Thursday, February 14, 2008

Best of: Movies

If there is blame to be had by posting a "best of movies '07", in Febuary '08, let that blame fall on Charlottesville, a small hamlet in central Virginia, not known for its vast selection of art-house movies. That, and a real job that pays:

1. There Will Be Blood: I’ve already written about why this is the best movie of the year (here), but I would like to take this moment to mention something I forgot to talk about in my review by stating that it takes nothing from the greatness of Anderson’s film to give credit where credit is due: namely the fact that the first half-hour of Anderson’s masterpiece owes a lot to Mathew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle—specifically Cremaster Cycle 3 and that film’s spotlight on the Masonic quest of The Apprentice. Barney’s obsession with work, material, the earth, the body and physical labor—or his “worship through works and labor” in solitary wish-fulfillment removed from religion (if not its own type) and demagoguery—is all over Anderson’s film. It seems that, for the opening portion of the film, much inspiration has derived from Barney, including Johnny Greenwood’s eerie score. This isn’t meant as a criticism as much as it is meant to acknowledge the relationship between art and craft, because once Day-Lewis sits down with his adopted son, H.W., and begins to sell himself as “an oil-man”, Anderson sends Plainview on his own fiercely independent journey—into the muck of human interaction, rather than the euphoria resulting from transcendent work (the Empire State Building in The Cremaster cycle). Art has always laid the groundwork for culture’s advancement (from the Renaissance, to Modernism, to Post-Modernism), regardless of how some societies (especially American) would claim that it is an interest of the elites and intellectuals—in short, only for those who can afford it. It should be acknowledged that There Will Be Blood is a perfect example of how when art lays the groundwork it can provide a compelling blueprint for master-craftsmen (like Anderson) to share with the common man (your average moviegoer), at affordable prices, those things they might not know about themselves.

2. No Country For Old Men: Feel free to read my review of the book (here), or my thoughts on the narrative discrepancies between this book and McCarthy’s subsequent Pulitzer Prize winner The Road (here). For this post, I would simply like to applaud the Cohen brother’s for making their best film in a decade. Kudos to the brother’s for finding the black humor in McCarthy’s prose that those of us who read the book could not see (for it was too bleak). Bravo, Javier Bardem, for so completely inhabiting Anton Chigurh that I couldn’t help but sit in fear throughout the movie and hope that he, Chigurh, wouldn’t notice me deep in the dark theater spying on him and his work, thus making me a priority. A round of applause for Tommy Lee Jones who, at the end of the film, delivers one of the more emotionally wrenching monologues in recent film. Finally, let us not forget to give major props for Brad from Goonies—I mean Josh Brolin—who has been lights-out this year (stealing the show in Grindhouse, and being one of the only actors in film, specifically American Gangster, to effectively intimidate Russell Crowe), and who nails the resolute but hapless Llewelyn Moss.

3. Zodiac: Am I crazy or has this been a forgotten film during awards season? It may not be David Fincher’s neatest film (that would be Fight Club), but it may be his best. For almost three hours Fincher’s ability to multi-task during a scene is on full display: effectively directing the slightly boring Jake Gyllenhal, standing back and letting Robert Downey Jr. do his thing, and, at the same time, knowing when to center the camera on Mark Ruffalo, a criminally underappreciated actor (one wonders if he sweated more and had bigger chest muscles, would he not be a dead ringer for early Brando?). A film with an ending as ambiguous and as powerful as any of the above mentioned films.

4. Ratatouille: If you feel like it, read my extended review here. Pixar has never made a bad movie, and Ratatouille is one of its best—right up there with The Incredibles, which was, oddly enough, also a Brad Bird film. As anyone who has sat through food-critic Anton (what is it with this name this year?) Ego’s wonderful soliloquy about art and food and criticism can attest, Brad Bird isn’t simply an animating marvel, he is an Oscar worthy screenwriter. You say there are rats in the kitchen? C'est parfait avec moi! (note: I take no responsibility for the accuracy of internet translations.)

5. Juno/Superbad: I wrote about Superbad earlier this summer (here), but haven’t gotten around to saying much about Juno. So, in the “Best of” tradition (of which there is none), let’s simply look at these films as the entertaining bookends on the teen-sex comedy/drama genre they are. Hopefully Hollywood recognizes the cross-marketing potential here and continues to give us well acted films with an emotional core that might attempt to make Juno a little more Seth, and Seth a little more Juno. Michael Cera and Ellen Page are my new Hollywood power couple. Cera will, in no time, be staring in Groundhog Day 2, and Miss Page seems clearly destined for a stardom of almost Roberts-like magnitude as she proceeds to, if not grow (she is 20), put on a few more pounds of age.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Hirshhorn Diaries--11

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"Reclining Figure: Internal and External Forms (Working Model)", Henry Moore, 1952

There is nothing easy about Henry Moore. Anyone interested in complicated expressions of form would be wise to focus on Moore's work and not on the Colorformistas the Hirshhorn was celebrating this go around. Moore is a tactile genius, able to elicit a strong and irrepressible desire to touch and examine--to the point that it is almost a crime that we are not allowed to touch. A piece so complicated, that I often had to reexamine my assumptions each time I looked up from my journal. In fact, it is a piece I could spend all day interacting with.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Super Tuesday!

As an independent voter and a person who has long distasted group-think, I have to admit that, watching the Democratic debate the other night, and listening to the crowd react to Hillary’s “It took a Clinton to clean-up after the first Bush…” line, I was stunned. As someone who voted for Bush in 2000 (and has had to live with it for 8 years), I found the fact that Clinton could be so glib and slightly delusional regarding her husband's (and, by a proxy she is attempting to assert, her) role in helping W. Bush to power, arrogant and insidious. No person of sound mind and body would claim that Clinton (and Obama) are not benefiting from Bush fatigue. Is there anyone who doesn’t think that the Democrats will win the White House? If Hillary plans to trot out and celebrate the Bush fatigue that propelled her husband into the White House, than she had better—by Zeus’ beard!—be willing to answer the tough question of whether or not eight years of her husband Bill helped Bush-Part-Deux into the White House. Can she seriously claim that Clinton fatigue did not help W. Bush into the White House over the more “qualified/experienced” (those fancy Hillary cards) Al Gore? I know it mattered to me in 2000. I was, quite frankly, so over the shameless politics of Bill Clinton: the impeachment, the lies, the false modesty, the smugness that could only have resulted from taking on Congress and winning, the pardons, the investigations, the arrogant infidelity, the careless humiliation of poor Chelsea at the hand of a media who wanted to see the sins of the father vested on her, that aggravating lack of humility. Let’s not forget that many people in the Clinton White House (Hillary included, although off-screen) inferred that Paula Jones was too “unattractive” to ever have ever been harassed the President—after all Jennifer Flowers made it into Playboy! Take that patriarchy! How many Americans were tired of their duplicity and shameless politics and instead saw a neutered, poor-speaking, governor from Texas as an outsider (as ivy league and as privileged as they come), who, at the time, seemed to offer up a cabinet that we might have assumed had integrity (sadly, how wrong I/we were—but there was that dash of pepper that was Colin Powell: forever to be remembered now as an awful politician, out of his element against Cheney and Rumsfeild, rather than a four star general he was). Bush’s crimes have clearly dwarfed Clinton’s. There can be no debate about that. But I can’t help but recall the comedian Joe Rogan's bit in which powerful politicos sit in a dark room looking at the farce that is the Bush presidency (we’ll substitute if for Clinton in this instance) and say, “You know… I think we can go dumber.” Let’s not kid ourselves that things were so much better back then, and all of it was directly a result of the Clinton’s and not the exploding tech market and shady accounting that came to light in 01. I seem to remember Rwanda, Somalia, “Don’t ask don’t tell”, a spectacular health care debacle, blow jobs on my tax dollars in the room that has the red button, lies under oath. But here, eight years later, I still can never forgive them for one of the biggest crimes against humanity: Fox News. Let’s face facts, would Fox News and Rush Limbaugh be what it was today if the Clinton arrogance hadn’t so appalled the average Americans who still consider human decency to be one of the most important traits of a president that they found solace in a news channel that seemed to (over) react to as much? As successful a politician as Clinton was (one of the best ever), he was a divider, a man who left the White House so befouled that Gore couldn’t shake the stench during his run (a man who, by all accounts, is a better person than either Bush or Clinton). We cannot lie to ourselves and claim that his legacy did not, on some level, offer up a precedent that W. Bush and Co. have been tweaking and developing for eight years--our cynicism. Any other president in history would have already impeached (or investigated) by now, yet because of Clinton’s arrogance and privilege (he could have simply fucking admitted it—as if we didn’t know already, which speaks to the galling aspect of it all), Americans view the process as completely partisan (which it became—thank you Republicans, you must have had a crystal ball). If we try to tell ourselves that Clinton was not a divisive personality that pushed many independents towards Bush in 00, then we simply waiting for those dark suited politicos to step in with their Bush Version 3.0 in 2012. I can’t think of a more catastrophic.

Which is why Barack Obama, and not Hillary Clinton, should be the democratic candidate for president. As a teacher, I see the unexplainable disgust on many of my students face when you mention Hillary Clinton. That this reaction is misguided and ill-informed is obvious—they were children during the first Clinton-era and could hardly have any real, well reasoned, feelings about Bill. Yet, those poisoned waters (their parents) remain and are palpable. To think that Hillary can reach across the aisle and help us get past the partisan blockades that have taken over this government (blockades she did her fair share of building in dismissing real American concerns as “a vast right-wing conspiracy"—not exactly the words of a uniter), is the height of delusion.

Rather than take my word for it, I will allow The Dropcloth and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon to make a case for Obama...

…Did you check them out? Good. Allow me to close on this point. If you can find no reason in the above links to vote for Obama, then let me ask you a simple question: What major sport/endeavor/field has not experienced its own renaissance upon the inclusion of African Americans? Baseball, basketball, football, music, literature, art, and business—has a one suffered as a result of the inclusion of African Americans? While investigating the appeal of Pan-Africanism, it was James Baldwin who argued that African Americans could never be African, because they were inherently American, probably more American than many of the Whites who sought to keep them segregated and marginalized. In fact, if one traced back the lineage of many African Americans and compared it to the standard Cracker, we might find that, for the most part, they have been here longer (I have no basis in science for this statement, it just seems right since slavery was here at the beginning). That finally, after four hundred years, we finally have a candidate who has the potential to bring a diverse experience to the White House, should be a cause for celebration. Still, you shouldn’t vote for Obama because he is a black man. You should vote for him because his is an intelligent, articulate, charismatic, impressive, black man. You know all the things we used to think a president had to be.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Hirshhorn Diaries--10

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"Woman (Personage)", Joan Miro, 1947

One of the more hilarious sculptures in the museum. Some kind of sex-penguin with a lady-bug vagina and a crunk booty. Has objectification ever been so cute?

Friday, February 1, 2008

There Will Be Blood: Thoughts

If The Godfather made epic the underbelly of the American Dream, and Citizen Kane made dark the ego and entitlement of privilege, There Will Be Blood has, at last, provided an irrefutable account of the scorched earth between, shinning a head-lamp-light on the corruptible relationships at the heart of the rest of us. As far as protagonists go, Michael Corleone, having risen to the top of his game as a criminal, was always near the bottom; while Charles Foster Kane, starting at the top before catastrophically collapsing upon himself, was (as that final scene in the basement incinerator illustrated) never low. As There Will Be Blood opens, Daniel Plainview finds himself pretty low (beneath the surface actually), scratching and digging away at the skin of the earth for whatever meager nugget of silver he can find, and, over the course of two-plus hours, after a successful life as “an oilman” (back when such a thing was the embodiment of “working class”) finds himself sniffing the top. The wonder of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is that we finally have the Protestant/working-class epic that speaks to the same themes, at the same level, of despair and alienation as those two great films. Plainview is, after all, not a very subtle name, and at the film’s core is that timeless scientific principle: that something cannot be created from nothing and that the energy and costs of attempting to bend the earth (and people) to our will are astronomical and catastrophic.

All of this might seem trite now (seriously…an oilman? after innumerable “message pictures” about the war in Iraq? subtle…) if not for Daniel Day-Lewis, who is a force. Day-Lewis has created a character so forceful that you can practically smell him—all that dirt, sweat, and, oh yes, the oil. That Plainview is ambitious and not above using an orphan to help present a veneer of respectability and honesty is clear (family—that uniquely American prop), yet is the height of disservice to Day Lewis’ performance to ignore the passion and love (?) he shows his son H.W. (the eerie Dillon Freasier). As long a Plainview can keep this boy close, he is able to cling to his own fading illusions of humanity—a species he has no love for but finds himself surrounded and beset by. That we might not want to give Plainview credit for the pain he feels when H.W. loses his hearing during a rigging accident is insensitive; yet it occurs as a result of our own weak and ingrained piety and becomes a tool used against Plainview in the film. As the film progresses and the stakes rise, it becomes clear that, like the best businessmen (Mitt Romney claiming that running America is like running a company—talk about sleight of hand!), Plainview is quite the showman. A fact that results in a confrontation when Plainview encounters the equally preposterous magician, Eli Sunday (played with wonderful exaggeration by Paul Dano), who engages Plainview in an escalating bout of “see-what-I-can-make-you-do”.

Have I said yet that this is a great film? What makes it great is the collaboration between Day-Lewis and Anderson and their critique that has yet to be so pristinely captured on film: the humiliating relationship between (successful) business and religion in this country. It’s transparent how amoral business moguls (oil companies being just one example) have prostrated themselves before religious demagoguery as a way of shoring up political capitol. Look no further than the Republican Party as it is currently constituted and the bitter rumblings emerging from secular conservatives who bemoan the evangelical pandering required maintain their slipping control over the populace. One need only see Bush & Company’s occasional quotes regarding gay marriage and not see a version of the slaps Eli Sunday visits on Plainview in the front of his flock of zombified believers, where, at its conclusion Plainview mutters, “There’s the pipe-line…”—much in the way Rove and Cheney must surely have muttered after one of Bush’s more evangelical turns of phrase, “There’s an election…”. Yet what we have in front of us, both political and artistically, are the facts. And all facts point to Plainview being an atheist, as religion, in all its forms, (ideally) works to condemn everything he’s about (the individual, financial success, winning, being left alone to do as he pleases), yet he must humiliate and degrade himself in front of those other businessmen who hold the keys to our morality. Is it that hard not to imagine Dick Cheney, Rumsfeild, or Rove, given their off-hand but bitter comments about “crazies”, in the same way? Yet it is this relationship that is so corruptible and fundamental to our country (it’s on our money for crying out loud!), that when we watch Plainview beat and run Sunday through the mud from his (at the moment) position of power, is it not hard to substitute Plainview as Cheney, Sunday as Billy Grahm? It is this corrosive, unholy, hypocritical, alliance that Anderson makes so clear is at the root of our nation. Or that in their giant oil-rich mansions Cheney & Rumsfeild would gladly bludgeon the pious who have on the one hand condemned them, while, at the same time, kept their hands in their pocket? Are such men known for generosity or sharing? Not really… And, finally, we have a film that addresses this. Finally…