Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Robin Hood (2010) - directed by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe

(My friend Lauren Bride invited me to the movies. She suggested “Robin Hood” or “Babies.” We decided on “Robin Hood” because it was summertime. At the theatre, when I saw Russell Crowe’s head on the poster, I was a little disappointed. He always plays the mightiest of virtuous white men, sort of like Doris Day but not as funny and more prone to unwanted and overly serious advice giving. I might have picked “Babies” had I known. How could such a can’t-play-anything-but-a-virtuous-man play Robin Hood? I also somehow made the mistake of picturing the time period being 1990s, and the stage, Hollywood - the time of Kevin Costner and well-laundered cloaks. So I was a little startled when the movie opened in the deep past. I think probably no one else was startled. Throughout the movie, Lauren and I whispered jokes to each other. When we walked home, we didn’t mention the movie. We talked about other things.)

I had no thoughts about this movie – other than an attempt at historical accuracy and a grittier aesthetic doesn't add much to this big story that keeps collectively getting better (this movie excepted) 600 years after its origin. Also, it's a war movie (?) starring a virtuous and victorious Russell Crowe (?).

But a month later, on an airplane, after reading an article on perceptual illusions, I fell asleep and had a dream that David Foster Wallace and Russell Crowe were on a panel together. Russell Crowe had his Robin Hood outfit on and his hat in his hands. He looked nervous. He had lost some weight and was finally sweating in all the wrong places. He kept looking at David Foster Wallace, and then, back at the audience. David Foster Wallace was relaxed and in jeans, looking out into the seated crowd. Neither of them were talking. The less they talked, the more nervous Russell Crowe got. Russell Crowe wanted to defend himself, to tell people he was a virtuous and good man, but no one was asking any questions. We all just sat there. It was different from that time I saw Russell Crowe on Oprah, when he gave her a book for her Oprah’s book club, “The Magus”.

If you really want to steal from the rich and give to the poor, it's good to remember that your trial probably won’t come for a long time - if ever. You'll have to be patient with being misunderstood, even by people you love. You may be glorified for the wrong reasons and disrespected at all the right parties. Understanding someone can take a very long time.

But it can be interesting to be misunderstood, and being misunderstood lets you be more flexible. Flexibility is important if you want to be an effective element in the big story rather than the respected author of your own story. It can be really fun to see how much one can affect the big story, becoming any character that proves most useful. And fun to observe what story we all begin to understand collectively.

When I woke up from my David Foster Wallace / Russell Crowe dream, there were a lot of people in line for the airplane washroom in the back and no one in line for the one in first class. A stewardess sent me back when I attempted to go to the one in first class, rolling her eyes at this move that had been tried a million times before. Sometimes it's harder to change the big story than to be a hero of your own making.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Elephant in the Living Room (2010) - by Michael Webber, starring Terry Brumfield and Tim Harrison

(The closest cinema to where I'm staying in San Francisco is called Roxie Theater. Roxie Theater was playing a movie I hadn't heard of: "The Elephant in the Living Room." I looked around but it seemed like all the other nearby cinemas were playing movies for kids. I thought: maybe June is when kids watch movies. So I went around the corner and bought a ticket. It was being presented by the United Film Festival as part of their "Animal Rights" program. The director of the festival and the director of “The Elephant in the Living Room” sat down in the narrow line of blue seats with the audience when the movie began. )

The narrative of "The Elephant in the Living Room" is sort of: “There is a lion in my backyard - and it is getting bigger!” It focuses on people who keep animals like pythons and tigers in their homes, and what happens when the pythons and tigers grow larger than the people. Sometimes the people dump the animals in the suburban wilds. Sometimes they keep them.

We mostly see Ohio. We mostly look at two characters: The Man with a lion, and The Officer from the state. The Man, a big soft spoken one who looks a bit like his lion, was given the baby lion when he had a broken back and depression. He says the love helped him to survive. But then the baby lion grew up and became a big lion in a small cage. And then they were stuck there, the lion in the cage and The Man who made the cage.

The Officer, with the mustache and the baseball cap, is sincerely hoping to untangle the love/cage problem for the lion and The Man - and for Ohio. He is brave and kind and he is good at his job. He really wants to do the right thing. He catches cougars found in peoples' backyards. He tries to find better places for them. He buys the most poisonous snake at the Underground Snake Convention so that no one else buys it. But snakes make a lot of babies and he cannot buy all of them. The Officer is exhausted. Cases like these have just been increasing every year since the mid 90s and he doesn't know why. (My theory - that monkey on "Friends" is to blame).

The Officer doesn't see an end to the problem. The few exotic animal santuaries in America are mostly over capacity. He is starting to question his role and what side he is on. We see a pleasing shock in his eyes when a new idea occurs to him - maybe, he thinks, he should not try to capture the dangerous animals in the suburban wilds. Maybe he should let them run free.
I thought of the movie The Matrix Reloaded (Matrix #2) - the humans being kept in cages by computers and the growing number of humans who escape, then are hunted down by the computers. I had recently picked it out of a sale bin at Walgreens. The bin was under a helium balloon that said “Papa Navedaz!"

The Matrix2 doesn't work so well. I think it is because everything started off with too much value. When everything has equal value, it's hard to know what to focus on. Like, here are the proper names in the movie: The One, The Architect, The Key-maker, Zion, Trinity, Morpheus, Persephone, The Oracle. That is a lot of value! Midway through, I had a real longing for some garbage – or at least a mortal. I wanted The Farter, The Fuck up, The Mistake, The Girl Who Couldn’t Fly.

You have to be a real magician to take only value and double it. Sometimes it is easier to make a movie that begins with lowlier proper nouns and then move them towards value. "The Elephant in the Living Room" starts in the middle of nowhere and moves towards value. Apart from some seriously problematic music choices, the movie is funny and sweet and occasionally brushes against epic. It is really interesting to see men working together to solve the old love/cage problem as though it is a new problem. Since we are only starting from Ohio and not from the olden times, it looks kind of like a problem that men have only just discovered. It is as though, from this perspective, we are watching a mass male entry into the nurturing arts and its complications. They are beginning with snakes and tarantulas. It's a hard-won pleasure to catch a glimpse of The Man's heart of gold or see that The Officer may in fact be "The One". And it is a surprise when we can see the vague but convincing outlines of a possible apocalyptic scenario (where these animals first take over the suburban wilds and then, all of America) - originating in Ohio! At least more surprising than seeing one originate in place called Zion.

For a good apocalyptic movie scenario, you really need at least a few elements without so much consistent value . The good ones are like a magnifying glass on the thriving life, boredom and absurdity of a regular day. To our delight or pain, we watch as things randomly, and with great speed, move in and out of meaning, value and existence. It is like a bird lands on your shoulder just as the convenience store goes up in flames - you don't know what the fuck is going on, but you know something is happening. Our human brains lag behind the action, working hard to make meaning from the chaos. It is what we do best.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Whatever Works (2009) - written & directed by Woody Allen, starring Larry David

(I had run out of Woody Allen movies to watch. As far as I could see, there was one left, there on the video store shelf, “Whatever Works”. It didn't look good: the prematurely balding Larry David in a “what can you do?” shrug on the cover. Not a trace of pleasure on his face. I had vague memories that a pretty teenager-woman who looks off into outer space was also involved. All one can really think when contemplating the box without much information is, “Please, Woody Allen, please don’t let this movie be about how that man who has a facial expression kind of like yours ends up having sex with a late teenager even though he is initially unwilling.” This is not the kind of story that reliably gets better the more you tell it. The DVD case looked as desirable as a half smoked cigarette on the sidewalk. I picked it up. And when I walked home with it under my arm, confident of a little bit of pleasure, I thought - how bad could it be?)

One might put the Larry David doll next to Woody Allen doll on the shelf, if one was trying to clean up and organize one's collectibles – even though the Woody Allen doll was made with plastic and hand-sewn doll clothes in 1977 and the Larry David doll was made with rubber in 2009. But it turns out that if you put the Larry David man in a Woody Allen movie, it is very hard not to pay attention to their flaming differences.

As someone said - don’t judge the performer, judge the performance. But if I judge the Larry David performance in this Woody Allen movie, everyone loses. If I judge the performer, Larry David, then Larry David wins. Who knew? When Larry David is playing Woody Allen, he plays a physicist genius who is wise to (through his superior intellect) the meaninglessness of the human condition - as though, in the 21st century, only a genius (and a physicist??) could entertain a vision of this nature. The meaninglessness that LD as WA has to contend with is epic and profound. He also fights with imbeciles, homophobes and religious fundamentalists. He does his best to cope.

The character's stance as enlightened-nihilist-filled-with-despair seems like it's from another time, like, another time from a long time ago, especially in forced comparison to the Larry David who created Seinfield and Curb Your Enthusiasm, a man who gleefully pours sugar on his meaningless breakfast cereal and rubs his hands together with delight before digging in. When LD is the LD character on Curb Your Enthusiasm, he fights with children, kindly doctors and Ted Danson – all of whom are a little bit smarter and more morally developed than old LD. It is the others who do their best to cope with him while he dances to escape their frustrated clutches and exasperated glares. LD as LD passionately takes up positions on matters of the pettiest nature. His joy in this endeavor cannot be hidden and his pleasure at playing the villain is transparent. Seeing Larry David play the Woody Allen character reminds one that the Woody Allen character is always the hero, no matter how flawed.

Man-impressions aside, the most damning problem regards the old fourth wall. In the opening sequence the LD as WA points out the camera to his dumber-than-him friends and talks about the viewers at home watching them. Of course, no one else can see the camera except for this genius. Now, playing the (now simple) breaking-the-fourth-wall game with LD can make a director look pretty silly. Maybe WA talked directly to the camera while inside a fictional narrative while LD was in diapers (or at least.. um, in business school) but somewhere around 2009, on the set of Curb Your Enthusiasm, near the end of the season, LD as LD strolled past the forth wall and the fifth while whistling a bad tune and waving at Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol didn't wave back. Larry David kept smiling.

Maybe if LD walked around talking about what a genius he was, he wouldn’t have run into a problem like being in this movie and making Woody Allen look bad.