Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Fahrenheit 911

No matter what I say about this movie, it will make someone mad. I guess that's the point, so prepare yourself.

In fact, it may well be that the rage people feel over the kinds of issues Moore raises in this film is to blame for how we got where we are. That may be the only thing everyone can agree on: Things are a mess now, and whether or not you blame George W. Bush, the situation in the Mideast, the East Coast, Midwest, Southeast, Southwest, West Coast, or hell, all of the United States, is extremely volatile in a way that it was not four or five years ago.

Correlation is not causation. But four years ago, there was an election, and I believe that at the time of the election the country already had become mired in a morass of tarry indifference. Before you call me some kind of a partisan, biased person and say I'm laying the blame on Bush, I want to make sure you know that in my view, that indifference at least in part can be attributed to what went on during the Clinton presidency. But that, undoubtedly, can be traced to still another partisan issue... This is where I start to nod off. Where did the finger pointing start? When did they start calling each-other names and chasing each-other down dark avenues of sin with night-vision cameras? I lost track. All I know is somewhere in there I--and so many of my generation--stopped caring. It just stopped seeming to matter when politics began to feel like a childish game of smear the queer that got utterly out of hand and only the meanest and strongest kids played and you finally went inside and said fuck it and watched Speed Racer instead. Yes, I understand that we are to blame for losing sight of the fact that national and international affairs are infinitely more important than Speed Racer. But something happened. We felt powerless, as though nothing we could do would have any effect.

Most people my age were taught about politics in a democracy, that every person has a vote, that "all men are created equal" (this is hardly a place to start a debate about women). These were times when one could discuss the idea of the American Dream without the prefix of "The Myth of..." That is to say, it didn't sound cynical or insincere to talk about the promise of an individual apart from his privilege. I know that is naive. Maybe the era of my recollection is a time that never really existed, and we all just grew up and woke up. But something happened at the end of the Twentieth Century and more people than just me felt it. We gave up. That is my only explanation for the series of events that allowed George W. Bush to be elected president.

Michael Moore's first premise, mainly, is that George W. Bush very clearly stole the election. I disagree. I think we handed it to him with a collective shrug of our liberal shoulders. Fuck it, we said. "Who's on American Idol?" It was just so convoluted. I admit it. The whole tabulation debacle seemed so horrible and impossible to fix. Yes, it seemed shady, but by that time, the damage was too far done. There certainly wasn't a coverup about it. On the contrary: Moore and I would agree there was no dearth of news about the events leading up to the election and about the election itself. My God, no. It was exactly the opposite. There were so many news stories. I may have tuned out, but clearly I'm in the minority. If there weren't an audience for this kind of information, a market for the muckraking articles, the 20/20, Dateline, 48 Hours brand of "investigative journalism," the newspaper articles that straddle just this side of The National Enquirer--if there were no market for this sort of journalism, then it would have stopped. So that means someone bought it, read it, consumed it, watched it. And by doing so, we all
became immune to the horror, or just stopped asking the right questions.

So, according to Michael Moore, don't say we weren't warned. Think about all those times you heard the story of the big bad wolf when you were little, the one where you weren't supposed to speak of danger unless there was really a problem. Well, in the fall of 2000, when a terrible wolf came out and stole the election, we just changed the channel. That's what Michael Moore tells us. This is really important. He's saying, you guys have all heard these
stories, but it got to the point where you tuned them out.

So now, when Moore tries to do his documentary, he is faced with a unique rhetorical challenge: He has to figure out how to reach an audience that's been there, done that, seen those whooshing graphics, the crawl of competing horrors at the bottom of the screen, those sensational stories every time Bush flushes the toilet, as it were. So Moore had to use two absolute attention-getting rhetorical strategies here, a loud one and a surprise. The first one is obvious: Humor is his signature, but it works here because it is surprising to joke about death and destruction. Humor is incongruous with the inexplicably and unbelievably sad, upsetting, tragic, horrific scenes we see in the movie (sorry kids--I'm pretty liberal, but this one really did earn its R rating). His other strategy is the loud one, and rhetorically I think Moore set out to cry wolf louder than you're used to hearing. Put simply, ladies and gentlemen of the audience, he's turning up the volume. It's the only way you will listen.

I won't summarize the film here in the hopes that you will see it. The story and the cinematic choices Moore makes are reason enough for you to see it, whether or not you take his side. I think in several ways he makes his point well. For one, his humorous juxtaposition of popular music and the folly of the president are funny, like the much overplayed clip of the president's many vacations against a soundtrack of the Bananarama song. Even if you take no issue with the president's many golf trips, it's nearly impossible not to question the soundness of the judgment of the leader of the free world when, after he makes a very serious statement to the press, cracks a smirk and says, "Now, watch this drive." The juxtaposition there is humorous--between the suffering of the impoverished and hardworking in the rest of the world and this leisurely president, but his consciousness of it and his supreme lack of humility about it make him nothing other than detestable.

Moore also is brilliant in the way he shows us the events of that fateful day when the terrorists struck. Knowing that we were visually bombarded with the videos of the planes hitting those towers and the Pentagon so many times, Moore left the screen dark for that part, playing only the sounds. In this case, the sounds were the more terrifying, and the images my brain supplied more than enough. After the impact, he showed us the terrible images of the falling paper and ash and the people running, but this time no sound. It was an incredibly sensitive portrayal, his knowing that removing one of our senses was the only way we could manage that kind of pain on the big screen without complete overload--or without a dulling of sensation, the kind of which we regularly experience at the hands of TV news producers. Moments like this in the film made me see why it won an award.

There are stunning revelations in the film about the relationship between the Bushes, Dick Cheney, and the Saudis that to me are grounded well enough in fact to cause me great alarm. On Monday morning (6/28) as I started to write this, the turnover of power to Iraq was taking place. I looked up to the television screen to see a member of the Saudi Royal family prominently placed between the new Iraqi leader and the American who was placed there symbolically to hand over the power. What was that Saudi doing there? I would never have thought to ask before watching Moore's film. But based on my mediocre reading of current events before, I often had wondered why we were friends with the Saudis, who seem to be shafting us any chance they get. It's frightening.

That said, I want to make it clear that I took issue with a number of things in Moore's film as well. One example that comes to mind is the way Moore makes fun of Bush's reaction to the first plane hitting the tower. Bush, as you may recall, was on his way into a third-grade classroom in Florida. He chose to go in, according to Moore, for the photo-op. I take issue with that. I have trouble believing Bush could have known another plane was going to hit the towers and just ignored it. Moore spends several comic minutes with the clip of Bush sitting in front of the primary classroom while the children read, Moore says, because no one was telling him what to do at the moment. It seems to me more as though Bush's face is absolutely ashen. He seems to be collecting his thoughts. Furthermore, he's in a room full of eight year-olds, who might have been traumatized by a sudden bolt from the room--and we liberals would have had a heyday with that, just as we would have had a heyday with a split-second decision gone wrong. Nothing could have happened in that seven or nine minutes that would have allowed Bush to change anything. I think saying otherwise is just meanspirited. In this fight, I want my side to play fair. So in this case, and in a few others, where the appeal to emotion colored the argument too much detracted for me from the parts of the film that were solidly based in fact. Moore also would do better to move away from the notion that anyone who has more than a couple of bucks in his wallet is corrupt, particularly since he himself is a multimillionaire as a result of this film (and previous ones).

I'll end the examples with my very favorite part of the film. I loved it because in humor and message it summed up the entire spirit of Moore's idea: we see a terrible landscape of destruction in Iraq. An Iraqi grandmother is sobbing and cursing God for what He has allowed to happen. Her pain is so universally understandable; it is impossible not to grieve with her. Then an abrupt edit takes us to an interview with a brassy blonde, busty, gum-smacking Britney Spears, who is saying, "Y'know, like, I think we should, like, respect our president? Because he's, like our president? and we should, like, listen to him?" Beautiful. No explanations needed there, folks. Let Britney do the thinking for you.

Fahrenheit 911 is not a perfect film, and it is by no means an unbiased documentary--nor was it meant to be. I don't agree with everything Moore said, but I do think that people who strongly disagree with Moore should take note of that part of his message that is grounded solidly in fact. Moore's work artistically and rhetorically, though, is really fascinating and well worth writing and thinking about, since it's taking documentary (and comedy) in a new direction.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Atomic Cafe

I'm so glad I watched Atomic Cafe. I can't remember offhand how I was led to it, but it was kind of a world-wide-web sort of association that happened in researching this dark comedy film course I'm writing. Maybe it was when I was reading about Citizen Ruth that I suddenly remembered or saw it at the bottom of the imdb.com page under "if you liked this one, you'll probably like...." But anyway, this is the perfect film to show to start the course.

If you've never seen it, Atomic Cafe is a documentary assembled in 1982 entirely from American propaganda footage from the World War II and Korean War eras. Most would agree that it is a comedy, though in truth, some of the scenes are a horrorshow. The comedy arises from the incongruity between sometimes horrific scenes and jaunty music, upbeat country ditties about how the atomic bomb will hasten our introduction to good buddy Jesus Christ or the incongruity between the paternalistic advice of an Air Force training voiceover and the horrific scenes soldiers are shown. I love the scenes where they play, "Duck and Cover," showing the air raid drills, that terrible 1950s patronizing exercise in futility. "Duck and Cover," we can infer from the film, is just a nice way to say, "Bend over, grab your ankles, and kiss your ass goodbye," because you're going to be dust in milliseconds.

I was excited to see Atomic Cafe again because I knew it would be a perfect introduction to the cold war era, which would help lead in to showing first Dr. Strangelove and then Catch-22. In earlier posts, I mentioned that I feared about both of those films that students wouldn't understand them, wouldn't get the humor, because they wouldn't understand the references--other than the peculiar similarities to today.
Don't get me wrong--Atomic Cafe is rife with those as well. For example, early on we see a smirking Harry Truman address the nation on a newsreel. It's the smirk that gets me--a horribly inappropriate grin as he talks to the American public about using the atomic bomb and has the audacity to say that he thanks God for the atomic bomb and hopes that He gives us the wisdom to use it. That sounds a lot like old G.W., brazenly presuming that God would only protect our use of the atomic bomb and not, say, the Pakistanis! In scenes like that, it's easy to see why someone said thousands of years ago "there's nothing new under the sun."

But anyway, not long after that scene with Truman, we see a soldier with a Southern accent talking about what it was like to drop the bomb. He might as well be the bomber in Dr. Strangelove or in Catch-22, for that matter! Another horrifically American scene follows, where we view scenes of destruction in Hiroshima to the sounds of a radio voiceover of a baseball game. The announcer jokes about the bombing that he heard Hiroshima “looked like Ebbitt’s field after a double-header with the Giants." The juxtaposition between total devastation and the gross insensitivity of the joke leaves one with that modern-day paradoxical dark humor imperative: It's laugh or cry. So when they watch Atomic Cafe, I'm hoping the students will understand that the events in Dr. Strangelove and Catch-22 are not improbable, imaginary foolishness (which is what I really thought of those films as a college student), but real possibilities, potentially probabilities.

It's startling really how many issues are addressed in these many film clips. The pillaging of colonialism is addressed in numerous scenes. In
particular, we see scenes of the "relocation" of natives of Bikini Atoll. By some bizarre coincidence, just a few days before I watched
Atomic Cafe this time, my stepdad Nathan happened to tell about the Marshall Islands at dinner one night. As a career military man, he might be expected to be less than objective about the army's treatment of these people, but I think his report was impartial. He said that the ouster of these people was horrible and sad. How else could it have been? They
lived, undisturbed on a tropical island paradise forever, surviving by lagoon fishing and eating coconuts, until we came and told them they had to leave because we were going to destroy their island and it would be uninhabitable. I think what the army told them was that they would be
compensated for life by the U.S. And they were until about the 1970s. But they were relocated elsewhere, to some other island where the island lagoon would not provide fish enough to sustain life. The people began to suffer from malnutrition and die from disease. So they were moved again, ultimately to another Marshall island, but one without a lagoon. The Army propaganda film shows happy Bikini natives who seem to welcome the Army resettlement, told it was for "the good of mankind and to end all world wars." This is juxtaposed with an actual statement made by a Navy Vice Admiral: "
"The bomb will not start a chain reaction in the water, converting it all to gas and letting all the ships on all the oceans drop down to the bottom. It will not blow out the bottom of the sea and let all the water run down the hole. It will not destroy gravity. I am not an atomic playboy." Ironically, the voiceover on the Army film called the Bikini people childlike, though next to the statement by the vice admiral one wonders whether it was a case of children leading children.

Anyway, enough summary of this film. Whether you're a historian or a film buff or interested in comedy, The Atomic Cafe is well worth watching. It's particularly interesting to my mind for the study of comedy because it so clearly defines dark comedy, the gallows humor that one gets in the face of complete insanity. The fact that the footage is real explains the origin of this humor very well--I believe that deception was part of these documentaries and newsreels, but less so than we imagine in this cynical time. I think that the era--particularly early WWII--was one of innocence; we really didn't know the dangers of some of the remedies we promoted. So now, when we look back at ourselves earnestly proffering tranquilizers for use in the bomb shelters, "because, unlike narcotics, they're not addictive," it's just funny. We all smirk knowingly. And I guess a lot of dark humor is the cynical, knowing grin of one who's seen a bit of the horrorshow. I'm really excited about showing this one!

Sunday, June 20, 2004

She's Gotta Have It

You might as well just go and buy the video (you can't buy this on DVD yet, for some dumb reason). It really is that good, and it stands the humor test of time: still funny after fifteen years. Right now when someone asks, "You want to go see a Spike Lee film?" I think, oh God no. It's going to be one of those where I have to spend two hours being the unfortunate railroad tie while he hammers his point at me. This one is his first film, though, and while it suffers from a few film school pretensions, he's also being inventive and interesting as well as raising some interesting issues. I don't feel like I'm being hammered at, so I'm actually listening. I think it's just sensational; don't be fooled by the bad reviews that cite bad acting and stilted scenes. Lee filmed this on a miniscule budget with inexperienced actors. When you cringe at the particularly wooden delivery, for example, at the scene between Opal and Nola, keep in mind please that there were NO second takes here--the budget was so low that there simply wasn't enough film to do it more than once! And frankly I've seen worse in some high budget films.

For the record, She's Gotta Have It is not a dark comedy film. It doesn't count as a viewing for my internship and it isn't under consideration to be shown in my honors seminar. I TIVO-ed it because I happened to notice that it was on the Sundance Channel in the middle of the night recently, and I remembered that it was one of the few films we had a copy of and watched CONSTANTLY in college. But it was funny too, and I forgot I memorized the lines, so watching it was a wonderful experience of finding myself speaking lines I didn't know I knew as the actors said them, like "Fifty dollar sneakers and I gots no job," or "please, baby, please, baby, please, baby, baby, baby, please," or "Nola, did I ever tell you about the time I was a superhero? Pantyman!" But enough of my own private reminiscence. This is a film worth seeing. And the soundtrack, composed and performed (I'm pretty sure) by Bill Lee (Spike's dad) is delightful and stays in your mind for days after. I wish you could hear it as you read this.

She's Gotta Have It pretends to be a documentary, a form I guess that appeals to me. It is the story of Nola Darling, a young woman who is either a freak or a free thinker, depending on who you're asking. Her trouble is that she does not want to remain monogamous, but the men she sleeps with want her to. I think it's
an interesting problem, and it brings up issues of gender and race. First of all, gender stereotypes are called into question: if she were male, the only problems would be the administrative issues of getting the lovers out of the house in time for all the back slapping and guffawing. However, since she is female, she's lost most of her same gender friends, including her roommate, Clorinda Bradford, who just "couldn't handle" seeing different men in her bathroom all the time and had to move out. Were the genders reversed, this bathroom traffic would have been the subject of much mirth! Furthermore, the only female friend Nola has retained is Opal, a lesbian who wants to sleep with Nola and who makes sexual advances on Nola even after Nola has made it clear she isn't interested. The only women who know how to handle a promiscuous woman, then, are lesbians. Nola knows she doesn't fit.

But the race of the characters is interesting too. I believe that Lee toys with White stereotypes about African Americans with this story; one commonly held assumption is that African Americans have promiscuous, indiscriminate sex. In the beginning, then, it is no challenge to the stereotype to learn that Nola has three boyfriends. However, Lee challenges the stereotype with Nola's three boyfriends who, just like white boyfriends, want her to be monogamous with them (even if they are not monogamous with her). But Nola isn't stupid--in fact, she doesn't even hide the fact that she's dating multiple men. She's in charge. In fact, when Nola invites Mars Blackmon, Lee's character, to her apartment, he admires the apartment and jokes that she can put a divider across the room and he'll live on the other side. "You'll never know I'm there." "You're right," she says. "I'll never know." Nola is smarter than her men and smarter than any stereotype.

Jokes are supposed to go by the rule of threes, meaning that examples and events usually happen in threes to raise the stakes in the humor. The same is true here. She's got three boyfriends, three extremes: Mars, the rapper, Steve Erkle type guy; Greer, the male model, self absorbed guy; and Jamie, the nice regular guy who really seems to want a traditional relationship. The crescendo comes when she invites them all to Thanksgiving dinner at her house. The obvious hijinx ensue from that scene, because true to their instinct, the males all view this meal as an opportunity to stake their territory, and that peeing against the tree behavior just turns her off. Finally Greer and Mars give up. But later even Jamie leaves her, after she refuses to give up the others.

I guess I've pretty much given away the whole film here in summary, and I shouldn't do the rest, but what's interesting is that we think at the end that Lee has given this a Hollywood ending, meaning that Nola gets a near-rape from Jamie, who later becomes angry when she asks him to come over, but she hasn't changed anything. It's disappointing, I think, because it's too much like the Hollywood stories where the lesbians always meet with a bad ending. The great thing about this movie, though, is that it DOESN'T end here, but rather it ends with Lola on her own, figuring that she doesn't need any of these three idiots and that it's perfectly fine for her to like sex as much as she does and with lots of men. It's a pretty relaxed message for 1986, and very liberated for a male writer!

Friday, June 18, 2004

Nurse Betty

This one didn't strike me as a dark comedy the first time I saw it. In fact, I found it to be sort of sad and sort of goofy. I must have missed the scene that first time where the filmmaker assures us that Betty's behavior is amnesiac and not just some inexplicable, forgetful meandering. But on second viewing the story does have some elements of dark comedy, I guess, notably the reversals: pleasure the audience is to take in the murder of Betty's husband as well as the disappointment when the bad guy gets it in the end. Even so, I'm not convinced.

The premise of Nurse Betty is extremely appealing, actually. Betty is a small-town waitress who is a loyal soap opera fan. She has a horrible husband who cheats on her with his secretary--we know because we witness a sex scene where we must look at his disgusting body on top of his platform-stiletto-wearing girlfriend on a cot in his office, and we observe the paneling where her shoes have abraded deep grooves from numerous hours of uninspired sex. It's Betty's birthday, and while her co-workers celebrate with her, giving her a life-sized cutout of her favorite soap opera character and a collection to help fund her dream of going to nursing school, her husband doesn't remember or get the hint of the cupcake with birthday candle she leaves in front of them on the kitchen table (he even takes a big bite out of it without noticing); instead he says he's going out, and she says she'll go to the movie with a girlfriend. When it turns out that the girlfriend can't make it, she stays home instead and watches a videotape of the week's episodes of her favorite soap opera and favorite character, a doctor played by Greg Kinnear, typecast as a self-absorbed jerk.

When her husband comes home with two men who supposedly want to buy a car from him, he assumes Betty is out with her friend; she turns the volume down on the television in her room and pays no attention until they argue and it turns violent; they wind up killing her husband, who by this time has become so reprehensible to the audience, we wished he would come to some horrific end. The killers leave without realizing she witnessed the gruesome killing. Betty calls the ambulance and reports the event to the police, but her affect is wrong. She is utterly calm, like Mrs. Mallard in Kate Chopin's ironic story, "The Awakening,"
where everyone is afraid to tell the woman with heart trouble that her husband is dead, but when they finally do, she's absolutely delighted. Anyway, after the police have arrived and we assume she's told them what has happened, Betty pleasantly bids the police chief and newspaper reporter goodbye and leaves for California, where she intends to meet up with the doctor. The only trouble is, the doctor only exists inside the story of her soap opera.

This premise is not completely outlandish, when you think about it. In fact, it's pretty believable to me. Think of the many people who watch soap operas and for whatever reason become so utterly absorbed by them that they lose the dividing line between the imaginary and the real. I remember talking to my grandmother one day and realizing that for her adventures the character Marlena on Days of our Lives had were blending with what she read in magazines about actress Deidre Hall, who plays her on the television show. The idea of the character melded with the persona of the actress until, to my grandmother, she became a single blonde entity whose life was lived on television for our entertainment. It was a frightening predictor of the plot of The Truman Show, frankly, though to me it wasn't particularly entertaining at the time, indicative as it was of the decay of gray matter caused by transient ischemic attacks or some other senility inducing thing. That phenomenon is familiar enough, though, that it's easy to think of writer John C. Richards starting with that premise of a soap opera fan for whom the show is entirely too real.

From there, the humor to me is obvious. Of course, Betty miraculously finds a job as a nurse though she has no nursing credentials, and she manages to meet Kinnear, who plays George McCord, who plays Dr. David Ravell. By this time Betty has convinced herself and her new roommate that David Ravell is her former fiancé and that he left her husband Del (still alive) for him. Kinnear/McCord/Ravell thinks she is a method actress who is going to absurd lengths for a part in the soap opera, so when at long length he convinces the writer to put her in the soap opera, Betty surprises everyone by falling apart. Meanwhile, the killers are driving cross country trying to find Betty. They have the best lines in the film, like when Chris Rock says, "Where am I, purgatory?" and Morgan Freeman responds, "Worse, Texas."

When Betty falls apart, Kinnear's character shows his true colors as a jerk and belittles her in front of the cast. Between the shock of that and the surprise of lights and cameras in a world she imagined as real, Betty is stunned into remembering all that has happened to her. She rushes out and to her apartment, just in time for Del's killers to find her (and her roommate) there. We see a touching scene where the saner of the two killers, Morgan Freeman (who has fallen in love with Betty's picture) talks with her, but both killers get it in the end. Ultimately, all problems are solved and we find out that Betty will appear as Nurse Betty on the soap opera, but only long enough to save her money to go to nursing school.

One interesting part of the film to me is the racial identity of the killers. I found it at first disturbing that they had to be Black men in a story where they didn't really seem to need to be Black. I found it to be racist; on the other hand, though, I thought it was interesting casting decision because really these characters were by far more appealing and smarter (particularly Morgan Freeman) than anyone else in the film. That alone would make it interesting to discuss with students as a film, but as a dark comedy? I'm not sure. It functions as a dark comedy in terms of man's inhumanity to man and in terms of disregard for life, but if we want to situate this film into one of Wes Gehring's themes of dark comedies it really doesn't work: He says "man as beast, the absurdity of the world, and the omnipresence of death" are the main themes (Five Takes on Funny 84). I don't see all men as beasts in this, nor do I see the
omnipresence of death. I do see some absurdity in the world, but even
that's fixed in the end. It's a little too romantic and optimistic to be a dark comedy, isn't it? I say no to this film for the class, cute as it is.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Barton Fink

"I could tell you some stories," Charlie Meadows tells Barton Fink. I pay attention to repetition. I think I caught that repeated line the first time I watched the movie, but the first time I saw it, I didn't like Barton Fink at all because the plot centered on writer's block, which made me so anxious I could only wring my hands and sweat as I watched the movie. I think I actually wanted Meadows to kill Fink that first time I watched it. This time I really enjoyed it and thought it was funny. The big joke--the one that I think the reviewers (many of whom I read this morning) missed--is that Barton Fink is tortured with despair over not being able to write a story of a common man, when a supposedly common man keeps presenting himself in his room at night and offering to tell him stories. Every time, Fink interrupts him and rants on and on about not having a story. That's funny.

I guess one person got close. New York Times reviewer, Vincent Canby called it "a satire on the life of the mind." One might say that Fink is so caught up in the life of the mind that he is trapped and tortured and that that mind is personified in a way by the hell of the Hotel Earle, with its oozing and eventually flaming walls. Another clue of the "heady" torture is the repetition of the word "head." Reviewer Jeff Vorndam (Aboutfilm.com) says "people are said to have a good head on their shoulders, people are admonished not to lose their heads." Meadows keeps having to go to New York because things are "all balled up" in the "head office." We only find out later that John Goodman's character, Charlie Meadows isn't a good natured insurance salesman at all but instead is a murderer who chops the heads off his victims. This life of the mind business is tough going, evidently.

Another funny part of this film is in the earnestness of its characters. It's interesting to me that they are extremes--almost types, but quirky enough not to be. For example, W.P. Mayhew is another screenwriter Fink meets. Mayhew is obviously patterned after William Faulkner, yet somehow he is wonderfully his own person from the moment we meet him, or really just his legs, poised just so against a handkerchief as he vomits in the men's room. Another hilarious character is the movie studio executive, Jack Lipnick, who speaks in delightful Hollywood-esque non sequiturs and in the best scene of all, when he has summoned Barton Fink to, once and for all, tell him the plot summary of the film he is writing, ends up kissing his boots, thanking him for having the artistic integrity to say he doesn't feel comfortable revealing the plot until he finishes the script (which is a lie anyway). It's just great writing on behalf of the Coen brothers, that somehow we recognize these characters as types, but rather than groaning and rolling our eyes, we find ourselves rubbing our hands together delighted to see the quirky way they display their type-tendencies.

Anyway, I spent a lot of time reading the reviews of Barton Fink this morning because I couldn't answer for myself the question that came from the clear references to hell. By the end of the film, when the hallways are on fire (and no alarm is sounded) and John Goodman keeps saying how hot he is, looking more and more demonic, one would have to be asleep to miss the point about the hotel being its own miniature hell. I understood the reference inasmuch as the Coen brothers seemed to be saying that the life of the mind, the life of the writer can be like living in hell sometimes. But somehow the comic tone, the message of the writer not taking himself too seriously made me think I hadn't understood some deeper message.

Despite some embarrassing misspellings and writing problems, the Aboutfilm.com review by Jeff Vorndam was very insightful. He sees Barton Fink as addressing several themes, including the ones I've mentioned, but he also mentions a whole political and ideological message that I missed. To begin with, he noted the names of the police officers, Deutsch and Mastrionotti, as emblematic for German and Italian fascist political beliefs of the time (to contrast with Fink's liberal views)--in fact, they even harass Fink for being Jewish; Vorndam also points out that we find out later from these policemen that Charlie Meadows's real name is Karl Mundt, and when Mundt executes the police officers shouts "Heil Hitler." He says that this information certainly could have led Roger Ebert to conclude about the film that:

The Coens mean this aspect of the film, I think, to be read as an emblem of the rise of Nazism. They paint Fink as an ineffectual and impotent left-wing intellectual, who sells out while telling himself he is doing the right thing, who thinks he understands the "common man" but does not understand that, for many common men, fascism had a seductive appeal. Fink tries to write a wrestling picture and sleeps with the great writer's mistress, while the Holocaust approaches and the nice guy in the next room turns out to be a monster.

So, the idea of Goodman's character being the devil comes to a different conclusion in this view of the film. Vorndam ultimately dismisses this view as the answer to the film, but it is an interesting one to consider and there may be an element of truth about it. I agree that the Coen brothers do seem to be making fun of writers who take themselves too seriously (particularly with their ideology) and that is an element of the humor in the film.

This is a good one. There's so much to consider about Barton Fink, really. I didn't even get to the cinematography, which is really important as well, making the hotel come alive. Another element that seems really important here is intertextuality. On this viewing, for example, I found myself thinking that it would be interesting to consider Barton Fink and The Shining together, just to look at the way the building comes alive in both films and the way the cinematography becomes its own character in both films as well as in how the demonic element is managed. Vorndam also notes tributes to two of Polanski's films in Barton Fink. I also thought this would be interesting to discuss in the context of Adaptation to discuss the way each author and filmmaker deals with the issue of writer's block. As it turns out, the filmmakers in both cases actually did have writer's block and wrote it into the script (Kaufmann was blocked about Adaptation and the Coen brothers about Miller's Crossing). It would be interesting to talk about intertextuality in that regard. This is a great movie.

Thursday, June 03, 2004

Cable Guy

There's a certain kind of comedy that I find more anxiety-provoking than actually funny. Cable Guy is one that would fall into that category, though maybe not completely. Critic Gerald Mast would classify it as a reductio ad absurdum plot, where “a single mistake in the opening minutes leads inexorably to final chaos” (“Comic Films” 227). Here, Matthew Broderick, as always, playing himself, befriends the cable installer, being kind against his better judgment. The cable guy (Jim Carrey) at first seems like a geeky, clingy guy with poor social skills, but as Broderick finds out, he's actually big trouble and ends up causing Broderick to be arrested, lose his job, and almost lose his girl (as well as the respect of his family).

What is it that bothers me about these reductio ad absurdum plots? Well, first is their utter obviousness. Just as Mast says, within the first moments of the story, we already see how it will end, that a series of disasters lie ahead, that things can only get worse for our hero, the mensch. At that point, I always think, oh ferchrissakes, why even bother watching? I know what's coming. I've grasped the entire film in a mere 30 seconds. Why watch any more? Life all by itself is stressful enough. All I do is wring my hands and anticipate disaster. That's no fun.

Perhaps another aspect of Cable Guy that troubles little old sentimental me is that it's kind of sad. Matthew Broderick's character, since he seems to be so typecast, feels very real, a nice, gentle guy who wants to do the right thing and be kind to someone who seems to be a loser. Hell, who knows, maybe the cable guy will improve his social skills and be okay in the long run. There's no dialogue that says this, but haven't we all thought this at one point or another about another person? Then, the Jim Carrey character is very well played, meaning that, for Carrey, the character isn't overplayed at all. He's a truly geeky guy with an under-bite and a lisp. Frankly it's ironic that Carrey, a personal favorite, isn't especially funny here. I imagine Stiller, in considering casting decisions, snickering over the joke of Carrey, usually over-the-top funny, being kind of silly but also a sad sort here. It's clever, even if it didn't happen. Anyway, ultimately, I find him pretty sad, even though I think that I'm supposed to laugh at him. The problem is that Carrey makes him too human for me to laugh. So I'm frustrated because I see what's coming, and I sort of like the characters too much to want to endure the agony.

And...so...but...it isn't that simple. I had forgotten an important element of this movie: Ben Stiller directed it, and this second time that I watched it (now that I know more about Ben Stiller from movies like Zoolander and The Royal Tennenbaums) I realized that Stiller had carefully introduced a whole subplot (as well as a few of his favorite comedy geniuses) to distract the audience from the sadness of the story. The subplot interrupts various TV-watching scenes in the film (of which there are many) and consists entirely of Court TV updates on an ongoing (fictional) trial case in which a child star murdered his twin brother (both played by Stiller). Stiller even goes so far as to show an ersatz movie promo of a film starring Eric Roberts as the twin brothers. The whole thing is a little absurd, but it's funny, especially when one considers it in the context of the time when this was written and produced: 1996, shortly after the Menendez brothers trial (for killing their parents) and the O.J. Simpson trial. Anyone who was conscious through that era knows that the level of intrusion of these court cases into the popular culture has been almost unmatched (in idiocy) since. Stiller also entertains us with his cast of comic genius pals, friends from his short lived (but brilliant) comedy sketch show on MTV. Andy Dick plays the knight at the medieval theme restaurant and Bob Odenkirk plays Broderick's brother in the family scenes. And Owen Wilson, ubiquitous in today's comic films, plays Broderick's girlfriend's date in what might have been his first role. Same for Jack Black, who plays a minor character in the first film I remember him in. (According to IMDB.com, both actually had played in previous films, but nothing you or I would have seen.) These great comedians cannot help but be hilarious and that helps break the anxiety I feel as a result of the larger plot and the sadness I feel about the loser characters.

Anyway, even though this is one movie that sort of irks me in its predictability, I do think it's worth considering for the dark comedy film class. It makes a good statement on the state of the popular culture in the late 1990s, and it's an interesting use of the subplot. And if nothing else we can gaze in awe at the handiwork of Ben Stiller, who directed this when he was 31. Wow. Famous parents or not, we must concede that Ben Stiller is nauseatingly talented.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Citizen Ruth

I'm not sure what to say about this one. Was it entertaining? Yes, I guess so. The humor in this movie felt kind of like following someone else's footprints on a snowy path: each step was right there where it was supposed to be. The right-to-lifers were obnoxious hypocrites who wore too much hairspray and whose teenage daughter's demeanor belied their happy-family exterior. Most of them, though, were men, as is often the case. The pro choice people were lesbians in sensible shoes and bad haircuts, women who had passionate beliefs about pregnancy, something they have to pay $20,000 a pop for (or if you're less cynical, $10,98 for a turkey baster). Let me back up here, though, and explain that the premise of the movie is that when Laura Dern's character, Ruth, who is a hopeless fume-huffing, alcoholic wastrel, finds herself pregnant, the judge publicly charges her with reckless endangerment of her fetus and privately intimates that if she gets an abortion the charges will be dropped. The result is a fanatical activists' turf war over the fruits of Ruth's womb.

Laura Dern plays this character quite well, but even Ruth is a "type," and that is what is so irksome about this film. In trying to prove a point, the filmmakers (men, incidentally) made the characters into iconic activists and even an iconic drug abusing Jane. Iconic as she is, Jane is probably the least offensive in the story, and her stupidity makes for some truly funny moments. For example, the pro-life family takes her to a pro-life clinic, where the doctor and the nurse give her an extremely biased description of the development of the fetus and then urge her to make the right choice and keep the baby. Her response is a refreshing, "Are you fuckin' people deaf? I said I want an abortion." She does this in a number of arenas, with both factions as well as with the media. The point, ground in practically to dust, is that Ruth is the only honest character, that even though she is ignorant, naive, and misguided, she's still actually better and smarter than extremists at either end. That probably is reasonably true, but so what? Of course the
truly (supposedly) poignant scene is where the factions begin to fight with each other in earnest and she finally stands and yells that isn't it her body and doesn't she ultimately have the choice. That's the great directorial slap
across our collective faces, I gather, where we're supposed to jump up and take notice and say, yeah, what about all that??

I still am not entirely convinced that there's a point to this movie, at least to those of us who have spent more than a minute thinking about the terrible selection one must make in the face of an unwanted pregnancy. Neither decision is a good one, I'm sure, and this movie sort of confirmed my ambivalence. So, once again, I find myself asking why I spent my two hours on a movie. The real reason I watched Citizen Ruth was that it was suggested to me kindly as an example of dark comedy, so now I must think carefully about why it doesn't qualify as dark comedy in my mind. Well, the premise of objectifying Ruth's unborn baby has an element of disregard for life that Wes Gehring suggests as characteristic of dark comedy. Hmmm...thinking more about this, maybe I'm wrong. Gehring also talks about the futility of going on, that the sense behind characters in dark comedies is that one has to keep on, even in the face of misery and despair, because “the message is that there is no message, so audience members had best steal a laugh before they are too dead to even do that” (Dark Comedy Film 2).