Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Feast or Famine

When it comes to playing RPGs its either feast or famine for me. I hadn't managed to get a game in for most of the summer, due to stuff like moving, vacation, going to a wedding, etc., and an attempt to follow up a pretty satisfying Sorcerer & Sword game with a run of With Great Power... kept hitting scheduling snags.

But then, in the last five days, I've played four different games: Shock: Social Science Fiction, 1001 Nights, The Princes Kingdom, and the much-delayed first With Great Power... session. My eventual goal is to play, consistently, at least one game a week, but I don't see that happening quite yet.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Robots and Rayguns and Defining Sci-Fi

So, over on Thor's blog, I (off-topically) made the comment that "Games with Sci-Fi color = Sci-Fi games". Joshua A.C. Newman (designer of the upcoming and eagerly awaited by me Sci-Fi RPG Shock: Social Science Fiction) disagreed and suggested we take up the discussion someplace else to avoid clogging up Thor's thread with internet craziness.

Here's my basic thinking:

If you ask the man/woman on the street to name some works of sci-fi. Responses might include Star Wars, Star Trek, Blade Runner, Aliens, Terminator, The Matrix. Depending on when they were born and whether or not they read books, maybe they'll mention Asimov or Bradbury or L. Ron Hubbard or Philip K. Dick, too.

So, most people identify Sci-Fi based on its color: robots, aliens, spaceships, clones, super-duper gadgets, etc.

Why pay attention to these average Joes and Janes? Why not go to the experts?

Well, genres aren't top-down affairs: they're created through the interplay between authors and audiences (made up of those average Joes and Janes as well as more dedicated fans).

I think it can be very useful to differentiate between various sub-genres of Sci-Fi - as in, Star Wars is Space Opera and Orbitsville is Hard Sci-Fi and A Voyage to Arcturus is Philosophical Sci-Fi. Especially if you are editing a short-story collection, writing an essay, trying to effectively market a story, or designing a super-focused narrativist RPG.

But I think it might be more useful (or at least, it's been more useful for me) to be able to look at the genre in the way it is commonly understood. (FWIW, I'm not alone in this: Tom Disch's interesting look at Sci-Fi, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, takes a very catholic approach to what makes up sci-fi: Star Wars, Heinlein, Stapledon, John Crowley, L. Ron Hubbard, and Star Trek.)

And I think it is definitely useful (for anyone who's interested in the genre at least) to be able to consider the reasons behind this common understanding.

Take Star Wars and Asimov's Foundation Series: one focuses on pulpy adventure and the other focuses on social commentary. But both feature robots, galaxy spanning civilizations, and spaceships. (From an old-fashioned, Northrop Frye-ish lit-crit standpoint Star Wars and most of the Foundation novels are actually Romances).

Like I said, I get why people want to say that Star Wars and the Foundation novels are different beasts. But they do have shared features and it just makes the most sense to me that we acknowledge these shared features by lumping them both into the basic genre of Sci-Fi.

This is kind of an Occam's Razor thing: stories with spaceships and robots and other kinds of hi-tech, futuristic color certainly have something in common. Why come up with some other term/concept to describe what they have in common when we already have a perfectly good term/concept in Sci-Fi (as the genre is commonly understood)?

And I think Sci-Fi in this general sense is truer to the history of the writing/publishing/reading of these kinds of stories. Taking a more restrictive definition of Sci-Fi tends to retroactively un-Sci-Fi a lot of stories that were considered to be Sci-Fi when they were originally written/published/read. But we're dealing with a living genre, so I think things are too tangled together for this to work. For instance, there are a lot of books that, it seems to be, belong in the Sci-Fi genre, but that don't live up to the restrictive definition that guys like Heinlein (perhaps self-servingly?) proposed: like - Charles Harness's The Paradox Men or Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius books.

(Another way to look at it: most people have no trouble lumping the Hopalong Cassidy movies together with Deadwood by calling them all Westerns, but they're certainly as different from each other in theme/focus/intent as Star Wars is to the Foundation novels).

The spaceship and raygun and robot part of these stories is supremely important for firing up the imaginations of the members of their audience, regardless of whatever else the story is up to. That is, there's a reason spaceships and robots show up in both "Star Wars" and the Foundation novels, despite the fact that these stories have different goals/themes/concerns.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A Hazard of New Fortunes

At one time, William Dean Howells was considered one of the big guns of 19th C American Lit - up there with Melville, Hawthorne, Twain, etc. But (based on my research, i.e. reading the afterword to A Hazard of New Fortunes) his reputation seems to have taken a serious hit sometime after the rise of modernism and the kind of novels he wrote aren't that fashionable in lit-fic circles. I don't think too many people nowadays are familiar with his work, which is too bad, IMHO.

Anyway, here are some things I liked about the book, along with some half-assed speculations/generalizations about why Howells's star has faded:

1. The "Journalistic" Aspect - Probably the most striking/coolest thing about the book from the perspective of a resident of 21st C New York City is the picture it paints of late 19th C New York City life. For instance, there's a relatively large section in the early part of the book that is all about the problems of finding a suitable NYC apartment - it was very neat to compare what has changed (which neighborhoods were considered good) with what hasn't (finding an apartment is a pain in the ass). There's also lots of great stuff about how the relatively new Elevated Train changed the way people lived their lives (not to mention another chunk of the book that deals with early transit worker strikes).

One of my big beefs with modernist & post-modernist novelists is that, for the most part, they've given up on this journalistic/documentarian aspect of the novel. "A Hazard of New Fortunes" tries to convey a sense of what day-to-day life was like, in a very matter-of-fact, laid-back manner.

I think the journalistic aspect has faded for two major reasons: One, modernist and post-modernist novels seem to be much more focused on issues of Identity. Take Philip Roth's "Zuckerman Unbound" (chosen because this is one of my favorite novels, so I feel that I am allowed to pick on it a little): lots of stuff about what it means to be Jewish (of a contempo, secular bent) and what it means to be a writer who has taken his Jewishness as a subject but virtually nothing on what it is like to live in NYC during the 1960s. Not that Roth is under any obligation to provide any "documentary details", but when every novel becomes, essentially, What It Means to Be Me, lit-fic (as a whole) becomes dangerously close to being swallowed up by solipsistic quicksand. Two, I wonder if narrative film & TV have somewhat displaced the novel in this regard. That's a bigger, sociological question that I am completely unprepared to answer, though.

2. The Characters - Of course I enjoy reading about characters that I can "identify with", but I also really like it when I'm reading an older novel and come across characters I can identify from my life. For instance, one of the main characters in the book is an artist living the NYC bohemian lifestyle while being supported by his father (a laborer from Upstate): I can easily imagine a lot of the parent-supported bohemians that I know making the same kind of rationalizations that Howells's artist character does.

3. No Big Deal - Compared to the other 19th C American Lit I've read, Howells's books are pretty low key: they aren't epics or huge tragedies or searing indictments of anything. They're much more modest and operate on a very down-to-earth level. "A Hazard of New Fortunes" doesn't go after a Big Theme and, if it can be honestly said to be "About" anything (in the sense that students write papers about
how a novel is "about" something) it's about what life was like in NYC at the end of the 19th C and, somewhat more specifically, about how the economic realities of 19th C America shaped NYC society. But it goes about its business in a fairly unfocused manner. Howells isn't interested in the Great Capitalized Themes: Love, Death, Honor, Revolution, Evil, Progress, etc. Or rather, he's not interested in capitalizing any of these themes - they're all there, floating around, but none ever threatens to take over the book.

I think, to a certain extent, we overvalue Big, Searing, Great Novels and undervalue novels that might be just as good, but keep a much lower profile. Not that there's anything wrong with Big, Searing, Great Novels, but variety being the spice of life and all that. (By "we" here, I might mean "Americans", as it seems the Brits, for
example, have done a pretty good job of honoring lower-key, "domestic" authors, like Trollope, for instance).

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Art School Confidential

Before I talk about Art School Confidential, I have to explain what I mean when I use the phrase "Fake Plot".

Most movie comedies are driven by gags and jokes. But gags and jokes alone do not make a story.

Now, in many of the greatest, most well-respected comedies, the gags and jokes are fully integrated into the story: the situation the characters are in fuels the gags, which in turn push the story along. When this is the case, I say that the comedy has a "Real Plot". Some examples of "Real Plot" comedies: Seven Chances, Bringing Up Baby, Passport to Pimlico, Some Like it Hot, Dick, The 40 Year Old Virgin.

However, in many other comedies, the gags do not necessarily have any relation to the actual plot. The story is essentially arbitrary: the gags would work just as well in any number of different situations. In these cases, I say that the movie has a "Fake Plot": there's a story and a three act structure, but the story and the structure seem to be there just because. My go to example of a "Fake Plot" comedy is Dumb and Dumber: there are a lot of great gags in the movie, but they really have nothing to do with the ostensible plot of the movie, which involves a kidnapping and some kind of financial real estate shenanigans or something. At least I think it does: even though I've seen Dumb and Dumber four or five times and I generally have a really good memory for this stuff, I really can't remember any of the story details.

"Fake Plot" isn't necessarily a bad thing. It doesn't ruin my enjoyment of Dumb and Dumber or Animal Crackers or It's a Gift, for example. But it can be a real burden on a comedy, sucking the life out of the gags, and it's usually a sign of a lack of inventiveness or plain old laziness on the part of the filmmakers.

Take Happy Gilmore, for instance. Now, it gets a lot of funny gags out of its one idea: Adam Sandler as a tantrum-throwing, goonish golfer. But the plot, which involves him trying to win enough money to save his grandmother's home, is really beneath contempt. It has nothing to do with any of the gags: its only function is to provide an essentially arbitrary motivation for Sandler's character. What is particularly bad is that the hackneyed grandmother plot was obviously chosen out of sheer laziness: it is simply the easiest choice the screenwriters could make. From my p.o.v., what makes Happy Gilmore guilty of pandering to the lowest common denominator is not its sophomoric gags (which are actually funny) but the fact that the filmmakers get away with putting so little thought into the movie's story.

"Fake Plots" show up a lot in vehicles for comedians like Sandler, Jim Carrey, Jerry Lewis, and the Marx Brothers, because it is a lot easier to simply tack on a bunch of gags to some kind of generic three-act storyline than to come up with a fully integrated comedy. (Jerry Lewis experimented with "No Plot" comedies - like The Bellboy - but I guess audiences really didn't go for that. Film snob that I am, I prefer "No Plot" to "Fake Plot" most of the time).

I should note at this point that my "Real Plot"/"Fake Plot" classifications are pretty casual and subjective. For me, making this distinction has been useful, but you shouldn't mistake this for some kind of big theory.

So what does this have to do with Art School Confidential?

Well, for much of the movie, Art School Confidential functions as an almost perfect, almost "No Plot" comedy. Dan Clowes, the movie's screenwriter, is not only one of the premier graphic novelists of the last twenty years, he's an accomplished gag cartoonist and it comes through here. The best bits in the movie are like nastier versions of New Yorker-style cartoons.

The gags bounce off each other and the movie meanders along rather nicely, more-or-less following an unobtrusive plotline involving the main character's attempt to woo a beautiful artists' model. It doesn't really build up any comic momentum, but I think that's okay for a movie of this type.

Then about 2/3rds of the way into the movie, all-of-a-sudden-like, a subplot about a serial killer takes over the movie. And it does so in a way that not only does not work, but also pretty much ruins the whole movie.

By bringing the serial killer storyline to the foreground, Dan Clowes and Terry Zwigoff have given Art School Confidential what is not exactly a "Fake Plot" but comes pretty close. It is meant to sum up the movie's take on the art world, operating on a larger scale than the individual gags, but it still seems tacked on and arbitrary for two major reasons:

Reason #1 is that the entire serial killer plot feels like it was cobbled together from bits and pieces of various storylines in Clowes's Eightball comic book. (I'm thinking specifically of "Gynecology", David Boring, and Ice Haven.)

Reason #2 follows from Reason #1: it isn't intrinsically a bad thing for Clowes to re-use his old material - especially in a different medium that has a larger audience. However, the way these stories work in Eightball, in terms of their tone and style, is at odds with Terry Zwigoff's sensibilities as a filmmaker.

I'm going to spoil the end of the movie now.

The ironic twist endings of Clowes's comics work because of his dispassionate, cold, almost clinical point-of-view towards his characters. It is apt that he references Sherwood Anderson in Ice Haven, which is perhaps his masterpiece, because he shares Anderson's skepticism towards humanity that borders on misanthropy. David Boring, my favorite of his longer works, gets a lot of its oomph by seducing us into identifying in some way with the title character and then pulling the rug out from under us with revelations that make us question our understanding of him: a single panel will suddenly up-end everything we thought we knew about the character.

But Zwigoff doesn't work that way. Like Clowes, he's an ironist, but he's not as clinical and distanced as Clowes is in his comics. He's not as harsh. And, working in film, where we respond to characters more directly than in comics, he's unable to pull off the p.o.v. bait-and-switch that drive stories like Ice Haven and David Boring.

We can't help but identify with Jerome, the protagonist of Art School Confidential, partly because we're meant to see the absurdities of the art world through his eyes and partly because he's played by an appealing actor in a low-key appealing way. Apart from a little bit of whininess and mopiness, there's nothing about the character that inspires anything but sympathy.

When Jerome is suddenly revealed as an awful, shallow, heartless, opportunistic, near-sociopathic cheat, the movie begins to fall apart.

Zwigoff is not as cold and calculating as Clowes and, as Jerome, Max Minghella is too genial, so instead of the kind of clear, dramatic, shocking reversals that we see in David Boring and Ice Haven we get something muddled and confused. It is not ambiguous: it's just not very clear.

I can imagine that this would work better with an actor who had a more hostile, confrontational persona (my friend Nick smartly suggested Jason Schwartzman would have been perfect for this role a few years ago). Also, I think Ryan Gosling, who's not only talented but has greater technical acting chops than anyone else in his age group, could have pulled off the shift from nice guy to borderline sociopath on his own. But while Minghella is perfectly fine, he doesn't know what to do with the character once this change in perspective occurs and Zwigoff is unable to give him any help.

There's a number of ironic twists in Clowes's screenplay that Zwigoff does not (or cannot) play up, so the movie gives off the impression that it doesn't quite understand its screenplay. For example, Jonah, a police officer pretending to be an artist, honestly attempts to make good paintings, even though we're meant to laugh at the limitations of his skills and sensibility and at the pompous art scenesters who take him seriously. On the other hand, Jerome, supposedly the "true" artist, passes off someone else's paintings as his own and is perfectly happy to continue this deception as long as it helps his career.

But Zwigoff never clarifies this distinction or even gives any suggestion that he sees it.

And it's confusing when Audrey, Jerome's love interest, who has been the most level-headed character in the movie, unambiguously accepts Jerome not only as a romantic partner but also as a great artist. Part of me thinks that Clowes means us to have the same kind of shift in perspective towards her that we did towards Jerome: she's not as perceptive and/or much more mercenary than we were led to believe.

Terry Zwigoff's film of Ghost World worked so well because Zwigoff was able to criticize the alienated, ironic sensibility of Clowes's graphic novel. To paraphrase film critic Charles Taylor, it's an ironic movie about the limits of irony. But the screenplay for Art School Confidential ends up being darker, more bitterly ironic, than Ghost World's, and Zwigoff's inability to get on its wavelength results in a kind of half-baked, play-acted misanthropy: too dark to enjoy as comedy and not nearly cutting enough to work as satire.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Topic for Discussion: That Special Feeling...

A topic for discussion from something I wrote in the comments section of my last post:
I wonder if [Alan] Moore is "big" enough that someone will come along and do Moore "right" without actually, specifically adapting one his works. I'm thinking of the way Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind captured the low-rent sci-fi feel of Philip K. Dick's stories better than any of the official Dick adaptations.

So, we're talking about movies that aren't actual adaptations that "get" something about a writer better than any other movie, especially movies that are adapted directly from the writer's work.

The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless mind is my go-to example: it nails the next-week-in-Hoboken feel of Philip K. Dick's stories better than the big-budget, effects-packed movies that are actually adapted from them.

Another example: The Third Man, where Graham Greene and Carol Reed do a better job of bringing the sensibility of Eric Ambler's spy novels to the screen than the movies taken directly from Ambler's novels (even the ones where Ambler worked on the screenplays).

Do any other movies fit?

If I recall correctly, Pauline Kael made this kind of point about Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us and William Faulkner.

Some more of my own suggestions: 28 Days Later - J.G. Ballard's sci-fi novels, Fingers and Black & White - various pieces (essays, novels, etc.) by Norman Mailer.

Anyone else have any?

(As a starting place, here are a couple of authors who, I feel, haven't been done justice by the movies based on their work: Joseph Conrad, Jack Kirby, Donald E. Westlake. Elmore Leonard would have made this list if it weren't for Out of Sight.)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

A Short Comment on Alan Moore Movies on the Occasion of Me Not Going to See V for Vendetta

The Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman movies that work well, do so, in part, because those characters are all brilliant creations, in their own right. Even last year's Fantastic Four movie, which doesn't even try to achieve 1% of the visual extravagance and elegance of Jack Kirby's comics, gets by on the strength of Kirby and Stan Lee's original characterizations. Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and Jack Kirby had a gift for coming up with these explosive pop culture concepts. (Shuster and Siegel and Bob Kane and Bill Finger aren't quite giants, in that they more or less stumbled upon their great creations by accident, but they did manage to tap into some very powerful mojo). The movies based on these comics tend to be good based on the extent to which filmmakers can translate the basics of the concepts to the screen.

The thing with Alan Moore is that he's not at all "creative" in the same way that Lee, Kirby, and Ditko (and others) were (or even in the same way that Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, or Grant Morrison are). Moore doesn't create his own powerful, potent, pop culture concepts: he takes other people's concepts and turns them inside out or rearranges them or makes them answer all those unanswered subtextual questions that, not coincidentally, helped make the concepts powerful and potent to begin with.

He does it in From Hell with the Jack the Ripper created by fringe Ripperologists, in Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? with Mort Weisinger-era Superman, in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with late 19th Century pulp/adventure/genre fiction, in V with ubermensch mystery men-type characters like The Shadow and Batman, and in Watchmen with Steve Ditko et al.'s Charlton heroes.

But when Movie Industry People look at his comics, all they see is the potent, powerful, pop cultural concept, and they ignore all the other stuff, i.e. the actual "Alan Moore" stuff. The way Movie People use his comics is a lot like the way they use Philip K. Dick's short stories: to provide a clever hook on which they can hang a standard action thriller.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


When I got home last night, my copy of the brand new parlor/storytelling/role-playing game The Shab-al-Hiri Roach was waiting for me.

I'm pretty excited: I've played an earlier version of the game, but on first skim-through the finished product looks really great.

Why I like the game:
1. The game works really well with folks who have never played this kind of thing before. It is a very easy game to get up and running. I would whole-heartedly recommend it to any fans of the horror genre in general and Lovecraft in particular.

2. The mix of Lovecraftian horror and academic satire is really its own thing. I mean, it kind of has a Re-animator vibe, but compared to most games of this type, it is an original work rather than an attempt to capture the feel of another piece of pop culture. (It is one of the only games I've ever played that I think could be adapted into a good movie, or, even better, a good off-Broadway musical).

3. It plays out in one sitting, like your standard board game or parlor game. This makes it the perfect game for playing on short notice.

4. It rewards players for coming up with really evil and nasty and funny ideas.

And now a geek confession: I was really, really, really psyched that I got a shout out in the acknowledgement section for my playtesting efforts. In reality, my contributions amounted nothing more than (a) playing the game a bunch of times and (b) telling the author that he shouldn't change anything. However, I think it is ridiculously cool that my name appears, at all, in such a terrific game.

(Oh, and here's a very nice post on the actual game. And here's a post about me actually playing the game).

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Geek Out

So, my friend Nick pointed me to this item from AICN about a remake of Hard Boiled starring Chow Yun Fat and directed by Johnny To.

I try not to geek out about this kind of thing (too much), but Johnny To is my favorite current director of artsy-action movies and I've even come to prefer his movies to those of John Woo, so I am pretty psyched about this.

I'll have to finish up my "Johnny To Appreciation" post very soon... (Argh, the list of things I want to write about is growing, but the amount of time I can devote to writing is shrinking... Oh well...)

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Games, Games, Games...

As I mentioned in my post on my most recent Top Ten Film List, the amount of movie-watching I've done has declined over the past year or so. There are a couple of reasons for this, but the main one is that I've really gotten back into playing tabletop RPGs. I'd also like to blame RPGs for my lack of new posts here over the last six months or so, but, to be fair, I stopped blogging before I really started gaming on a regular basis.

However, RPGs do help to scratch both my "movie watching/reading comic books/cultural consumption-in-general" itch and my "be creative" itch, with the added benefit of being a heck of a lot more social than watching DVDs or sitting in front of a computer screen waiting for inspiration.

I had wanted to get back into RPGing for a few years now, but it wasn't until the end of last summer that I made a real push: I rounded up a few friends who hadn't really played much before and got them to give it a try, I started participating at, and I tried out playing games over internet chat. As a result, I'm currently in a Heroquest game through the Gotham Gaming Guild and a weekly Burning Wheel game. And I'm going to be playing in a Sorceror game very soon. Not only that, I've gotten the chance to play in a lot of pick-up sessions (much Trollbabe and The Shab-al-Hiri Roach and some Dogs in the Vineyardand Polaris) and playtest some in-development games. (I've even started tinkering around with my own game designs).

What's cool is that all this RPGing isn't about nostalgia: I'm not reaching for the kind of fun I had with these games when I was in high school and college. Rather, I'm able to approach the experience with a greater sense of seriousness, and (paradoxically perhaps), a greater sense of enjoyment: gaming is much more fulfilling to me now than it has ever been. And this is probably a function of my being more comfortable and contented with my life in general, and having a better sense of what I really want to get out of the way I spend my leisure time.

Friday, March 10, 2006

From the Archives: Performance Anxieties

For a while now, I’ve wanted to write a post about why most of the conventional wisdom about what makes good acting - especially in movies - is wrong.

Many smart people spend a good deal of time thinking and writing about movies, but hardly anyone pays much attention to the acting. Whether writing popular movie reviews or academic film criticism, most writers will spend a great deal of time dealing with the specifics of a movie’s plot, theme, script, and technique, but they’ll describe the acting only in superficial generalities (i.e., “Tom Hanks was very believable” or “Keanu Reeves was wooden” or “Russell Crowe got to the heart of the character,” etc.).

I’m tempted to explain this by saying that writing about the specifics of a performance is simply harder than writing about the specifics of a screenplay. However, I don’t think that this is precisely true, that is, I think it is harder for most writers to write about acting, but not because of any inherent difference in difficulty. Rather, writers, being writers, find it easier to treat movies as a piece of writing. They find it easier to write about the literary qualities that movies shares with other kinds of writing (plot, theme, dialogue, etc.) than it is to write about those qualities that movies share with interpretative/performing arts.

I’d argue that only a writer could have come up with something like the auteur theory, because only a writer would look at a movie as the realization of a single person’s vision. A casual moviegoer would more likely, and more rightly, see a movie as the result of collaboration between the actors and some unseen technicians.

To offer some completely anecdotal evidence: not once in my career as a cinema studies grad student did I encounter (1) a piece of writing about acting or (2) someone who was working on a piece of writing about acting or (3) someone who was interested in writing about acting. I did come across a lot of people writing about star personae, but those writers weren’t interested in acting per se but rather how a star’s image affected the reading of a movie.

However, it isn’t only writers, critics, and academics who have a blind spot when it comes to acting. Most people seem to judge performances not based on the acting but on what I like to call the ahc-ting. In one of my favorite blog posts, Michael Blowhard decries what he calls “writin’”, that is writing, which word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, calls attention to its own importance and literary greatness. Following Michael, I’d like to use the word “ahc-ting” to describe the kind of acting where ever line reading and gesture is meant to call attention to the meaning and importance of the performance. Ahc-ting doesn’t necessarily require scenery chewing or going over-the-top. It can and often does, but some of the most egregious ahc-ting is very subtle. Unfortunately, it seems that most people now judge good acting by the standards of ahc-ting. Ahc-ting is supposed to impress people, and much of it is impressive. However, even when I’ve been impressed, I haven’t much liked it. Here are a few suggestions that might help save us all from ahc-ting:

Actors should not show how hard they are working.

Every performance requires a certain amount of effort. Some require a great deal. However, I never really enjoy a performance when an actor doesn’t let me forget how much effort it’s taking.

Method actors — even very good ones — will often start showing-off their homework when they have nothing else to do. John Cassavetes’s movies are filled with very good actors who, because they’re not given any specific direction and they’re not trying to play specific characters, end up flailing around, wrestling with their inner demons for no greater purpose than to show the audience how much effort they’re putting into the whole affair.

Movie stars will often make this mistake. For example, Tom Cruise is always taking roles — Ron Kovic in Born on the Fourth of July or Fank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia — where he has to strain and sweat and strut, in order to show that he’s a “real” ahc-tor, and not just a pretty face.

Meryl Streep does this, albeit with more class and skill than most. Streep’s performances are all very technically accomplished, but there’s usually not much more your can say about them. It’s not so much a case of her showing off how hard she’s working, but of having nothing to show the audience except the preparation she’s taken: she approaches a role as if it were an exercise in an acting class. I usually don’t mind watching Streep because, unlike Tom Cruise, for example, she is talented and she does know a lot about the nuts and bolts of acting. However, most of Streep’s performances aren’t that enjoyable.

99% of the time actors should just be themselves.

For some actors, mimicry can be a very effective technique (see Sir Laurence Olivier and Daniel Day-Lewis), but mimicry itself isn’t acting. However, many people seem to believe that mimicry is at the heart of acting: that actors must try to “be” someone else and that acting is a kind of self-transformation. This is an unfortunate delusion. Acting is about playing a part, which is accomplished not by a combination of physical and emotional contortions, but by saying and doing and pretending to want the same things a character is supposed to say and do and want.

In general, actors should avoid mimicry for two major reasons:

1) Most actors simply aren’t good at it. There’s nothing less compelling than someone expending a lot of effort trying to “transform” themselves into someone else when it is painfully obvious that no such transformation is possible. I like Russell Crowe in movies like L.A. Confidential and Master and Commander, but his attempt to portray John Nash in A Beautiful Mind is completely preposterous. Crowe’s performance consists entirely of flexing his fingers, stuttering, and giving off an “uncomfortable” vibe.

2) Even actors who are technically proficient mimics have a tendency to turn mimicry into a stunt. Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rain Man is a perfect example. Hoffman does an excellent job of impersonating an autistic person, but the performance would have been just as effective if it were 5 minutes long. Jim Carrey nails the Andy Kaufman routines in Man on the Moon, but, again, so what?

The least enjoyable kind of mimicry occurs when the impersonation itself is the entire point of the performance. In these cases the audience is meant to look at the characters and say “I can’t believe that’s really so-and-so.” Once that’s been said, really, there’s usually nothing more to say about these kinds of performances. A recent example is Charlize Theron’s performance in Monster. Though Theron is a competent actor, the big draw of watching Monster wasn’t her performance, per se, but that you couldn’t believe it was her under all that make-up.

There are few things I find more annoying than listening to someone criticize an actor because he (or she) always plays himself (or herself). As far as I am concerned “playing yourself” is neither good nor bad. What matters is how interesting and enjoyable the performance is, not its novelty. Moreover, it makes sense to cast actors in roles that fit them. In other words, it makes sense to cast actors within their range, and we shouldn’t care how great an actor’s range is if he (or she) is always good within it.

The “playing himself” criticism is also bogus because many actors manage to play many different characters, while always “playing themselves.” James Stewart, for example, is perfectly believable as an uptight, oversensitive urban clerk (The Shop Around the Corner), a small town man at the end of his rope (It’s a Wonderful Life), an aw-shucks farm boy in the big city (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), an ornery cattle driving outlaw (The Far Country), and an obsessive whack-job (Vertigo, but also, with more subtlety, The Man Who Knew Too Much). Yet, though all these characters are certainly different, in each performance Stewart is just as certainly “himself.” Or, rather, Stewart manages to play a wide variety of characters by emphasizing different aspects of his "self" as appropriate.

Rather than thinking of good actors as people who can convincingly “be someone else,” I’d argue that good actors are people who can convincingly find themselves in the roles they play.

It’s just a method.

Now, I don’t want to dump on method acting alone. My beef is with any kind of “one-true-way” kind of acting criticism. For example, my reply to Olivier’s anti-method quip to Dustin Hoffman, who was going a little overboard in his method-y preparations for Marathon Man — “Why don’t you try acting?” — would be to suggest that what Hoffman was doing was part of the acting process, it just wasn’t the same process Olivier had been taught. (As the proof of the pudding is in the eating, it is perhaps useful to point out that neither man’s preparations did them much good in Marathon Man: Olivier comes across as a constipated B-movie Nazi and Hoffman is a passive, uninteresting slug. The movie would have been better with Christopher Lee and Richard Dreyfuss, but that might have thwarted John Schlesinger’s plan of making a thoroughly miserable film.)

Unfortunately, when most people think of “good acting” they are thinking of only one or two things: a serious Method performance (Sean Penn in Mystic River) and/or a serious British Classical performance (Sir Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs). These two styles use different techniques, but they share the same goal: naturalistic performance. Truth be told, both styles do a pretty good job of achieving naturalism on a regular basis, but that still leaves the question of whether “naturalism” itself should be the goal of a performance.

Of course, I don’t think it should be. Nowadays, audiences and critics tend to look down on overt theatricality, which is a real shame, as many of the greatest actors of the first half of the 20th Century gave theatrical-style performances: Orson Welles, Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart (in The Treasure of the Sierra Madres, for example), James Cagney, Ida Lupino, etc. Gary Oldman is one of the few genuine hams who gets any respect from contemporary critics.

Almost everything is forgivable if (a) the actor is having fun and (b) the audience is having fun.

A lot of people complain about actors who “chew the scenery.” Now, this can be a legitimate complaint, but a lot of the time, I find over-the-top hamming extremely enjoyable. However, this is dependent on tone and context. For example, I got a real kick out of Al Pacino’s shenanigans in The Devil’s Advocate, where he gets so angry he catches on fire but couldn’t stand them in Scent of a Woman, when we’re meant to take them seriously. Likewise, I thought that Sir Anthony Hopkins was a hoot in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but that his scenery chewing in The Silence of the Lambs was preposterous. His Hannibal Lecter was far too actor-y to fit into a movie that is trying to be a realistic psychological thriller. (Compare Hopkins’s performance in Lambs to Brian Cox’s understated, but much creepier, take on Lecter in Manhunter).

And I could go on and on…

I guess I’ll stop here for now, but I could certainly add a few more, like: line reading isn’t everything (too many people overlook the physical side of a performance), beautiful people can be fine actors (and they shouldn’t need to make themselves ugly to prove it), range isn’t everything (the Christopher Walken Rule)…

Though this post was basically an excuse to air some pet peeves, I hope that it will inspire you to question the conventional wisdom about good acting and be more willing to stand up for performances that you actually find enjoyable—not just the ones you’re supposed to find impressive.

5x5 Favorites: Underrated Directors Edition

My 5 Favorite Philip Kaufman Movies

1. The Unbearable Lightness of Being
2. The Right Stuff
3. The Wanderers
4. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
5. Rising Sun

My 5 Favorite Fred Schepisi Movies

1. Six Degrees of Separation
2. Last Orders
3. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith
4. The Russia House
5. Roxanne

My 5 Favorite John Boorman Movies

1. Where the Heart Is
2. Hope and Glory
3. Beyong Rangoon
4. Excalibur
5. The Tailor of Panama

My 5 Favorite Irvin Kershner Movies

1. The Empire Strikes Back
2. Loving
3. The Luck of Ginger Coffey
4. The Return of a Man Called Horse
5. Hoodlum Priest

My 5 Favorite Johnny To Movies

1. Running Out of Time
2. Throwdown
3. PTU
4. Where a Good Man Goes
5. The Mission

Thursday, March 9, 2006

Ilkka on Final Destination 2

I like reading Ilkka Kokkarinen's blog Sixteen Volts, mainly because his take on things is so different from mine. I feel especially out of sync with him when he writes about art and pop culture. For instance, he judges sci-fi novels in terms of the accuracy of their predictions, which I think is kind of wrong way to approach science fiction.

However, today he wrote about the movie Final Destination 2 in a way that almost makes me want to see it - I've avoided it mainly because I thought the original Final Destination (which I saw in the theater) was one of the lamest movies I've ever experienced. Anyways, here's Ilkka on FD2:

The very premise of the movie, that there is no monster in a rubber suit lurking around but the whole physical reality itself is the monster that tries to kill our main characters as impersonally as gravity pulling down a rock thrown in the air, acting teleologically but constrained to obey the laws of physics (for example, a knife can't just jump out the drawer and fly through the air to slash your throat), is absolutely brilliant. If the Matrix movies inspired books of philosophical essays, the premise of this movie should also inspire at least a few blog posts.

No matter where you run, you can't escape the fact that you are still inside the physical reality. Thus the only way to try to survive is to live in a specially constructed safehouse that doesn't contain anything that the physical reality could potentially use as a weapon. But is this really living? Add to this the excellent special effects when the death eventually catches the teens one by one, and the result is a truly excellent movie.

Anyone else feel this way about FD2? Anyone know of any other horror movies that work in a similar way?

5x5 Favorites: Clint and Friends Edition

My 5 Favorite Clint Eastwood Peformances

1. A Perfect World
2. Unforgiven
3. Coogan's Bluff
4. The Bridges of Madison County
5. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

My 5 Favorite Clint Eastwood-Directed Movies

1. A Perfect World
2. Unforgiven
3. The Outlaw Josey Wales
4. High Plains Drifter
5. White Hunter Black Heart

My 5 Favorite Don Siegel Movies

1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
2. Charley Varrick
3. Coogan's Bluff
4. The Killers
5. Madigan

My 5 Favorite Sergio Leone Movies

1. Once Upon a Time in the West
2. Once Upon a Time in America
3. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
4. A Fistful of Dollars
5. A Fistful of Dynamite

5 Directors Clint Should Have Worked With (or Should Work With Now in the Case of 4 and 5)

1. Sam Peckinpah
2. Francois Truffaut
3. Howard Hawks
4. Johnny To
5. Steven Soderbergh

Wednesday, March 8, 2006

More on sitcoms

My post on Sons & Daughters was pretty much content-free. I wish I could spin some kind of social/cultural commentary out of it, but I don't pay enough attention to pop culture trends to do that kind of thing.

However, it did get me thinking more generally about sitcoms, so I'll share these reflections with you:

I realize that even though I've watched almost every episode, I'm not a huge fan of The Simpsons. Although perhaps this is because I've watched almost every episode: the show has long passed the point where the bad ones outnumber the good. Now, I could go on and on listing my favorite Simpsons gags (the musical version of Planet of the Apes comes to mind before anything else), but it's the overall sensibility of the show that I just find very wearying. The super-bright writers end up giving the show an insistent, "we're really smart - really", show-offy quality that I find harder and harder to take.

However, I'm having almost exactly the opposite experience with Seinfeld: I was never a devoted follower of the show when it was originally on - I thought it was sometimes funny but always obnoxious - but I've really come around to liking it quite a bit. I think what happened was that watching Curb Your Enthusiasm has given me a greater appreciation for what they were going for on Seinfeld. Curb is more successful (it is Seinfeld stripped to its bare essence without any "extra bullshit"), but Seinfeld is really growing on me, and it seems like, compared to those of most sitcoms, Seinfeld's "famous" episodes really deserve their renown. The only problem I still have with the show is that I think a lot of the acting on it is pretty bad. Jerry is a fine stand-up comedian, but he's no actor and it can be painful to watch him try to, you know, actually act. And after the first season or so, Michael Richards turned into an unbearable ham, playing everything to the audience in the worst possible way. But Jason Alexander is just about perfect in every scene.

Finally, I've been watching episodes of the old Dabney Coleman sitcom Buffalo Bill on DVD. When I was in high school, one of my Media Literacy teachers used this show as an example of sitcoms that were too smart and too quirky to find an audience. Looking at it now, I can see that it probably did push the sitcom envelope when it was first aired, but it really hasn't aged well. Are sitcoms more prone to feeling dated than other kinds of TV shows? Off the top of my head, there's only a couple of "Sitcoms from the Past" (i.e., from before I was in high school) that I can still really enjoy: The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy, Shelly Long-era Cheers, The Bob Newhart Show (but definitely not Newhart). Feel free to add your own additions to this list in the comments.

Sons & Daughters

I try not to get my hopes up too much or jump on the bandwagon too quickly when it comes to TV shows: my favorites usually get cancelled right after hitting their stride (Arrested Development) or go south when their original spark burns out (The O.C.). Also, I don't give very high priority to watching TV shows as they air (as opposed to watching them on DVD at my leisure).

Still, I thought Sons & Daughters, which premiered last night, is pretty funny. It's a "kooky family" sitcom and it is (supposedly) "partially unscripted" (like Curb Your Enthusiasm, maybe). The show, as opposed to most sitcoms, even the ones I really enjoy, like Arrested Development or the American version of The Office, is pretty laid back: its understated rhythms remind me a lot of the cult cartoons Dr. Katz and Home Movies.

I'd like to see this show (a) stay as good as its first two episodes and (b) find an audience. I'm a lot more optimistic about (a) than (b), although for the last few years it has been a slightly better time for good sitcoms. Sure, Arrested Development got cancelled, but at least it was around for three seasons (two-and-a-half of which are pretty great), The Office seems to be a modest hit, and Curb Your Enthusiasm has a home on HBO.

Tuesday, March 7, 2006

I've never done this before. Really...

I've never done this kind of post before, but I thought it might be fun (i.e., requiring a lot less effort than my last post). Here are a couple of recent searches that brought people to my blog. Since I doubt that what they found here was all that useful to them, I will do my best to help them out:

kill bill feminist: To sum up: my take is that Kill Bill is a pseudo-feminist movie, or, rather, its "empowered" heroine is really a 14-year-old male geek's fantasy.

difference between CART and Indy cars: Well, I am a bad racing pundit, because I don't know any of the specific technical differences between Champ Cars (CART is now the Champ Car World Series) and Indy Cars. However, from a more-or-less ignorant fan perspective, the main difference is that Champ Cars have something like those Turbo Buttons in racing arcade games: each car has a limited amount of "extra horsepower" that they can activate by pushing the Power-to-Pass button. This means that Champ cars can actually pass each other on road and street courses AND it adds a whole new level of tactical and strategic considerations to the racing.

indy versus nascar: In terms of money and audience, there's no contest. NASCAR is the champ and the Indy Racing League is the chump. The big bucks flowing into NASCAR has made it the place for the best American race car drivers. However, in terms of sheer racin' excitement, those open-wheel whackadoodles often have the stock car boys beat. This is partly because, it is harder for stock cars to race side-by-side on those popular 1.5-mile ovals than it is for Indy Cars, which, because of their smaller size and greater manuverability, are able to dogfight, lap after lap.

"highest grossing sports movies": The highest grossing sports movies are dumb, raunchy comedies, like The Waterboy, even though dumb, uplifting, sappy melodramas like Seabiscuit give them a run for their money.

all about wener dogs: I am a sloppy editor and this guy is a bad speller, as this took him (or her) to a post of mine where I reference "Wener Herzog". Sorry: The Forager Blog has no opinion on weiner dogs (i.e., dachshunds). Try here.

blog my girlfriend: For any and all visitors from Spain: my girlfriend's blog is here.

calvin and hobbs comics on achievement: Try the storyline involving the time machine, which ends with Calvin getting an "A" on his writing assignment. The lesson: he achieves the most when he is allowed to express his creativity.

rob zombies movies: I kind of liked Rob Zombie's first movie. The Devil's Rejects on the other hand is just about the most awful and unpleasant movie I've ever seen ("just about" brought to you by 8mm).

I hope all the folks who stumble onto this blog looking for answers to these or other important questions eventually find what they are looking for.

Another Year, Another List

Last year around this time, I started this blog off with a post about the movie list party that my good friend Steve throws every year. This year's party took place a couple of weeks ago, so I figured I might as well post about my most recent list.

But first, I should note that over the past year (and especially the last 6 or 7 months), my movie-watching, along with all my other culture-consuming, has undergone a significant shift. I have almost completely lost any desire I once had to "keep up with stuff." So, while I still saw a bunch of movies, I didn't go out of my way to see anything that, for whatever reason, really didn't interest me. For instance, despite all the good things I heard about Walk the Line, I just couldn't bring myself to see another movie that tried to dramatize the various influences and experiences that led to someone's unique contribution to American culture. My fear was that as with Ray or Pollock we'd be treated to scenes where one character explained to another exactly why this contribution was so important. I also was not looking forward to scenes where we learn about how Johnny Cash turned his Real Life Experience into Art. Ugh...

(Note to screenwriters: you don't need these kinds of scenes. For instance, in 24 Hour Party People, Frank Cottrell-Boyce doesn't try to force the exposition about why what we're watching is important into stilted exchanges between the characters: he just has his main character directly address the audience, and tell us why he (that is, the main character) thinks that what we're watching is important. And in a movie like Backbeat, the screenplay never makes a direct, connecting-the-dots link between the biographical stuff and the creating important art stuff. The movie assumes we can figure it out for ourselves.)

Now, for all I know, Walk the Line avoids both of these traps, but the risk that it might fall into them kept me far away from it. (I do plan to see it now that it is out on DVD, so, if you're a fan of the movie, don't bother to tell me that it doesn't contain the kind of scenes I'm afraid of - let me be pleasantly surprised).

Anyway, it wasn't until the month before the actual list party that I got the bug to really catch up with any of the stuff that I had missed at the theaters. (Thank you, Netflix).

A couple of technical notes:

1. This year I have an actual "Top Ten" list. This means that, yes, I did see a bunch of movies that I liked but did not make the list. This is intentional, if essentially arbitrary.

2. Usually, I don't bother to get too technical about release dates or whatever, but, at the last minute, I decided to leave Hana and Alice off the list, because it hadn't actually been released in America (I saw it at the New York Asian Film Festival) and none of my fellow list-makers had a chance to see it. Had I left it on, it would have been in seventh place. I doubt this movie will ever be released here, but maybe it will show up on DVD eventually.

3. There was one movie this year that I thought was significantly better than anything else I saw. This movie got my #1 spot. But the movies in the second to fifth spots I more-or-less liked equally, and, if I redid the list tomorrow, I might rearrange them. Likewise the movies in the sixth to ninth places. And the movie in 10th position could just as easily have been The Chronicles of Narnia, Millions, or Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. Instead it was...

10. The March of the Penguins - Some critics of this movie have argued that it goes too far in its anthropomorphizing the penguins, reading human emotions into a story that is really about pure animal, survival. My take might be a little bleaker: maybe love is as good a word and concept for what these penguins do to make sure their next generation survives as it is for all the various human behaviors that we think it inspires. In other words, sometimes I feel we anthropomorphize ourselves a little too much.

9. The Aristocrats - This documentary is a lot like A Great Day in Harlem. In case you aren't familiar with Harlem, it is a documentary that pretends to tell the straightforward story behind the famous Esquire photograph of the same name, but is secretly about tradition and heritage and America's unique contribution to Western civilization. What's amazing is that it does all this while staying narrowly focused on that one image. The Aristocrats does the same thing, but this time the focus is a dirty joke. On top of that, the movie is extremely funny, and is filled with the some of the best performances of the year.

8. Throwdown - There are many sides to Johnny To: he makes goofy, crowd-pleasers like Love on a Diet and Needing You, snappy action-comedies like Running Out of Time and Breaking News, gritty-ish crime melodramas like The Mission and PTU. And he also makes far out, weird, artsy movies like Running On Karma and this one. Johnny To dedicated Throwdown to Akira Kurosawa, and the movie - about a former Judo champion, now wallowing in debt, despair, and drunkenness, who pulls his act together in order to compete One Last Time - definitely makes a nod or two to Kurosawa's Sugata Sanshiro, but it reminded me more of the kind of gangster movies Jean-Pierre Melville made after he had been ordained as the Godfather of the French New Wave. Throwdown, like Le Cercle rouge, Le Samourai, and Un Flic, is made up of pulpy, effective, off-kilter genre scenes alternating with beautiful, quirky, off-kilter artsy sequences. There's something extremely satisfying about this kind of movie to a middlebrow guy like myself.

7. Munich - I don't go to Steven Spielberg movies looking for in-depth commentary on complicated geo-political situations. I do go to Steven Speilberg movies for expertly-directed set pieces and passionate, expertly-handled melodrama. So, the arguments over what this movie does or does not say about the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seem to me to be focusing on a side issue in a way. I mean, no one I know looked to Saving Private Ryan for an analysis of the issues surrounding World War II (that's what reading Paul Fussell and John Keegan is for). Note: I understand the difference here (i.e., World War II is over), and I also understand that these kinds of arguments are taking place mainly because of the way the movie has been sold to audiences (i.e., that the movie is making an Important Statement). Still, I responded to the movie as a story about the possible psychological effects of having to kill for a cause (no matter how righteous that cause may be).

6. Good Night, and Good Luck - So, while I find the message of this movie pretty unconvincing, I thought it was a very fine piece of filmmaking. I appreciated its modesty and the fact that it was focused (like a laser) on one single event. In this way, it reminded me a lot of Miracle. Except for the scenes of Murrow's speech that bookend the movie, it never felt like it was trying to be Important. (Of course, people have responded to the movie as if it was Really Important, and while Clooney should probably take the blame for that, I can't bring myself to hold it against the movie itself).

5. Duma - Okay, from here on in, no more political controversy (I hope). So, Duma might be the best-directed movie of the year. It is definitely the best-looking movie of the year. And it was made by the guy who made what is perhaps the greatest children's movie of all time. But the studio never really got behind it, and it fizzled after being barely released. My sincere hope is that it becomes a big hit on DVD, but, as I wrote after I saw it, I kind of doubt this will happen. Duma is an old-fashioned children's movie - that is, it doesn't have some new shiny, flashy thing to look at every other second. Of course, not that many adults have the attention span for this kind of movie anymore either, so perhaps I am being unfair to today's children. (Note for fellow animal movie fans: the cheetahs in this movie are perhaps the greatest animal actors I've ever seen.)

4. Oliver Twist - Like Duma, this movie deserved a lot better than it got: a literary adaptation, directed by a world-class director whose previous film had won a bunch of Oscars, starring one of the greatest living British actors in a role that is designed to show off great British acting. But it sank without a trace when it was released and was conspicuously absent on the best lists of most professional critics. The movie opened in wide release, which was a really bad idea: it should have been allowed to build up an audience slowly by focusing its marketing more narrowly at the art house circuit - I mean, this is a Roman Polanski movie here. And it really is a Polanski movie: that is, Polanski's distinctive off-kilter sense for black comedy and absurdity is perfect fit for Oliver Twist (in a way that it wasn't for, say, Tess of the d'Urbervilles). I can only assume that the studio got a little antsy with the prospect of marketing a Roman Polanski movie about a child who is taken advantage of after he falls in with a dangerous crowd.

3. Me and You and Everyone We Know - This is like a (slightly) less artsy version of one of my favorite "cult" movies: David Byrne's True Stories. Both of these movies are a series of quirky, interrelated vignettes/set pieces. Both of the movies operate on their own frequency, and if you're not on it, they'll probably strike you as being unbearably cute. Me and You is about one of my favorite movie themes: the difficulty of making connections with other people, and the fragility and beauty of those connections once they're made (see also, Broken Blossoms, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Punch-Drunk Love). The ensemble is excellent: I especially loved the performances from writer/director Miranda July and the from underrated character actor John Hawkes. I almost always like Hawkes (he's one of the fishermen in A Perfect Storm), and it was nice to see him in a substantial role.

2. The Squid and the Whale - The kind of movie people think Wes Anderson makes and the kind of movie that Woody Allen used to make (once upon a time). This was my Sideways for this year: a film that scratches my itch for contemporary lit-fic about families and relationships and coming-of-age and mid-life crises. I know some people thought that the father (played by Jeff Daniels) wasn't given a fair shake, but that's not really how the movie felt to me: I was sorry for this guy who was completely tone-deaf when it came to the relationships he cared most about.

1. The Best of Youth - My brother thought that putting a television mini-series at the top of my list was sort of cheating. I can see his point: even though this was released theatrically here in the States, there're things you can do in 6 hours that you can't in 2 1/2. (Although the reverse is also true: King Kong proved there are things you can do in 90 minutes which just don't work when you try to stretch them over 3 hours). I found the first part of The Best of Youth completely engaging on a "what's going to happen next"-level, but it was during the second three hours that all the set-up really starts to pay off in scene after devastating scene. Without getting too hyperbolic on y'all, the second part of The Best of Youth gets pretty close to the special kind of greatness of movies like The World of Apu and The Godfather, Part II, where the sheer amount of time we've spent with the characters gives the story a genuine 19th Century Novel-like depth that is very, very rare in film.

So there it is: ten paragraphs to sum up (imperfectly) another year of movie-watching. Considering that I saw fewer movies in 2005 than I did in 2004, and fewer movies in 2004 than I saw in any year since I graduated from college, I'm not quite sure how much longer I'll be able to keep at this. Even now, I'd bet that there's a couple of movies that I missed (The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, say) that would have made this list had I been a more conscientious film buff.

Monday, March 6, 2006

My one-and-only reactionary Oscars post

I really didn't care for Hustle & Flow: I thought the movie bought into the macho gangster rap bullshit of its pimp-turned-artist hero. I agreed with David Edelstein that "[w]hat's missing in this self-proclaimed story of redemption... is something other than a fairy-tale finale. It's the sense that the filmmaker understands the consequences of exploiting women even if his protagonist doesn't."

But its Oscar-winning song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" did get me thinking: just how hard is pimping? And how does its "hardness" compare to other professions, illicit or otherwise? For instance, is pimping more or less difficult than selling crack? Producing and distributing child p*rnography? Making a living as an armed robber? As a confidence man? And is pimping harder or easier than driving a truck? Teaching high school? Training guard dogs? Being a heart surgeon?

I think this would be an interesting line of inquiry for someone who's good at statistics and measurements and stuff (like Steven Levitt, who did such interesting research on why so many drug dealers live with their moms).

On a related note, someone who's into arts and culture commentary could look into the question of why some activities/professions are romanticized in song (pimps, crack dealers, truck drivers) and some aren't (dog trainers, confidence artists, child p*rnographers). It probably has something to do with what the kids back in grad school liked to call "class and gender issues".

Friday, March 3, 2006

Why I am a bad blogger

That last post of mine is a pretty good example of why I am a bad blogger. Not so much because it makes huge generalizations or because it takes one of my pet peeves and tries to turn it into some kind of profound statement: most blog posts do those things. No, I am a bad blogger because I was too lazy to find even one example of the kind of piece I was writing about so that I could link to it. (After seeing that Slate didn't have any backlash pieces on its main page, I gave up the search.) In fact, I'm too lazy to link to all the other posts I've written on the subject. Oh, well...

The Backlash Backlash

On the one hand, I've always thought that the phenomenon of critical backlash was a useful corrective to the way our hype-driven pop culture tends to overvalue and over-praising movies, TV shows, books, etc. (I admit to being just as guilty of over-praising stuff as anyone else).

On the other hand, I'm completely bored by these hit pieces that target virtually anything that manages to find an audience. They've all started seeming like the same piece. And I wonder if there's now an incentive for snarky twenty/thirty-something pop culture writers/bloggers to delay admitting that they like anything until they find out if it will end up being a worthy backlash target.

Honestly, I could care less if you, unlike all your friends/fellow-bloggers/co-workers, just "don't get" Battlestar Galactica or Lost or whatever.

But I guess I'm just really tired of all this posturing masquerading as arts and culture criticism. (And I am posturing now? Does taking an anti-posturing stance make me just as bad? Probably. Oh well...)

Thursday, March 2, 2006

A Fanboy's Gripes*

So, I'm going to be playing in a Burning Wheel game and I thought I was all ready to play when the GM pointed out that I had made a small but significant mistake in how I had built the character. And I'm pretty annoyed about it. It's my fault, in that I had the rules wrong (although, they weren't all that clear), but now I'm much less psyched about playing this character: it makes me want to go back and re-build him from scratch, even though there's really not enough time to do this now.

I completely understand the philosophy behind the Burning Wheel character generation rules (i.e., that it is built around constraints that help to put certain elements of the setting and situation into the foreground of conflicts), but knowing this doesn't really make having an idea get shot down any easier to take.

*My apologies to Jim Henley.

Horror Haiku

My friend Nick has started a "Horror Haiku" blog. Appropriately enough, the entries remind me of Hideshi Hino's horror comics, even though I know Nick has never read them. (This might be a testament to the extent that Japanese Horror has thoroughly infiltrated American pop culture). Check it out.

Playing Catch-Up

When I took a break from blogging, I also cut down on my blog reading. This gave me more time to do important stuff like reading Robert Heinlein novels, playing tabletop RPGs and tinkering with RPG design, posting on message boards, and watching lots of TV shows on DVD.

Now, I'm playing catch-up with all the great writing on blogs that I've missed out on over the last few months. It's a quixotic undertaking, but I'll keep at it in the hopes that I'll find more stuff like this excellent Sean Collins post from last month. Sean is again dealing with one of his favorite topics - violence and torture as part of our arts and entertainments - and, as usual, he's sharper (not to mention less hypocritical) than most other pop culture pundits.

This time, Sean comments on Eli Roth's claims that the graphic torture scenes in Roth's movie Hostel are meant to make the audience feel guilty about the current state of world affairs (Roth specifically mentions Iraq and the response to Hurricane Katrina).

Sean's response is one that I wish I had come up with:

The notion that your society, your era, your government, your audience is uniquely prone to evil--a notion almost always accompanied by the sort of clean-hands finger-pointing exemplified by Roth [and others]--is to me the absolute laughable height of narcissism in pessimist's clothing; it's the art-critical equivalent of doomsday prophesying. The fact that filmmakers and critics now feel they have free rein on the subject of torture and brutality because they see our government involved in it yet apparently had little or nothing to say on the subject when it was status quo in countless other countries across the globe for years and years and years (which it still is) is exhibit A.

There is nothing special about your pet target. On the contrary. All humans, from every country and time period ever, are terrible. That's what great art is about. I can see an argument being made that embracing this belief is a way of letting oneself off the hook; I submit that one who makes that argument proves in so doing that he doesn't understand the belief at all.

Well, I probably wouldn't have gone so far as Sean does here (it is the potential for terribleness that isn't unique to any time or place or culture) but I like the way Sean takes this right over the edge.

He also talks a lot about The Sopranos in this post, and what he says has helped me to get a better handle on my increasingly ambivalent feelings about this show. But that probably deserves a post of its own.

Wednesday, March 1, 2006

That's What You Get

My girlfriend and I are looking into the various Doggy Daycare options in New York City, and the prices are just depressing - like, "I almost pay that much in rent" depressing. Oh well...

Let's see how far I can get by recycling my old material...

I didn't know the Wes Anderson-backlash-backlash had started until I read this post on Alarm.

Oh, well... At the risk of being unfashionable, I stand by what I wrote about Anderson in my first post on this blog:

Anderson is a gifted visual stylist and his movies have a unique tone of half-serious, half-ironic melancholy. But that’s really Anderson’s only trick. It’s not a bad trick, necessarily, and when it works, like in the pool scene in Rushmore, it can be quite affecting, but it’s hardly something to build a career on.

One of the things I’ve always found exciting about watching movies made by talented young directors is the inventiveness they bring to their filmmaking. Citizen Kane, The 400 Blows, Before the Revolution, and Mean Streets aren’t perfect movies by any means (Citizen Kane is the most superficial of the great movies and The 400 Blows too readily and uncritically embraces its adolescent protagonist's point-of-view), but part of what makes them so wonderful is that they were made by guys who wanted to try out everything they thought they knew about filmmaking, who were still young enough not to care about doing it the “right” way, and who were talented enough to actually pull it off. These movies are overflowing with their filmmakers’ inventiveness—so much so that they’re almost overwhelming to watch and the technique they’re made with often overpowers the slight stories they’re trying to tell. But Wes Anderson’s one trick, by itself, isn’t enough to impress me for more than a few minutes—which leaves nothing but the slight story and Anderson’s disaffected adolescent’s worldview.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006


I've been thinking about resuming blogging, and, in preparation for that, I've been looking over my old posts. I'm struck (and embarrassed) by how badly edited most of them are. I mean, I know I read them over before posting, but, obviously, I wasn't paying much attention. Oh, well...