Monday, March 29, 2010

Both Sides Now

Let’s not avoid the obvious: most blogs operate around the premise of a certain degree of self-promotion; despite any nattering of self-denial you might hear. My own blog, ostensibly about divining any hint of magic or wonder from amidst the teeming pile of the never ending pop culture onslaught, has even occasionally veered into the personal, much to my own chagrin. Here we go again, with two quick glimpses of my divided self, just turned fifty-four and aging rapidly, nearly zapped of energy and bleeding once valued wisdom, yet still essentially making the rounds with a sense of purpose and an inherent stalwartness. (Heh-heh-heh.) First, an appearance of the local Fox morning show, The Rhode Show, waxing glib and all-knowing, doing the thumbnail movie thang, and second, getting all hot and bothered in the real world, at a Westin workers rally. Somebuddy, call me mother in Florida and let her know I'm still hanging in there, and, yes, still somehow grasping onto that ever slippery moral compass...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

David Janssen's Eyes: Kafka TV

(Reprinted from PopKrazy)

Well before Harrison Ford was jumping into waterfalls and trying to stay one step ahead of Tommy Lee Jones terrifying case of lockjaw there was The Fugitive as a television series. What a strangely downbeat and moody bit of television this inexplicably popular series was. It ran for 120 episodes from 1963-67, was created by Roy Huggins (The Rockford Files), starred Richard Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, the falsely accused title figure, and the last episode remains one of the highest rated in TV history.
Having recently hitchhiked through the full first season (Paramount DVD, 4 discs, $38.99), my dim memories of the series needed a serious recharging. The TV show was neither a cut-and-run suspense machine as I thought, and Janssen’s central figure was far more complex and decidedly less heroic than I recalled. What actually attracted me to this show as a Beaver Cleaveresque pre-teen? It depicts a monumentally grim world, with the truly laconic Janssen sleepwalking from one location to the next, all the while pursued by his equally tortured nemesis, the visually drained and dogged Barry Morse’s Lieutenant Phillip Gerard. The show allows for no reoccurring characters outside of the intertwined duo (a twosome that were decidedly weird for primetime—-both twitchingly neurotic, hollow and haunted), as Kimble stays on the road and on the run, backing himself into the deep shadows of America’s backwaters, stumbling into the briefest friendships and quickly doomed romances.
Janssen’s performance is almost perverse, considering the tenure of the times, the weight of the world on his sagging shoulders, eyes blinkered with inner pain, and a gravelly monotone that oft times barely rose above a mumbled whisper. What kept people watching back in those pre-Vietnam days of eternal optimism? The odds are loaded every which way against Janssen’s Kimble—if he finds his elusive one-armed man and proves his innocence the series is over. Did the 1963 audience tune in because of some internal desire for capitulation? Did they harbor secret wishes to watch a dream deferred, as when three-quarters of the way through each and every episode Janssen’s hardcore sad sack would watch his brief idyll poisoned and his temporary hopes deflated, heading off to the lonely, decidedly non-Kerouacian highway, an ex-bigtimey Doctor (one of the epitomes of the American dream during that era) shrinking and tucking himself into another obscure dark corner, a TV protagonist half broken by the continual twists of fate?

Falling and Flying

(Reprinted from shaking like a mountain)
Crazy Heart
By Scott Duhamel

As the properly revered American cinema of the 70’s fades further into our collective memories, as the indie film revolt of the recent past twists and snaps into something altogether different, as the ever frightening Rise of the Hack Auteurs continues to flourish, and, as the movie brat directorial generation teeter into old age, oblivion, or rusty-but-venerated status, you just ain’t going to get much a chance to see a so-called cinematic character study like director Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart.

Neither instant classic nor pillar of the genre, the movie (adapted from novelist’s Thomas Cobb’s 1987 book of the same name), isn’t strikingly original either. The fact that it succeeds, even manages to create an imprint, falls squarely on the slumped shoulders of Jeff Bridges, long one of our more underappreciated American actors, delivering a full-scale performance with graceful aplomb, and ultimately creating one of the signature big screen turns of 2009. It’s an effortless portrayal, filled with guile and propelled by instinct, one that is weighted with authenticity and totally devoid of blandishments.

First-time director Cooper, who, by all accounts, stuck closely to Cobb’s novelistic intentions, brings a similar authentic feel to his under-the-radar directorial style. This is an actor’s movie, the sort that a Hal Ashby or Robert Altman would have once been drawn to, although in Cooper’s hands it is a purposefully straightforward film, lacking the extended complications or the multiple sources of conflict that the aforementioned filmmakers would have utilized to greater effect. Cooper does acknowledge the movie’s antecedents, with overt allusions to genre milestones like A Face in the Crowd (1957), Payday (1973), or Tender Mercies (1983).

Crazy Heart’s well-traveled tale concerns itself with Bad Blake (Bridges), yet another country and western macho poet with a fistful of magical songs, heartsick and stumbling towards oblivion with a lungful of cigarette smoke and gut full of bourbon. Blake bounces from Bowling Alley stage to straight-up saloon gig, often puking mid song, piloting himself with laid back charm or churlishness, almost broken with regret, yet nursing dreams about reversing his showbiz status. His shaky encounters with a mere trio of antagonists set the stage for an admirably unforced and neatly ambiguous tale of redemption. Colin Farrell is surprisingly competent in the part of Tommy Sweet, Bad’s protégé turned superstar pop commodity, while Robert Duvall (who mined much of this same territory when he once starred in Tender Mercies) brings some down-to-earth vigor to his few scenes as Bad’s now sober pal and father figure. The typically incandescent Maggie Gyllenhaal rounds out the triumvirate as a young single mom and journalist with (you knew it) with a misbegotten penchant for bad boys.

The seemingly infallible T. Bone Burnett (partnering here with the late Stephen Breton) once again delivers a soundtrack with acumen, with a batch of songs that seem realistically poised between classic outlaw C&W and the peculiar wryness of those leftfielders from the Townes Van Zandt school. The music is written from a point-of-a-view drawn from the Kris Kristofferson prototype (physically, Bridges could very well be the guy’s younger brother), the guy with the long hair and cowboy hat, submerging his intellect behind the drawl and the drink, one of those guys who buys right in to pop cult diviner Nick Tosches theory of straight up C&W music: “And ultimately there’s something about the depths of the human soul expressed within the confines of a rhinestone-embroidered puce suit—something not only of innocence and demonology but of proper perspective as well—that can’t be found elsewhere in this garbage heap that we call culture. ” Crazy Heart may be among the first Hollywood narrative that acutely digs into the mysterious songwriting process, albeit one that hints that dues’ paying is a central part of that process.

The same simple but sage methodology might apply to Bridges career. Since Crazy Heart comes up a little short in a variety of ways, its true strengths emanate directly from Jeff Bridges. Any movie-movie barroom chitchat would be promptly elongated if a debate ever sprung up over the actors best moments in a career filled with highlights and good choices. A quick, extremely partial (and highly personal) list: The Last Picture Show (’71), Fat City (’72), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (’74), Rancho Deluxe (’75), Stay Hungry (’76), Cutter’s Way (’81), Starman (’84), Tucker: The Man and His Dream (’88), The Fisher King (’91), American Heart (’92), Fearless (’94), The Big Lebowski (’98), The Door in the Floor (’04); all in all a potent delineation of superb choices and exemplary execution from an absolute American big screen acting treasure.

Bridges, replete with untethered belt, sexy sloop, charmingly slurred voice (it’s actual rhythms established through chain-smoking and perpetual drinking), is another middle-aged American male somehow cast adrift, captivatingly lost between bad intentions and good expectations-a species Bridges does well--- a still likable loser, weak, yet imbued with fierce pride. The performance is scented with melancholy, and all the more effective for it, adding a redemptive tone to the overall proceedings that doesn’t delve into heart tugging or corniness.

(Suggestion: Put your cash on Bridges walking away with the Best Oscar Award. It’s a done deal.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Rise of the Hack Auteur

The following column is reprinted from the February issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out):

Eyes Wide Open
By Scott Duhamel

As Andrew Sarris initially wrote about the infamous Auteur Theory in his must-have 1968 tome (a dog-eared copy of which I still, some 40 years later, continually refer to) The American Cinema: “Ultimately, the auteur theory is not so much about theory as an attitude, a table of values that convert film history into directorial autobiography. The auteur critic is obsessed with wholeness of art and the artist. He looks at film as a whole, the director as a whole. The parts, however entertaining individually, must cohere meaningfully. This meaningful coherence is more likely when the director dominates the proceedings with skill and purpose.” In other words kiddies, his original concept (borrowed from a batch of smarty-pants French cinemaphiles), was that the film director, at his or his best, despite the multiple layers of intellectual and technical collaborators, and, despite the often strangling tentacles of popular art as commerce, is essentially an author, given to repeated themes, a few central preoccupations, typically expressing them with an idiosyncratic visual (and largely repeated) language, and is, no doubt about it, the author of his completed filmic work.

Of course, back then, Sarris found himself in a much publicized and dissected skirmish between those who found his essential theory either enriching, woefully overblown and wrongheaded, or at the least, intriguing. While in some, small, largely academic circles the debate may still simmer on, by and large it’s a theory long accepted by the vast majority of film nitcrits, cultural pundits, and the not-so-unwashed film going public. In fact today, every other whiz-bang filmmaker or box office boffo director gets bagged and tagged as an auteur, and many of them feel no qualms in unabashedly self-applying the description onto themselves. During a recent yakety-yak session, a knowledgeable acquaintance proposed new theories that of the contempo Hack Auteur, quantifying those very directors whose monikers alone manage to convey commercial gossamer, artistic weight and industry power. Yet, the theory goes, upon closer inspection, most of these directors, all of them replete with the multiple abilities to render a cinematic tale with gusto, to translate the literal into the visual, and to project that air of directorial arrogance and self-righteousness that signifies to some auteur-worthiness; under the critical microscope they seem filmmakers without the needed extra dollop of an acute vision, devoid of truly original and interlocking themes or imagery ,and without any unifying sense of the type of authorial voice that can penetrate through Hollywood’s ever standing layers of commercialism, artistic compromise, or restrictions of genre.

Who exactly makes us such a line up? As an early (and suddenly fervid) promulgator of the theory, I take great pleasure in listing those, both veterans and newcomers, which seem to be part of The Rise of the Hack Auteur. Let’s include McQ (Charlie’s Angels, Terminator Salvation) Michael Bay (Bad Boys, Armageddon, Transformers), Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow), Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forest Gump), and last but certainly not least, brothers Tony (Top Gun, True Romance, Man on Fire) and Ridley Scott. And, lest we forget (but he would never let us) the self-proclaimed King of the World, James Cameron (The Terminator, True Lies, Titanic).

Avatar, Cameron‘s latest; besides being a 300 million dollar, technotastic 3-D, superfragalistic CGI, phantasmagoric waterfall of modernistic special effects and sci-fi in-yer-face world making, is also the self-declarative big screen war whoop of a self-proclaimed artiste out to top himself. Despite its occasional spellbinding moments and its undeniable visual treats Avatar still remains the very evident work of that species we have dubbed The Hack Auteur.
Cloaked in the aura of industry buzz (“Groundbreaking!”), and undeniably coated by the ever inviting elements of a scrumptious, old-fashioned (but new-fangled) spectacle Avatar has been minting return monies and prompting all sorts of deep and thoughtful analyses, yet it continually traffics in the obvious, and is; in the final sense, such a funky potpourri of over-elevated green styled strum and drag.

Set in 2154, with the usually ruggedly handsome white male savior figure (Sam Worthington, a soldier without the use of his legs) at its center, it hammers back and forth from the black-hatted military and corporate (doubled evil, see?) world where the soldier boy is part of an avatar experiment and thus safely ensconced on a peeping-tom space station, to the alien moon of Pandora, the home to the Na’vi, an indigenous multiple-clanned people who (you got it) are at one with their environs, transcendentally bonding with both bountiful plant life and the savage beasties. Initially sent forth as both military scout and scientific sample-provider he (uh-huh) falls in love with a lithe (albeit blue-skinned) superwoman native gal (Zoe Saldana) and winds up trading sides and leading the natives (i.e. Vietnamese, Afghans, Native Americans,) in a rebel battle.

Cameron fails to get much emotional worth out of the effects versions of Worthington or Saldana, despite the Rube Goldbergian contraption of color, noise, and acid-inspired whirligig of sensory plug-ins that envelope their so-called acting. Chief baddies Stephen Lang (military) and Giovanni Ribisi (corporate) bluster and ham their way badly through the whole lengthy shebang, with only a robust Sigourney Weaver avoiding caricature until a cliché silent screen-style death scene.

Excess and extravagance, however finely-honed, do not make a picture great, or a filmmaker triumphant. Trippy and bold, Avatar is an amusing, even occasionally entertaining ride, and an obvious crowd pleaser. Ultimately it is never all that cohesive or layered, nor even that thought-provoking. (science=good, military=bad, cooperate interlopers=real bad, primitive natives=real good). An empty sensory delight, much like the continual onslaught of kicked-back-into-your-eyes onscreen 3-D debris that Cameron keeps pumping things up with, it’s without true cinematic complexity, just another big screen mechanized coloring book with a whole lotta shaking goin’ on. Pure Hack Auteur nirvana.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Bar Talk # 3

Overheard Friday Night(3-5-10at Nick-a-Nees
Providence, Rhode Island
(Purty much reported as close to verbatim as possible)

“Oh, that’s some old Olympic dude; I remember he was on the Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes box when I was a kid.”

“Richard Jewel, the ultimate patsy. He was a wanna-be cop and he lived with his mother, so it’s textbook right? I hope the cops didn’t mess up his comic book collection too bad when they tossed his house.”

“I hate the word buzz. Everybody’s always got a buzz, catching a buzz, had a buzz, or they want to get buzzed. All these years of evolution and people drinking and the common term winds up buzzed? Just hearing it makes me want to get drunk. Not buzzed, understand?”

“Hey man, don’t forget it was Winston Churchill that said by the time a rumor is trotting around the world the truth hasn’t even put his sneakers on.”

“It ain’t the destination that matters; it’s the thrill of the journey. Just try to avoid all those detours.”

“If you really like a piece of music you should own it in all formats, Cd, vinyl, on the iPod. Everything but an 8-track I guess.”

“I just can’t seem to generate much interest in the current teams. I’m lost in the fog of New England sports cult past. I pine for the days of Joe Foy, Henry Finkel, Dallas Smith and the just departed Mosi Taputu.”

“It may be Scorsese, it sure looked like a Scorsese, a killer visual flair along with some killer flourishes, but I nailed the ending in the first five minutes.”

“The hardest daily or nightly choice in the vast majority of Florida is whether to eat at TGI Fridays, Outback, Applebee’s, and which pharmacy branch to settle on out of the six that swarm both tips of your neighborhood.”

“So I found the joint in the neighborhood behind the school and went in around 4:30, and got bourbon from the bartender and noticed the lone waitress was sleeping sitting up in the corner. She wakes up and says, what the hell is this music, a Christmas song? The cook comes barreling out of the kitchen and says that’s Bing Crosby song and this is a Bing Crosby compilation, and don’t you forget that. I fell in love with the place right there.”

“I took this girl on a date to Boston to see one of my all-time favorite jazz singers, I had all of her albums but I never saw her live, so I was really looking forward to it. Right in the middle of it my date starts telling me that the drummer reminds her of the first guy who ever took her from behind. That’s my luck, all the way. If I was in Amsterdam with a hooker as gorgeous as Marilyn Monroe she'd wind up leaning over my ear to start whispering to me about her favorite jazz singer.”