I have a guest post on the novel I Don’t Know How She Does It at Lawyers, Guns, and Money.
Safety Not Guaranteed is a pleasant, low-key independent film, half screwball farce, half lightweight romantic comedy, that in spite of its nearly elephant-sized plot holes and occasional confusing editing missteps will certainly entertain, not least with images of coastal Washington state. The movie garnered an astonishing range of positive reviews. It stars Aubrey Plaza, of Parks and Recreation, and Mark Duplass, who co-produced it with his brother.
Plaza plays Darius, a morose twenty-something intern at a Seattle magazine who doesn’t have the personality to land a paying job doing something normal, like waiting tables. She’s sad because her mother died when she was a teenager. She volunteers to work on a story about someone who’s placed a classified ad asking for someone to time-travel with him, joining two men, a fulltime reporter, and another intern, a nerdy undergraduate science major who joined the magazine to add diversity to his CV. When they travel to the seaside resort where the mystery person lives, it turns out that the reporter really only wants to hook up with an old high school fling who used to live in the area, so after his initial attempt to approach the subject fails, it becomes Darius’s job to learn about the guy all on her own.
It’s all very zany and intriguing, and not especially serious. If you’re going to object to the idea that these people truly are investigating whether the guy really does have a working time machine hidden in that ramshackle house in the woods, you’re watching the wrong movie. On the other hand, it does arguably go a bit too far, beginning when Darius is led into the woods to (it turns out) participate in a felony, and neither the professional reporter nor her editor (who we later learn has been receiving blow-by-blows via e-mail) objects to this fact or calls the story off. On reflection, there is a point where it simply isn’t any longer plausible that magazine reporters would operate in this way, inserting themselves into the story under false pretenses and (one assumes) not even revealing that they’re reporters except after the story’s seen in print.
The plot is more short story than novel, which is fine, and usual for an indie film. The subplots more echo the main storyline than deepen it. There’s little effort to gain the viewer’s empathy for the characters, and in fact, several of them have basically no positive traits at all. This, again, is more or less par for the course in an independent film, as these tend to avoid the strenuously mechanical screenplay building more usual in Hollywood. Also par for the course is the quirkiness. This, though, is possibly a little too extreme. Kenneth is obviously, by the end of the movie, and arguably, from the first moment we see him, seriously mentally ill. There are vague gestures in the direction of explaining why he’s angry, in the form of explanations of the way peers have treated him in the past, and of painting him as simply a nerd, ambiguous between explaining why he’s mentally ill and demonstrating how difficult life can be for an ill person. And there’s nothing wrong with this kind of ambiguity, as an element of a film. All this film’s ambiguities seem, however, to point in the same direction. Kenneth is nerdy and has no social skills, but he’s surprisingly charismatic for an older guy with a bad haircut, and—who knows?—he may be brilliant!—he claims, after all, to have invented a time machine, and if he’s telling the truth, he has got to be an amazing genius after all. And he wrote a very nice tune and accompanies himself in a very accomplished manner (on the zither), even if the lyrics are a bit sketchy. This is all okay. A romantic comedy where an unpleasant person, like Darius, finds love is perfectly okay. Suggesting that anyone is so unpleasant that it would be a good thing for her to submit herself totally to the plotting of an insane person (because he does have many good qualities and even an insane person deserves some happiness) is, I think, not so okay.
And (SPOILER ALERT!) Safety Not Guaranteed does end, as all the critics noted at the time, with a welcome if unexpected pairing-off. Of course—another spoiler alert!—he turns out to be not so totally insane after all . . . except for the lying, the past acts of violence, and the felonies . . . that we know about. But as with his ridiculously inept criminality, maybe that doesn’t matter so much, in what is after all a comedy. As I was watching, I thought, well, there’s a lot of bad male behavior in this movie, but it really could be almost a feminist movie . . . they’re really being quite intelligent about how they’re handling this . . . This is, however, to deconstruct a story that has three female characters, all either bitchy or seen as bitchy by the men; that focuses on the importance of making sure nerds get laid; that is interested in the subjectivity only of men, and is interested in the lives of men only in terms of how easy or difficult it is for men of different ages and personality types to get laid, and interested in the happiness of men only in terms of their finding women. The movies I feel are closest to Safety Not Guaranteed in terms of mood, story, and approach are It Happened One Night and Manhattan. Those are terrific movies, and Safety Not Guaranteed is good, too. I hope the follow-up does rather more to distinguish itself from GamerGate.
Sonya Saraiya’s review of the new SyFy series, The Magicians, begins as follows:
The smartest thing Syfy’s “The Magicians” does, right from the start, is putting protagonist Quentin Coldwater (Jason Ralph) in a psych ward.
I disagree. At least I’m going to want to use a different definition of “smart.” It’s clever, or something. It’s insightful. And it’s a little disturbing in terms of what it suggests the series is going to do.
Lev Grossman’s description of Brakebills, in the opening chapters of the novel, is very precisely descriptive—and very evocative. It did, in fact, remind me of the opening of Susan Kaysen’s memoir, Girl, Interrupted, which takes place in a mental hospital. Interestingly, the description of that hospital was written in a way that made it reminiscent of a scene set in a university.
That Grossman, whether deliberately or as a result of some dreamlike unconscious process of thinking about situations and images, created the scene he did, speaks to his skill and to the quality of the book itself.
That the writers of a TV series excavated some “real meaning” of the scene, and decided the story was better if Quentin was mentally disturbed, speaks to their arrogantly deciding that the book is only “material”—but even more than that—to their apparently deciding that they know the meaning of that material better than the person who originally wrote it down.
There are parts of many books—The Magicians among them—that I kind of feel their authors “got wrong” in one way or another. I’m not sure I have any curiosity about the ways the SyFy writers got it wrong.
(One thing I think they got right, in a weird way, is the casting of Penny. As I’ve mentioned, I’m strangely fond of Penny. Quentin and his friends don’t like him, and he returns the favor, but by the end of the novel he’s revealed as the one of them who really needs magic, really needs the structure and purpose integration into the world of magic gives him, and who really has the talent and drive to do something useful with it. He always struck me as lower-middle or working class and ethnic, and in fact I always thought of him as resembling an Asian-American friend of mine, and though the actor cast for the series is taller and a bit more buff, the clips I’ve seen seem right to me.)
Phoebe Maltz Bovy has written an essay on class diversity in fiction: namely, the lack of it. She raises a lot of good questions, though her conclusion seems to me to be overly pessimistic.
In her first paragraph, Bovy equivocates on the meaning of the word “representation.” In discussions of diversity, representation means that people from different groups are represented in the group of people doing something. In art, representation, of course, means something different. Representation means showing people who belong to a certain group, or a certain type. It also refers to the way in which they are shown. Bovy conflates these two meanings in order to suggest that what people who call for diversity of novelists really want is to see people like themselves in fiction or in films, and to allow her to explore the latter question. I do think this question is interesting. I’m not in a hurry, though, to tell people who are asking for, say, more women novelists reviewed in important venues, that they should be satisfied with really good depictions of women by male authors, much less that a meditation on why “representation” is important is something on which they should spend their time.
She next gets to the meat of her argument: the representation of socioeconomic class in fiction. Specifically, she is riffing off recent essays by working-class writers who’ve discussed issues of personal import to themselves. They’ve felt uncomfortable in writing programs, or felt compelled to censor themselves, or they find it difficult to combine their concerns about class with their concerns about race. Bovy rewords their concerns in the following fashion:
When reading both of these essays, though, I wondered whether class is, in this context, just one more box to check, one more injustice to correct. Is it simply a matter of locating structural obstacles and raising awareness?
She is going to combine the political question with the aesthetic one. Representation promises a way of better understanding the way class concerns interact with aesthetic considerations.
The meat of Bovy’s essay begins as follows:
It seems to me that socioeconomic class is a tougher sort of diversity to bring to writing. Unlike the other varieties, it’s at odds with what readers are used to and what they’re likely to want—namely wealthier, more glamorous, or just less drudgery-having versions of themselves. Which is to say: What does aspirational look like? As a rule, I suspect, those of us who aren’t white men don’t dream of becoming white men, (and more to the point, becoming a white guy because they sure seem to have it easier isn’t an option). But rich isn’t an identity, exactly. You get to be yourself, but you can afford a hi-tech Japanese bidet-toilet.
This is certainly true to some extent. People who work in the music industry, say, want to see movies and read books about very talented people in the industry. People with families like entertainment that depicts people with happy families. Of course, this leaves out movies and novels about “problems,” but even in those cases, for the most part, everything else is heightened or improved—and the problem, of course, is resolved by the end. People, generally, like to see pretty people onscreen, healthy people, strong people, happy people, rich people. The typical movie house isn’t a modest ranch, but a roomy split-level, garrison Colonial, or contemporary, with a big yard. The default, especially in film, is the ideal (just as the default bad person is the worst possible: a movie that could have been about a club kid is made about a prostitute instead).
This kind of thing helps readers and filmgoers identify with the characters and with the essential aspect of the story. Freud had a lot to say about this kind of thing. He pointed out that in classical drama, we don’t see stories about ordinary families. Instead, we see family dynamics playing out in a heightened fashion among kings, queens, and princes. Freud believed that this was the best way to get playgoers to experience the feelings that would let them fix their own lives. We don’t write literature about royalty anymore—the novel is the literature of the middle class (though we would now say “upper middle class”)—but Freud’s theory is still influential, in certain circles.
This isn’t the same thing, however, as the idea that people of different types like to see idealized versions of those types onscreen or in the books they read. Freud wasn’t talking about people of different types. He wrote about psychologies he believed were universal. It’s true that people don’t like to see types they identify with made fun of. It’s also true that what constitutes “making fun” differs from person to person and from group to group. Some people might feel that a geek who acts like a geek is being made fun of, while others might feel that a geek who acts like a club kid is disrespectful of actual geeks. Moreover, books and films for a broad audience have to consider what that broad audience will like. If a geek who acts like a geek—or a working-class person who acts like a working-class person—screams “bad” or “weird” to people who aren’t geeks or working-class, it will actually give the message that geeks or working-class people are themselves bad or weird.
And anyway, people who write “mainstream” literature do tend to be fairly well-off, as Bovy and her sources observe. They write what they know, and moreover, they write what will sell. And the audience, too, for that kind of fiction, tends to be well-off, one supposes. They’ve gone from college to grad school to published novelist, in many cases, without having much workday contact with non-writers, except to the extent they themselves have jobs, which tend not to be in the broad middle straddling “barista” and “CEO.” To the extent they’re successful, the non-writers they come in contact with are usually members of a cultural elite that’s itself increasingly an economic elite. If people who fit that description would like to write about ordinary people, they can do research, or write about their childhood and the lives of their less-privileged ancestors, or they can pick up an ideology like Freud’s that tells them it’s actually best to focus on people who are at one extreme, that the best art has the most attenuated connection with the real, everyday or workaday world. And people who don’t fit that description can find themselves wanting to do things that don’t fit the generally accepted patterns.
A few years ago a woman writer, I forget who, said something about the need to realize one’s reading has been aspirational in a bad way, that one has been reading things written for, intended for, only making sense for, the very wealthy. I think it’s possible to go too far in that direction. You run the risk of dismissing all fiction as trivial, fluff, something only for leisured ladies in between rounds of bonbons. You run the risk of allowing the wealthy—rather than the elite of the spirit—to take over the realms belonging to literature. (In the US these have historically been separate.) It’s possible to decide one doesn’t want to read books, any longer, about rich people.
And in one way, this can make sense. At some point in your life, you decide that books about people just out of college who are deciding whether to go to Europe without a job or to Japan are saying less than they could be saying about the things that are important to you. You realize that coming-of-age novels can perhaps be written to appeal to readers from any background, regardless of the milieu in which they’re set, but that novels for older people don’t work as well that way. You just get tired of the same thing, over and over again, and you lose interest in the minutiae of upper-class fashion and its changes from year to year. You find it more difficult, as you mature and the demands you make on books evolve, to find something meaningful in what’s being published.
And this somehow ends up seeming related to the fact that books (maybe increasingly) tend to be set among an economic elite.
It’s too bad.
Arbitrage can occur when the value of a good in one place is different from the value of the same good in a different place. Rather than bringing the seller together with a buyer who’s willing to pay a lot, an arbitrageur pays the seller’s low price, then brings the good to the buyer and sells it for a higher one. Arbitrage depends on the seller’s not learning the true market value of the good they have for sale, or if this isn’t the case, on the impossibility of the seller’s making direct contact with the true purchaser of their goods.
Arbitrage is also the practice of bringing buyers and sellers together. It’s the practice depicted in the 1988 movie Working Girl. The intern played by Melanie Griffith puts together a deal that allows one corporation to buy another. The firm she works for acts as a go-between, letting the buyer and seller know that a deal could be made, and provides loans that let the deal go through. She tells them about a possibility they don’t yet know exists (though it’s possible they could if they wanted to, and did the research she performed), and earns a commission on the sale.
“Arbitrage” is also the name of a 2012 movie starring Richard Gere and Brit Marling, as well as Susan Sarandon, Tim Roth, and Nate Parker. Gere plays an incredibly wealthy financier who’s about to sell his firm, at which Marling’s character, his daughter, is an important executive. There’s also some shady business involving his borrowing cash under the table to make it look as if his investment company is properly funded. When—as depicted in the trailer—his mistress is killed in a gruesome late-night accident during which he was driving her car, he perceives the need to create a story that hopefully will keep him out of the clutches of the police. But because there’s no question the death was an accident and the most serious charge he’d face would be manslaughter, he’s more worried about the deal falling through than he is about prison time or the scandal itself. And the buyer, played for some reason by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, is jerking him around.
There’s some attempt to make this into a movie about a basically good guy whose life starts to fall apart around him when he makes a couple of mistakes. (It occurred to me, weirdly, that if he’d done a line of his girlfriend’s coke instead of drinking her scotch, he might not have fallen asleep at the wheel.) But this idea can’t really be sustained. The filmmakers are very careful to let the viewer know that this kind of behavior—the cheating, in both senses—is utterly commonplace among this crowd, and it surprises almost no one. When he involves the son of his former driver, played by Nate Parker, in the crime, the cruelty of what he’s asking the younger man to do is shocking to the viewer, and seems to occur to him not at all.
Arbitrage, the movie, is dark and cold. Thirty years ago, Working Girl depicted a girl from Queens working her way through college to get a job at Wall Street and achieve success, in spite of the fact that her colleagues would surely screw her over. (Well, her female boss screws her over, and she learns that a sexy man can both fall in love with her and engineer her ultimate success.) Arbitrage has no such happy ending. It’s not a fun, commercial movie like Working Girl is. It’s not really even an exceptional indie film. It has a couple of plot holes. It’s a first effort by a new filmmaker, but it’s also interesting, and it had really good performances by Marling, Roth, Sarandon, and a definitely aging but still sexy Gere.
Cinema Verité is a made-for-TV movie (1-1/2 hours long) about a real-life historical event: the making of a documentary about a “typical American family” by a film crew that stayed in their house with them nearly constantly, which was shown on PBS. This was evidently the first time such a thing had been seen, and there are a number of videos already available that cover some of the same material, in journalistic form.
Cinema Verité dubs An American Family the first “reality TV show” and addresses the intentions of the filmmakers, as well as the family members who agreed to this, and continues to follow the characters in the calamitous aftermath of the broadcast itself. The documentary followed the lives of an upper-middle class family in Santa Barbara, in 1970 (including one family member who at the time lived in New York, and was gay but not out to his family), and turned out to be the documentation of a process that resulted in their divorce. The TV movie suggests that divorce is what the film’s director wanted to show all along, and that he may have manipulated the family into cooperating with him in ways that documentary ethics shouldn’t have allowed.
The movie isn’t perfect. Its focal point doesn’t always seem to be in the right place, and its pacing is off. There isn’t a real narrative arc. And there isn’t enough context for a present-day viewer to understand the cultural issues that would have been in play in 1970. Instead, the themes are contemporary ones of surveillance and privacy, media shaming, ordinary people versus the elite, and the desire for fame. On the one hand, the family’s oldest son is treated as their voice of wisdom, and on the other, his not-quite coming-out as gay to a family that seems ridiculously clueless about him is played for laughs. The movie cuts back and forth between a dramatization of the mother’s marital troubles and her manipulation at the hands of the documentary’s director, and a long monologue from the original series in which she holds forth equally on her feelings and on clichéd commonplaces about women’s psychology.
My daughter and I watched Star Wars together a few months ago, and she is aware that there’s a new sequel coming out. The other day she came home and told me that she and her friends had played “Star Wars” at recess. I grilled her, very carefully, to try and determine whether any of them had made The Big Reveal during the game. I decided that the time to watch The Empire Strikes Back was now. I saw this in a theater during its first run, when I was thirteen. (Someone had already made The Big Reveal during an eighth-grade graduation party at which toy light sabers had been present.) At the time, I was still reading science fiction pretty regularly. I brought home a making-of magazine I bought at the theater, and read and re-read it obsessively. I know I’ve seen the movie at least once since then, but probably on broadcast TV, on a poor-quality set, and possibly not even the whole thing. I didn’t expect it to hold up perfectly thirty-five years and four more sequels later, but I was hoping it wouldn’t be too bad.
My not-quite-live blogging:
The opening credits are really pretty exciting. I can imagine being very ready to see the sequel, in 1980, and watching the beginning with huge anticipation.
The text starts scrolling up the screen, and my daughter says, “Episode V—this is episode 5!”, and I pause the movie and explain to her.
The movie really looks nice. The shots of the ice planet (no idea what its name is), of the repair hangar, very nice. The cinematography and editing, other than that, are nothing special. The dialogue is terrible. The score is over the top (and too loud for my daughter’s somewhat sensitive ears). The plot is pretty much non-existent. But the art direction is carrying the film.
Harrison Ford looks really, really, incredibly young. He’s playing his character from American Graffiti, if that character were in his element, and his element were a spacecraft hangar.
Why does Han go get Leia to bring her to her ship? She describes this as an uncharacteristically chivalrous thing to do. Possibly one of the rebel officers had asked him to do it. But I feel like he did it because that’s what a man in an old movie would do at this point. He’d make sure the high-status woman gets where she needs to go, just because, and he’d go take her himself, because old-fashioned standards of “gentlemanliness.” A lot of the movie so far has been pantomiming actions from older movies. It feels a little like Casablanca in space.
When the second guy gets strangled by Darth Vader’s Force powers, the one who isn’t on a viewscreen, my daughter doesn’t understand what’s happening.
Ugh. A scene I found romantic at thirteen is actually about Han Solo forcing his attentions on Leia, by backing her against a wall, and her slipping away as soon as she possibly can.
Dagobah doesn’t look as chilly and damp as I remember it being. With my old DVD player, I used to turn on the TV’s “theater” mode when I watched movies, but the Blu-Ray player has a “cinema” mode, which gets turned on automatically and has usually worked well. I turn on the TV “theater” mode and it looks a little better, but my daughter asks me to turn it off.
Yoda looks like Samuel L. Jackson. I’m sorry, but he does.
This sequence does not wear well. I remember being very, very impressed by it as a thirteen year old. I’m not an aficionado of martial arts movies, but having seen Kill Bill (which makes use of those tropes), I can recognize that Yoda is a similar character to Tarantino’s Pai Mei. I can recognize that all his little annoying habits are forms of traits traditionally given to such characters. But I can also recognize that this seems “off” and more than a little tone-deaf. It could hardly help being a little silly in modern times. Tarantino intensifies the silliness and turns it almost into camp, though a very serious—and violent—kind of camp. This, though, is just wrong.
“There is no try. There is only do, or not do.” This could be a filmmaker’s credo, I suppose. The film either works, or it doesn’t. You don’t (usually) get credit for having good intentions. These movies are coming very close to not working, and soon will go over that cliff.
For years, I’ve shrugged off people who say that Luke is annoying. But he is. He’s rude to Yoda and dismisses him as a silly old man, far beyond what you’d expect from an “average” callow young man. There’s nothing here that suggests a budding Jedi Master. There’s not even anything that suggests the fairly thoughtful young man of the first movie, the one who was kind to the droids and open to the possibility that Ben Kenobi was more than he seemed.
A whole lot of the film from this point forward does not wear well.
In the scene with the bounty hunters, my daughter asks who they all are. I didn’t remember this being in the movie at all, had no idea what a bounty hunter was, and was surprised when I saw The Return of the Jedi by the whole Jabba/Boba Fett thing. Power Rangers apparently has a bounty hunter, but if they’re true to form, it doesn’t really make sense and isn’t explained.
Han and Lando discuss the latter’s having settled down and turned into a respectable businessman. It occurs to me that this scene could have been picked up out of The Empire Strikes Back and dropped into The Big Chill, and when the closing credits roll, I’m reminded that Lawrence Kasdan co-wrote the screenplay (with Leigh Brackett).
Chewbacca (now reassembling C-3PO) is an engineer?
When Luke walks into the room where Darth Vader is waiting for him, things pick up. The not-wearing-well part of the movie would seem to be over. I suppose people have picked this over many times by now, but Luke is there to rescue his friends. He sees Vader and unsheathes his sword turns on his light saber. Why? He doesn’t ask what Vader wants, or wait to see whether he’ll be attacked. Presumably, he thinks he can kill Darth Vader on his own . . . why? Because he has the awesome superpowers of the Jedi knight? Again, it feels like the movie is being driven by a framework from some other story: this is the part where they fight. Why did he walk into that room in the first place? There was no reason for him to think he could help his friends by going in there? Why didn’t he leave when he saw they weren’t there? Why didn’t he ask Vader where they are? But okay, this is an exciting scene and looks cool.
I’m now waiting for The Moment. My daughter has been fidgeting a bit. She’s seen a few movies that are two hours long or longer, but mostly kids’ movies. The Wizard of Oz is pretty long, for example, and she got a little bored toward the end, anyway; I had to remind her to pay attention when the Wicked Witch was about to get it onscreen. I stopped the movie at a couple of points for snacks, and when Luke confronted Vader she was sitting on the floor and I could only see the back of her head. What her reaction was, when The Line was said, I don’t know, but she was very still.
Doesn’t Calrissian have more than eight security officers? Why are there so many stormtroopers running around freely and shooting at things?
There are too many plot turns that depend on the droids’ not being listened to when they know what they’re talking about.
Trying to find a comparison for Luke’s rescue by the Millennium Falcon, I settle on Ishmael’s rescue by “the deviously cruising Rachel” in Moby Dick.
Not crazy about the final shot, not sure why.
As the closing credits roll, I ask my daughter, “Were there any surprises in that movie?” She says no. I say, “What about Darth Vader being Luke’s father?” She answers . . . , “You told me that already.” I. Do. Not. Remember. That. When? “When I was two.” After many minutes and much discussion, I do remember that a clothes store gave us a tie-in activity book, three or four years ago, for some kind of graphic novel about a Jedi middle school. And that it described little kid Luke and Leia (almost wrote “Laura,” ha!) as brother and sister, and probably even mentioned that their dad was Darth. Which is weird, and I might have even explained it to her in some way. But, so, that was disappointing. I reminded her that Darth Vader is still the bad guy.
Hunter S. Thompson occupies a mythical place in the pantheon of journalists. He held nothing sacred and took no prisoners in attacking what Rick Perlstein later called “Nixonland.”
It’s somewhat surprising that only two movies have been made of his books. The first, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which stars Johnny Depp as Thompson, told the story about a drug-fueled hallucinatory vacation in which Thompson tries to elude police officers (standing in for the Republican state) who have merged with his nightmare view of his surroundings. The more recent, The Rum Diary, which stars Johnny Depp as a fictional character based on a journalist Thompson once knew, is better but more dull, and almost entirely substance-free until two-thirds of the way through. It takes place in 1960 San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the tourists and the hotels have arrived but before they’ve completely taken over. In one long scene (unfortunately, a little too long—I’m all for talky movies but I really did almost fall asleep during this one), the main character complains to his editor that the rich people have bought up all the views of the sea, and his boss tells him about how that’s the way it is. The journalist gets mixed up with some shady crooks pretending to be serious businessmen, and (SPOILER) escapes unscathed except for the loss of his job.
The movie offers a very nice look at an “untouched” Puerto Rico before it becomes urbanized, industrialized, and turned into a huge tourist destination. There are some beautiful scenes of the rain forest and the beach, and of San Juan street scenes that are probably much less populated than what most people living today have ever seen. The film pulls off the trick of getting luxury hotels and expensive beachfront houses onscreen in a way that shows off their beauty without hiding the ugliness and suffering that made them possible. The scenes where Aaron Eckhardt’s skeevy “investor” tempts Depp’s character into his schemes are truly creepy, without any of the attempts to make sure the rich guy looks desirable and admirable, in some sense, that you often see in these kinds of scenes (a multitude of roles cast with Michael Douglas come to mind).
The movie ends with an attempt to make an apparently political point. I’m not sure what it is, except that viewers should root for the little guy (as long as, like Hunter S. Thompson and his friends, their littleness has long been a matter of history). I don’t know what Thompson’s politics was, other than that he hated Nixon and thought most drugs should be legalized. Poor Puerto Ricans are pitied for losing their homes to the hotels, but especially if they’re black, they’re depicted as scary and dangerous. People who overtly mock striking workers and protesting locals are ridiculed, but no interest is shown by anyone in what their demands are; they’re simply an obstacle to be gotten around in a crazy environment. At base, The Rum Diary is a story of a young guy who tries out a job in the system and gets away, having learned something, before the system gets its claws into him. It stops before his promised future gets underway at all.
The characters are reasonably interesting, though not quite enough to make up for the plodding plotting and the excessive drug hallucinations. One part out of many—say, the second fourth of the film, with the plot about the new hotel development—probably should have been expanded, and the rest dropped. But what would a Hunter S. Thompson movie be without excessive drug hallucinations? That’s the dilemma, and if your answer is, “Something I might actually want to watch,” this isn’t the movie for you. But if you’ll put up with some extraneous excess, maybe it is.
Emily Asher-Perrin is returning to the first six Star Wars movies in anticipation of the newest one. She has some contrarian, and even counter-intuitive, praise for “Episode I,” prior to listing some things about it that she actually doesn’t like, beginning with:
People talk SO MUCH. And I’m not one of those people who hates the political aspects of the prequels, I love those parts, but so much of the talking we are forced to listen to is not relevant. Amidala’s plea to the Senate? Cut that whole preamble where the Chancellor is recognizing people’s chairs and whatever.
I loved this part. It was almost the only part of the movie that I liked. I loved the production design, and the visuals, the way the scene evoked something not easy to define, but essential to what Star Wars’ best self was all about. I wanted to see a movie that was just this scene—of course, expanded to full movie length with some actual content. I wanted to see a movie that was about an empire-or-whatever-it-is that had all these different people in it, and where the ways they interacted with each other somehow realized a dim sense that was being conveyed in the darkness of the Senate Hall and the swooping movements of the Senators into and out of view. I think I have a blog post that I drafted, way in the distant past, where I tried to say this earlier. This was the moment in The Phantom Menace that corresponded, for me, to the half-hour trip around the outside of the Enterprise, near the beginning of the first Star Trek movie.
There were one or two other things that stuck with me—but in ways that had little or nothing to do with the actual movie.
I saw the next two at home on the TV. Attack of the Clones or whatever it was called was just about watchable. Again the excessively cute small boy. Revenge of the Sith was just crazy stupid bad: not original, not persuasive, boring. I rushed to watch the trailers for the new one, but I can’t get excited about it. I’m not really a J.J. Abrams fan, I didn’t like what he did with Star Trek, and I’m not expecting a whole lot. I found out recently about a sequence where you watch the existing six films in the order of IV-V-I-II-II-VI, with I actually optional, and I think I’m going to try that with my daughter. I’ll probably show her episode I mostly because I think she’s at the only age where little kids racing hovercraft is going to be exciting, but the idea of treating that one as an “extra” makes a lot of sense. Though I think the aversion to some of its plot elements goes overboard. Yes, virgin birth and midichlorians are stupid. But there’s no reason not to expose a kid to them, if only from the cultural-literacy perspective where it’s important to be aware of the tropes’ existence, and to know that they’re basically childish.
I’ve often been relieved when a blogger I like gets a gig at an edited online publication, because this means they’ll stop writing quite so long. There’s a kind of blogger who writes seemingly five- or ten-thousand word screeds several times a week, or even multiple times a day. That’s just too long for me to read, and I don’t see how anyone could read more than a few of those in a day and still have time for work, much less their own writing. Even publications that appear only online usually don’t permit that kind of length, or the kind of rambling that usually goes with it.
So although I was intrigued by Forrest Wickman’s recent piece in Slate (he’s long been a TV and culture critic there), on subtlety and heavy-handedness, I was also dismayed as I got towards the middle of the piece and realized it was only the middle, with half as much, at least, more to go, and at least twice as many new topics. A journal like the London Review of Books publishes pieces of this length, but they are constructed much differently from what you see in Slate. I’m all for long-form and the leisurely exposition, description, explanation, and so on that traditional form allows. But this isn’t long-form, it’s no-form: just the rambling blog post all over again. I’m pretty sure I could have stopped halfway through and not missed anything about the part I was interested in. Or I could have started halfway through and read an entirely different, fully complete essay, on a completely different topic (which might actually have interested me more, if I’d encountered it first, I suppose). Wickman’s piece, in spite of its annoying form and length, is pretty interesting, though, and worth reading (to the end).
The subject is our changing views of “subtlety” and “heavy-handedness” in art. Wickman says a lot of interesting things, and gives a lot of good examples, especially of historical support for opinions in past literary criticism. He doesn’t stick too narrowly to the argument, which might seem like logic-chopping, or might just be boring, but digresses just enough to be interesting, getting into the history of TV criticism on the Internet and lots of not-necessary but still entertaining subject matter. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear what his argument is supposed to be. And one thing in particular struck me as not-quite-right.
As he presents it, it sounds like any piece of writing has only one meaning, and it’s either overt or beneath the surface. This seems a little dubious and oversimplified. Even more than that, it means there are only two kinds of writing. A book or film is either “subtle” or “on the nose,” and once you know which it is, you know what the meaning is. If you took a heavy-handed movie and found a hidden meaning in it, you’d look ridiculous: you know what the meaning is very easily with just a basic ability to comprehend English and the world on the screen. If you looked at a deep or subtle film and acted like the overt meaning was the real one, you’d look similarly ridiculous, and kind of dumb. But beyond that—beyond those two straightforward alternatives—it’s really not too hard. The hidden meaning even of a subtle work, Wickman suggests, doesn’t take that much work to figure out: because it’s only hidden just enough to conceal the fact that it has a message. To me, it seems like a pretty limited way to think about art, however.
I put on Les Misérables while I was folding laundry, in part because I was curious to see whether my opinion of it had improved with increased familiarity. Verdict: No, Les Misérables is still awful, but the second act is not that bad, from about “Master of the House,” up to the point, shortly into the third act, where it turns almost literally into a parody of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Gethsemane. In other words, the parts that involve ensemble singing, and especially those that foreground the revolutionary student Enjolras and his friends.
This is not to deny, as I’ve said before, that some of the individual songs, as songs, are very pretty, setting aside their repetitiveness, that they likely sound less ridiculous in the original French, and that they would probably work very well separately as cabaret pieces. Sitting through more than two hours of them and trying to fit them all into a coherent plot is something else. If you don’t really get what’s happening onstage—difficult enough, especially from the back rows, given that almost none of the plot is dramatized, only developed through dialogue and musical infodumps—you see that the story ends with Jean Valjean striding towards Heaven. If you more or less do, the story is Marius’s rescue from political activity and his return to the ranks of the respectably rich—at the price of the deaths of nearly everybody else—and Cosette’s similar rescue from poverty to be his wife; and Valjean’s salvation turns out to look a lot like financial prosperity. And whatever you do, don’t ask whether there’s any significance to the setting of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” in the upper room of a tavern.
(Not worth a separate post, I think, but taking a similar tack with regard to how older people should think of their activist days, is The Company You Keep, where Robert Redford and Julie Christie play aging and cynical ex-Weatherman types, and Shia LaBeouf is the historically innocent young reporter who decides to track them down.)
The East, released in 2013, is a kind of low-key thriller (i.e., suspenseful, but not an action movie). It stars Brit Marling, who co-wrote the script with Zal Batmanglij, who directed. It also stars Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard. Marling plays Sarah (not her real name, but the only one we hear used in at least 99% of the movie), an operative for a private security company who infiltrates an eco-terrorist cell, and gets in too deep. Skarsgard plays Benji, the cell/commune’s charismatic leader. The film works well as an exposé of bad corporate practices and a call to viewers to think hard about the consequences of what they do.
Patricia Clarkson plays Sarah’s boss, and I wonder whether the movie would work if the role had been cast instead as a man. As it is, there’s a secondary story that involves Sarah renouncing, not only her previous life, but her allegiance to the Clarkson character, in favor of a more intimate relationship with the male cell leader—which struck me as unintentionally, and unfortunately distractingly, peculiar. Sarah begins the movie in a satisfying live-in relationship with a man, and with a high-powered career that involves a lot of travel and secrecy. She’s depicted as both a Christian and a woman deeply committed to her career (though it isn’t clear she’s ever thought about exactly what her job involves). She ends by breaking her commitments to boss, job, and lover all at once. In between, she bonds with several women, and with a gay man, all of whom instruct her in her new way of life. But her real commitment to the group begins when its dominant woman (Page) dies and Sarah subsequently has sex with the male leader. Her moral growth occurs at just the point when she switches her obedience from a woman to a man.
In a way, the ending inverts the traditional romantic happy ending. Sarah ends up alone, having abandoned both family and career, though now with a mission. Where she gets the money to pursue her mission is never explained. Benji’s cell was funded with the money he inherited, and Sarah has no such support. Nevertheless—though through her intimate subordination to Benji, followed by her break with him over tactics—she has found her own way.
When I think of twee, I think of Dr. Who. To me, twee is an English thing, a certain English kind of humor. It’s “cute and clever” and a little flamboyant. There’s an American twee, now, the kind of thing you get in Wes Anderson movies, and it’s kind of different. American twee takes itself seriously, and thinks there’s a deep meaning behind the exuberant playfulness on the surface. (I suppose it’s possible there’s a deep meaning behind classic English twee that I can’t see, not being English, but I find it tough to believe it’s the same one.) American twee is very proud of itself for being cute and clever, and sees the wish to be flamboyant and playful as a virtue in itself, and to be indulged for its own sake. American twee says, “Isn’t it amazing that I can feel all these things?”
It sounds from this like I don’t like twee at all, which isn’t entirely true. There’s a Wes Anderson film there, or two, I think, that I like—though not when it seems like the point is to admire Anderson himself, and approve the women who sit around and admire him. A.S. Byatt, who’s mostly a pretty serious novelist, can go into twee when she likes. I’m looking forward to the second season of The Librarians. And there are a lot of books coming out these days that have elements of what I’d consider twee. Most of them can’t be dismissed only because of that.
A good novel that I’d consider somewhat twee, though in a good way, is Erin Morgenstern’s A Night at the Circus. It’s about a kind of love affair and rivalry between people who exist at the core of a kind of magical traveling circus, about a small number of people from outside who become drawn into its sphere, and about what it means for the circus to exist at all. (It’s not the kind of thing I tend to pick up, though I’ve liked some adult fiction fantasy, like Wicked, with which this has some similarities.) They were trained in different ways, and the circus itself is set up as a contest between them, to the death (which puts wrinkles into their love affair). Each is both within and outside of the magical world; it’s natural to them and to the people they’re closest to, yet still strange. They don’t live in a world where magic is taken for granted. The circus itself exists on the boundary between life and art, the physical and the emotional, and feels very real. The sense I had of tweeness comes in because there is a way in which the readers is asked to marvel at the fact that such things can happen, and that these two young people can so amazingly create them, which threatens to overpower interest in the things that are happening. But it never really does. The characters’ feelings about what’s happening to them are realistic and go well beyond bald astonishment that such things could be in the world.
A twee novel that I did not like, and could not finish, was Felix Gilman’s The Revolutions. I liked his earlier A Half-Made World, which he set in a fantasy kind of mostly uncolonized quasi-American continent, though I haven’t read the sequel. He published The Revolutions after that, and it’s set in London, in a kind of steampunk Victorian or Georgian world. (I don’t read steampunk much; a lot of it does seem to have twee aspects.) In this world, there are strange magical things going on, natural disasters and people influencing others without their knowledge, secret societies delving into the supernatural, rich eccentrics funding research and invention for who knows what purpose. The main character is a young man, just beginning to make connections with real people other than himself. He falls in love, abruptly, with a young woman who lives with a nice shopkeeping family and works for those secret psychical researchers. And they begin to get involved, without really wanting to or choosing it, around the edges of world-shattering events, in ways that I’m guessing promise to teach them about their own natures and about humanity. I don’t know for sure, because that’s where I stopped reading. I skimmed further on for a while, and then gave it up.
The difference between the two, I think, is deeply intertwined with their respective relationships to twee. A Night at the Circus tells us what it feels like, not only to be aware of having unusual powers and to stand in amazement at the world that granted them, but to use them and want to use them, and to live a story that needs those powers to take place, with other people who are living similar stories. The Revolutions, on the contrary, promised to tell a simple love story, with an alternate-historical background of world-shattering events, in which one or two characters are changed as much by their romantic connection as by their acknowledgement of the nature of their powers. And those powers aren’t naturalized, but treated as alien to the everyday world, possibly something too dangerous to keep hold of.
The Revolutions’ narration felt straightforward, as one thing happened and then another thing; and periodically an amazing, weird happening overtook the characters, but this happening seemed described in a merely visual, or intellectualizing, way. Morgenstern works so hard to provide objective correlatives, described in loving detail, for all her own happenings that it could begin to feel like too much, but it made the story feel like something. Gilman seemed to have felt it could all happen by itself without his help.
Andrew Lloyd Webber is someone many people have strong feelings about. I like Phantom of the Opera and Jesus Christ, Superstar. I think they work better in recording, for some reason, than live onstage. (I saw Phantom on Broadway several years after its opening, and a dance production of Superstar. I’m comparing them to the cast album and movie version of Phantom, and the movie and soundtrack of Superstar.) The others I’ve heard, not so much. Dreamcoat has some good numbers but it’s hard to take seriously: the world did not need a play that makes Joseph from the book of Genesis into a political superhero, a kind of Mark Zuckerberg of his age, except more sensitive. Cats has some good numbers but is weird, and it’s not too good an idea to spend much time wondering what the writers were thinking.
I was pretty young when Evita opened, so of course I know some of the songs, somewhat, but I’ve never seen the show, only the movie with Madonna and Antonio Banderas. A few years ago I got a copy of the Broadway cast album as a gift, and I’ve been listening to it recently. It isn’t awful, any more than any of Lloyd Webber’s music is. But it is odd, especially in the context of Lloyd Webber’s other shows, and in the context of what was happening at the time with musical theater, and with the music industry generally.
One thing that rubs some people the wrong way (including me) is the way Andrew Lloyd Webber borrows bits of melody from other composers for his shows. He’s been criticized (and evidently sued) for appropriating bits of contemporary songs, as well as reusing melodies from classical pieces. And if you listen to Evita, you hear lots of this kind of thing. You hear that there are bits of melody that he already used in Jesus Christ, Superstar, and you hear bits that he’d reuse later in Aspects of Love. There’s a melody that sounds like it was taken from a Neil Young song I can never quite place.
And besides this, there are repetitions from show to show. His Joseph has a lot in common, musically, with his Jesus. Weirder, his Evita Perón has a lot in common with his Jesus. He reuses vocal types, similar to the way a bass baritone, say, would be stereotyped as the heavy in a nineteenth century opera (and for Lloyd Webber as Caiaphas, or the pretentious yet philistine male opera star in Phantom), but more than that, choosing particular varieties of reedy tenor to signify shades of male virtue or male evil.
There’s nothing exactly wrong with this. All artists do something similar. And pretty much all artists borrow. (T.S. Eliot wrote that lesser artists borrow, actually, while great artists steal.) If you believe, as New Historicists do, for instance, more or less with Foucault, that artists speak for language itself, and that language changes over time as society changes, then social and cultural changes that took place at a certain time can be tracked through artistic expressions that were created during that time, as similarities that might only become visible at a distance. In that case, we’d expect to see lots of reuse of elements, in ways that might be indistinguishable from borrowings or allusions. And although this can happen unconsciously or spontaneously, artists also do it on purpose. I took a literature course once where the instructor pointed out a series of poems in which Coleridge and Wordsworth borrowed lines and images from each other. They were close friends, as well as rivals, but the same thing might easily happen at a greater distance, among members of the same generation. Or, even, between generations, borrowing and reimagining ideas, transforming them in ways like those described by Harold Bloom (in The Anxiety of Influence). Moreover, borrowing at the level of plot and character—or, at least, something that looks a little like borrowing—is as old as theater itself. Shakespeare borrowed plots from plays by his contemporaries, and by playwrights going back to ancient Rome.
But Lloyd Webber’s borrowings go beyond that, well beyond the way “My Sweet Lord” borrowed from “He’s So Fine”. They sound like outright quotations. And whatever may be the level of allusion-making that’s actually accepted practice, it doesn’t descend to outright quotation. The result is a show that’s somehow “off.”
Where Mamma Mia! might seem to ignore Broadway conventions, Lloyd Webber more usually tries to embody them in what ends up an entirely wrongheaded way. Cats, when I finally saw it, struck me as a terrible misunderstanding of Bob Fosse—of contemporary pop music itself, and the dance that went with it—as very simply lewd (in a way that gave new meaning to the line in Angels in America where Roy Cohn tells his out-of-town donors that they’d hate La Cage but simply had to see Cats). It was fascinating; it was very well done; and it was wrong.
By the 1980s, traditional Broadway musicals were being replaced by what’s known as the corporate musical: adaptations of Disney movies and other Hollywood blockbusters, compilations of pop songs, imports from London. Some of these are very good. Alan Menken is right in the middle of the Broadway tradition, and Julie Taymor’s work is entirely original. Others just aren’t really the same thing: Les Misérables is really operetta. (The sense, from maybe the fifties through the seventies, that pop could be combined with older forms to produce, not a replacement for those forms, but a continuation of them, had by then lost most of its traction.) And Andrew Lloyd Webber’s productions have often seemed simply corporate.
I haven’t seen the sequel, Magic Mike XXL; this is about the original. Magic Mike and Haywire were among the last films directed by Steven Soderbergh, who’s better known for big movies like Traffic and Outbreak, and going farther back, the groundbreaking independent movie, Sex, Lies, and Videotape.
Magic Mike is probably best considered as a musical. Channing Tatum is a good dancer and a lot of fun to watch. The nominal plot revolves around a male strip club frequented by middle-aged women and bachelorette parties. Matthew McConaughey runs the place, and he and the Tatum character pick up a new guy and break him in. It’s about loyalty and betrayal, second families, mentors, and growing up. It has a similar feel to movies like, say, Burlesque and Rock of Ages (possibly also Showgirls, and for all I know, Drumline), which is to say that the story and dialogue feel stilted by ordinary standards, and there’s an obvious point, a lesson, about human interactions, but one that I thought didn’t ring true.
Disappointed with Magic Mike, I didn’t expect much when a while later I rented Haywire. Haywire is one in the large and growing genre of movies about kick-ass female assassins. (The star of this one is literally a professional kickboxer, rather than an actor.) It’s well within the current range of action pictures like The Bourne Legacy, for the most part, and it’s notable for giving Ewan MacGregor the least rewarding role I’ve ever seen him play. Round about the middle, however, it really picks up. Michael Fassbender steps onscreen, and Haywire turns into a 1960s-style mod mystery set in Dublin. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie set in Ireland before except for Michael Collins, and certainly not in present-day Dublin. Besides this, it’s thoroughly enjoyable. The plot twists even make sense by the end. Lots of fun.
Kiss Me Deadly: Probably I should have seen this a long time ago. It’s noir, a 1955 adaptation of one of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels, directed by Robert Aldrich. Cloris Leachman has an important role in it (part of which I missed, because I missed part of the film). Turner Classic Movies will probably put it on again, on-demand or on their app. It’s a keen study—to be pretentious about it—of postwar Western fears of change. Everyone should have seen it at least once.
I had read about the movie version of Under the Skin, because when it came out in theaters, everyone was writing about it. I knew it was based on a novel by Michel Faber. From reading short stories collected in his The Fahrenheit Twins, and from other sources, I knew he wrote religious-tinged weird stories, often with science fiction elements, and often with themes of existential homelessness and belonging. The movie is not quite what I’d expected from the reviews I’d read around. I remember one that said, at one point, the reviewer finally figured out what was going on. That makes me want to go back to college and study film, so I can figure that out too. I have to guess the gained a lot of its popularity from the nudity, of which there’s a lot (it fits in context, it’s not gratuitous or anything). The theme, clearly, is something about our underlying humanity, but what the Johanssen character learns about her own humanity is not exactly clearly spelled out.
As Haywire nicely shows off its Irish setting, so Under the Skin shows off Scotland. (My husband and I decided the ultimate moral of the story was, “If you go to Scotland, bring a coat.”) So that’s why it’s included in this post.
Enough Said is a romantic comedy, written and directed by the established independent filmmaker, Nicole Holofcener. The leads are played by James Gandolfini (who died before the movie was released) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, neither of whom, I think, had been in this kind of film before. Other roles are played by Catherine Keener and Toni Colette. The movie is understated and holds all its characters a bit at a distance. I thought its depiction of a mother’s feelings as her daughter left home for school was very nice, its observational humor of the way women and men act in their daily lives was acute and funny, and its plot engaging (in spite of a twist that you could see a mile away). I also thought it was a little more meanspirited towards almost all its characters than it needed to be, and ultimately nowhere near as original in the way it handled its resolution as it had promised.
Holofcener has been making movies for a while, and I’ve seen a couple of them: small, intimate, talky pieces about a circle of friends, many of them women, all of them educated and upper-middle class. They have a decided “indie-film” feel. That isn’t to everyone’s taste. I guessed that this movie might be riffing on the kinds of filmmaking preferred these days by younger directors, like mumblecore—but I don’t watch those directors myself, and when someone like Noah Baumbach similarly addresses current twenty-something tastes, I tend to find the result similarly creepy. I’m not someone with strong feelings about indie films; I like some of them and dislike others, and I’m not committed to independent film itself as an ideal. Maybe for this reason, I felt the material in Enough Said might have worked better in a novel than in a film. It was interesting in itself but I didn’t feel it “worked,” whatever that vague, amorphous idea might mean. The failed resolution, or lack of resolution, would have felt less absolute, I think, in print.
What was really interesting, though, was the split in reactions between the professional critics and the bloggers. The established critics all praised Enough Said as art, describing it as raising questions and depicting situations and characters rarely seen onscreen. They praised the writer/director’s accomplishment in technical and aesthetic terms, her ability to create an engaging whole that doesn’t jar or ring a false note.
The online writers pretty much all took the film as an opportunity to moralize. They attacked Holofcener for making movies about “white people problems,” like divorce, dating while middle aged, obesity, and wealth, and for depicting working characters like housekeepers only from the employers’ points of view. They took sides among the characters, asserting that the very point of the film was to condemn the Louis-Dreyfus character and defend men like Gandolfini’s. They speculated about Holofcener’s personal life journey, suggesting that they expect her future films to be more ethically uncompromised, and withholding praise for this one, as only a partial ethical success.
It would be easy to blame the Internet for this, but I doubt that’s the problem. Most people who write for sites like these, though they’re young, are the products of something very like professional training courses, in English and film departments. Presumably this is the kind of criticism they’ve always heard. Naturally, given the chance to create their own publication, this is the kind of criticism they fill it with.
Several decades ago, Umberto Eco wrote about the “open work,” a work that doesn’t provide its own interpretation, but leaves this to the reader or viewer. This was an aspect of postmodernism, and Eco believed that openness of this kind would characterize all art (except kitsch) from then on. Eco was a pretty well-known theorist, and it seems obvious that theory, as it existed in the 1990s, has seeped pretty definitively into education as it’s existed already for many years. So why didn’t these young critics read the film as an open one?