Friday, August 31

Angels & Demons: Passive Voice

I like both the movie and the book. The story is farfetched, but well told and interconnnected. The scene I selected is perfect for the students to practice the passive voice.

I. Read the sentences below and write them in the passive voice.

1. A cardenal must destroy the Ring of the Fisherman immediately following the Pope's death.


2. Someone seals the papal apartment for nine days of mourning.


3. People know this period as sede vacante.


4. The preferiti are offering prayers.


5. A modern world threatens the ancient traditions.


II. Now watch the segment and check your answers:

Answer key:

1. The Ring of the Fisherman must be destroyed immediately following the Pope's death.
2. The papal apartment is sealed for nine says of mourning.
3. The period (is) known as sede vacante.
4. Prayers are being offered by the preferiti.
5. The ancient traditions (are) threatened by a modern world

III. Game:

Work in small groups to see who makes more correct guesses about how a new Pope is chosen. Decide if the following sentences are True or False. They are requirements to become a Pope.

1. ( ) One must be a Cardinal to be elected Pope.

2. ( ) Cardinals are RARELY appointed before age 50. Cardinals 80 and over cannot vote for Pope, and no one over 79 has EVER been elected Pope.

3. ( ) The person who would be Pope must speak at least 3 languages: Latin, Italian, English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and German are especially good for a potential Pope to know.

4. ( ) 120 cardinals must participate in the selection.

5. ( ) The basic requirements are that no pope over 80 can be elected, and a two-thirds plus one majority must select the new pope.

6. ( ) If this majority cannot be reached, voting must occur for several days with two votes taking place in the morning and in the evening. If four days of voting does not result in the 67% majority, then the candidate with the majority of votes becomes the new pope.

7. ( ) When the old pope passes away, no autopsy is performed as this is considered desecration.

8. ( ) Official voting for the new pope is done in a process called conclave, from the Latin cum clavis. This means “with key,” and essentially means that the voting is secret.

9. ( ) Cardinals are locked into a room, specifically the Sistine Chapel. If the electoral process takes more than a day, the cardinals have lodging at St. Martha’s house and have no contact with the outside world.

10. ( ) All ballots are burned and if the vote has elected a new pope, this burning causes white smoke to float above the Vatican, signifying the world has a new pope. If the vote is unsuccessful, chemical is added to the burning ballots to cause gray smoke to appear. This signifies a vote without an election.

IV. Underline all the passive voice structures in exercise III.

Answer Key:

All are true, except number 1. It is an informal requirement, but not official.



Thursday, August 30

Prince: For You (1978)

Before Prince Rogers Nelson turned 20 years old, he cut his teeth in a funk group where he soon eclipsed peer and mentor alike, got himself an astonishingly generous record deal from a major label (including publishing rights for all his work), and released his solo debut with the proud boast of having been entirely "produced, arranged, composed and performed" by its maker. Never mind the misleading half-truths of that claim: For You's artistic credit sent a message of intent and announced a musician of ambition and creative drive. Indeed, Prince may well have been less satisfied with the impressiveness of his accomplishments at such a young age than he was irritated by the two interminable years it took to turn his demo into a full-fledged, official product.

Adding to the sense of For You as more an announcement of what was to come, the opening title track unfurls as a layered a cappella choir of Prince's cooing vocals soothingly telling the listener, "All of this and more is for you./With love, sincerity, and deepest care,/My life with you I share." To call this a precursor to Prince's musical openness would be inaccurate, as even at his most soulful and vulnerable, Prince throws up emotional walls to shield himself. Nevertheless, its quasi-spiritual overtones, especially when juxtaposed with the sex-drenched disco that dominates the rest of the record, offer an insight into dialectical forces that would soon propel Prince to superstardom.

But not here. The problem is not instantly apparent: For You quickly moves from its title track to "In Love," its bubbling synths and come-hither falsettos clearly linked to the previous song but worlds removed in execution. The unexpectedly logical progression from saint to sinner, linked through arrangement and effeminate vocals, hints at Prince's future embodiment of a gender- and race-bending Madonna/whore complex that took Elvis' mix of flagrant sexuality and gospel purity and shattered it into a million pieces. Better still is "Soft and Wet," perhaps the most "Prince" song of the pre-Dirty Mind era. On it, the not-yet-Purple One revs up the synths of "In Love" into staccato, sleazy bursts of cyber funk as an air of hunger creeps into the vocals and such lines as "All I wanna hear is your sweet love sighs." Though still tethered to en vogue disco sounds rather than simultaneously more old-fashioned and futuristic like Prince's best work, "Soft and Wet" is the best indication on the record of where the artist would go.

Scattered among the rest of the album are a few other gems. "Just as Long as We're Together" and the closing "I'm Yours" show off Prince's ability to craft a one-man jam, be it the former's robotic propulsion or the latter's layering of traditional instruments into a solo showcase. "Baby," on the other hand, demonstrates how he could take well-worn lyrical territory and give it an unexpected twist. In this case, he sings about having a child out of wedlock with his lover, traversing the fears of financial hardship and unwanted maturity such an event will bring. Yet there is also positivity and hope in the song, especially in the way that Prince offers to stand by his woman no matter her decision. Further down the road, Prince would turn more to didacticism in serious lyrical matters, but there is a refreshing, humble generosity here that would all too rarely be seen again.

Yet none of these songs has the instant classic feel of tunes the artist would start churning out regularly in just a few years. To judge these songs by what connection they have to later work may seem unfair, but these are works of potential, not fully realized pieces of songcraft. They are reasons to keep listening to see how this new talent develops, not reasons to become a fan. Saddled with two other listless ballads ("Crazy You" and "So Blue") and a mid-tempo dance track that never gives off enough energy to get someone on the floor ("My Love is Forever"), For You does not match the braggadocio of its nearly solo construction. Unlike any Prince record before the '90s, it sounds hopelessly locked into current musical trends rather than rooted deeper and searching outward for new sounds. The man who would redefine pop, funk and R&B here offers nothing more than a decently promising disco record that sounds conventional at a time when the genre was being stretched and redefined on a regular basis. Ironically, its singular sonic focus may be the biggest flaw, for Prince operates best when he can bounce conflicting sounds and ideas off the wall. It is strange to feel deflated by a 20-year-old's debut on the grounds of it being well-honed and contemporary, but then, nothing is ever sensible when it comes to Prince.

Wednesday, August 29

(ParaNorman, Sam Fell & Chris Butler, 2012)

The stop-motion animation studio Laika follows up their superlative work on Henry Selick's 2009 Coraline with another adventure-horror film that offers material challenging not merely for its emotional darkness but for its moral complexity. Certainly no other kids' film that comes to mind begins within a cheap zombie film in Academy ratio, complete with sight gags like the doomed woman finding sexual poses in which to scream in mortal terror and a boom mic that casually floats into frame. When the camera pulls out to show the young boy watching this flick, however, his banal choice of brain-draining entertainment soon reveals itself to be the least unorthodox aspect of ParaNorman.

Norman chats with his grandmother about the shoddy film he watches on an old TV, but when Norman goes to his dad to ask him to turn up the heat for her, the whole family's stunned, angry response reveals the grandmother to be dead for some time. But Norman can still see and communicate with her, just as he can see and converse with all the other incorporeal spirits of the dead who dwell in the town of Blithe Hollow. This leads to several intriguing setups and amusing gags in its own right—especially the sight of a ghost bird flapping around still gagging with a six-pack ring still 'round its spectral throat—but soon Norman finds himself thrust into a situation that forces the bullied, outcast child to reevaluate some of his own behavior toward others, all while genre tropes get a clever, but still family-friendly, tweak.

Tasked with using his special gift to help keep a centuries-old witch's curse at bay, Norman soon finds himself inadvertently setting off a zombie invasion that utilizes stop-motion brilliantly. What better monster for the arduous, slow, steady art of stop-motion animation, after all, than the lumbering zombie? Cast in a grindhouse-ready color palette, ParaNorman makes references to several classic horror films (this writer's favorite being a shot of Norman briefly noticing a figure watching him at school in a shot pattern that clearly recalls John Carpenter's Halloween), but the blend of physically three-dimensional objects and 3D rendering gives the animators space to craft their own distinctive look. Complementing the omnipresence of death and the lingering spirits thereof, Blithe Hollow itself appears to be in some form of decay, with long close-ups of rusted bikes and the faded colors of cookie-cutter suburban planning adding to the suffocating necrosis as much as the later descent into (PG-rated) hell.

Ironically, however, the animation makes everything feel so alive. When the long-dead reanimate and terrorize Norman and the rest of the town, their jaws slack with felt weight. Their severed limbs spring back into action with a physicality that makes the haphazard, groping movement, however comically planned, also creepy. Plenty of gorgeous computer animation surrounds the characters, especially in the rolling vortex of smoke that erupts over the town halfway into the film and mocks Norman with the witch's visage for the rest of the movie. But ParaNorman's impact can always be traced back to the old-school techniques that truly drive the film forward.

If Laika outdo their sterling work on Coraline in terms of technical skill, they also craft a richer story that places even more faith in a young audience to brave scary moments and understand multiple, multifaceted themes. The film validates the town's legend of an executed witch, but it does so in a manner similar to Carl Dreyer's great Day of Wrath. That film ran counter to many anti-witch hunt narratives by showing a puritanical mob actually cornering a real witch, only to make that fact irrelevant in light of their sadistic torture and murder. The further ParaNorman gets into its own narrative, the more it complicates the sense of culpability around the witch now getting her delayed vengeance.

More important, however, are the lessons embedded in this subtle narrative twist. As the story gradually aligns the villain with Norman, both bullied outcasts feared and persecuted for their special abilities. Yet ParaNorman goes one step further to examine how bullying can often forge powerful bullies out of victims eager to get payback or at least see someone else suffer as they suffer. Where so many movies celebrate the teased fighting back against the oppressor, this movie makes that revenge the source of its horror. Where Coraline both bolstered and subverted its strong female protagonist by making her stubborn self-sufficiency her greatest virtue and weakness, ParaNorman makes the audience long for a comeuppance against Norman's tormentors at school and at home, only to show revenge so all-consuming that even the punishment of those guilty of heinous acts becomes repulsive. Here is a movie that knows how nearly impossible it can be to break the chain of suffering but begs us to do it anyway. This, of course, requires the acceptance of those who are different, even frightening, to some. In that light, even the tossed-off joke of a character's revealed sexuality at the end serves as a vital message for children and, sadly, many of their parents.

Tuesday, August 28

Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami, 1994)

Life, and Nothing More... undercut Where Is the Friend's Home? by acknowledging the falseness of its diegetic reality as it added another layer of verisimilitudinous falsity to the narrative. Through the Olive Trees takes this simple elevation from one dimension of diegesis to another and fractures it into a thousand pieces; the film's opening image is of a man who introduces himself, "I'm Mohamed Ali Keshavarz, the actor who plays the director." With these 10 words, Kiarostami sets off the largest meditation on the thin line between reality and fiction of his self-reflexive career. That sentence serves as a warning shot for the rest of the movie, making it practically impossible to distinguish between what particular plane of "reality" the film is on at any one time. So perplexing is its Gordian knot that even cutting the thing by acknowledging the fictionality of the whole piece cannot successfully unravel its complexity.

But as with Close-Up, Certified Copy or any of the director's examinations of confused diegetic reality, Through the Olive Trees never loses its emotional resonance amidst its metatextual fun. The primary focus of the film is a pair of people who existed in the background of the previous movie. Late in Life, and Nothing More..., the lead actor (who is playing the director, but not the director who introduced himself at the start of this movie, because he is the "director" of Life) meets a young couple who elected to marry despite losing nearly all their family the earthquake that ravaged the region. Kiarostami aligns the focus of this film onto that couple. Well, the actors who played that couple, at least.

As Kirostami moves laterally as well as vertically, he lets his characters take over the film somewhat and to diverge from the roles they play down the line of the Koker trilogy. Tahereh, who plays the young woman in Life, is anything but the lovestruck wife of that film. When paired with Hossein, the "groom," she comes off as cold and uninterested even when the boy begins to feel some of the attraction of his character. Hossein even flubs his lines repeatedly in a hilarious scene where the filming of one of Life's shots constantly goes wrong because Tahereh refuses to respond to anything Hossein says to her, even in character. (It should be noted that her silence does not mean what Western audiences might think it means, but more on that later.) For his part, Hossein actively seeks that his part in the film not simply mirror his real life. A stonemason by trade, Hossein demands that his character not be a stonemason so that he need not even have to fake the work he does not like.

Yet even these conflicted, delineated marks between reality and fiction are soon absorbed into the denser web of the larger film, which even uses shot and sound design to blur lines. The drifting, focus-bending style that dotted the previous two Koker films rears its head again from time to time, and once again, the biggest yet most welcome distraction comes from an old man who seizes control of the film for a few minutes to ramble amiably. Then the film suddenly snaps back to attention by floating back to Hossein, and the sense of the movie making room for the real world dissolves when the old man's laughter blends with the honking of nearby geese in a deliberately false effect. An early camera shot that looks out from the car Tahereh takes to set seems to be a POV shot until one realizes the impossibility of it being the perspective of anyone inside the car, contradicting its naturalist feel with clear artifice. Poor Hossein later gets so mixed up by the film that when his character should say he lost 65 relatives in the quake, he instead says that he lost 25 because that is how many of his own relatives died in the disaster. In perhaps the film's most surreal moment, the actor playing the director of Life, and Nothing More... instructs the actor playing the director of Where Is the Friend's Home?, and at one point the camera reverses 180 degrees as if the director roles reverse, just to add to the confusion.

All of these bits are amusing—even Hossein's mix-up over the death count, though it comes from a horribly honest place—but they also speak to the Koker trilogy's larger breakdown of the very notion of capturing reality with film. By moving outward, cinema only adds more layers of falsity, and even reality (or at least what passes for reality within the false framework of film) cannot be trusted. Case in point, the way that Tahereh's tacit interaction with Hossein is obscured by both Kiarostami's camera and differences in cultural behavior. Her silence actually communicates cautious interest, not disdain, but even when one knows that, her actions feel rude and cold. The final scene, of a playful back-and-forth between the two as Hossein attempts to woo Tahereh, serves as the cap to this trilogy's ambiguity and its sense of ambiguity as the inevitable result of any attempt to capture a full portrait of something. As the camera pulls back ever further, its vast canvas does not reveal the truth of the couple's outcome but instead obscures it. Something will always be omitted in a movie, whether through too narrow a focus or too broad. Godard continues to look for a way to "get it all" in a film, but Kiarostami gracefully admits defeat in such a way that he makes an equally grand artistic statement out of his failure. Godard famously once said, "Film begins with D.W. Griffith and ends with Kiarostami." Through the Olive Trees almost seems the literal embodiment of this thought.

Monday, August 27

Side By Side (Christopher Kenneally, 2012)

Side By Side is, thankfully, not merely a mere account of aesthetic differences between film and digital. Instead, it asks serious questions about what technological change will mean for not only the process of filmmaking but a new rulebook for movies. Engagingly led along by Keanu Reeves, Side By Side lets directors and cinematographers draw battle lines and, occasionally, wade among the No Man's Land between them. Though there are some surprising omissions—it is almost silly to document the way digital is changing movies without talking to Michael Mann, who has done more than anyone in the American mainstream to stake a new digital style—but Side By Side is nevertheless a solid introduction into an issue that should concern, but also excite, cinephiles everywhere.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

Friday, August 24

Tangled & Rio: Simple Present

Both movies are wonderful. Both have scenes that show daily acitities, so I prepared this fun activity to make students practice the simple present tense in a challenging and exciting manner.

I. Watch the segments below only once. Then work in groups and decide who performs the following activities every morning. Write R if it is Rapunzel (Tangled) or L if it is Linda (Rio).

( ) Sweep the floor at 7 a.m

( ) Read a book

( ) Paint

( ) Play the guitar

( ) Wake up at 7:15 am

( ) Brush her teeth

( ) Have breakfast

( ) Knit

( ) Bake a pie

( ) Solve a puzzle

( ) Play chess

( ) Feed her pet

( ) Open the store

( ) Make candles

( ) Brush her hair



II. Now rewrite the sentences above in the simple present tense:

Ex: Rapunzel sweeps the floor at 7:00 am.

1. .................................................................................

2. ................................................................................

3. ................................................................................

III. Now write down two sentences that Rapunzel doesn't do in the morning and two sentences about what Linda does not do in her typical morning.

Ex: Rapunzel does not swim.

1. ................................................................................

2. ...............................................................................

3. ..............................................................................

4. ...............................................................................

III. Divide the class into pairs. Give Student 1a list with Rapunzel's activities. Give the other student a list with Linda's activities. Each student mimes their main character's activities and his/her partner has to say the correct sentences.




Answer key:

R - Rapunzel - Tangled

She sweeps the floor at 7 a.m.
She reads a book.
She paints
She plays the guitar
She knits
She bakes a pie
She solves a puzzle
She plays chess
She makes candles
She brushes her hair
She sings

L - Linda -Rio

She wakes up at 7:15 am
She brushes her teeth
She has breakfast
She feeds her pet
She opens the store

The Top 10 Steven Soderbergh Films

[This is my August entry in the Favorite Directors Blogathon.]

Steven Soderbergh operates so far under the radar that, for all his auteurist tics and varied filmography, I never thought to rate him among my favorite filmmakers until I took a step back one day and realized how many great films bore his credit. Sometimes it seems as if the film industry looks at him the same way. Soderbergh primarily operates as a workman, though he balances out commercial properties with a series of experimental works that often get folded back into his mainstream gigs, making him ever more idiosyncratic even as he gets trusted with bigger projects.

Soderbergh jump-started the Miramax era of the American indie with his Palme D’Or-winning feature debut sex, lies, and videotape, a film about a man who can only achieve any kind of arousal by watching recorded tapes of others detailing their own sexual desires and experiences. In a way, it is prophetic of his entire canon, in which action unfolds only through its own deconstruction and process becomes the driving force and the principal agent of subverted expectations. This fixation has made the director a member of the digital vanguard, the literal programming of visual information well-suited to his entire approach to storytelling.

Amazingly, he has applied this anti-narrative style to commercially successful properties. What other director in Hollywood today can so routinely boast massive casts populated entirely by A-listers without reducing them to wan rom-com drivel à la New Year’s Eve? And if anyone else could compare to Soderbergh in that respect, how many of them could turn around and make something like Bubble? A studio hand for the postmodern era, Soderbergh has made many fine works, but none better than these 10:

10. Contagion

I gave Contagion a mixed review on its original release last fall, infatuated with its editing and cinematography but disconnected from its flow by poor plot threads, particularly the borderline offensive handling of Hong Kong, the caricatured blogger played by Jude Law and Matt Damon's awkward, mourning cuckold (a shoehorned bit of sentiment for an otherwise deliberately cold film). Those issues still irk me, but the overall effect of the movie only gets more powerful with a rewatch. Barring those distracting subplots, the general connection of shots, be it the progression of unsettling extreme close-ups or the broader patchwork of globe-trotting leaps, never fails to create a mood of invisible, unpredictable death. I still get goosebumps when I hear a cough right after watching.

9. Magic Mike

Come for the waxed asses, stay for unexpectedly intelligent overview of post-recession life, where millennials work whatever jobs they can, motivated by insipid, futile dreams that seem a sad, wistful relic of Generation X and its slacker luxury. Soderbergh finds unorthodox framings for the strip numbers even as he cuts against the grain of contemporary dance filming and actually lets the audience see the actors move. And for a male stripper movie that features more topless women than pants-less men, Magic Mike still offers the rare glimpse at the objectified male, which has caused a hysterical amount of hand-wringing among men with no grasp of irony.

8. Che

A two-part epic about one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century, Che’s very construction reflects its subjects revolutionary zeal. A pioneering showcase for the Red digital camera, Che used guerilla filmmaking to depict the world’s most notorious guerilla. Likewise, the two aesthetically distinct halves of the film reflect the state of the protagonist: the first uses wide, populated panoramas that suggest Che even thought in Communist propaganda, while the paranoid second half crushes and dims the frame to show his support and resolve crumbling. Process, as ever, is key, and Soderbergh avoids commentary on the man by way of focusing solely on how he led one revolution to success and ended another in failure both literal and (judging from his lavish watch) ideological. It is troubling that Soderbergh completely omits Che’s ruthless side, his death panels and savagery, but in the broader context of the director’s elliptical style, these omissions work. Besides, such absences do not make for a lionized portrait of Che: consider the black and white sequence when Che visits New York and the UN, celebrated by the bourgeois scum he despises and revealing contradictions and inanities in his admirers and himself. So many biopics about symbolic figures attempt to reach the person beneath the image; Che brilliantly focuses only on the image, ironically saying more about its subject than most “tell-all” biographies.

7. Schizopolis

Soderbergh wasted no time playing against any and all expectations, following up the oddity of his debut with a series of thematically and stylistically disparate films that shared one basic trait: their unprofitability. This stage of Soderbergh’s career reached a head with 1996’s Schizopolis, a work so resolutely weird and self-absorbed it instantly gives off the impression of having been meant to serve as a farewell for a filmmaker depleting the last of his backers’ goodwill. This three-act act of mass deconstruction breaks apart communication through blunt statements (such as a character saying “Hello” as “Generic greeting”), colliding foreign tongues and finally, gibberish code. God only knows how Soderbergh managed to get himself Out of Sight after this. But if this movie has nothing in common with the string of mainstream successes that would follow over the next few years, it nevertheless proved that Soderbergh had vast reserves of talent begging to be used.

6. Ocean’s 12

If every mainstream Soderbergh film upends convention in some manner, Ocean’s 12 comes off as downright confrontational. As much a middle finger as Schizopolis, this openly glib sequel games the studio system into paying for the director and his cast to take an extended vacation at George Clooney’s villa. That the film does everything in its power to make this obvious does not make the joke any easier to swallow for some, but I just cannot help but love this epic piss-take of a movie, right down to the inclusion of corpsed takes and the hilariously self-involved meta-joke with Julia Roberts.

5. The Girlfriend Experience

Soderbergh’s best experimental feature prefaced Magic Mike’s social situation with a visceral plunge into the heart of the financial collapse. Sasha Grey’s stilted performance has been the butt of many a joke, but it is, in fact, she who gets the last laugh, portraying the wry simplicity of her supposedly elaborate services. She advertises the ability to be more than just a sex toy, but all her clients need out of her before they get her out of her clothes is a shoulder to cry on and someone just smart enough to agree with them without seeming vacant. In other words, it is not her own lack of depth being projected, it is the men’s. An ingenious breakdown of objectification, one made funnier by the lingering objections of many viewers (even professional critics), that Soderbergh never shows the former adult star having sex. And it will never cease to be amusing that the film depicts the architects of our financial ruin needing some level of capitalistic comfort so badly that they retreat into the arms of the world’s oldest, stablest profession.

4. Solaris

One might have expected Soderbergh to dismantle the notion of a remake as he used Ocean’s Twelve to mock the sequel as a concept. On the contrary, he uses his Solaris movie to refine a specific strand of Lem’s source novel while also projecting his own imagistic themes onto their broadest canvas. The corporeal projection of the protagonist’s dead wife allows Soderbergh to probe the philosophical underpinnings over how one processes the Other as an image. Furthermore, if Soderbergh offers any deconstructive angle, it is of the patriarchy of the previous iterations of this story by giving more weight to the significance that Natasha McElhone’s specter is defined completely by the memories George Clooney’s character has of the real Rheya. When McElhone despairs of this fact and Clooney can only carry on about using this copy to get a do-over with his lost love, not even the ending can match its haunting, revealing irony.

3. Out of Sight

Oh, Out of Sight, you exquisite gem, you. A romantic-comic thriller so light on its feet that its various stylistic quirks hardly even register the first few viewings. Featuring George Clooney at his most effortlessly charming (that is saying something) and Jennifer Lopez in a surprisingly beautiful performance, Out of Sight manages to throw about three different kinds of film together and make the result more fluid than the most straightforward of genre movies. Add to that montages of asynchronous sound and image, giddy freeze frames and immaculate cinematography and you get the first American film to expand upon and deepen Pulp Fiction’s sense of tossed-off New Wave cool. And Soderbergh doesn’t even need the parade of hip references.

2. King of the Hill

Shot by Elliot Davis in golden, gorgeous tones and boasting production design seemingly impossible under the budgetary and time restraints of the shoot, King of the Hill suffers inexplicably from neglect. Adapted from A.E. Hotchner’s Depression-era memoir, Soderbergh’s third feature lacks the postmodern tics of his other work, yet it makes up for this by routinely contrasting the sumptuous, warm beauty of the frame with the horrific conditions that weigh down Aaron (Jesse Bradford, giving a child performance beyond reproach). This is an overplayed trick, but Soderbergh does not play the juxtaposition for easy irony, instead letting each scene convey all its tiny joys, heartbreaks and bits of mordant humor. It is one of the best films of its kind (both as a Depression drama and a coming-of-age tale), and if Soderbergh does not break the movie down as he does elsewhere, he settles for doing the real thing better than just about anyone.

1. The Limey

Many of Soderbergh’s films work as companion pieces to others, but it is admittedly a stretch to link Out of Sight and The Limey. Their shared elliptical un-thriller structures provide a starting point, but what truly distinguishes Soderbergh’s back-to-back, end-of-the-‘90s works as a linked pair for the way in which they use similar stylistic tics to opposite effect. The former’s lilting delicacy and celebration of cool is matched here by fragmented agony and a breakdown of the charming anti-hero. Using everything from jumbled flashbacks to clips of Terence Stamp at the start of his career, Soderbergh gradually strips away the protagonist’s righteous fury and hard slang until all that’s left is a cracked shell. Soderbergh typically breaks down a situation or genre: the heist film, the martial arts movie, even the extended monologue. The Limey uses all of his techniques and flourishes to deconstruct a person.

Thursday, August 23

50 Book Pledge #15: James Joyce—Finnegans Wake

Regular readers might remember my original plans to offer regular updates on my trek through Joyce's final and most abstruse work, Finnegans Wake. But as soon as I set to work on that, the book dove so deeply into incomprehensibility that to even attempt to summarize what I'd read would consist of nothing more than Skeleton Key summaries. Unlike Ulysses, with its connected but distinct chapters offering unique perspectives and pleasures at every turn, the Wake varied as its sections are, flow together with such abandon that I got nowhere trying to parse individual elements of the book/

It was only when I stopped trying to get a handle on the book, to even get a basic footing of where I was, that I even began to get into the Wake. Around that time, however, the book started to make some kind of sense. Based around Viconian cycles, the Wake is, narratively speaking, easy to figure out. After all, Joyce repeats the story ad nauseam, of the protagonist's social rise and subsequent fall from grace over a lewd encounter in a park and his irrepressible guilt. The same characters appear to reenact the basics over and over, each time as new figures with new, gnarlier paths to the same outlet. And in HCE's all-pervasive sense of guilt is the guilt of Ireland past and present, an anthropomorphic realization of the suffocating cloud of Catholicism that hovers over Joyce's ex-pat recreation of his homeland. The only deliverance comes through the water form of HCE's wife, ALP, whose mysterious letter has the power to wash away her husband's sins (or her husband entirely). But ALP, like Joyce's best women characters—Molly Bloom, Gretta Conroy—exists outside her husband's hopeless encasement in Ireland's moral carbon monoxide. ALP's chapter, filled with river names and the constant burbling of water imagery, is perhaps the most poetic, liberated passage Joyce ever wrote.

Other aspects of the story slowly coalesced around these relatable touchstones. The twin sons of HCE, each representing a half of his personality, although not split along the lines one might expect. Shaun, the twin with the capacity for public leadership, is also the one who is insecure, petty and conservative. Shem, disdained by all, is not only the intellectual force that could give that leadership weight but is also the sexual curiosity that will ultimately lay HCE low (the kind of curiosity that can turn to depravity if repressed by the uptight forces of Shaun). Shem, naturally, is meant to be Joyce, which is both deceptively humble self-aggrandizement and, in the case of the chapter that brutally, hilariously castigates Shem, the purest self-flagellation of this guilt-besodden novel. But again, he's really the hero of his own book. Perhaps the cleverest aspect of the entire book, Shem slowly teaching his oblivious brother about sex via the geometrical representation of their mother's vagina, plunges into new depths of sexual morass, but this also reveals the triumphant humanity of this figure when he forgives his infuriated, eroticized and scandalized brother's subsequent outburst.

Entire chunks of the Wake are a mystery to me and shall likely remain so for years, if not my entire life. To even recognize a reference, historical or lingual (or both), in one of Joyce's polyglot puns marked a victory. The only way to get through it was to read it aloud, where the flow of the language barreled over its insensibility. But this also brought out the real hook of the novel, its incessant ability to get a laugh. Anthony Burgess rightfully praised this facet of Finnegans Wake, and regardless of how much one understands of the chapter of the kids doing their homework, or of the nightmarish collage of stories and media at play in HCE's tavern (a prescient bit of attention-deficit sensory overload), this is one of the funniest, cheekiest books ever written.

Already, I see the Wake everywhere I turn. So deliberately obscure, its depths can lure the reader into solving its dream puzzles at the expense of ignoring the surface-level delights that are so dense and ahead of their time that modern works can be tied to them. When I saw David Lynch's Wild at Heart and, even more recently, Lost Highway, the former's pan-temporal existence of all pop culture at once and the latter's Möbius-strip, transfiguring structure instantly called to mind Joyce's magnum opus. I see fragments of it in other films, music, literature and art, and some of its puns even seem to anticipate more modern phrases or events. I have never been so routinely dejected while reading a book, but as each absurdity or deft bit of idioglossia kept me going, my appreciation for this masterwork grew and grew. And if it is so regularly bewildering, that is only because nothing can be said to be like it, even though everything before and after it seems to lead to and issue forth from its oneiric, river language.

50 Book Pledge #16: Laurent Binet—HHhH: A Novel

If two things in this world have been done to death they are the WWII historical novel and glib, self-referential postmodernism that sidesteps narrative for telling the audience how hard it is to write a narrative. But by God, Laurent Binet managed to throw these things together and wind up with the best new book I've read in years. Binet's digressions, though routinely amusing and occasionally a bit grating, add to the overall effect of Binet's attempt to lionize the Czech and Slovak assassins who killed Reinhard Heydritch, possibly the most dangerous Nazi under Hitler and the true architect of the Holocaust. Binet manages to turn all of his story-interrupting tics into reflections of our continuing (possibly endless) quest to make sense of the horror of Nazi policy, and he also increases the tension of the stranger-than-fiction events he recounts with his interruptions and tics. Translated with terrific informality by Sam Taylor, HHhH is a fleet but unexpectedly powerful account of one of the few tales of WWII not covered to death, despite it being one of the most crucial events of the whole war.

My full review is up at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, August 21

4:44: The Last Day on Earth (Abel Ferrara, 2012)

The characters in Abel Ferrara's 4:44: The Last Day on Earth react to the world's impending doom with astonishing calm. Perhaps they, too, are burned out on all the apocalyptic fare at the cineplex, ranging from gargantuan, hollow spectacles like 2012 to arthouse features like The Turin Horse or Melancholia. Heck, even Terrence Malick's rapturous celebration of the humanity's connection to the universe in The Tree of Life featured a vision of its end, the sun expanding until scorching all life from the Earth before vaporizing the desiccated husk. As actor Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and painter Skye (Shanyn Leigh) go about their routines in their loft, initially displaying no indication that they are even upset, much less terrified with the prospect of a total extinction that has been calculated to the exact time (that of the film's title), one begins to wonder if Hollywood has managed to desensitize us not merely to intimate violence but our own doom.

But then, given how comfortable the couple's flat is, it is not such a stretch of the imagination that they should feel at least somewhat relaxed as they head to their deaths along with the rest of the human race. Production designer Frank De Curtis and composer Francis Kulpers previously teamed with Ferrara on his superb 2007 film Go-Go Tales, where they managed to make a wretched strip joint seem not claustrophobic and solipsistic but expansive and oddly warm. Their work here mirrors that incongruously big smallness, once again sidestepping the obvious aesthetic and tonal choice to allow Ferrara to take new directions with generic material. Indeed, 4:44, like Go-Go Tales, emerges as a film of unexpected gentleness and humanity, though perhaps this is all relative when speaking of a director who got his start with softcore porn and grisly exploitation fare.

Many people, typically pandering politicians and pundits, often say that disasters bring out the best in people. This is of course, rarely true; the fleeting national unity triggered by 9/11, for instance, came at the expense of a wave of racism and xenophobia that in some circles endures a decade later. Yet Ferrara shows the world truly responding to a horrible event with grace and decorum. News reports describe everyone on a plane just hugging each other, while a friend of Cisco's mentions a nearby shop owner giving one last round to the regulars and then leaving his place unlocked so anyone could have a last drink in the last few days before the end. And when Ferrara swiftly moves into a sex scene, the speed with which he gets down and dirty is both narratively justified—what would you do with a loved one during your final days on the planet?—and aestheticized with tenderness.

As unorthodox as this all is, however, it would make for a poor full-length film with its general absence of drama. Gradually, sorrow, anger and all the other emotions one would expect of this kind of movie creep into the film, as if it traversed the five stages of grief in reverse. Both characters have their breakdowns, aimed at everyone and no one. An attempt by Cisco to speak to his daughter on Skype leads to a disastrous stab at reconciliation with his ex-wife that leads to an explosive argument between Cisco and his new lover that is about anything but Cisco's outreach. Yet even the moments of conflict are fleeting, and the fact that the arguments are uniformly over matters that seem so trivial in the face of the situation must surely be the point. What conflict could Ferrara invent, after all, that would truly stand up to the magnitude of the horror hovering over his characters?

Instead, he merely records how we might say our goodbyes to each other. The director uses technology with a bit of cheek, using iPads, laptops and HD-TVs to show figures blaming our end on our reckless expansion and our obsession with unchecked technological growth. Ferrara does not show Al Gore or the Dalai Lama on an endless loop as a form of lecturing endorsement, he does so to show the irony, even hypocrisy, of those warning for the need to dial back resource-draining comfort having to spread their message through the very things they protest. Such people must use current communication devices because that is the only way to reach people. Indeed, if Ferrara is making any kind of endorsement at all, it is for these new tools of interpersonal connection over mass stretches of space. The characters names even play into this: Cisco shares his name with a leading manufacturer of networking equipment, wile Skye's name is but one letter removed from the video chat software that allows for most of the film's conversations with the world outside the couple's flat.

The film's rawest, most beautiful moment, in fact, is the one that owes everything to modernity. Cisco orders Vietnamese food and copiously tips the poor boy still stuck doing this in mankind's final hours. But money means nothing anymore, and a look of baffled helplessness crosses his face as he continues to hand the kid $100 bills. Currency, the cornerstone of a civilization, is now worthless, and Cisco doesn't know what to do. Cautiously, the boy asks for a more meaningful tip, to use Cisco's internet connection to contact his family back in Vietnam. Cisco, relieved to offer something useful, acquiesces, and the young man has a calm face-to-face chat with loved ones he might not have seen in years. The camera, like Cisco and Skye, look on, not understanding the language but knowing full well what is being said. When he is done, the kid gently closes the laptop lid and kisses it with such reverence he practically dares anyone to dismiss the shot as pure product placement. Skye tearfully thanks the young man for sharing that with them, such a privileged, white thing to say, and yet so appropriate given what he allows the couple, and the audience, to eavesdrop upon.

4:44: The Last Day on Earth suggests we shall all die as we lived, which is both reassuring and vaguely depressing. Ferrara dangles out didactic reasons for our demise and personal drama as familiar window dressing to ease the audience into something far simpler yet more resonant. It finds human life void of any serious meaning, but where Melancholia took that same assessment as a reason to look forward to our destruction, 4:44 seeks to make peace with the insignificant meanings we all find in our lives. Taken with Go-Go Tales, which twists Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie into an optimistic comedy, the film shows a mellowed Ferrara, but one still able to extract basic truths from his raw setups. If this marks a turning point for the director, it will be interesting to see how many of those who previously found his work and ideas too savage will now find him too soft.

Monday, August 20

R.I.P. Tony Scott, 1944-2012

I was devastated last night to read of Tony Scott's suicide in Los Angeles. One of the most exciting filmmakers working in Hollywood today, Scott had been on a hot streak of exquisitely stylish genre movies for years, from 2004's ideologically dubious but aesthetically revolutionary Man on Fire through 2010's exercise in pure cinema, Unstoppable. His late career works resemble abstract paintings, dotted with splotches of color laid over each other with frenetic abandon and interpretative elusiveness. Using handcranked cameras, superimpositions and other techniques nearly as old as the cinema itself, Scott set down a modern blueprint for filmmaking, one that has been imitated but never equalled for its cumulative technical and tonal effect. The Michael Bays of the world have since thrown all their coverage into one hulking mass in an attempt to match Scott's kinetic fury, but they wind up only with incomprehensible messes where he somehow emerges with some of the only auteurist statements of Hollywood blockbuster cinema.

I can think of no other mainstream director so readily capable of reconstructing the nature of memory. His finest two works of the Aughts, Déjà Vu and Domino, are both fractured narratives driven by the skewed perceptions of their leads. In these movies, the overlapping, conflicting, obscuring nature of their recollections ultimately set to work on the present itself, changing the couse of events through sheer force of aesthetic will. So outlandish is Domino that one almost believes it can alter the fate of the real Domino Harvey, who died a few months before the film's release.

To attribute a director's movies to their own mental state is a gross misapplication of auteurist criticism, but part of what makes this death so shocking is the indefatigable optimism of Scott's work. In an age dominated by lazy cynicism and irony, Scott would upend whole narratives to get a happy ending. Most famously, he altered Quentin Tarantino's intended, dark denouement for True Romance to one of hard-won joy, offering as justification only, "I wanted these characters to live." An almost childlike defense, but one also containing the innocence and blunt purity of a child. It is also, frankly, an improvement upon Tarantino's script, turning his hip, nonlinear exercise into something fluid and, as my good blogging friend Andreas (his superb site here) put it on Twitter, "surprisingly lyrical." In retrospect, it might have been Scott's treatment of Tarantino's screenplay, more so than Pulp Fiction, that really showed the power of Tarantino's writing.

So often criticized for favoring style over substance (I do not have the energy to combat that ridiculous uncritical phrase right now), Scott's overwhelming style has run through my thoughts all day. I think of the horrific crashes that dot the giddy cheese of Days of Thunder. The almost lilting approach to the ultraviolence of True Romance, turning its climactic shootout or Patricia Arquette's savage fight for survival against James Gandolfini into fairy tales without losing the repulsiveness of the carnage. The way that subtitles are transformed from a focus-absorbing block of text at the bottom of a screen into an interactive part of the full visual picture in Man on Fire. The breaking of a silo car in Unstoppable, making the frame literally grainy as the contents of the train compartment billow out in a blizzard. The lighting of Keira Knightley's face when she fires a machine gun in the climax of Domino, the bursts of muzzle flash illuminating her anguished, furious face in a series of stuttering freeze frames. The dark tunnel where Travolta's character strands his hostage train car in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, inexplicably soaked in neon colors because why in God's name not. The time-bending car chase in Déjà Vu, almost prescient in anticipating a world of tablets and Google Glass with its multiple screens and images laid over each other in kinetic oblivion. Or, of course, the looming image of Paula Patton in the same film, haunting Denzel Washington's hero as much as Kim Novak torments Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.

These flourishes, and so many more, continue to fly through my mind at the same speed with which Scott threw them on the screen. I still have so many of Scott's films to watch, pre-9/11 works I must see for the first time or revisit and reassess. I had looked forward to that for some time, the chance to catch up with the director I found more exhilarating and, yes, substantive than nearly anyone else operating in the American mainstream. But now each ticked off box on the checklist will bring a tinge of regret, the awareness that I am exhausting my supply of "fresh" Tony Scott experiences, which can never be replenished. I can take some comfort, though, in the knowledge that those same films will surely offset some of that sadness with their inevitable triumphs, of happy endings so shameless that gross implausibility could not dampen their spirit. I can only hope they continue to have that effect.

Sunday, August 19

$upercapitalist (Simon Yin, 2012)

An anti-hedge fund screed set to a screen saver slideshow of Hong Kong, $upercapitalist clumsily delivers its ideas in stilted chunks that lack the punchy force of even an Oliver Stone, let alone a Sam Fuller. Though we are still dealing with the effects of the financial failure, this movie feels almost like a period piece, a "would-a, could-a, should-a" account of how everyone should not have been so greedy and the financial collapse might not have happened. Oh, to have had such great minds at the time. When the film tries to become a thriller, it is far too late. A shame, too; had it pursued its literal take on corporate crime from the start, it might have worked as a belabored metaphor but an entertaining romp. Instead, we get a sermon, though once again it is the working public who has to bear the brunt of the lesson while those in need of lecturing can go about their business.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Friday, August 17

Frantic: Questions - Simple Past

This is an excellent thriller with an intriguing story. I used the scene that the husband, Dr. Walker, asks several questions to the hotel clerk who works where he is staying at. He is working out during his break time. Dr. Walker's wife mysteriously disappeared while he was in the shower in the hotel room and he is looking for clues to solve the puzzle.

A. Before watching the segment, put the questions below in the correct order.

1. you/ did/ her/ see

_______________________ ?

2. did/ what/ say/ she

_______________________ ?

3. she / seem/ to know /him / did

_______________________ ?

4. did/ talk/ they

_______________________ ?

5. anything else/ did / notice / you

_______________________ ?

6. what / this man / did / look like

_______________________ ?

B. Now match the questions above with the answers the hotel clerk gave.

( ) She asked me to send up toilet articles.

( ) Yes, I spoke to her.

( ) I noticed she had wet hair.

( ) I didn't hear what they were saying.

( ) He had his arms around her.

( ) Tall, well-dressed, mustache, dark skin

C. Watch the movie segment now and check if your answers are correct.



Answer Key:

1. Did you see her?
2. What did she say?
3. Did she seem to know him?
4. Did they talk?
5. Did you notice anything else?
6. What did this man look like?

2, 1, 5, 4, 3, 6

Free Radicals: A Story of Experimental Film (Pip Chodorov, 2012)

The article of Free Radicals' title gives away its main strength and weakness: this is a story of experimental film, not the story. Filtered through the personal remembrances of a man who grew up around some of the greatest innovators of the cinematic avant-garde, Free Radicals often feels like the home movie that opens the documentary. Yet it also tries to be the story of experimental cinema, offering introductions of most major icons of the underground but leaving out numerous linchpins of the movement such as Hollis Frampton and Kenneth Anger. In fact, the whole sexual side of avant-garde film is elided entirely, omitting a significant motivation for the early underground and some of its most scandalous taboo-breaking. Still, I have a soft spot for the enthusiasm Chodorov has for the filmmakers he knows and loves, and helps demystify experimental film a bit by highlighting the curiosity rather than the heady intellectualism behind the underground. It's not a great introduction to its subject matter, but it'll do until a great one gets here, I suppose.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Tuesday, August 14

Sign 'O' the Times (Prince, 1987)

Like Purple Rain, the film of Sign 'O' the Times matches the album it supports. The former visualizes the artist in ascendancy, matching the jubilant, youthful bravado of songs like "Let's Go Crazy" and, of course, "Baby I'm a Star." Its narrative progression is basic but executed with sufficient weirdness to allow for idiosyncrasy and the odd bit of emotional resonance (the belabored journey of the title song within the film, to say nothing of the track itself). And like the album to which it is linked, Purple Rain is at once dated and outside time, a relic of outlandish '80s pop culture and a refinement of that culture into an enduring piece of art.

Sign 'O' the Times has almost nothing in common with Albert Magnoli's film, but then Sign 'O' the Times the album so scarcely resembles the music of Purple Rain. Like the double LP, Sign 'O' the Times begins with what appears to be a story, the theatrical staging of the movie analogous to the lyrical collection of headlines that is the album's opening title track. But then, as quickly as a story emerges, it dissipates, giving way to a pure rush of eclectic songwriting and performance that shows off the best pop star of his time at the top of his talent. From the overbearing stage design to the colliding moods of the 13 songs chosen for the final cut, Sign 'O' the Times matches the unwieldiness of Prince's cobbled-together album (these two haphazard vinyl discs themselves the result of whittling down three separate abortive projects, two of them multi-LP themselves, into one release). Yet it also matches the music's sense of unexpected cohesion and its uncontainable skill and force. There are better directed concert films, and ones that feel more definitive, but no other live document so immaculately captures the filth and fantasy of rock's id.

The stage onto which Prince rolls out his housequake serves as a receptacle for the 20th century's seedy underbelly. Its flashing neon signs, mock-up high rises and chain-link fences combine a 1930s/40s film noir aesthetic of urban underworlds with a contemporary layer of drug crime and porn. Bathe the whole thing in smoke that looks as if it rose carrying stink and disease from manhole covers and you get a set that looks as if it sprung from the nightmares of the buttoned-down, socially conservative forces who went apoplectic with sexual shock when Prince released "Darling Nikki." In his own review of the film, Robert Christgau brought up the sharp contrast of this cluttered, grimy setup to the minimalist, clean staging of the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. That movie deservedly has a reputation for being perhaps the greatest concert document of them all, but it is hard to argue with Christgau and co-writer Carola Dibbell that Prince's body-fluid-crusted grease pit feels more aligned with the spirit of rock than the arty chiaroscuro that frame David Bryne and co.

What links the two artists and movies, however, is the sense of sheer delight in the party atmosphere of the music. The Heads of 1984 and Prince of 1987 could even be traced back to mirror reflections of each other: Talking Heads the group of art-school students who made angular post-punk before growing outward into the unlikeliest of funk acts, Prince the disciple of Sly & the Family Stone and James Brown who grew into pop's most prominent and aloof auteur. And just as a whole assembly of musicians and dancers joined the original quartet of Talking Heads members to transform their austere anti-pop into a jam, so too does Prince, fresh from firing the Revolution, combat his own musical insularity with a gang of backup players, dancers, even a horn section to literally jazz up some arrangements.

But if Talking Heads were tight and well-rehearsed, Prince's lineup was tighter and downright regimented. They blister through sharp pop like "Sign 'O' the Times" and "Play in the Sunshine" while letting the groove stretch until just before the breaking point on jams like "Housequake" and "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night." Prince finds the balance between incessantly rehearsed perfectionism and spontaneity, both in the music and the dancing. As his backups (a blend of men and women headed by a forcefully exuberant little spitfire named Cat) hit their marks with honed precision, Prince sometimes dances in step with them and sometimes thrashes around in a way that trades his balletic grace for sheer hoofin' passion. The addition of horns, a precursor for Prince's later live shows and recording lineups, manages to show off his gift for (re-)arrangement that also offers a simultaneous look forward and backward, musically speaking. The hot jazz brought by the horn section meshes surprisingly well with the hyper-processed, fat-bottomed electronica of Sign's solipsistic construction, its aural hat tip to the roots of raunchy, racial, radical 20th century popular music also the first of Prince's many on-the-nose but welcome reminders that jazz is no longer "pop" only because the vague "they" say it's not.

Furthermore, the jazz instrumentation modifies Prince's status as a bandleader at a crucial point. Prince was coming off the acrimonious dissolution of the Revolution just as Wendy & Lisa were establishing a significant input into the group's creative process, marking a return of the one-mand-band aesthetic as heard on early gems like Dirty Mind. By employing so many new players that one wonders how anyone even has space to dance on stage, Prince could still exert authoritarian control while focusing those control issues onto just the music rather than the tedious behind-the-scenes politics that drives wedges between friends. Yet the most striking aspect of the concert is the amount of screen time Prince cedes to the others. This is true not only of established collaborators like Sheila E (who gets more than one chance to steal the spotlight) but of the band as a whole. Indeed, though the setlist contains "If I Was Your Girlfriend," which upends the love song along gender and romantic lines, the most transgressive and shocking moment of the whole film may come when Prince leaves to let his band have all the attention with a rendition of Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time."

Sign 'O' the Times (the album) has since become a convenient marker post for Prince fans to delineate his classic period from "the rest." (An overly restrictive assessment, one that ignores such gems as The Black Album, 3121 and pretty much the whole of his early '90s material, which has aged incredibly well. It also overlooks how much fluff Prince put out even in his golden period, but this is an argument for another article.) Nevertheless, the record certainly does feel like a snapshot of the artist at that stage of his career, and so too does this concert film. Prince's subsequent tour backing Lovesexy serves better as a curtain call for his '80s work, amping up both the porn and religious exaltation while sprinting through his vast catalogue as if making his own mixtape. But Sign 'O' the Times is a better view of both the massive ambition and the raw skill and visceral impact of Prince's music. It is also a better forecast: its almost exclusively new material looks forward to the New Power Generation, and the return of the funk anticipates the Purple One's attempt to reclaim some of his black audience in the '90s after swinging so fully into outright pop. Yet its base impulse, to acknowledge concerns of nuclear annihilation and then push those fears out of mind with carnal pleasure and spiritual salvation, represents the pinnacle of Prince's fundamental musical drive in the '80s. The film ends with a rousing version of "The Cross," but it could just as easily have concluded with the great "1999" and the desperate optimism of its line, "I don't wanna die/I'd rather dance my life away."

Monday, August 13

Matinee (Joe Dante, 1993)

Matinee feels like a skeleton key for Joe Dante's entire career. It combines satirical targets and stylistic influences typically given their own feature. Sociopolitically, the film spoofs the influence of militarism on American society and how that militarism informs our consumerism and entertainment. Aesthetically, it blends the Corman-esque, effects-driven monster movie with a metacinematic, giddy humor that invokes early Warner's cartoons. At times it can be unwieldy, but Matinee bursts with such jubilant energy that its escalation of self-destructive mania is almost necessary just to keep the whole frame from catching fire. But then, it sort of does that in the end anyway.

Set in Key West during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Matinee plays on fears of nuclear annihilation, with an emphasis on "play." Instead of focusing on the threat of destruction, Dante tracks the release of a B-movie perfectly timed to capitalize on national anxiety. When Lawrence Woosley (John Goodman) learns of the build-up of ships and tension in international waters just south of Key West, he does not cancel a planned screening of his radiation-themed horror movie. Rather, he can barely contain his glee,  fully aware that terror over a launch will only make people want to see his picture more. In his shrewd calculation is an unexpectedly poignant point about the cultural necessity for the horror genre.

This is especially true of the children wandering around Key West. Gene (Simon Fenton) and his younger brother Dennis (Jesse Soffer) spend their free time at the local cinema watching the latest monster movies, Gene teasing his sibling for being frightened only to get a few jabs of his own when a jolt catches him unawares. Their mother chastises the boys for only seeing horror movies and makes them go to a comedy, but the two barely settle into their seats before leaving, completely and utterly bored by something that doesn't put the fear of death in them.

Subtly, Dante links this need for thrills and chills to the state of the world around the children. At school, Gene and his friends must conduct nuclear drills no less absurd than anything shown in the deliciously clichéd, lo-fi B-movie that gets shown later. One girl even rebels against this futility, screaming like Cassandra that they will all die anyway if the bomb hits. The kids were born into a world under the shadow of nuclear holocaust, and it would seem that the only way for them to feel a thrill is to experience some form of the apocalypse promised to them. They do not merely go to such movies to be entertained but to feel.

This is a vicious satirical barb, but because the factors that contributed to this pervasive social conditioning are invisible, Dante does not use its visible victims as scapegoats. One of the director's great strengths as a satirist is his lack of judgment for the parties that get caught up in the ideas he skewers, and Matinee may show off Dante's fondest treatment of those at the mercy of a social mindset outside their control. Given Dante's own affinity for schlocky horror and special effects that are both impressive and relatively third-rate, the care with which he treats an audience's love of such things is flecked with autobiography and warm nostalgia*.

Even the character of Woosley, openly based on gimmick-loving director William Castle but perhaps representative of some aspect of Dante himself, does not come under heavy fire. Woosley's elaborate theatrics, having some of his stock actors pose as outraged Christians protest his own movie to generate publicity, show the filmmaker exploiting some of the ridiculous reactions to entertainment. And as much as he uses his various tricks and stunts to become famous, he does have a genuine desire to please a crowd. That's not to say that Dante does not have fun with him, though: he portrays Woosley as a condescending man, demeaning to the same people he, deep down, loves. He refers to his prospective audience as rubes, but Dante slyly undermines Woosley's view of the locals at every turn. Gene ingratiates himself with the director when catches out the fake controversy by recognizing the actors from Woosley's movies. And the controversy itself only works because the townspeople react with calm maturity to the hysterical ravings of these dingbat moral shouters, telling the ostensible fundamentalists that they can make up their own minds about the movie's worth.

The first half of Matinee can be a bit loose, splitting its attention between Woosley's journey to Key West and his setup of the premiere and the local kids' excitement for this coming attraction. Everything smashes together fantastically, however, when Dante gets down to the extended climax in the theater. All the kids, their lives and characteristics and relationships established, settle in for Mant!, Woosley's hilarious thriller about an irradiated man's formic transformation, and all hell breaks loose in glorious fashion. Mant! itself is one of the best parodies of Cold War sci-fi ever made, chiefly because of the love Dante puts into the spoof. The dialogue, with its fits of on-the-nose moralism and the occasional stab at clumsy wit, could almost pass for the real thing, while the cheap but inventive effects demonstrate the best of what rapidly produced, fatuously relevant B-movies of the era could achieve.

But the best is saved for what happens around the movie. Woosley's technical gimmickry is so extreme he does not even bother with 3-D; that is simply too ordinary for what he wants. Instead, he overhauls the entire theater into an interactive spectacle that gives the crowd the chaos and terror they so desperately crave. Seats shake violently and the sound overwhelms with the din of Armageddon; a guy in a Mant costume roams among the kiddies, breaking the fourth wall and guaranteeing no one under the age of 12 will sleep for a week; and, finally, the whole shebang ends with an extradiegetic deconstruction that seems to burn away the screen to lay nakedly bare the underlying fear behind the picture. It is simultaneously the film's colossal punchline and its most brutal reminder that the silliest of entertainment can rest on the most serious of foundations. All around this spectacle, the kids have their own adventure, a corollary exercise in mock-nuclear fantasy that reaches its mad zenith when Gene and the aforementioned, combative girl (Lisa Jakub) find themselves trapped in the theater manager's top-of-the-line (yet, naturally, fraudulent and ineffective) bomb shelter as the man begs to get in, sure that a few coincidental lapses of mass communication mean the bombs must already be falling.

The idea that we will know the end has come when the TV finally goes dark is perhaps the deftest satirical jab of them all. Matinee's first images are those of the nuclear bomb test footage from Nevada, those old declassified reels that gave people a glimpse of what the end of days might resemble. The government released such tapes as propagandic education, emphasizing atomic power but also turning into some kind of reassurance. Is it any wonder that films like Mant! should be so popular? Even the dark truths they perversely embody are played as entertainment. The best throwaway insight of the film comes when President Kennedy interrupts a TV movie to announce the Cuban Missile Crisis. Young Dennis, perplexed, calls his mom into the room, and even she has a quizzical look on her face. That's when it hit me: this is the first time television has been used to communicate a major crisis. Kennedy's was the first election run on television, and his administration also bore witness to the first great threat to the nation beamed live into the average home. Everyone looks somewhat confused by the president appearing with such grave news because there is no precedent for it. Television existed only to this point as an idiot box, projecting only images of mass consumption. Because of that, no one now knows how to react to something serious, a problem only exacerbated sense by the mingling of news with entertainment until everything resembles more the government-approved footage of nuclear tests than the sobering intrusion of unfettered reality. Matinee may be a delight for its cheeky humor and ingeniously cartoonish action, but insights such as these are as piercing as have ever been made about the way pop culture critiques and props up the horrors of reality.

*In an unconnected but vital scene, Woosley illustrates for Gene complete with a sudden use of animation to craft a hypothetical cave painting out of graffiti, the image of a wooly mammoth morphing from a realistic interpretation into a sinister, threatening beast. It is the transformation of a caveman's literal view of something and his internal, emotional visualization of the same object, and one of the most evocative summaries of the power of the image that has ever made it to the screen.

Friday, August 10

The Untouchables: Prepositions

This classic is full of very interesting scenes to practice grammar. The director, Brian de Palma, is one of my favorite movie makers, because the way he uses the camera provides us, teachers, with plenty of material for our classes. This scene, for example, shows the same apartment several times and there is little language used, so it is a must for beginners. It is always very difficult to find movie scenes for beginners, so this one is precious. I used it to practice house and decoration vocabulary and prepositions as well.

Watch the movie segment for the first time and decide in which room of the apartment the objects below are located. Write the words below next to the object in exercise A.



1. white curtains:

2. transparent curtains:

3. a white oven:

4. a mirror:

5. a sink:

6. a picture:

7. a large table:

8. some jars:

9. a dishtowel:

Answer key: 1.B, 2. K/D, 3. K, 4 . B, 5. B, 6. D/C, 7. D, 8. D, 9. K

B. Watch the segment again and then complete the blanks with one of these prepositions:


1. He keeps a bottle of whiskey ______ the white oven.

2. The mirror is ___________ the bathroom wall.

3. The mirror is ______ the sink.

4. There are some cookie jars ________ the dining room shelf.

5. There are some stairs _________ the kitchen door.

6. There is a dishtowel hanging _____ the kitchen wall.

7. The intruder is looking ________ the window glass.

8. The owner of the house lives _________ the first floor. He lives _______ Racine Avenue. His apartment is __________ 1634 Racine Avenue, Chicago.

9. There is a table and chairs _________ the dining room.

10. The men see each other _________ the corridor.

1. in, 2. on, 3. over, 4. on, 5. behind, 6. on, 7. through, 8. on / on / at, 9. in the middle of / in, 10. in