Category Archives: Things you should be watching

Post #115: Resolution?

Blue-JasmineBlue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s new film, is one of the darkest and more compelling films  I can remember seeing. Though he’s primarily known as a comedian, Woody does dark exceptionally well. And more often than you might expect. If you’ve never seen Crimes and Misdemeanors, or its more recent alter-ego Match Point, you are missing out on the haunted, and often violent, places Woody likes to tread as he mines his short list of themes, compiling the broadest and most prolific filmography in American history.

Spoiler Alert! Plot details and revelations about Blue Jasmine follow. You’ve been warned.

Cate Blanchett’s powerhouse performance as Jasmine has been getting all the attention, and is surely the reason Blue Jasmine has been at our local theater in downtown Burlington for well over a month now. And make no mistake, she is Oscar caliber awesome. Almost overwhelming. But after taking in the movie last night, I was and remain most struck not by its many quality performances and beautiful cinematography, but by its dramatically unresolved ending. If you know his work, you know Woody Allen is a sucker for endings. Usually, regardless of theme or tone, Allen’s films find their way to a stopping point, which finds the characters not necessarily always redeemed or forgiven or changed, but at least settled in some form. He’s dabbled in unresolvedness before (I’m thinking here of Celebrity and Deconstructing Harry), but I’m not sure he’s ever left a character, or his audience, hanging quite like he leaves Jasmine on a park bench.

Jasmine is down and out. Her life as a Park Avenue wife goes tits up when her financier husband (played by Alec Baldwin) proves to be not only cheating on her, but cheating on his clients. He’s arrested, humiliated, and eventually commits suicide in prison. Jasmine loses all her money, and then begins to lose her mind. We meet Jasmine when she arrives in San Francisco to shack up with her sister, Ginger, a grocery store clerk who Jasmine has ignored for years. As Jasmine tries to get her life back together in Frisco, we gradually learn the full story of her New York demise through a series of flashbacks. It feels like a set-up for a redemption story.

We keep waiting to find out what will happen to Jasmine. How will she change? What will finally make her learn her lesson? Even as she guzzles vodka and pops anti-depressents, her self-muttering growing worse and worse, we still wait to see what’s going to trigger a change in her. She meets a new man, a wealthy guy who hopes for a future in politics, but after Jasmine is caught in a series of lies about her past, he drops her and plunges her back into her alcoholic misery. And still we wait for the resolution. As audience members, we’re conditioned to find out what happens, so much so that it comes to seem like an unspoken agreement between creator and audience. Take us anywhere you want, we think, do whatever suits you to these characters, just tell us how it all turns out. When this doesn’t happen, it’s unsettling and a breach of the unspoken pact. And that’s what Allen does here.

It’s hard to tell if Allen just ran out of ideas or if the lack of resolution is a broader commentary on a species (the rich and selfish) for whom he has trouble finding redemption. The third act for Jasmine never arrives. Her life is ruined, she tries to put it back together, and then…what? Then nothing. The film ends with Jasmine muttering to herself on a bench with little indication of where she’s headed.

Of course, it’s not completely unresolved. Even the lack of resolution is its own form of resolution. In truth, all the evidence points to Jasmine’s continued demise, either suicide, homelessness, or just soul losing insanity. What else are we to think? She continues to be horrible and judgmental of her kind hearted sister even up to the film’s final scenes. She continues to abuse her body with alcohol and Prozac. She slips further away from any corners she can turn. She never learns. She never grows. She becomes more embittered. Less wise. Less sane. And that’s where Woody leaves her, dangling in our imaginations, left to direct her third act on our own. He points us, then back away and lets it play out in our minds.

I still feel a bit haunted. I think you will too.

Post #114: On the Brain

Screen-shot-2013-09-11-at-8.41.48-AMAs you well know, I’ve had J.D. Salinger on the brain lately, as has the publishing world, what with the release of Shale Salerno and David Sheild’s biography, Salinger, soon to accompanied by a documentary film of the same name. Both, I should add, have absolutely gotten their asses kicked in the media, showered with bad reviews, skepticism, and mucho doubt. Metacritic shows an average score of 40 (out of 100) for the film and among 40 plus reviews on Amazon, the book is averaging three stars (out of five). Okay, maybe not a total ass kicking, but a good tongue lashing anyway. I’m nearly done with the book, by the way, and will chime in on my perception of its merits shortly. After that, I promise to let go of this subject matter for at least a few posts.

But I digress. I’m actually here because Stephen Colbert (pictured above wearing Holden Caulfield hunting cap) recently dedicated his entire show to doing his second book club (the first was on Gatsby) on J.D. Salinger and The Catcher in the Rye. It’s hilarious. And insightful. You should watch it. The best part of it is when Colbert is interviewing Tobias Woolf about Catcher and they start disputing what’s better, the short stories or Catcher, and Colbert, defending the stories as Salinger’s best work and seemingly unable to help himself, starts quoting Buddy Glass from memory. It’s awesome. It can be watched here. You should do so.
Toodles.

Post #106: Obama and Trayvon

I doubt I’m alone in wishing that Barack Obama would be more vocal about a lot of things. Environmental activism, for one. But an issue that Obama is uniquely suited to address, as our first African-American president, is that of race in this country. Not only race and racism broadly, but also its relationship to both the justice system and gun control. As both a black man and a political insider, he must surely have valuable perspectives on these issues. Surely, at least, they must infuriate him! And, though he’s a politician and it’s clearly not popular to talk about these things, even given all that, I’ve still been astounded at how infrequently Obama addresses the subject. It’s too bad that it takes an issue as dramatic and polarizing as the George Zimmerman trial/verdict for his murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida last year to get Barry to open up, but I was glad to see that he addressed the press the other day and offered about fifteen minutes of commentary on race, racial profiling, guns, and racial discrimination in the justice system. He also spoke about how we move on from such trauma.

You know, it’s a shame that there’s not more reasonable debate and discussion on these important issues. The other night I caught a few minutes of a debate about the verdict on Piers Morgan between a black minister and one of the Central Park Five and the conversation was so spiteful and void of any reason, let alone actual listening, that I couldn’t even watch or think so I ended up watching sports. I know that Obama’s views on these subjects are just one man’s, and that if you’re right leaning or call yourself a conservative, you probably don’t want to hear what he has to say. If these were Mitt Romney’s comments on the verdict, I’m not sure I’d want to listen either.

But.

I would postulate that even if you think Zimmerman was properly acquitted and you want to wrap him up in a big bear hug and give him back his six shooter and put him right back on neighborhood watch, even then you would still get something out of Obama’s remarks (viewable via the link below), which are so thought provoking and insightful. If nothing else, appreciate a leader who can expound and reason and assert on this level. He needs to do this a lot more often. We have a lot to learn.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHBdZWbncXI

By the way, it might interest you to know that as of this writing, the above video has been watched a half million times, which isn’t bad, though it’s still a hundred and three million fewer times than the video for Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” has been watched. Just saying.

Post #103: A Not Even Close to Great Movie I Think You Should Watch Anyway

220px-Teenagepapposter I happen to love Entourage and have long had a serious man-crush on its doe eyed lead, Adrian Grenier, who plays superstar actor Vincent Chase with what’s either an understated grace, or a complete lack of acting chops that comes across as natural. Tough to tell.

Anyway, I was doing what people do these days, watching random Youtube clips of Adrian Grenier, checking him out on Twitter and reading 100% worthless interviews with him on random websites that you totally don’t care about when I stumbled upon a documentary he directed called Teenage Paparazzo. Grenier is actually a pretty interesting dude who’s into sustainable products and film history, as well as film making. Grenier’s project began as an investigation of the paparazzi, who Grenier, after the massive success of Entourage and his transformation into paparazzi target made him curious about what made the strange pursuit of celebrity photographs tick. As his own star rose, he found himself first flattered, then annoyed, as photographers on foot and in creepy car caravans were waiting for him outside his house and followed him to clubs, restaurants, coffee shops, and pharmacies for toothpaste. So he decided to turn the cameras on the paparazzi. It’s a pretty astute, inquiry based idea for a documentary, actually, and shows that, to play the lovable but fairly vacant Vince Chase, Grenier must be a pretty good actor after all.

What happened next, though, makes one wonder how carefully thought out Grenier’s project really was, because in the early going of his filming, he crosses paths several times with Austin Visschedyk, who at 13 years old had begun trolling the streets of L.A. with camera in tow, looking to snap shots of such celebrities as Paris, Brittany, Nicole, and yes, even Adrian. The film then pivots immediately and becomes very much about this teenage photographer and his surreal life, even naming itself after him. What follows is 90 minutes of Grenier getting to know Austin, trying to find out how he ended up a paparazzo, and even trying his hand at celebrity chasing himself. Grenier also does a bit of research and interviews editors at celeb mags, as well as many other photographers, who offer insight about their practice and defensive scorn in abundance about whether it’s okay or not. All the photographers he talks to tow the party line that celebrities wanted to be famous and being photographed, no matter how aggressively or indiscriminately, is part of the job. You’re rich, famous, and desired, so shut the fuck up is the gist of their feeling on the topic.

I won’t delve into the moral quagmire of this debate, on whose fence I am perched .

Undeniably, the unlikely friendship that develops between Austin and his former celebrity target, as well as Austin’s strange and unexpected rejection of Grenier because he wants to protect his street cred among his photographer peers, is Teenage Paparazzo’s centerpiece and its most earnest and worthwhile attribute. There’s also a strange double voyeurism one gets to enjoy along the way. If you’re a fan of Grenier, or of Paris Hilton for that matter–she also makes several appearances–you get to enjoy their “real” company for a while, while also stepping behind the scenes of the apparatus that, in some ways, led to you knowing and “caring” about them in the first place.

Now, before you spend 90 minutes of your life at my recommendation, full disclosure here that Teenage Paparazzo is not even close to a great film. I’m not even sure it’s that good. But it is relevant, topical, and sure, down right interesting, in the way that I guess ant farms, are interesting. You just sort of want to see what happens next and how it all turns out.

Post #98: He’s Back!

Michael-J-Fox-michael-j-fox-11265218-1280-960When I was a kid I had the biggest crush on Michael J. Fox. If you’re interested, I’m straight. Not that it matters. But I do mention it if only to enforce and convey the depths of Fox’s pull over my psyche and general affection when I was younger. I loved him completely. His mannerisms. His timing. His mildly raspy voice. There was always something incredibly reassuring and comforting to me when he was on screen. And for my money, Fox is the most gifted television actor of his generation, and one of the most imminently likable screen presences of the last thirty years, if not of all time.

Family Ties was on when I was the perfect age for Family Ties to be on. Smack in the sweet spot of its target audience, I gobbled it up, along with Growing Pains and Different Strokes and The Cosby Show and other mid 80s sitcoms that dominated my early adolescent viewing. And among all the great characters at that time, including Cliff Huxtable himself, Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox, was hands down the best character on television. And the best television acting performance of the entire decade. You could disagree with me, but you’d be wrong. Once in a while I still catch a random re-run of Family Ties and though it can get by on nostalgia alone, it’s Fox’s work on the show that nudges it past the soppy kitsch it would otherwise be relegated to, and moves it nearly to the point of art. Nearly. He’s that good.

In the late 90’s, Fox returned to television  as New York City deputy mayor Mike Flaherty on Spin City, a criminally underrated turn that, while mired in a show that was, in truth, only pretty good, saw Fox’s comedic genius on display week after glorious week.

To Wit:

Of course, we all know what happened next. Fox, who had been for years hiding the fact that he had Parkinson’s disease, had to leave Spin City, and his career in acting, both to deal with his illness and because it’s tough to get work as a guy with shaky hands and features that are aging prematurely. I won’t elucidate the details of Fox’s very public and refreshingly honest approach to dealing with his disease and trying to find a cure. Suffice to say it’s been otherworldly. If you’re curious, check out his foundation.
But I digress. What I’m actually here to tell you is that my world was positively rocked the other day when I learned that Michael J. Fox is returning to television full time!!! Yeah, I just threw down three exclamation points. And you wanna know why? I wanted to make damn sure you could feel my excitement coming off the screen at you. NBC has created a new starring vehicle for Fox. Check it.

Time will tell if the show is any good. It actually looks all right and seems to mesh Fox’s natural comedic chops with the aesthetic drive of how he’s tackled Parkinson’s. The truth is that I don’t even care if the show is good. I’m just glad Michael J. Fox is back where he belongs.

Because in truth, I’ve never really gotten over that crush.

Post #96: I Notice You, Tom

200px-Gatsby_1925_jacketFew books live in my nervous system the way The Great Gatsby does. Having loved and taught the book for many years, it occupies a hallowed space, an untouchable cloud of perfection in my soul. Though I re-read it every year, along with my students, it’s the only book I can think of (another one that comes close is Of Mice and Men; perhaps Invisible Man as well) whose freshness only grows, as if your experience with the novel is happening in reverse. Somehow the more I read Gatsby, the more I haven’t read it. The newer it feels.  

If you’re wondering, I’m not really here to write about the new film. Not broadly, anyway. A lot of ink is being spilled about it at the moment (on places like…The Internet) and I just don’t trust myself to add anything that would seem fresh, except to say it’s excellent and worth two and a half hours in the dark wearing a weird pair of glasses. It’s visually sumptuous, acted with immense care and skill, and with the exception of an added frame story for why Nick is telling the story (he’s cracked up and telling it first to a shrink in an asylum and then as “novel” therapy), quite true to the book, both the final draft and earlier iterations of the same story that F. Scott Fitzgerald worked on for years before the final manuscript was accepted. Next time I see Baz Lurhmann, I’ll slap him on the book for trying to do justice to Fitzgerald’s characters. 

movies-great-gatsby-joel-edgerton-tom-buchananI’d like to focus at the moment on The Great Gatsby‘s most misunderstood and under appreciated character, that great galoot Tom Buchanan. A couple of things got me thinking about Tom. One was Joel Edgerton’s fantastic portrayal of Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s just released 3D triumph. Edgerton’s performance is a marvel, though in the shadows of Leo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, and Tobey Maguire’s quiet and dopey Nick Carraway, not to mention Lurhmann’s star power as a director and the natural hype that stems from adapting the great American novel, Edgerton’s performance is one you’re pretty much guaranteed not to hear much about. But that’s too bad. Because though DiCaprio is stunning and probably worthy of the Oscar nod he’ll likely earn for his work as Gatsby, Edgerton’s Tom Buchanan is the performance that’s still on mind the next day. The other thing that put TB on my brain (sorry…I can see that abbreviation is not going to work) was an article in The Daily Beast that discusses the nearly century long discussion about Tom’s far more famous and thought about wife, Daisy Buchanan. I highly recommend Katie Baker’s article, which you can read here, that takes on the deep and consistent maligning Daisy has experienced by the critical establishment over the years. It tries to contextualize Daisy’s behavior/character and the accompanying commentary and does so rather brilliantly. 

One can’t really defend Tom Buchanan all that well. You’ve got to hand it to Fitzgerald for writing a basically indefensible human. But what I’ve always felt compelled to defend is not Tom himself, but to defend him against both Nick’s, and most readers, defense of and love affair with one James Gatz, turned Jay Gatsby,who is often read as Tom’s foil and masculine opposite. The softer side of man. The soft treatment Gatsby gets in the novel, and from many readers, has always bothered me a little. Partially because it’s different from how I see Gatsby (otherwise known as the right way), and partially because I think it’s different from how Fitzgerald saw Gatsby. In a novel so brisk, it’s easy to miss how complex and nuanced Fitzgerald’s characters really are.

Given what we know, at best, Jay Gatsby is a liar and a criminal. Though we never know the exact source of his riches, they almost certainly come from a host of illegal activity that everyone except Tom ignores and, in keeping with the loose morals of the age, seem entirely unconcerned with. But Gatsby’s character has such a strong pull on our romantic tendencies that we are endlessly drawn back to his inherit gorgeousness, as experienced by Nick Caraway. Gatsby’s got love in his heart and we love him for that. It seems that if a man is doing it for love, it doesn’t really matter what he does.

Ironically, it’s Nick’s fault that we idolize Gatsby at Tom’s expense. Because our story teller is so enamored by one and so repulsed by the other, we feel dirty feeling sympathy for Tom and are, in some ways, denied the chance. Mostly (no coincidence in a novel about class) it’s because Nick’s upbringing is closer to Gatsby’s than to Tom’s that Nick is so taken with Gatsby. (And because Nick may want to sleep with Gatsby but never says so.) Tom represents an honest expression of what Gatsby so badly and nakedly wants but will never have, that for many the only way to deal with Tom is to hate him and cast him aside. 

And, to be fair with those who will likely disagree with my assessment, Tom Buchanan doesn’t deserve much better. He’s an entitled jock douche bag who cheats on his wife, beats his mistress, hates blacks, is snide and crass, and in a round about sort of way, has Gatsby killed to get him out Daisy’s way. So why defend him? Because Gatsby isn’t much better. In fact, I’d argue that Gatsby’s capacity for self-delusion and manipulation of virtually everyone around him are perhaps the novel’s most grotesque, and most enduringly sad, characteristics. It’s only because Tom is the one who’s there to call Gatsby on his bull shit that we hate him so much. The confrontation scene at The Plaza on the hottest day of summer, by the way, is Edgerton’s best moment in Luhmann’s film. Gatsby and Daisy truly love each other and we want love to happen and so when Tom shits on it, then plays the class card to humiliate and enrage Gatsby and direct his wife back home, his tactics are so brazen, so practiced and predictably classist that we can’t get over it. It’s deeply ironic that in a book full of liars, Tom is perhaps the most honest of the bunch, and it’s his capacity for truth telling that wins him Daisy back. 

Fitzgerald wanted to make it hard on us, but I think, at least for most people, he failed. I’ve taught the book for years and class after class of junior readers loathes and despises Tom so much it’s become an annual Buchanan hate fest. Fitzgerald didn’t want us to like him, but I’m sure he wanted us to feel conflicted about out hate. To question its fairness. To wonder about Tom’s worth as a man compared to Gatsby’s, not solely at the expense of it. That’s why he makes Gatsby so cold and uncaring about Myrtle’s death. That’s why, you see, he gives Tom the scene in Wilson’s garage. Tom sees Myrtle’s body lying upon the table and he’s genuinely heartbroken by her loss. He begins to shake. To lose control. And a man who we’d never believe even knew how to cry fights back tears and seeds of rage sprout from his pain that eventually lead to Gatsby’s death and Wilson’s suicide. I don’t know if Gatsby has a scene that unguarded in the whole novel. 

 

 

 

Post #83: Kat Edmonson, a worthy infatuation

Kat Edmonson 0412 CoverI’ve been infatuated the past months with Kat Edmonson and her scrumptious (Yeah, I said scrumptious. Screw you. Listen to it. That’s the right adjective) new album “Way Down Low.” It’s been one of those great can’t-stop-listening to it experiences that comes along a few times a year, when you decide that a certain music is the perfect soundtrack to a wide variety of life moments. Usually, this ends with over listening and burn out. But that comes later. Now, in spite of “Way Down Low’s” sultry splendor, and the general adorableness of Ms. Edmonson herself, it still didn’t seem quite blog post-worthy. That is, until earlier today when I bumped into her performing on Tiny Desk Concerts (accompanied only by acoustic guitar) and fell even further in love. If you don’t know Tiny Desk Concerts, it’s an NPR Music concert series where musicians perform basically in this really small office space for these mini 10-15 minute concerts that are sort of awkward and intimate and wonderful. If you’ve never seen it, it’s one of the coolest and most random things in the world and the kind of gift only the Internet could provide. Enjoy. Then get Kat’s record and tell me scrumptious isn’t the only damn word in the dictionary that will do.