Thursday, October 09, 2014


It is October of 2014 and I have been living (more or less) in the northside of Chicago for 21 years.  I made this move (cue Sinatra) when I was 22.  Considering I lived briefly in Columbus, Ohio—though I barely remember much about that being below school age at the time—I can safely say that I have now lived longer as a northsider than a southsider.  If you are at all familiar with Chicago and the suburban area to the south and west (whose denizens like to call themselves Chicagoans), you’ll understand that my achievement is grand.  It is no small feat to defect and doing so can create an odd inner conflict.  Those southside suburbanites—all beautiful people, god bless them—don’t much care for us up north.  And, of course, the feeling is very much reciprocal.  Evidence of this was apparent within weeks of my transition in that magic year 1993 when I heard some born-and-bred northsiders dismiss the entire southside, a considerably larger chunk of town.  This after years of being warned not to bend over when up north. 

I’ve written about the north v south mentality that, sadly, informs much of my Chicago existence, so I won’t get into that.  But last week this schism caused me to feel a familiar feeling, one that I am at a loss to fully understand: defensive pride. 

The defensive pride I felt was over the southside, specifically the southwest side where I grew up.  I moved a lot as a kid (and as an adult, much to my family’s chagrin), so the area I think of when I think of home is vast and encompasses a good chuck of the Burbank/Bridgeview/Oak Lawn area.  The area in question is one that I was in a hurry to leave.  Nevertheless, when I overheard this prick running down the area to whomever the fuck was on the other end of his cellphone, I got a little pissed.  I can bash the southwest side.  I’m from there.  Fuck the rest of you haters.

This is nothing new.  I have a tendency to defend things I would otherwise trash.  I am not a patriot in the least, but I recall suffering through some barely literate critiques of the U.S. from a friend of former friend.  How fucking dull, I thought.  Pretentious, smug little shit.  When he went from trashing the whole country to my city, I threw aplomb to the wind and shared the contents of my mind.

Last week, while in a bookstore near Northwestern University, I had occasion to eavesdrop on a few graduate students, one of which went to great lengths to find a copy of Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao so that he could ask his companion if she’d read it, to which she answered: no, to which he responded with a joyous rant along the lines of: “I HATED this book.  I had to read it for a class on American lit just because the teacher is Hispanic.  It’s about this fat kid who loves sci-fi and wants to get laid.  Such bullshit!”

If you’ve read the book in question, you’ll recognize the failure of this summary.  My instinct was to engage the grad student in a literary discussion (we were in a used bookshop in Evanston—a conversation about books was more than possible) but I kept quiet.  I wanted to defend the book, which I remember liking even though I have recently dismissed Diaz’s work. 

All of these things I am quick to defend (Chicago, the southwest side, the United States, the repetitive work of a Dominican-American writer who lately seems short of ideas) are things I have had no problem trashing.  Were someone to ask me about Junot Diaz’s works I would likely reply that there are better books out there.  I have been openly critical of my country and my city.  But again, I can say these things.  Not you, pal.

Why?  I don’t know, but there it is.

It is exhausting living this way.  I am forever disagreeing, playing contrarian.  There’s nothing that will escape my scorn including that which I love.  I am unwell.   

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Another Post About Poetry

Not long ago, I wrote a blog post intended to get non-poetry readers to give the old form of written art a second chance.  I know it worked on at least one of my three readers, so there’s that.  But I felt dickish almost immediately after posting it.  Who the fuck am I? 

That got me to thinking a bit more about poetry, specifically the kind being written these days and in this country.  (I only know about poetry from other countries based largely on what gets translated, which is likely the best work, so there’s reason to believe that other countries are producing just as much crap as the US of A.)  Much of the work that has made its way to me via recommendations, workshops, curiosity, and, not long ago, slogging through submissions is bad.  This stands to reason: a lot of written work is bad, especially when it's in embryo.  But some of it is quite good and impacting.  Again, nothing new.  (Whenever I hear someone say that music or literature or films were better decades ago I call bullshit.  Only the good stuff survives.  For all the great music of the '60s there was a considerable amount of junk.)  Still, I do worry that I am seeing a lot of mediocre work celebrated.  Or even when the work is better than mediocre, there often seems to be a snarky, clever conceit to it that dooms the poem to being a temporary pleasure at best.  As I always say, cute and clever lose the race. 

A while back, I wrote this letter to Poetry Magazine, a publication that inspires very mixed feelings from yours truly.  The essay to which I was responding was centered on criticizing the work of Dylan Thomas, though the real savaging was of E. E. Cummings.  Now, I am all for slaughtering sacred cows, but when the knife is wielded by a guy whose book is named after a silly movie, and whose work seems to be of the kind that stretches for irony and preciousness, well… fuck him.  Dylan Thomas was guilty of composing some pretty maddening lyrics, poetry with a capital P.  But he wrote “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”, so he’s got a fixed spot in the pantheon of greats.  Ditto Cummings who is often playful to the point of annoyance but who penned more than a few poems that have elevated human existence. 

And this is maybe the real issue I have with contemporary poets: they are often too scared to write anything that isn't removed from emotion, too busy relishing the experiment more than the poem.  They are skilled at the workshop, the exercise, the clever reference, and the detached gag, but they lack the guts to put themselves out there.  Their work is amusing but hollow.  So much of the stuff I've seen masquerading as poetry seeks to do little more than amuse briefly, signal to the initiated, and validate the author while doing little for the reader.  Think of what Steve Coogan said about jazz music and the band having more fun than the audience.  This is what contemporary poetry can often be and this is why few outside of the MFA crowd go out of their way to read poetry.

And this seems to be the case.  (Obviously there are exceptions to everything I am stating here—this is fucking blog, for Christ’s sake.)  Whenever someone sees me reading a book of poems, they seem to tense up.  Oh… poetry.  That very difficult, rarely rewarding, utterly confusing, intentionally coded nonsense I am supposed to appreciate. Um... where's my iPhone?  Sad, really.  But when I read the latest wokshopped convulsions with line breaks, I can totally understand why some readers shrink from the challenge. 

I may have written something like this already (I don’t reread old posts very often), but I do feel the need to state that I am not opposed to poetry that is funny, difficult, complex, or challenging.  It is not always the job of the writer to make it easy on the reader.  But goddammit, if you are going to make things difficult you’d better have a reward at the end.  And too often I see poetry that is mere wordplay and evasion without an intellectual or emotional core.  Basically: I need something to hang my hat on if I am going to give a damn. 

I also ought to state that I not the greatest poet alive, despite my regular insistence to the contrary, and that I do indeed write slight poems that will not—in fact are not meant to—echo throughout the ages, and that funny or clever poems have their place and I more than anyone realize that.  BUT… if that is all you ever try to write than you are not much of a poet. 

Roberto Bolaño, who was not much of a poet but was a great novelist, said that were he planning a bank robbery he would take with him “true poets” as they were the most “valiant” of people.  Now, this is perhaps debatable, as is the meaning of the great writer’s statement, but I take something from this along the lines of: the true poet is brave enough to put in a poem what others would shy away from saying.  They are unafraid of being serious, even when being funny.  They do not detach from their work.  They put it all in there: themselves, their lovers, their enemies, their god, their breakfast, their dreams, their guts, their all.  And they fear not retribution or ridicule. 

I may not be a true poet, but I’m not afraid to try to be one. 

So I’m going to close by sharing this poem, which is lovely and ought to be read and understood and enjoyed by damn near anyone.  It is neither difficult nor simple.  I like it, mostly for the last line.  This is the job of the true poet, in my opinion, a duty shirked by too many poets today.  Get to work.  

Friday, August 15, 2014

God Bless the USA: Wanted and the Way of All Stupid

(In the past I have been accused of being a film snob, which is ridiculous when one considers that Repo Man, Big Trouble in Little China, and Return of the Living Dead are a few of my favorite films, none of them ever compared to The Rules of the Game.  What follows will only make me seem like more of a snob, but I’m writing it anyway because, 1. It’s fun, and, 2. it’s my blog, so there.
I wish to also preface this rant with the acknowledgment that, yes, action movies are supposed to be mindless fun, but you know what—the constant reminder that I ought to lighten up and let a stupid movie just entertain me is starting to seem pretty tired and, frankly, as stupid as the movies such a statement would defend.  Why must we excuse pieces of shit simply because they entertain?  The claim that we need downtime, distraction, so-called brainless fun is fine and very possibly true, but it seems we are in no danger of running out of that brainless fun.  It dominates our culture.  Thus, let me posit this to any and all who would have me chill and watch Wanted with uncritical eyes: maybe you need more brainy fun.  Maybe you ought to feed your head something a bit better than crappy movies.  Maybe then mediocre fare such as Up in the Air won’t be lauded as a superior film.  Hell, I’ll gladly sit down and shut up during Wanted if you will kindly do likewise during a film of my choosing.  Those who are up for that, email me and we’ll discuss details.) 
July 4, 2014:
The day started off well—a long session of reading on the beach, a reasonable lunch, and a walk with the dog.  Like me, my wife enjoys small, calm celebrations.  Like me, my wife does not care to be outside our humble home when fireworks are indistinguishable from gunshots.  We live in Chicago, after all.
At dusk, I ventured outside for junk food.  I returned in time for the all American ritual of searching through cable channels and settling for the least offensive piece of crap, which turned out to be the epitome of the dumb American movie, Wanted.  This was the perfect way to celebrate my country’s independence: watching a terrible, empty-headed film while eating chocolate.  God bless the U.S. 
It is curious that Wanted stars a Scottish actor and is directed by a Russian.  What can we read into this?  Maybe something about the melting pot, America the land of opportunity where all cultures can thrive under a common credo, in this case: guns are cool and logic gets in the way of the awesome.  Only in the dumb American movie can a man berate his overbearing boss and not be escorted out by security.  Only in the dumb American movie can the same man assault a coworker without going immediately to jail.  (Clearly the writers of Wanted, assuming the script wasn’t just cobbled together from notes scribbled on cocktail napkins, have never really worked in an office.)  No, I don’t see Wanted as the American dream realized by a partially foreign cast and crew; it is evidence of the dumbest of American movies enveloping other cultures— cinematic hegemony, if you will. 
But this is nothing new, right?  The dumb American heist film is the staple of British cinema.  The dumb American actioner has been adopted by filmmakers from Hong Kong, Korea, and Argentina.  The not-so-dumb American zombie movie was exhausted by very dumb Italian fare.  Of course, all of these countries have a long history of their own dumb cultures, and all of us, Yanks or otherwise, have a long history of good cultural output and intelligent storytelling.  Sure.  And now that I’ve gotten that qualification out of the way, let’s move on with a look at the dumbest movie ever shit from Hollywood’s gaping asshole, Wanted starring Angelina Jolie, whose last name is French for pretty, I’m told.  Oh, how perfect!  A smart woman who makes dumb movies should indeed be saddled with a foreign name.  
The movie begins à la Fight Club with its narrator, Wesley, bitching about having a job.  Not just any job, but a job in an office, oh my!  How terrible that he has to work in a cubicle surrounded by jerks.  Clearly, life would be so much better if he were picking fruit for fifteen hours a day or shoveling animal guts in a slaughterhouse.  But no, our poor hero works in an artificially controlled climate that distributes free cake.  My heart bleeds for his noble struggle. 
From there we learn that the woman who lives with Wes is sleeping with his best friend.  His best friend is a prick, as is more than evident, but as I watched the details of his friend’s boorishness and his girlfriend’s deceit, I remembered the old saying about knowing yourself by looking at the company you keep.  The girlfriend, by the way, is a terrible person for many reasons, mostly because she never shuts up.  You ladies!  Can’t you leave us alone?  Well, this is soon cured by the silent woman, Angelina Jolie decked in tattoos and smugness.  She sees him in a grocery store and pretty much stalks him hard.  Wordless for the most part, she manages to say something about our hero’s father being a kick ass assassin.  Actually, she says something closer to “your father was one of the greatest assassins who has ever lived,” which can only be a point of admiration in a dumb American movie. 
But never mind: the man who killed our hero is IN THE STORE!  And he wants to kill the son of the greatest ass kicking assassin ever because, I guess, the son, who has never met his father, will one day come after him?  Could happen.
Action is had.  And what action!  Bullets fly and curve and spin in slo-mo so that fanboys can jerk off without being cheated out of their money shots.  There’s a crazy car chase.  It’s all very intense and implausible.  Which leads me to the big revelation I had while watching this, the dumbest of Hollywood movies: action needs to be believable in order to create suspense. 
After the preposterous car chase and gun fight, Wesley is taken to a secret place and introduced to Morgan Freeman who tells him that the collection of young sexy folk among him are a league of assassins, to which I had to reply: No you’re not.  As open to fiction bullshit as I am, which allowed me to accept the spectacle of Jolie, from the hood of a speeding car, shooting guns so big they might snap her twig arms, I could not accept that Morgan Freeman & Co. are a group of hired killers.  And, a few scenes later, it turns out they are not hired so much as ordered to kill by a quilt.  But I get ahead of myself…
Wesley the hero returns to his life as a meek peon but not before confirming something Morgan Freeman tells him: Daddy the Kick Ass Assassin’s money has been deposited into Wesley’s bank account.  This is upward of three million!  So, naturally, our hero quits his job, grows a set of balls, attacks his best friend, and jumps into a car with Angie, who just happens to be waiting outside the office.  In the car, he puts on a pair of sunglasses so the audience will know that he is a pussy no more. 
That it only took money to change Wesley should cause any viewer to pause, though somehow I doubt audiences saw this as anything other than natural.  Well yeah… if I had 3 mil I’d quit my job.  Fuck yeah, bro!  Okay, sure, but would you quit your job and run off to be an assassin?  Would you cheerfully sign up to kill people without further explanation?  Would you not consider for a goddamn second that maybe the money that was deposited into your account was not really yours, that the father you never knew did not really leave it to you?  (Hey Wes, I’m your long lost cousin from Nigeria and I need you to play the human role as my next of kin as I have a bank account with 32 Million Pounds Sterling in it and I must ask you to help so I can take the money out, at which point you will receive 35%!)  Why does it not offer pause to the American viewer?  Because we are dumb and because we like money.  Sure, neither of these qualities are uniquely American, but along with being dumb and money-obsessed, we tend to romanticize assassins.  These three may very well be the trifecta of American stupidity in a post-Tarantino cinematic landscape. 
Off goes Wesley to assassin camp! 
First he learns a bit of history about the textile factory that has no place in the Chicago I know.  Maybe they set up shop on Goose Island and I didn’t notice.  While there, our hero gets his face punched and his life threatened (don’t worry- the Fraternity of Assassins has a magic goop that heals all wounds in no time!  Which they have decided never to share with the rest of the world because… I have no idea), none of which bothers him as much as the many things that have been bugging him up until now.  Why not?  Because Morgan Freeman has explained, as only God can, that Wesley has a specialness that would allow him to do amazing things if only he stopped taking his anti-anxiety meds.  This tall, dapper stranger is surely trustworthy, so Wes lets him chuck the pills in favor of a good ol’ ass kicking.  After all, a man who takes his orders from a quilt can’t be crazy. 
And let’s talk about that fucking quilt.  We learn later that the Fraternity takes orders from a pattern of irregular stitches produced by a loom.  Stitches are given a number, which are assigned a letter, which spells out a name.  And that is the next target of the assassins.  Seriously.  A league of killers is set forth to execute people based on the whims of a loom, which, I should add, is run by humans.  This loom is not ever said to be magic.  It does not run on sorcery.  Thus, men control the loom.  But… the loom seems to have some otherworldly magic that dictates the actions of the most lethal killers the world has ever known, people who can shoot bullets that curve. 
If this strikes you as silly, well congratulations: you have a brain.
Now, I am in favor of what my Uncle Danny calls “comic book logic.”  He does not use this term as an insult and neither do I.  If you are going to read comics, mostly the superhero tales, you’d better be prepared to suspend your disbelief.  I can and do suspend mine, but a good comic (and Wanted was based on a comic, one I have not read but have to assume is better than the film) will not ask its readers to believe that seemingly intelligent humans would ever take orders from a piece of fucking fabric produced by a man made machine. 
Now, our hero actually comes to the conclusion that it might be crazy to kill a man because a blanket told him to.  But Angie puts him in his place with a story about how someone once had a similar doubt that led to the target escaping and that target went on to kill her father.  Sad Angie… but NOPE.  Not a good reason.  In my ENG 101 class I refer to this as anecdotal evidence and warn my students against using it.  And here the true insidiousness of Wanted is evident.
Thesis for my rant: Movies like Wanted are dangerous to our society as they substantiate the worst form of argumentation and dampen critical thinking. 
Support by means of digression:  when I was an undergrad, I heard an otherwise intelligent classmate say something stupid and indefensible.  She told me that she hated Mexicans.  This came after some bitching about an immigration reform march that inconvenienced her by being audible in the distance.  I asked her to explain why she was opposed to the rally and Mexicans (not revealing to her that I was dating a Mexican). 
“When I was in high school, these two Mexican girls jumped me.”  End of story.  So, this is what we call a logical fallacy, specifically the hasty generalization.  Or, to be more blunt: a stupid stereotype.  But it is also a form of anecdotal evidence.  Not a perfect example, but it may do. 
Here’s a better example:  When teaching ENG 102, I often require my students to give a presentation as part of their final project.  One student wrote a research paper on the subject of rape culture.  Her presentation was spectacular.  During the Q&A portion, another student mentioned that he didn’t believe women who claim they were raped because a friend of his got arrested for rape because his ex-girlfriend, a liar, was angry about being dumped and wanted him to go to jail.  This struck me as preposterous. I said that, assuming this happened, I was very sorry to hear of this but his example was easily the exception to the rule and by no means could serve as solid evidence that rape survivors are lying.  He refused to accept the idea, as did someone else who told of a friend’s friend’s brother who met with a similar fate.  I explained again what anecdotal evidence is, though it didn’t seem to convince anyone that their individual example didn’t stand in for the whole. 
This is my fear.  Forgive me if I seem to be a bit of an alarmist, but the more we accept the indefensible generalization and the anecdotal form of evidence, the more the culture devolves.  And I think movies as dumb as Wanted (with a 71% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes) go some way toward substantiating the indefensible as legitimate.  Angie’s line of reasoning seems compelling to the viewer too distracted by action and special effects, but a pause reveals the flimsiness.  This sort of stupid acceptance of stupid claims may not be a true reflection of a distracted country willing to go to war for no goddamn reason and put it all on a credit card.  But then again…
Back to the amazing plot!
Wesley finally kills his target.  He does so while riding atop a train and by shooting a bullet that curves perfectly, like every bullet since his many failures to execute this nifty trick.  Apparently doing something well once makes you an expert.  This newfound skill with a gun allows him to shoot bullets at other bullets that have been shot at him, thus smooshing them nicely as opposed to, I don’t know, making them ricochet in who knows what direction and killing someone.  Anyway, our hero shows no signs of conscience over his first kill.  He may as well have gone to the dentist for all the emotion it inspires.  Just another day until he can get revenge on the man who killed the father he never knew, which is now the most important thing in Wesley’s world for some reason.  Of course, there’s no indication that he ever, you know, asked his mother about his dad and why he left and who he is.  But now that he has discovered, via a relative stranger, that his dad was a kick ass assassin, avenging his death is priority numero uno. 
But wait!  There’s a twist!
The loom finally shits out a quilt with Wes’s dad’s killer’s name on it.  Oh, happy day!  He goes apeshit on a mission to kill the guy, only to find out at the last possible second that the man he shoots is actually HIS FATHER!  What a twist!  M. Night Shyamalan is shitting himself with jealousy.  After all, who the fuck could ever have seen that coming?
The thick plottens.  Wes is an outcast, no longer in the Frat.  He is told by another stranger with zero evidence to back up his story that the man he killed, his pops, was always living within eyesight.  He had an apartment across the street from Wes and a telescope so that he could watch him do whatever.  Shit, fuck, jerk off, eat Pop Tarts, you know… Dad just wanted to be close by and always watching.  Wes is filled with increased love for the creepy stalker/absentee father he never knew, just as he was all agog over the last dude who was, for a brief period, his dead father.  Sorry, Wes, but you’re a bit of a dead father slut. 
From there… well, the climax is full of so much silliness I fear this long post would turn into a book were I to go into it all, but suffice it to state that there are rat bombs that don’t do nearly as much damage as they should, because we all know from practical experience how deadly rat bombs are, right?  And we all know how easy it is to strap watches and explosives to a million rats.  Just another day at the office. 
Wes, a mere freshman assassin, manages to infiltrate the deadliest place on Earth and confront the senior assassin squad.  Our hero informs them that Morgan Freeman is lying about the magic quilt.  Imagine that.  And he’s been making up names for profit.  Wow, someone actually kills for money in this movie—finally a plot line I can believe.  Morgan tells the assassins that all their names have come up and that he buried that info to protect them.  Angie, zealot that she is, shoots her best bullet ever, one that curves perfectly and flies through the heads of each assassin before coming full circle and landing in her own skull.  Only someone so slavishly devoted to their own flimsy anecdotal evidence would be hard headed enough to stop that bullet, so this makes some sense. 
Digression/Alarmist Cry # 2:
Another insidious aspect of this movie: Angie is seen as an admirable character.  She is sexy, strong, can shoot a gun ever so well (a treasured American quality).  She’s no Wes, the hero, but she’s pretty important to the film and certainly a better person than her lying, corrupt boss.  Well, she lied to Wes, but that’s beside the point.  The movie clearly wants us to like her or find her cool and sexy.  But she’s devoted to a tradition so strongly that it defies all logic.  She’s willing to kill anyone, including herself, for her belief.  And her belief is utterly stupid.  So, am I paranoid when I read this film as promoting blind faith even if it means picking up a gun?  Was I wrong to have watched Angie’s murder-suicide and thought of a recent ideologically-based kill spree in Vegas? 
So the assassins are all gone save for the baddest of the bad, Mr. Morgan Freeman.  He sneaks up on Wes who has returned to his previous job in the office because, of course, anyone can get rehired after insulting a supervisor and assaulting a coworker.  But that was Wes’s trap all along!  No, the man who looks exactly (not really) just like (sorta, I guess) Wes from the back is NOT WES.  Wes is in his father’s old apartment holding a big gun with a scope and, yep, he sends a bullet through Morgan’s head!  This is done in super slow motion because we all want to see what Morgan Freeman’s head looks like with a bullet coming out of it.  Actually, no… I never wanted to see that.  And now I can never watch that fucking penguin movie because I’ll always imagine its narrator with an exploding head. 
While all this was happening, our hero, via voice over, reminds us that we are pathetic.  I’m almost thrilled at the idea of a dumb movie that directly tells its audience that they are pieces of shit.  That almost seems subversive.  And at the end, Wesley breaks the fourth wall and asks us “What the fuck have you done lately?”  Um… watched a shit movie, that’s what.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

True Detective vs. The Fall: My Foolish Attempt to Describe Why My Show is Better Than Yours, Nah!

It is foolish to compare works of art but who doesn’t loving doing it anyway?  Those who declare themselves above such practices can stop reading now and go back to whatever the hell they do when not measuring one artist against another.  Okay, now that I have cleared out no one at all, let me begin.

Recently I, like so many other premium cable subscribers and internet thieves, have watched, digested, enjoyed, and moved on from True Detective.  A fine show, for the most part; it offered up some dark, brooding charm and naked asses as well as anti-hero heroes and the odd product placement for Jameson.  What’s not to love?  Well…

It seems the feminists of the world united in their opposition to the show or, at the very least, their grudging enjoyment of the adventures of Rust and Marty among the crazy pussy.  Can’t say I blame them.  The women are so secondary you might as well be scraping them off your shoe.  While this bothered me only mildly and did not deter me from my TV each Sunday, I still understood then, and understand now, their objections to the objectification. 

Let me state for whatever record there is that I, as a drooling male, recognize my constraints and, therefore, am maybe not the best person to be dwelling on the issue of adequate feminine representations in a seedy cable show, especially one on HBO, a medium that that demands tits and ass aplenty.  Neverthefuckingless, I can say that True Detective, which killed it for five straight episodes, dropped the goddamn ball at the end.  I have spent a lot of time thinking about this, much more than I should and much less than your average True Detective fan.  But lazily drop the ball they did.  Search your feelings, you know it to be true. 

With all the fanfare and feminist debate, what gets lost in the discussion (though I am sure if I searched the internet for a millisecond I would find a cadre of nerds who’d back me up) is the criticism that True Detective deserves.  And this criticism should be grounded in the admission that the show, expertly directed and acted, flopped at the end.  Bummer.  But I still liked seeing McConaughey sculpt little men out of Lone Star tall boys and spout nihilistic bullshit. 

So it’s fair to say I liked the show, misogynistic warts and all, and that a couple of dud episodes at the end did not diminish my love of that much discussed 6 minute tracking shot.  I am sure season two will bring equally good things.  But why wait for season two when season one of the superior program The Fall is currently streaming on Netflix? 

What?  You don’t know The Fall?  I do, thanks to the lovely Cassandra who sniffed out this feminist friendly and well crafted little gem.  You should check that shit out.  Gillian Anderson (remember her?) with a British accent in Belfast investigating a string of murders.  The murderer stalking his prey and living his seemingly normal life as a father and husband and—get this shit—working as a grief counselor.  Yep—there’s no mystery here; you know who the murderer is immediately and that just makes the show better.  Where True Detective tacked on some facile mystery and redneck cult that was picked up and put down without much consideration, The Fall eschews such easy gimmicks and just tells you who the killer is and lets you walk many dark miles in his shoes.  While watching The Fall, it occurred to me that I really don’t give a fuck about mysteries most of the time.  They are usually great at first and disappointing at the end.  This may speak to something in me more than the culture at large or the genre itself, but I’d be willing to guess that I am not alone.  Think of the great whodunits.  Few and far between, right?  It’s hard to sustain much interest in their 4th acts which inevitably are nothing more than chase scenes and confrontations/confessions.  At the end of True Detective, we have Rust literally walking through every motif the show tried hard to develop, voices around him whispering about yellow kings and other such red herrings.  But they were not intended to be red herrings.  No, they were supposed to contain some meaning that really only added creepy flavor to a sleazy cop show.  I know there are many who read a lot of supplementary books and Tumblr theories about all of this, but what did any of the Lovecraftian touches really do for the story aside from make it a dash more bizarre?  Nada.  In comparison, every note of The Fall feels perfect and not a moment seems unnecessary.  It too is a trim show—five episodes—but I imagine the writer/producers were aware of that when they started, whereas I get the impression that Nic Pizzolatto envisioned a longer narrative arc that got snipped by HBO.  Why else would he get viewers so invested just to rush to a dissatisfying finish? 

And for you feminists out there: The Fall offers a female character every bit as compelling and complicated as its male antihero.  That seems to be the point of the show, to give us a peek at two hunters, female and male, one a cop and one a serial rapist/killer.  We witness their chilling calculation and detachment and, sure, get the idea rather quickly that they are almost one and the same, but there’s a darkness in The Fall that excels beyond the high school posturing of True Detective.  Rust and Marty are the equivalent of suburban goth kids with Nine Inch Nails posters on their bedroom walls, Front 242 on their iPods, and fashionable angst coming out of their mouths.  The Fall evokes despair on a level of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, the sort of dread that fills the soul and makes you lay awake asking difficult questions.  Maybe when the suburban kid grows up they will be ready for The Fall.  Until then, season two of True Detective is coming, tits and all.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Woody Allen and the Cinema of Determination

Woody Allen’s name and transgressions have gotten some new blood lately.  This has something to do with the Golden Globes and Twitter.  So it goes.  During the course of this media dust-up, few if any have bothered to address Allen’s most verifiable crime: making fair to shit movies for the better part of two decades.

Thankfully, I exist. 

So here goes: my quick and dirty thought piece on the films of Woody Allen.

Well, actually, I just want to focus on a few.  Were I to tackle them all, we’d be here longer than it takes to endure Mighty Aphrodite, easily the shittiest of the shit.  No… let’s us (er, me) stick to a chosen few.

To do this, let me take a more serious stance: I was once a defender and admirer of Allen’s work.  It wasn’t the whole marrying his wife’s daughter thing that soured me (though his films coincidentally began to decline around that time).  It was a slew of annual Allen movies that ran the gamut from so-so to really lousy that swayed me over to the “fuck him” camp.  His girlfriend/family problems didn’t help, but I was willing to look past Polanski’s scummy behavior so long as he kept making stuff like Death and the Maiden and Bitter Moon.  For Allen, there was a time before the media circus, the gossip, and the mediocre work.  During this time, which I’ll call 1991, I started getting interested in movies that didn’t have tits and serial killers.  As I began learning names like Fellini and Lang and Scorsese, I also noticed that a lot of people took Allen seriously as a filmmaker.  I had only known him as the clown who made Bananas and Take the Money and Run.  So I decided to round out my self-education with a few rentals. 

I chose the classic Allen films: Annie Hall and Manhattan.  These were recommended by a video clerk (remember them!).  Smart move; Zelig might have alienated me.  Another Woman may have bored me (though it is my third favorite Allen movie).  I found Annie Hall cute but messy, which is how I still find it, and though I laughed and was ultimately won over by the thing, I didn’t understand the fuss.  Manhattan, on the other hand, was astounding.

I finished Manhattan at dawn.  Once it was over, I was too awed to think straight.  I loved the black and white cinematography.  I loved the way Allen portrayed his city, which I soon realized was largely an illusion.  The story was… pretty good.  Really nothing extraordinary, but the movie has a feel.  Sometimes that’s enough.  It was enough for me; I was totally under its spell.

I had stayed up all night watching movies in my family’s living room, Manhattan being the culmination of my cinefest.  As the sun rose, I, being jazzed up by the wonderful work of art I had just consumed, decided that life was too wild and zany to sleep through.  I got in my car and drove.  I ended up at my girlfriend’s house.  She was asleep, so I went for coffee by myself, quickly aware that I was running on fumes.  When the hour finally seemed decent, I knocked on her door and tried to explain that I had just seen a good move, a real movie, something with style, something that made me realize that time was short and that whimsy and spontaneity were what mattered, and that… um… I had nothing else to tell her.  Honestly, as dumb as the last few sentences seem, they are poetry compared to the babbling I was doing at her door.  She told me to go home and never surprise her like that again.  So much for whimsy.   

I cannot stand Manhattan.  I watched it again a few years back and was amazed at how obnoxious it seemed.  Fucking whiny pricks and their all-important personal problems.  No one in that movie ever missed a meal. 

To be fair, Manhattan is still a movie I would place in Allen’s good column, despite how much I now dislike it.  The portentous storyline involving Allen’s character dating a 16 year old now seems creepy. (Ever notice how often Allen and his surrogates date or mentor young women in his films?)  Regardless, I had a genuine reaction to the movie once and for that reason I cannot completely dismiss it.  Would that I could say the same about Blue Jasmine.  Actually, I did have a genuine reaction, though not a good one.  Instead of running to my car to drive off into the dawn, I rolled my eyes and looked for the remote. 

If ever there were confirmation that Allen has no clue how human beings (other than upper class Park Avenue neurotics) speak to one another, it’s Blue Jasmine.  The moments that feel real are the ones between Alec Baldwin and Cate Blanchett (who rises above the material, as always).  Everything else is total bullshit, an elitist’s painful conception of how blue-collar folk interact and converse.   And who are these work-a-day schmucks?  Loud, boorish folk named Chili.  Sexually aggressive mustached cretins.  People who wear shirts with their names stitched on to indicate that they work shit jobs that Allen would never deign to fully conceptualize.   People who watch sports and yell at the TV, that is when they aren’t ripping phones out of walls (Allen also lives in a perpetual time warp where people still have land lines).

This inability to create real characters is the fatal flaw of Blue Jasmine and the limitations of Allen as a writer are too embarrassingly amateurish to overlook.  Whereas past dalliances with characters outside Allen’s classist comfort zone may have raised a dry smirk, they were intentionally drawn broad (Chazz Palminteri in Bullets Over Broadway).  Here we’re supposed to believe in these goons.  Why not?  Clearly Allen does.  Cut to Nanook eating a phonograph record.

I’m happier to have my Woody Allen films exist in what J. R. Jones calls upper class fantasyland.  This is usually described as the charm of Allen’s work which often does maintain a certain otherworldly logic.  People are likable neurotic quip machines whose biggest concern is love and never how they’re going make rent for their glorious Manhattan apartments.  Pre ‘50s jazz is everywhere.  Minorities are fuck objects.  Every woman wants Woody’s tongue down her throat.  Urbane references abound.  Watching a Woody Allen movie is essentially an agreement that you’ll accept this world of his as being somehow possible.  Okay.  Fine by me, so long as he sticks to the upper west side.  But Allen breaks the covenant when he goes downtown. 

But why pick on this one flaw?  There are others, though these are the same aspects fans state are Allen’s strengths.  And I suppose it all comes down to taste.  Allen is either agreeable to your palate or not.  Hmm… I suppose, but then again no one can crank out films at his rate and have them all be worthwhile.  A film a year is exhausting, for the viewer and the filmmaker.  Eventually Allen will have to run out of fresh material.  Or so you’d think.  Moving outside of New York, Allen found his muse renewed.  And of the European vacation films that I’ve seen, Vicky Christina Barcelona is the most entertaining (albeit the most lazily titled).  But there Allen had the good sense to hire Spanish actors.  In Blue Jasmine, the Californians have New York accents.    

At this point, assuming you’re read this far (if you have, email or Facebook me with the message “Forrest Boy” and prove your love), you may be wondering what Allen films I do endorse.  (Maybe not.)  Well, perhaps I ought to get to one of them.

Radio Days.  This remains my favorite Allen film.  It is probably no one else’s favorite, but I think it works.  It’s sweet without being cloying, sentimental in a way that strikes me as correctly balanced, gorgeous with sweeping Rockaway Beach locations and WWII era charm, and the jokes are funny.  There’s little tension because it’s not a tense movie.  The plot is loose because it’s largely formless.  It centers on a time and a place, not a story.  And its inevitable descent into caricature feels organic and inoffensive.  Sure, Danny Aiello plays a cartoonish mobster, but this is a movie that borrows from 1930s-40s archetypes that we have collectively sanctioned. 

And that’s the thing: Allen is comfortable in this era.  He has a feel for it, like Umberto Eco writing about the Middle Ages.  His crisis comes when he tries to present this epoch to an audience interested in something more contemporary.  (Reviews of his insufferable Everyone Says I Love You cited the tragedy of Allen conjuring the Marx Brothers when the world wanted the Farrelly Brothers.)  Nevertheless, nostalgic little films fare better than the stabs at relevance wherein Allen trades clever sex gags for blowjob jokes and peppers his celebrated dialogue with crudity.  I remember watching Deconstructing Harry and coming to the conclusion that Soon-Yi advised her husband to spice up his fuddy duddy movies with some hip R rated material. Cut to Julia Louis-Dreyfus giving a hummer.

Considering Allen has always been a filmmaker driven to produce a movie a year, there’s no faulting him for trying.  And it’s good for the elderly to remain active.  But as I suggested above, how can anyone hit a home run every time at bat?  That being the case, one wonders if a more self-discerning artist would recognize bad ideas and work harder on the good ones.  What we have in the case of Woody Allen is what we also had with Bob Hope: a carpet bomber.  Hope’s jokes were often duds but he did manage to get a few laughs, mostly through determination.  He tried hard, damn it, throwing all his material at the crowd.  Allen does likewise, letting every story that leaks from his skull hit movie houses in the hopes that for every Melinda and Melinda there is a Midnight in Paris.  Here’s hoping the next project is more wheat than chaff.   Allen may not be long for this world and it’d be a shame if his last effort resembled his last twenty.