Despite our reputation to the contrary with the Eee Vee residency and the hipster tastes in music and shoes, Cinecultist really gets most of our New York City It Places news from reruns of Sex and the City on TBS. That's how we heard about this member's only, with a rooftop pool Soho House place in the Meatpacking District, so when we were invited to a screening of an unknown political documentary in their screening space last night, known as the Black Room, we leapt at the opportunity.
Here's a conundrum kids, for the young girls in the smart set: one wears the pointy shoes with the heels in the evening out in the Meatpacking District so as to blend with the crowd. Yet! Every time one's heel's gets caught in those damned cobblestones, even just crossing the impossibly wide 9th Avenue, one can't help but wince, knowing how much they cost and how they'll have to go to the shoe repair all too soon. What's one to do?
Anyhow, Soho House. Like walking into the lobby of a boutique hotel, it's all dimmed lighting and dark stained wood. There are a number of staff people at a tiny front desk, and though we've rsvped to the e-mail on the press release, there is no real list. We don't have to give a name or an affiliation of any kind. CC steps onto the tiny elevator with an elderly gentleman, a couple who look sort of European and a kid, about 10 years old in shorts and no shoes. We all ride to the Fourth Floor. On this floor is the Black Room, aka the screening room, and the White Room, a lounge area next door with furry throw rugs and modish furniture. No one is in the screening room, but a DVD is queued up for the screening we're attending. People mill about in the White Room, though when the bartender asks what film we're here to see, it's not the one who's throwing the party in the White Room. Oops. CC drinks our cold green bottled imported beer anyhow.
A half hour or so after it's supposed to begin, the director and producer introduce their film. Which is actually a digital video, if you want to get technical, and only 33 minutes long. It's dreadful. Thus our reticence to mention the title of the film, because while CC can't in good conscious recommend it by any means, we're loathe to be thought of as playa haters. We did after all get free drinks at the Soho House, plus the Black Room has this lovely new car smell with their enormous leather recliners. Then, you have the damask carpet and the individual metal ice buckets between each chair perfect for chilling your own bottle of Cristal. All in all, it's a pretty sweet space. If another director/producer team invited us there for a screening of their film, no matter how inane and pointless, we'd probably go. Those chairs are perfect for napping in too, though with only 40 or so seats in the place, the filmmakers are pretty certain to see you catching a disco nap during their movie.
[Memo to the editor, director and producer of this mystery project: If you're going to announce to the audience you didn't know much about the topic before you were hired, we're going to kind of wonder why you're the director of this movie. And inexplicably in it, filmed walking through doorways and talking on your cell phone, in between the shots of geeky talking heads. Also, that computerized voice wasn't cool or "accessible to young people" even when Radiohead used it on OK Computer, let alone as your transition theme. Just a word to the wise.]
We aren’t the first and we certainly won’t be the last – after the extremely short credits of Primer finished rolling, Seattle Maggie exclaimed, “Holy Ray Bradbury, Batman, what in the Fourth Dimension was THAT all about?”
Let us digress for a moment by saying we are actually very smart. Really. While we admit padding our college GPA with extravagant grades from our theatrical lighting design instructor, we do manage to grasp concepts such as parallel universes, wormholes, and the fact that Universe is gradually going room temperature. Given our science fiction readin’ and role-playin’ gamin’ geekish past, we figured we could approach a movie about time travel without fear. We had not, however, figured on Primer's ability to twist one’s mind into an elaborate pretzel, and we now feel about as smart as a bag of hammers.
The movie follows two young programmers who, disillusioned with the dreariness of office life, manage to invent an incredible box with even more incredible powers. It seems that the box holds the key to the mystery of time travel, and our heroes are now left with the big decision of what to do with this power. What does one do with a day one can live over? Why, play the stock market, of course! Things soon escalate out of control once the time travelers begin to have ideas outside making a little extra cash, and that is just about where our vocabulary was reduced to “Huh?” and “Wha?”
A strange thing happened – even though we didn’t know what was going on, we still kind of liked it. It was like watching someone incredibly smart think aloud.
Even though most of it sounded like gibberish, we couldn’t help but feel smart by association. Unfortunately, the production value on Primer was not the best. The whole movie was a little too dark and smudgy for our taste, and this doesn’t help when there are multiple timelines to keep track of. We are aware that Primer was made with an admirably low budget, and it shows at times. However, we had a special fondness for the box itself, which looks like it was tacked together with tin foil and the remnants of an eighth grade science fair. It has just the right balance of ominous cheesiness, and reminded us fondly of the first season of Red Dwarf, where the enormous city-sized mining ship basically consisted of two rooms and a corridor, filmed from different angles.
At any rate, the parts of our brain that haven’t been fried beyond repair are still thirsty for knowledge. Seattle Maggie will send a free Primer poster (compliments of the Varsity in the U-District) to anyone who can explain the last half of the movie to us, especially the parts about the guy with the shotgun and the comatose boss, what exactly happened with the multiple Aarons, and the whole concept of the Fail Safe box-in-a-box. Please use short sentences and, if possible, avoid using the words “continuum”, “paradox”, and “Weeble” – they still make us break out in a cold sweat.
That's the order and the elements from the Motorcycle Diaries which Cinecultist liked the best, if compelled to pick three and rate them. Such lush vistas, a moving story and did we mention that Gael García Bernal is yummy? Well, he is. However! The Motorcycle Diaries is more than just the sum of its pleasant parts, Cinecultist might call it one of our favorite films of the year. The sweep and the resonance linger longer with one than just the mere beefcake factor.
Gael plays Ernesto Guervara de la Serna, a young medical student who takes off on a grand tour around South America with his buddy, Alberto, on the back of their motorcycle, a dilapidated but beloved hunk of junk. Intending to backpack around getting by on their ability to bullshit the locals and a few formal introductions in scattered cities, the trip becomes a consciousness altering experience for the two young men, in particular Ernesto, the film implies, who later becomes known as "Che." While the movie doesn't set out to be a biographical sketch of the full life of Che, or really try to connect the dots between this experience and what comes later in his brief life, it does allude to a compelling, developing character. Rather than doing a tidy cause and effect storyline, the Motorcycle Diaries strives to be more.
Leave it then to CC and her estimable viewing companion, the Real Janelle to discard any conversation on aesthetics or the making of a Great Man, and to sink to the lowest common denominator, aka drooling on Gael. Here's a sampling of a recent IM conversation after seeing the movie together:
cc: Hey, I'm working on a posting on Motorcycle Diaries. Any words from the Real Janelle to the Cinecultist kids on that flick?
trj: No, not really. I thought it was good. Mostly just couldn't stop thinking about Gael. So handsome.
cc: Yes, he's swoon-worthy.
trj: But I kept thinking about how he's petite. You can kind of tell. I never noticed before. b/c he's so hott.
cc: I've heard good things come in small packages.*smirk* Though, when I saw him on the street near my house (!), he did seem to be on the shorter side. [Ed Note: 5' 6," according to Imdb.]
trj: Well my rule is, greater than or equal to. He's got a little leeway. Er, a lot.
cc: But maybe not when you wear your Otto Tootsi Plohound heels.
trj: Haha. Well, when you're, um, horizontal you might not notice. [insert maniacal IM laughing] Hahahahahah.
All senseless objectifying aside, the film is filled with lovely moments of poetic beauty and grace. Playing soccer with the lepers, first glimpsing Manchu Pichu, or even every time that crazy motorcycle wipes on on a gravel road sending the riders to the edges in a heap, CC felt like we were there. And if we had been, we'd have written all of you a postcard saying "Wish You Were Here."
The sacred promise of the indie filmmaking scene from the '90s was that this rarified artistic and commercial product could be made by any shmo with some credit cards to max out, a semester or so of film school, former employment at a video store and a dream. No one in our current glutted category of "American Auteurs" typifies this as well as Kevin Smith. Sitting down with the three disc anniversary edition of Clerks this weekend, Cinecultist got to thinking about our long and tumultuous love affair with the films of Mr. Smith and generally the last ten years of indie films. Sure that's a dauntingly large topic, perhaps the stuff for a book, but here's a few stabs at it by way of Kevin Smith fandom.
The news that Smith plans to make a sequel to Clerks, titled The Passion of the Clerks, isn't really such a surprise what with the nostalgia overload kicking in on the DVD. What made Smith's persona and whole back story so damn appealing initially was his every guyness, and the DVD extras really celebrate that aspect of the film. Here's a chubby fellow in a trench coat from a small town in Jersey who spends one semester in film school and then spends a year writing and making a movie about what he knows — dead end jobs in backwater Jersey as told by sex and pop culture obsessed buddies. Everyone loves these formation stories, how the young filmmaker came to be (see the current buzz about Tarnation). Especially when they can report on how he made the movie with but a ball of twine for a budget, the sweat from his ass as film stock and his five best buddies from pre-school as the cast.
Despite the ease with which it was tout Smith for his humble beginnings, he still had such an accessibility and was a vocal proponent for it that CC always forgave him. When Smith came onto the scene he was like that guy you knew from high school who was always so funny, but spent a few semesters in community college, still lives at home with his folks and doesn't seem to be going anywhere in particular. CC knew loads of people like that growing up in the 'burbs and Smith's subject matter plus his rise to fame made him their poster boy of what could be.
What's interesting on the DVD's documentary, "Snowball Effect: The Making of Clerks" is how much Smith seemed himself to be in awe of those who'd gone before him (like Richard Linklater's Slacker) and how important it was to him to give back once he succeeded. From the docu, you'd think Smith funded every pipe dream and half-baked movie project his buddies ever had. And goodness do they love him for it. The other thing abundantly clear on listening to the commentary track while watching the original version screened at the IFFM at the Angelika in '93, is that Smith has to go back to doing low budget, talky comedies. The film looks like crap, even he jokes that his most innovated shot formation is a two shot, but still it's so compelling.
Any idiot could have made Jersey Girl, all formula and no substance. That's the problem with indie cinema, in that it became the establishment and morphed into something completely overblown. Kevin, we beg of you, go back to writing what you know. And here's a suggestion that maybe you don't want to hear — you're a writer, a pretty good writer, but you're not really a director. Let someone else imagine where to put the camera while you come up with the dialogue and the scenarios.
Then you could have something even more lasting on screen, beyond the fading schtick of Jay and Silent Bob. Cinecultist thinks he has it in him, do you? Leave it in the comments.
Perhaps a prerequisite to being in Oliver Stone's new movie, Alexander (opening Nov. 24) is that you must cra-ay-zy. Either that, or just give weirdo interviews. Cinecultist has quoted our man Colin Farrell, he of the inappropriate flirting with reporters, here before and we don't think we need to give you evidence of the lovely Angelina Jolie's loose cannon in print but did you know Val "He's still acting?" Kilmer is also in the picture?
Val baby, with a beard like classic Kris Kristofferson and wearing a bathrobe with black lace up boots (creepy old man chic?), answers Katy McColl's queries in this month's Jane magazine. There's no permalink on their flash happy site, so we'll have to direct you to the newsstands and page 87 to read the rest, but here's a choice tidbit from the non sequitur laden conversation.
Jane mag: What's the most fur you've ever donned in a single sitting?
Val baby: Fur? I wore a buffalo rug for a photo shoot in New Zealand on top of a glacier.
J: Doesn't count. What about in your private life?
V: I made out with a girl under a buffalo rug. [Reflectively] "Made out," what's the last time you heard "made out?" Made out? I haven't made out with a girl in hours.
In case you were wondering what exactly ace pilot Xander Barclow says to Carmen Ibanez as he approaches her on the flight deck with a calming cup of tea in Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, it's something like, you think you're so great with the star maps, now that "You Licked My Navs." Cinecultist knows this because we watched it on instant replay for about 5 minutes with Matty and Jen last night. We weren't certain actor Patrick Muldoon accused Denise Richards of taking her tongue to other nether regions, but it sure sounded like it.
Rewinding and leaning into the DVD player, ears wide open still didn't resolve the query. Thank goodness for the subtitle feature on DVDs. Though, when exactly they included the word "navs" into the english language we're not sure.
Also thanks to Michelle for IMing the answer to our Samuel Pepys inquiry yesterday. "Pepys was the Earl of Sandwich's secretary and he did stuff for the navy and wrote in code. That first part was from our head by the way, but then we caved and Googled him. Now I'm reading his diary because it's more fun than work and more uplifting than the economist article about Darfur." CC's always glad we can help to distract people from their work day!
What is this gentle breath of fresh air, this tendril of a breezy caress? No, that’s not the onset of the red-gold autumn chill. That would be Seattle Maggie waving “buh-bye” to The Man, at least for the time being. Yes, we are now officially unemployed, having finally come to the end of our tether with office politics, administrative drudgery and wacked-out bosses who make sweeping decisions about the future of their employees, yet can’t for the life of them adjust the brightness on their monitors. On top of that, when our CEO was canned because he had the temerity to come down with a bad case of cancer, and replaced with a backslapping frat boy with typos in his cover letter, we thought perhaps it was time to move on before we came to work one morning with a flamethrower and a quest to purify the place.
So, for the time being, we are coasting along on our savings and our rescued sense of self-respect. Is there life outside the cubicle? Seattle Maggie hopes so. While we know that ending up back by the water cooler may be inevitable in this day and age, we feel we have struck a small blow for our own sense of decency and intelligence by putting our proverbial foot down. In celebration of this, we turn our investigational eye toward – what else? – the movies. Apart from the classic Office Space, which quite literally everyone and their mother has seen thanks to a near-constant run on afternoon Comedy Central, all you desk jockeys out there can rejoice in several other very fine films celebrating the inane and soul-shriveling nature of modern office culture.
For those of you suffering trouble with commitment, give Haiku Tunnel a try. Based on monologuist Josh Kornbluth's one man show, this light n’ entertaining film explores the trials and tribulations of a temp worker turned perm. While Kornbluth is entertaining in a shaggy-dog sort of way, the movie does get a little exasperating as the plot concerning the unsent letters drags on and on (just stamp 'em and post 'em, dude, it's not rocket science). However, it is almost worth the price of the rental just to watch Kornbluth have voluptuous fantasies about his bed, which coyly peels its covers open before him like a shy concubine. Seattle Maggie confesses that our bed has the same allure.
Also on the temporary career path is Clockwatchers, starring some of our favorite indie female talent. A quartet of temps, including Toni Collette, Lisa Kudrow and brash young thing Parker Posey, form an unlikely bond in an office full of permanent employees. When things start disappearing around the office, the lowest members of the proverbial totem pole are blamed, and the temps begin to turn on each other in an attempt to save their already uncertain jobs. This is a great movie for anyone who has ever suffered the anonymous indignity of temporary work, and the elevator music soundtrack is sure to wedge itself in your unused brain cells for a good long while.
Perhaps one of the weirdest movies we've seen in a long time was Bartleby with Crispin Glover, the man who defines quirk. While Seattle Maggie did plow through the original story by Herman Melville in Freshman English, we found it was not necessary to appreciate the modern film version. With every firm, soft-spoken repetition of Bartleby's mantra "I would prefer not to" we found ourselves growing amused, then irritated, then concerned, then desperate to understand the reason behind the words. We, too, would prefer not to. Add in a blink-worthy color scheme and an excellent supporting cast of office misfits, and count yourself rescued from another long afternoon of Judge Judy and Pokemon reruns.
Last, but not least, is Seattle Maggie’s all time favorite anti-office, up-with-the-people movie, Joe Versus The Volcano. Tom Hanks is everyman Joe Banks, beaten down by the endless rote of his joyless life, but indirectly rescued by the diagnosis of a “brain cloud”. Meg Ryan, pre-Sleepless in Seattle, stars also as the various women in his life. This modern fable, scribed and directed by one of our favorite playwrights John Patrick Shanley, always lifts our spirits, and we long to find our own volcano to conquer. As it is, to have our time back, even for this short while, is indeed like gold in our hand. Seattle Maggie is giving that forbidden valve a good turn, and who knows on what fabulous shores we may wash up on.
He used to just be a Golden God, and Cinecultist was fine with that. But now, Billy Crudup wants to be an Ahct-or, in his new movie with Claire Danes, Stage Beauty where he plays one gender confused character inside another gender characters. All while sporting a British accent. And being attracted to Claire. Whew, it makes us tired just writing about it.
Billy plays Ned Kynaston, the famous Shakespearian actor from 1660's London who's spent his whole life training to play women's roles on the stage. However, his dresser Maria (that's Claire) would also like to have some strutting and fretting time, so she convinces King Charles, (even without all of those spaniels underfoot, Rupert Everett's still the gay-est ever, god love him) to lift the edict against women on stage and to ban the men in women's parts. And hilarity ensues. Just kidding, no actually this is one of those "artistic independent dramas produced in Europe," so then, drama ensues.
Our problem though with the movie in general is how it tries to illustrate this grand moment (women take the English stage, how revolutionary!) but instead it merely seems petty and small. Shouldn't there be more to it than the jealousy/sexual tension between Ned and Maria? Even the city of London seems small, as the same minor characters appear over and over again on screen in the background. Is there no one else important to be at court beside a bunch of actors and Samuel Pepys? (10 points to whomever can e-mail us and remind us what Pepys is famous for in English letters.) Also, is Ned gay? Or just a little gender confused and easily sorted out by Maria's adoration? That doesn't make a whole lot of sense in our post-Stonewall world.
The final thing CC was left with for certain after seeing Stage Beauty, we never want to see Claire Danes flash her bare breast at us ever, ever again. *Shudder.* Not exactly knowledge that is worth the admission to the theater.
Amongst friends, and at few parties, Cinecultist has joked about the burgeoning growth of the Nick Denton/Gawker Media "evil" empire. The Man's Plan to take over the world, one domain name at a time continues, now with the distribution of impossible to find blue movies under the imprint Fleshbot Films.
Their first release is the long lost Ed Wood picture, Necromania, a pornographic film made at the end of the B-film director's career. Fleshbot Films has now made it, along with two other titles to be released soon, available on newly mastered DVD via Amazon.
More details via the New Yorker Talk of the Town piece in this week's issue. Make like the Cinecultist by reading this on the bus on the way home, then snickering audibly while muttering "that Nick Denton" and making people move down the seat from you. It's fun!
[Confidential to Mr. Denton or those in his hire who add people to lists: If there's a star-studded premiere of Necromania can we be on the list? Or maybe just get sent a screener? CC hearts Ed Wood, bad '70s porn and Gawker, of course.]
We knew Margaret back when she was Maggie Berry and also our editor at the college newspaper. Maggie said, "Karen, use more commas." Words to live by.
CC tried to recall if Margaret ever suggested any sort of perfect consumable in our tenure, and we remembered an impressionable sophomore being introduced by the senior columnist to the combination of peppermint schnapps and hot chocolate on a staff ski trip. That's some good stuff. Thus, we recommend her curated suggestions for purchases whole heartedly.
After having the Guy Maddin* DVD of Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary for over a month from Netflix, Cinecultist finally took a Monday evening of poor television offerings to watch it. Now, we're smacking ourselves upside the head, yelling, "what took youse so long?" Sexy and weird and arty and intriguing and beautiful are not too shabby adjectives to describe a movie we'd been meaning to see for ages but only just sat down to watch, practically under duress.
So much of what Maddin does that's so delightful to a cinecultist like ourselves, is the foregrounding of moviemaking. He wants you to know it's a movie, in other words, and he uses the silent film techniques of melodrama, tinting, iris transitions, fish-eye lenses and a host of other gee gaws to constantly make the viewer aware of his game. While this adds quite a bit to the artistic intentions of his project, it also prompts such ruminations for CC best kept to ourselves like, "why don't more filmmakers use inter-titles?" and "nobody does good spot color hand tinting these days!" You'd think we were Peter Bogdanovich with these fancyings for ye olde silent film prompted by Maddin's work.
But if the techniques seem old fashioned, the sensibility is completely modern (in the sense of presenting "now" on screen, rather than the turn of last century). You can watch a zillion and one Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes and get that horror conventions are yet another metaphor for the fear of female sexuality, but Maddin's staging of this Royal Winnipeg Ballet's production makes it all so real once again. See, it's like, the Virgin Lucy writes in the pages of her diary that she really longs for the Vampyr just as she wants to possess all three suitor, and Harker's diary entry detailing his stay in Transylvania gets Mina all hot — it's all so obvious when you see it danced out in front of you.
Zhang Wei-Qiang, the actor/dancer who plays Dracula, with his eyes spot colored in blood red hypnotizing us from the screen is on par with Murnau's Nosferatu framed in a round doorway. It is not a horror image easily forgotten.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone hate terrorists and self-important Hollywood actors, so their bile directed at both groups in the new movie Team America: World Police, really does balance out. Cinecultist realized as the lights began to dim in our screening over the weekend, that we've seen quite a few the Parker/Stone productions in the theaters. Orgazmo, BASEketball and of course, Bigger, Longer and Uncut, which won Parker an Oscar for best song. He should be nominated again for his witty ditties in this picture, because like the rest of Team America, they're in equal parts clever, disgusting and hilarious.
Some of America's favorite cinematic models get a harsh ribbing in this movie, such as the cocky swagger of Top Gun's Maverick, the xenophobia of Star War's alien bar and the sucky acting of Ben Affleck in Pearl Harbor. Mostly it's the whole Jerry Bruckheimer school of action which is mercilessly flogged, the formulaic emotions set up to fuel the gratuitous violence. However, for two guys who seem to so love the structure of the musical, they appear to be out to murder that genre too. Highlight for Cinecultist included Kim Jong Il's plaintive ballad, "I'm Lonely," though of course it sounded more like "I'm Rone-ry" with Parker's un-PC performance as the voice of the Korean dictator.
Like a marionette projectile puking after an all night bender, Parker and Stone don't know when to stop, but that's perfectly fine by us. No one likes passing out in a pool of your own green gunk, by if that's the by product of such smart satire, we'll take it.
Cinecultist has been working hard to resist the J.Lo chip in our brain, and our No To J.Lo support group suggested the best way to do this, would be to avoid Shall We Dance. However, this is the very fare that our three readers visit Cinecultist.com to read reviews of — and that's why CC turned to our Mom, based in San Francisco where she caught an advance screening last week, for her expert opinion.
This is a moviegoer who took the impressionable, 11 year old Cinecultist to see Cocktail in the theaters, plus she's a fan of the Japanese original and in the older chick demographic which offers a strong opening weekend for a Richard Gere movie. But even that wasn't enough to persuade CC's Mom to recommend it to our readers.
I looked forward to seeing the film, actually dragging along Danny, who went as the patient boyfriend to see it. As you know, I am a huge fan of any type of dance and spending the evening looking at Richard Gere is always a treat. However, I was totally disappointed. The subtleness of the Japanese version was lost in this film. I cared nothing about the male character trying to find meaning in mid life, and to top if off, the dancing was minimal and mediocre...certainly no John Travolta moment. Jennifer Lopez who is a great dancer was captured on screen very little. They seemed to be trying to promote her acting ability....what a waste. So, the whole thing was a bust and now I have to sit through some car chase movie because Danny gets the next pick.
Cinecultist knew we went to the movies last weekend, and thus had a current release to review, but we were quite hard pressed to remember what we saw. We decided to retrace our Saturday steps, in our mind.
Woke up late. Coffee and toast. Surfing over TBS, HBO, BBC America and any internet tidbits we missed. Dressed and out the door, finally. Stopped into the post office to pick up a package. Leisurely second coffee at Mudspot, sitting in the window box seat and reading this week's Entertainment Weekly. Eye doctor's appointment. Then, movie at CC Village East. What was it now? Not something that just came out this week, because of the venue. We don't recall we read subtitles. But that only narrows it down so far. What was it...(*insert whatever sound you think omits from the Cinecultist brain racking)
Finally, CC had to consult last week's Time Out New York to remember it was Bright Young Things. It wasn't that we disliked Stephen Fry's adaptation of the Evelyn Waugh novel, it's just that it was apparently extremely unmemorable.
Actually we also forgot that this was Fry's directorial debut, after a long acting career, but that's partially because it's such an assured feature. It doesn't have the usual first film tender missteps. Except maybe the all too convenient ending. We're boycotting convenient endings right now. CC liked the smart set in '30s London plot, with all fancy dress balls, sex intrigues and posh accents. Also, the interaction between the media and their subjects, and how the subjects became the media, also seems particularly relevant and current. The performances were nice too, not anything that hugely stood out but all adequate.
What was it that caused this film to literally flee our mind, when so many horrible, humiliating pictures have been lodged there? Perhaps it's time to start taking some of those memory herbs they sell over the counter. What are they called again?
That's just what we were thinking!
JD Update: The Film Forum brings a limited engagement of the Derrida documentary to their screens this weekend, from Friday to Tuesday, in honor of the French philospher's recent passing. Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe called him, “the Mick Jagger of cultural philosophy!” Isn't that enough to make you want to go see a film about his ideas?
RS Update: Our favorite independent film magazine, Reverse Shot has up their newest edition on the website. This quarter's theme is political films, and many of our compatriots chose some unlikely films to discuss in a partisan light, so you know they're essays well worth a peruse.
After the jump is a reposting of Cinecultist's own full essay on Robert Altman's Tanner '88, from this issue. Tanner '88 is being replayed on Sundance Channel right now, along with new episodes, Tanner on Tanner.
Once More in Oh-Four
Karen Wilson on Tanner ‘88
On the campaign trail for the Democratic presidential nomination, two old political colleagues run into each other at a small town photo opportunity. Pausing in front of the cameras, one introduces the other to his daughter and all three chat amiably, though they represent different parties. The Democrat mugs that he hopes it comes down in the end to a contest between the two of them. Chuckling, the Republican shakes his hand and wishes him well.
For anyone who lived through the 1996 election or who has caught a few advertisements for Pepsi or Viagra, the face of the Republican—former presidential nominee Bob Dole—is a familiar one. However, the Democrat and his daughter may be less recognizable. They’re actually actors: Michael Murphy plays Jack Tanner, a congressman from Michigan running for the Democrat presidential nomination and Cynthia Nixon as his college-aged daughter, Alex Tanner, who has left school to help her father’s campaign. As the subjects of director Robert Altman and cartoonist Garry Trudeau’s TV political satire Tanner ‘88, Murphy and Nixon, plus their staff and the journalists following them on the nomination trail are supposed to blend in with the crowd, looking perfectly natural when at a fundraiser, leading an impromptu student rally, or schmoozing the delegates on the floor of the Atlanta Democrat Convention. Utilizing his signature roaming camera style, Altman makes us believe we’re watching the drama of Tanner’s run unfold before us unawares. Nothing’s sacred in a campaign and thus every salacious moment is perfectly caught by this anonymous camera.
However, unlike most professional politicians who seem as comfortable within their carefully crafted public personas as inside an expensive suit, Murphy’s Tanner has to undergo the transformation from idealistic professor/congressman to jaded spin doctor finagling votes from delegates before Altman’s intrusive camera. We get to see every awkward grimace and flash of self-aware embarrassment on Murphy’s face.
Tanner ‘88 runs for eleven episodes—an hour-long pilot plus 10 half-hour installments from the New Hampshire primary through the Atlanta national convention. Altman intended for the show, made for HBO, to run through the November election, but it was unfortunately canceled before he could complete it. Thus, the closing moment of episode eleven just after the nominating convention, feels only like a pause, as though the previous vignettes had been just snapshots within a larger picture. The miniseries format and the unresolved nature of the “ending” (will Tanner run as an Independent candidate after losing the primary?), both serve very well Altman’s purpose in constructing a complex satire grounded in “reality.” It’s as though Tanner’s life could not be contained in a two-hour feature film.
Most political films and television shows exist within a vacuum, a fantasy world not reflecting those actually in office but the ideal of what writers and directors wish could be our national destiny. David Edelstein in his Aug 18, 2000 Slate article about political filmmaking, “Pols On Film,” illustrates a cunning narrative trope common in campaign drama that he calls “the Big Speech.” At the climactic moment, our candidate throws aside his carefully crafted words to give his audience, and us, the real deal. It’s meant to be a humanizing and hero-making gesture that tugs at our heartstrings. In Tanner ‘88 Altman blatantly eschews this kind of sentiment-grubbing in favor of something more complex. With every episode, as Tanner and his crew confront logistical disasters (a broken-down bus filled with reporters), media bumbling (a helicopter swoops in on the congressman’s wedding), or situations fraught with moral grey areas (the discovery by a reporter of the candidate’s relationship with a fellow campaign’s manager), there do not seem to be any easy answers. This is much more satisfying than any triumphant Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style filibuster. As the moderator for the presidential debate, Linda Ellerbee (another politico playing herself), points out, anyone who goes through the whole process and gets to the White House probably isn’t someone you want there. Yet Tanner argues, in a direct address to the camera filmed for the Sundance Channel re-release, that this system is the best we’ve got. Altman and Trudeau’s main purpose could be to explicate this conundrum.
Recalling my own memories of the ‘88 election, I so remember wanting the process to be reducible to a fight between the good guys and the bad. In our elementary-school mock election, situated as it was in a moderately affluent suburb of San Francisco, it was unsurprisingly a decision for Dukakis by a landslide. In my own house, the Dems were the good guys and Ronald Reagan was “a turkey,” so of course that’s how the whole country must feel, right? Or at least, that was my eleven-year-old reasoning. I remember vividly how shocked I was by the muckraking and badgering about Dukakis’s personal life, in particular the exposure of his wife Kitty’s drinking addiction. For years, I would eye the opaque plastic bottle of rubbing alcohol in our medicine cabinet with wariness and think of our would-be First Lady.
It is intriguing to watch Tanner ‘88 16 years later and to be so aware of these hindsight-is-20/20 details about the actual candidates, and particularly to know how it all turned out. Watching Kitty onscreen as herself, in her faux regal posturing, chatting with the actress who plays Tanner’s love interest, is a little cringe-worthy. Yet, it’s still easy even now to be caught up in the characters’ tide of idealism and hope for that year’s election. Like our own current race, there’s a tendency to make it into a Manichean case of good versus evil—a regime that must be removed by a moral (read: liberal) imperative. Yet Tanner ‘88 also struggles hard against that tendency. Tanner characterizes himself to the media surrounding him as an aging hippie intellectual whose stance on drugs (legalize them) is based on his own experiences as a spouse of a drug addict. He also is quick to broadcast his involvement in the Civil Rights movement, acting shocked when the flacks around him don’t get his references to Selma. In one of the early episodes, at a campaign stop in Alabama, Tanner visits a prominent black preacher, an old friend from the Sixties with whom he has fallen out of touch. He is hurt and shocked that his media director uses this connection as an impromptu press conference, gathering the entire media corps on site without Tanner’s knowledge. Tanner can’t believe his staffer would so blatantly step outside the mode of privacy, and for the next few episodes, Tanner freezes the staffer out of the major decisions.
Yet in contrast to these instances of moral uprightness is Tanner’s growing sheepishness over his daughter Alex’s youthful brashness. The series depicts the father and teenaged daughter as surprisingly close, but Alex’s conception of her father’s stance on certain issues seems to fall further left than Tanner would like to appear. In one sequence, Alex talks her dad into attending an anti-Apartheid rally just before he’s set to present at a Congressional hearing. In the flurry of the moment, under Alex’s pressure and in front of a bunch of reporters, Tanner not only attends the rally but also ends up handcuffed to a line of other protestors and then carted off to jail. While Tanner certainly doesn’t come across as in support of the racist South African government in his obvious reticence to act decisively, he seems supremely embarrassed to have been caught on camera in such a display. Alex seems to think that all one needs to do to be elected is to speak from one’s convictions, but Jack Tanner appears to know differently. Partially that wisdom must come from age, but I think it’s safe to assume that Tanner also accepts the inevitable tidying up of principles for manageable sound bites. In a Jimmy Stewart for President America, we wouldn’t see such compromises, but here in Altman and Trudeau’s universe, it’s at the forefront.
After watching Tanner ‘88 again, what stands out most prominently in the depiction of Jack Tanner is how important it is to have elected officials who question themselves and our system. Tanner is an intellectual, engaged in the world around him, ideal when he feels he needs to be but pragmatic when the situation arises. Let’s just hope, as we come upon this November’s election, that kind of leader isn’t too much of an unfulfillable American fantasy as we so often see onscreen.
The original television miniseries of Tanner ‘88 will be repeated on the Sundance Channel Tuesday nights at 8 pm, Eastern and Pacific times, beginning Aug. 31 and continuing through Oct. 5; new episodes, titled “Tanner on Tanner,” begin on Oct. 5 at 9 pm, Eastern and Pacific times, and continue Tuesday nights at 9 pm. Check local listings for Central time. The Criterion Collection will also soon be releasing the series on DVD with video conversation between Altman and Trudeau, as well as additional essays by film critic Michael Wilmington, video critic/curator Michael Nash, and culture critic Garry Kornblau.
Dear Litigious Former High School Friends of Director Richard Linklater,
Hi there! How's it going? We don't know each other, but I read about your case on the AP and I wanted give you some advice. Not from a legal source, because lord knows we have no expertise in that area, but from a cinematic one.
My friends, your time has run out.
Rick made his (apparently) autobiographical paean to '70s high school cruisin' and hang out in suburban Texas in Nineteen Ninety Three. It is now Two Thousand and Four. We've passed the opportunity for a director's edition tenth anniversary DVD release of Dazed and Confused, so it's certainly too late for you three to sue for any kind of defamation on your likeness. We don't think you're going to be able to collect much even if you were for some whacked out reason awarded "damages."
Sure, Rick's transitioned into some more mainstream Hollywood directing lately, what with last year's School of Rock and CC certainly liked Before Sunset though we don't think it did such big box office. Cinecultist thinks he's a director who'll have a lasting impact on the cinematic landscape but a Steven "Money Bags" Spielberg he is not. Now dudes, if you had gone to high school with that guy and he made a movie that had characters with your names in it, then you might be able to make some serious change.
And another thing, if you're still calling yourself Randall 'Pink' Floyd and you're now (let's think here — 18 in summer of '76 + 29 years later) 47 years old, people are going to think you do drugs. It's a given, working at car dealership in Huntsville, TX or not. And really, you're being played by Jason London in a movie version of your life, man. That's not too shabby. He's been on the WB and everything.
That's all, we guess. Good luck then with your future endeavors and enjoy your few moments of fame while you can.
At least to write extended posts about them. The reasons are three-fold:
1) Because Cinecultist is getting over a cold. The weather dips down below 70 degrees and our head fills with flem. Sucks.
2) Because the landlord is tearing up the bathtub in our Eee Vee apartment to re-spackle it and when CC came home tonight, we had to clean up the tracked grout dust from all over the kitchen and entry way. Also sucks.
3) Because Seattle Maggie's in town visiting! That's right, our favorite left coast movie correspondent is in New York to attend a family function and took a few extras days off from her busy life of coffee drinking, anime watching and mocking her red-headed boyfriend to hang with the Cinecultist.
On this coming Monday night, CC and Seattle Maggie will be having tapas at Xunta on First Ave at 11th Street. Seattle Mags suggested CC invite a few of our New York friends. If you're one of those people and like Sangria (and really, who doesn't?), come on down and join us. Drop CC an IM or an e-mail, so we can know to keep an eye out for you and/or provide further details.
In the meantime, CC's thinking about buying the shooting script for I Heart Huckabees. We saw the film last weekend and though we liked it, we're still formulating our thoughts on it. Perhaps reading the dialogue, rather than just hearing it from the actors, would help us get a handle on our opinion.
Ever have that weird coincidence feeling, wherein certain people keep popping into your brain based on the strange convergence of references in the ether? That happened for Cinecultist recently in regards to writer/hack/impresario Toby Young, author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, his roman a clef about working for Vanity Fair. Apparently, Miramax has optioned the rights to the book and is planning to make a "dick lit" flick about it. Even better (and when we say better, we mean stranger) still is that according to the Sunday Times Jake Gyllenhaal will be playing the bald, portly, 40 year old English writer. Say wha?
CC had Young on the brain, strangely enough, because we'd just finished reading the essay in Peter Hyman's book, The Reluctant Metrosexual, about Hyman's own tenure at Vanity Fair during the Young years and their occasional drunken interactions. Gothamist Interview just recently did a Q & A with Hyman if you're curious, as we were, about how his bad with love/good with disposible income schtick transfers over to his actual life. Anyhoo, picking up Hyman's book randomly a week or so ago because it sounded like the kind of blog we'd like to read, reminded us of why we picked up Young's book. It's all about viewing the nitty gritty of the enviable Manhattan lifestyle in letters.
And so it then makes sense to do a movie about this lifestyle, just like Candace Bushnell hit it big with Sex and the City, one could imagine that the Miramax folks hope Toby might be the new silver screen Carrie. But how could they cast Gyllenhaal? He's 24! And totally American! Maybe it's a typo? Then there's the bit in the article about casting Catherine Zeta Jones as his love interest that he met while in the States? That makes no sense what so ever.
Either way though, we look forward to picking apart this potential production. And the good news, especially say if you're Gawker, is that perhaps Graydon Carter might be persuaded to play himself. Hell, he's in the remake of Alfie coming up. It could be a good career move for the erstwhile editor.
A mediabistro interview with Young from last year, including his nearly naked photo from the New York Observer, if like CC you had no idea what he looked like before.
Standing around a certain party in Midtown Manhattan last night, drinking far too much free champagne and oggling the young men in their swanky suits and floppy hair, Cinecultist wonder if they'd heard. You know, that the aliens have come to experiment on them. We're not making this up people, that's according to the new Julianne Moore movie, The Forgotten. Volvo-purchasing, Brooklyn Heights living yuppies are the aliens' targets, my friends, they want to see if the bourgeois are easily manipulated. Whatcha think the aliens find out in their little experiment?
Oops, sorry cinecultists. Maybe you didn't want to know the "plot twist" is this laughably bizarre thriller, because you were still desperate to see Julianne swing her lovely auburn locks around as she runs through downtown Brooklyn for yourself. We apologize then. However, we can't in all good conscience recommend that you through your own hard-earned cash at this implausible but earnest yarn.
There are loads of things we could harp on in this movie but we'll take one small gripe, so you can see what we mean here. Note to screenwriters everywhere: We know you want your creations to be unique and thus you give them unique names. But kids, there ain't nothing wrong with a Jane or a Pete, especially if your plot is intending to take the mundane and make it horrific. You know what's a bad idea, calling your main character Telly. Who's called that? (Besides fuzzy monsters on public television, that is.)
Then, when their balding spouse must spell it for the earnest cop in the precinct after they've run off, after apparently having a psychotic break triggered by their child's untimely death, it's just going to sound weird. T-E-L-L-Y, ma'am. And then her cohort is called Ash? As in short for Ashley? And he's a former professional hockey player? That's when Cinecultist wants to throw down the ticket stub and go home, because the afternoon is a wash now.
Goodnight Ms. Leigh, thanks for everything. Something about the death of old Hollywood figures cause Cinecultist to break out the maudlin language, forgive us. The AP reports today that actress Janet Leigh died Sunday at the age of 77 in her Beverly Hills home.
"Born Jeanette Helen Morrison in Merced, Calif., on July 6, 1927, she was a college student when retired star Norma Shearer saw her photograph at a ski resort. Shearer recommended the teenager to talent agent Lew Wasserman, who negotiated a contract at MGM for $50 a week." CC loves those kind of AP details, if only we had such a romantic rags to riches tale to recount in our obit.
Ok, so Janet Leigh wasn't the best actress to ever grace the silver screen, but we pour out a bit of our proverbial 40 in honor of Touch of Evil, The Manchurian Candidate, Bye Bye Birdie and of course, Psycho. Perhaps it's time to rewatch a few of those.
You always knew Cinecultist liked the high and the low. Today, you can also see CC over on Low Culture, getting all Shallow in their space while writing in the first person about movies. Our brief by the way, was to not try be funny, just in case you wondered.
You can tell that fall's in the air, because Cinecultist finds ourselves eyeing wooly sweaters in the stores and obsessing about the New York Film Festival. This will be our third year in attendance and though it's still one of our favorite things about living in New Yawk, it can be a drain.
There's always too much good stuff too see and even though this year CC was able to swing some press pass action (wahoo!), the Day Job sorta prohibits attending every screening we'd like because they're all in the afternoon. Then, if you think you'd like to buy tickets to a bunch of evening screenings, the totaled bill can be pretty prohibitive with each ticket running $15. Sure, you get a feature, a short plus a conversation with the filmmakers afterwards, but that's still pretty steep for a movie ticket.
Anyhow, we will be covering a few of the screenings between now and the 17th, but don't expect the moment by moment reporting CC'd love to bring you in an ideal world. That's all we're saying — too many movies, too little time.
Which is why for most of the films already with theatrical distribution lined up, like the anticipated Sideways by Alexander Paye, it can be better to wait for it to hit theaters this fall. Or you can read the equally obsessive coverage on the sites of our compatriots like Out of Focus and Filmbrain (who already has a review up of Look at Me, the opening film tonight).
The Cinecultist picks for the next few days screenings over at Gothamist Arts + Events. Coverage from the New York Times, including the opportunity for other armchair reviewers to post their opinions on the NYFF offerings.