Monday, April 30, 2007

Movie Chat: Borat


I can't think of such a critically and commercially successful movie since Pulp Fiction where there has been a bigger difference between the movie that the critics were gushing about and the movie that I actually saw on the screen.

I admit: I had been avoiding the movie because I found the idea of Sacha Baron Cohen using his comedy skillz to expose the hidden anti-Semitism of Americans to be on the borderline between insulting and irrelevant. I mean, there's so many things about us that actually deserve ruthless satire that to take on something that hasn't really been a major issue for years.

And, I should also admit that Borat was my least favorite character on Da Ali G Show, partly because it targets people-on-the-street like those awful Jay Leno "Jaywalking" bits. Cohen says that the Borat sketches are "dramatic demonstration of how racism feeds on dumb conformity, as much as rabid bigotry"*, but because he and his producers have complete control over the staging, filming, and editing of these encounters, it's always seemed to me to be dirty pool. That is, while I've laughed at the Borat sketches on Da Ali G Show, I've never been able to take them seriously as high-minded satire.

Anyway, my fiance and I kept hearing how funny the Borat movie was from all of our friends and she had listened to a big NPR piece about it (she'll watch almost any movie that gets praise from NPR).

First, let me get this out of the way: I laughed all the way through - it is pretty hilarious.

But I what surprised me was how little "satire" there actually was. Despite Cohen's interviews and the spin critics had put on the movie, there were only (I think) three or four moments where a someone revealed their inner anti-Semite. And even those instances are pretty weak cases: there's the two salesmen who go along with Borat's comments about killing Jews because they're (a) being polite, (b) are a little befuddled by his behavior, and (c) probably want to make a sale. And then there's the frat guys. In that case, if all that Cohen could get a bunch of drunken frat guys to do is bring up a Jewish stereotype than either he wasn't trying hard enough or the virulent racism that he was looking for just doesn't exist to the extent he thinks it does.**

Regardless, the "exposing racism" parts of the movie make up (I'd guess) less than 10% of its running time. The rest of the movie is one big "backwards foreigner" joke. I'd agree with Steve Sailer's suggestion that Cohen's schtick is an updated version of the Polish Joke. So, if you've made a movie that spends most of its time making fun of ignorant East Europeans***, it's better, in this PC day and age, to emphasize its anti-American parts, even if (or maybe especially if) those aren't actually that prevalent in the movie.

Remember I brought up Pulp Fiction back at the beginning of this post? Here's Alan Dale on the critics' take on that movie (you should really read the whole piece):
Pulp Fiction’s attitude was shrewdly presold to Americans from the Cannes Film Festival on, and it would have seemed impossibly square to make the usual objections to the violence since quotation marks hover around the action. Much of the press proved themselves squares in another way, by praising the movie for picturing the state of our souls. Educated audiences and critics, especially, don’t want to think that actions that are hard to watch could be enjoyable to them in a superficial way. So they read Tarantino’s good-time treatment of sketches on pulp fiction motifs as a statement about how dissociated people have become. The idea that Pulp Fiction is an X-ray of American culture is a reading for people who believe in things like Post-Modernism and Generation X and other ways we have of selling ourselves our own intellectual and editorial ponderousness. Pulp Fiction is relentlessly superficial. The situations have no existential edge, and even the ironic self-consciousness about moviemaking is unfocused (clearest in the diner sequence in which the waiters are made up to look like ’50s rock-n-roll and movie stars).****

This relates back to some things Sean Collins brought up a few weeks ago about the way critics respond to horror movies: "For many mainstream film critics, the slightest display of political awareness automatically enables a horror film to transcend the genre, regardless of what else is going on, or whether anything else is going on."

So, I'd enlarge all of this to a more general point:

When critics and "educated" audience members find themselves enjoying something that is disreputable (nihilistic black comedy, backwards foreigner ethnic jokes, horror movies), they need to rationalize it by attributing to the movie some kind of redeeming social message.

This isn't a huge problem, I guess: I mean, we all expect critics to act like gasbags on occasion (I'm certainly not immune), but I think it would be more interesting if we could talk about why we enjoy these kinds of disreputable entertainments without having to invoke platitudes about how they teach us all an important lesson about ourselves.

I laughed at Borat because it's funny to watch a character who doesn't get contemporary America's (and/or Western Europe's?) rules of civility and politeness blunder his way through encounters with people who are bound by those rules. This is like one of the all-time standard jokes: foreigners just don't get it!It's funny to see Borat piss off a bunch of feminists because he can't help expressing his primitive ideas about male-female relations or for him to make fun of a woman's looks in front of her and her husband or for him to be from such a backwards country that a regular hotel room seems like it must be reserved for royalty.

Did I learn anything from the movie? Umm, not really. I mean, the people in the movie more or less live up to their stereotypes: the NYC commuters are in a hurry and don't have time for Borat's bullshit, the car salesman seems willing to agree to anything in order to make a sale, the genteel Southerners are polite to the point of absurdity, the feminists are humorless, the rodeo crowd seems happy to cheer jingoism, the frat boys drink a lot and like to party.

So, yeah, I don't think the movie has much to offer in the way of messages about the state of contemporary America. And I'm pretty grateful for that. Messages are easy, comedy is hard.

*I disagree with this premise, too. I know a guy who will always "confront bigotry" whenever he hears it. I.e., he'll start berating his cab driver if the driver says something bad about a different ethnic group. Personally, I think this is kind of silly (not to mention potentially dangerous). For example, there are some women in my office who happen to be Puerto Rican and one of their favorite topics of conversation are the differences between Puerto Rican men, Dominican Men, Arab men, African-American men, Mexican men, WASP men, etc. Now, when they start into one of these discussions, I could speak up and tell them to stop spreading stereotypes and talking like bigots, but, honestly, I think that would be pretty crazy.

**The frat guys also talk about never letting yourself be ruled by a woman. But that's what all guys say to each other when they've had a few too many. It's a kind of generic expression of guy solidarity, which fades as you sober up.

***Though Kazakhstan is in Central Asia, the Borat character is pretty obviously Eastern European/Slavic. I wonder if, like Children of Men, Borat reads differently to an American audience than to a British one. The Brits are having more trouble dealing with Eastern European immigration than we are in the States, so my guess is that Borat's ethnicity comes across more clearly to them.

****I think this is also why Eli Roth talked about Hostel in terms of its anti-American message. The movie paints a pretty dismal picture of Eastern Europe (which, admittedly, many critics pointed out), so it's probably better for the American filmmaker to go out of his way to show that the movie is really a criticism of America.


My fiance is not so much into watching NASCAR races on TV, so it's rare that I get to see both the Busch Series race and the Cup Series race like I did this weekend.

I enjoyed the Cup race enough: yes, it is always a pain to have a finish under the yellow flag, but NASCAR seems to have done all they can to prevent this kind of thing from happening. The hardest racing is going to take place during the final laps, which translates into a bigger risk of someone wrecking. During the restart with 23 laps to go I predicted there would be three more caution flags: I was right, although the last one ended the race.

But the ending of the Busch race more than made up for a somewhat disappointing Cup finish. I've always wondered why the second place cars in restrictor plate races haven't tried harder to make last lap passes. Well, I mean, I know one reason why they don't try for these passes: a near-certain second place finish is too tempting to give up, when the consequences of getting hung out to dry might be getting passed by four or five cars. I guess what I mean is that despite this risk, I'm always a little surprised more drivers don't go for it. But after seeing Bobby Labonte pull it off, I think the reason we don't see it is because unless you're a really experienced driver, you'll have no chance. Labonte's move around Tony Stewart coming off of Turn 4 was one of the greatest moves I've seen in a restrictor plate race.

On a personal response note: for years, I haven't been able to watch a restrictor plate race without feeling physically uncomfortable waiting for the inevitable crashes. Maybe I'm jaded or desensitized or maybe the racing is just better, because I was able to enjoy these without worrying.

Friday, April 27, 2007


I just wanted to take a moment to thank Michael Blowhard and Sean T. Collins for their frequent links to my little blog here. A lot of the visitors who end up at this site seem to find it through posts on their blogs. While I'm not in this to be popular, I'd be lying if I didn't say that I greatly appreciate the support, especially because it's coming from two bloggers who I like and respect. Both of their blogs are daily must-reads for me and a lot of my favorite posts on this blog have been inspired by posts of theirs.

One More Thing About The Hills Have Eyes

I'm a dog enthusiast and one of the things I like to go on and on about is the idea (best expressed, IMO, in Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn - alas, I missed the first part of this NATURE program) that being able to domesticate dogs was a huge evolutionary advantage for human beings. And who knew that The Hills Have Eyes illustrates this: the mutants eat dogs - they see them only as a food source, an attitude which comes back to bite them. Even though the mutants have the edge on the Carters in terms of home field advantage and savagery (their general willingness to use violence), the Carter's dog evens things out a bit.

Interesting: most of the memorable "horror movie dogs" are there (a) as victims (John Carpenter's The Thing) or (b) as symbols of man's barely domesticated bestial nature (see Tenebre or The Beyond), but here, one of the dogs at least, gets to play hero.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Movie Chat: The Hills Have Eyes

The Hills Have Eyes

I tried to watch The Last House on the Left years ago and couldn't get through it. Not because of its unpleasantness or my squeamishness, but because of the bad acting. So I had always avoided The Hills Have Eyes, fearing that it would be more of the same. But I ended up wanting to watch it for some research I'm doing and I was (un)pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it.

It's definitely a "horror" movie, but watching it, I couldn't help thinking about how different it is from most other horror movies - especially current ones. There's some gore and general gruesomeness, but Wes Craven doesn't really focus on it (a la Seven) or fetishize it (a la The House of 1000 Corpses). His take on it seems much more matter-of-fact: it's upfront about the effects of violence, without reveling in them.

And though the movie has its share of suspense sequences (will the mutants attack? will the guy with the gun get back in time to use it?), creating suspense seems less important to Craven then ratcheting up the tension. It feels a little bit like a post-apocalyptic survival movie - Panic in Year Zero!, say - where the question isn't so much "What horrible thing will happen to these people?" and more "Given that they're facing this horrible thing, what will they be driven to do? To what lengths will they go to get themselves out of trouble?" (Hey, that also turns out to be one of the central questions of The Descent!)

More importantly, Craven doesn't make too much use of shock/scare/boo! moments, which may be the biggest difference between this movie and the current horror crop. What's shocking and horrific about The Hills Have Eyes is the situation itself: the brutal attack on the family that Craven refuses to make easy on us, by , say, sparing the likable characters or leaving out the survivors' grief.

Also notable: the "monsters" in this movie aren't really superhuman. This makes the movie feel a bit more like Straw Dogs, Deliverance, or Southern Comfort, rather than most slasher/zombie/monster flicks. But the knowledge that the stranded family members could sruvive (if they get their act together, self-defense-wise) makes things, in some way, much more horrible than if they were facing an unstoppable creature. I can only assume that The Last House on the Left works somewhat the same way and now I'm interested in giving it another chance. I'm also interested in checking out the remake of this movie, if only to confirm my suspicions that it's full of gore-for-its-own-sake, "boo"-scares, and other current horror cliches*.

One last thing: seeing a "real" grindhouse movie like this one makes me even less impressed with Planet Terror (I still like Death Proof, though). The Hills Have Eyes is an example of great B-movie filmmaking: Craven gets everything he can out of a fairly simple set up, without any needless excess. And, I'm not sure exactly how to put this, but the attention to the specifics of how the events unfold during the central R.V.-invasion sequence is pretty impressive. It shows a canniness and intelligence that is lacking from a lot of contemporary horror productions, which get by on big gestures rather than on smart details.

*Although, per this Sean Collins post, it probably isn't really a good idea to judge a movie before seeing it. FWIW, I think Hostel is all-over-the-place, though it has its moments.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Movie Club?

Talking with a friend on the phone last night, I realized that I now approach moviewatching in a very haphazard and personal manner: more-or-less following my whims when it comes to choosing what to have Netflix send me next, so, for example, I find myself catching up with the recent work of Renny Harlin in between re-watching Fellini and seeing the Kurosawa movies that I was saving for a rainy day. This isn't a bad thing, and, really, it's the way I prefer to do it. My semi-frequent attempts to place anything like a formal structure on my viewing habits (i.e., focusing just on Italian Neo-realism for a month) have always failed.

What I do miss, though, is the community aspect of movie-watching that I had while in college and grad school. Because of this, I'm interested in trying out some kind of blog-based movie club: much less formal and much more low key than a blogathon, but along the same lines. Choose a movie, set up a post about it, and discuss it in the comments section. I'm not sure how much interested there would be in something like this: my past experience has shown that the web is not-so-good for "top down"-organized events, although I know that a gaming message board that I sometimes read did have one successful round of a book club.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


What I'm Watching: The Sopranos, of course, and Heroes, now that it's back on. Other "must watch" TV in our apartment: the Food Network programs Throwdown with Bobby Flay and Dinner: Impossible, which is probably my second favorite show right now. My favorite is Tim and Eric's Awesome Show - Great Job!. I liked Tom Goes to the Mayor, Tim and Eric's first Cartoon Network show, quite a bit, but I think the Awesome Show format - more gags, less story - suits them better. Awesome Show seems to have solved the major problem of Mr. Show: it's too short to ever feel like it's gone on too long. Oh, also: trying to keep up with as much televised motor racing as possible.

What I'm Reading: I'm almost done with The Flying Inn by G.K. Chesterton, and, I have to admit, it's been a bit of a chore. I like Chesterton's mystery stories and I love his essays, but the combination of whimsy and philosophy here is almost too much. I'm also in the middle of VernorVinge's A Fire Upon the Deep, which I really like: there are about half-a-dozen "Big Ideas" here, each of which could serve as the basis for a single sci-fi novel. The writing is a little clumsy, but I've read worse novels that have been far less inventive. I'll probably post more about it when I'm done.

What I'm Listening To: Ever since I signed up to Rhapsody 3 1/2 months ago, I've been trying to keep up with "new music". In general, though, I find keeping up with "the scene" to be pretty tiresome. There seems to be so little difference between these new indie bands and the ones that were new when I was in college, and all of them sound like The Replacements (who were derivative to begin with). So, anyway, I have been listening to lots and lots ofLoudon Wainwright III, little bits of the Mountain Goats, and various kinds of film music (Goblin and John Carpenter and the Death Proof soundtrack). I've also been trying to find morepodcasts to listen to.

What I'm Playing: NASCAR 06: Total Team Control on my X-Box. I didn't get the most recent entry in this franchise partly because I'm in the middle of a season in this one and I was a little disappointed that this one wasn't that much better than the one that came before it. Hopefully my schedule will open up a little and I'll get someRPGing in soon. I don't think a regular game is anywhere in my future, but I'd like to try to work something out.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Movie Chat: Red Beard

Red Beard

At the yearly list party my friends and I had in February, we not only exchanged the normal, annual "Favorite Movies" list but we put together a group "All-Time Favorites List". Each of the seven of us wrote up a personal "All-Time Top Ten" and I compiled them into a "master list" so we could see where we were all on the same page (The Godfather) and where we went our own ways (I had two Howard Hawks movies on my list - no one else had any). The biggest surprise, though, was that while Kurosawa showed up on a number of lists, the only movie of his that got more than one mention was Red Beard, with two "votes".

I thought this was a little weird: I had never seen Red Beard, but, though I knew it was generally well-regarded, I'd never seen it praised so highly.

After watching it last weekend, I don't think it was weird at all to put it on an All-Time Favorite list and, now, I'd be more apt to think that what's really strange is that the movie doesn't receive more praise.

Well, maybe not so strange: we're used to giving his movies credit for their action scenes (The Seven Samurai), their poetic spectacle (Ran), their narrative complexity (Rashomon), or their simple but deeply-felt humanism (Ikiru), but the most impressive element of Red Beard might just be its psychological insight. And even more impressive: this insight is grounded in a specifically-drawn and nuanced social milieu. In other words, the overall experience is a lot like reading a big novel, but, unlike most "big novel" movies (like, say, The Godfather, The Leopard, or the Apu Trilogy), Red Beard works less by an accumulation of detail - where each incident, image, line gains greater meaning as we see how it fits, bit by bit, into the overall structure - and more through the density of each of its episodes.

In this post, I suggested that Kurosawa took the overt structural device of Rashomon and integrated it, more subtly, into Ikiru. Red Beard has a similar feeling: there are lots of neat structural/formal touches, but Kurosawa doesn't go out of his way to call attention to them. Each sequence is seems to be an example of a different kind of narrative technique that Kurosawa has mastered.

For example, in the first half of the film, there are a number of scenes where a character tells his or her life story. The scene where a patient's daughter explains why she waited so long to visit her dying father is done as a (masterfully-directed) monologue: Kurosawa focusing not only on the actress as she recites the tale of woe, but also using the contrasting reactions of the two doctors to develop the movie's main story. But, the next "life story" sequence, is done as a flashback (which itself contains a flashback), and seems to exist almost as its own little movie (a small romantic tragedy) within the larger one.

Though the project may not have been modest (it was a huge, expensive, and elaborate shoot), the product certainly feels modest. I got a sense from the movie of a director working at the height of his powers, yet not trying to show off or to overreach (compare and contrast this to work by other world-class directors: Bertolucci, Spielberg, Lean). The movie's story deals with the importance of learning humility, and part of the movie's appeal is that it seems to approach the material with humility.


The weather here in New York City is wonderful.

Unfortunately, I'm feeling a little depressed - partly because I'm stuck inside working instead of being able to enjoy the weather and partly because my schedule in general is getting to me. It's not that I'm super-busy: I have enough leisure time, but my responsibilities (mostly involving taking care of my dog) limit my choice of leisure activity pretty severely. It's been months since I've been able to play any RPGs and I'm also bummed that I'm not getting a chance to do more blogging/writing.

That's all not too big a deal, but I guess I'm also feeling guilty because I know when my time is limited like this, I tend to be less generous with it and more protective of what down time I do have. I'm less likely to get in touch with friends, for example: even talking to them on the phone begins to feel like an imposition on my free time.

Part of the issue is that I'm, by nature, introverted, but my job requires lots of phone calls and generally dealing with people, so, when I'm not working, one of my highest priorities is to "recharge my batteries", if you will. I think I really do need to spend a certain amount of every day just reading.

Anyway, I don't usually write personal "journal-type" blogs posts, but this one was kind of cathartic. I'm already feeling much better.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Movie Chat: Triple Agent

Triple Agent

I guess I've just been in the mood for spy stories recently: Eric Rohmer's Triple Agent is a bit different though - like an Eric Ambler book turned inside-out or a le Carre novel where all the thriller stuff has been thrown out and you're left with just the ambiguous relationship drama. It shares one of le Carre's big preoccupations: how the business of spying - of lying for living - infects the spy's personal relationships.

I liked it quite a bit, although it's an extremely modest movie. It's set in the 1930s, and, at first, I couldn't help thinking the whole thing looked underpopulated and under-produced. Then I realized I only thought that because I've been conditioned to expect elaborate period recreations by big productions like Peter Jackson's King Kong. This was kind of funny, because I didn't even like the period stuff in Kong: I thought it was bloated, cliche-ridden, and unnecessary.*

I guess making a fetish out of huge production values has always been a part of the movies, but it's refreshing to see a world class director who can work happily and efficiently on a small scale production-wise, while still grappling with big issues.

The material - a fictionalized account of the Nikolai Skoblin affair - is pretty fascinating, too. There's a tendency in America to think about the Soviet espionage solely in terms of the Cold War, so, while I had a vague awareness (mostly from Eric Ambler novels) that there was lots of plotting and scheming by the Soviets, the Nazis, and other European governments going on in Europe during the 1930s, I was glad to get a more detailed and complex picture of this subject. (FWIW, I didn't have much difficulty following the movie "cold", but, after reading that Wikipedia entry my understanding of some of the plot points is definitely a lot clearer).

*I go back-and-forth on this, or, rather, I hold two contradictory ideas on this. I have nothing against big movies: in fact, one of the things I love about movies is that they can be so big. I'm not a huge Gone with the Wind fan, but I do find the famous crane shot in the Army hospital devastating. It gets at the tremendous human cost of war in a way that would, IMO, not be as effective if it were done on a smaller scale. This isn't to say that this is the only way to do it, but large-scale moments like this one have a different kind of impact from smaller-scale moments. But bigness can also get in the way and I wish it hadn't become the default for Hollywood movies. Taladega Nights is my whipping boy for this issue: I enjoyed the movie just fine, but the huge production doesn't seem to add too much to the movie. The people making it aren't great visual stylists (like, say, Buster Keaton) and the movie's gags aren't based on elaborately constructed sets (like, say, Play Time's). I'm really not sure the movie would have suffered from having, say, a lower-rent recreation of the NASCAR experience.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

No posts: just links

I've got nothing to post here tonight, so here are some links:

Sean was disappointed with Grindhouse (I'll leave a comment there when he gets them working).

There's also more Tarantino chat between me and Steve in the comments section of my Grindhouse post.

Michael Blowhard has another excellent post up about lit-fic: must reading for anyone interested in arts & culture stuff.

Michael also linked to this very neat interview with Donald Westlake and John Banville.

Hopefully, I'll be back tomorrow with something a little more substantial of my own.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Movie Chat: Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction

I kind of liked it, but it's one of those movies where I can't help thinking that it should have been done better.

The problem isn't, I think, that it compromises or even that it doesn't make sense*. No, the problem, as I see it, is that the tone and style is all wrong. Marc Forster directs the movie as if he were Michel Gondry and the script was written by Charlie Kauffman. And maybe Zach Helm thought he wrote a Charlie Kauffman style script: one that would have benefited from minimalist/cartoony production design and a reserved, melancholy approach. However, as far as I can tell, the screenplay is like "The Kuglemass Episode" or one of the other Woody Allen stories from the 1970s. And, like those stories, it should have been played as vaudeville - existential, sure; bleak, sure - but with gags, a sense of the absurd, without the sentimentality, and, most importantly, treating Big Ideas as if they were little jokes.

But Forster and Helm seem to want us to take this movie very seriously. Not always a problem - sometimes movies need to be serious (and I need to remind myself of that from time to time) - but comedies, especially "comedies of ideas", either need to be super-sharp or have an extremely light touch. Maybe it's just the presence of Tony Hale, but I can't help but think that the folks who made Arrested Development would have handled this material with the necessary verve.

*Re: not making sense: true enough, but, really, it doesn't make all that much less sense than, say, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and even if Cairo has more internal consistency, what really gets it over is that it doesn't belabor its reality/movie metaphysics: it stays on a human scale. Instead of trying to make grand statements about the Nature of Cinema (or Fiction), it deals with the specific, touching, funny, but bittersweet role the movies play in the life of its heroine.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Girlfriend/Grandmother Test

I was browsing around the Village Voice's "Pazz & Jop Poll" page and came across this comment from A.S. Van Dorstan, one of the participants:

I have a question for everyone who put the Clipse, T.I., Lil' Wayne and the Game on top of their lists. Are you embarrassed to play it around your girlfriends, wives, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, and friends? Yeah? Then WTF are you thinking?

I kind of get the point A.S. is trying to make here: I'm certainly ambivalent about the whole gangsta rap ethos. Still, though, I think the "Embarrassment Test" is a pretty awful way to think about arts & culture stuff and not only because it sort of assumes that all women have the same sensibility as my grandmother.

Blue Velvet is one of my favorite movies, but I'm not sure that I'd be all that comfortable watching it with my parents. The situation would probably be pretty embarrassing, partly because I know it's not the kind of movie they'd like and I'd feel like a jerk for making them sit through it.


I enjoy horror movies of all stripes, but my girlfriend has an aversion to shocking/scary/gross stuff in general and a particular dislike for "women-in-peril" and/or serial killer movies. So, if I made her watch a Dario Argento movie with me, I'm sure that things would get uncomfortable pretty quickly. That's not quite the same as being embarrassed, but it's close. I mean, I'm not ashamed that I like Argento movies, but I would feel like a creep if I made my girlfriend watch one.


I have no problems with movies that feature a lot of swearing, but I know, for example, that my girlfriend's mother does. I probably would be embarrassed if, say, based on my recommendation the whole family sat down to watch Goodfellas. Again, not because I'm ashamed that I like Goodfellas, but because that would be an awkward and unpleasant social situation.

Here's the thing: different people are going to have different levels of tolerance for different kinds of "offensiveness" (gangsta posturing, psychologically disturbing sexuality, graphic violence, coarse language). I put "offensiveness" in quotes because some people aren't going to find, say, Blue Velvet offensive. And unless you go around excommunicating people from your family/circle of friends if they have different tastes than you, chances are everyone is going to like some kind of arts & culture thing that someone they are close to might find offensive.

A tangential issue:

Our experience of arts & culture stuff might be private, but talking about our experience of arts & culture stuff - including writing up Top Ten lists - is social. To what extent does embarrassment and social anxiety already play a role in how we talk about what we like? I could be completely off base here, but I sometimes get the sense reading through best lists that some albums/movies/books/etc. are there because, well, it would have been embarrassing for critics to leave them off and that a lot of albums/movies/books/etc. don't make these lists because, well, critics would be embarrassed to reveal their genuine likes and dislikes to an audience of their peers.

Now, assuming that all those Pazz & Jop contributors who did put the Clipse album on their best list did so because they actually really like the album, I'm just not sure that the fact that it might be socially awkward to play the album to their grandmothers means a whole hell of a lot. (My guess is my grandmother would have a hard time making out any specifically misogynistic sentiments amid what she would probably hear as a lot of unpleasant noise, so that it probably wouldn't be embarrassing for me so much as mean-spirited of me to make her listen to it.)

Podcast Bleg

I'm looking for some podcast recommendations - politics, arts & culture stuff, gaming & geekery - anything goes. (Right now, for instance, the only podcasts I listen to are Derb Radio and The Durham 3, so things that go along with those would be great).


Monday, April 16, 2007

Movie Chat: Grindhouse


The movie might be playing to "near empty theaters" someplace, but I saw it last Saturday in a full (though not sold out) theater in New York City. And everyone seemed to have a good time - even the women in the audience (there were quite a few couples - although the guy next to me had to keep explaining all the B-movie references to his girlfriend she seemed to be enjoying herself as much as he was).

I had a good time, too. I can see why it didn't make money, though: it's an oddball movie and though the studio was supposed to have spent $30M in marketing, no one involved there seemed to really get exactly how oddball it is. If Harvey Weinstein thought that Grindhouse could ever have been a straightforward teen horror hit (like Disturbia), then he really needs to see more movies.

And how exactly did they spend that $30M? I'm not super hooked into the "coming attractions" scene (I don't seek out trailers on the internet, for example), but I do kinda/sorta pay attention to this stuff and I don't recall seeing anything about Grindhouse (i.e., no TV ads, not as part of the coming attractions when I saw 300 and Zodiac). I guess I saw a poster and a couple of displays, but it seems like $30M should buy a bit more.

Anyway, the movie itself:

First, Planet Terror and Death Proof are really different kinds of movies. Rodriguez and Tarantino take very different approaches to this little exercise. Planet Terror is a pastiche of sub-Romero 1970s horror walking dead flicks.

Visually - in terms of the photography, the design, and the effects - Rodriguez gets it just about perfect. Narratively, there's a little bit too much going on (even with the benefit of a "Missing Reel", the movie is ten minutes too long): in The Crazies, for example, there are really only two plot threads, Planet Terror has two major one plus a bunch of subplots. One of the things that I love about genuine Z-movies is that the filmmakers tried to wring a lot out of very little, but the poverty of the production (not to mention their ideas) usually showed through anyway. Rodriguez obviously wanted to cram everything he loves about this kind of movie into Planet Terror, which is understandable, but undercuts the movie's effectiveness.

Something else I noticed:

Some of the actors seem to "get" how to play this kind of material. Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey, (surprisingly?) Marley Shelton, and, especially, Josh Brolin. That is: their performances give the impression of professionals doing a job, not giving their all, but giving just enough to put the material over.

But others in the cast - Freddy Rodriguez, Rose McGowan, Naveen Andrews, and (surprisingly) Bruce Willis - can't help winking at us, turning in consciously ironic performances. (Andrews does the best, because at least he's precise with his campiness).

I can't help but think that Biehn, Fahey, and Brolin learned this by living it: years of taking roles to pay the bills, artistic excellence be damned. This is one of the more interesting phenomena in movies: they require so many people to make that even on a labor of love, there will probably be some folks who just see it as another job.

Adding these two problems together - too much going on and half the cast letting us know they're in on the joke, too - makes Planet Terror, ultimately, just a little bit disappointing. Of course, hardly any of Rodriguez's movies have been afflicted by both restraint and coherence, but this is another case where I wish someone was there to tell him, "Don't".

Oh - something else about Planet Terror: I read one review of the movie where the gist was that Rodriguez and Tarantino need to put away childish things (i.e., stop making movies about the junk culture they've grown up) and grow up (i.e., start making serious movies that don't have anything to do with kung-fu or zombies). Well, personally, I prefer an unrepentant genre movie like Planet Terror to something like Pan's Labyrinth a genre movie that also wants to make you think "serious" thoughts and feels "seriously" unpleasant.

So, I liked Planet Terror, but, perhaps, more importantly, it set the mood for Death Proof. Michael Newman suggested that the better movie should go first, but, in this case, Death Proof works better coming after Planet Terror.

I don't want to talk too much about Death Proof, since the surprising ways it tweaks its genre are a big part of its fun (I think I'll end up writing a long essay on it at some point though). However, I will say that unlike Planet Terror, this isn't pastiche: it's a real movie and it's genuinely it's own thing. It's probably closest to Reservoir Dogs in that, depending on how you look at it, it's either a B-movie with an art-house sensibility or an art-house movie with a B-movie sensibility. But it's much more relaxed than that movie - for maybe the first time, Tarantino doesn't seem like he's trying to prove anything. This makes it feel almost like a masterclass on how to combine a genre exercise with "personal" filmmaking (hopefully Eli Roth took notes and even Neil Marshall, a favorite of mine, could learn a thing or two).

I also liked the fake trailers: too bad this was a flop, I would have paid to see Grindhouse 2 with a Werewolf Women of the SS and Thanksgiving double feature. (I guess I'll have to make do with Rob Zombie's Halloween remake: the real preview looked pretty interesting).

Friday, April 13, 2007

Movie Chat: The Game

The Game

I watched this again because I wanted to see if the comments I made about David Fincher in my post on Zodiac actually stood up to scrutiny.

While I may have exaggerated slightly, I think what I said holds up: The Game does have some subtext, but, for the most part, it lays everything out for the audience, theme-wise if not plot-wise.

What's interesting is that the movie's message isn't one you see very often in such an unadulterated form: Michael Douglas's character doesn't need to let people into his life or learn to treat people better or even take his job less seriously - he just needs a shock, he needs to feel what it's like to live life on the edge, or even over the edge, where life may not be worth living. It's a movie about sensations - paranoia and tension - whose message is that these sensations are an important part of life: your life may not be a roller-coaster, but it should be.

But I like the movie: it's more of a lightweight than similar what's-really-real? movies like Memento or The Matrix, but it also turns out to be more modest than those movies. It doesn't really make any grand claims about the nature of reality. It's more like a "darker" version of The Stunt Man, although it isn't as well acted. In fact, the performances might be the weakest part of the movie, which is otherwise put together with a great deal of skill. I'm not quite sure why they bothered to cast Sean Penn in a role that requires him to act normal (in all but one scene) and Michael Douglas plays it too straight - he's better when he overacts (Wall Street) or plays for comedy (Wonder Boys) or, even better, does both (Falling Down).

Thursday, April 12, 2007


I loved most of John le Carre's Absolute Friends: the long middle section dealing with the career of Cold War spy Ted Mundy is like an elaboration on and elongation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. But the "frame story" - dealing with "current events" issues like the War on Terror - suffers from the same problem as The Constant Gardener: as Ron Edwards notes, it's pretty explicit in its politics ("It's not possible to read one's own agenda into it"), but le Carre is not at his best when he's being explicit. He's a master of uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, of depicting overlapping loyalties, and of getting at the way lying for a living can infect all personal relationships (friendships, romances, marriages) with debilitating paranoia. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I don't think he's a great thriller writer - that is, he doesn't handle the nuts-and-bolts with the flair of a master like Ross Thomas. So, though le Carre seems to want the frame story to work like Eric Ambler, what you get instead is Robert Ludlum done without Ludlum's straightforward conviction and B-movie sensibility. (Again, The Constant Gardener suffered from the same problem: as Alan Dale points out, once the ambiguity of the hero's wife's character is resolved, the story is almost exactly the same as that of The Fugitive). (See the comments section for spoiler-laden elaboration).

Still, the stuff that the book gets right dwarfs its faults.

One of the things I liked best about it was that it gets across that one of the things that draws the main character towards spying is that he finds it exhilarating (if not enjoyable). It reminded me of something from Joseph Wambaugh's recent Hollywood Station, where an older cop tells a new recruit that being a police officer is more fun than almost any other kind of job. It was neat to see this in a police procedural, where the emphasis is usually on police work as a solemn duty (as in Michael Connelly's books) or police work as just another day at the office (as in Ed McBain's excellent 87th Precinct series).

The idea that espionage can be exhilarating does not play a big part in the admirable but, perhaps, too-stately, too-straightforward CIA movie The Good Shepherd. In its favor: he production is gorgeous and its "message" - that members of the Greatest Generation betrayed their patrimony and ruined things for their children by fighting the Cold War the way that they did - is fairly unique for a contemporary Hollywood movie, both in its refusal to romanticize the Americans who won WWII and in its acknowledgement of the ethnic/class issues tied up in the very idea of "the Greatest Generation" (in this, it reminded me a little of Quiz Show).

Still, despite the potential complexity of the movie's subject matter, De Niro's direction is almost too simple: in The Godfather, with which The Good Shepherd has been understandably but erroneously compared, each scene was full-to-bursting with "movie stuff" - theme, ideas, plot, performance, ambiguity, tragedy, comedy, observations of life and character. But in The Good Shepherd, each scene conveys one-and-only-one idea. This wouldn't be so bad, except that the movie is also long and slow. When old-fashioned, large scale Hollywood moviemaking is at its best - as in The Godfather or The Best Years of Our Lives - it tends to be pretty light on its feet (or at least relatively light on its feet), but The Good Shepherd is plodding. Eric Roth's screenplay seemed to be a bit thin: I kept thinking of David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner and how The Good Shepherd probably would have been better if it had been made on that scale - if had looked underpopulated and under-produced, instead of having a huge cast and lavish production values.

Also problematic: Matt Damon's performance as Edward Wilson - a man who keeps everything on the inside - makes sense conceptually, but it's kind of a drag to watch. Especially since Chris Cooper does something similar in Breach but figures out a way to make it interesting for the audience.

I liked Breach when I saw it, cooled on it a little bit in the following weeks, but, after seeing The Good Shepherd, I really appreciate what it accomplishes: it does a much better job depicting the psychology of being a spy than The Good Shepherd. Breach's problem is that its a little dramatically unbalanced: Ryan Phillipe is fine in his role, but, IMO, his character needed to be more interesting for the movie to work as more than just a showcase for Chris Cooper's excellent performance.

Victory for Po-Faced School Marms

I was going to write something about Don Imus, but I see that Sean Collins has already said everything I would have wanted to say and, as per usual, he's said it better than I could have. Like Sean, I've listened to Imus a lot over the years and, like Sean, my father is a huge fan. Anyone who's actually listened to the show should know that (a) Imus isn't a racist, (b) the show's style of humor is offensive - but it's a comedy show and it's irreverence and lack of good taste is part of the point, and (c) there's nothing else quite like it in terms of combining this kind of humor with political commentary and discussion (he has great guests and gets them to say genuinely interesting things instead of the normal talk show b.s. - The Daily Show and The Colbert Report seem like they're playing it safe by comparison).

It's depressing to see all these media pundits and professional moralizers lining up on TV like a bunch of po-faced school marms to decry Imus.

But it's more depressing that this has turned into such a big story. Is this another case of Onion News turning into real news? I mean, "Comedian Tells Offensive Ethnic Joke" seems like a pretty unimportant story compared to some actual newsworthy current events. Sean points out that this is probably a chance for all the media folks Imus has offended to get back at him. I think this is probably true and I'd add that there's nothing that the tyrannical gnomes in media world love to do more than turn on one of their own. Mel Gibson's tirade eventually blew over, partly, I think, because Gibson was a Hollywood person. Don Imus, on the other hand, was one of the most successful people in the New York media world and this was a chance for a bunch of his "colleagues" to act on their resentment.

This is why I want to move to a farm in Vermont and start making goat cheese for a living.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

zigzigger on Grindhouse

I liked Michael Z. Newman's post on Harvey Weinstein's disappointment over Grindhouse's performance at the box office. All of the reasons he gives for the movie's poor showing make more sense to me than the Hollywood Conventional Wisdom. Personally, I think the marketers should have played up the "two-for-the-price-of-one" element a bit more: I didn't know that Grindhouse is made up of two feature-length movies, I thought they were both around fifty minutes each (more like Sin City), and I'm enough of a cheapskate that that makes a difference. (My ignorance probably has something to do with reading The Hollywood Reporter every day, but never going anywhere near site like Ain't It Cool).

The gist of a lot of Mike's post is that the actual audience for this kind of movie (a "postmodern pastiche" "horror anthology") really isn't that big. Tarantino and Rodriguez have been able to infuse their geek-love for midnight movies into films that have found a fairly wide audience. But I think that something like Death Proof, which looks like schlock horror is going to be less appealing than Sin City which looks like a super-stylish noir or Kill Bill which looks like a super-sexy action movie.

Anyway, I'm still looking forward to seeing Grindhouse (probably this Saturday afternoon). I've been in a very pro-Tarantino phase the last few months (my attitude towards his movies has varied fairly wildly over the years) and I actually am a fan of schlock horror movies.

I also agree with something in the comments section of Michael's post: Will Ferrell in his underwear is always funny.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Movie Chat: The Puffy Chair

The Puffy Chair

I saw this after Funny Ha Ha, which I liked more but related to less. In fact, some of my hedging on this one has to do with my suspicion that I like this movie for basically narcissistic reasons: it featured lots of moments, exchanges, scenarios that I could recognize from my own life (as opposed to Funny Ha Ha which featured moments, etc. that I could recognize as being part of the lives of other people that I know). The quest structure/symbolic level is a little bit too overt (even though the movie explicitly acknowledges this), but there are lots of great little bits of business that make up for it. The actors generally do a good job of putting the material over. My favorite exchange: "What are you doing?" "You have my Peter Gabriel CDs." In context, it's pretty funny.

I was kind of disappointed at all the negative customer reviews for this at Netflix. Netflix members seemed to groove on Funny Ha Ha, but the handheld camerawork on display here really turned a lot of people off.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Easter Weekend

Apart from the new episode of The Sopranos, I didn't get a chance to watch much in the way of movies/TV shows/etc. over Easter weekend: I spent it with the family and, when we weren't too busy stuffing ourselves, we were watching the Masters. I did finish reading John Le Carre's Absolute Friends, parts of which I loved, but I want to hold off writing about it until I finish watching The Good Shepherd.

As for The Sopranos: this episode continues with one of my favorite themes from the last half-season - the idea that for Tony to be an effective boss he needs to be top thug as much as he needs to be a master of Machiavellian strategy. I knew that once they start playing Monopoly things were going to go bad, but part of what makes me like this show so much is that I didn't know exactly how things would go bad. Tony's eventual "punishment" of Bobby was really chilling and the final moments among the most moving in the show's history. Usually in The Sopranos, irony goes hand-in-hand with black comedy, but here the irony is played as a kind of small-scale tragedy.

Friday, April 6, 2007

TV Chat: The Sopranos

The Sopranos

I know I wasn't completely alone in thinking that the last "half-season" of The Sopranos was the show at or near its best: at least some of my friends agree with me.

For me, those episodes really saved the show for me. As much as I enjoyed the fourth and fifth seasons, I couldn't help but feel that Chase et al. were pandering to the "Bro" crowd: the people whose primary interest in the series was to watch charismatic, funny guys doing horrible shit to people, partly because, let's face it, there's something satisfying about the fantasy of being able to solve all sorts of problems by beating the shit out of the (putative?) source of the problem.

I'm not sure that I would have felt all that strongly about this, except that HBO had two other shows that (for the most part) avoided this kind of weaselly sort-of-glorification of sociopaths. Apart from The Wire's inexplicable romanticization of Omar (the gangsta Robin Hood), none of its criminals are presented as being particular pleasant or goofy or fun to hang with. There's also a dimension of real world tragedy to a character like Stringer Bell - diligently going to community college, trying his best to move into the big leagues, but utterly unprepared for it. And, in Deadwood, while Ian McShane's Al Swearengen is certainly charismatic, the show doesn't let that get him off the hook in the way that The Sopranos has, in the past, let the funny-guy antics and Tarantino-esque dialogue of Sylvio, Paulie, and Christopher cover up their sociopathic tendencies.

Al Swearengen is also great for another reason: the gangsters on The Sopranos are just hoods - violent guys who were too lazy or greedy to settle for living an ordinary, average Joe life. But tktk went into the wilderness and built something out of nothing: his accomplishment is tied up with his willingness to use violence.

But Season 6A changed that:

First, the opening Dennis Potter-ish episodes demanded more of the show's audience than anything in previous seasons. While I don't like it when a series says "screw you" to its audience, I do like it when it rewards a demand for a greater and/or different type of engagement. It's too bad that so many of the shows fans weren't interested in meeting this demand. Usually at this point I'd say something like "I don't blame them", but, in this case, I do blame them. What they wanted seemed to have been more of the same: edgy, violent, goombah hi-jinx and fetishization of mafia politics and power plays - i.e., a mix of some of the more superficial, yet distinctive, elements of Pulp Fiction and Casino. Watching mainly to see who's going to get "whacked".

Second, Chase et al. decided to tackle head-on the fact that, whatever else these guys are, they 're also (perhaps primarily) violent thugs, not heroes or funny "good-time" guys: that they're outlaws because they're greedy and not for any bigger romantic/tragic reasons (or even any bigger socio-economic reasons).

Anyway, I'm hoping that the remainder of Season 6 will continue to take a clear-eyed look at these characters and not revert to pandering to crowd who thinks that this is a good idea.

Keaton Redux

Yesterday's post was pretty cranky. I mean, whining about Buster Keaton - what's my problem?

A more cheerful take on Three Ages, Keaton's first feature as writer, (co-)director, star:

So, Keaton made this movie in 1923 and over the next five years would go on to make Our Hospitality, Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, Seven Chances, Go West, Battling Butler, The General, College, Steamboat Bill, Jr., and The Cameraman. What other filmmakers have had this kind of hot streak? Eleven good-to-among-the-greatest-ever films in a five year period? Godard from Breathless to Weekend comes close, but still isn't quite as consistent.

In other words: pretty impressive.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Movie Chat: Three Ages

Three Ages

Keaton's first feature (as a writer/director, at least) doesn't quite live up to the promise of his shorts, probably because he hedges his bets when it comes to really spoofing Intolerance. That is, what makes Intolerance such an amazing experience is the way that as the movie goes on not only do each of the three major threads pick up pace, but the inter-cutting between them becomes more and more frequent, until all the stories are climaxing at the same time (fitting for a movie with one of the most famous orgy scenes in film history). But Three Ages never really comes together like that: you get a chunk of the Stone Age story, then a chunk of the Roman story, and then a chunk of the Modern Story, repeat. And it doesn't help that each of these "chunks" is essentially the same: that's part of the joke (Buster faces the same problem in every Age) and it makes sense thematically ("Love" is a constant throughout history), but, dramatically, it's a little dull. I can't help but imagine what it could have been: cutting between three slapstick set pieces, so that, through editing, they all come together in some way.

It's also a bit of a problem that the three individual stories aren't great, either. They're not bad by any means, but Keaton's other shorts were mostly better than them. Part of my problem may result from how Three Ages is packaged on the Kino DVD: it's followed by The Goat, which may be one of the greatest short movies ever made. The Goat is so inventive that it makes Three Ages seem a lot less impressive. The gags in The Goat are brilliant and (often) laugh-out-loud funny, but the gags in Three Ages are clever and amusing.

Still, it's nice to see a movie comedy that's made on a relatively large scale (the Roman sets could have been used (were used?) for a genuine historical epic) that actually deserves that scale and knows how to make use of it. It's a nice change from today's big comedies, like Talladega Nights, where the huge Nascar set-pieces are handled with the minimum of wit and invention and the hugeness production (not to mention the budget) undermines the goofier, no-big-deal charms of its stars.

I think there are quite a few really good comic actors working in movies right now - Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly and Sacha Baron Cohen among them - but most of them seem more suited for "tossed-off" productions, like the Martin & Lewis movies or 1930s Paramount comedies, or, I guess, like Borat. But there doesn't seem to be anyone in Hollywood anymore who can make a truly "through-composed" comedy (especially since the Farrelly Brothers seem to have lost their way).

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Even More About Film Critics

After reading this post on Peter Suderman's blog and thinking back to some of the things that Jim Emerson has been writing about recently, I'm tempted to say that we're in the middle of a crisis of faith among film critics. Except that I'm not sure that this is anything new: film critics seem to have been in a crisis of faith for the last few years.

My take:

Peter is right: writing for a mass audience (i.e., in a daily paper) about the latest big budget comedy/action movie/chick flick does not require all that much knowledge about film history. Writing for an "educated" audience (i.e., in something like The New Yorker) requires a good deal more knowledge about film history, if only because your readers will expect you to put things in a larger context. Writing for an audience of film buffs (i.e., in something like Film Comment) requires a great deal of knowledge of film history, because fitting movies into that larger context is one of the major reasons magazines like that exist.

One of Peter's commenters wants to make the distinction between "reviewer" and "critic", and, though I don't think I've said this before, I think this is a bogus distinction. What matters is: who are you writing for? Who are you trying to engage with?

The problem with trying to separate "reviewer" from "critic" is that a lot of people who are writing about movies end up simultaneously reviewing (giving their opinion on the movie and suggesting what kind of audiences might find it appealing or otherwise) and doing criticism (giving their take on the movie and trying to place it into some kind of larger context).

With regard to Ronald Bergan's essay, I'd suggest that it's probably more important for film critics to put some work into learning about history in general and the history of other art forms (especially: visual arts, the novel, and the theater). Picking up film history is (comparatively) easy: the movies haven't been around that long and a couple of weekends of watching Criterion DVDs can get you up to speed pretty nicely.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Movie Chat: The Island of Dr. Moreau

While watching the remake of The Wicker Man last night, I started thinking about how John Frankenheimer's The Island of Dr. Moreau is (IMHO, of course) kind of underrated.

Not that I think Moreau is a good movie, or anything, but for a big budget Hollywood action/adventure movie it certainly is interesting and it's full of downright perverse choices. It's strange to think that this is what Frankenheimer decided to do when he finally got a big budget to work with, but, if I may engage in some tongue-in-cheek auteurism, this is definitely seems like it could be a "late" movie from the man who directed The Manchurian Candidate and Seconds, although not the man who directed The Train, Black Sunday, and the (IMHO) underrated French Connection sequel.

It's been a year or two since I've seen it, but some things still stick with me:

  1. The hallucinatory tenor of the last half of the film. It's truly bizarre, but it doesn't seem unintentional. That is, I don't get the sense (from watching the movie) that Frankenheimer lost control of things: even the production sounds like it was completely awful, the resulting movie doesn't really seem like a mess. Rather, it has a certain amount of clarity and sense of purpose in its complete and total nuttiness.

  2. Casting David Thewlis in the role originally intended for Val Kilmer. At that point, his biggest role had been in Naked and, now, here he is starring in a big-budget action movie. He's a fairly unlikely action hero, to say the least, but, even better, Val Kilmer is so much better as the good Doctor's weird-ass assistant. Kilmer's take on the character reminds me of a type that shows up in Evelyn Waugh's novels: people who are completely, utterly bonkers, but mask this with complete and utter self-assurance.

  3. Kilmer's performance is so bizarre that it's stunning when Marlon Brando finally appears on screen, because his performance - not to mention the way the movie's conception of Dr. Moreau character in general - is so much stranger than what Kilmer is doing. Now, with tongue only partly in cheek, I'm tempted to call this the best of Brando's Dadaist style performances.

Anyway, people remaking classic adventure/horror movies should really take a look at what Frankenheimer et al. did here.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Movie Chat: F for Fake

F for Fake

On the Criterion edition DVD of F for FakeCriterion, there's a filmed introduction to this movie by Peter Bogdonavich. (Note: like all of these Criterion Introductions, you should watch it after the movie. They're less introductions and more afterwords: a chance for the filmmaker to talk about his favorite parts of the movie.) Now, I try to be pretty generous, but Bogdonavich has always struck me as a huge blowhard. I always think about his interview with David Chase on one of the early Sopranos DVD sets where he traces the origins of a number of techniques Chase makes use of in the series back to his own movies, claiming, for example, that in Targets (!!!) he invented the device where all of the songs on a soundtrack are being played, in the world of the movie, over the radio (i.e., the songs on the soundtrack are fully diegetic). He also never passes up a chance to interrupt Chase with digressions that seem to have no other purpose than to give him a chance to name drop, like when he quotes some advice that his good friend Orson Welles once gave him.

Anyway, my point is that I was predisposed to find fault with the Bogdanovich intro, but, even so, I wasn't expecting him to be so, um, ignorant about movies. He talks about how F for Fake was a completely new kind of movie: a combination of documentary and essay. But, and please correct me if I'm wrong, by the late 1960s/early 1970s wasn't this kind of movie fairly common in European art film circles ? Circles that Welles would have been familiar with at the time and, I'd hope, that Bogdonavich would know about due to his interest in film history? I mean, doesn't documentary/essay pretty much describe something like Jean-Luc Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (from 1967) or Chris Marker's The Koumiko Mystery (from 1965)? Granted, maybe Bogdonavich isn't to blame and the people putting the introduction together decided to keep things simple, but regardless of who's responsible for the message - "In F for Fake Orson Welles invented a new type of movie" - the message itself is flawed in the same way that a lot of the claims about the innovations of Citizen Kane are flawed: making Welles out to be an innovator/inventor instead of what (it seems to me, at least) he really was: along with D.W. Griffith and Martin Scorsese, one of the greatest synthesizers in American film.

The major "innovation" of F for Fake isn't that it's a new kind of film, but that Welles approaches the documentary/essay form with the same sense of showmanship that he brought to all of his other cinematic and theatrical endeavors. That's what a lot of Welles's supporters miss when they talk about Citizen Kane: that it's one of the most entertaining "great" movie ever made, that Welles goes out of his way to put on a good show, that the effects and techniques borrowed from European cinema (like all of the expressionist compositions) are deployed as much as show-biz razzle-dazzle as poetic devices.

Likewise, what sets F for Fake apart from something like 2 or 3 Things... is that it's as much of an entertainment as it is an essay on fraud, forgery, and illusion. And Welles's attempts to keep his audience entertained - to provide the razzle-dazzle - become a major part of the essay, giving it not only more impact, but more depth.

Frankly, while I'm not surprised that it did badly at the time of it's (not quite) release, I am surprised that it hasn't become better known since. This is all relative, of course: I mean, it has been nicely restored and played the art house circuit and now it's out on a very nice Criterion Collection DVD (so nice that I've added it to my Criterion Wish List), but this is really the kind of movie that deserves more exposure in cinema studies programs and more discussion, in general.

Semi-Related Topic for Discussion:

F for Fake has this very nice Criterion edition, they've also put out a (too?) defintive version of Mr. Arkadin, and the Columibia DVD of Citizen Kane seems to be fine, but otherwise, Welles's DVD catalog is pretty spotty. So, here's the question: is Welles the most important American director whose work is the least well-served by its current release status?