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?


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!


Love: Treme

April 13, 2010

“Won’t Bow. Don’t Know How.”

On the suface, we understand the meaning immediately. It is an unrelenting decree. A manta for city defined by an impassioned will to continue, despite having a litany of reasons to simply stop.

It is not just a tag-line. The words are uttered by Albert Lambreaux (played by the magnificent Clarke Peters A.K.A. Lester Freeman from THE WIRE) as he stands fully clad in his Mardie Gras Chief outfit: decadent, impeccable, absurd. No, Albert is not marching in Mardi Gras, but instead arriving at the door of a friend three months after the day their city drowned. This friend happens to a hauling business, and Albert dances and chants in his magnificent get up asking proudly if this friend will help clear the debris of a bar down the way. Albert’s reason is not practical; he needs a place to practice his Indian Chief routine in anticipation of the next Mardi Gras. His home has been destroyed and there is nowhere else to do so but his old abandoned stomping grounds. The debris just needs to be moved…  The friend has no reason to help. He’d spend that time earning desperately needed money clearing  for FEMA and more significantly, he swears his oath to another Mardi Gras chief.  It would seem to be a sacrilegious act.

Albert: “Won’t Bow. Don’t Know How.”

And with that, the friend consents. After all, these aren’t ordinary times in New Orleans.

This is TREME (and writing in general) at it’s best. It’s a scene steeped in a culture we barely know, but we are made familiar by a sense of osmosis. And yet those familiar with the culture can assure the authenticity: It’s researched. It’s cerebral. It’s cinematic. It’s deeply affecting. Better yet it is wholly analogous to the thematic mission statement of the show. It’s this kind of multi-dynamic that allows moments in TREME to soar. One might counter that there are a few weird moments in the show where we are treated to somewhat banal, cliche-ridden speeches on the unrelenting spirit of the people of New Orleans, but slyly these speeches are often come from the white upper class folks of the city. They love their city dearly all teh same, but simply lack the “real stakes” of devastation.  The kind of poor where you don’t have time to give two shits about semantics. So it’s reasonably understandable when the upper class falls back on these basic platitudes of decency and hardship: it’s in their nature and comes from a place of love. And it’s the kind of observation of meta-semantics that reminds you that you’re in the hands of a writing genius.

And David Simon is most certainly that. Fresh off of his run on the greatest show of all time, THE WIRE, one could say there are certain expectations. Being held in such high esteem could be daunting for some show runners, but David is could not seem to to care whatsoever about expectations. It’s actually that very disinterest which allows the politics of being “the show after” to handle itself nicely. TREME is not THE WIRE, nor is it ever really trying to be. It’s a bit more of an emotional piece. More about tone and character; less about systemic realities and institutions (though there certainly is shades of that). If we’re going to use a metaphor, imagine THE WIRE as an intricate diagram connecting you with human stories in the mire of institutional hell, while TREME instead tries to paint a portrait of personal stories in what might be a physical hell of post-katrina New Orleans. I’ve seen a few folks throwing around Altman comparisons (specifically NASHVILLE) and they are rather apt. But as is Simon’s nature, this is largely based on observation and documentation: an attempt to be honest about New Orleans. About music. About food. About class. About wealth. And about responsibility. And if we’re going to get all technical, this isn’t really Simon’s 2nd act to THE WIRE. That was already the astounding GENERATION KILL, though one might imply that since it was a mini-series it doesn’t count. But none the less we need to come to grips with what it is.

So do Mardi Gras Indians really matter that much? Truth be told, I only knew vaguely what they ever were before the premiere of “TREME” and certainly didn’t know what they were about. A little vague reading on the show beforehand lead to a little more reading, and to answer the question, yes they are important. They are superfluous. Their origins are obscured in hearsay. Their known history is mired in ugly racial tensions and perhaps criminal activity. Yet their real value is in the currency of deep cultural symbolism. They are now universally adored presences during the celebration, but their real lives are often secretive. No one has any real authority over them and each group,  referred to in TREME colloquially as “gangs,” works with a different chief perhaps helping with the amazingly decorative outfits and planning the rigorous planned performances. How does something so, again, superfluous gain such adoration? Because that’s the nature of these things. Silly traditions are often the most beloved because there’s no real reason to dislike them. The ugly side of tradition is often done away with in the name of pleasantries. And New Orleans has indeed had an ugly history. Places don’t become melting pots in the nicest of circumstances (Scorsese tried to tackle that less than flattering history in GANGS OF NEW YORK), but when a place has a strong sense of identity and pride those things can often melt away in the name of something better, usually something fun.

But Mardi Gras Indians are important enough to turn down FEMA dollars. This so much we learn.

“Do You Know What It Means?”

That is the title of the pilot and I can think of none more appropriate. Do you know about Treme (pronouced Truh-MAY), the neighborhood and titular inspiration for the show? Do you know about the Mardi Gras Indians? Do you know about beignets, and… Do you know? One gets the feeling that someone with thin skin would quickly counter that all this “do you know?” is nothing more than hipster bullshit. “I know about the real New Orleans. I got the cred,” and such and such. No. That could not be a more inane interpretation.

“Do You Know What It Means?” is really an invitation. We’re being asked if we would like to come along and discover what it all means. Simon’s loved the city for decades and acknowledges that it is become a part of him. He invited friends and natives of the city to help him create the show and share what “makes New Orleans” with people who may not know; to share it with us. It won’t be in an authoritarian way. They won’t beat you over the head with it. They won’t spoon-feed you. TREME opens with title card simply saying “New Orleans, Louisiana” and then “Three Months After” as even mentioning the subject of Katrina isn’t necessary. It’s redundant. We’re using a shorthand, but it’s a familiar one. It’s just another way of inviting from the very beginning. It’s always an invitation with David Simon. That’s why I will watch everything he ever does.

I may have never seen the Mardi Gras Indians, but I’ve seen New Orleans. I visited just a few months before Katrina struck and it was the highlight of my extended trip across the country. Beautiful. Honest. Gothic. Vibrant. Inspired. Food to die for and that’s from someone who probably loves food more than anything. And good god the music really is everywhere you look. I come from more of a blues background (my older brother is obsessed and I spent my entire childhood watching him develop into a rather good blue guitarist), but the roots of blue are everywhere too. I’ve been to hundreds of cities on this planet across four continents and even after a brief trip to New Orleans I can tell you with strict confidence that there is no other city I’ve seen with such a singular identity. It is the literal uncanny.

So when I watched on TV as an American City was sunk underwater, I knew we were on the verge of losing something much greater than some realized; something I barely had a taste of, but seemed know instinctively. I watched a days worth of horrible news footage when everything was still hazy; they were reporting on the horrible things perhaps occurring in the Superdome, not to mention the indignation of lacking government aid was so outrageous and the efforts put forth so nonsensical, that even Fox News Reporters were actively gnawing their teeth at the Bush administration. It was gut-churning in a way that was aesthetically different from say the complete and total shock of 9-11. It wore on me, but if you ask those around me I’m not the emotional type.  I tend to analyze rather than emote (e.g. 1500 words and counting on a single tv episode), but it really wore on me: the sight of a city destroyed. I took a car ride. It was a hot summers day in los angeles with golden sunshine and seemingly no reason to think about something over 2,000 miles away. At one point a black SUV pulled in front of me. I was looking down so I noticed the license plate first: “Louisiana.” Above it on the window, which had been covered in a fine layer of pollen, soot, someone had used their index finger to write just five simple words:

“Please God Help Our N’Awlins”

And right then I lost it. I cried in the kind of violent, uncontrollable fit that I hadn’t done since I was 7 years old. I’ve cried in movies, sure, but usually just a little eye watering. Nothing even close this. There were times I didn’t cry in moments of genuine personal tragedy. Thus I barely understood it. It was surreal. It was atypical. I sat there in traffic bawling for a minute and then finally got a hold of myself. I spent the ensuing months following it closely. A year went by and progress was still nowhere near where it deserved to be. It served as a critical humane juncture in the Bush Administration as his previous best quality was that he was thought to be “rescue/crisis handler” type of president, and his teams handling of New Orleans stands as one of the great monumental failures of American Government post WW2. Spike Lee handled much of it beautifully in his documentary “When The Levees Broke.” Today, all reports seem to indicate that things have taken a turn in the right direction. The uptick in tourism. The economy rebounding (though the economic crash was yet another roadblock for them). Even The Saints magnificent resurgence and eventual Superbowl run. In two weeks, I’ll find just how different it really is in varying degrees myself when I return to visit with some old friends. I can’t wait. We’re getting a chance to go jazz fest too. Yes, it’s the corporatization/bastardization of something normally so humble (something being the New Orleans jazz scene), but there are going to be A LOT of great acts all out and about around town. By all accounts it is definitely one of THE times to be there. It’s going to be wonderful.

So what does all of this have to do with the pilot again? What’s all this have to do with showing the country all the hardships in New Orleans “3 months after”?

We almost lost one of the best cities in the world. Maybe all that TREME is asking is do you really know what that means?


Like: Generation Kill

April 8, 2009

gk13

So I went back and finally finished/re-watched all of Generation Kill.

… Amazing.

For those unaware, Generation Kill (GK)is an HBO miniseries about the invasion of Iraq from the perspective of the 1st marine recon unit (which for the purposes of that war, was basically a marine battalion in Humvees). It was made by David Simon and Ed Burns, the geniuses responsible for the greatest television show of all-time: The Wire. For those who tire of the ham-fisted Iraq politicization  and fictions, GK is about as far from that as you can get. Yes, GK is very much of The Wire formula/sensibility, but the wonderful thing about The Wire formula/sensibility is that is it is inherently designed to mimic the truths and forms of the subject itself. GK does not approach the war and Iraq from an ideological and didactic standpoint, it approaches truths through character. Look, I’m not going to say that Generation Kill is definitive truth or anything that grandiose, but it might be as close as you can get because it approaches its subject from a journalistic standpoint. There is no true intention of GK except to supplement the experience for those who were not there. It simply tries to deal openly and honestly about the condition of singular moments and not to make something accessible, but to make something of the experience that rang true to the marines on the ground. And to be sure what they did was authentic, they had an actual marine in the writing room at all times, as well as original writer  Evan Wright.

Getting to the matter of character: Generation Kill was originally a book written by Evan Wright who was doing an article for Rolling Stone. He ended up riding point Humvee in 1st recon and writing about his experiences. He is represented as a character in the miniseries too (which sort of makes GK is a basically a factual recreation if you will).  And Evan really makes no attempts to prognosticate, but rather to assimilate into the population. He is not really a character in the singular sense, but our observer, like Ishmael in Moby Dick.

The two central figures Wright observes are the two men in the front of said point Humvee: the first is the driver, Cpl. Josh Ray Person,  played by James Ransone (Ziggy from The Wire season 2!). Much like Ziggy, Ray’s entire existence is a force of nature; he is 100% pure black humor. As a recon marine, Ray frequently stares into void of potential death and the reality of killing other human beings, but he only finds inherent irony and silliness. It’s one part coping mechanism and one part destiny: Ray’s predisposition makes him a Marine through and through, it is almost as if it was the only thing he can do. He wants combat. He wants action. He’s also somehow endearing as hell (being funny often helps in that regard), despite completely typifying the titular “Generation Kill.” But that’s the real rub of the title, much like Ray, it is laced with irony. But in truth it is  Sgt. Brad “Iceman” Colbert, played by Alexander Skarsgaard (son of stellan!), who is the most amazing part of GK and the proverbial anchor of the series. Brad brings a deeply parental nature to his team; he leads by example with a serious demeanor, but so much boils under his surface: reservations, contempt at inept officers, rage, fear, and happiness.  It is such an introspective performance; a man who’s has all the reason in the world to be grandiose (considering the grandiose setting and events) and thus has to be muted in order to cope. Alexander/brad is a compassionately brooding figure; also a massive figure, towering above most others (notably: Alexander was a former Swedish marine). To use my favorite saying: he is just stupid good in the role. Really, make no mistake, this is the stuff leading men are made of.  It’s no surprise Kenneth Branaugh is basically going nuts trying to get marvel to sign off his casting of Alexander as motherfucking THOR (it’s perfect).

The two characters of Ray and Brad are somewhat antithetical, yet both are excellent examples of good marines. They are responsible and knowledgeable. They care about their fellow marines. They are great in combat and subvert any of their fears. Truly, they seem to have no fear of death. But there is another member of their point Humvee team and his name is Lance Cpl. Harold James Trombly. He is rather easy right off, because he contains so many qualities that define a scumbag, yet every bit of that is mixed with an oozing innocence. His actions infantile and child-like, but not in an insufferable way, but a vulnerable way. He could be grumbling about wanting to kill dogs, but there is an odd, daft sweetness to his manner. Really Trombly is the kind of guy who’s situation in life never really gave him a shot at being “normal.” But Ray and Brad in thier relative maturity, seem to give him guidence. It’s a very interesting relationship.

Meanwhile, there is also Lt. Nathaniel Fick. He is Superior officer to Brad and the great example of a wonderful leader who tries to serve his men and make the best of his middle management position. Taking orders which put your men in danger are exceptionally difficult choices and most of the time Fick was admirable, and sometimes he let the pressure from above get to him and made mistakes (the “petting a burning dog” moment). But what was most respectable about Fick was that he was always honest with is men and never seemed to think of his career first. But as GK takes the wonderful time to show clearly, Fick’s greatest problem is that when he questions orders (often in the absolute critical interest of his men and their safety) he is regarded as a malcontent who undermines his (incompetent) officers. The best example being the time he was penalized for providing a superior officer from killing himself and everyone in their platoon. How dare he! (Forgive the sarcasm)

All of this makes Fick the shining example of leadership against the bevy of dumbass officers that seemed to populate this marine battalion. To GK‘s credit (or sense of earnest), none of these officers seem to be bad people, but are instead good/delicate/well-intentioned men who simply have no competency or leadership abilities.  It happens all the time in all lines of work; people can be promoted for being good at what they do, but often end up being terrible managers.   One officer was so woefully incompetent that if I ever saw the man Captain America was based on (I don’t care if the actor who played him might have been a little over the top), I would punch that motherfucker in the face. As Captain America was represented in GK, he was an officer who’s absolutely fearfulness of warfare itself, complete over-willingness to fire, lack of regard for prisoners, willingness put others in jeopardy, and constant terror of his superiors officers, made him a perfect storm of recklessness and ineptitude. According to Evan’s account of the battalion, Captain America was directly responsible for more of the Battalion’s  injuries than the enemy (the official Marine account would be very different). It’s just unspeakably disgust.  Slightly more forgivable, however, was Cpt. Craig “Encino Man/Hitman” Schwetje. Yes he was incompetent, often putting his men also in jeopardy (a ridiculously decided danger-close bombing scenario which Fick attempted to subvert was solved purely by Encino Man giving the wrong coordinates), but most of his problems stemmed from his juvenile demeanor and alpha-male boyishness. He’s in a middle-school mindset: stupid and eager to please his officers, but at least he seems somewhat well-intentioned.You get the feeling that while unlikely, he could grow into a better leader. Captain America, however, never belonged in a uniform. And unfortunately the structure of the marines officer system all but ensures he’d stay in one for the remainder of the war.

What is then interesting is seeing the man on top, Lt. Colonel A.K.A. “Godfather” (he has a raspy voice), and his leadership of the battalion.  Godfather does not seem like a particularly unreasonable person, but rather a good motivator who will communicates his intent with clarity and serves his superiors rather well. The problem seems to his structural detachment to both the action and his men. He is far enough removed from what is happening that conflicting accounts of Captain America’s incompetence gives him pause, but not enough to demote or discharge him (which again, should happen). This same dynamic works in an opposite capacity when he hears similar grumblings about Lt. Fick from the incompetent officers that he questioned. Now of course to the audience, the two soldiers are night and day when it comes to serving their country and the Marines, but to Godfather, the breakdown of truth in the military ranks renders the two mutually equal in terms of problems. It seems to be a sin to even suggest that, but that’s the problem: the structure of marine command creates difficulties for both the effectual and ineffectual alike. The problems with emotional detachment are played out in a wonderfully in a  scene when an injured Iraqi child (shot by Trombly) is brought by the unit’s doctor and other morally inclined officers to Godfather’s camp so he can get shipped back to a hospital for medical treatment. Godfather proceeds to give them a long list of reasons why that is implausible and exceptionally difficult from their current position, all of which are surprisingly sound reasons… and then, he gives the OK order anyway. It’s a great moment, but one that highlights the problems of detachment. It’s easy to say “no” when you’re on the phone, not watching a child die when you had the power to do something about it… no matter how problematic that something might be.

There is a larger problem still with Godfather’s detachment, one which has political ramifications. Much of his battle plan is designated from politically inclined generals; many of which he is  eager to impress. The recon marines battle plan for the war instantly becomes haphazard, roaming, and purposeless. They hit political targets yet skim around Iraq barely addressing problems, bombing before investigating, and ignoring problems they themselves create. It is incompetence in its purest form, a basic ignorance of the facts on the field in the pursuit of successes determined in Washington. The war in Iraq was a mad dash to Baghdad and everything since has been a matter of picking up the pieces from that destruction. The Marines regularly lament the cluster-fuck of what is occurring when compared to the skillfully executed missions they performed in Afghanistan. This isn’t a political reality. This is a reality of warfare. We see it time and time again in the trials of these recon marines. Were they to stay and handle a situation at hand, the situation could be solved and they could move on in good tactical conscience and good conscience at large. Which is exactly what the tactic became during the surge, you know, the moment where the war turned around and genuinely started to be rebuilt… it just took 4 years for the top brass to figure it out.  Meanwhile, these guys knew it the moment they got into the cities.

Look, the problems of the officer/soldier dynamic is nothing new. TS Elliot perhaps illustrated it best in The Hollowmen as had Coppola in the Apocalypse Now, as had Kubrick in Paths of Glory. But those were, well, artistic representations of a larger truth. They were inherently constructed. Not to get all non-fiction-vs.-fictiony, but what I liked about GK was that the examples of the officer/soldier dynamic are soundly concrete. The examples are factual, yet provide complete metaphorical representation of the larger political problems of the war. We rushed into a Iraq for perhaps unsound reasons, and then then competent, tactical soldiers had to deal with the consequences on the ground.  But of course things are never that cut and dry. Much like The Wire, Simon and Burns always let reality get in the way of any point they may try to make. The best example I can think of and most beautiful moment of the entire series deals with an officer whose name I can’t find (d’oh!) but he was the one complete and total asshole who always gave people crap about the marine dress code. He’s the complete stereotype of the hard-ass how harps on completely unimportant things and chews his men out. He’s in the mold of Lee Emory, almost acting as if that man was his hero. But near the end of the series, after a few marine injuries and some static development leave the Battalion’s morale rather low, the Asshole Dress Code Officer guy goes up to his fellow officer and has the following exchange:

(Paraphrased…)

Asshole Officer: Morale seems pretty low.

Other Officer: Yeah things look rough.

Asshole Officer: Well if things get any worse I can start harping on the dress code again.

[They share a wry smile]

… honestly it made me a bit teary.  It’s a kind of ego-sacrifice that you rarely see in real life. The Asshole Officer was willing to be “the asshole officer” for the greater sake of the men. The character is fully conscious of his effect and it’s wonderful to see, especially when many of the other officers (like Encino Man) are defined by their ego-centrism.   Ultimately, that’s what Simon and Burns have an amazing ability to do. They take some one who would either be a cut and dry asshole and they humanize him without ever dipping into forceful schmaltz (which the moment could have easily been and even slightly reads like in my summary. It wasn’t. It was great).

I think that’s all I have to say…

Generation Kill is amazing.

Endnotes:
-I may be mixing up my use of the word battalion, so anyone please correct me if I’m wrong.


Like: Total Badasses

September 17, 2008

The Following people were total badasses:

Teddy Roosevelt (president, soldier, bad-ass, probable racist)

Muthafuckin’ Omar (stick-up man)

Mean Joe Greene (his name is mean for f-ing sake)

Bob Gibson (he would drill his own players in batting practice)

Ogie Oglethorpe

John Matrix

Han Solo

Truckasuarus

Ghengis Khan

The Asian Cobra

Marburg

Throwing Stars (no link necessary)

Muldoon

And please, more suggestions for bad asses!


Like: Gen-u-ine Police.

June 11, 2008

This may sound inanely stupid, but I’ve actually rediscovered a sense of respect for police officers.

Many people have grown up with that sense of respect, but a good deal more fall into juvenile sentiment I Illustrated in the post below. It’s the typical suburban thing where they don’t see the actual service that Police provide the community. Kids just see annoying old jerks who are trying stop them from having fun. These kids also don’t see that they’re pretty lame… Of course, I was once one of those kids.

The other thing is we’ve lost what it truly means to be a police officer in the myriad of bullshit cop shows where you have to be psychic, or a genius, or a complete antagonistic retard, or David Caruso. They are all fake identities that has no bearing on real life and give no insight into what it means to be a good police officer. And people look at real gen-u-ine police and see them as not measuring up.

Being a true police officer, is a dignified position if there ever was one. It’s a genuine public service and one that suburban America has completely forgotten about.

Of course, the distractions for police officers are well-documented: the shift of focus from service to stat busting, bullshit drug rips, career-first thinking, racism, etc (and that’s what they are, distractions from doing the job right). The corruption of urban police forces is indeed a reality, but one that is vastly over-represented and over-suspected within the community. A suspicion that often can overshadow and even put limits on the effectiveness of said Police. (quick note, statistically/IA, the best police officers are African-American).

But to all the Gen-u-ine POlice who protect and serve and do their jobs to the best of their abilities, I thank ya kindly.