this president than any of his own words on the subject. Chrisler noted that he has given major speeches on race, on abortion and to the Muslim world. “People are waiting for that passionate speech from him on equal rights,” she said, “and the time is now.”