Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Conversations #29: Alexander Payne

In our latest installment of The Conversations, Jason Bellamy and I discuss the films of Alexander Payne, from his debut Citizen Ruth to his acclaimed, recently released The Descendants. We talk about Payne's satirical targets, his balance of comedy and drama, and the performances in his work. And of course we focus on what seems to be the big critical question regarding Payne: the debate over whether or not he's condescending towards the types of characters who frequently appear in his films.

Join us at The House Next Door for the full conversation, and be sure to leave a comment with your own thoughts.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Monday, December 26, 2011

Du côté d'Orouët

Jacques Rozier is one of the unfortunately forgotten filmmakers of the French New Wave. He finished his debut film, the excellent Adieu Philippine, only with difficulty and some monetary help from his friend Jean-Luc Godard, and afterwards he wouldn't make another feature for over 10 years. His second feature, Du côté d'Orouët, is, like his debut, a charming and moving depiction of young people on vacation. Ambling and nearly plotless, the film meanders through two and a half hours of beachside antics as three friends — Caroline (Caroline Cartier), Joëlle (Danièle Croisy) and Kareen (Françoise Guégan) — take their September vacation in a seaside cabin owned by Caroline's family. It's a relaxed and simple film, and also a really beautiful one, progressing slowly and organically from carefree goofing around to the rich and subtle emotional complexity that begins to develop later in the film. Rozier is paying tribute to the joys of youth, the pleasures of a month-long escape from the day-to-day mundane slog of work and normal life, but as in Adieu Philippine there's a subtle undercurrent of melancholy that, as the film goes along, is increasingly laid bare beneath the surface giggling and good times.

This somewhat more serious subtext is first hinted at early in the film, soon after the three girls first arrive at their summer villa. They've been laughing and goofing around nonstop throughout the whole trip, even laughing breathlessly all through a steep climb up a sand dune, lugging their suitcases step by laborious step up its slippery slope. Then they arrive at the house, throwing open its shutters to let in the slightly chilly September sea breeze, and Caroline and Joëlle go running off to look at the rooms upstairs. Kareen walks by herself into a side room, suddenly quiet and introspective: she was childhood friends with Caroline, and the two girls used to spend summers here when they were very young. This is the first time she's been back since then, and a flood of memories come pouring in, bringing her back to her girlhood. Suddenly, Rozier cuts in for a series of probing closeups in which Kareen's face fills the screen, and she looks into the camera and whispers her thoughts about being suddenly overcome by nostalgia, recognizing all these little details from her childhood vacations. It is the only moment in the film when Rozier breaks the fourth wall like this, and the only moment when he so directly and intimately reveals the inner thoughts of these young women. The effect is all the more striking for its status as a solitary stylistic break in the film's aesthetic, a lone moment in which the intensity of emotion necessitates total unguarded honesty and confession. Later, the women will keep their emotions more veiled as they throw themselves into a month of fun and laughter and silliness.

They're joined on this vacation by Joëlle's boss Gilbert (Bernard Menez), who is obviously attracted to Joëlle and surprises them by showing up in the town where they're staying, then tagging along and eventually pitching his tent right in their garden. His presence provides the first hint of fracture within the group, as Joëlle, who's all too aware of his interest in her, doesn't want this tension on her vacation, while the other two girls just delight in tormenting and mocking Gilbert, who at first seems slightly stiff and serious around the giggly girls. Gilbert provides the comic relief initially, as the butt of their jokes — they wake him up one morning by playing cacophonous music on a trumpet and drums right outside his tent, then entangle him in fishing nets — but he becomes a more poignant character later in the film. He hoped to finally form a relationship with Joëlle on this vacation, but instead the girls treat him like a servant, having him fetch things for him while they sunbathe, or leaving the dishes for him to wash while they run off to the beach.

In one sequence towards the end of the film, Gilbert and the girls return from a fishing trip with a big fish, which he prepares for an elaborate meal. Rozier, whose sense of pacing is always unhurried, spends several long minutes with Gilbert as he cooks, swigging wine and looking a little tipsy when Rozier captures him in closeups. He is putting a lot of effort into the meal, juggling large pots on a crowded stove with only two burners, carefully slicing up the fish, preparing vegetables and sauce to go with it. After all this preparation, the meal is received with lackluster indifference, as Caroline and Joëlle, exhausted from a long day of fishing, pick feebly at the food before falling asleep right at the table. Joëlle, additionally, is withdrawn and upset because Kareen has earned the attentions of the sailboat-owning Patrick (Patrick Verde), who Joëlle herself had wanted. Kareen's absence from the table, out on a date with Patrick that's gone way later than they'd expected, hangs over their uncomfortable silence, and at times Joëlle seems on the verge of tears while Gilbert gamely tries to lighten the mood and encourage the girls to eat. Instead, they sleep and the next morning Joëlle, who seems to realize how desperately Gilbert wants her to like him, can barely meet his gaze.

The film acquires a great deal of poignancy by its end, though the shift is mood is subtle and gradual, and doesn't really come until the film is nearly over. Earlier, it's all charming days in the sun, aimless days with nothing to do but chat, argue over what to eat, go on little trips that never lead anywhere. The girls have fun dressing up at home, pretending like they're going to go to a nearby casino they've seen signs for, dancing goofily in wooden clogs. When Gilbert finally does take them to the casino, dressed in a tuxedo and fussing with his bowtie, the casino turns out to be a converted and rather ramshackle farmhouse located in a muddy field. A sailboat expedition with Patrick is more successful, and Rozier spends a great deal of time watching as Caroline and Joëlle hang on through the waves, leaning off the boat to keep it from tipping, laughing and screaming the whole time, while the camera rocks and shakes with the waves.

The film's style is loose and verité, unobtrusive but nonetheless striking. Rozier shot in ragged, grainy color, in the Academy ratio, which gives the film the look of home video vacation footage. Its looseness is appealing, though, and there's an offhanded beauty to many of Rozier's shots. His images, in their unforced beauty, capture the sense of a late-season beachside resort where the vacation traffic is slowing down, most people starting to leave for home just as the girls arrive. It's windy, maybe a little chilly, and the beaches are usually all but empty except for the three girls and a few other stragglers. The season is integral to the film's sadness, a part of the sensation that things are winding down, that this isn't quite the peak, and by the end of the film, as all the local businesses are being shuttered for the winter and the boardwalk is even more desolate than ever, the melancholy becomes almost overwhelming.

This sadness is especially apparent in the character of Joëlle. Rozier never gives her the moment of unguarded confession that he gives to Kareen early in the film, but her sadness slowly shows itself anyway. At one point, after the group has gone horseback-riding and returned home for dinner, Joëlle silently observes as Kareen and Patrick whisper conspiratorially across the table from her, quietly making plans for the next day. Rozier shoots across the table, over the shoulders of Kareen and Patrick, framing Joëlle's face between them as her sad eyes dart back and forth between them. Gilbert praises Kareen's riding skills, and Patrick agrees, saying that she's so light that she almost flies. It's an offhanded remark but Rozier's emphasis on Joëlle captures how much it must sting her; throughout the film, she been very self-conscious about weight and dieting, and the compliment to Kareen feels like a slap to her. All of this plays out very subtly, without anything overt being said. It's simply Rozier's acute concentration on Joëlle's face, his attention to her unspoken emotional state, that makes this little moment and others like it hit so hard.

The film's final half hour uses the end of the summer holiday as a metaphor for the other endings and missed opportunities that underscore this elegiac conclusion. First Gilbert leaves, sick of being treated like "an imbecile," and then Kareen leaves as well, having quickly grown tired of her brief fling with Patrick. Only Caroline and Joëlle remain at the end, sulking through the cold final days of vacation, closing up the house and returning for home and work in a downcast mood. These scenes are gray and overcast; winter is coming, chasing them away from the beach, away from the freedom and irresponsibility of summer. There's a sense of loss in the film's final act that's hard to pin down. Is it that these women are on the verge of having to grow up for good, to leave behind the girlish fun that Kareen remembers from her childhood and which they're recreating here? Is it the sense that soon they'll get married and settle down? Or is it simply that now, as another girl says at the very end of the film, they have to wait 11 months for their next taste of this freedom and adventure, as now they return to the work and routine of the rest of the year? Whatever the case, it's an affecting coda, as the haunted-looking Joëlle watches Gilbert, who has now given up on her, flirt with another girl, talking about vacation plans for next year.

Du côté d'Orouët is a sweet and ultimately sad movie that builds a great deal of emotional richness from what initially seems rather simple. The sadness in the film is not as explicit or as specifically defined as Rozier's first film, Adieu Philippine (in which a vacationing young man was poised on the brink of military service in the Algerian War) but there's nevertheless a sense that Rozier sees the summer holiday as an opportunity to examine, simultaneously, the joys and the anxieties of youth. The vacation is a metaphor for youth itself: sunny, fun, consequence-free, but always finite, always with an end point after which the vacationers will have to return to the real world, to work and responsibility and seriousness. That constant awareness of the end, which at first seems so distant and soon comes to loom very close indeed, is what makes the film so poignant, so bittersweet, so joyous and so melancholy.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Je, tu, il, elle

Chantal Akerman's first feature-length film is a striking, minimalist work about love, loneliness, desire and gender. Actually, "minimalist" doesn't begin to do justice to the film's narcoleptic pacing and sparseness of action. The film opens with a young woman played by Akerman herself (named as Julie only in the post-film credits) alone in her room. In a series of long, mostly static shots, this woman sits on the floor in a corner, eats sugar from a paper bag, moves her furniture around, writes letters, strips naked and walks around, looking out the window or examining her body in a mirror. The camera occasionally tracks to follow her, when she's actually moving, but more often the camera sits as patiently still as the protagonist herself, locked into stasis and repetition. It gradually becomes apparent that she's recovering from a breakup, missing her lover and writing letters that she'll never mail.

This portion of the film, which last around a half hour, is a powerful and suffocating depiction of loneliness and depression. Akerman perfectly captures the sense of being locked into stasis, alternately numbed and pained, unable to break free of a series of repetitive, minimal tasks. She writes the same letter over and over again, crossing out most of it and then starting again, periodically laying all the pages out on the floor in front of her. She unthinkingly spoons sugar into her mouth as her only sustenance, then spills it on the floor and methodically spoons it back into the bag. The black-and-white photography is high contrast and alternates between crisply defined daytime sequences and shadowy scenes where Julie/Akerman is just a silhouette, her face hidden by her long dark hair. The pacing of this sequence is slow and patience-testing; it is quite deliberately empty of incident, and as a consequence the smallest movements, the smallest shifts in the familiar patterns of nothingness, have great impact. These scenes are accompanied by a voiceover in which the protagonist describes her time alone in her room. Tellingly, the action onscreen often lags behind the narration by a good amount of time, as though the narrator is anticipating what she'll do next — and it then takes a supreme act of willpower to actually go through with these tiny, insignificant actions. This disconnect between narration and visuals thus enhances the impression of a woman struggling to force herself into action, to break free of this self-imposed black hole.

In the second segment of the film, Julie abruptly decides to leave the apartment, flagging down a passing truck on the highway and hitching a ride with the driver (Niels Arestrup). This sequence is initially as static and tranquil as the scenes in the apartment, as though the woman has still not fully emerged from her exile into the world. But soon the driver asks Julie to give him a handjob, and after this extended and strangely compelling scene — in which Akerman films the man's profile while he dispassionately narrates the experience from start to climax — the driver becomes more talkative. In an intense and rambling monologue, he talks about his wife, his children, his jobs, his brother and his cousin who are both more successful than he, his thoughts while driving late at night on his cross-country truck runs. It's a great piece of writing, all the more startling because it's the first extended verbal sequence in the entire film, coming well after the halfway mark. Throughout this sequence, Akerman holds a static shot on the driver, smoking a cigarette and occasionally looking away from the road, bathed in the grainy, shadowy quality of the image, which is packed with dancing, shimmering film artifacts that counteract the static shot.

The subtext of the driver's monologue is male discontentment and the impersonal nature of sexuality. The driver has been married a long time and long ago began to see sex with his wife as an unexciting duty; he is more excited, he says, by random hook-ups with hitchhikers in his truck, and also by the simple experience of driving, alone, at night, getting an erection for no reason as his truck drifts through the night and his mind wanders. His descriptions of his sexuality are all tangled up with his boredom with his marriage, his ambivalent thoughts about his kids, his jealousy of other men who have gotten better arrangements for themselves, and his feelings of duty as a man with a family. It's a remarkable speech, and the dysfunctional view of sex presented here, in which sex is simply a needed release found outside of any emotional bond, sets up a contrast against the much different view of sexuality found in the film's final act.

Julie takes her leave of the truck driver shortly after this scene, arriving at the apartment of the lover (Claire Wauthion) who she had missed so profoundly during the film's first half hour. Julie's girlfriend tells her immediately that she doesn't want her staying the night, and the subsequent scenes are full of awkward, hesitant interaction: they embrace, the girlfriend makes Julie a sandwich and serves her some wine, and they stare at one another while Julie chomps on the sandwich. Then Julie reaches across and unbuttons the other woman's dress, while her girlfriend smiles and shakes her head, not as though saying "no" but with a faint air of admonishment and disbelief that they're going to go through this again. Akerman then cuts to the two women naked in bed, caressing and kissing one another, rubbing their bodies together and rolling around so that sometimes one is on top, sometimes the other.

Sensuous and sensual, passionate and joyful, tender and desperate, it's a forceful answer to the mechanized orgasms of the truck driver, a vision of a much more beautiful kind of sex built on real emotions. Those emotions can sometimes hurt and wound those who give themselves up to them, as they did to Julie during the film's opening, but that's just because the stakes are so high, and the rewards so transcendent. This lovingly filmed and lengthy sex scene can be read as a feminist/lesbian rejection of heterosexuality and marriage, but it can also be read as simply an ode to the beauty of real loving sex, no matter who's involved, as contrasted against sex as duty and sex as simple biological imperative. All of the film's patient minimalism was building towards this sequence, and when it's finally over, the next morning, Julie simply gathers her clothes and sneaks out, leaving the other woman sleeping peacefully, and the film ends. Je, tu, il, elle is a simple film in many ways, as symbolic and schematic as its title suggests. But for such a small, quiet film, it has a lot to say in its silences and its stark, still images.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Third Man

Harry Lime. Harry Lime. Harry Lime. The name is spoken so frequently in Carol Reed's The Third Man that it becomes a mantra, a way of signifying the continuing importance of a man whose absence defines the film and drives its plot. The war is over, and as the pseudo-documentary introduction describes it, the city of Vienna is in turmoil, bombed-out and divided, split into sectors by the victorious Allied powers (just getting ready for the colder war to follow) and rife with corruption and black market dealings. The pulp fiction writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in the city at the behest of his friend Harry, who has offered him a job, but virtually the first thing that Holly learns when he arrives in Vienna is that Harry is dead, the victim of a strangely suspicious traffic accident. Harry's left behind Anna (Alida Valli), the beautiful girl who loves him, plus a string of business associates who seem very shady and evasive, and a dogged police inspector (Trevor Howard) whose interest in Harry's illegal activities hasn't quite faded now that the man himself is beyond his jurisdiction.

So Holly — who Anna instinctively and repeatedly calls Harry, evidence of Harry's ubiquity and also a suggestion that she's already beginning to think of this newcomer as a possible replacement — stumbles into a shadowy, foggy Vienna where sinister dealings are obviously happening down every dark alley and in every night club. The people Holly meets, his friend Harry's former associates, like the solicitous "baron" Kurtz (Ernst Deutsch), radiate menace and sinister intentions, drawling out seemingly banal dialogue that barely disguises the unspoken threats and insinuations hiding just behind their friendly surfaces. It's instantly obvious that something strange surrounds Harry's mysterious death, something much more sinister than the traffic accident that everyone insists it was, and Holly becomes particularly obsessed with discovering the identity of an unknown "third man" who carried his friend's body away from the accident along with the baron and his fellow conspirator Popescu (Siegfried Breuer).

Interestingly, this mystery, which gives the film its title, ultimately seems incidental to what's really going on here, and isn't even resolved explicitly within the film. The film's first half is driven by mystery and investigation, but the specifics of this mystery don't seem nearly as important as the general sense of tension and intrigue generated by Holly's attempts to discover the truth. The script, adapted by Graham Greene from his own novel, crackles with suggestive, potent dialogue, particularly in the exchanges between the mourning Anna and Holly, who is clearly falling in love with his dead friend's girlfriend even as he probes deeper and deeper into the sordid truth about Harry Lime. Although Harry himself is the central, unseen presence for much of the movie, Anna and Holly (with his strange name so resonant with Harry's) get most of the screen time, dealing with Harry's absence and trying to make sense of life now that he's gone. In one great scene, a tearful Anna asks Holly to tell her things about Harry when he was younger, and Holly tells a series of incomplete, faltering stories that amount to moments and glimpses rather than full scenes in themselves. It seems even when he was alive, Harry was a somewhat enigmatic figure, difficult to understand or describe. (Much like the "third man," who is described by the one person who saw him as entirely normal and non-descript.)

Of course, in the movie's final third it turns out that everything is not as Holly and Anna had thought, and after being an unseen presence/absence for over an hour, Harry Lime himself finally makes his first appearance, incarnated in the smug smirk and cheery eyes of Orson Welles. Harry's first appearance is iconic and unforgettable, first as a shadow in the night, a pair of shoes standing in the shade of a doorway, the rest of his body vanishing into the surrounding shadows. Then a light comes on and illuminates his face, and there's that playful smile, those twinkling eyes, devilish and rakish, a sinister face hovering in the darkness. Having an actor as powerful and iconic as Welles play Harry, and holding back his first appearance for so long, really intensifies the effect. The audience is as stunned as Holly is, in a way, because just as Holly is shocked to find his friend alive, the audience, who might have suspected as much, is simply shocked by the impact of Welles' arrival and the oversized charm that he brings to Harry.

That's even truer in the subsequent scene, later in the film, where Harry finally gets his first lines — and is revealed not as the loving boyfriend idealized by Anna or the fun, steadfast friend described by Holly, but an amoral sociopath who willingly snuffs out lives just to make some money. Harry feels no guilt that the black market medication he was selling killed many and drove others mad. As he and Holly ride a ferris wheel, he looks down and speaks as though he's a god, as though other people are simply abstract dots to him, their lives and deaths of no import to his schemes. Harry is a real product of the war, a lowlife echo of the Nazi indifference to life and the god-like delusions that drive some men to believe their desires are more important than the very lives of others. Harry is a demon, a charming demon, and the sinister vibe of his friends is echoed in his own demeanor. His first conversation with Holly is infused with just-barely-unspoken threats and telling looks. He maintains a casual air as he opens the ferris wheel's door and tells his good friend that he has a gun, that he could eliminate him if he wanted to. And then, when Holly tells Harry that the police have dug up the latter's grave and found the man buried inside it — essentially telling Harry that his problems wouldn't end by getting rid of Holly — Harry's demeanor changes entirely, and he once again becomes solicitous and charming, the menace in his voice replaced by syrupy good cheer and friendly offers. He's good old Harry again, the merry prankster Holly had earlier described in those fragmentary stories from the good old days.

The film climaxes with a crawl through the sewers, in which the witty dialogue and insinuations are replaced by a nearly dialogue-free chase sequence in which Harry is pursued by an army of police with dogs and flashlights, with Holly accompanying them. The sewer sequence is a marvel of noir style, all striking angles and shadows, occasionally pierced by the blinding white light of the pursuers. Harry's face, now not so dashingly confident, is striped by shadows in the dark of the sewer, his eyes wide with fear as he runs this way and that, hemmed in and cut off everywhere, attempting with mounting desperation to find a way out. His earlier smirk is replaced by a grimace of terror. In the sequence's most unforgettable image, a wounded, crawling Harry reaches for a sewer grating, and Reed cuts away to the street above, where Harry's fingers stick up through the grate, waving around like stalks of grass in the wind, which whistles by on the soundtrack, the eerie only noise. It's a haunting ending for a legend who was disappointingly revealed as just another corrupted man, a sad echo of the war's evils.

Monday, December 12, 2011


Munich is a film of exceptional moral ambiguity and inquiry from a director often known for his tendency to tie his films' morals up in neat little bows at the end. Steven Spielberg resists, for the most part, that temptation here, and the result is one of his best films and certainly one of the best of his more self-consciously "serious" films. The film concerns the aftermath of the 1972 terrorist attacks on Israeli athletes at the Olympics in Munich. Spielberg's film is based on a book by George Jonas, about the Israeli government's secret response to this act of terrorism. A group of operatives are gathered and sent off with the names of 11 Arab men who had planned and been involved with the Black September terrorism in various ways. Led by a young and inexperienced low-level Mossad operative named Avner (Eric Bana), this secret group moves around Europe targeting and killing these terrorists.

It is a film about revenge and the cyclic nature of violence, but it is also a compelling, taut, and tightly constructed thriller, a visceral espionage movie in which each kill is meticulously tracked from the planning stage through to the often troubled and frenzied execution of the plan. Spielberg is a master director of action, and part of the reason that Munich is so successful is that there isn't a schizophrenic disconnect between Spielberg the Hollywood crowd-pleaser and Spielberg the "serious" moralist, as there is in so many of Spielberg's other late films. Instead, the action is the content here, and Spielberg uses the crisply executed action scenes to build the moral foundation of the film. It's a seamless and organic process that makes Munich work on multiple levels, as a straightforward historical thriller and as a moral consideration of guilt, revenge, and political assassination.

One of the best scenes in this respect is the sequence where Avner and his team plot to kill one of their targets using a bomb in a telephone. They plant the bomb, then wait outside the man's apartment one morning, watching his wife and child leave, then call from a pay phone, waiting for the target to pick up so they can set off the explosive. The plan goes wrong because a moving truck pulls in front of the bombers' car, blocking their view of the apartment, so that they don't see when the car carrying the target's daughter pulls up again so she can go back inside to fetch something she forgot. The Israelis go forward with their plan, calling the apartment, one of them poised with the detonator, but when it's the little girl that picks up, not the father they intend to kill, they realize their mistake. Spielberg deliberately draws out the tension here, cutting back and forth from inside the apartment, where the girl strolls around trying to find what she'd left behind, to outside where the commandos prepare to carry out their kill. It's harrowing: each number dialed on the pay phone outside gets its own shot, interspersed with images of the girl, and after she picks up, as two of the commandos scramble to warn off the man with the detonator, it's not at all obvious whether they'll be in time or not. It's an especially potent use of Spielberg's instincts for Hollywood-style suspense: the moving truck that blocks the commandos' view is certainly a Hollywood contrivance, and the emphasis on the cute little girl who may soon be blown up is also deliberate heartstring-tugging, as is the earlier moment where one of the commandos, in the apartment posing as a journalist, sees her play the piano and smile at him.

Spielberg's use of such devices isn't just empty manipulation, though. Scenes like this one — and the later scene where a honeymooning couple are injured in the overly powerful blast that kills another target — drive home just how delicate such missions of vengeance are, just how easily the ethos of eye-for-an-eye can lead one astray. It's not only the possibility of unintended collateral damage: this mission of murder begins to weigh on most of the commandos, with the possible exception of Steve (Daniel Craig), who says that "only Jewish blood matters" and as a result doesn't feel any remorse at extinguishing the lives of those who threaten his people. Steve's Zionism and nationalism give him an unshakable faith in the rightness of this mission that makes him eerily parallel those on the other side who are also so convinced in the essential rightness of their cause, who also believe that murder is justifiable in pursuit of their objectives. Not incidentally, many of the Arab terrorists depicted in the film also see their mission as one of revenge for Jewish attacks on their people.

Indeed, Spielberg's parallels between the Arab terrorists and the Israeli commandos hunting and killing them excited much outrage from Jewish and Israeli groups, upset by the film's conflation of terrorism with counter-terrorism. But that's missing the point. Spielberg's film is about not forgetting the value of a human life, and most importantly it's about not falling for the delusion that violence can beget peace. Several times in the film, the characters count up the record of Palestinian terrorist attacks and Israeli reprisals, as though keeping a tally on some morbid scorecard. The more men they kill, the more they question their actions, as they see that even while they're in Europe killing terrorists, others immediately take the place of those they kill, and high-profile attacks are still carried out, killing Israelis and other Westerners all over the world. Seeing no tangible result of their actions, no benefit, they begin to wonder if all the bloodshed is worth it, or if they're simply sacrificing the moral high ground, the goodness and decency that allows them to live with themselves.

In one key scene, the Israeli commandos are unexpectedly surprised at a safehouse by a team of PLO soldiers, because the double-dealing French spy Louis (Mathieu Amalric), who set up the location, had, accidentally or on purpose, double-booked it. The subsequent standoff and fragile peace between the two groups (with the Israelis pretending to belong to various European terrorist cells) is another of those Hollywood contrivances that Spielberg turns into a productive opportunity for moral inquiry. (Though the scene where Steve and a PLO operative stage a symbolic battle between East and West on a radio dial is a rare goofy, heavy-handed misstep.) Avner has a late-night conversation with his opposite number, Ali (Omar Metwally), in which Ali expresses his sincere belief that soon Israel will fall, and that the whole world will have to go along with the creation of a Palestinian state. Avner looks at him uncomprehendingly, unable to grasp that this man actually believes that this will happen, actually thinks that terrorist attacks and bombings will somehow convince the world of the rightness of the Palestinian cause. Ali thinks that violence will wake people up, will make them see what's going on, but Avner is starting to understand something very different: that violence only causes more violence and entrenches people even deeper into their established ideologies, making them less, not more, open to compromise or change. What this conversation also yields is a reminder that the Palestinians really do want a home, that whatever else this fight might be about, the primary stakes are the right to a feeling of rootedness and belonging. Avner can't deny Ali the right to want that feeling, for himself and his descendents, and the conversation ends, typically, with nothing resolved, with the two sides remaining separated from one another by a seemingly irreconcilable conflict in ideas and desires.

At times, Spielberg is almost aggressively even-handed. Early on, when the news mistakenly reports at first that all the Munich terrorists were killed but all the Israeli hostages survived, Spielberg shows relieved Jewish families and sobbing Arab families. When the news changes and the reporters have to correct themselves and announce that the hostages have also been killed, then everyone on both sides is crying, mourning their dead. The effect is not, I don't think, to equate terrorists and their victims, but to suggest that there are families and human connections on both sides, even for those who perpetrate terrorist acts. This is a recurring theme in the film, the importance of family and home, because the justification for all the violence and war and terrorism and reprisal on both sides is always that everyone involved is fighting for their families, for the right to a homeland. Avner's wife and daughter appear at several key points in the film, as reminders of his humanity and his home, but terrorists like Ali are also fighting for what they believe they need to do for their families. It's telling, too, that at the end of the film Avner's Mossad contact refuses to "break bread" with him; governments and their political agendas are largely disconnected from such domestic concerns, though they also perpetrate their acts in the names of their citizens and their families. That's why the family-focused Louis and his father (Michael Lonsdale), who run a global espionage, information-dealing network, refuse to deal with governments, with their abstract motivations and distance from the passions that drive individual fighters.

What's great about Munich is that, atypically for Spielberg, all of these moral questions and entanglements are dealt with but there's no definitive resolution for the contradictions and doubts that dog the Israeli commandos during their mission. The film simply confronts, head on, the cycle of violence that marks the entire history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In one scene, which epitomizes the film, Avner comes face to face with one of his targets, having a pleasant chat on adjoining balconies at a hotel, while in the background a passionate couple kiss and grope one another on a third balcony. Avner is just waiting for this man to go to bed so he can give the signal to blow him up, and he knows that the man is a terrorist responsible for many horrendous acts, but for a few moments he's confronted with both the humanity of his target and the potential innocents who could get caught up in this attempt at retribution. Spielberg even layers Avner together with the target and the innocent couple within a single shot, so that the link between Avner's signal and the murderous consequences will be absolutely clear. Vengeance, the film suggests, is never a simple thing, but rather part of a network of causes and effects that tie together family, politics, religion, history, and more, making questions of right and wrong far more complicated than mere binary values. Never before has Spielberg seemed so acutely aware of such complexities, and never before has he so powerfully portrayed them onscreen.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Record Club #6: Miles Davis

Miles Davis - Agharta (1976)

The latest Record Club discussion has now been posted. For this month's conversation, Jake Cole has selected Miles Davis' live album Agharta, from the climax of his fusion/experimental era. It's a great album and Jake has posted a wonderful and very informative piece about this music, its context and its qualities. Go read his post now and then join the discussion.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Conversations #28: Barry Lyndon

The latest installment of The Conversations has now been posted at The House Next Door. For this latest discussion, Jason Bellamy and I have tackled Barry Lyndon, arguably the most overlooked film of Stanley Kubrick's mature career. We talk about the film's unforgettable visual style and its (purposefully) forgettable protagonist, as well as the themes of class, love and ambition that run through this great movie. As usual, we invite comments that expand upon our discussion, so please read the piece and add your own thoughts in the comment section.

Continue reading at The House Next Door

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Films I Love #55: The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940)

Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner is a rich, moving love story, a very warm film despite its snowy Christmastime setting. Although the film is focused on the antagonism of the store manager Kralik (James Stewart) and new employee Klara (Margaret Sullivan) — and of course, their eventual and inevitable realization of love for one another — in many ways it's more about everything that happens around this slowly developing romance. The film is set in a small shop in Budapest, and the texture of this shop, the daily business of the workers who gather outside every day for friendly chit-chat, is the real matter of the film. The characters are well-defined but not quirky, with just hints of low-key exaggeration lending some humorous edge to the anxious, sputtering Pirovitch (Felix Bressart) and the smart-alecky errand boy Pepi (William Tracy), who really comes into his own with a chest-swelled swagger when he gets promoted to salesman. The film's humor is gentle and quiet, with not a hint of mean-spirited mockery except, perhaps, in its portrayal of Kralik's foppish rival Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut). The film continually belies the idea that humor must be edgy or aggressive in order to be genuinely funny, as Lubitsch earns smiles, chuckles and occasionally even full-throated guffaws from his careful development of these characters and their minor foibles.

What's especially striking about the film's humor is the vein of real, deep sadness that runs through the center of it. There's a sense of loneliness in both Kralik and Karla, who separately believe they've found love in the form of someone they've never even met face-to-face, someone they've only corresponded with through letters. There's more than a hint of desperation in both characters: they invest so much into their romance-by-pen, as though it represents the last chance they each have for happiness or romance. In the process, they don't realize that the object of their love is right in front of them every day, that their relationship consists of sparring angrily by day and writing loving, romantic letters to one another by night. As such, the film is about the ideal of love as contrasted against the more prosaic but also more tangible reality: it's telling that before Kralik can reveal himself to Karla, he must adjust her expectations downward by shattering the fantasy of the letters, preparing her not only for the revelation that he's her great love, but that her great love is only a flesh-and-blood man after all. Lubitsch also has a wonderful feel for the anxieties of money, for the pressures of the working class life and the fear of losing a job, and the film makes great use of the Christmas setting for its subtle commentary on consumerism and salesmanship. It's a beautiful, funny, emotionally complex masterpiece with so much heart, so much beauty, in every image and every line that, despite its modest, unassuming surface, it winds up being an almost overwhelming experience.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Record Club #6: Miles Davis on October 24

Miles Davis - Agharta (1976)

The sixth installment of the Inexhaustible Documents record club has now been announced. Jake Cole of Not Just Movies has chosen Miles Davis' live album Agharta, recorded in 1975 as one of the final statements of his infamous fusion era. Jake will be putting up a post discussing the album on Monday, October 24, so if you're interested in joining the conversation, just listen to the album before then and you can participate in what's sure to be another fun discussion.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Record Club #5: Manic Street Preachers

Manic Street Preachers - The Holy Bible (1994)

The fifth discussion for the Record Club takes place today, and it is hosted by Jamie Uhler at the multi-author blog Wonders in the Dark. Jamie has picked the album The Holy Bible by the Manic Street Preachers, and he has written a fine introductory post as part of his long-running series "Getting People Over the Beatles." Now it's time to join the conversation in the comment section. I hope to see you there!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


The neat trick of Gore Verbinski's Rango is the way it wraps some rather adult themes (and adult references) around a pretty basic kids' movie structure. The film follows the titular chameleon, voiced by Johnny Depp, as he falls out of a moving car and stumbles into the desert, where he encounters an adventure right out of a spaghetti western. The film is packed with hip references, like an early blink-and-you'll-miss-it Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas visual gag, and more notably the obvious influence of the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood "Man with No Name" trilogy. Those films loom large here, as Rango arrives in a dusty frontier town populated with various grizzled species of anthropomorphic animals. Rango, who inhabited a lively fantasy world to stave off loneliness in his small tank, now presents himself as a wandering mercenary hero, ready to help the townspeople, who are suffering from a drought that threatens to eliminate their water supplies. The plot combines the Leone films with, improbably, Roman Polanski's Chinatown and its schemes over water rights.

The plot, however, is not the film's strong point by any means. Despite the sophisticated reference points, the film's narrative is a bit of a jumble, and Verbinski leans too heavily on cliché when he's not nodding to his more venerable influences. When one mid-film action sequence devolves into a noisy, silly war film parody complete with "Ride of the Valkyries" — probably the most tired musical choice it's possible to make in a movie these days — it underscores how rapidly the film veers between clever pastiche and rote regurgitation.

It's easy to forgive and forget the more unimaginative stretches, however, when Verbinski packs the fringes of the film with such a wealth of visual wit and interesting ideas. When Rango first arrives in the desert, he encounters an armadillo (Alfred Molina) who has been run over on the highway but is somehow still alive and talking as though nothing has happened. This is especially disconcerting because there's a giant truck-tire-sized cutout in the animal's midsection, but the armadillo simply wants Rango to push the two halves of his body back together again. It's a disconcerting image, particularly for a movie supposedly made for kids, and an image that suggests the twin poles of surrealism and mortality that will serve as important motifs throughout the film.

Indeed, Rango is curiously obsessed with death. A trio of musical birds provide the vibrant, Morricone-esque soundtrack for the film, while also appearing onscreen as a Greek chorus narrating Rango's adventures. From the beginning, the birds suggest that this is going to be the story of the life and death of a hero, and they begin to seem strangely disappointed when the hero continually faces death and fails to die. At one point, the birds even deliver their grim predictions while hanging from nooses. The film's biggest threat, the tremendous, vicious Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), claims to come from Hell, and his fiery eyes and seeming willingness to kill suggests that there's some truth to the claim. The grislier aspects of the film sit uncomfortably against its sillier moments and its concensions to kids' movie conventions, like the plucky love interest (Isla Fisher) and the unbearably cutesy kid (Abigail Breslin) who does pretty much nothing and serves no purpose, throughout the movie, besides saying cute things in a cute voice and batting her huge eyes.

There's tension here, because the film sometimes seem to want to offer little more than this kind of predictable, jokey entertainment, but sometimes it seems to want to tell a much more serious story. It's a story about loneliness (on the personal level for the misfit Rango, a lifetime loner who creates his own entertainment with imaginary friends because he's never had real ones) and about the costs of modernization and the impotence of common people faced with powerful political and economic interests. The latter story, the big picture social story that's derived from the example of Chinatown, crops up periodically, most powerfully perhaps when Rango discovers the body of the town's bank manager, killed and cast aside in the rush for progress. Like all the best Westerns, this is a film about the West facing its end, about the push to tame the frontier. But the theme is never fleshed out very much, so that even at the end of the film, the exact nature of the plot cooked up by the film's obvious-from-the-start villain, the turtle mayor (Ned Beatty), is somewhat unclear, and he's left to spit out rote expositional dialogue to emphasize his villainy.

If the film's plot is sometimes less than coherent, broken up by embarassing digressions like the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene, Verbinski compensates with other pleasures. Rango's first night in the desert is visualized by a charmingly surrealist dream sequence populated by a talking windup goldfish and a disembodied Barbie torso, his only "friends" from his solitary existence. Later, in the film's best and most memorable scene, Rango actually meets the Man with No Name himself, a cartoonized Clint Eastwood (actually voiced by Timothy Olyphant) dressed in the distinctive poncho he wore in his Leone films. It's a wonderful meta moment, an explicit acknowledgment of Rango's affectionate tribute to the Leone/Eastwood collaborations. Eastwood's appearance provides a good example of the film's animation quality, too, since the caricature is instantly recognizable as the iconic actor, his face deeply lined and worn like a grizzled, aging Western hero, squinting and sneering as he dispenses advice to the tiny lizard he's inspired.

The animation is generally gorgeous in general. Not all of the character designs are as expressive and satisfying as the depictions of the Man With No Name and Rango himself, but the animation is unceasingly lovely, and all of the characters are textured and detailed so that they never seem like molded plastic (as, for example, the highly praised Pixar's human figures often do). There are plenty of visually sumptuous moments along the way, brief sequences where the action pauses to simply admire the scenery. A posse ride through the desert is particularly jaw-dropping, as the sunset desert scenery looks simultaneously realistic and colorfully stylized. The iconography of the Western is lovingly referenced in the visuals, from a shadowy figure appearing out of the shimmering heat haze of the desert to a group of riders galloping against the huge orange half-circle of the setting sun.

Rango is in many respects an interesting, if somewhat schizophrenic, work with the ambition to marry some big ideas to a rather conventional underlying structure. At its best, the film is visually dazzling, witty and a tribute worthy of the spaghetti Western influences it wears on its sleeve. At it's worst, it's cloying, overbearing kiddie fare, and those two sides of its personality are never quite resolved. Still, the film has enough ambition, smarts and style to make it a mostly enjoyable entertainment that occasionally reaches for something more.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

New Comics Blog (and DC's New 52, Week 2)

Following up on last week's post about the first week of DC's New 52 comics, I'm starting a new comics blog that will host my week-by-week thoughts on the new DC comics and any other comics that I'm reading every week. The new blog is called Thinking in Panels, and will be my forum for these weekly summary posts and anything else I'm moved to write about comics. I hope to see some of you there!

So check out this week's DC New 52 post over at the new blog, and be sure to bookmark or follow the site to check out future comics postings over there.

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Friday, September 9, 2011

DC's New 52, Week 1

Beginning this month, DC Comics is completely rebooting its entire line of comics, starting every comic over from issue #1 and re-imagining their characters, not entirely from scratch but definitely making some changes. It's a move intended to bring in new readers to the continuity-heavy world of superhero comics, and since I've only occasionally read DC superhero comics myself, I figured this was a good time for me to check out what they have to offer. This month DC is unfurling 52 new issue #1s, and I'll be reading all of them and briefly reviewing them here, week by week. This week, I review the 13 first week titles, plus Justice League #1, which came out last week as the debut of the new line. I rank them below from best to worst; by my count there were 3 very good DC comics this week, a few more that were variably enjoyable and/or promising, and then some mediocre junk. Anybody else following this initiative?

1. Animal Man #1 - This book is just fantastic. I wouldn't be surprised if this winds up being the best out of all 52 comics when this month is over. It's a mix of family drama, horror, and superheroics, balancing all these different tones without seeming all over the place. Writer Jeff Lemire packs a lot into 20 pages, economically reintroducing this character, his family, and the themes and conflicts that will drive his story. And the art, by Travel Foreman, is amazing, especially since it shifts fluidly from sketchy domesticity to punchy superhero action to surrealist, horrifying dream sequences. This looks more like an indie book than a big DC superhero title, so the aesthetic is especially striking and invigorating in this high-profile context. The art is so attuned to the nuances of the storytelling, and the style morphs to fit each new wrinkle perfectly. This is a must-read book, one that already seems poised to match the high standard of Grant Morrison's classic run on this title.

2. Swamp Thing #1 - Definitely the second-best book this week, though not remotely in the same jaw-dropping way as Animal Man. Instead, this is just a solid introduction with some very good storytelling by Scott Snyder. I'm not very clear on what exactly is going on with this character, not having followed the pre-reboot DC universe, and in that sense this book doesn't seem as new-reader-friendly as most of the others. The character's history is left pretty vague and confusing, maybe deliberately since I sense that a big part of the book's early arc is going to be figuring out just what's going on with Alec Holland. But the essence of the character and his status quo come across and there are some great sequences of horror that really make me excited to see where this is heading. The whole scene where the big threat is revealed is chilling and creepy and genuinely frightening; I won't spoil it but it's true horror brilliance, wonderfully visualized by Yanick Paquette.

3. Action Comics #1 - I really dig Grant Morrison's new take on Superman as a populist crusader with an attitude, definitely a fresh perspective on the character. It's obvious that Morrison is deliberately taking a different approach from the mythic boy scout of his fine All-Star Superman miniseries. Even Superman's costume feels more approachable and human. The first half of the issue really pops as it introduces this new Supes in action. The second half gets a little jumbled and isn't as strong, but overall this is still quite good. It's also the most straightforward comic I've read from Morrison in a while.

4. Justice League #1 - This issue is actually from last week, since it was the debut of the new DC line. It's pretty good, nothing mindblowing or anything, and I don't know why the debut of a whole new reboot wasn't made more exciting, but it's still not bad. Mostly based around some amusing banter between Batman and Green Lantern, and then the badass new Superman shows up at the end. It's more a teaser than anything else and it works in that sense, but it's not much of a story. This issue takes place five years earlier than most of the other reboot titles (with the exception of Action Comics) so it's meant to show the early days of the new status quo, when the heroes are just getting to know each other.

5. Batgirl #1 - Just a fun, basic superhero story with a lot of heart and emotional complexity. I like that in restoring Barbara Gordon to the Batgirl costume, they've kept her history from Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, so that trauma continues to haunt her even though she's regained the use of her legs. That darkness is contrasted against a refreshing enthusiasm in the dialogue and narration that's really infectious, and makes her seem like a girl who's just happy to be out kicking ass. Not exactly substantial, but pretty enjoyable nonetheless.

6. Stormwatch #1 - This is visually pretty interesting. Every few pages there's some slightly nutty cosmic concept that provides a very striking image. (Although the character drawings are a little stiff.) The problem is that the characters are all so flat and undistinguished, and writer Paul Cornell seems to know that a lot of readers will be unfamiliar with these characters, so virtually all of the dialogue is exposition and explanation. Lots of characters talking about themselves, explaining their powers, saying things to each other that they really have no reason to say except to explain something to the reader. That could get better now that the 1st issue is out of the way, but it still suggests a pretty unimaginative sensibility that jars against the visual imagination on display here. I'll check out a couple more issues of this to see which direction it heads.

7. OMAC #1 - A book that's totally in love with Jack Kirby. Not even a pinch of originality here, but it's fun enough, lots of Kirby dots everywhere, lots of superpowered enigmas pummelling each other. Entertaining and fluffy as hell. I imagine the Kirby pastiche will get old fast so I'm not sure how much longevity there is in this concept, but as a single issue it's a blast.

8. Detective Comics #1 - Pretty standard, even generic Batman stuff. There's lots of Frank Miller-style "I am the terror that flaps in the night" overwrought "gritty" writing. Not terrible, but not especially interesting either. And the Joker isn't funny, which is always a bad sign. The last page is nicely creepy, though.

9. Batwing #1 - Even more standard and generic than Detective Comics, despite this being about an African Batman, a protege of Bruce Wayne. Not exactly bad, but there's not much to it. It's one of those books where it's hard to point to what's missing except, well, anything that would differentiate it from countless other nondescript hero comics.

10. Justice League International #1 - I guess this is supposed to be the lightweight, fun, funny book where a bunch of D-listers hang out. The problem is that while it's certainly lightweight, it's not fun or funny at all, so it's pretty lame and pointless. Really bad dialogue, really bad all around.

11. Static Shock #1 - Yet another really boring one. It's trying for the light-footed teen superhero style of early Invincible, but its attempts at hip dialogue seem forced and the wisecracking tone doesn't produce any actual humor.

12. Green Arrow #1 - Not sure what to say about this other than it sucks. Totally generic, every line of dialogue is a clunkily delivered cliche, the art is static and bland, and all the Youtube references are obvious, desperate grabs for relevance that fall far short of the mark. This is somebody's laughable idea of "media criticism" I guess.

13. Men of War #1 - This. is. so. goddamn. boring. There were 2 stories in this, both straightforward war stories full of all the clichés you'd expect. I got through the first but my eyes started to glaze over just thinking about reading the second.

14. Hawk and Dove #1 - There might be 2 panels in this whole thing where someone isn't grimacing with that same damn I'm-squeezing-out-a-poop-right-now expression on their face. Actually, Hawk is the one who always looks like that. Dove, with her constantly gaping mouth, looks either perpetually surprised or like she's always ready to give a BJ. Rob Liefeld, man. This is terrible.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Wire: Season 2

One of the signature themes of David Simon's TV series The Wire is the idea that where you come from matters, that class and race are, to a large degree, destiny. The first season mostly framed this idea in terms of race, with black drug dealers from the projects often lamenting the fact that being born into this life gives them so few options. The second season drives home that the real issue is class, by translating this theme to the mostly white, mostly Polish working class guys of the Baltimore dockworkers' union.

In one key scene, union president Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer) confronts his hired lobbyist Bruce DiBiago (Keith Flippen), contrasting DiBiago's big-money comfort against Frank's own desperation: DiBiago sends his son to Princeton, and says that now the kid can do anything he wants after graduating, a stark contrast against the pathetic life and constant failures of Frank's son Ziggy (James Ransone). DiBiago counters that his own family came from similarly limited circumstances, that his great-grandfather was a struggling working man who wanted more for his own kids, so he made sure they were educated and propelled them towards the better life that has resulted in DiBiago's current success. Frank's not interested in history, though, and he's not interested in thinking so long-term that his great-grandsons might make something of themselves. He wants security — and the dignity of work — for his own kid, something tangible he can see while he's still around.

Frank's story is at the center of this season because he so fully embodies the message that Simon is sending here. Frank is a member of a declining union, working in a harbor that's seeing less and less traffic and thus less and less work for the union members. Repeated scenes throughout the season emphasize how the men of the union come to work everyday not sure if they'll have a job for the day or not. This is particularly true for the younger men, like Ziggy and Frank's nephew Nick (Pablo Schreiber), who are continually passed over for what few jobs there are. They're mostly left to hang around and drink, glowering at the old union hands who tell raucous stories of the good old days. This is a story about obsolescence, about this union — once a powerful political and social force — struggling to survive in a modern political and economic environment that no longer has any respect for the old ways cultivated by the union culture. Frank is trying to adapt — he hires his lobbyist and feeds politicians dirty money he earns by working with the dockside smuggling operation of "the Greek" (Bill Raymond) — but the scene where he tries to charm politicians at a fundraiser demonstrates just how ill-suited the gruff, blunt-force Frank is to the subtleties of modern politics.

Indeed, it's Frank's failure to understand such niceties that more or less kicks off the season's plot. In one of the bitter ironies that runs unstated through the season, Frank comes under investigation not so much because of his genuinely illegal activity but because he dares to purchase a stained glass window at a local church on behalf of his union. It's a point of pride for him, but it's also a point of pride for the high-ranking police major Valchek (Al Brown), who had wanted to donate his own window to the church. Frank's refusal to give in to the politically connected Valchek causes the major to open an investigation into Frank, a frivolous and mean-spirited smear operation that eventually winds up exposing the full and rather surprising extent of Frank's connections to drugs, prostitution and smuggling in the city. Unaware of the investigation, Frank responds to Valchek's harassment by stealing a police surveillance van from Valchek's unit and shipping it around the world, updating the major with Polaroids of the van in various ports. It's the kind of old-school practical joke that Frank and his union buddies might have played in the old days, a silly and stupid prank that here has dire consequences.

At this point, as Valchek gets Lieutenant Daniels (Lance Reddick) to assemble a new squad to investigate Frank, the show flirts with formula as most of the first season's cops return to work with Daniels, dually investigating Frank and the deaths of a cargo container full of European women who had been shipped through Frank's port for the sex trade. The assembling-the-team segments early in the season come off as a warped mirror of the first season, though, since they're not getting together for the high-stakes drug operation of the first season but for what amounts to a personal vendetta. The fact that the operation eventually exposes some very shady activity only reinforces the bitter irony at the core of the show: it's only at the impetus of a petty and insecure asshole that some real policework gets done in the city, almost accidentally, and certainly incidentally for Valchek, who gets more and more annoyed the more his squad discovers large webs of crime around Frank rather than focusing solely on the object of Valchek's wrath.

As in the first season, Simon, along with co-writer and ex-cop Ed Burns and a regular stable of HBO directors, weaves together all these different plots and characters to provide a portrait of the ways in which cops and criminals act as part of an overarching social structure. The drug plot from the first season continues to percolate in the background, too, with the machinations of Stringer Bell, Avon, Omar and others eventually tied into the main plot by the end of the season. As in the first season, things that seem innocuous or small-scale turn out to be connected in surprising ways to much deeper societal currents. In the post-9/11 world, the Greek and his international criminal organization are even connected to the FBI, exchanging information and tips for official favors. Part of Simon's vision here is that in the zeal to fight terrorism, the modern national police infrastructure is proving willing to overlook greater and greater domestic evils to win some small victories against foreign evils. Witness the glee of an FBI counter-terrorism agent when he discovers a cache of Colombian drugs on the Greek's tipoff — is this relatively minor coup worth the information he feeds to the Greek, which allows the mysterious kingpin to kill with impunity, and at one point even gives him key information that leads directly to the death of an informer.

More locally, the criminal malaise of the docks is a reflection of economic changes that have these dockworkers teetering on the brink of irrelevancy. Frank is fighting desperately to get new projects started at the docks, but it seems to be a doomed battle right from the start. The politicians smile and take his money, and so does the lobbyist, but it never really seems plausible that Frank is going to get what he wants, and only he doesn't seem to realize it. Others want to build luxury condos in the area, further shrinking the extent of the formerly solid industrial/labor zone, and it's hard to imagine that the big real estate companies won't ultimately have more sway than Frank's declining union, even with all the ill-gotten money he's throwing around. At one point, Frank goes to an informational presentation about new technology that seems like it will largely make dock work an almost human-free occupation. The presenter makes a virtue of the fact that the new setup will reduce injuries, but Frank grasps the unspoken subtext: no one will get injured because almost no one will even be working there.

That's the flipside of the unceasing ethic of "progress" driving this society: there's a constant drive to move forward, with no thought for those inevitably left behind, the Sobotkas of the world. The show portrays the docks as a wasteland in the making, poised between the old way, as represented by Frank's hard-working, hard-drinking generation, and a new way where there's little room for much human presence at all, and certainly not for unskilled laborers like Nick and Ziggy. The dehumanized, mechanized docks of the future are contrasted against the fun-loving older generation, who are always at the bar telling alternately hilarious and harrowing tales of the old days. Their camaraderie and bonhomie in the face of the danger of their profession recalls Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings, except that now all their male bonding and tough guy posturing takes place in a context where it's clear that this familial, tight-knit spirit belongs exclusively to the past. There will be less danger in the future — no more accidents like the one that crushes one man's leg — but also no more of that closeness and humor, no more of the touching togetherness that's displayed when the entire union shows solidarity for their injured brother, who faces his fate with courage and humor. The younger generation replaces that bold, positive attitude with the bitterness and hopelessness of Nick and Ziggy, the latter of whom is a heartbreaking fuck-up who responds to the obvious desolation of his prospects with a casual nihilism, embracing his status as a living punchline.

Frank sees that the next generation, including his own son and his beloved nephew, is not going to have anything waiting for them, which is why Nick still lives in his parents' basement and is forced to steal in order to have any hope of starting a life with his girlfriend. In a different way from the drug dealers of the first season, Nick has been born into a life that doesn't hold much in the way of prospects for him. He could've gotten out of there, gone to college, tried to find work elsewhere, but that seems like as much a dream to him as it had to the first season project drug dealers. He doesn't have any examples of that happening; the American Dream of bettering oneself always seems so remote and abstract from the vantage point of lower-class and working-class characters like Nick.

The situation of this season perhaps pointedly recalls the Marlon Brando classic On the Waterfront, which was similarly about corruption and crime on the docks, as well as the day-by-day struggle of working men fighting for a limited number of jobs. But there's no romantically redeemed Brando character here, no one who actively fights the corruption. And the conclusion is similarly hopeless. As in the first season, the last episode ends with a montage that shows everything continuing as before, the whole unstoppable cycle churning on despite the few minor bumps in the road presented by the police investigation and subsequent tumult.

These endings are perhaps the key to the show's brilliance. Even more than in the first season, when at least most of the major drug players had to pay some cost, there's no tidy wrap-up here, no moralistic coda, no satisfying dispensation of justice. Instead, the drugs continue to flow, new boatloads of impoverished women are smuggled into the country to pleasure rich men, while the men in charge evaporate from view and those few who were arrested are replaced almost immediately by new faces. Most poignantly, this montage speeds up towards the end with whiplash-quick visits to various dockside locales, all devoid of people, crusted in rust, as though the area has already been depopulated, turned into the ghost town it's destined to become.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Record Club # 5: Manic Street Preachers on September 29

Manic Street Preachers - The Holy Bible (1994)

The fifth installment of the Inexhaustible Documents record club has now been announced. Jamie Uhler, who writes for the multi-author blog Wonders in the Dark has selected the 1994 album The Holy Bible by Manic Street Preachers. The discussion will be taking place on September 29 as part of Jamie's Thursday music series at WITD, so if you'd like to participate, all you have to do is listen to the album before then and show up to read his thoughts and offer your own comments.

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Monday, August 29, 2011

Record Club #4: Drive-By Truckers

Drive-By Truckers - The Dirty South (2004)

The fourth discussion for the Inexhaustible Documents Record Club takes place today, over at Troy Olson's blog Elusive As Robert Denby. He's chosen the album The Dirty South by country/rockers the Drive-By Truckers. Troy has written an excellent introductory post, and in the coming days anyone who would like to join the conversation is welcome to comment with their own thoughts about the album. So head on over to Troy's blog for what's sure to be another great discussion.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Wire: Season 1

David Simon's The Wire is quite possibly the most acclaimed and respected TV show of all time. After watching the first season in the condensed period of a week, I'm starting to understand why. The show's first season is a sweeping chronicle of a Baltimore police drug investigation that expands far beyond its original scope and begins digging into the corruption and evil at the deepest levels of city politics — and life itself. The show's genius is the way it starts with a very specific incident — drug dealer D'Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard, Jr.) beats a murder charge and attracts the ire of crusading cop Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), who more or less accidentally triggers an epic investigation into D'Angelo's uncle, the kingpin Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) — and keeps spreading out from there. Tendrils eventually worm into the higher levels of the police department, into the political system, and especially into the communities where the drug dealers ply their trades.

This is a tight, complex show where plot threads slowly unfurl over time, reflecting the careful plotting of showrunner Simon, who co-wrote every episode (most with ex-cop Ed Burns, working from real events and real people) and planned out the season-long arc. This meticulous aesthetic pays off both in the big picture and in the details, as the season's overall story continually returns to the same themes and ideas. This is a story about endemic corruption that invades society at every level, and as a result there are no perfect characters here, only fluctuating levels of morality and ethics that sometimes prove to be only temporary. For instance, a judge kicks off the entire case by holding a stubborn moral high ground against a police department that's reluctant to go beyond basic duty in pursuing drug kingpins like Barksdale — but the judge's moral indignation more or less evaporates when the furor stirred up by the case threatens his judicial career in an upcoming election. Virtually all the charcters on the "good" side have similar limitations, whether it's the shady past of Lieutenant Cedric Daniels (Lance Reddick) or the casual graft of low-level officers like Herc (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Carver (Seth Gilliam), whose ironic arc involving missing drug money underscores how little it matters if you do good or bad, how right and wrong count less than if you get caught.

McNulty is arguably the moral center of this story and the one cop who consistently frames things in terms of right and wrong rather than thinking of policework, as his superiors do, in terms of statistics, where a closed case is a good one even if the real offender has escaped justice. The police department as envisioned here is a bureaucracy dedicated to getting good closed-case stats, and anything else — like McNulty's insistence on looking beyond the immediate case to deeply ingrained conspiracies and long-term investigations — is just a distraction. Still, McNulty is another compromised and flawed figure in a city that seems to be overflowing with them. Late in the season, he admits that what drove him into this investigation was not so much morality as his own pride, his desire to show off his own intellectual superiority in a culture where thinking outside the box is not exactly valued. Even more telling is the scene in which McNulty, without even hesitating, enlists his two young sons in a potentially tragic "game" of surveillance when by chance he spots Barksdale's right-hand man Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) at a grocery store. McNulty's a man obsessed, and though he's driven by basically good impulses — including a desire to do good at a deeper level than the usual shallow "case closed" police due diligence — he's not exempted from the series' depiction of a society in which doing good is, as often as not, punished rather than rewarded.

As if there was any doubt, Detective Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) provides a perfect example of the future awaiting McNulty, a premonition of the end of the season. Freamon, though he's stuck shuffling papers in the property unit, is obviously an efficient and intelligent cop, and his back story parallels McNulty's: he pushed too hard on an investigation, disobeying orders from a superior, digging where he wasn't supposed to, and as a result he was sent to exactly the kind of boring, insubstantial assignment he didn't want, where he has languished ever since. The show is all about the consequences of pushing against boundaries like this: these characters are tightly constricted, locked into career arcs, unable to do anything to change things. There are rigid rules for what can be done and what can't be, to keep everything moving smoothly and the status quo firmly in place: the drug dealers deal, the cops hassle and arrest them but can never break up the business, and behind it all the politicians are deeply intwined with both sides of this drug war, with drug money flowing freely through the city into commerce and politics.

On the drug dealers' side, there are also those who seek to push against the status quo, to change things if possible, with equally disastrous though bloodier results. Throughout the season, D'Angelo struggles with his own burgeoning morality about the evils of his family business. As the season starts, D'Angelo's close brush with prison has caused him to be demoted from a higher level position that evidently kept him somewhat aloof from the worst of the street drug trade. Confronted with addicts and offhand violence day after day as he takes over a small operation in a project courtyard, he's increasingly conflicted about where his life has brought him. Not that he sees much choice; he was born into this, as the introduction of his scheming, tough-hearted mother late in the season makes clear, and he doesn't have a whole lot in the way of options. He wonders aloud why this business has to be so violent, why everyone around him seems so bloodthirsty when he just wants to be anywhere else. He tries to fit in only because he has to, telling a gory tale that later turns out to be the story of another man's cold-blooded murder.

Even more affecting is the arc of the young dealer Wallace (Michael B. Jordan), who works in D'Angelo's crew. Wallace is one of the most poignant characters over the course of the season, as set up in an intimate sequence where the kid, who seems to care for a tribe of even younger brothers and sisters in an abandoned apartment with stolen electricity, goes about his morning ritual of brushing his teeth and dispensing juice boxes to the other kids as they head off to school. He heads off to the courtyard, though, as the provider of the family, but he's too sensitive for the job. When his tip-off alerts Stringer Bell to the location of a rival, an associate of the colorful thug Omar (Michael Kenneth Williams), the criminal's bruised and burnt body (dumped in the projects to serve as a warning message) upsets Wallace so much that he withdraws into his room for weeks and turns to doing drugs instead of dealing them.

Wallace, even more than D'Angelo, is not cut out for this life. D'Angelo can adapt, dealing with the death and ugliness all around him, but Wallace shuts down when he encounters it close up. Of course, his decency and sensitivity — he's most at home, most natural and comfortable, when he's caring for and joking with the younger kids — are only weaknesses in this environment. He has no escape, no possibility of another life; he mentions going to school, but only once, as though he doesn't actually believe that's a real option for someone like him. His fate is inevitable but no less affecting; his final scene is the season's most jaw-dropping moment, made even more shattering by the realization that he was abandoned and forgotten by the cops who were eager to use him to build their case.

Wallace's death is a pivotal event because it begins the process of setting up the season's absolutely brilliant ending, which enforces the show's emphasis on stasis and entrenchment. The season ends the way it started, despite multiple shake-ups; there's a sense of circularity here, developing the idea that some things cannot be changed. The investigation which takes up the entire 13 episodes of this first season results in arrests and deaths, but the finale communicates the impression that nothing is really changing in any meaningful way, that there are simply new cogs taking the place of the old ones in a huge and powerful machine that is not going to stop running no matter what. D'Angelo's underlings take over for him in the courtyard without missing a beat, utilizing some of the street strategy that he introduced in the early episodes, but ignoring his sentimentality and self-doubt, which are simply dangerous traits in this "game." The images of the drug trade kicking back into motion after the close of the investigation have a mechanical precision that only reinforces that this is a perpetual motion machine: certain gestures and interactions are repeated over and over again, ritualized and carved in stone, unable to change in any real way.

The brilliance of The Wire is the way that Simon, along with his co-writers and directors, inscribes these themes at every level of the story, in the littlest details and character arcs as well as at the macro level. So few characters here can really break out of the confines of their past, their upbringing, their situations to create a different life: drug addicts may kick the habit for days or weeks but are pushed back into it by circumstances and official indifference, dealers yearn for a less violent life but see no way to grab it, cops try to do good and wind up screwing up their own lives and accomplishing so little that their efforts seem to melt away as soon as they're done. There are hints of progression and change, notably in the characters of Freamon and Prez (Jim True-Frost), who get rare second chances that are all the more moving for how deeply stuck everyone else seems. Change seems like an abstraction at times, as when Carver tells a drug dealer that he had once been a lower-class projects kid, too. If Carver is telling the truth, he represents someone who escaped a miserable and confining background to make something of himself, but the route from the projects to a detective's badge seems so abstract and remote that it might as well be a fantasy, for all the good it does most of the people living with this squalor and violence.

The enduring impression of this season is a portrait of a fucked-up world where it's all too easy for the bad to get traction and dig in its heels, and all too difficult for anything good to try to root it out. This is apparent in even the smallest details. The minimal budgets and filthy sub-basements of the Baltimore police are contrasted against the high-tech modernism of the FBI (who, post-9/11, only get interested in a crime if it can somehow be traced back to Bin Laden) when McNulty goes to visit an agent there, but the point is driven home again in a later scene when he meets the agent in a parking lot. The agent drives up in a shiny new car and automatically rolls down the windows, while McNulty has to lean over and laboriously crank his own window open. It's a subtle and subtly funny mise en scène gag that reinforces just how limited the local institutions are in their ability to do anything large-scale and important.

That's an indication of just how rich this series is. Its thematic focus is very intense, and it's an almost unrelentingly grim depiction of societal malaise, but it still crackles with vitality, humor and intelligence that leaven what could otherwise have been an oppressive atmosphere. The show is consistently entertaining, with witty, slang-splattered dialogue and subtly grimy images of its sprawling urban warzone. Even the seemingly "small" characters who weave sporadically through the background crackle with life and wit — like a corpulent desk sergeant who can't seem to resist laughing with every line he says, no matter what he's talking about, but who shows some startling fortitude and intelligence when it comes to getting his hands dirty with policework. Simon's sprawling drug epic is equally brilliant whether one considers its big picture depiction of a society trapped in a self-renewing downward spiral, or its more intimate character stories.