Nov 30, 2008


It just so happens that I'm in the middle of drama involving the farkakte new insurance from the Freelancers Union, which I use. These people decided to create an insurance company with new plans that are more expensive than the ones they had before but they are selling them as if they were cheaper and better, which they are not. They gave no warning, they consulted none of the members and now everyone is in an uproar and with good reason.
This and Michael Moore's excellent Sicko, which I saw yesterday, put me in a homicidal mind re the state of health coverage in this country.
Just to have to make sense of the freaking legal language, of what is a deductible and a coiunsurance and a copayment and what is covered and not covered is enough to give anyone a permanent migraine, if not a brain tumor. And still, evil forces beyond human comprehension still deny the American people universal health care. It is unfathomable to me what the American people have to suffer and to pay to get decent medical treatment. It is unfathomable that we are still not storming the barricades and asking for the execution (I'm a regular Robespierre) of those who think that socialized medicine is akin to communism and that we are going to lose our choice. What fucking choice? I will be paying $500 a month this year for insurance which requires me to pay $30 or $40 copays for medical appointments, and hospital deductibles and shit. And God forbid I get hit with a serious illness, because that is when the insurance companies start playing rough.
I'm not a huge fan of Michael Moore. I find his selfrighteousness off putting, but I do like his movies and I do thank him for making them and for putting it out there that things are not what they should be. In Sicko he shows case after case of perfectly regular people who have had to fight insurance companies to the death only to lose their children, their husbands, their homes, because the company would not approve treatment. He then does something fabulously provocative. He takes some 9/11 rescue workers to Guantanamo, which has wonderful free health care for all the detainees. When in Guantanamo no one opens the doors, he takes the Americans to Havana, to get medical care.
He shows you impressive hospitals with computers that seem to be working. An inhaler that costs a rescue worker $120 a piece here in the US, costs 3 Cuban pesos, or five American cents.
I'm not a fan of Castro and of his free P.R. courtesy of Michael Moore, but the point is that it is not possible that even Cuba has a better healthcare system than ours. Moore also visits Canada and England and France, where healthcare is universal and the standard of health and living much higher than ours (and the medical costs believe it or not, less). He makes it sound too good to be true, but even knowing that the system may be frayed around the edges, I'd rather have that than the miserable, expensive, unjust torture we have here. By this point everybody in America knows that our health system is not only not working, but it is a travesty and an insult and armed robbery. But where is the political will to change it? Moore shows what lobbyists from the health industry spend buying politicians. Like this, nothing is ever going to change. People will just have to endure tragedy so that insurance and drug companies can profit. That is the American way. It is repulsive.

Classics: The Shining

This is the third time I see this magnificent movie and I think this is the time that it scared me the most.
It made me miss Kubrick so much. I miss him like you miss a long lost friend. Like you miss someone you love. I want him back.
The Shining is from 1980. Nobody makes movies like it anymore. Fiercely intelligent, and so beautiful it makes you want to cry.
This time I realized that The Shining is about the resentment of the American male, the fear of emasculation, embodied with over the top rightness by Jack Nicholson. His Jack Torrance is arrogant, smug, tyrannical, childish, needy, selfish. In short, a bastard, and all this before he even goes crazy. The terror of this movie is that the father wants to annihilate his family. He hates Wendy, his mousy wife, and he hates his son, who has replaced him as first in line for the mother's affections. So he takes the child out of school to live in utter isolation. He takes his family to a remote hotel, not even asking whether they like the idea or not, so he can write. So he can be a man. It turns out he feels emasculated by her. It turns out that he was a drinker and he was violent to the kid and she made him stop drinking, which he will not forgive. He blames her for all his failures and now her and the kid are going to have to pay the price. This has nothing to do with ghosts or murders past. This is who he is.
Shelley Duvall, an inspired piece of casting, as Wendy, is the virtual opposite of Jack. She is mild tempered, and extremely selfless and compliant. You keep waiting for her to put her foot down, to have some lip, but she stands by her man, coddling the artist in him, supporting him (which makes him angrier) until she feels threatened by him. And then she fights tooth and nail to save the child. It turns out that Jack's rage is warranted: his wife is indeed stronger and more capable than him.
A lot of very creepy wonderful things happen to this happy family that have become the stuff of cinematic history, as is always the case in the indelible images created by Stanley Kubrick. Creepy dead twins, and elevators oozing blood and the most gorgeous steadicam and dolly work in the history of film, but it is the psychological accuracy of the family portrait that makes The Shining such a fantastic movie.
Looking at Nicholson's performance now, I think that he made the absolute right choice (or was made to by Kubrick; in a documentary he says that he wanted to be more realistic and Kubrick said that realistic was "real but it's not interesting") to go out of his mind in such a loud, histrionic way. What nails the performance is 1) that he is truly on a major meltdown, no need to be shy about it and 2) it is darkly funny. He's very funny in a very scary way. Technically, it is the work of a very accomplished actor. Take a look again at the way he uses his voice: it seems that every word is charged with a different feeling. It is astonishingly precise. And his energy, his male dominance, his arrogance, are just right. He is a major asshole, and you couldn't find someone more American. It's sad that Nicholson tried to replicate it in the movies he made after and became a parody of himself. But the performance is right for the movie. Nobody can hear the words "Heeeere's Johnny" the same way ever again.
And who doesn't love that child swishing down the immense hotel corridors with his hot wheels? The muffled sound on the carpet, the rough sound on the wood. The creepy music by 20th Century composers like Ligeti and Penderecki. Bartok.
What amazing beauty.

Nov 27, 2008

Classics: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

No, it's not what we wish to do to Bush when he finally steps down. Then again...

I had never seen The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the movie. I was a snob about it. And I was wrong.
This is an essential movie in the canon of horror movies. It is wonderful. (I know I am getting excited about something you already know, but please bear with me).
Before I saw this mother of all slasher films, I had already sat through and thoroughly disliked its more commercial spawn: Halloween, Friday the 13th, etc. But this is a film of great purity. Everything that happens in it makes total sense. Never once is one forced to ask, "why don't you call the police or why are you alone in the house when you could happily be at the Dairy Queen and out of harm's way?"
Now, does it make total sense that a bunch of teenagers run into three generations of depraved males with a penchant for human butchery and blood? Well, yeah. It's Texas, after all. (Just kidding).
Of course, the house on the hill with the nice porch is the one in which the most unspeakable evil lives. This is America. And America has some deeply mad dark places there, like my friend Sarah Palin, a scary construct herself, would say.
There are many things I love about this film. The teenagers are horrid. There is one fat guy on a wheelchair who is really a pest and it is clear that he is a burden no one wants do deal with, including his sister, who resents having to lug him around. Nowadays "fatty guy on wheelchair" means practically an angel, but in the glorious, drug-addled seventies it meant a pest. Because he is chair bound, fat, ugly and insufferable, he is the only one who seems to be aware of the darkness around him. The rest have the insouciance, the golden sheen and buffed bodies of youth, and you know they are going to be punished for it. What they run into in a sunny Summer day in Texas is just sheer, crazy evil.
I love that there is absolutely no attempt to psychoanalyze it or explain it. It just is and it happens to serve barbecue. Me being me, I thought the sight of a BBQ sign was a sure omen of refuge and civilization. I was wrong.
Now, I'm not a fan of gore or slasher films. I don't find tons of blood and human flesh that scary.
I like my scares more on the either supernatural or the psychological variety, but as long as the movie scares me, I consider it a wild success. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is most scary between the action, as is true of all great scary movies. Just the unbearable amount of knowledge that terrible stuff will happen is enough. Also, most of the murders happen quite soon into the movie, and quite quickly. And then you wonder what's going to happen for the next hour.
The stuff that happens is terrible, but Tobe Hooper, the director, just shows a bit of it. He knows that a taste is enough for imagination to go wild. It's more the grotesquerie of the evil men, with their dessicated human flesh masks and their literal rottenness of body and soul, that makes it really out there. The use of sound is also very effective. It's so over the top, it is completely disorienting.
There is a fantastic scene where one of the girls wakes up in this room full of chicken feathers (always a ghastly sight) and she is numb and lost and disoriented and the camera takes her point of view as she discovers all the crazy stuff in that room and then it takes a while for her to come to her senses and she is so paralyzed by fear, she can't get up. It's like those nightmares when one tries to scream and no sound comes out. Lovely and terrifying.
I love the nonchalance of the unsuspecting teens. They roam about this crazy world in total innocence of danger. Their first encounter with a young, extraordinarily creepy hitchhiker leaves most of them unruffled, despite the fact that the guy looks like a ghoul and slashes himself and fatty with a very scary razor, and despite the fact that he shows them some horrid polaroids. Why would they pick someone like that up? Because they're young and it's the seventies and it was cool to be cool to other young people like you.
They run out of gas and go into an old gas station and BBQ joint that happens to have NO GAS. What place in America has no gas? But it's the seventies, so it is feasible. They should have filled up the tank at the nice Gulf station near the cemetery, but no, because they are young and, unlike me, never worry about running out of gas.
The owner of the gas station has a moronic hunchback attendant who insists on lathering the windshield, which should give everybody pause and perhaps the thought to call it a day and go home, and the owner himself has more than a passing resemblance to the hitchhiker, but these guys are still oblivious to creepiness.
They die senselessly and except for one resilient girl, without putting up much of a fight. There are no heroes to come and save them.
This movie reminded me of another movie of Beware of the Hillbillies variety. It reminded me of Deliverance. Also from the seventies, no?
Very disturbing. The end is fabulous too. I don't think they were cynically trying to exploit the return of Leatherface, but the fact that he is seen dancing wildly with a chubby Mexican running for his life nearby does not bode well. And then one thinks about the victim who escaped and her trauma and the movie leaves an endless unresolved chill, as all scary movies should.

Nov 23, 2008

Holocaust Kitsch

This weekend in the New York Times, A.O. Scott discreetly explores the dilemma of the Holocaust movie. As far as I'm concerned, there are extremely few movies dealing with this topic that are any good. Most of the time, a huge cringe factor is involved when watching the fictionalization and recreation of something so grotesquely evil that people have a hard time believing it actually happened. I stay away from most Holocaust movies because I find them, even when cloaked in the best intentions, indecent. I think my favorite Holocaust movie of all time is Downfall (or as a friend calls it, "The Poor Hitler Movie"). For one, there is not a concentration camp in sight. There is not one Jew in sight. But this examination of the last days of Hitler is a powerful, chilling depiction of the psychology of depraved power and of a depraved national ideology. This is not a movie that looks to open the wellsprings of sentimentality, but a movie that asks how could an entire nation believe and follow and agree with this man (short answer: because they were much like him). Some people objected to the fact that the movie "humanizes" Hitler, as if he belonged to another species altogether. It doesn't. It really shows him for the human monster that he was. Here you will not see the pornographic obscenities that the Nazis perpetrated by stripping off the humanity of millions of people (and which you can and should see in the Holocaust museums of the world), but you will see one of the most disturbing scenes of all time, when Mrs. Goebbels proceeds to poison each and every one of her six young children, right before the fall of Berlin. In a way, this scene helps underscore the depth of the Nazi horror more than the pictures of naked, emaciated bodies of Jews. However, I must admit that, being a Jew, I have been exposed to gruesome Holocaust paraphernalia from a very early age, so after a while, it starts losing its potency. It works great on young minds -- the outrage and repulsion it engenders is long lasting and very useful. Never forget, indeed. My close second favorite movie is the amazing Mr. Death, the documentary by Errol Morris about the American creator of the lethal injection who also happens to be a Holocaust denier. As is customary with the brilliant Mr. Morris, this strange, unsettling, thought provoking film takes us straight into the stupidity of evil.Just one look at the preview for the new movie, The Boy With the Striped Pajamas, makes me want to vomit. Number one, the title is probably the worst movie title ever. Two, the image of a bald little punk sitting all by himself next to the barbed wire and having all the time and freedom in the world to play chess with a healthy little German on the other side of the wire with no attending Nazi to bash his head against a wall, already fills me with disgust. As A. O Scott observes, we are in Life is Beautiful territory; that is, Holocaust corn, and it just so happens that we have the Weinstein brothers to blame for both of these obscenities. Memo to Harvey Weinstein: please stop torturing people with indecent sap about the Holocaust. There are surely more dignified ways to win Oscars. As I was watching said preview, I also had an epiphany: I bet actors love to wear the Nazi uniform. You know, those full length shiny leather trench coats favored by the SS, the spiffy uniforms with the insignia, the great color coordination, and the stiff, shiny black boots. It's all very fetishistic, and one must admit that the fucking Nazis had a great sense of style. This may be why, I once met a Black girl who told me she had seen Schindler's List 6 times because she fell in love with the Nazi (played with great panache by Ralph Fiennes). And who could blame her? But do actors like to lose 50 pounds, shave their heads and wear soiled striped pajamas? I'm not so sure. Movies about the Holocaust exist not only because the topic is inherently dramatic, or because it's Oscar season, but because there is something inherently morbid and obscene and pornographic about the visual record of depravity and destruction left by the Nazis and people just can't get enough of it. One of my posts in this blog was a link to the recently unearthed pictures of Auschwitz commanders found carousing on weekends near the camp, having jolly picnics and playing the accordion. I titled the post "Shocking Nazi Photos" and for a while it was immensely popular. It still spikes up once in a while.

Nov 18, 2008

The Height of Nerve: Hollywood Execs Blame the Audience.

All of a sudden, they are whining about the demise of "story". Peter Guber pines for the days when movies had stories.
Ultimately, he blames the audience for the perceived breakdown in narrative quality: in the end, he argued, consumers get what they want. Bobby Farrelly, a prolific writer, and director with his brother Peter of comedies like “There’s Something About Mary” and “Shallow Hal,” concurred.
If you go off the beaten path, say, give them something bittersweet, they’re going to tell you they’re disappointed,” Mr. Farrelly said. He spoke from his home in Massachusetts, where he is working on the script for a Three Stooges picture (I CAN ONLY IMAGINE THE CHEKHOVIAN STORYTELLING IN THIS ONE), and said he missed complex stories like that of “The Graduate.”
This makes my blood boil. Consumers don't get what they want. They get what Hollywood serves them. And when you ask them what they would like you to serve them and you get shit as a result, don't blame the audience for having asked them. They are not writers or directors or producers. They're not the ones who should be telling you how to make a movie.
Bobby Farrelly, if you don't want the audience to be disappointed, don't fucking ask them. Have the balls to stick to your artistic principles and tell the story you want to tell.
I've seen the audience questionnaires for movie research. The questions are absurd. I cannot fathom how anybody can get any coherence from whatever inanities the audience opines about a certain scene in a film. "What do you like/dislike about the ending?" The audience deserves no such power.
But I can see Hollywood tabulating the responses, and what comes out is that stale, unoriginal, formulaic, utterly stupid mess that is most Hollywood films. Focus groups are the end of story. And they are not commissioned by the audience.
Stop focus grouping movies and you'll see how soon story waltzes right back into your lives, you spineless cowards.

Nov 17, 2008

Slumdog Millionaire

Or: Review of a movie I hate because everyone seems to love it.

To judge from the sold out crowds at the Angelika, you'd think this new film by Danny Boyle is the second coming of cinema. I went with great expectations, having read some enthusiastic reviews and having seen the crowds (which, note to self, should never ever be a reason to see anything).
I really wanted to like this movie because I like some of the films of Danny Boyle, but I guess I happen to like the ones that are diametrically opposed in tone and spirit to this saccharine fantasy. That is, Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and 28 Days Later.
I'm wondering if, because I am a jaundiced Mexican, I have zero tolerance for sentimental cheese. I do not find the Third World's infatuation with love-conquers-all stories endearing (call me a verbissener, I think the media in these countries conspires to keep the poor ignorant through these kinds of basic, corny stories), so I may just not be the audience for this film. Movies that attempt to manipulate my feelings with every heavy handed trick in the book, earn my eternal enmity. I am the only person I know who hates Amelie (which at least tries to look like a fantasy). And don't get me started on that obscene, disgusting film called Life is Beautiful.
Slumdog Millionaire audaciously tries it to have it both ways. It gives us a pretty dreary, Dickensian view of the terrible lot of slum children in India, while at the same time it engages in a romantic fantasy, with absolutely implausible, unrealistic plot turns, all toward a happy ending (the end credit sequence -- very cute, but too little, too late). I understand that the movie tries to pay homage to Indian movies, but I have seen Indian movies, also about the downtrodden, also about their dignity and resourcefulness, that have far more subtlety and grace and humanity (Vanaja is a good example). And as per Bollywood, there is more levity and humor and feisty good nature in any Bollywood movie than in this contrived tale.
In my view, horrible violence and corny romance do not mix well. The movie tries very hard to be bittersweet but even its ironies are so obvious they hit you over the head with a hammer. Forget about subtlety, which it utterly lacks, just one true feeling, one real, dimensional human behavior, would have been welcome.
The story of a slum child in Mumbai who survives absolute horror to be the winner of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire for his one true love, could have been far more touching, truer and deeper, had anybody bothered writing something other than clichés. Ambitiously, through the adventures of Jamal and his brother Salim, the movie tries to depict India in a nutshell, from the orphan slum dwellers of Mumbai, to the telemarketing middle class kids of the new India, even with a necessary, picture postcard detour at the Taj Mahal.
Boyle has the good fortune to have found two gorgeously spirited urchins to play the brothers when they're young children, and their charming sidekick Latika, the love interest. The rest of the cast is nowhere near as charming or believable (except for the always magnificent Irfan Khan, the only person in the whole enterprise who acts like a human being).
The camera is super dynamic, the shots and the color and the editing are great, but the back and forth structure of the movie soon becomes repetitive. The movie soon starts looking like a pretentious, if beautifully shot, commercial. The flashback structure between an entire episode of the show (with its contrived, fabricated suspense) and the childhood of hero Jamal, makes it for very slow going, regardless of how many adventures he and Salim go through.
The high concept of the movie is what bothers me most: that Jamal knows the answer to the questions because they were present at a certain juncture in his eventful life. Sheer fantasy, piled on without remorse or discretion. I do not object to see movies about flying elephants, but if we are knee deep in reality, if there are graphic scenes of terrible cruelty to children, why can't there be psychological realism? You can have all the fantasy and happy endings and romance you want with human insight. Look at the films of one Charles Chaplin.
In the end, even with all the good faith in the world, the sentiment of this film is wielded so mercilessly and is so contrived, why should we believe it? Why should we believe that indeed an impoverished slum child can rise above the most terrible circumstances to greatness if nothing in his story rings true? I think spectacles like this are a slap in the face of the poor, while those who can afford a movie ticket can celebrate cozily the ridiculous notion that love conquers all.
I realize I hate movies about fate. Fate, like religion, allows for all kinds of illogic and leaves little room for doubt. I prefer movies that raise questions about the human condition, not movies that think there is only one answer and treat you like you are too dumb to ask.

Nov 10, 2008

Synecdoche, NY

Charlie Kaufman has taken it upon himself to write quirky, original screenplays that bring metaphysics to movies, for which he should be commended. I really liked Adaptation, I loved Being John Malkovich, and I started getting a little restless with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I admire Kaufman's originality but Synecdoche, NY, his first directorial foray, is very disappointing. I went along for the ride for about the first hour, but by the end of the movie I had the nagging feeling that Kaufman was enmeshed in a knot not even he knew how to get out of. The movie got me to thinking about two guys who do metaphysics really well: Kafka and Borges (and Shakespeare* too). They take extremely complex metaphysical concepts and they execute them with brilliant simplicity. They polish and they burnish anything that is extraneous to the central metaphor, so in the end you are left with a hard, beautiful diamond that blows your mind. In my view, the problem with this movie is exactly the opposite: it feels we're stuck with Kaufman in the carbon mine, grasping for diamonds, and never quite finding anything but dark, shapeless soot. It's too complicated.
The movie takes several thoughts (carpe diem, all the world's a stage, the paradox of wanting to portray total truth in art while living a lie) and proceeds to illustrate them with growing confusion and incoherence. For a very lucid take on it, read Anthony Lane's review in The New Yorker. Totally on the money.
My good faith was severely tested in this film. For one, I wish an editor had told Kaufman he could safely cut at least a half an hour of it, because it is looong and repetitive. It seems very complex, but as far as I could tell, the final message of the movie is almost fit for a Hallmark card: you only have one life and one chance to make it work.
If the audience loses patience with the hero, because the hero is just too oblivious, no amount of metaphysical fireworks can save the movie. If the amazing Samantha Morton is hitting on you while your terrible shrew of a wife (poor Catherine Keener, always excellent as The Bitch on Wheels) humiliates the shit out of you, you may want to abandon your miserable fog and surrender to life and love.
I find it objectionable when hugely talented actors are wasted on one-dimensional bullshit. It is interesting that someone as resourceful as Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives a totally one note, humorless, stunted performance. Why should we care about such a miserable moper? Even antiheroes need charm, or a sense of humor, or malice -- dimension. Luckily, at least we can enjoy the formidable Tom Noonan, who together with Samantha Morton are the only people who seem alive in this film.
In the end, this movie feels extremely self-indulgent and so bent on being brainy that it is strangely disconnected emotionally. Charmless, depressive, suffocating, ugly. I'm not asking for every movie to be Mary Poppins, but too much self-indulgent moping is the kiss of death.

*I thought of the end of The Tempest, when Prospero breaks the fourth wall and asks the audience to release him from his bonds with applause. This is the simplicity I'm thinking about. That little speech sends your mind reeling with the relationship between theater and reality, between illusion and truth for hours.