Saturday, October 29, 2005

100 Films: The Awful Truth

As far as I can tell, the 'awful truth' is that Jerry (Cary Grant), rather than spending the past two weeks in Florida as he told his wife, has been bumming around New York, presumably playing golf [1]. The truth about his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne) is that in between wearing expensive evening dresses and fur coats she has been spending a little too much time with her European singing teacher. As this is not merely a superficial romantic comedy about the idle rich, the story has morals:
1) A marriage must be based upon faith.
2) If a couple has a beloved pet, they should make sure to put some language about it in their prenuptial agreement.
The Awful Truth [2] begins with Jerry and Lucy failing both 1 and 2, and the movie takes off when a Divorce Judge gives Jerry visitation rights to their dog, Mr. Smith (the Judge, who obviously lacks have the wisdom of Solomon, doesn't even attempt to cut Mr. Smith in half, and Lucy gets custody). You don't get this sort of story anymore except in bad sitcoms, but even in 1937, they weren't even trying to be original[3]: we watch it for the performances. Cary Grant is at his best, but Irene Dunne steals the movie. Dunne is perfect at being nervous (reminds me of Diane Keaton at her funniest, as in Love and Death) most of the film, but launches into full screwball neurosis near the end. The scene where she pretends to be Grant's sister has got to be a comedy classic. Near the end she gets a bit too over the top for me, and it raises that age-old question: Is it overacting when you're playing a character who's overacting?

[1] See The Awful Truth on IMDB or Lucas's review.

[2] Not to be mixed up with The Awful Tooth, Little Rascals movie from the following year, or the Michael Moore anti-corporation TV series.

[3] Thanks to IMDB, I learned that this is a remake of a 1929 film (which I believe was based on a play).

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Tales of Two Cities (or 'Movies I Rented Today')

Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott)
Melinda and Melinda (Woody Allen)

In Ridley Scott's Jerusalem any blacksmith can fight uncannily in slow motion, advise Kings, and give self-righteous speeches at the drop of a helmet. In Woody Allen's New York every out of work actor has a huge Manhattan apartment and a better wardrobe than me. Kingdom of Heaven, eh? I happen to like New York.

The setup for Melinda and Melinda is a pretty standard Woody Allen Broadway Danny Rose-esque cafe banter framing story of writers dreaming up two versions of the same story, one tragic, one comic. The acting isn't bad if you ignore Will Ferrell, and Radha Mitchell is very good as both Melindas [1]. It is hard to expect much from a movie whose two biggest names are Ferrell and Amanda Peet, and yet we still hold Allen movies to a higher standard because, well, he is Woody Allen. But you can't go through life hoping every movie is Crimes and Misdemeanors. Life's too short. Anyhow, the film's worth renting if only for the Pygmalion limping joke.

In Kingdom of Heaven Orlando Bloom, as a blacksmith turned would-be king, declares 'Jerusalem is a Kingdom of Conscience or it is nothing.' Here is how a Kingdom of Conscience works: you are allowed to sleep with the King's sister [2], but you can not and must not kill her husband. Rules are rules, and Bloom takes it in stride, saves the day, and so on. It is standard Hollywood fare: they dress like peasants and talk like Americans and no religious characters, Muslim or especially Christian, are portrayed in a good light (it is fairly intolerant for a movie about tolerance). Still, what it lacks in plot and integrity it makes up for in flags and garments and armor. The costume and set designers deserve Oscar nominations, and when we get passed all the slow motion fights and computer generated arrows, there is some genuinely beautiful photography. Further, Liam Neeson and Jeremy Irons are always good. In general, the film (like the CG archers) is hit or miss.


[1] She looks and acts like a movie star, but I'd never heard of her before.

[2] There is a rule in this genre that if there is a Queen, she has to have an affair with hero (who tends to be a widower and man of the world). Kingdom of Heaven is no different.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

100 Films: Ninotchka

The setup for Ninotchka[1] is simple: we need to corrupt three Soviet emissaries to a decadent Parisian lifestyle, and we need to do it in the space of a lunchtime. The comic possibilities for such a lunch are endless, and there are a lot of ways to handle it. This is how Lubitsch does it: the camera is on the door of the emissaries' hotel room, and we watch as various hotel staff enter, to a crescendo of Russian exclamations from behind the door, and exit, often with barely restrained looks of amusement: waiters with gourmet roasts and bottles of champagne, and first one, then three, cigarettes-girls. When we finally get to look in on the party, the party is about over, and one of our Russian emissaries is lying drunk on the floor. This same technique is used later in the movie, when Garbo (also drunk) enters a night club powder room and seconds later there is an exodus of scandalized socialites (we soon learn she has been rambling communist slogans at everyone ready to hand). In both situations we are essentially sitting in a dark room watching a door, but watching the door turns out to be just as interesting as watching what is going on behind it. This is all to say that though the writing in this film is sometimes very clever, the most interesting parts are the parts that have no dialog; this is a silent film--the Wilder and gang dialog can be thought of a part of the score (it is significant that what breaks Ninotchka into laughter is a slapstick pratfall, not a clever story).

So, how does the movie hold up after 65 years? Ok, I guess. The love story isn't believable, nor is the central conflict, but that isn't really the point in a screwball comedy. The scenario has the clockwork precision of Studio System Hollywood: we don't ask for, expect, or receive anything either original or credible. We are supposed to want to see Garbo laugh, and that is exactly what is delivered. The problem is I don't find Greta Garbo particularly appealing. Frankly, I would prefer to see Carroll Lombard laugh (or for that matter Ina Claire). But that is my own problem, I suppose. Still, would this make anyone's top 100 list if Greta Garbo wasn't the star? I doubt it, but there are enough treasures here, mostly due to the director and also perhaps to the Wilder jokes[2], to make it worth watching if you happen to like old movies.

Because this is a Hollywood film, we are dealing with stereotypes (the man about town, the shrewd noblewoman, the shrew that need taming, the bumbling bureaucrats) rather than real people. To show that the corruption of our emissaries is complete, we see the a coat-rack with three ragged workaday hats dissolve into a coat-rack with three new top hats (the classic symbol of capitalists in political cartoons). All this is fine because both the filmmakers and the audiences know they are stereotypes and view them a such (just as their children didn't believe that any mice looked like Mickey). That is why I think it is unhelpful to view this movie as propaganda. Both capitalistic and communist caricatures are revealed as hollow, and the joylessness of Russia was playful and, anyway, present for technical reasons (when you need a cold woman, you have to go cold country). Further, the filmmakers use stereotype to comic effect (the scene at the train station comes to mind: a man looks like a good communist until he greets his wife with an exuberant 'Heil, Hitler!').

In the end, what disturbed me about this movie wasn't the anti-communist flavor (you get the feeling while watching that the filmmakers are good sports and would just as happily be anti-Canadian or anti-Dentist if given the opportunity). Instead, the blows that land against the Soviet Union strike me as way too light-hearted. After arriving in Paris, Ninotchka mentions, "The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians." A great one-liner to be sure. But is the murder of tens of millions of Russians something to chuckle about?


[1] See the listing on IMDB or Lucas's review

[2] Comedies are always filled with clever lines, so a few good gags are par for course. I assume there are many old comedies with merely adequate jokes that will never see the light of DVD.

100 Films Intro

You can read about our 100 Films project on Lucas's Blog. But, briefly: we are going to watch Time's top 100 American movies [1] and report back on what we witness. My method is going to be laziness. Rather than find the list myself, I'm just going to check Lucas's page from time to time and watch the movies he has watched. Perhaps one day I'll get to Time's website and read the list for myself, but who knows.

Feel free to join in: even if you don't like the movies, it will at least be good for you.


[1] And, by the way, I do believe a Time reported went to prison recently to protect her anonymous sources for this list. Also, I don't know how to put pictures in my post so my reviews will be monomedia.

Mensch und √úbermensch

This is what Zarathustra spoke:
Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman -- a rope over an abyss.
A dangerous going-across, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and staying-still.
What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal; what can be loved in man is that he is a going-across and a down-going.[1]

Zarathustra was a silly ass. Still, I'm the one who was cheated out of $150, the result of bad health club contract.

In such cases I've noticed that when people act like a complete jerk and resolve "not to take 'no' for an answer" they often get what the want. I worked myself up for it: I got good and angry, I stood my ground, and in the end I mailed them their check. Alas, Herr Reed isn't much of an √úbermensch. But I will say this[2]:

FREDERICK ATHLETIC CLUB is an incompetent and deceitful establishment. What is worse: they PLAY INCREDIBLY BAD MUSIC. So if you ever move to Frederick, MD I suggest you avoid the place.

As for me I am moving to Pittsburgh in November where, on that difficult path from animal to Superman, I'll begin reading the fine print on all contracts I sign. For, as another German philosopher, a Mr. Schopenhauer, wrote:
Money is never spent to so much advantage as when you have been cheated out of it; for at one stroke you have purchased prudence.[3]


[1] Nietzsche. Thus Spoke Zarathustra (trans. R. J. Hollingdale)

[2] This is a passive aggressive attempt to make this post high in the search engine rankings for this company

[3] Schopenhauer. The Wisdom of Life and Counsels and Maxims (trans. T. Bailey Saunders)

Monday, October 24, 2005

Film and the Theology of Violence

We've been talking a little about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, mostly as it relates to religion and art. It occurs to me, though, that there are some broader cultural and political connections. My biggest problem with the movie (which I did not see), was the myopic fixation on the physical crucifixion, the limitations of the medium being at least partly responsible.

Now I doubt that the movie was made as a response to the problem of terrorism, but it is interesting that last year's two biggest and most controversial movies were The Passion and Fahrenheit 9/11. Both these films, along with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the insanity resulting from the 9/11 and Anthrax attacks, the vitriolic rhetoric from all sides of American politics, are rooted in and nourished by the same cultural milieu. An increasingly violent culture will tend to believe, when it believes anything, a violent theology.

What was most disturbing to me about the evangelical response to The Passion was not that they supported it, but they supported it so enthusiastically. The (almost) ubiquitous and passionate defense of the movie revealed an unconscious tendency in that community which is worrying. So focused on using any means to an end, they proselytize with shallow pop music, self-help books, and violent rated R movies! A religion whose most celebrated artistic expression is a violent "He is crucified" is an unhealthy religion and in this context the war in Iraq becomes slightly more understandable: means not only justify ends, the intended ends sanctify means. Is it surprising that a culture which uses Mel's movie to "change lives", will readily support the cluster bombing of cities to change regimes?

James Carroll, in a recent book, writes on this link between violent theology and violent political ideology:
Before the Crusades, Christian theology had given central emphasis to the resurrection of Jesus, and to the idea of incarnation itself, but with the war of the cross, the bloody crucifixion began to dominate the Latin Christian imagination. A theology narrowly focused on the brutal death of Jesus reinforced the primitive notion that violence can be a sacred act. The cult of martyrdom, even to the point of suicidal valor, was institutionalized in the Crusades, and it is not incidental to the events of 9-11 that a culture of sacred self-destruction took equally firm hold among Muslims...

Here is the deeper significance of Bush's inadvertent reference to the Crusades: instead of being a last recourse or a necessary evil, violence was established then as the perfectly appropriate, even chivalrous, first response to what is wrong in the world. George W. Bush is a Christian for who this particular theology lives. While he identified Jesus as his "favorite political philosopher" when running for president in 2000, the Jesus of this evangelical president is not the "turn-the-other-cheek" one. Bush's savior is the Jesus whose cross is wielded as a sword. George W. Bush, having cheerfully accepted responsibility for the executions of 152 death-row inmates in Texas, had already shown himself to be entirely at home with divinely sanctioned violence. After 9-11, no wonder it defined his deepest urge.

-- From "Crusade: Chronicles of an Unjust War"

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Travel Plans

I am going to be in Pittsburgh until Saturday (15 Oct.) morning, more or less in and around the Mountain of Gold. I can be contacted via the usual channels.

Long shot: I'll also be in Boston on 21 Oct.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Ocean Blue

Columbus Day is this week. So here is an appropriate quote from Mr. Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions:
The founders were aristocrats, and they wished to show off their useless education, which consisted of the study of hocus-pocus from ancient times. They were bum poets as well.

But some of the nonsense was evil, since it concealed great crimes. For example, teachers of children in the United States of America wrote this date on the blackboards again and again, and asked the children to memorize it with pride and joy:


The teachers told the children that this was when their continent was discovered by human beings. Actually, millions of human beings were already living full and imaginative lives on the continent in 1492. That was simply the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill them.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Living by Symmetry

So I was down and out and unemployed, listening mostly to NPR and reading Russian Novels and drinking, when I drank, in the local pub on Wednesdays when good beer was only 2 dollars a pint, down almost to the last dollar, deciding to drop any pride left and apply for a part-time job shelving books at the local library. The library at the time was at a temporary location in a corporate office park while they built a new building in flawed imitation of the Hagia Sofia on the banks of the mighty Carroll Creek. It was Summer, 2001.

I had to cancel my job interview because rew called and wanted to go on a road trip for Labor Day. Who wants to shelve books anyway? But moments before we left, I got a phone call from my future boss and had a interview scheduled for mid September, a very nice job at a somewhat major corporation. What happened next was that terrorist flew some planes into buildings and my interview was delayed, but came later in the month, went well, and I started working 1 Oct 2001. Four years went drifting by.

It is 2005: the day before Labor Day I announced my intention to quit. A few weeks later, nearly four years to the day since my interview, I handed in my letter of resignation. And, 7 Oct 2005 was my last day, only a week off from 4 years as well.

When it became known that I was leaving, a lot of people at work were surprised, and I had a difficult time giving good reasons why, and I was never satisfied with my responses. I didn't tell any of my colleagues the least misleading of the many honest reasons for my resignation: that I was in a certain sense living by symmetry, planning my life around a elaborate joke that most people wouldn't find all that funny.

Four more years. For more years. Perhaps I'll be down and out again. Perhaps I'll become poor, or perhaps I'll become rich; both have their own advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps I will become a cog in an enormous corporate machine, or perhaps I'll be a lever in an enormous corporate machine. I shouldn't mind either. Perhaps I'll stay in one place all my life, or perhaps I'll travel to the utmost parts of the world. I shouldn't mind it either way. How oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? until seven times? I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven. But the important thing now is that it's a soft October evening.

Good night.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Last Day

this is how my job ends:
not with a bang, but with a meeting

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


1) Due to the large number of Anonymous folk clamoring to leave Anonymous messages for varied and anonymous reasons, and a general feeling that an end of elitism is an idea whose time has come, anyone can post messages on this humble blog.

2) Um, about all that elitism stuff? Well, you still have to know how to read. Nothing can be done about it. Sorry.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The September of my Year

Books Completed:

'Illuminated Heart' Frederica Mathewes-Green
'The Bridge of San Luis Rey' Thornton Wilder
'The Coma' Alex Garland
'The Great Divorce' C. S. Lewis
'Quick and Easy Texas Hold 'Em' Neil D. Myers

Movies viewed for the first time:
Broken Flowers
[Maybe others, but I forgot to write these down]

Resignation Letters Written: 1
Ideas for the misc. section: 2

Top 25 Songs:

[Due to a Walking Malfunction my iPod died, so I have no top 25 list. The story has a happy ending. Due to the great folks at The Apple Store, a free replacement was the work of a moment.]


Too Late for Lists

The report for Sept. will have to wait. To tide you over, here is a poem entitled "2nd December 2004":

A winter evening

Fell in love with Clara Schumann