Monday, August 17, 2009


So, for those following this blog on RSS: For a while now, I've been blogging over at A Fuzzy Day, with the intent of making this the space for longer pieces, and that the place for the tossed-off. I have since decided that this was a stupid idea.

So this blog is about to get a whole bunch of posts, imported from the other site---enjoy, and in the future, I'll stick to blogging here.

The Time-Traveler's Wife

Given its immense book sales, a movie of "The Time Traveler's Wife" was inevitable, despite its lack of climax, conflict, or drama. The book is actually a pretty good time, despite being chock-full of moments where characters must accommodate the demands of the plot by behaving like completely different, mostly brain-dead people, most prominently in the heroine's out-of-nowhere whining about wanting to be pregnant despite the high likelihood of "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex"-style complications. Though I suppose one could defend this sudden, senseless, self-destructive shift in attitude as quite realistic.

For those who don't know the plot: The book's about a guy who, like Billy Pilgrim, is permanently unstuck in time. Every couple of days, he's suddenly shot into the past for a few hours, but his journeys seem to center around a particular woman. He first appears to her when she's a little girl and he's a man in his thirties, which is about the age he remains for all the visits to her in childhood, as well as when he appears during her horny teenage years (fear not, he remains entirely gentlemanly). When she's in her mid-20s, he tells her that they're going to meet soon---that is, she's going to meet him in his actual linear life, and he won't know her yet. When they do meet, he's actually a few years younger than she is, and much more awkward than the older man she's known up until now. But love blooms, and they have some beautiful years together.

It's all very sweet, and not too badly written. But what really sells the book is its ruthlessly perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy. Not just the predestined love aspect, though that's certainly no small thing; no, it's the traveler who's a projection of a man too perfect to exist outside of fiction(which makes casting Eric Bana, who's played a lot of too-good-to-be-true men, appropriate, though how I'd love to see him in a remake of "Suspicion"). For the (largely female) readership, the time traveler is both the suave older man who won't fuck you no matter how hard you beg, and he's also the stumbling younger guy you can slyly seduce, and he's the sweet, bumbling hubby who you can mold into the aforementioned suave older man (and he'll happily go along with it, because you're trying to make him into the man he already is/was/will be). The fact that the heroine's actual father is barely-glimpsed and seemingly unlikable only further underscores the time traveler's role as simultaneous daddy and boytoy. And his chronological unreliability gives the story the vital "sisters must do it for themselves" aspect that any successful piece of female-oriented pop fiction needs.

Of course, such wish fulfillment is a vital part of all popular fiction---witness detective novels' endless procession of men who are tough, independent, hard-living, and seemingly irresistible to hot babes who conveniently disappear. But it's sort of rare to see a piece of popular women's fiction so eager to dive into genre devices (and sci-fi devices at that) in the interest of crafting a shamelessly perfect fantasy scenario. It has some of the glassy-eyed intensity of very specific fetish porn, the sense that you're reading something carefully crafted to fit perfectly in the keyhole in someone's brain.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Serial Mom

Flickr gallery for this piece here

I've always liked John Waters' movies without ever thinking he was a particularly good director. Which is fine---the amiable amateurism of his films is much of their appeal. But after massively enjoying Serial Mom, I'm starting to think that Waters, like Wagner, is better than he looks.

Because the thing is, Serial Mom is funny as hell---guffaw-out-loud-in-an-empty-living-room funny. But aside from a handful of quotable lines, the script isn't all that striking. Which has weirdly little impact on the movie's immense hilariousness. Most of the scenes have flatly functional dialogue---"Officer, we don't allow gum in this house." "Sorry, ma'am." ---- but through some strange alchemy, it plays like gangbusters.

That flat functionality is maybe the most defining characteristic of Waters as a filmmaker. Much of the fun of the Waters/Divine pairing was always the discordance of this loud, ferocious creature and the weirdly narcotized world that contained her. From his early films to the present, his compositions have a theatrical, frontal quality. Even at climactic moments, when the screen gets more angled and kinetic, the camera hangs back, arresting momentum.

This is, of course, exactly the opposite of what a director is supposed to do---"keep the audience immersed" is pretty much the filmmaker's first commandment. Serial Mom pays extensive tribute to goremeister Herschell Gordon Lewis, not least in its combination of luridly violent subject matter and bizarrely uninflected visual style. In Lewis, that was just the result of his mild-at-best technical competence---where a great (hell, good) director might have a villain terrify you through commanding movement of the frame, Lewis' baddies just lean into the lens and leer. But Waters has always idolized the accidental Brechtianism of crappy exploitation movies of the 50s and 60s, before ubiquitous film school degrees made even low-budget sleazefests blandly mediocre.

The damned thing is that in Waters' films, it works. The air of campy quotation turns every piece of set dressing into a giggle, and the foursquare framing makes a guy spitting out gum into a weird little gag that isn't really funny, except that it is. His proscenium-oriented direction is definitely distinctive; his auteurist cred is certainly triple-A. But more important, his storytelling voice is incredibly effective at his project of making the whole world look sublimely freaky, turning even the most normal behavior into a too-tight Halloween mask.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Judd Apatow

There's something of a running complaint that Judd Apatow presents a perniciously misogynist view of woman as unfun taskmasters of free-spirited men. The latest manifestation of this misreading is up at Slate's Double-X blog, because if there's one site guaranteed to always get the arts wrong, it's Slate.

It's an understandable misapprehension---Seth Rogen is a lot more fun than Katherine Heigl in Knocked Up (though Heigl seems to be building a solid comedy career out of being the new Margaret Dumont), and Steve Carell's pals in The 40-Year-Old Virgin get a lot more jokes than Catherine Keener. But it seems to fundamentally miss what Apatow's movies are about, which is the need to put away dudehood's childish things. Both Virgin and Knocked Up (and, from what I've heard, Funny People) hammer pretty obsessively on the necessity of putting down the bong and leaving the brahs behind in order to become a functioning adult.

This is, obviously, a pretty common theme in romantic comedy. What makes Apatow different is that he doesn't take the line seen in movies like The Hangover: "Being a dude is totally fun, but you gotta stop doing it 'cause chicks don't like it and dudes like chicks." Instead, Apatow is always very conscious, even when the boys are having their fun, of how hollow that fun is. All the guys in The 40 Year Old Virgin are gradually exposed as liars, hypocrites, and frauds. Even more pointed is the flophouse that Rogen inhabits in Knocked Up---for the first half-hour or so it looks like a great place to hang out, but it gradually seems increasingly purgatorial, culminating in the pinkeye outbreak that leaves everyone looking like zombie junkies. This is where so many of the Apatow-imitators fail---they try to shoehorn all the growing up into the finale, rather than leading us to its necessity.

If anything, the problem with Apatow's movies is their monomaniac focus on a heteronormative family as the only fulfilling life. Though Catherine Keener is a little funkier than most romance objects, there's a real lack of any kind of alternative culture in Apatow's world, and the preachy insistence on showing how anyone who doesn't end up well-scrubbed and properly paired is doomed to a life of chronic masturbation gets not-a-little grating. It's hard to imagine a current Apatow movie providing a moment of subculture pride like the first shot of Freaks & Geeks. Looking back on that show, it seems like it was Paul Feig who provided the identification with the underclass, while Apatow was the talent-spotter (and a helluva spotter, considering how many of the F&G crew ended up comedy stars).

Still, I can't much condemn Apatow for being about as limited in his perspective as almost every other romantic comedy ever made. If anything, much of the criticism of his films misses the extent to which he's simply rewriting classic screwball comedies with the gender roles reversed. Movies like Bringing Up Baby often revolved around a stuffy, career-obsessed male who's transformed by his meeting with a wacky, free-spirited female; if anything, the biggest difference is that the women of screwball comedies were required to change much less than Apatow's males.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Public Enemies

There's a taciturn quality to Michael Mann's Public Enemies that I'm sure he regards as a virtue. Mann's deep love of macho playacting (he's like Scorsese without Scorsese's critical detatchment from his big-dicked poseurs) certainly extends to his own direction, which is at once swoony and brisk. And there's some real virtue to it---his refusal to subject us to what-does-it-all-mean speechifying can be welcome.

It can also leave us sort of unclear on, well, what it all means. Public Enemies is good fun---the clothes are nice, the picture looks good (though some of the gun battles take on a weirdly interlaced, flat quality when the camera moves too much), and it's great fun to see a bunch of actors comport themselves in all those period jackets. But in the end, it's sort of unclear why Mann wanted to tell this story, what he expects us to take from it, what distinguishes this movie from any of the other versions of the tale. Mann obviously assumes we have a fair amount of foreknowledge of Dillinger's fate---every mention of the Biograph theater fairly thrums with foreboding---which makes it all the more important for him to make clear why he's bothering to tell it to us, and he just won't.

There's hints all over the place---sometimes he seems interested in the Heat-like battle of wits between Dillinger and FBI agent Melvin Purvis. Sometimes his attention is grabbed by the gap between Dillinger the celebrity and Dillinger the man, best articulated a scene where Dillinger goes unnoticed in a movie theater full of people searching for John Dillinger, largely because he's just a guy in a hat rather than a 15-foot-high mug shot. Sometimes it seems like the love story is what he wants to tell, signaled by the big music cues that come in whenever Dillinger and his best girl, Billie Frechette, are separated or reunited.

But every time a thematic thread is raised, it's soon dropped---nothing ever sinks in. Purvis is introduced unerringly shooting down Baby Face Nelson with a scoped rifle---as the Fuzzwife noted, Mann seems to be setting up a conflict between Dillinger as a tommy gun (inaccurate but deadly) and Purvis as a rifle (just one shot, but it's a good 'un). But Purvis' shooting skills never come up again, nor does his patience, nor does his accuracy. Dillinger's celebrity is frequently teased, but it never really resolves---Mann certainly doesn't even seize the opportunity to give us a shot of Dillinger dying in front of the movie theater, which would solidify that idea.

Even the love story doesn't really take over, not least because while Frechette gets a little speech about her boring life up until now, Mann's too disdainful of psychologizing to really let us see that as an aspect of her character. Marion Cotillard doesn't get to dig into Frechette as a thrill-seeker, or as a girl from the rez trapped in bad rez choices of bad rez men, or as a country mouse enjoying big-city sophistication---she's just a plot device, placed in the movie to wear clothes, take off clothes, look pretty, get slapped, and cry. Maybe a better actress could have found a way past Mann's disinterest, the way Christina Ricci did in Buffalo '66, but considering Mann's relentless drive to move ahead whether or not a character trait has been established, probably not.

For all Mann's meticulous shooting, the overall impression is one of sloppiness---it's like Mann glued a bunch of scripts together and started shooting without bothering to resolve it into a single draft. This rushed, ramshackle quality extends to the little things as well as the big, as Mann has a terribly bad habit of failing to introduce information until the last possible minute, not as a suspense trick, but because he simply seems to have forgotten what we need to know. An early example is in the scene when Dillinger comes to the coat check where Frechette's working, fights off a customer, and takes her away. Just before Frechette goes from turning him down to leaving with him, there's a moment when she looks at the other girl working the coat check, and that seems to change her mind. Maybe it's because she sees something in the other girl that she doesn't want to become, maybe it's because she sees the girl's admiration for this tough guy who so badly wants to be her boyfriend. But it's almost impossible for us to even think about the question, because we've literally had zero visual indication that there even is a second girl at the counter before the shot where Frechette looks at her---I don't have a disc here, but I don't believe the other girl is even visible in the wide shots.

Another small but telling example---what sends Dillinger to the Biograph Theater is the heat of the Chicago summer, and the Biograph's air conditioning. But one the day he decides to go, after a series of scenes of Dillinger setting up various plans, he comes into the house and, in one shot, runs his wrists under cold water and says "It sure is hot---let's go to the movies." It seems like Directing 101 to establish that it's hot beforehand, so that you don't have to cram cause and effect into a single, clumsy moment like that, but here again Mann seems to be shooting scenes with no awareness of where a scene is going, so he has to carry out this kind of clumsy shuffle whenever the plot demands a reason for action.

Similar directoral sloppiness besets the action scenes. When Purvis and his boys have Dillinger holed up in a rural hotel, there's a lengthy discussion of who's going to approach from the north, who from the south, and what the plan is for closing the exits. But Mann never gives us shots that would make clear which way is north, who's coming from where, or how the plan goes wrong. It's fine if he wants to sacrifice spatial clarity for visceral excitement---I'm not a purist about knowing who's standing where---but it's bizarre to do so after giving us so much setup discussion of the directional plan.

Public Enemies is a perfectly good time at the movies---I went to see Johnny Depp wear cool clothes and shoot guns, and it delivered. But while I don't mind its anemic moral vision, it's narrative messiness borders on real contempt for the audience. Taciturn silence looks great on a western lawman, but on a storyteller, it's more than a little irritating.