Tuesday, August 25, 2009

War Movies 3: "I think this just might be my masterpiece."

You can add the incredibly enjoyable (enjouyable?) Inglourious Basterds to the short list of movies that Quentin Tarantino has made because they’re the kind of movies he’d like to watch. That list now includes a Dirty Dozen takeoff, a gangster picture, a Hong Kong revenge saga, a Spaghetti Western revenge saga, a blaxploitation flick, an old AIP car crash cheapie, and Pulp Fiction, which, like a crack-whore version of Seinfeld, is about nothing and everything at the same time. The truly odd thing about this list? It’s also the complete list of films that Tarantino has directed, period, not including 25% of Four Rooms and a couple of TV shows. So what we have here is a guy who pretty much does what he wants, when he wants, because he wants not only to do it, but to watch it. In a sense, Tarantino is still the clerk at that Manhattan Beach video store, looking up at the shelf and going, “Yeah, we got a lot of war movies, but none of them really do it for me. So look -- instead of recommending one? Why don’t I just make you one?”

So yeah, quick one-line description: Inglourious Basterds is a Dirty Dozen takeoff that starts out like a cross between a fairy tale and a Sergio Leone western. By the time you hear Ennio Morricone's "After the Verdict" from The Big Gundown, with its haunting use of the first few notes of "Für Elise," the movie pretty much falls on the Leone side of the scales, an impression which is only reinforced when you realize the opening scene is meant to echo the first Angel Eyes scene in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. But don't be deceived. This is still a fairy tale, with fairy tale logic and a once-upon-a-time ending. It's Tarantino pointing to The Dirty Dozen and saying:

TARANTINO: The only reason to make a men-on-a-mission World War II movie is to kill Hitler, not a bunch of nameless generals.
AUDIENCE: But Hitler didn't die at the hands of a dirty-dozen commando mission.
TARANTINO: You mean historically? Sure. But do you see a history book here?

The correct answer? No. We're in a world where a band of Jewish-American commandos can go uncaptured in occupied France for four years, where a crack German sniper is a film geek, and where a hot German actress geso to a 1944 film premiere without wearing silky ribbed stockings on her feet. (Okay, her one good foot.) A world, in other words, where anything can happen -- and because it's Tarantino? -- it will happen. Count on it.

The one thing that doesn't happen? The over-the-top violence that everybody went nuts about in Kill Bill 1&2. This is going to piss off rabid Tarantino fans who want to see somebody or something 'sploding blood every ten minutes for two-and-a-half hours; and while there are (of course) moments like that in IG, they're lobbed in like hand grenades rather than sprayed at you like machine gun bullets. What you get instead are words, words that sizzle like a slow-burning fuse or jump from speaker to speaker like a lit stick of dynamite in a Three Stooges short. In only one chapter does a conversation not end in violence; but in that chapter, the simple ordering of a glass of milk is what makes everything that's spoken afterwards tick like a time bomb waiting to go off. It's totally riveting, and all the more remarkable because it's almost entirely done in French and German with English subtitles. When was the last time you were on the edge of your seat during four subtitled set pieces? If your answer is "Never," then it will be when you see this movie.

Speaking of the writing: you'll read a lot of reviews which credit Tarantino with writing what film critics like to call great “set pieces.” Those of us in theatre call them something different; we call them “scenes.” And when you look at them from a theatrical point of view, you see that (whether he knows it or not) Tarantino as a writer is the spiritual son of Sam Shepard. Like Shepard, his speeches are jewels, but they’re set in plots that are made from borrowed paste. (At least Tarantino has plots; you say “plot” to Sam Shepard and he thinks “graveyard.”) In Tarantino’s case, his plots consist of scenes chapters between which there is no connecting tissue. It’s like the movie Closer. Ever see Closer? In Closer, the storyline is simply the 10 shittiest moments in the lives of four people over the space of a few years, and because we don’t see them acting any other way, we can’t help but think of the four of them as shitty human beings. The same kind of selective distancing effect takes place in Basterds, where we get five chapters from a novel (or five episodes from Tarantino’s HBO miniseries Band of Mensches), all of which tie together in the end -- and yet each episode is such a perfect jewel that you can’t help wanting to see what the missing 7 or 8 connecting chapters look like. Where are the Basterds wreaking havoc in France? How does Shoshanna get to that movie theatre? What did Landa do (or not do) from 1941 to 1944 that changed him into the Landa of the last chapter?

Answer: doesn't matter. Doesn't matter one bit to the movie on the screen. (The movie in your head is another matter.) What else doesn't matter? The fact that Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine is from Tennessee (hey -- just like Tarantino!) and part Cherokee (hey -- just like Tarantino!). What matters is that almost everything that Pitt utters with his cracker accent is totally fucking hilarious. And that's just the English; wait till you hear him speak Italian. Whenever Pitt was on-screen, I kept thinking of the Claude Rains exchange from Casablanca:

MAJOR STRASSER: You give [Rick] credit for too much cleverness. My impression was that he's just another blundering American.
CAPTAIN RENAULT: We musn't underestimate "American blundering". I was with them when they "blundered" into Berlin in 1918.

Because make no mistake: that's what the Americans in this movie are. A group of blunderers who fall into somebody else's assassination plot and blunder their way to the most surprising victory of World War II.

And because this is a movie, I also thought about the fact that the last time Brad Pitt and Diane Kruger were in the same movie, he was killing Eric Bana and she was screwing around with Orlando Bloom. And boy, if their Achilles and Helen had even one quarter of the charisma that both display in this flick? Troy would have been phenomenal. It's like Tarantino is saying "See what these guys can do with the right material?" And don't think he's not saying it. Tarantino films are always just as much about other films as they are about the one you're watching now. And this one? Even more so. Because based on who shoots the machine gun, and who sets the fire? It’s the filmmakers who kill Hitler.

And oh yeah -- that once-upon-a-time ending? It's a lot more blatant in the final shooting script than it is in the current cut of the movie:

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Weekend Update: How to tell stories

I’ve seen three movies in the last two weeks (well, four, counting 500 Days Of Summer, but I've already talked about that). One of these three is a classic, two of them are great, and all of them will get full reviews in the next couple of days. Promise. But for now, I just wanted to blather a little about how seeing them in close proximity to each other made me think of how it’s not just the story but the way you tell the story that counts.

Ponyo, or, magic and realism. When something magical, alien or supernatural shows up in a film, it gets dealt with in one of three ways: the Professor Challenger Way (somebody in authority bludgeons you into belief with a lot of facts and history), the Doubting Thomas Way (the characters freak out or make fun of it until something personal makes them believe), or The Come With Me If You Want To Live Way (somebody in the know saves your life and then keeps you so constantly on the run that whatever’s chasing you becomes nothing more complicated than Danger with a capital D). There’s a fourth way, of course; like those Celtic triads which always end by saying “And greater than these three was when Arthur did blah-blah-blah,” greater than these three is when an artist just allows magic and realism to coexist without making it remarkable. It’s not a strategy you see in movies much -- it’s a lot more prevalent in novels, where Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Carroll (pardon the expression) have magic down to a science –- but the one place where you can always find it is in a Miyazaki movie. There are no borders between the real world and the spirit world; they’re just two different rooms in the same house. Magic isn’t something that has to be grappled with intellectually; magic is just something that happens, like the tides or a sunrise. A castle in the clouds, a bi-plane pilot who’s a pig, a country where your parents are turned into animals -- it’s no different from a goldfish who falls in love with a boy, and wants to turn into a human girl. Just another part of life. And I don’t know why, but telling a story this way, where the magic and the reality pool into each other without anybody making a big deal out of it, taps into something that is so simple and primal that it breaks your heart.

District 9, or, when science fiction delivers. Science fiction in movies has been Lucasized, Spielbergated, and Bayed to death over the last few years. Encounters with aliens used to be something that tested humanity (think the original Day The Earth Stood Still), and not a way for the director to work out his shallow fanboy fantasies, his missing-father issues, or his special-effects-porn disorder. That’s what makes District 9 different. The special effects serve the story, and there’s no directorial agenda beyond telling a story that has more than one level, and never beating you over the head with that other level, like Spielberg would do. (Can you imagine him making District 9? There’d be a human kid, and he and the alien kid would save the day.) In District 9, humanity and aliens are just two rooms in the same house, like Magic and Realism are two rooms in the same Miyazaki house. And in science fiction those two rooms can be at war, or in uneasy alliance, or coexistence. The one thing they can’t be is unaware of each other (that makes it a monster movie, not a science fiction movie; which is why Alien is really a monster movie). And if you have the balls to show the worst of human behavior in a confrontation with aliens, then you’re asking the two questions every great alien contact movie needs to ask (and not necessarily answer): who’s the alien here, and what does it mean to be human? You want to know why District 9 is getting such great reviews? Because it’s all about those two questions.

Inglourious Basterds, or, Hollywood goes to war. And then there are movies that are really about other movies, where everything is a level of code –- where music from spaghetti westerns is aimed at one group of geeks, cameos are aimed at another group, cinematic references at another group –- and the film you’re watching isn’t telling you a story, it’s reminding you of all these other stories you know, either dismissively (like Godard), or conspiratorially (like Tarantino). David Goodis and Richard Nixon as character names in Made in USA are like Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds --- you can’t NOT be jolted out of the story when they say who they are. Godard wants you to be annoyed (very Brechtian) while Tarantino wants you to feel cool (very Tarantino), but at heart their story-telling strategy is the same: it’s not about the plot, it’s about the genre, and the history of the genre, and my favorite films in the genre, and your understanding that sharing those favorites is what will make my movie a film you will enjoy. Which means that, just like Finnegan’s Wake was deliberately written to be taught in English courses, Inglourious Basterds was deliberately made to be taught in film class. It’s a genre critique and an example of the genre at the same time. Are they two rooms in the same house? No. One is a room in the house, and one is a projection booth with a library of films in it. And yet there’s still magic. But it doesn’t require suspension of disbelief. It requires extension of criteria. Yes, it works. It glouriously works as an example of the genre. But it only works on one level. The other levels will only be accessible to those who share the director’s vocabulary. Which, in a sense, makes the average movie-goer feel like (yes) an alien.

So much for meta-blather. Coming up? Actual reviews.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Guide to Guys: 500 Days Of Summer

Because you only pick apart the ones you love, and ignore the ones you could care less about, here are 10 things 500 Days Of Summer gets right, 4 things it gets wrong, and one thing nobody else has pointed out.

The Right Stuff:

1. To the incurable romantic, the phrase "casual relationship" means "step one towards commitment." It's never an end in itself, because to the incurable romantic, there is nothing casual about love, or loving.

2. There’s always the one who likes and the one who likes more. God help you if you're the second.

3. You can’t recapture spontaneity.

4. You always remember the good stuff from the beginning, and use it as a weapon whenever there's bad stuff at the end. The worse the bad stuff, the more painful the good memories, and the more you're living in the long-dead past. “How could you say that then and not now?” is the romantic equivalent of saying “How come it’s Friday instead of Monday?”

5. The quickest way to get a woman to pull away is to reach for her so she won't pull away. She'll be out past the orbit of Pluto before you know it.

6. Timing is everything. Which means it's totally out of your control. Accepting it is only part of the problem; dealing with it is where the work really starts.

7. The getting-to-know-you days, the “I find you interesting” thing, is the best part of every relationship. It's like constantly finding new specials on a one-page menu.

8. The now-that-I-know-you part is when a relationship either starts to grow or starts to die.

9. Considering how it's impossible for you to tickle yourself, it's pretty amazing how nobody can pull the wool over your eyes better than you can.

10. There are two types of guys: Moses and Joshua. Moses leads you through the desert for what seems like 40 years, he puts up with your bullshit, he yells at you for worshipping false gods, he puts up with all your crap, and what is his reward? When you get to the Promised Land, he has to stay on the other side of the river, because Moses is the guy who shows you where to go. He is not the guy you live with when you get there. That's Joshua. Only Joshua gets to the Promised Land. Guess who's Moses in this movie?

The Wrong Stuff:

1. When a girl says “I’ve never told anybody that before,” the last thing in the world you should say is “I guess that means I’m not just anybody.” You can think it. Hell, you WILL think it. But you never, never say it out loud.

2. So after a year and a half, there wasn’t one day where Tom said “I love you” to Summer? Not one? Because if there wasn’t, because if he never once in a year and a half brought up the L word as a topic of discussion, then he deserved everything he got. And using “couple” as a synonym for the L word doesn’t count.

3. What did they get each other for their birthdays? Did he get her jewelry? (You know he would.) Did she get him architecture books? (You know she would.)

4. He has friends and she has nobody? Not even a single best friend she introduces Tom to? This is dumber than the disappearing kids in Revolutionary Road. You do not love in a vacuum. It’s a social thing. And from having no friends at all, suddenly Summer has an apartment full of people that Tom doesn’t know? A whole life he never had even a glimpse of? Sorry; don’t buy it.

The one thing nobody else has pointed out:

Without the back-and-forth time scheme, the movie is Annie Hall, complete with the get-back-together section, a character scene in a movie theatre, the female lead doing a song, some cartoon animation, the attempted repeat of a classic moment (the lobsters in Annie Hall, karaoke in 500 Days), and the fact that only the male character has any friends outside of the relationship. The only thing that’s missing is a dinner scene with Summer’s parents.

Is this a bad thing? Hell, no. Every romantic comedy should aspire to be Annie Hall. It's just that, of the few that try, only one or two ever succeed. This is one of them. Go see it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ten Ways To Think About Woodstock

Personal disclaimer: I never went. I wasn't there. The closest I came to Woodstock was in September of 1969, first week of senior year in high school, when I was listening to Charlie Chiasson talk about how he and his friends drove up there, got caught in the traffic jam, wound up partying with a bunch of total strangers, felt gypped when the concert was declared free, and then felt claustrophobic when the entire under-20 population of the East Coast showed up because the concert was declared free. My clearest memory is of him pointing to a picture in Life Magazine and yelling: "We were right there! If the shot had been two feet to the left we'd be in that picture!" Since then I have heard the same thing from at least two dozen other people who were there: "Oh my God, do you see this picture? We were right behind these people! And if the camera had ju-u-u-ust panned a little to the left . . ."

Damn! I'm right behind the guy in the white vest!

So listening to Charlie, and watching the movie, and playing the album, are the sum total of my 3 Days Of Peace And Love experience. No. I wasn't there. Not physically, anyway. But like everybody else who was 17 in 1969? I've been there ever since. And like everybody else with an internet connection and a laptop? I've been inundated with 40th-anniversary articles, which means that (whether I want to or not) I'm thinking about What It All Means. And because it's me, I'm thinking a little too much, which is why I've come up with ten different ways of looking at Woodstock:

It was La Cigale et la Fourmi. (The Grasshopper and the Ant.) When I was 13, my French teacher Mr. Guillaume made us all memorize the La Fontaine fable about the grasshopper and the ant:

La cigale ayant chanté
Tout l'été,
Se trouva fort dépourvue
Quand la bise fut venue:
Pas un seul petit morceau
De mouche ou de vermisseau.
Elle alla crier famine
Chez la fourmi sa voisine,
La priant de lui prêter
Quelque grain pour subsister
Jusqu’à la saison nouvelle.
«Je vous paierai, lui dit-elle,
Avant l’août, foi d’animal,
Intérêt et principal.»
La fourmi n’est pas prêteuse:
C’est là son moindre défaut.
«Que faisiez-vous au temps chaud?
Dit-elle à cette emprunteuse.
— Nuit et jour à tout venant
Je chantais, ne vous déplaise.
— Vous chantiez? J’en suis fort aise:
Eh bien! Dansez maintenant.»

I have to confess, I can’t rattle it off with the same ease that I can recite the proem to The Odyssey or the opening to The Canterbury Tales, two pieces I memorized in high school, but every now and then I still catch myself saying “La priant de lui prêter,” because it’s so musical, or “Eh bien! Dansez maintenant,” because it’s so appropriate. And it’s particularly appropriate to Woodstock, because a lot of the right-wing disgust for long-hairs, hippies, and rock-music-lovers is nothing but worker-ant resentment that other people are having a good time while you're slaving away to pay the bills and put food on the table. It’s the eternal war between Scrooge and Cratchit, which is probably why everybody who grouses about Woodstock winds up sounding like Lionel Barrymore in It’s A Wonderful Life. “Look at those kids, laughing and dancing and having a good time. What do they have to laugh about? Work is more important than laughter. And money is more important than work. Go ahead -– dance. Try paying for a meal with dancing. Try paying for anything with peace and love, you lousy kids.” I mean seriously -- wouldn’t you run off to a farm in New York just to give this kind of guy the finger?

It was the birthplace of the left-wing media bias.

Oh look! A traitor and a hippie!

When the New York-based media covered Woodstock, they didn’t just report it -– they promoted it, the way the New York-based media promotes anything that happens within driving distance of Rockefeller Center, and they told the world that it was Something Significant And Of National Importance. But when, as part of this promotion, the NYBM reported that it was a good thing when 500,000 young people did drugs and had sex without killing each other, that's when they got branded as biased. Couldn't they see, like normal everyday Americans, that it's NOT a good thing when 500,000 kids get together to do drugs, have sex and listen to music and don't get killed?

NORMAL EVERYDAY AMERICANS EVERYWHERE: It's actually a BAD thing. Somebody's going to get hurt! You mark my words! And it'll be your fault, Mr. Reporter, because you said it was GOOD.

Yes, those three days in August were when the Liberal Media Bias was born in the eyes of conservative Republicans everywhere, who secretly wished for someone to have died of an overdose during the Hendrix "Star-Spangled Banner," and got their wish in spades at Altamont. Ever since then, to hear the Right tell it, the NYBM has been rightfully (pun intended) tarred and feathered as the willing dupe of anything liberal, countercultural, or left-wing. In a sense, by blowing the original story way out of proportion, the NYBM not only created a monster, they became one themselves, sort of like how Frankenstein is not just the scientist but the Creature as well.

And speaking of blowing things out of proportion:

It was the best one-night stand ever. Not a date. Not a relationship. And certainly not a marriage. This was the one night in your life where everything came together, the kind of moment that is only perfect in retrospect because of how many imperfect moments followed it. The “If only I had known this was the height, I would have enjoyed it more” moment you never forget, and always talk about. Woodstock was not, as Time Magazine called it, “one of the significant political and sociological events of the age.” Puh-lease. It was a camping weekend with music, people. Nobody said, “Hey let’s go to Yasgur’s farm to make a political and sociological statement.” They said, “Hey, wanna go hear some great music? All the best bands will be there. Plus girls! Girls!!!” (And yet. Could you have had Woodstock without Vietnam? I don't think so. And The Powers That Be understood that. So did the kids at the concert. They both knew that rock music in its infancy was a political statement, something that pushed the envelope of expression and dissent. So did all the AM radio stations that bleeped out "Thou shalt not kill" from the end of "Sky Pilot." So did everybody who sang along to Country Joe's "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag." It was always about The War.)

But on the surface? It was all about good tunes, good times and good-looking babes. And I’m sorry, but despite the worst fears of the Far Right, there has never yet been a successful political revolution based on free music and available girls. But it does say something very specific about those who ARE terrified that bass guitars and booty are a threat to Our Way Of Life. Because the only way that terror can exist is if, deep down, there is an awareness of how precarious and unbalanced Our Way Of Life is -- how weak it is, how ineffectual –- how it can shatter with the slightest of attacks -- how even a song or a kiss can blow it away. Think about that the next time you hear somebody using “Woodstock” as a belittling synonym for anything but a three-day concert. Think about how, if something’s harmless, you never have to belittle it at all.

William F. Buckley's worst nightmare.

William F. Buckley's second-worst nightmare.
That's Ronald Reagan on the right.

It was the Little Big Horn.

The Sioux and Cheyenne who walked all over Custer like he was a throw rug didn’t know that this battle was their last dance. But it was. It was like Wakan Tanka gave them one big send-off before he sent them off to the reservation, and turned the great garden which they called home into just another territory on the scale map of the Wasichu world. What the People and the Human Beings thought was going to be the start of something great and permanent was actually the last wild moment of freedom they ever enjoyed, the kind of event they could look back on and say, “Well, at least we did that, huh?” The kind of event which, as the years went by, became more and more unbelievable, not just because of what happened after –- the murder of Crazy Horse, the Ghost Dance movement, the murder of Sitting Bull, Wounded Knee -- but because of what didn’t happen. So it is with Woodstock. All the might-have-beens are enshrined in a book called Bury My Heart At Altamont.

Damn! My tipi is right behind the one on the left!

It was the earthbound equivalent of the Moon Landing. No, it wasn’t planned, and Abbie Hoffmann didn’t stand up in front of a crowd and say in a bad Boston accent: “Ask not how the over-thirties are sticking it to you; ask how you can stick it to the over-thirties.” Think of it as an unplanned moon launch, something so beyond the ken of the Geriatric Hive Mind that it hit them ten times as hard as the Sputnik launch hit the Pentagon. And just like NASA, once we proved we could do it, we never went back. Apollo was not followed by Ares, any more than Woodstock was followed by Earthstock or Firestock or Waterstock.

A crowd half a million strong proved they could live together in Edenic harmony for three days; but saying "we have to get ourselves back to the garden" shows a troubling ignorance of how this particular garden makes it a point to appear and disappear like Brigadoon, age the shit out of you like Shangri-La whenever you stay for too long and try to leave, and end in bitterness and violence like Camelot. It's like the island on which sailors can only land once –- the magical store shoppers can only visit once -- the perfect place that isn’t there when you try to find it again, because you can never leave more than one footprint on its surface. Topics for discussion? Compare and contrast: Altamont and Chappaquiddick. Lollapalooza and the Shuttle Program. The garden and The Garden.

It was a cultural tipping point. If Woodstock was a Civil War general, it would have been Sherman, because on the cultural front, it burned down a ton of Atlantas on its march to the sea. It identified the youth market as a viable consumer target. It gave birth to the lifestyle as a way of life. It created the fascism of cool, with its nose-in-the-air Went There/Saw That smugness. And the event itself marks one of the last times in our culture when parents and children spoke two different musical languages. Musically, in '69, there was AM and FM. Parents listened to AM; kids listened to FM. My father would never have gone up to me and asked “Hey, what’s that song you’re listening to?” the way I’ve gone up to my nephews and nieces. It wouldn’t have even occurred to him, because to him, what I was listening to wasn’t music, it was just noise. And I wonder. There’s very little out there that’s just noise to me. So does that mean my range of acceptance is wider, or does it mean that everything out there is so homogenized that it doesn’t piss me off the way, say, Hendrix pissed off my parents? (Topic for a future post.) In any case (as my father would say), since Woodstock, there has been a tremendous cross-generational pollination in the culture. The dominant culture subsumed the counterculture like the Catholic Church embraced St. Francis of Assisi, and for exactly the same reason: because it was the enemy, and the best way to deal with an enemy is to marry him into your family. Except now all your kids look like him instead of you. Didn't see that one coming, did you, Dominant Culture? God knows I didn't either. Back in my day, my parents and I never bumped into each other when we went record shopping. And nowadays, for better or worse, parents and kids do business at two different branches of the same cultural bank. Except, of course, when it comes to the internets. Today, God help us, you could squeeze 500,000 17-year-olds into the same chat room and nobody over 30 would even know about it. Worlds of Woodstock, anybody?

"God damn hippie! Get a job!"

It was not Altamont. I keep bringing up Altamont like (a) it's shorthand for The Day The Music Died and (b) you know what I'm talking about. For those of you who don't? It was the other free concert of 1969, held at the Altamont Speedway in California on December 6, and though it shared a lot of bands, it had two things Woodstock didn't have: the Rolling Stones, and four people dying -- two in a hit-and-run, one by drowning in an irrigation canal, and a kid named Meredith Hunter getting stabbed to death by a Hell's Angel while the Stones played "Under My Thumb." All of which is recorded for posterity in the movie Gimme Shelter. (Rent it if you don't own it.)

Because of the violence and the deaths, Altamont became the secret sharer of Woodstock the way a hangover is the secret sharer of a wild night on the town. "See what you get?" goes the lesson. "See what happens? Huh?" And the same reporters who helped to christen the Woodstock Nation in August now proclaimed four months later that the baby was dead, thus fulfilling their threefold hortatory function of (1) identifying a problem, (2) scaring you to death with it, and then (3) reassuring you that It Can't Happen Here or that The Menace Is No More.

THE MEDIA: See? You were worried for nothing. Those crazy kids are going to have to grow up now. They've learned their lesson. And if they haven't? Don't worry -- we'll be here to remind them of it. Every time somebody says "Woodstock," we'll say "Altamont."

THE YOUTH OF AMERICA: Thanks a lot. [Insert sarcastic emoticon here.]

Scariest thought ever: all these people are in their 60's now.

It was the East Coast playing catch-up again. Ever wonder why Woodstock didn’t happen right after the Summer of Love? It’s because it takes about two to three years for a cultural shift which originates on the West Coast to make it East, by which time it’s totally corporatized, institutionalized, and homogenized. This includes fashions, Tex-Mex restaurants, Starbucks coffee, and the youth movement, which peaked in San Francisco in 1967. And also politics. When you consider that between 1970 and 2008, the country was run almost exclusively by (a) the losers who never went to Woodstock and (b) the dweebs who would have been mocked by those who did go, then, once again, California was ahead of the curve, by electing Ronald Reagan in all his anti-hippie glory to get them as far away from the Berkeley Movement as possible. Modern footnote to all this: you know the way California is going bankrupt right now? That’s New York in two years.

Waitaminnit -- is that a gay slur?

It was the Maypole at Merry Mount. Come with me now back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when jollity and gloom contended for an empire, and the entire cultural history of the United States was epitomized by a single event. In what is now Wollaston, Massachusetts, in the early 1600’s, there was a Maypole around which the local citizens danced their days away, electing a King and Queen of the May who put flowers in their hair and banished sorrow and drudgery as part of their kingdom. Which was an affront to the faith of a group of nearby Puritans, dismal wretches for whom grimness and toil were the lot of man, and God help anybody who said otherwise. So they chopped the Maypole down, forced the merrymakers to wear sober clothes and get haircuts, and they all lived unhappily ever after. Because the war between freedom and repression didn’t end at Merry Mount; just the battle. We’ve been fighting the war ever since.

The thing about Puritans is, they denounce idle merrymaking as ungodly with the kind of violent fervor that possesses the erotically repressed whenever they speak out against sexual liberation. So you have to wonder if there’s not something a little, well, envious about the Puritan’s uncompromising hatred of fun. (Think The Church of the Ant against the Godless grasshopper.) The other thing about Puritans is, their response is always way out of proportion to the provocation –- another American tradition. You would think that the normal sane response to Woodstock would be: “Oh, it’s just kids being kids.” But judging by the puritanical reaction to this particular maypole, Woodstock was an atomic bomb whose crater was a hundred times bigger than its actual explosion. You could hear the grumbling all across the country:

“We just landed on the moon and our children are dancing in mud.”

“We’re at war and these lousy draft dodgers are dancing and fucking and doing drugs instead of serving in the military like I did.”

“And they’re all getting laid. I didn’t get laid when I was 17. I didn’t get laid till I was in the Army.”

“And what is this ‘laid’ anyway? Foundations get laid. Plans get laid. People don’t get laid.”

“And wait -- girls can get laid now without fear of getting pregnant? How come kids today get to have all the fun? That’s not fair!”

And there you have American Puritanism in a nutshell: they believe that life isn’t fair, and they’ll get you to believe it by making sure your life is so miserable you wind up whining about it as loudly as they do. If they had their way, they would erase the word “happiness” from the Declaration of Independence and replace it with the words “Jesus Christ.” To which I can only say: "Jesus Christ!"

"Jesus H Christ on a Harley Davidson!"

It was fun. In an age when the ants have taken over the world, and kids in their teens are scared to death they'll graduate college without a job, and kids in their pre-teens aren't even kids any more, just adults in training, it's frightening to think that something as spontaneous and silly and downright improbable as Woodstock can never (ever) happen again. If 500,000 young’ns got together in a single physical location this Friday, there would be cops everywhere, helicopters everywhere, security everywhere. Hell, you can’t even mill around in Times Square on New Year’s Eve the way you used to any more without being herded into cattle-pen spaces. It's all of a piece -- New Year's Eve used to be fun, the Village Halloween Parade used to be fun, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade used to be fun -- and it's all because they started out spontaneous and local and ended up becoming regimented, crowded, and joyless. You go to say you've been there, not to have a good time.

Well, that wasn't Woodstock. People went to have a good time. Did they know they were attending something historic? Probably. But who among them seriously thought that history could be made by 500,000 people listening to music? I bet more than half of them kept looking around with a stupid-ass grin on their faces and saying, "Will you look at all these crazy people? And I'm one of them! Whoo hoo!" That's what I would have said, anyway -- along with "Down in front!" and "Whipping Post!" And for all the aggravations -- the mud and the lines at the portable bathrooms and the crowds -- I can't see a single person walking away from that weekend without feeling exhilirated. Which, in a world run by ants, is not something you feel very often, if at all.

People can and will talk about what Woodstock means till long after everybody who was there in person is dead and in their graves. But after all is said, and re-said, and interpreted, and explained, there still remains the one thing that got everybody there, kept everybody there, and made everybody happy. The music. Three days of peace and music, and for a while there, it looked like it could change the world.

THE ANTS: You're crazy. How can something like that change the world?

ME: You wouldn't understand

THE ANTS: Why not?

ME: You're not a grasshopper. Now get your foot off my fiddle.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Aphorisms and Observations

Bad writers think they’re the room; good writers know they’re the door.

Unprovoked force is always a sign of weakness.

The love you feel now is always the echo of the love you just lost.

Lies open the door; honesty furnishes the room.

It's always what it means, not what it is.

Fail once and you’ll do it without thinking for the rest of your life; succeed once and you’ll always have to keep doing it like it’s the first time.

The smaller the room, the louder the shouting.

Sometimes the intermission is better than the play.

It’s not what you write -- it’s what they read.

Alone, your insecurities are your weaknesses; together, they’re your armor.

It’s not what we do -- it’s what we do with what we do.

You can only get past a bouncer with your looks, not your talent.

Only follow the blind man in the dark.

If you can’t prove it’s true then you can’t prove it’s wrong.

The room only recognizes the renters.

If you need a lawyer to get you out of it, then it was a business relationship.

It’s always the secret sinners who oppose forgiveness for others.

Happiness is getting to wake up next to the man or woman you love. Or both, if you’re an actor.

The joke is still alive until Leno starts telling it.

Outsiders have swords; insiders have butter knives.

Opportunities are like rats -- you're never more than six feet away from one.

History is too important to be left to historians.

Those who see what's missing will never see what's there.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Why I love the Strand

Where else can you pick up a book on Christopher Marlowe by Herbert Lom?

Yes, THAT Herbert Lom:

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Tom Wrench Blues

"This is for not being Arthur Miller, loser."

I gave my agent something clever.
He said, “I just don’t see the heart.”
I gave my agent something clever.
He said, “I just can’t see the heart.
You need to write with more emotion
And not say, ‘Look at me -- I’m smart!’”

I gave my agent something heartfelt.
He said, “What is this piece of shit?”
I gave my agent something heartfelt.
He said, “What is this pile of shit?
You just can’t spill your guts on paper --
You have to vomit with some wit.”

I sent my agent something witty.
He said, “The characters aren’t real.”
I sent my agent something witty.
He said, “The characters? Not real.
All clever dialogue is shallow
Unless you show us how they feel.”

I gave my agent kitchen drama.
He said, “The room is not a house.”
I gave my agent kitchen drama.
He said, “The room is not the house.
We need to see another level --
Show me the fashion, not the blouse.”

I gave my agent plays with levels.
He said, “There’s too much going on.”
I gave my agent plays with levels.
He said, “Way too much going on.
You only need to build a statue
And not the fucking Parthenon.”

I gave my agent Casablanca.
He said, “You gotta change the end.”
I gave my agent Casablanca.
He said, “You have to change the end.
It’s really gay to give up Ilsa
And make Renault Rick’s special friend.”

I gave my agent Waiting for Godot.
He said, “It’s trash -- that’s my review.”
I gave my agent Waiting for Godot.
He said, “It’s crap -- that’s my review.
You can’t have someone in the title
Who doesn’t show up in Act Two.”

I sent my agent seven one-acts,
Three screenplays and two one-man shows.
I sent my agent seven one-acts,
Three screenplays and two one-man shows.
He said, “You really do have talent.
Why don’t you try to write in prose?”

I sent my agent seven stories,
Two novels and three short essays.
I sent my agent seven stories,
Two novels and three short essays.
He said, “They just don’t do it for me.
Why can’t you turn them into plays?”

I fired my agent with a letter.
Told him: “You can go to hell.”
I fired my agent with a letter.

Told him: “You can go to hell.”
He said, “Too bad you’re not my client
‘Cause this is something I could sell.”

Copyright 2009 Matthew J Wells

Monday, August 3, 2009

Random thoughts

Celebrity Death Pool: Walter Cronkite Edition. It says a lot about America that we define "trust" as "believing in a guy who can read a script believably." There's actually a word for that in the dictionary, and it ain't "newscaster." It's "actor." As in pretending to be what you're not. I have no idea what Walter Cronkite was like when he wasn't reading a script from a teleprompter, but because he played the Reliable Narrator, I do know one thing about him that I didn't read once in any of his obituaries. He was to network news what Ronald Reagan was to politics: a performer elevated to a position of power and influence purely because of the way he could sell a story.

Reliving my childhood.

Hey kids -- comics! And wonder of wonders -- comics reviewed in the Books section of the daily New York Times!

My kind of girl.

Haven't read Asterios Polyp yet, but The Hunter is just as good as can be, and the Gaiman Batman is just as Gaiman as can be, which means that it's basically a story about telling stories, which is what Gaiman can do in his sleep.

Speaking of sleep? Last night I had this weird dream where I bumped into an old friend I haven't seen in over 10 years, and she freaked out because she thought I was dead. "You changed your e-mail? You got a cellphone? You moved out of that apartment you shared with Georgia? I didn't know any of that -- I thought you were dead!" At which point I woke up at 1 AM and tossed and turned till my alarm went off at 5. I'm still trying to understand what that was all about. Was it the universe telling me I should get back in touch with her? Was it some inner psychic warning that I'm going to bump into her in the next couple of days? Was it all that meditating-on-death crap bubbling up out of my subconscious?

Or was it just this?

I saw Thirst Saturday afternoon. Saying it's a vampire movie would be like saying Oldboy is a revenge flick; there's so much else going on that it's impossible to describe except to say that it's like a Zola novel with bloodsucking. (No lie -- the credits say it's loosely based on Therese Raquin. Accent egue on the loosely.) There are characters in it you so want to like who turn into real shits. There are nervous laughs, creepy tense scenes, and gory gross outs galore, and (thank you, God) in the end, this is actually a vampire movie that equates vampirism with losing your soul. You know, like in the original Dracula and not the romantic neck-rippers where being an undead male means you have just one more emotional issue for women to deal with. In the end, this movie is about love and evil, and why they are not anagrams for each other. Go see it.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Asterisk Nation

Oh, and this?

That's sort of what I felt like when I first read this:

So how did I feel exactly? How do I feel now, for instance? Funny you should ask.

I used to be really good friends with this girl I’ll call Angela. This was back in the days when I used the words “really good friends” to mean “I have a huge crush on you, but I will never do anything about it because I’m scared to death of commitment.” So yeah, about a month ago.

Anyway, Angela would tell me about all her hook-ups, and we’d do the whole “What do you think this means?” thing, and I would not be jealous in the least, because I was like the husband -- I was the one she talked to, instead of the one she talked about. And these other guys? They meant nothing. Except for this one guy who really, really, rubbed me the wrong way. Rubbed her the wrong way, too – she referred to him as The Toad. He had a girlfriend, and cheated on that girlfriend whenever he got the chance, and always made passes at Angela, and the more he did it, the more she said she hated him. She would make faces when he wasn’t looking, and when he was looking, she would insult him to his face, and say things like “There is not enough alcohol in the world to get me drunk enough to sleep with you,” and you know exactly where this is going, right? Of course you do. But I didn’t.

Two years later in casual conversation, Angela says, “God, that was even worse than when I slept with The Toad.” And if you listen really hard, you can still hear the echo of my jaw hitting the floor.

MATTHEW: [what the fuckity fuck?] You slept with The Toad?
ANGELA: [uh-oh] . . . yeah?
MATTHEW: Angela, how could you do that?!? You swore you’d never do that!
ANGELA: Well what else was I going to say? You hated him so much that I ---
MATTHEW: So wait --- you swore you’d never sleep with him because you thought I didn’t WANT you to?
ANGELA: No, because I KNEW you didn’t want me to. You had me on such a pedestal that I couldn’t, you know, . . .
ANGELA: Matthew. You were so totally in love with me. It was obvious; everybody knew it. I knew it. And even though I knew it, I couldn't do anything about it, except try not to hurt you. And yeah, I resented you for that. I resented you a lot. But I got off on it, too. I got off on the fact that I meant the world to you. I LOVED the fact that I meant the world to you. You had me on such a pedestal. It was heaven. So when the thing with The Toad happened, I couldn’t tell you. How could I tell you? It would have killed you. And it would have made me less that perfect.
MATTHEW: But you WERE less than perfect!
ANGELA: No. Not as long as you didn’t think I was. As long as you thought I was perfect, I felt perfect. Which is why I couldn’t tell you about The Toad.
MATTHEW: Which is why you lied.
ANGELA: And it was a small price to pay, for staying up on that pedestal. I had to lie, Matthew. If I told you the truth, it’d be like telling you there was no Santa Claus.
MATTHEW: I’m not six, Angela.
ANGELA: [sadly] All men are six when it comes to the Pedestal, Matthew.
MATTHEW: [shakes head while looking off into space]
ANGELA: How are you feeling right now? Tell me how you're feeling.
MATTHEW: [because hiding behind a quotation is the best defense ever] I feel like a guy standing on a station platform in the rain, with a comical look on his face, because his insides have been kicked out.

And that’s how I feel about the 'Roid Sox. The perfect thing I idolized is human. The moment that I treasured was fool’s gold. I am six and there is no Santa Claus. I am in love and Angela slept with The Toad.