Monday, July 27, 2015

841. We need to talk about Bill Cosby

We need to talk about Bill Cosby.

No, not in the simplistic sense that we've been talking about him.  And listen, I have every reason to take the allegations against him seriously, because I've been affected by this sort of thing personally.  It is never acceptable to take advantage of someone else that way.  But it's also never acceptable to gloss over the facts.  And there are certain facts about Bill Cosby that are being lost in the narrative being constructed around him today.

Remember the last time people talked about Cosby?  I bet you don't.  The thing is, he had finally become a social crusader.  After decades of Hollywood entertainment, being known for a succession of television series and as a stand-up comedian, Bill Cosby stood up in a different way, and attempted to address the problems facing the black community.  Not as they stood in the 1960s, the last time there was serious discussion in that regard, in the realm of civil rights, which was necessary in a different way.  This time, Cosby was addressing the problems in the black community itself.  This is an article about that.

He even released a book about it.  And this was years before the series of sensational police confrontations that drew national attention to race relations all over again.  Curiously, I've seen very little about any of this in the blogging community, at least the tiny corner where I happen to reside.  That's exactly how these things happen.  We actually like boxing ourselves into tiny little corners, isolating ourselves from the greater world, pretending that these things don't affect us.  But this is a national conversation, and it behooves us to participate.  We fear alienating each other, but that's exactly the problem, because we live in a culture that thrives on alienation, because there's very little connection between these segments of the population, these millions of segments that exist within the millions of inhabitants within the United States.  We have, in many ways, fragmented to a far greater extent than ever before in our history, which by the way is riddled with fragmentation.  You may or may not recall that even at its founding, during the Revolutionary War, there were those who were fighting, and those who called themselves Loyalists, who supported the British cause.  Which is to say nothing about the Native American population, never members of the official population, much less the slaves who belonged even to some of the Founders.

The transition from slavery to the population at large was a long and difficult one for black Americans, and for years we patted ourselves on the back because we had finally established what seemed like true social equality.  I don't know about you, but I never stopped hearing grumbles about Equal Opportunity.  Cosby existed, it seemed, completely outside of this whole conversation, much the way Willie Mays did in the Jackie Robinson era.  Mays was criticized then.  Cosby didn't seem relevant at all.  He starred in one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, and represented as a result what the culture thought as one of the greatest triumphs of the further integration of the black population into everyday American life.

If only.  And this is strange, too, because Cosby didn't start out his life on the national scene with The Cosby Show.  His first brush with fame was the mid-60s adventure series I Spy, where he starred opposite Robert Culp, and nothing was made of this interracial dynamic.  He next focused on Fat Albert, arguably his most famous creation.  The Cosby Show lasted for nearly a decade and at that point, when he had reached middle age, that was the end, more or less, of his popular career.  Ghost Dad was an abysmal failure at making him a movie star.  He continued landing TV projects, but the culture had moved on, somewhat reluctantly, from him.

So he changed his focus.  It's worth remembering how Cosby began life before we move on with this discussion.  His father was absent during Cosby's formative years, living a military life during WWII.  At this point, we ask ourselves, how much of an impact did that have on the young Cosby?  Because when we look at the legacy of The Cosby Show and his later message about the crucial importance of personal accountability in the black community, the further question must be, Was Cosby affected for the worse or the better by this absence?

The answer, I would argue, is more complicated than the current narrative would suggest, even as it neglects to look at the man beyond the current controversy.  His reputation and his accomplishments, indeed his entire voice is being threatened with total erasure.  I think this is wrong.  What he did was wrong, too, but needs further examining.  Desperately.

What Cosby himself was saying in later years, in effect, was that children need fathers. Without fathers they lose direction.  For most of his life, Cosby seemed like nothing at all had gone wrong with his life because of his absent father.  But when you look at the importance of fatherhood in The Cosby Show, you may come to a different conclusion, too.  This was perhaps the last great sitcom to celebrate the notion of fatherhood, which at that time was coming under fire by the evolving popular culture.  Married...with Children and later, Family Guy, began sending a different message.  The Cosby Show was the last time fatherhood was presented as a paragon of virtue in the household.

And yet what do we say about The Cosby Show now?  That it was a Bill Cosby vehicle.  And in fact it was, his last great platform to say something substantial to the culture around him.  Because the next time he spoke, nobody listened.  And, I would argue, he angered the black population he was seeking to help.  Because the very thing he sought to champion, personal accountability, has completely left the conversation in the current climate.  There has been no one arguing what he argued, just a few years ago, when Cosby's last days of popularity vanished in an instant.  Once he stopped being funny, nobody cared what Cosby had to say anymore.

All along, while taking the allegations seriously, I questioned the timing of bringing them up again.  Look around you and you'll find race relations charged as they haven't been in decades.  There have been no leaders, however, to emerge to try and make sense of it.  We live in a culture where everyone has a voice, but most of us feel like saying the same thing, and we don't much think about what we repeat.  And that's a shame and that needs to change.  When we have conversations at all, they're more argument than anything, ignoring and vilifying the other side.  There's very little intelligence in any of it.

What I'm saying is, someone became interested in silencing Cosby.  Whether in retaliation, because in a lot of ways he was one of the pillars of the black community and was easy to take down because of unrelated issues, or because he would have been voicing things in this climate that were not a part of the emerging message.  Yes, Black Lives Matter, but as Cosby had argued, they're as subject to accountability as anyone else's.

The other side of Bill Cosby worth talking about, which has been and needs to be addressed, is what he was doing to women for decades.  But also, what women were doing to themselves.  Yes, he was wrong, but those women should never have put themselves in those predicaments to begin with.  Their fathers failed them.  This is not me arguing, blame the victim.  But this was a man who had been famous for decades.  That's the other point of reminding you about I Spy.  Because while everyone remembers The Cosby Show these days, it seems everyone's forgotten that he was famous well before it.  What does prolonged fame do to someone?  It affects them, naturally.  Cosby wasn't just famous for one thing, but for at least four career successes, three TV shows and his stand-up.  He was married through all of it, by the way.

And yet, for whatever reason, woman after woman, because of that fame, kept presenting themselves to him.  Not to submit themselves to some wicked appetite, but ultimately, it was a temptation Cosby couldn't turn away from.  The thing is, these women were drawn to a famous figure.  Regardless of their motivations, this becomes, at least in part, a cautionary tale about fame.  Not just about what Bill Cosby did, but what led to it to begin with.

There have been various comments made that the Hollywood community knew, more or less, what was going on, and other comments that of course Hollywood knew, because that's what Hollywood does.  But is it really a Hollywood thing, or a cultural phenomenon?  This is what fame attracts.  Any time a male music act attracts crazed admiration from young women, that's what's happening.  It's completely irrational otherwise.  When you remember the reaction Elvis Presley provoked, or the Beatles, or One Direction, you should hopefully understand Bill Cosby a little better.

The problem is, figuring out how to equate, in your mind, Bill Cosby with Harry Styles.  There just seems to be too vast a disconnect.  But there it is, all the same.  Harry Styles didn't do what Bill Cosby did, but he's in exactly the same situation.  And that's what Cosby was trying to talk about concerning the black population, too, this issue of accountability.  The father figure of The Cosby Show doesn't seem capable of what Bill Cosby did anymore than you can envision Styles taking advantage of one of his fans, drugged or otherwise.  The Bill Cosby who was a comedian doesn't seem to have had any problems you might have associated with an absentee father.  He seemed far too well-adjusted, too successful.  But the successful Bill Cosby didn't emerge right away.  He was someone before he was a comedian, before he was famous, decades before The Cosby Show.  Yet at the height of his fame, he chose to address fatherhood, its incredible responsibility, as the important subject he viewed it to be.  Because he knew firsthand what happened when the father isn't there.  It negatively impacts a life.

He saw the black population losing its accountability, spiraling out of control, losing all its cultural momentum, the more fathers disappeared from the black community.  Cosby would have been the voice saying that it wasn't the police but the victims who should have been examined in all these shootings, questioning why they were in that position to begin with, not blaming them but asking why that scenario happened at all, not blaming white cops and ingrained racial problems, but looking further.  Questioning.

He knew this because he saw the flaws in his own life.  If you were to ask Bill Cosby today, instead of accusing and condemning him, he would be repeating that same message.  He tried to do what he could when he could.  This despite his own flaws.  What I'm asking now is, Are we going to lose his message because of the man behind it?  Or learn from it, and continue to learn from Cosby himself, because this seems like the last opportunity we'll ever have.  Because we seem poised to stricken Bill Cosby from the record.

And that would be a mistake.  That's why we need to talk about Bill Cosby.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

840. Star Wars, "a 1977 space movie"

I've been reading a survey of war throughout recorded history, and came across a reference to the 1980s missile defense program, which was famously nicknamed Star Wars in honor of the popular films.  At that time, it was probably embraced with a laugh.

From today's vantage point, we can begin to consider a different context.  As a longtime lover of literature, I've constantly had to confront the notion of historical impact.  Many of the stories we read today come from days long past, and they've transcended their original contexts.  The origin of The Iliad has particularly interested me.  This is a presentation of the Trojan War, written centuries after the fact, credited to a man named Homer, who has undergone considerable skepticism over time.  Did he even exist?  Is it a matter of convenience that we ascribe The Iliad to him?  The existence of Troy itself was in great doubt until Heinrich Schliemann discovered its ruins.

Fans today quibble about Star Wars in every way possible.  They question George Lucas every time he revisits Han Solo shooting Greedo.  A hundred years from now, if anyone is still talking about Star Wars at all, will they even care?  This is the sort of thing I think about.

Will it become a footnote, the way the military survey handled it, or will history be kinder, the way we presumably view Star Wars now in relation to the outdated missile defense system?  Does Lucas continue to be a visionary every time he tweaks his own work?  Because in time, if Star Wars endures at all, it will be revisited.  We're seeing new creators entering into the saga for the first time even now, something that was previously unthinkable (until you consider Lucas didn't direct the second and third movies).

Film is such an interesting topic.  We've seen multiple formats emerge in preserving it for home consumption.  Critics have routinely touted the early movies as enduring classics.  I've been wondering about that.  Some film-makers (Orson Welles) seemed to grasp the enduring nature of the medium, while others (the vast majority) were fine with the limits of their age, which become more and more obvious over time.  As an art-form, film has been nascent, and there's no other way to describe it, the youngest of the arts by far, something that was initially slow in development, but has taken great strides in the blockbuster age, the very era that has routinely seen critics bemoan the end of serious cinema.  Imagine if ambition were a crime in art.  So long, Da Vinci!

The better and more consistent the technique, the better films are in general.  If the medium becomes worthy of an enduring legacy, does it in fact become something that can credibly be envisioned as still being done in a hundred years?  And if then, are they still holding all the old movies as untouchable, the way some people today like to think of them?

Which is to say, is Star Wars as we know it truly sacred?  Or can multiple versions truly compete?  Fans, many of which are the original fans, consider Star Wars untouchable today, even by George Lucas himself.  In times to come, if it truly is untouchable, which is to say enduring, it will have to be more malleable.  The original versions might endure, but there will have to be others, if not to replace to originals, then to justify them.

Or it really will become a footnote in history, "a 1977 space movie."  Just another forgettable cultural ephemera.  History marches on!   

Monday, July 20, 2015

839. Superman: beyond good and evil?

Next year we'll get to further the conversation about Zack Snyder's Superman, once Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is finally released.  Snyder's Man of Steel has been endlessly debated as being too dark, too unrepresentative of Superman in, ah, his best light.

Which prompts the question: What is Superman in his best light?  Those who consider Snyder's Superman as too dark insist that the character should be beyond ordinary human pettiness, that he's a paragon of virtue, much like the old mantra of "Truth, Justice, and the American Way" always suggested, or the nickname pegging him as the Big Blue Boy Scout.  After years of one-dimensional but crowd-pleasing movies based on Marvel comic book superheroes, Snyder's Superman is uncomfortably associated with Christopher Nolan's Batman (two out of three with titles literally including the word "dark," apparently just so there was no confusion).

They use as justification that Superman's origins include the famous adoption by a kindly Kansas farmer, who instilled in him good old American values.  All this is very curious, however, because Superman's appearance in Man of Steel is in response, in many ways, to another ongoing debate entirely, to whether or not the character is still relevant at all.  America has been at the reluctant forefront of the globalization idea for decades at this point.  To say "...and the American Way" has been a part of Superman's legacy that has undergone as much reconsideration as Star Trek's "...where no man has gone before" (revised in The Next Generation to read "where no one has gone before").  So whose values does Superman represent?  If we remove one part of the equation, where does the rest end up?

Actually, Superman's comic book counterpart has been examining that for years, mostly in obvious but interesting ways.  One of the most famous examples is Superman: Red Son, in which the rocket from Krypton lands in Soviet Russia instead of Kansas.  Interestingly, even though he becomes a Communist dynamo, Superman is still a hero with exceptional morals.  If not Jonathan Kent, then who?

The question here is really the classic nature versus nurture.  Superman's nature is actually pretty straightforward to analyze, not because of his alien origins but his awareness of them, his emerging abilities and what they mean about how he'll be able to interact with the world around him.  Superman is a story about an outsider.  This is what the best writers understand.  That he chooses to help rather than hurt is an example all its own, and because he's the most famous superhero, by default Superman has always represented superheroes as a whole.  But at the character's heart is something more complicated than that.

Defensive mechanisms always spring from ideas that are at first rejected by society as a whole.  Tim Burton's Batman rejected Adam West's, went completely the other way, just as Joel Schumacher's was crafted as a response to Burton's, and Nolan's as a response to Schumacher's.  Bryan Singer's Superman was meant as a continuation of Richard Donner's, the rare instance of accepting rather than rejecting (which isn't odd at all, since Singer's X-Men movies were patently created as allegories for the gay community, and his later visits have been to reintegrate new interpretations with the old) something that has come before.  And yet, Snyder's Superman was clearly a rejection of Singer's (even while it was a continuation of Nolan's work).

Marvel's characters are only just beginning to see reinvention come into play (even though the Hulk took three tries to reach popular approval).  Spider-Man's second cinematic life was rejected mostly because his first is still roundly celebrated.  The Fantastic Four have gotten a reboot because their first appearances were deemed unsatisfying.  Daredevil has gotten a new incarnation.  You can imagine how poorly it'll go when Iron Man is played by someone else for the first time.  Can you say George Lazenby?

When Snyder focuses on the effect Superman has around him, lets us see how the world develops around him, we see the character from an entirely new perspective.  Superman normally is depicted as nearly instantly formed, everything he needed coming from his Smallville upbringing.  He's seen as Moses to some people(rocket for a basket), and Jesus (another obscured development of a savior) to others.  Yet he's just a comic book character, and he only means as much as the stories he's in, the impact he's allowed to have.  If he's presented as "just" a great heroic figure, then he becomes just another action hero.  Movies have plenty of those.  What they don't have is Superman, one whose presentation is as confident as his legacy in the culture is to date.  Later generations, you may need reminding, won't know or care what we thought.  If the material doesn't speak for itself, Superman will slip into oblivion.

He has a chance to become something greater.  Snyder recognizes that.  He has a chance to embody everything his character suggests.  If reduced to mere functionality, he's nothing.  That's the simple truth.  What does he say about good?  What does he say about evil?  Superman becomes a hero, in Man of Steel, because he doesn't have a choice.  He feels compelled.  He can do a thing, and so he does.  He rescues people.  His father, Jonathan Kent, cautions him to be fearful of the reaction.  Because people fear what they don't understand.  He'll be hounded.  Nolan had his Batman hounded, too, but that was because he really was just a man.  He could be chased.  So inevitably, he would be.  The consequences are different, however.  Batman was always subject to human laws.  Superman isn't.  He transcends all of them.  In time, this is something everyone is bound to discover.  He's more than a man.  He's an idea.

People tend to try and make every fictional character from the past to be a real person.  They want to find the historical Robin Hood, the historical King Arthur.  Or they want to make real people into fictional characters.  They say Homer didn't exist, that Shakespeare didn't.  People can be funny.  They want Superman to transcend the one thing he shouldn't, which is internal logic.  If presented with a given set of circumstances, despite variations, the end result is a man who becomes Superman.  He's more than a superhero.  If you believe that your life can have an impact on the world, you will believe in Superman.  But to have that chance, you have to overcome great odds.  So does Superman.

To achieve that, you have to overcome great obstacles.  In Greek myth, Hercules (to be completely accurate, Heracles) had to undergo a series of legendary labors.  This part of his story is thrilling.  Less so the part where he's murdered by his ex-wife.  Yet without that murder, the story is incomplete.  You can't tell Superman's story properly without delving into the dark.  Because otherwise he doesn't have a chance to shine.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

838. Self/less review

The first thing you should know about Self/less is that it is a movie about our growing cynicism with science.  The second is that it is hugely infused with second life imagery.  The third is that it is less a remake of the 1966 movie Seconds and more like a response to it.

The fourth, and probably first, is that it is a film by Tarsem, and the fifth and probably second, is that it stars Ryan Reynolds.  But because Tarsem doesn't have much of a popular reputation, and Reynolds frequently struggles to have a good one, and because critics are lazy, Self/less "is" a remake of Seconds.  Obviously.

You may have noticed that people have gone crazy in their ideas about dieting.  Because of the obesity epidemic, everyone wants to figure out ways to make themselves thin, eat "healthier," the latter I put in quotations because a lot of what is considered in that light has dubious merit at best but anyone is willing to believe because we've let the art of science run away from us.  And this just in, too: climate change!  This is something we've been talking about for decades, literally decades, but every time someone wants to sensationalize it again, they'll act as if we haven't.  In personal experience, I know that we've obliterated the mill industry that polluted much of our waterways, and we've seen dramatic results from that (the Androscoggin River used to be known for having the kind of fish you'd normally have found in early seasons of The Simpsons), and that's just one example of actual results from the efforts of environmentalists over the years.  But still we hear only mindless doom and gloom.  The people who are all for the doom and gloom message are happy to hear the climate change mantra.  The people who aren't are usually assumed to be the ones causing it.

I'm not hear to talk about climate change, however, but Self/less, but it's appropriate to sidetrack a little because this is a movie that clearly very few people have bothered to understand.  Go back and read how I began this review for starters.  It should provoke thought.  It's designed to provoke thought.

The plot concerns a real estate tycoon (it's no wonder that critics have particularly, and without any real merit, savaged this character, because the only real estate tycoon anyone knows these days is making hash work of his current presidential campaign) who is dying of cancer and looking for some reassurance.  He's approached by a man who tells him he can start all over again with a new body.  Naturally in his desperate straits the real estate tycoon ends up accepting the offer.

In most reviews, the real estate tycoon is described as a thoroughly unpleasant man.  I don't see that in Ben Kingsley's actual performance.  I see a man struggling to cope with his illness with as much dignity as possible.  I see the straight-backed posture others have noted as a symptom of that.  I see the man's questioning as a setup to how and why he begins to question the program that gives him his second chance.  He's unsettled by the whole thing the first time he gets a glimpse of what's really going on.  I see a man who pushed so long and so hard all his life that he never gave his actions a second thought.  But he's about to.

Some critics argue that Tarsem is a director who doesn't really know what he's doing.  He came up through music videos, and there's a special feature in the original home video release of his first film, The Cell, entitled "Style Before Substance," which is what I assume has become his reputation ever since.  Except Tarsem has generally mastered his stories to a superior degree.  As far as I can tell, he knows exactly what he's doing.  Which can be intimidating.  I suggest that critics who think he doesn't are more used to open-ended stories.  Because Tarsem's conclusions are usually pretty definitive.  In The Cell, for instance, Jennifer Lopez plays a psychologist who helps find the intended final victim of a serial killer, and finally has a breakthrough with the boy she was treating previously.  In The Fall, the suicidal stuntman learns how to live again.  In Immortals, the hero dies but his son rises.  In Mirror Mirror, Snow White lives (I contend this last one was Tarsem's desperate bid to be understood in the easiest context possible, which was complicated by the fact that Snow White and the Huntsman was released around the same time).

How does Self/less end?  As with an M. Night Shyamalan movie, perhaps that is a necessary thing to talk about, because otherwise you end up talking about anything but the complete story, and there have been reports that because the real estate tycoon seems so selfish, that the whole movie is better off being called that instead.  But it's called Self/less for a reason.  It reminds me very much of how Source Code ended.  I thought and continue to think that Source Code is brilliant, but Self/less comes to as different conclusions as it does in relation to Seconds.

Fearful of science, and replete with second life images, but they all appear to be incidental.  As with all of his movies, you have to pay attention to what Tarsem is doing.  Once the real estate tycoon has gotten his new body, he is temporarily relocated to New Orleans, a whole city of second life images.  After Katrina, it's far easier to see it that way, because even in its foundations it's a city about reshaping the landscape.  It's also a sequence that is in some ways an answer to Birdman, a movie suffused with jazz.  But it's a sequence that reclaims jazz, and reminds you, subtly, how jazz began, and yes, how it was repackaged for later consumption.  Jazz, you may or may not know, began as an expression of slave culture, the same as the blues.  It's one of the most remarkable artistic achievements of American culture, but in order to be accepted by American culture, it had to be introduced by white people to the masses (this is not to say the greats didn't include Louis Armstrong or Sarah Vaughan or many other great black performers), so that it also gave birth to big band and swing music, rock and roll, dance, hip hop.

Which is to say, if you understand why there's jazz in the movie, you understand Self/less itself a little better.

There are many other such images in the movies, and it's all very deliberate without being too forceful.  More like being artful, in a way that Tarsem hasn't been in the past, so for me, although I will likely continue to consider The Fall his masterpiece, Self/less represents a considerable artistic evolution for the director, a show of further creative confidence.

The story, meanwhile, does in many ways mirror Seconds, a movie that does in fact seem to have been the source for a lot of its material.  But if you research and/or see Seconds for yourself, you will discover a movie that perhaps explains better than presents Self/less.  The villain in Self/less, in particular, might find a better presentation of his methods in the earlier movie, because at first it seems like the action in Self/less is otherwise a random manifestation to energize the movie.  And yet the villain has carefully chosen subjects for his program so that they will be able to present themselves as formidable physical challenges, including the one the real estate tycoon was provided.  If the real estate tycoon had been anyone else (the villain repeatedly tells him that he asks the wrong questions, but this is a mistake on the villain's part; it's not the questions but the answers that matter), he would have ended up like the character played by Derek Luke.

And let's talk Derek Luke for a minute.  And Ben Kingsley.  And Ryan Reynolds.  These are all actors with a proven record of taking roles that speak directly to what Self/less is trying to say.  Luke became famous for starring in Antwone Fisher, which among other things was Denzel Washington's directorial debut.  Luke's casting was one of the things that helped define the movie, because it was clear that Washington had found, well, another actor much like himself, and Luke's further career so far has helped prove that.  (He's also played Sean Combs, who has constantly reinvented himself, in Notorious.)  Although while watching Self/less, Luke reminded me of Mos Def, who has gamely attempted to reinvent himself as an actor over the last decade after starting off in hip hop.

Anyway, Kingsley's career speaks for itself.  He's a known chameleon.  As far as I'm concerned, this is one of his few recent roles where he's allowed to reclaim his dignity (which as to the role itself, is an irony).  So let's talk about Reynolds.  Critics remembered that he's also got The Change-Up in his credits, in which he swaps bodies with Jason Bateman.  As far as I'm concerned, the relevant connection is, rather, Smokin' Aces, the first time I saw Reynolds as a force to be reckoned with.  Normally dismissed as one of the many movies trying to recreate Tarantino, Smokin' Aces reveals in its conclusions a second life puzzle, and forces a dramatic decision much like the one Reynolds once again embodies in Self/less, to end a series of morally reprehensible decisions when a spy's life is considered more valuable than his son's, and Reynolds decides the whole thing is as crazy as the assassins who have swarmed the preceding events (watch those guys for a Chris Pine performance that's unlike any other you've seen to date).

For me, all of that boils down to a movie that is far more interesting, and better, than anything you have previously heard about Self/less.  Since it's quickly exiting theaters, this will be a movie you will have to rediscover later.  Which is actually appropriate.  As for why all the vitriol for Tarsem from critics, I assume it's because industry insiders like him, and not the outsiders like critics.  But they'll come around.  That's only appropriate, too.  Second chances, right?

Monday, July 13, 2015

837. Tarsem and the challenges of genius...

A couple weeks back Alex Cavanaugh took a light-hearted dig at Tarsem based on his critical record at Rotten Tomatoes.  Cavanaugh was talking about the then-upcoming release of Self/less, Tarsem's latest movie that in fact ended up having a poor opening release this past weekend.  True to form, critics didn't like Self/less anymore than Tarsem's four previous films, calling it a shameless ripoff of John Frankheimer's 1966 movie Seconds at best.

See, I have a problem with this because I happen to think Tarsem is a genius.  This isn't the first time I've talked about him (most recently in my Gladiator/300/Immortals discussion, which itself was my first reaction here to Cavanaugh's comments).  But how can I consider Tarsem a genius when everyone seems to think he's anything but?  Well, for starters, this is exactly the reception geniuses tend to receive.  Melville's Moby-Dick famously was an epic flop that wasn't rediscovered for decades.  Orson Welles saw his career fall apart after Citizen Kane.

And yeah, Moby-Dick and Citizen Kane even today are hardly universally acclaimed, insofar as anyone who doesn't particular consider themselves a connoisseur finds them difficult or pretentious.  But the acknowledgement of genius is not a universal distinction.  If it was, there wouldn't be such a hard time identifying it in the first place.  There's a reason why students slog through Shakespeare, because you have to be able to understand something in order to appreciate it.

Yeah, I'm tossing Tarsem into the likes of Melville, Welles, and Shakespeare.

His first film was 2000's The Cell, the last movie Jennifer Lopez made before her emerging music career destroyed all her critical credibility (somehow).  Today it would be an artful episode of Criminal Minds.  This is a movie that's like The Silence of the Lambs combined with The Matrix, or perhaps most accurately Tarsem in his best comparison, channeling Christopher Nolan's Inception years in advance.  Inception is another movie critics who want to dismiss it will say there were other movies with similar ideas.  Anyone who says they don't like something because they saw a similar idea before, no matter how similar, cannot be taken seriously.  If you cannot distinguish form from content, or content from form, you are not being critical.  You're going the easiest possible route, to not being critical at all.  Comparison, at its best, is about seeing contrast in its best light, or its worst, not for the mere fact of a similar idea.  I mean, you could take literally anything you personally have ever loved, and thought insanely original, and come up with a hundred other similar ideas.

Anyway, it's funny, too, about originality, because if you want to go that route, you could even compare that distinctive psychopath from No Country for Old Men, Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh ("Call it, friendo.") and notice that Vincent D'Onfrio's Carl Stargher in The Cell not only has a similar hairstyle, but a whole background the starkness of the Coen approach (which is how No Country succeeds, by the way) can't even approach, much less in terms of depth.

What Tarsem achieves in The Cell, most of all, is the beginning of his distinctive voice.  No, not the visual voice, which is what anyone who knows or bothers to know anything about him will talk about, but his storytelling.  This is where the complete concept is considered, and tellingly, very few critics ever talk about the complete concept.  They earn their paychecks by picking up on one aspect, and try to define the entire movie by it, the way Self/less is endlessly discussed in relation to Seconds, or other body-swapping stories.

I haven't seen Self/less yet, but conceptually one of the criticisms that bothers me most is how Ryan Reynolds doesn't evoke the speech or mannerisms of Ben Kingsley.  And why would he?  It's Kingsley's mind that has been transplanted.  On a basic level, I can see what people are talking about, but when you think about it, the physical and vocal quirks Kingsley presents are the last things that embody the character he portrays.  It's the mind, the thoughts, the thought process: these are the elements of Kingsley's character that are transferred.  Everything else is supplied by Reynolds' host body.  Which, by the way, quickly begins to assert its previous host.  Having Reynolds act and speak like Kingsley would be a far worse gimmick, all the way around, than whatever you might think of the concept of the film itself.

Speech and mannerisms are a direct extension of experience, experience rooted in the body and the environment around you.  A person who grew up in the fishing communities of Maine (where the "Maine accent" comes from) but whose parents were English, wouldn't speak with a British accent but a Maine one.  A person who grew up with one kind of body wouldn't suddenly suddenly change their posture if they lost their memory.  Posture is an unconscious act, just as an accent is.

So why again would Reynolds magically start behaving exactly like Kingsley?

Tarsem's storytelling voice is all about awareness.  His most telling movie is also his most brilliant, 2008's The Fall, about a stuntman who tries to commit suicide, and ends up recovering in the same convalescent home as a precocious little girl, who won't leave him alone.  So he begins telling her stories.  Immediately the viewer is aware that the stories as depicted in the film are what the girl imagines, not as the stuntman does.  If you persist in confusion over this, please note the changing look of the stuntman's hero, who are various points looks like the girl's father (I like to compare The Fall to The Wizard of Oz, another movie that borrows familiar characters for additional roles) or the stuntman himself.

The stuntman's whole reason for telling his stories is to ingratiate himself with the girl, so he can trick her into giving him pills so he can try and complete his suicide.  This is pretty horrible, but that's not the end of the story.  It's the girl who forcefully insists on a happy ending, changing the stuntman's story when he reaches a bitter one so that it does.  It's bittersweet and heartbreaking and uplifting in the best possible way, a movie of such insight into the human condition, so casual and breathtaking that I've never understood why even the critics had a hard time embracing it.

But it's because it's a challenge.  Critics don't like challenging movies.  I made peace with that long ago.  They say they do, but they really don't.  Critics are easy to manipulate, even though they say the movies they hate the most are the ones that try to manipulate.  What they love most is the ability to join a bandwagon before the public does.  In most instances, except when they want to join a public bandwagon (always the most harmless and least critical ones, such as calling the most innocuous superhero movies superb, as they did with The Avengers), they try their best to like movies they know the public won't (see: the Oscars most years).

And you would think Tarsem would be someone they'd love.  But he started out with The Cell.  If he'd started out, as Christopher Nolan did, with Memento (though Nolan's first film was actually the little-seen Following), something that was relatively modest in its ambitions, he might have had a shot.  Instead, he turned out to be another Terry Gilliam.  Critics sometimes pretend to like Gilliam, but more often than not dismiss him for the same reasons they dismiss Tarsem.  It's one thing to be Tim Burton and to throw the idea of the artist all over the screen, but Tarsem and Gilliam, as incredible as it is to believe, are more subtle than that.  Gilliam's Brazil, the one that made and broke his career, is in the end a fever dream of existential angst.  This is the kind of thing Charlie Chaplin used to do, and even Chaplin struggles to be accepted as the genius he was.  A devoted following, no matter how loud, must still be acknowledged for its limited scope.  Chaplin never won an Oscar (he received honorary ones in 1929, at the first one, and 1972), the same with Welles (likewise an honorary Oscar, in 1971).  Tell me how that's even possible.

In The Cell, Tarsem's awareness is about as plain as it can get.  That's what hunting psychopaths is all about, and certainly the dream sequences.  In 2011's Immortals, Tarsem deals with a depiction of Greek mythology that goes beyond the variety seen in either version of Clash of the Titans, where mankind's relationship with gods, and vice versa, is the source of the struggle, not incidental to it or some kind of game.  There's a crazy king running around who seeks to "end the reign of the gods" by unleashing their predecessors, the Titans, so they can be wiped out once and for all.  Zeus decides this is a bad thing, but tells his fellow gods to stay out of the conflict, even while he actively encourages the human champion, who never learns who the old man was who guided him.

It's very much a movie that you have to pay attention to in order to fully comprehend.  I suspect a lot of people are more distracted than they'll admit.  A movie that demands your attention, especially one that looks like it'll be a mere visceral experience like Immortals, is instantly frustrating, because it plays against expectations.  Yes, Immortals is dominated by its images, and knowingly so, but to judge it only on those images is to miss the whole.  And this is a movie with something to say.

Tarsem's next movie, 2012's Mirror Mirror, is far more direct in its social commentary, and perhaps even more confusing, as it casts perennial audience favorite Julia Roberts in the role of the villain, the evil step-mother of Snow White, who usurps a kingdom and gleefully embodies evil without overacting.  This is a playful movie, but its form of the Tarsem awareness archetype is in pushing Snow White into a position of strength from her original position of weakness, all but completely hidden away until she begins to assert herself.  And that's pretty much the summary of Tarsem's instinct, too.  In all of his movies, a true self is struggling to emerge.

I realize that it's not Cavanaugh's job to defend artistry.  But it was shocking to see him so dismissive, regardless of how much snark he tends to use in his movie remarks, of a talent I consider in such high esteem.  Because that really is the general estimation of Tarsem.  And I'm a little tired of it.  What I'd like is to be pleasantly surprised, to hear about someone liking Tarsem, being as wowed by him as I have been, consistently, and in a variety of ways (which itself is a considerable part of why I'm still so wowed by him).

I look forward to seeing Self/less.  I probably won't get to see it in theaters, but when I do catch it, I'll let you know what I think.  When I judge a movie, I'm judging the whole thing.  For me, a good movie is not defined by a good ending, but a good ending can help make a good film.  A good movie has everything: a good story, good directing, good acting.  Tarsem brings all this together with considerable regularity, and makes it work in concert, the way all good directors do.  I like him, in the end, for the same reasons I like Nolan, I like Tarantino, I like Shyamalan.  He's someone who looks at film-making as a full-on artistic possibility, a challenge to embrace with each new project.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

836. Moxie Day 2015

Every year Lisbon Falls, Maine, becomes something other than a bedroom community when it hosts its annual Moxie Day festival.  For thirty-three years, one of the original soft drinks, still tasting more or less how it did originally (when they were marketed as medicine, if you can believe it), is thrust into the spotlight along with the town that's also home to the Kennebec Fruit Co. (the Moxie Store) and Frank Anicetti, third generation owner and a hundred years later.

This year's celebration (if you listen to Anicetti, the town seems to be trying its best to sabotage Moxie Day) seemed like a step back from years past.  The parade (a half dozen years since Klingons have appeared!) was fine (my nephew, like every does, loved the crazy Kora Shriner carts), though Main Street looked like it was kind of going through the motions, except for my favorite part of the festival, which is the library book sale.  Last year's was a true shadow of its former glory, but they seemed to make an effort to return to the glory days, meaning I came back with a good haul:

  • Dave Barry, Is Not Taking This Sitting Down
  • Bernard Cornwell, The Bloody Ground
  • Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum
  • Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex
  • Robert Graves, The Golden Ass
  • Mark Helprin, Freddy and Fredericka
  • Brad Herzog, States of Mind
  • Carl Hiaasen, Basket Case
  • Elizabeth Kostova, The Historian
  • Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk (The Cairo Trilogy I)
  • Dorothy Parker, Complete Stories
  • Spider Robinson, Time Travelers Strictly Cash
  • Salman Rushdie, The Moor's Last Sigh
Which for me represents a considerably nice bounty.  I've been a big fan of Dave Barry for years.  I think I've read this particular book, but somehow didn't have it in my collection.  I just mentioned to comment-maker Pat Dilloway the other day how I wanted to read Cornwell.  I've read Umberto Eco before, but not one of his best-known books like this one.  Middlesex is one of those books I knew of thanks to working at Borders.  The Golden Ass, to be clear, concerns Greek mythology.  It is not porn.  Helprin also wrote Winters Tale, which was later adapted into a movie I love.  Herzog famously published his book after appearing in the early days of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (according to Savage Garden, Regis Philbin).  Hiassen was Florida's original signature literary genius, before Dave Barry moved there.  I used to have The Historian before it failed to survive the 2013 purge (details explained elsewhere on that), so to have it again and have a chance to actually read it is nice.  I earmarked The Cairo Trilogy as something I wanted to read a little while back.  Parker is one of those writers I knew about but hadn't had any real exposure to her actual work.  Spider Robinson has one of the best names ever.  Armchair Squid just read Moor's Last Sigh, and I've been a fan of Rushdie since reading The Satanic Verses, so reading more is always a welcome opportunity.

I also visited an indoor flea market in town for the express reason of finding out whatever happened to a comics and games shop that had just opened last Moxie Day on Main Street, but was gone by the time I had a chance to visit again just a few weeks back.  Of course they transplanted.  But the best comics in the flea market weren't being sold by these guys, ironically.  Still, those guys were there yesterday (Moxie Day) and completely did not understand when I tried to explain my surprise about how their fortunes have changed in the past year.  I mean, there are some quick turnarounds in small business (I applied to work at a new used bookstore in Colorado Springs and didn't get the job, but the store was out of business within a few months anyway), and strategically they did a very smart thing.  I have no idea why it looked like they still weren't properly settled at their new location.  Or why the flea market was surprised that very few people were visiting them (it's not a terribly visible location, and there wasn't any other Moxie-related activity going on in that part of town, and they didn't have any presence on Main Street, and they didn't have any big signs advertising themselves in front of their own building...the list goes on).  

Last year I got my first-ever orange Moxie t-shirt, and coincidentally it was up in the rotation (I have a t-shirt rotation), not that I wasn't going to wear it anyway, so I felt like a faithful member of the celebration this year, walking around all morning with it on.

Hopefully the town pulls itself together and starts helping the event fire on all cylinders again.  I guess there's been a lot of thought about ancillary activities like concerts and various new locations around town to host events throughout the three-day festival, but to lose sight of the main event, and its central setting, is kind of missing the mark. 

And bring back the Klingons!

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

835. Coming back to Warrior

In a lot of ways, life revolves around specific moments in time, ones we can't really let go of.  For me one of those is the fall of 2011.  At that point the Borders bookstore chain was going out of business, and after five years with the company I went out with it.  The horrid state of the economy and my own finances were only starting their work in making things difficult for me, and in truth there had always been considerable frustrations in that job, but I was still sad, in too many ways, to see that era come to an end.

So it doesn't usually take much to bring me back to that point in my life, but sometimes life can be a little more literal than that.  At my current job (a blessed miracle that helped dig me out of the pit I had landed in, although replete with its own frustrations), people tend to leave magazines hanging around, and some of them tend to be old, like waiting room old.  One of which was a copy of The Week ("the best of the U.S. and international media"), from the week after I left Borders forever.  Included in the issue is a review of Warrior, the last movie I saw in theaters that year, which I instantly understood, in what was already an exceptional years for movies, as the best movie I would see in 2011.

The composite review references The New York Observer, Newsday, and, and gives Warrior three out of four stars.  This is not horribly unusual, for a movie I dub the best of a given year to not receive similar critical consensus.  What got me was when the article criticized Warrior in comparison to Moby-Dick, saying it tries very hard to be the movie version "of mixed martial arts movies."  I kind of figured, if people weren't going to get this movie, they would dismiss it as "a mixed martial arts movie."  But it really isn't.  It just happens to feature the stuff.

And to add insult to the Moby-Dick comparison, the article is tepid to identify Warrior's Captain Ahab.  Which the article suggests is one character, and really, why even guess at all? because its choice is both the obvious one and the right one.  So to read what the critics The Week surveyed thought was instantly frustrating, and yes, totally explains why so few people seemed to respond as favorably to Warrior as I did (and as I still regard it now).

This is not even to say that in the comparison alone, I wondered if they even knew what Moby-Dick itself was about, not so much an epic tale of obsession and revenge, but very much an intimate story about failure and reconciling with the past at the expense of a present scenario that proves how doomed we sometimes allow ourselves to become.

(Pay no attention to the allusions to the life I'd allowed myself to fall into concerning Borders that fall...)

Every soul aboard Ahab's ship is a lost soul.  That's kind of the point.  And everyone in Warrior is a lost soul, too.  If people tend to fixate on Ahab, who sought to avenge himself on the white whale (the whole story could read completely differently if it in fact centered on Ahab instead of the narrator Ishmael; there was a book released about a decade back called Ahab's Wife, which I suppose I really ought to read at some point).

The fact is, the outcomes of Moby-Dick and Warrior are inevitable precisely for the characters having tried so hard to avoid them.  And that's the whole point.  But otherwise, they're not the same story.  Nick Nolte plays the father of Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton, who pushed his boys a little too hard, until he pushed them away, and the whole family splintered as a result.  That's not the story of Moby-Dick at all, which is basically an allegory for how difficult a life at sea really was in the 19th century, something Herman Melville knew all too well, and had previously exploited to great success, as long as he was writing Robinson Crusoe tales.  When he at last wrote the truth, the whole epic version of it, he became blacklisted in the literary community.  It's more accurate to say Nolte plays a version of Melville than Ahab, someone who pushes too hard and ends up ruined for it.

I could write all day about Warrior, and writing about Moby-Dick at all makes me want to read it all over again.  And it needs reminding, again, that Moby-Dick was hugely unpopular for decades until it was recognized as one of the first and greatest American classics.  And readers even today still don't quite understand it.  Sometimes the best experiences are those that aren't so easy to comprehend, or can't be enjoyed by just anyone.  Will Warrior one day be hailed as a classic?  I don't know.  For me, it is, unquestionably so.

And in the meantime, life goes on.  Even when it seems everything has ground to a halt, it really does.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

834. Gladiator/300/Immortals

I've talked about Gladiator here in the past.  I've talked about Immortals, too.  I love both of them.  I don't think I've talked about 300, but rest assured I love it, too.

What fascinates me is that all three exist, and because of that, people are free to compare them.  Inevitably, there are in fact unfavorable comparisons, which seem to enter the picture only when talking about Immortals, the newest of the three and the one to impact pop culture least spectacularly, even though it was a hit at the box office.

I decided to talk about them in relation to three common utterances:

  • Gladiator - "On my command, unleash hell."
  • 300 - "Spartans, ready your breakfast and eat hearty, for tonight we dine in hell!"
  • Immortals - "Witness hell."
Each time, the speaker is also the embodiment of the movie itself, and each time, it is completely different, and so this is a good way to compare and contrast the experiences.

In Gladiator, the speaker is Maximus, the main character portrayed by Russell Crowe in arguably what remains his most famous and significant role.  He says his version in the least threatening way possible, which is odd because he's leading his Roman legion into battle, but also completely indicative of the modest man he is, how he represents the whole point of the movie, the man who defies the mad emperor because he's not obsessed with power, despite every opportunity to seize it.

In 300, the speaker is Leonidas, the main character portrayed by Gerard Butler in the role that made his career and often considered the version of Crowe's Maximus you might expect simply on a visual level.  It is the most ridiculously masculine part ever committed to film, every bit the match for the stylized visuals that propelled 300 to great popular acclaim.  To call Leonidas brash would be an understatement.

In Immortals, the speaker is Hyperion, the character portrayed by Mickey Rourke.  What's interesting, and perhaps key to understanding the whole movie, whether in relation to Gladiator or 300, is that his is very much the part embodied by Leonidas and Maximus, but played to its logical conclusion.  This is the brute who is the villain, at last, the lunatic who immediately cuts the throat of the hero's mother after uttering his variation on the hell dialogue.

It's a logical progression all the way.  Gladiator was released in 2000, won the Oscar for Best Picture, and because it basically contradicted every expectation, is still a puzzle for critics.  300 was released in 2007 and was a surprise hit at the box office, but unlike Sin City or Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, other highly stylized movies, has managed to not only gain but retain a favorable reputation, in part because it was the movie Gladiator was expected to be: the modern historical epic in all its glory.  Immortals was released in 2011, and was immediately compared to 300, marketed in relation to it, and otherwise not at all taken seriously, perhaps because it, too, was highly stylized, propelled almost completely by its visuals rather than in conjunction with an actor like Butler, going for the gusto.  It stars Henry Cavill in his one major role prior to Man of Steel, but Rourke makes a bigger impact, because he's the one playing the part that everyone expects from a movie like this.

By this time, Rourke had already completed his comeback, and everyone was kind of over it.  It was Sin City that helped revive interest in his career, but The Wrestler that pushed Rourke as far as he was ever going to go (only to lose the Oscar for Best Actor to Sean Penn).  By the time Immortals was released, he'd already appeared in Iron Man 2, which is generally considered to be one of the worse Avengers films (though not by me).  Crowe's career was made by Gladiator, just as Butler's was by 300.  Immortals didn't have that opportunity, for Rourke or Cavill; by the time it was released everyone knew the latter had been cast as Superman.

But whether or not Immortals is well-regarded is beside the point, whatever it did or did not do for its actors.  Creatively it made definite choices, as did its predecessors.  Taken as a whole, there's ample room for analysis, which reflects favorably on all of them.  Rourke's line is the shortest of the three, which is completely symbolic of the film around it, which is much more interested in making a point of how chaotic the idea of incorporating the larger myths that tended to surround this material when it was originally developed, in ancient days.  John Hurt is one of two actors portraying Zeus in the movie, along with Luke Evans.  The trick is that Hurt is not generally understood to be Zeus, because he interacts with Cavill's Theseus in the guise of an old man, our hero none the wiser.  Cavill as the hero, although he looks and acts like the hero, begins from a position of weakness, of powerlessness, and as such that's another reason why he can't be compared to Maximus or Leonidas.  He does eventually stand in front of an army and give an inspiring speech, and like the other heroes dies at the end of his story, but what Immortals understands so well, and what is so difficult for the audience to understand, is that this is a man caught up, well, in hell.

And thus we circle back to that other thing that unites these movies, those utterances that are as equally united in character as they are different in tone and execution, but speaking to each other just as much as the movies do in relation to each other, why Immortals can't be thought of without 300 and 300 without Gladiator.  A vicious little circle.

I think it's a mistake to consider similar things as needing to be considered together.  These are films with vastly different objectives artistically.  Gladiator is a lament, 300 a spectacle, Immortals a meditation.  We are meant to reflect on the heroism embodied by their lead characters, but again, the kind of heroism differs.  Leonidas is in fact a king, something Maximus steadfastly refuses to be, and Theseus is rejected by the army, initially, because he is the logical extension of Maximus, a modest man who only wants to fight for his home.  That's what they're all doing, and being pushed to something greater, being pushed all the way to sacrifice.  But the journeys are different.  And each fascinating in their own way.

When I consider these movies, I don't really see them in relation to each other.  I became interested in them for different reasons, like them for different reasons, and in fact like them to varying degrees, not because one or the other pails in comparison, but because of their own merits.  In their own ways, they each embody the art of film-making remarkably, though, and that's something I admire equally in all three.


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