Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Cold Dead Hands

The good news is: the first act is done.

The bad news is: I have no glocking idea what happens next.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Law & Order: CIA

Zero Dark Thirty is actually three different movies.  The first, titled “See What You Made Us Do To You?” is concerned with gaining information through, shall we say, enhanced interrogation techniques.  The second movie is "Where's Osama?" in which Jessica Chastain’s Maya, who is blessed and/or cursed with the cleanest hair you will ever see in a desert country, plays the lone wolf intel jockey who has to convince everyone from her co-workers to her superiors that her interpretation of the facts is the correct one.  And the third movie is “Call of Duty: Pakistan,” where a bunch of hard-ass no-nonsense gun jockeys don their night goggles for a first-person shooter black op.  As evidence of this filmic schizophrenia, I point to the fact that there are currently two completely different trailers for ZD30, one which centers almost completely on Maya and one which is all Seal Team Six.  As for the third trailer, the one just showing the torture scenes, I think it’s currently only playing in three malls outside Langley, Virginia.

If you looked at this woman’s hair in night vision, 
it would sear your retinas.

What’s also interesting about this movie is all the movies that it isn’t.  Starting with the obvious--it isn’t a documentary.  But it’s a movie that wants it both ways, a movie that will play the demands of storytelling against the veracity of non-fiction, and vice versa, so that every attack you make on one area gets defended by pointing to the other.  This is more than disingenuous on the part of the filmmakers, since a movie is always and only what you see on the screen--not the book it was based on, not the historical events it was based on--and can only be judged on its own terms. 

And what are those terms?  Whether intentional or not, the film says that torture or the threat of torture gets quantifiable intelligence results. It says that the upper echelon of the intelligence community demands swift and decisive action even as it’s crippled by politics.  It says that politicians get in the way of everything, and that it’s not just us against them--it’s us against us.  It says that a determined, single-minded field agent is an outsider and a nuisance who can actually make things happen in this particular world as long as she’s wiling to make that single-minded purpose her entire life.  It also says that one well-placed use of the word “motherfucker” is a hundred times more powerful than all the times it’s anachronistically repeated throughout Django Unchained

And as I said, it’s also a lot of non-existent movies.  For instance, all the tradecraft makes you think this is going to spin out like a John le Carré thriller, but instead of a quiet patient British civil servant, we have a loud impatient monomaniac who is never wrong, which (given this character’s current incarnation in Homeland) is fast becoming a cliché. Our heroine also butts heads with the only other woman in her working group when she gets to her station, and in that initial scene there's a spark of antagonism between the two of them that makes you think, okay, I know where this is going--they’re going to be in each other’s faces from now on.  Only it doesn't happen; and not only doesn’t it happen, they become friends. All of which happens offscreen, because their relationship isn’t the focus of the movie.  We’re given Fact A, and then Fact B, and it’s up to us to either wonder how that happened, or draw a line between them so that they make sense.  In other words, we have to treat the information the movie gives us in the same way that Maya treats the information she gets: by making a story out of it. 

This happens all over the place.  There’s a moment in the beginning of the movie where Maya asks Dan, the chief interrogator, if a suspect they’re questioning is ever going to be freed, because she wants to go in talk to him without a mask.  When Dan says no, he’ll never get out, in Maya goes.  Now I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of tell I’m used to filing away for future reference, as in: “They’re setting up somebody who can’t escape and identify her; wanna bet he escapes at some point and all hell breaks loose?”  Never happens.  We see Maya’s initial reaction to torture, and we think, okay, the fact that she has to deal with this is going to be a big thing, right?  Wrong.  We see Maya threatening her superiors, and we think, okay, this is heading to a showdown, but it doesn't go there.  We see her sit down with the head of the CIA and think, okay, this is obviously where we’ve been heading, and nope, not where we’ve been heading at all.  Because where we’re heading is a woman standing over a dead body, and that ending has been not just foreshadowed, but demanded, by the beginning of this movie, which is a dark-screen audio montage of emergency and personal calls from 9/11 World Trade Center victims. 

The identification of dead bodies.  Based on that ending, which to me at least is troubling and unsatisfying, Zero Dark Thirty is the story which one woman has created around certain pieces of information in her possession, a story which gets a bunch of people killed in the end, including the one person she’s really after.  A story where, once again--and this is the troubling, unsatisfying part--we’re set up to desire a specific knock-down that we never get.  What’s the knock-down?  The staple of all action movies: the moment where we get the satisfaction of seeing the bad guy die.   

No such satisfaction here.  When UBL gets shot, we see what the shooter sees, a fleeting glimpse of someone and then gunfire that hits him.  When the identifying snapshots of the dead body are taken, we see the blurred body and the flash of light and then the image on the pocket camera, but not a single one of those images is in focus or clear enough to give us a satisfying look at the features.  It's maddening, and I will argue that it's deliberately maddening, because that very lack of satisfaction is at the heart of what the movie is about. It's about knowledge in a world of intelligence. We are given that knowledge by people whom we can either trust or mistrust.  And because that act of trust or mistrust is vital to our belief or disbelief, we can only have an opinion about certain events.  We can't know for sure what really happened, because all we ever get is the story of what happened.  In the world of intelligence, “knowing” means “trusting the storyteller.”

And Maya, our storyteller--the one person who can know for sure?  When she identifies the dead body, we're looking up at her from behind the back of its head, like she's identifying us.  We don't get to see the face. We only get to see her looking down at the face, and giving her opinion.  If she says it's UBL, then we have to believe her.  We're in the same position as everyone else in the film: we either believe her or we don't. So do we believe her? Do we trust her? She could be lying.  She could be deluded.  She could be seeing what she wants to see.

Another director would have given us the money shot.  Spielberg would probably have swooped the camera up from behind Chastain so we could look over her shoulder and that halo of golden orange hair to view UBL's face head-on, all to some soaring John Williams music, because Spielberg wants to do your thinking for you.  Which is yet another movie this movie isn’t.

And yeah--to get totally esoteric on your ass--I think it’s more than coincidence that the main character’s name is the Sanskrit word for illusion.  The film sets up a world we think we know, and never follows through, leaving us to fill in the blanks with missing information.  In essence, it turns us into Maya. 

“This world of names and forms is maya,” as they say; and so is this film.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Some thoughts on Les Miz

There are rules that govern stage performances which do not apply to film.  One of them is what I call the three minute rule.  If a scene or a song goes on for three minutes or more during a play or a musical, an attentive audience will get caught up in the moment and its short-term memory will re-set, so that time takes second place to cause-and-effect.  Instead of asking chronological questions (where does this next scene happen in time?) the audience asks consequential questions (how does this next scene follow from what I’ve just seen?).  This is why, when you lay out the plot of Othello in a spreadsheet, it makes no sense, but when you see it in the theatre, it hums like clockwork.

I bring this up because, as I mentioned, film works differently.  In film, time takes first place; so when you’re watching a filmed stage musical with mostly songs and multiple locations that takes place over, say, 17 years of real time, simply presenting the scenes and songs one right after the other without layering in some temporal breathing space (wide shots; montage) makes everything look like, well, that Othello spreadsheet.  This is why the movie version of Les Miz takes place in a city of almost 2 million inhabitants where the same five people keep bumping into each other once every ten minutes.  

It’s also why this film is not what usually passes in movies for real life.  Hell, it’s not even what usually passes for larger than life.  It's a movie where everything is an emotional moment that starts out at 8 and goes back and forth between there and 10 for the next two hours.  Which makes “larger than life” look like a skyscraper in Lilliput.  And if you can't take all those 10’s without some 1’s along the way, then you're going to sit there with your arms crossed, wondering why everybody FEELS so much. 

As my friend Stacy says, “You either get it or you don’t.”  Me, I got it.  You?  You may hate it.  A lot of critics evidently did.  But there’s a snobbish snort to a lot of those bad reviews, like all those critics were a bunch of opera buffs who had to sit through Tommy, and were required by law to write 1000 words on how popular culture is not culture, or how Top Hat or The Band Wagon with their overdubbed vocals (and overdubbed tap-dancing taps, for that matter) are what people who want to see a good musical should be watching instead of Guess What.  (I’m not joking; go here for the article.)  Speaking as someone who absolutely adores The Band Wagon, this is like Mayor Bloomberg telling me how to live my life for my own good.  That’s not a review of a film; it’s a nanny lecture married to a therapy session.

If I was reviewing the film?  The first half hour is brilliant.  I really liked Anne Hathaway.  The “Master of the House” number has more cross-cutting and multiple angles than all the other musical numbers combined, which makes it not only stick out, but stick out like somebody dropped it in from the extras disc of Oliver.  The last half hour is like the last half-mile in a 5K race: it’s a lot of work to cross that finish line.  And (because it’s a film) I realized four things I didn’t notice before about the story (yes, there's a story here):

1. Every main character has someone else as the motivating factor in his or her life.  Javert and Valjean live for each other; Fantine lives for Cosette; Eponine lives for Marius; Marius is torn between the revolution and Cosette; Cosette is torn between Marius and Valjean. The only ones who live for themselves are the Thénardiers, and they wear out their filmic welcome pretty quickly, in my opinion.

2.  Calling Ivanhoe--here we are again with the mythic battle between the dark lady and the fair lady for the male romantic lead.  As usual in this battle, the fair lady is bland and the dark lady is interesting, which is why she gets the ballad that everybody still sings in auditions.  Hell, she even changes her sex (symbolically) to hang out at the barricades, like some Hugoistic version of Rosalinde.  And of course she has to sacrifice herself like Dietrich in Destry so the blonde-besotted sap she loves can marry Cosette without ever actually having to choose between the two of them.

3.  Russell Crowe can act, and Russell Crowe can carry a tune, but he can’t do both at the same time.

4.  The ending is deeply ironic.  Every dead person in the film, every single one with no tomorrow, is standing on a massive barricade and singing about when tomorrow comes.  Not because kings or jailers or the law is a tyrant.  Because Life is the tyrant.  And death is the only true freedom.  Top that, Top Hat.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

2012 Report Card


Movies Watched in Theatres: 81
DVD’s Watched: 77
Plays: 32
Operas: 0
Dance Performances: 7
Readings: 8
Music Performances: 24
Museum Visits: 7

Books Read: 28
Plays Read: 37
Poetry Magazines Read: 29
Comic Books Read: 411

Staged Readings Given: 0
Produced Plays: 0
Poetry Readings Given: 0

Stories Written: 1
Ten-Minute One-Acts Written: 4
One-Acts Written: 2
Full-Length Plays Begun: 2
Full-Length Plays Finished: 0
Full-Length Plays Rewritten: 1
Screenplays Written: 1
Novels Begun: 2
Novels Finished: 1 (and boy does it need a rewrite)
Poems Written: 46

Blog Posts: 83

Submissions:  15
Acceptance Letters: 0
Rejection Letters: 8 from 2011, 4 from 2012
Awaiting Reply: 11

Addictions: Alcoholic

Abita             6
Allagash White 1
Bass Ale    3
Beck's        1
Blackened Voodoo     4
Blue Moon   11
Blue Point Ale   3
Boddington's     4
Brooklyn Lager 17
Budweiser    2
Corona      14
Bombardier   2
Dos Equis 13
Flying Dog In Heat Wheat 5*
Guinness  164
IPA   3
Killian's     1
Lion Stout 3
Long Island Pilsner     6
Magic Hat   10
Old English Hen             2
Pacifico     1
Presdidente       2
Sam Adams        86
Sierra Nevada   10
Stella         3
Yngling      2

Cabernet Sauvignon  4
Champagne        1
Chardonnay       1
Cote du Rhone 2
Malbec (bottles)        7
Malbec (glasses)       28
Merlot        6
Pinot Grigio       1
Pinot Noir   11
Riesling    15
Rose   3
Shiraz        4

Jameson    16
Powers  1

Macallan 4
Oban  5*

Petron (shots)   5
Don Julio  (shots)   3
Margaritas   10

Stolichnaya (shots) 6

Sangria   1

Rob Roy   2
Amazon heat    4*
Hurricane  4*

Sake   15 large

Checking The Tires   8

*all on the same night

Addictions: Romantic

Exorcisms: 1
Actual Attractions: 0
Neurotic Attractions: 3
Neurotic Attractions Acted Upon: 0


Weeks Spent in a Foreign Country: 0
Weeks Spent in the Nineteenth Century: 1 (Thanks, Hurricane Sandy!)

Total Spent on Comic Books: $1661.85
Price of Round Trip Ticket to Australia on Qantas: $1598

Weddings: 0
Memorial Services: 2
Eulogies: 1

Bowling: 4

All-Nighters: 3
Working Days of Drinking (8 hours or longer): 4
Nights On The Town With A Fetish Model: 2

Resolutions made on 1/1/12: 4
Resolutions kept as of 12/31/12: 2