Like: The Social Network

October 2, 2010

What elevates a film?

What takes it from “good” to “pretty good”, or from that to “best of the year” status?

Does it start with having an interesting idea and resonate simply from that? Does it take the mere humble execution of excellent script? Is it how you imbue the most simplistic of scenes with tone and mood? Is it hanging your hat on a great performer? Is it maybe is simply having an engaging score? Is it…

Okay you get it.

Filmmaking is a lot of things coming together and somehow working in harmony. Those who doubt how difficult it is, should really try it one day. You’d be shocked by just how much is out of your control. You’d be shocked by how hard it is to see what a movie is going to be until your done editing it. Things you worried about actually flourish and things you thought you nailed can easily fall flat. Filmmaking is alchemy. It’s instinctual. You just hope for some good aspects to carry the piece through….

Luckily, THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a near-flawless amalgamation of  many excellent aspects:

1. The idea – The founding of Facebook is a great story and not because there’s anything particular “movie-like” about it.  In fact, the movie engages the kinds of things we rarely see represented in culture these days: the base forms of genesis, inspiration, evolution of ideas, and even the surprising nature of our recent history.  It is largely a story about ego and how ego combines with the fear of rejection to invigorate change (both personal and cultural).

2. Aaron Sorkin – I give the man a lot of crap.  He’s obviously all sorts of brilliant, but his delight with himself often just seeps off the screen. This is not the ravings of someone who says things like that. That usually my least favorite comment in the world. The problem is in Sorkin’s case it’s just so obvious (he even admits it) that the man’s just typing with one hand. Worse, the way his characters converse as if they know what the next line is going to be sometimes means intelligence can come off *gulp* as twee(*). That’s not a good thing. It can so easily scream “manufactured!” But when he’s on point, he can soar. What works in this film is wonderfully he’s able to get into the mind of a character who is similarly solipsistic to himself: Sorkin’s found the perfect vehicle in Mark Zuckerberg. The young man is brilliant person who is more interested in being right, than being good. And Sorkin can write the shit out of righteousness. Better yet he shows that he not only understands Zuckerberg, but every character in this movie (more on that later). Sorkin beautifully uses the dialogue to excel every single character motive and never launches an off-topic diatribe. Now there are diatribes of course but they are all so inherently focused on the story/action at hand that really there was no better person to write this script. It’s the most focused work we’ve seen from him.

3. Naturally, David Fincher helps with all of that. The man is yet another absurdly talented figure in this production.  I tend to waffle around on my feelings with Fincher and readily admit that FIGHT CLUB is  his most definitive work. It tapped into the zeitgeist in a way many thought impossible at the time. Heck you could argue that movie went on to define the zeitgiest. My only problem with it is that even with its mature “grow the fuck” endgame, the majority of the hardcore fanbase didn’t’ get the movie whatsover. It was stunningly counterproductive and I can outright blame it on Fincher’s romanticizing of nihilism. But nowadays I think my favorite work of Fincher is ZODIAC. The movie is such a careful examination of journalism and the nature of truth. I love it wholly. Everything else he did? Technically audacious but they all have major, major problems at script level. Well, we already talked about THE SOCIAL NETWORK’s script from Sorkin and I can think of no one more suited for executing it. The tweeness gives way to Fincher’s unblinking, dour reality. His dark atmospheres. His sense of irony. A line that may be just” smart,” comes off as brutal in his hands. He raises the stakes. He makes Sorkin’s work cut to the bone. I walked out of the film still having a litany of perfect lines rattling around my brain: “If you want to stand on my shoulders…”

4. Then there is the matter of the score. There was a lot of curiosity regarding the hire of Trent Reznor, meaning there was also a lot of suspicion too. I imagine that many of these doubters were worried about it sounding like Reznor’s more popular industrial Nine Inch Nails tracks. I doubt that many of them had heard his work from  “Still,” which features haunting, ethereal tones mixed with piano, classical instrumentation and subtle percussive rhythm. “Still” is actually one of my favorite albums, period. As such, I have been aching for Reznor to get a real shot at a film score. And his work in THE SOCIAL NETWORK is absolute homerun. While perhaps being rather overt in some sections, it knows exactly how to walk up to the line of not-overwhelming-the-narrative without actually going over. I think everyone can point to the first “facemash” sequence as the part that stands out.

5. But even with all these stalwart aspects, the weight of the film ultimately rests on the shoulders of Jesse Eisenberg.  In some ways he’s the perfect mouthpiece for Sorkin: dry, matter of fact, fast-tongued. But what makes it him so much better than that is that Eisenberg has this wonderful ability to take Zuckerberg’s deeply introverted nature and make it appropriately ranged and functional. The Zuckerberg of the film is a terse young man, someone who constantly just have to frustratingly explain his own (and far more advanced) thought process. The frustration of being that bright makes him an inherently solitary creature. Eisenberg conveys it beautifully. He’s someone who barely wants to waste his words on things that aren’t worthy or interesting. Yes, he sympathizes and emotes with others, but often he’s speaking another language. What is amazing is how Eisenberg imbues that static detachment with a subtle emotional range. He uses the slightest change in inflection to show guilt (think of his hollow first attempt at apology to Erika in the opening scene), or to show enamor (his quiet delight when cool kid Sean Parker seconds his opinions).  It is not only a joy to watch, but I can’t wait to watch the performance a second time. It’s the work of the year so far.

6. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that every other actor in the film is a delight. Andrew Garfield plays his partner Eduardo as that guy who is at once the voice of reason and yet out of his league.  It’s heartbreaking and the emotional arc of the movie depends on his ability to be wounded and weary. Thankfully he nails it. Joseph Mazello continues his foray into older roles (check out his work in The Pacific) and he is a subtle joy in this film as the “I’m lucky to be here” guy. The biggest surprise is undoubtedly Justin Timberlake. What at first seems like obtuse casting is ultimately perfect; Sean Parker is the celebrity of their programming world and their revering of him completely works with Timberlake’s celebrity status. Beyond that, Timberlake really does play the role with such a great mix of nerdy-but-earned bravado, fear, and deeply rooted insecurity. I loved him and honestly believe this will change his career.   I also think it’s safe to say that the Winklevoss Twins are going to be a lot of people’s favorite part of the movie. They are hilarious, both intentionally and unintentionally. As for the interest in the actors who play them, I won’t necessarily spoil it, but let’s just say that Armie Hammer has big things in his future. Lastly, I have to mention Rooney Mara’s brief portrayal of Erika, which works as a convincing lynch pin of the film.

So…

THE SOCIAL NETWORK is not a flawless film. It runs out of steam before sweeping in with a poignant stopping point, but it never outright collapses either.

What really is important about the film is how it really manages to define a decade that has seen it’s society flock to the internet and recreate an idealized social representation of their own life.  It never goes into any of this as outright discussion of course. But it’s all there. It’s in details and moments that we extrapolate into a bigger meaning about why people drive to go on the internet. We look at Zuckerberg’s long, lonesome walks on the wintery campus. His dissatisfied contempt of social structures and people who “have it easy.” His belief in his own ability. His concern for what is right over what is kind (Okay, fuck being kind, he’s more concerned with being right than not being a total asshole). His jealousy of friends. His secrecy and duplicity. His desire to show who are and what we want right on our sleeves. To penetrate the difficulties of real society. These are all things we all deal with, but admittedly it is the plight of some more than others. The internet makes it easier to both engage and retreat. For the tepid person in all of us it is a revelation. One that will inexorably change us forever. But we can never forget that it has also made even the nicest of us be callous jerks (ahem.. i may have once right a feature about 5 people I’d like to punch). We iunwittingly become like Zuckerman just as he has unwittingly became the voice of the internet.

We are all Zuckerman.

And we are legion.

Endnote.

* Old timey movies are written like this, but I tend to be more accepting. In fact I often love sharp, unrealistic dialogue. The key is just to have characters who don’t seem to be aware they’re engaging in witty reparte. It’s what makes the first Ocean’s movie work. It’s what makes Sorkin’s CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR work. And it’s what makes THE SOCIAL NETWORK work.


Love: INCEPTION

July 17, 2010

First a non spoiler review:

INCEPTION may be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Now, this is just a first reaction mind you, but I saw the midnight show last night and I felt this way the second I walked out of the theater.  I was on an emotional and intellectual high… It has continued all day long.

Important things to know:  I am not a “Nolan Guy.” I very much like THE DARK KNIGHT and found it to be entertaining and interesting. I only like a few parts of BATMAN BEGINS. I thought MEMENTO was rather clever, but not too much else. I thought INSOMNIA was a step backward from there. My favorite Nolan film is actually THE PRESTIGE because it’s a straightforward puzzle that relied on laying actually clues in the groundwork rather than being an nonsensical stupid “twist movie.” I hate the nonsensical twist (unlike the logical twist, which is a wonderful thing when done right) and thankfully Nolan seems to hate the nonsensical twist as well. For this alone I will always appreciate Nolan in some way. But while I embrace the intellectual puzzle-building nature of his work I think he too often slides into unemotional arcs and formalism over content.

So please understand, this is the opinion of someone who is not predisposed to gush.

INCEPTION satisfies on all levels.

First off, it is an enthralling heist film. I honestly cannot remember a movie where I was on the edge of my seat so long let alone the entire last hour and 45 minutes. The tension is immense and every time you think it has to let up, it manages to go deeper down the rabbit hole.  One of the things I loved about the film is that it’s actually pretty straight forward. Everything is perfectly explained so you’re rarely wondering “what’s going on.” (The key is just not to miss anything. If you don’t know what’s going on, you missed something and it’s your fault. I realize this sounds really esoteric, but the entire film takes its time to set up it’s layers and be deliberate… so really there’s no excuse). In this regard, from pure entertainment standpoint, it is one of the best popcorn movies I’ve ever seen.

But it’s not just a popcorn movie is it? Secondly, INCEPTION is incredibly satisfying on an intellectual level and not just in the typical Nolan puzzle sense. There’s honest to god thematics going on here. Ones that aren’t hammered over and over again like THE PRESTIGE and its issues of control, but ones that run the gamut: love, marriage, death, father issues, propagation, and the nature of reality. The film is about the rich textures psychoanalysis. These themes are not window dressing either but somehow the driving force of the film.

You see, INCEPTION manages to use psychoanalysis as actual plot points. How a character feels, their catharsis, their arcs, their emotional states… these are god damn macguffins folks. It’s sounds like it would be obtuse, but it’s so seemless and not clunky. It’s dramatic, emotional, real, and damn suspenseful. I honestly cannot believe that a movie managed to achieve all this.

In a way, Nolan has finally managed to “go emotional.” He has turned the soft-hearted and tender emotions of repression into the engine for one of his brilliant narratives. I said that he always has problems with formalism over content, but what if the formalism is the content? The action of  INCEPTION not only reinforces the arc, it is an arc.

The performances are stellar across the board. Dicaprio delivers his best work to date. I very much like his performance in THE DEPARTED, but that role is mostly a sort of one-dimensional projection of paranoia, angst, and affectation. His role in INCEPTION, meanwhile, is the most rounded and interesting one we’ve gotten from Nolan yet. His character motives are so emotional and what at first seems slightly one note, is revealed to be so textured and beautiful. I couldn’t believe it. Much of this is due to the enchanting and haunting work of Marion Cotiallard who provides such weight and organic tone. She is the absolute crux of his arc. But against her, Dicaprio toes the line between focused and unhinged so beautifully. He really the perfect carrion for the film’s lead character.

The rest of the cast isn’t given the same showcase, but Nolan does a wonderful job of giving them little moments, glimpses even to reveal their characters and motivations.  Joseph Gordon Levitt is fantastic; one of the smoothest badasses we’ve seen on screen in a while. Have we forgotten about making characters like this? Badasses that aren’t “bad” in any sense, but smooth operators who astound us. I’m hoping this film elevates his profile out of the indie scene because he has the potential to be amazing. Especially, because he easily delivers in one of the most thrilling scenes I have ever seen. Ellen Page provides a real emotional anchor for the film by grounding Dicaprio’s character and operating as the audience surrogate in the film’s first half.  Tom Hardy, fresh of his tour de force in BRONSON, gets to shine as the most vivacious and theatrical character of the group (but of course, this is Nolan so never, ever does it even approach anything camp or unrealistic feeling). At this point it seems like I’m just trying to name everyone in the film, but I have to mention Cillian Murphy who does a somewhat thankless job so beautifully. Really, his emotional work and inner turmoil is the engine of the entire film; meaning without his performance, the film doesn’t work. And of course Michael Caine lends his perfect skills of being fatherly Michael Caine.

There have been three times where I have sat down and watched something and realized “In my entire life, I will never ever be able to do something anywhere near as good as this.” It’s depressing in a small way, but largely you’re awed by the work you’ve witnessed.

The first time for me was ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. In someways it feels like the off-beat comedic version of this same film and that Gondry-Kauffman cinematic marriage was the best film of that decade.  The second time for me was THE WIRE, whose depth and novelistic tapestry was the perfect amalgamation of profoundity, characterization, and plotting.

The third time was INCEPTION. The film is a big budget brilliant idea, perfectly executed. I am literally in awe of it.

INCEPTION is a flat out masterpiece.

And now….

Point by Point Spoiler Review:

-The hotel hallway fight scene…. Unreal. My biggest bone to pick with Nolan is he often films his action poorly (his best being the joker’s chase of the armored car). But this was absolutely hands down one of the best filmed action scenes I have ever seen. Nevermind the fact that he has merely pulled back the camera, but the movement is fluid and well-defined, not to mention that the action itself completely totally jaw dropping.

-How badass was Joseph Gordon Levitt in that hotel scene? Just unreal. So freaking good. I can’t stop gushing about it.

-Cillian Murphy’s arc and the moment of “inception” was so spectacularly well done. They way they built the layers falls exactly in line with what we know about psychoanalysis. And it managed to be emotional in a way that I never thought Nolan could be (he certainly had to dress it up though didn’t he?) Brilliant. Goddamn brilliant.

-The entire Marion Cotillard relationship was haunting and the end reveal was so surprisingly cathartic. It’s the kind of reveal that doesn’t make you go “huh!? What!?” but instead makes you go “YES! THAT MAKES PERFECT SENSE!” and helps explain the motivations of the movie. Just brilliant.

-Some people see the ending moment as a mind-fuck and tease. I strongly do not agree. On one hand the fact that the fact that the spinning wheel even falters a bit is indication that it is very much real so we can give up on feeling like “none of it mattered it was all fake!” And more importantly it doesn’t matter, Nolan’s deliberate choice to cut is not a tease or a forced withholding, but a brilliant way of telling us to embrace the ambiguity (and not in that shitty didactic LOST way either). And what’s more it’s a brilliant little wink. Want to know why that last layer is “not” real?

Nolan’s acknowledging that INCEPTION isn’t really because it’s a damn movie.

A little meta, but how is that not perfect?


Don’t Like: The 42 Funniest and/or Scariest Search Terms Used to Find My Blog

May 26, 2010

Reader: Beware.

You are about to stare into the dark id of the internet… and it is not pretty.

Those of you who may have your own website may be aware that you can see the search terms that one entered to click on your site. The results are often shocking.

Those afraid of being found out, don’t worry. We can’t see who you are or where you are… just the terms independently. So technically we can only see “what” you are.

I’ve seen the mind of the internet. And it is sexist, racist, ill-informed, and completely nonsensical

Without further ado, the top 42:

……….

42. Sexiest budwieser

-I don’t get it and It’s still hilarious. I have no idea why someone would search for this, nor what it even means. I sorta picture a dancing budweiser bottle.

41. Patrick swayze basketball

-Did he ever play basketball in a movie? I’m not sure about this one. Maybe something I’m not aware of. I just like it.

40. what kind of roids give you acne

-All of them. Glad to know that’s your primary concern though. Good luck with that.

39. reality tv informs people about health

-No. It doesn’t.

38. sweating basketball players players

-Players is doubly important. Also their sweat.

37. how people look when have aids

-As bad as your syntax.

36. scottish terriers fucked up dogs

-Scotties are adorable you jerk.

35. fuck her

Previously discussed.

34. 4 friends hang out with drugs

-My guess is they needed a picture. Otherwise this makes no sense.

33. Does shane black like fan mail?

-I wonder if Shane Black likes fan mail? To the internet! Really, I think most people don’t understand the difference between a search engine/yahoo answers/the concept of general inquiry.

32. Mia who is she?

-Again. The internet is not something you can ask questions to. And fyi, it’s M.I.A. and she’s a really good hip-hop/tribalesque/alternative recording artist.

31. sugar cookie death

-Sweet, sweet death.

30. black basketball player guarding a white

-I get TONS of shit like this. Vaguely racist basketball talk fuels the internet.

29. I don’t like safety laws

-Darwin award forthcoming.

28. can u play football if you have hiv

-Yikes.

27. “Busy?”

-You don’t need quotes for one word searches. And what the hell are you going to find asking this? No Idea.

26. iconic boxing images with gloves

-Hope you found some.

25. nazi+herion / naked heroin users (tie)

-The plus sign kills me.

24. kobe bryant gay pictures

-This one is really popular.

23. i like to do it with my sox on

-Notice the baseball spelling of socks.

22. old fit men

-I like to think of this as hopeful

21. “veronica lake was not a good”

-Is the “a” a mistake? Did they mean “god”. Why did they have the presence of mind to put quotes if their sentence if it makes no sense? The questions are endless.

20. Crystal meth 2008 like election

-Whereas this just plain makes no sense.

19. makes no sense

-Whereas this is literal.

18. Fear of pooping when around people

-Everybody Poops.

17. i’ve just dumped someone i really like

-Why’d you do it then?

16. touching badass buffy

-Who wouldn’t?

15. feminists but…

-Haha. One of my faves. The possibilities are endless.

14. Elizabeth taylor puffies

-Bwahahahaha.

13. Snorkel, woman / Fat people snorkeling / Snorkel fuck (3 way tie)

-Snorkel is truly a great word.

12. i don’t like football am i gay?

-No.

11. i’m going to kill you in the face

-Not in the face!

10. mr. manhattan watchmen

-The “mister” kills me. Like “mister manager” from arrested development.

9. complete ass compleat ass completely asi

-I desperately want to know how this ends.

8.  jessica alba mayo

-Gross imagery abound!

7.  how do i pick a title for my memoirs

-If you have to ask this question you probably shouldn’t be writing memoirs. Or writing in general.

6.  iron giant sex

-Oh god. We’re entering weird cartoon nonsensical fetish territory. This one actually makes the LEAST sense of any cartoon to boot… Amazing movie though.

5.  maribel – fucks daughter classic

-And it gets darker. Down the rabbit hole we go…

4 – white baseball players don’t like ugly black players

-Again. More weird basketball racism. What makes this one special is that it seems to be implying all black players are ugly… yikes.

4a – Dumb Michelle Obama Beaten Up Fuck Sex and then: Dumb Michelle Obama Beaten Up Fuck Sex Pics

-DEAR GOD. I mean… ugh. You wish you could pull out a person’s mind and look at it sometimes. See how someone’s entire fears/racism/attraction all get mashed up in this reactionary nonsense where they turn to the internet to satisfy some insatiable and completely fucked up desire. Better yet, there is NOTHING about this search based in any kind of reality. And then the insistence to come back and look for “pics” again is the icing on the cake.

3.  acceptable molestation

-Nope, it’s never acceptable

2.  my vomit is red

-Please call your doctor.

1 .  abiggail breslin nude feet

Just… I mean… god. I can’t… it’s just… GOD. Forget about the pedophilia/foot fetish cross over, and the mispelling…it’s just even the syntax… i mean… how… why… ugh… I don’t feel so good.

Forget this…

… Then again, it’s sort of scary knowing that these search terms can actually somehow lead to my blog.

… Yikes.

Honorable Mentions:

toilet plugged, self-improvement stuff i like and stuff, fuck hansbrough, who s who, love, normal kid, public speaking is like…, miss daisy racist, freakin nuts, “george carlin” 2008 photo, david merkin asshole, showtime synergy, funny internet, white and black basketball players fight, how to make the most of my gym, people who don’t like country, irish faggot, youkilis swearing espn, stuff the irish like, basketball players penis, Basketball intelligence black white, Medicine sucks, Girls pants pissing, Puking and peeing.


Don’t Like: How Everything Is Totally Shitty Right Now

May 6, 2010

Everything is totally shitty right now. This is worth acknowledging.

You may have noticed I’ve been posting subjects of pretty much only stuff I like for the last year or so.  Part of this stems from a desire to be optimistic and not just resort to the ease of snark.  At one point I went back and skimmed all my posts and I realized just how easily I fell into inane belittling and mean-spirted-ness. Not overtly so, I’m not one of those bloggers who just unleashes pure venom against everyone and everything… just more than I’d like. It was mostly surprising because I don’t believe that to be part of my nature.

But it’s hard to deny that there’s a lot not to like right now.

For example: The gulf coast is now engrossed in one of the worst ecological disasters ever. For those thinking I’m about to crow on about environmentalism, there is in fact a larger human tragedy to this. The gulf coast fishing industry is now hampered once again. Maybe even effectively killed. The magnitude of the damage will have ramifications for years and it will cost the local gulf economy untold millions. Think this is exaggeration? The Exxon Valdez spill wasn’t a fourth the amount of oil spilled here and they are still feeling the effects 20 years later. I visited New Orleans just a week and a half ago and cannot tell you how much I love that city. And now to think that as they were just getting back on their feet after Katrina, all may be undone.

But there’s a lot more than just this. Horrible storms have flooded Tennessee’s great cities. Arizona just made racial profiling not only legal, but an active policy. Oklahoma legislature just made it okay for doctors to withhold information from patients. Britain may be in the midst of actively overthrowing their party in a special election. Cuba had their worst sugar harvest in over a century (this will be a bigger deal than you think). Oh yeah and Greece is going broke and effectively destroying the worldwide economy in the process. They’re not happy about trying to deal with it either.

I understand the impulse to politicize all these stories. Please. Don’t.(1)  Just take them at a human level.  Yes, there are always tales of something going horribly wrong somewhere in the world, but what’s striking about the climate right now is that all of these problems are of incredible magnitude. They’re the kind of stories that could dominate front page headlines for weeks and since they’re happening all at once our magnet-ball media doesn’t even know how to construct a uniform narritive. People need to be caring, but really there’s almost too much to address. So let’s just notice how extreme these situations are are… pretend they were happening directly to you. For some of you, maybe they even are.

These problems are not distant. They are immediate. They are American. They are all the kind of problems that we usually respond to with the kind of self-sustaining vigor that defines us.(2)

We just can’t seem to keep track of them all.

1 – It’s really hard not to politicize them, especially as Fox News continues to spit insidious conjecture about almost all of these subjects; including Michael Brown’s claim that the Obama administration wanted the oil spill to happen and did little to shut it down. Not only is that radically unsubstantiated, but it’s the kind of claim reserved for nutty 9/11 conspirators.  I’m not going to say that it can’t be put on television. That’s fine. I’m just saying you’re ethically bound to standards when you put this kind of information under the guise of “news.” It’s Fox’s fundamental flaw. Not that they are conservative, but that they undermine their own credibility with this kind of haphazard nonsense.  In fact, most of my favorite sources of information tend to lean conservative and I like them because they help me think about a problem in a different sort of context. Meanwhile, I have to out ignore fox news  in order to just get through the fucking day.

2 – and possibly our bullish-ness.


Like: Elizabeth Taylor (1952)

May 5, 2010

“It’s Not Just Who But When…”

This statement was made by an acquaintance of mine some years ago when the question was prompted, “Who would you like to meet more than anyone else?” And from that very moment I fully and completely realized how important timing is when it comes to the reality of a person. Often the ideal timing is that ideal cusp where the fame is new and surprising to the person themselves. Where they are overcome with both the humility of that responsibility and possibly even embarrassed by it. It is certainly when they are most thankful. And certainly ever since that initial conversation I’ve always reiterated when it comes to any such list, “It’s not just who but when…”

Now as a wrinkle, this ongoing series of portraits will only specifically deal with the women of the last 75 years of so who I consider to be the Most Beautiful and Alluring in the world. I’m well aware that the internet can quickly descend into  a game OMG SHE’S HOT, LET’S OGLE HER! (though ogle is probably not used that often) and we find ourselves skirting into objectifying and ultimately even exploitative territory. Please know that that is anything but the goal here. The goal is reflect on moments in time, go over some film and television history, talk about the nature of image, and engage the subject of sexuality in media forms. And yes, most of it will be in adoring circumstances so don’t expect much of sterile criticism, but that is definitely the world of thought it will be coming from.

This ongoing series will attempt to go chronologically.

Once upon a time Elizabeth Taylor was just smoking.

I realize that comment is about as blunt as it gets, but let’s just acknowledge that she was the kind of attractive that can make people feel uncomfortable. So with that, the first half of this article is largely concerned with the aesthetical value of Ms. Taylor, but I promise that this article will delve into the things that made Taylor a legend and not just some pretty person.

So now then. By looking at the picture of above, you realize that we have unquestionably left the sensibility of the 40’s, with the glamor ringlet hair-doos and vaseline-caked camera lenses,  and are now in a completely different era all together. Elizabeth Taylor’s look was so distinct that it was actually ahead of its time: the thick slanted eyebrows countering years of impossibly thin arch-shaped ones (for comparison see Stanwyck, Barbara), the uber-dark mascara, the shaping at the far corners of her eyes. It was so divergent. You know what? We can even go further than that: she wasn’t just ahead of the curve, she invented the curve. Think about the “mod” look of the 60’s and tell me that it doesn’t stem from Taylor’s look (see Twiggy).  Taylor’s one of those honest-to-god trendsetters.(1) Even more astounding is that Taylor was at this pinnacle of everyone’s collective “wow” for about 15 straight years.

So the question at hand… when would you like to meet Elizabeth Taylor?

But first a quick tangent: One thing I’ve noticed in doing this “it’s not just who but when” series is that people can really look different in different periods of their lives (and I’ve already picked everyone I’m going to write about in the series so I have a big sample size here). Some stars have aged beautifully. Some not. Some shock you with their youthful, luminous glow at age 20 that you never knew they had, while others barely look like their ultimately famous personas years we come to know later. And so far, many of the upstanding women I have covered have been in that latter category.

Taylor is different. Up until a certain point in her career she just seemed so… ageless. She first got her start as a child star, where her presence is somewhat jarring in retrospect, because she just looks like a Tiny-Elizabeth-Taylor. It’s bizarre. Check out THERE’S ONE BORN EVERY MINUTE (1942)  and be thoroughly weirded out.  It is less jarring with her “awkward years”(2)  in NATIONAL VELVET (1944) and CYNTHIA(1947), where certain features seemed out of whack with the mini and adult versions of Taylor. She got closer to her period of distinction with her role as Amy in LITTLE WOMEN(1942), except she has this scary platinum blonde hair. I mean, yikes. Then her breakthrough role came in the original FATHER OF THE BRIDE(1950).  It marked her transition from teenager to “young woman”(3) and from that point on she was the “it” girl until about 1966. Picking a moment to meet Taylor in that long period is a daunting task.

And sadly, my answer depends on hair. Yes. Hair.

You see Taylor spent much of that period with a hairstyle I that particular hairstyle that many of us younger folks recognize. You know what I’m talking about. This one:

She had Grandma hair.

Yes, it was the style at the time (and she certainly knew how to rock it,) but the problem for today’s onlooker is that Taylor’s face had such a relate-able, modern aesthetic; she would simply look so much better with modern and/or longer hair. Perhaps it’s just generational and simply due to how our current era identifies someone as being in their 20’s. Granted this is astoundingly subjective and I’m behaving as if it’s not, but it is an interesting dynamic to consider when discussing the timelessness of “style.” Could there be people who are “style” outliers? Born out of a time that style fits their features best? Maybe it’s more black and white than that;  certain people look great with long hair, certain people look great with short hair. So I insist there can be a rough consensus on the basis on facial structure and norms of symmetry. And even if there isn’t, screw it.  I subjectively think Taylor looked stunning with longer hair. So there.

Her first cinematic appearance with longer hair would be in QUO VADIS(1951)… but since she was barely in that movie anyway so we must go to IVANHOE(1952). (1)

So there’s the long hair (props to getty images, a great overall resource for old movie pictures). You can’t see her so well, but you get a sense of how much it works with her profile and facial structure. And yes, I know those are probably extensions, but whatever! It’s what we got to go on. So what about pictures that show her more clearly?

Damn.

Coincidentally, IVANHOE was the first film I saw her in…  I think. It was elementary school and I had to do a book report on one one of those silly abridged novels and I picked Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe.”  In traditional lazy fashion I watched the movie instead. (5) And boom, I was hooked on Liz. Then again, I had a surprising amount of crushes in elementary school and they tended to be out of left field (Alley Mills!?!). So as silly as this childhood crush seemed, it was really just par for the course.

Taylor dominated the next six years in terms of star power, including a starring role in the uber-popular film GIANT (1956). But while her work was always high profile, she was not necessarily known for her actual acting ability. Then came CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF(1958).  I love all of Tennessee Williams’ work and I feel like this is one of the best adaptations. Between Paul Newman’s drunken seething and Taylor’s smoldering sultriness/angry fireworks, this film provides such a tangible mix of mood and energy. You can practically feel the oppressive and titular heat. And Burl Ives, ladies and gentleman! Burl Ives! If you haven’t seen it, put it on your list for sure. It marked Taylor’s arrival as a real talent and established a persona she could really sink her teeth into in the coming years (aside from the “attractive woman” she had been playing before).

Taylor was deservingly nominated for an Oscar in the role, but of course it went to the immortal performance of Susan Heyward’s I WANT TO LIVE!(1958)… Huh?!? That nonsense movie won her an Oscar?! See, this is a great example of why I can’t stand the Oscars.  Little do people realize, they’ve always sucked. Mostly because the level of misappropriation is off the charts. Yes, I know “opinion” is a part of it, but the politics of choosing a winner truly is the rule of the thumb. Trust me, I know Oscar voters. They don’t watch a lot of the films. They pick to spread awards around and reward past performances, their friends, and whoever would be the better story over the more impacting and lasting performance almost every time. Case in point: everyone was so impressed with Taylor’s performance in CAT that it garnered her sufficient clout that she actually won the Oscar for her subsequent performance in the completely mediocre BUTTERFIELD 8(1960). Plus she was then sick in real life  and everyone felt sympathetic for her [Facepalm].  Of course that undeserving reward had further consequences: Taylor receiving the nonsense Oscar is what prevented Shirley Maclaine from winning an Oscar for THE APARTMENT (1960). This horrible cycle has gone on and on for years. We’re giving out awards to people because we fucked up and didn’t give it to them for the performance they deserved it. This happens every year. It happens in every category (only like 30% of the movies on AFI’s list are best picture winners). It’s political, inane, and nonsensical. That’s why I hate watching the Oscars…  Sorry about the tangent. End Rant.

Anycrap… Taylor’s pin-up heyday had one last Hurrah with THE SANDPIPER(1965), but her next film was a dramatic reversal of that image. A singular performance that took what she established in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and brought it to fruition.  I’m speaking of course, of Martha.

WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?(1966) is probably on the list of my 50 favorite films. Some of the most ardent readers here might find that odd because I’ve hated pretty much every modern incantation of the “marriage sucks” mini-genre (Revolutionary Road, etc). You know the kind of movie I’m talking about: a married couple yells at each other and say bitchy things and it’s all about how the institution of marriage is  corrupt, yada, yada, yada. It the kind of assessment that is so far off base from my personal disposition, but that’s they the whole when-the-film-was-made thing comes into play. The film works best as a counterpoint to the long tradition of sterile marriage comedies of the 40’s and 50’s.(6)  It’s scathing really; the popular discourse is something that really, truly matters in this world and WOOLF had a sincere and lasting impact. It was the kind of sobering portrait that made a lot of couples really uncomfortable the night after watching. Particularly, a lot of intellectual, “progressive” couples. Plus, WOOLF isn’t really saying those inane negative things about marriage itself. In the best tradition of grim art, it’s meant to work as a mirror, albeit one with constructive intentions. It never caves to banal platitudes or trite moralism, but instead presents an distressing alternative to your own life. It is meant to give you a glimpse into the abyss, so that you can stay clear away. After all, most of us are not like George and Martha.

What also helps WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF is that it is, you know, a flawlessly constructed work. Richard Burton channels the empty vessel of nihilism, a man clinging to his last shreds longing, so completely that it’s frightening.(7) George Segal and Sandy Dennis simply nail the young couple, who ride the roller coaster of the evening, falling into various context after context, examining themselves. And then there’s Taylor. She imbues Martha with pure venom, her words are practically corrosive. More importantly, they’re often right. She’s is at once an acute characterization of all the points in the feminist movement, while still being a singular, faulty, and angry-as-hell human being. The movie depends on Martha having credibility and a (distanced) sense of sympathy, otherwise it’s an indictment of women at large. (8)  As horrible as these people are, most of their anger comes from the fact that deep down they need each other. That reality cannot be conveyed in some cheesy way either or else the whole thing collapses in on itself. Luckily, it all comes together beautifully. The source material of Albee’s seminal play is the main reason for this; it’s a work that should stand the test of time, but the director of WOOLF understood exactly what to do with it. In fact, I can only think of a handful of directors whose first film is a total masterpiece and with WOOLF, Mike Nichols is one of them. (9)

There is a true lasting legacy of WOOLF upon Taylor’s career. It defined her late period roles and showed she was better than a pin-up, even better than a political choice for an academy award. She could deliver an iconic performance. Something that more than set the model for the litany of “unhappy marriage performances” that followed, but actually altered the discourse of feminism and liberalism. The word iconic was chosen carefully. Unlike most others, she is an Icon with every facet of her career.

So there. There’s over two-thousand-five-hundred words of my long, rambling thoughts on Elizabeth Taylor.  I could actually say a lot more as I feel like I barely covered anything. Like most of the people in this series, she has a crazy personal life and a ton of marriages that a lot of people seem to care about. I just don’t. I care about the performances. I care about the legacy. I care about her effect on culture, aesthetics, and politics.

She’s the game changer.

Welcome to the 50’s.

ENDNOTES

1- You know… like J-Lo.(a)

(a) intentionally semi-dated reference. (i)

(i) I hate having to explain jokes in blog/extended-footnote from. This is more because of my selfish insecurity that people won’t get it, because, yes, I know most people get it… ugh. Moving on.

2 – Awkward for her standards, not our hellish ones.

3 – Remember, this was back when teenagers didn’t act like young women in films.

4 – Ivanhoe. I can’t think of it without thinking about the classic Simpsons line. [Bart is writing a book report and reads it back to himself]: “Ivanhoe is the story of a Russian Farmer and his tool.”

5 – My more studious nature didn’t kick in until middle school.

6 – Which is not to say the era was devoid of more adult themes. It’s just of societal darkness was crammed subtlely or uns-ubtlely into the Noir genre.

7 – I realize this could be interpreted like I’m advocating the idea that women tear down men until they are shells of their former selves, which is an opinion many take away from the film. I could not disagree more. Burton’s nihilism is strictly his own doing.

8 – Similar themed works by Updike and Yates, fail to understand that basic principal. They’re pretty much sexist pigs who think women are to blame.

9 – He actually upped things with his next film “The Graduate”… or as it’s more colloquially regarded “the best comedy of all time” and/or “one of the top 7 movies of all time”… If you want to get all qualitative or whatever.


Like: TREME Episode 3 “Right Place, Wrong Time” … and the effects Malcolm Gladwell framework from “The Tipping Point”

April 28, 2010

On the plane to New Orleans this past week I finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point.” I’ve been meaning to read it for years and so when I saw the paperback in the airport bookstore I bought it as an impulse purchase. This moment I consider to be a bit serendipitous.  It ended up providing a fascinating sociological framework with which to approach my visit to N’awlins.  For those who haven’t read it (like me, last week) the basic conceit of the book is that little, seemingly trivial details can push huge trends and epidemics in the community wildly in one direction or another.  Of course it’s a lot more nuanced than that, but this specifically applies to the idea that context and environments play a huge role in terms of our actual behaviors, far more than we previously believed. One example he explores in great detail is the dramatic turnaround of crime prevention in New York City largely being a matter of physically cleaning up trash and graffiti on the subway. The idea: an environment that accepts simple lawlessness and petty crimes will therefore accept/encourage harsher crimes. So they changed the physical environment and crime plummeted. Context rules.

But what about more specific community traits? For example, Fist-Fighting in Boston is a largely tolerated cultural; two knuckleheads would beat each other up, the cops would show up and ask who started it, and then they’d go to the can for a night and be released. No one would sue anyone else. This happened all the time. The first thing I noticed when I moved to Los Angeles is “where are all the dudes fighting each other in front of bars?” There weren’t any. And if they did, someone for sure was getting sued. Same laws. Same country. It’s just that one place is more culturally tolerant of a behavior and the other is not. But Los Angeles is a city five times the size of Boston and bars are everywhere, so how does this happen? Maybe it’s the kind of people who live here. Maybe it’s the nice weather putting everyone in a better mood. Maybe it’s because people are wearing less clothes. Maybe it’s because people are afraid that the other person is gang affiliated or something and maybe carrying a gun (the violence situation south of the 10, and east of the 5 is far different after all). Either way, I’ve seen hundreds of fist fights in four years in Boston and none in five years in Los Angeles. The difference is the environment, and therefore the context. And context rules.

So what if the difference is about positive behavior? What if a city had a context of joy and indomitable spirit? Would the context of that that spirit really hold sway over the city’s constituents? Over the tourists? Can the overwhelming joy and kindness of a city be as contagious as Gladwell argues? My conclusion was yes. After all, context rules.

By the way, that city is New Orleans. I spent the last four days there and, prompted by the Gladwell read, I spent the entire time being fascinated by the context/environment. Every single person I met was relentless positive, affable, and engaging. Not just the cab drivers, bartenders, hotel managers and assorted folks whose jobs it was to be cheerful and welcoming. And not just the citizens of New Orleans, who always seemed to manage to say a friendly hello as they walked to work, or strike up a conversation as they stood in the doorways to beat the sweltering sun. But what contagiousness argues for best, is to look at your fellow visitors. What mood do the Tourists and the Party Folks take upon their visit? By all accounts, they were likewise celebratory, kind, affectionate. People who you couldn’t imagine dancing on the street would do just that. One wonders how so much (relative) good behavior happens with so much alcohol involved, but it’s a function of the environment. People are there to drink, enjoy music, and have a great time. It’s a kind of debauchery that lacks the animosity that seems to characterize much youthful partying these days (think woodstock 99, etc).  Especially after the storm, where it seems the desire to embrace and reignite the things that make New Orleans special have become priority #1. The environment is now one of healing and pride. And it’s frickin’ contagious.

After all, Context Rules.

So upon arriving home, I watched TREME episode 3, with a sense of… is there a word for “immediate nostalgia?” So as far as cinematics goes, here’s the good and the bad…

Good:

-Wendell Pierce plays the best drunk ever. This is inarguable.

-The episode struck me as funnier than the previous two.

-Khandi Alexander is poised to win some serious awards. Maybe? She’s putting on a clinic.

-I remembered that John Goodman can do subtlety. We’re always wrapped up in his usual gravitas and Walter Sobcheckian-yelling that we forget just how acute he can be too. The scene on the porch between him and Zahn is priceless, “Just piano lessons.”

-Melissa Leo, high marks all around. She’s perfectly cast.

-Zahn. Not as manic as the first episode. A bit more manic then the second. But still finding balance and had some real nice moments. Even his doucheyness is starting to be charming, which seems to be the point. He mostly works as a great foil for Kim Dickens.

Bad:

-Meanwhile, Sonny is the douchiest douche in douchetown. How are we supposed to feel about him again? Are we supposed to like this guy? Because he’s giving hipsters and even badder name. Drinking his girlfriend’s birthday present because she got a surprise big-deal-gig and just happened to be busy for a little bit? And Sonny got to go to the gig too?! What is he, fucking five? Shut up Sonny you whiny little brat. For the record, I find most complaints of hipsterism and/or emo to be inane, simplistic, and often just plain irrelevant, but dear lord Sonny. Come on man. You’re actually justifying all of those diminutions. And yet, because this is David Simon, I will wait patiently. Maybe we’re suppose to hate this douchebag in the long run. My guess though is that his seemingly pretentious stories of saving people in his boat (the ones that people can’t seem corroborate) will actually end up being true. And really he’s just working out his shit or some other backstory. I dunno.

-His girlfriend Annie is far more tolerable, except she makes a face when playing fiddle that looks like she’s passing stones.

-There’s a fine line in film/tv between something that feels real and something that feels forced. This seems obvious, but authenticity is such a rarity in entertainment that we’ve learned to embrace the ridiculous as an alternative. Meanwhile, Simon’s shows (Homicide, The Corner, The Wire) have built a reputation on being authentic above all else. So in regards to the scene in episode 3 where the cops suddenly go ape-shit on Antoine for, like, no reason… well, it immediately set off my bullshit detector. Which is odd, because I’ve seen that exact same kind of horror go down in real life multiple times. But if it is something that’s painfully real, what’s the problem? The problem is the “how” of course. Since DO THE RIGHT THING(1), we’ve seen the no-reason-police-beating many, many times in our cinematic experience, and many of these immitations are often done for contrived/imitative/knee-jerk reasons. Unfortunately, we can’t help but bring all those negative connotations with it. This scene in episode 3, however, builds up beautifully; Antoine drunkenly sings with Annie and Sonny as the police car slides carefully into the backround. They finish their song. He starts to drunkenly walk forward. You slowly feel it coming. It’s perfect film-making. Then the second his horn taps the cop car, the police are instantly on top of him and within a second are beating the shit out of him, spewing the kind of dialogue we see in “evil cop” movies. Even the style of the scene changes, as it ultra-edited and with multiple angles to accentuate the violence.(2) You sense the filmmakers wanted to show how quickly things can turn and how impacting real police violence can be, but in doing so they’ve created a scene that achieves in the exact antithesis of what it was achieving when it started. In this culture of stylistic violence you need to be doubly careful. Even the shaky cam has a action-movie connotation now. You need the same kind of unblinking de-stylization that made the action of The Wire so heartbreaking.

Anywho it’s just something to look out for in future episodes, as it’s the crux of what makes a David Simon show work.

And I swear I’m going to have have another “It’s not just who but when” post up this week, it’s almost done.

(1) – It goes back further of course, but the scene of Radio Raheem remains the last major touchstone for a lot of us.

(2) – In comparison to the normal Simon standards, not, like, Michael Bay.


Like: TREME, Episode 2: “Meet Da Boys on the Battlefront”… and the luxury of semantics.

April 20, 2010

So the second episode of TREME was even better than the first.

Let’s tackle this numerically:

1. This tends to happen in David Simon shows as the first episode usually is saddled with the task of introducing a bevy of characters and plotlines. Now that we have some idea as to the nature of our characters, the show can proceed. Typically one would say “go” instead of proceed, but that implies some sort of action-y 24-like pacing, which could not be more inappropriate for TREME. David Simon shows sort of just “happen” in front of your eyes, as if we were just lucky enough to witness the events of real life.(1) Their pace could be considered languid by today’s standards, but I’d argue “deliberate” is better choice of words.

2. This is due to the exquisite care in the storytelling. Nothing is haphazard here. The slightest indulgence is often worth it; usually in the form of a stirring sample of jazz or blues.

3. I love the direction of the prisoner aftermath plot-line. It was the most compelling part of the pilot and the brief parts we got in the second episode were great as well (Slim Charles sighting!)

4. They toned down the Steve Zahn character in a major way. His abrasiveness is largely absent in this go round and we were treated to the better side of his deadpan acting sensibility. His work was my biggest complaint with a performance in the first episode and this was a complete 180, while still somehow being true to the original characterization.

5. They’ve seemingly shifted much the douchey-white-guy quotient that Zahn had in the pilot onto the new hipstery muscian guy named “Sonny.” It was a smart move, as it allowed us to get closer to Zahn’s character while still maintaining the nice racial meta-commentary concerning the white characters of TREME (being that-they-are-well-intentioned-but-ultimately-having-the-kind-of-low-stakes-that-let-you-talk-about-problems-of-the-system-at-large-instead-of-actually-dealing-with-them). Which brings me to:

Blog Post Thesis: I think TREME might partially be about what I’ll call “The Luxury of Semantics.” I’ve already referenced the fact that only characters who seem to be issuing impassioned (and somewhat cliched) rhetoric about Katrina/N.O. wheter it be: the failure of the government’s response, the injustice of the storm in general, and the amazing perseverance of the culture, all tend to be white people that were relatively unaffected or affected merely as a matter of choice. As such, these characters can afford the luxury of talking about hardship in the abstract. Now, this does not render their points any less accurate or diminish the validity of their care, just to say that it is inherently distant. Conversely all those who truly lost the most in Katrina, most of whom belong to the African-American population of the city, don’t seem to be too quick to sue the federal government or blame much of anyone. They’re too busy “doing” for a lack of a better word, usually physically rebuilding their house or business. The difference is clearly intentional. But like all things great, Simon is not dealing in black and white, even on the literal subject of black and white. Many problems with the physical reconstruction stem from the fact that theft has become commonplace. And Simon himself is a master analyzer of semantics (part of what makes him a great writer), so this pointed criticism is just as much self-directed; he even acknowledges frequently how much of an “admiring outsider” of New Orleans he is even though his affiliation with the city goes back decades. The criticism is likewise directed at someone like me, a young white male 2000 miles from the storm, exhibiting all the misplaced compassion I can muster. So yes, indulging yourself in the luxury of semantics is inherently inane(2), but it’s valuable tool in developing an idea of what exactly you want to commit yourself when it comes to the whole “doing” part of the equation. There are varying degrees of “usefulness”, but TREME is ultimately a show about responding to crisis, not in the “of the moment” heroic sense, but the long term nature of resolve.

And quite frankly, how far apart can we really be when there’s so much wonderful music to enjoy?

1- Take the amazing cinematography for THE WIRE, which was beautiful but lacked any kind of kinetic movement or omniscience. Simon once said something like [we never wanted the camera to be smarter than any of the characters in the scene]. It’s a perfect way of describing how the camera behaved in that show.

2 – Heck, I’ve printed hundreds of thousands of words in this blog on the basic matter of nonsense semantics. Mission accomplished!