Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy Brooding. Happy New Year.

Celebrating New Year’s Eve comes very easily to some people. For others, it’s somewhat problematic. Earlier today I eavesdropped on conversations at a coffee shop. A couple was planning on going to a club and getting drunk out of their minds. Another had plans to order pizza and stay home with the baby. Easy. Some people don’t even know what they’re going to do until a few hours before and wind up scrambling to get reservations for dinner at the last minute. Problematic.

A week ago, I had plans to go out but I got lazy and planned to get out of it. I decided to stay home writing and watching movies and enjoying three days of retrospective “me time.” Then, I got word friends wanted to come down for the weekend. Change of plans. No big deal.

For me, going out on New Year’s has mostly been a let down. There’s plenty of evidence in this blog that reveals my hopelessly romantic nature, but in case you didn’t know, well now you know. I think New Year’s Eve is the day for lovers, not Valentine’s Day. Sure, it’s fun to party with your friends, but if you’re single against your wishes, the twang of loneliness is with you throughout the celebration and reaches its height after the countdown is over. You kiss your sister and/or best friend if you’re a female. If you’re drunk and male, you kiss whoever happens to cross your path at that moment. Yet, you smile. And pretend you’re having a great time.

My parents were party animals and naturally they loved New Year’s Eve; always flying off to either Las Vegas or Mexico City. (The old Las Vegas; before it was an amusement park.) They did the whole fancy dinner-show-dancing production. That was because of my mom. I think my dad would have been very happy just doing dinner but my mom was a dancer. He is not, but he was whipped and hopelessly in love and that’s the way they rolled. Before taking of, they would arrange for us to have a lovely evening. Us, as in my grandmother, the maid, my siblings, cousins and a couple of our friends. They would have dinner catered and provide plenty of Martinelli’s sparkling cider. I think it was the only time our fancy dining room table was ever set with the good china and crystal. My grandma loved setting that table, and so did I. It was fun to pretend to be grown up.

Years later, when I was old enough to go out, I still preferred spending that night with my grandmother. I’d rent a bunch of “my crazy foreign movies” as she called them, and watched them after we ate the duck and bunuelos. She’d get bored pretty fast and go to bed early. I stayed up until two or three watching romantic French movies. (Now that I think about it, now wonder I’m so screwed up. It’s the movies.)

But make no mistake. New Year’s Eve is about You and the Night and the Music. It doesn’t matter how great your plans are, if you’re single, December 31 sucks. I finally realized that 5 years ago when a girlfriend and I jetted off to Paris to ring in the New Year. What can be better than that, right? Because my friend took forever to get ready, we only had two hours to get to Les Champs Elysees for dinner. We couldn’t get a cab so we had to take the Metro. Clusterfuck doesn’t even begin to describe it. We managed to squeeze in the subway car and rode like horrified sardines. We emerged from the underground five minutes before midnight. We ran and joined a sea of people from all over the world at the boulevard just in time for the countdown. We hugged and kissed strangers and I pretended I was having a great time. After all, I was smack in the middle of my favorite place in the world. The most romantic city on earth. Suddenly, an Algerian in a bright yellow leather motorcycle suit tried to kiss me and my knee jerk reaction was to push him away. He got angry, got hold of me and gropped me while his friends laughed and the gendarmes watched. It was terrifying. I tried to get myself loose but couldn’t. The Algerian finally released me by giving me a forceful push. My evening was pretty much ruined.

My fantasies about New Year’s Eve and romance are very much influenced by music and the movies. I can’t help it. Reality is somewhat elusive when you’re a storyteller. Even more when you’re a hopeless romantic and all it takes is Frank Sinatra to get you on my feet dancing and singing. I just wish it wasn’t followed by a lump in the throat and a desire to weep at the hearing words “you’re nobody til someone loves you.”

Maybe some day I’ll get to celebrate New Year’s the way I’ve written it and visualized it in my mind. Maybe not. But until then, I’m staying home with my dog watching movies. Tonight it’s probably going to be some Kieslowski and Wong Kar Wai. Sigh.

Below you’ll find a sampling of songs I’ve been listening while writing this post. Enjoy.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

My Year in Film Watching

I decided I might as well make some sort of year-end list.

I have to confess that I lost a bit of passion for film this year. Mediocrity on screen had something to do with it, but being around desperate screenwriters in search of high concept premises and trying to make it big in the business really got me down. It’s not who I am. Seems like the movie business thinks it needs more cowbell but they don’t know where to get more cowbell. This desperation is quite prominent and visible all over mainstream theater screens. Luckily, after seeing Claire Denis’ White Material, my passion was renewed. That’s all it takes. One film.

I live in Los Angeles. That means that as a cinephile, my big screen choices are not limited to mainstream studio crap. (My apologies to crap.) Because I skip that shit for the most part, every year the list of films I see on the big screen gets smaller. I can’t really make a Best Films of 2010 list since I didn’t see it all and I became even pickier, so what follows is a recap of the best films I saw in 2010.

White Material is my favorite new film of 2010, but the No. 1 spot (for the second year in a row) goes to Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm. Before 2008 I had only seen it on a television, but when I finally got the opportunity to see it in all its glory, I felt I was seeing it for the first time. And this year was no exception. I will continue to see it every year to remind me of what movies can and should be.

The highlight of my film going experience this year–life actually—was seeing all of my favorite director’s films, for the first time, in a movie theater. LACMA put on a full Andrei Tarkovsky retrospective and nothing was going to keep me away. Nothing. Again, even though I own all the films, they were a revelation. If you are familiar with this blog you know Tarkovsky is my religion. I was, however, bummed that the Nostalghia print was shitty.

Imagine my excitement when it was announced that Anna Karina would be in town for the screening of Pierrot Le Fou for the COLCOA (City of Lights City of Angels) French film festival. Now, imagine my utter disappointment when, before the screening, they announced she was stuck in France because of the volcano ash brouhaha. She was replaced by Monte Hellman and Howard A. Rodman. They were great, often making me feel like a philistine with their knowledge about everything. However, they were not as pretty as Anna. Maybe next year.

Along with The Hollywood Bowl and the Hollywood Forever Cemetery screenings, the AMPAS exhibits and screenings are Los Angeles cultural treasures. This year the Academy presented the world premiere of Ingmar Bergman: Truth and Lies, which delved into the central themes and motifs of the genius’ body of work. (Blog post and photos forthcoming.) In conjunction, LACMA screened several of Bergman’s films and I saw The Seventh Seal and The Silence back to back. It was too intense and I doubt I will ever watch more than one Ingmar film at a time. Each deserves its own time and space in my head.

As part of the Academy’s summer Oscar Noir: 1940s Writing Nominees from Hollywood’s Dark Side film series, I saw Double Indemnity and Shadow of a Doubt. And earlier in the year a special presentation of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. I love going to Academy screenings because the audience is always so respectful and passionate about what’s up on the screen. And they always have great special guests at the screenings. For film lovers, you can’t top the Academy’s events.

A huge treat was seeing Another Year and hearing Mike Leigh speak afterwards. He’s an outspoken curmudgeon that is not deterred by politeness when addressing dumb and pretentious questions. One of his applause-and-cheer-inducing answers was: “You’re interpretation of my film is complete misinformed and wrong.” The interviewer, a local film critic, became paralyzed with disbelief and embarrassment and was able to utter only “OK. Moving on.”

Another Year is another utterly confident and unhurried ensemble picture from Leigh. It is deceptively upbeat; with the distant sob or throb of sadness always lurking as the film's power creeps into your consciousness by stealth. Leslie Manville’s portrayal of a lost and damaged soul is plaintive, tragic and dissonant and, along with Isabelle Huppert’s in White Material, the best performance of the year.

Mike Leigh and the critic dude (forgot his name)

White Material is hardly a conventional “social problem” picture or even a linear narrative. Instead, it’s yet another emotionally complex study in character identification from Denis. White Material is all motion. Friday Night, L’Intrus —they all focus on movement and bodies, and personality is strictly defined by what people do and how they do it. In this case it's even more pronounced since the bodies in question are caught up in harrowing life and death situations. It’s really an action movie. The narrative and visual landscape, so expertly embodied by Huppert, is a marvel, largely because of its naturalism; there’s no sense that these characters have been suddenly manufactured before our eyes so that the filmmakers could make a point. We’re a far ways off from stupid white man’s burden movies like Blood Diamond. Instead, this is a portrait of Africa that’s enormously lived-in, despite and also, shockingly because of, its focus on white people.

Since one of my special talents is finding the dark side to everything, Toy Story 3 made me cry because it drove home the sadness of growing up and families breaking apart. The Social Network showed, and I hope the people with greenlighting power were paying attention, that a protagonist with a formulaic character arc is not necessary for Box Office success.

Let Me In is probably the only remake of a great film (Let the Right One In) that I have liked or will ever like. The American version was injected with style and testosterone and the result was a thrill-filled and entertaining horror film which was criminally ignored by audiences. I guess they were busy watching Saw XXI.

I almost drove myself bonkers trying to analyze Black Swan. (I had a similar experience with Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears.) I reached the conclusion that this silly movie is not to be taken seriously but to be enjoyed and that’s it. It’s okay to laugh. Really. Analysis only diminishes its entertainment value and who wants to do that?

I saw a few documentaries, including Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child: an homage to an artistic wunderkind, constructed around a rare question-and-answer interview with Basquiat. It is a rather romanticized portrait; however, the depiction of the madness and the greed of Manhattan in the 1980s kept me fascinated until the end. Inside Job fueled my anger to such extent I filled a bucket full of bile afterwards and Waiting for Superman only reaffirmed that my choice not to have children was the right one.

I stayed true to my quest not to pay to see shitty movies, so all the films I saw I liked except for one, which is on my list for Worst of What I Saw in 2010 But I Didn't Pay (below):

127 Hours

I haven’t seen True Grit because I heard some scenes on the radio and it make me not want to see it. The dialogue sounded forced. Sort of like Deadwood gone wrong. I plan on seeing Winter’s Bone and The Kids Are All Right, but not until I get my Independent Spirit Award voting screeners/screenings.

I hope this next year is much better, don’t you? There is certainly much room for improvement.

Best wishes and Happy New Year.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

It's not a wonderful life.

It amuses me to no end that when I suggest to people that perennial Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) is not really an uplifting feel-good movie but Frank Capra's most relentlessly depressing work, they look at me as if I just said Jesus fucks chickens.

Like Douglas Sirk, Capra was a smuggler. He hid his themes and ideas under the façade of overly-sentimental tales and it’s easy to see why these directors’ films are often misunderstood. It really is genius when you can hide deeper and darker themes about humanity in a story that large audiences will respond to emotionally. Wonderful continues to be trotted out to demonstrate Capra’s life-affirming, joyous love of people. Yet reading Wonderful as wholesome heart-warming tale advances the notion that it celebrates the triumph of small-town sweetness over impersonal modernity while dismissing any further critical analysis and probing of its deeper meanings and themes.

Capra considered it his greatest achievement and it was his (and James Stewart’s) favorite. However, it was actually a box-office disappointment at the time of its release and only became a Holiday classic in the 1970s due to repeated television showings at Christmas-time when its copyright protection slipped and fell into the public domain in 1974 and TV stations could air it for free. (Republic Pictures restored its copyright claim to the film in 1993, with exclusive video rights to it. Currently, it can be shown only on NBC, and its distribution rights belong to Paramount Pictures.) Talk about irony with a capital I. General Electric, one of the largest multinational conglomerates now owns America’s most beloved populist holiday movie.

The screenplay (credited as being written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Capra himself, with additional scenes by Jo Swerling) was based on "The Greatest Gift," an original short story first written on a Christmas card by Philip Van Doren Stern. Uncredited for their work on the script were Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, and Clifford Odets.

Wonderful’s framing story draws on the backward-looking myth of the small town favored by Hollywood's not-notably rural filmmakers. But what's inside the frame is what really counts--a timeless corner of populist paradise is juxtaposed with a far more realistic and striking view of contemporary America in flux. Pottersville represents a place where the people are as nasty as their oppressors and the individual is unimportant.

This picture of the corruption and the death of small-town society is rivaled in film only by Orson Welles The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). Pottersville is as atmospheric a film noir as any of the period's movies, and unlike the wholesome story, it’s not an inversion of reality at all. It's a realistic, if appalling, view of how things looked to be playing out in the society off the screen.

Some things did not turn out as badly as Capra seemed to fear. Post-war prosperity and the federal deposit insurance programs made bank failures a relative rarity, at least for a few decades (yikes), and thrift institutions like George Bailey's building and loan in fact did help underwrite the rise of suburbia, and thus the fulfillment of some Capra-era dreams In that period the country's cities did come more and more to resemble Pottersville, although with the additional woe of racism. And suburbia itself represented a turning-away from the spiritual strength and communal ties of places like Bedford Falls in favor of materialism and the security of the Company Man. I wonder what kind of movie Capra would make today and what he would think of manipulative crap like Slumdog Millionaire. How would Mr. Smith Goes to Wall Street play out? Some of us want to write that movie. Unfortunately, no one really wants to see it unless Mr. Smith is blue and has to battle a meteor in his dreams.

Was Bedford Falls really that wonderful? Even in his purportedly wonderful life, George Bailey lives in a town mostly owned by Old-Man Potter. He is burdened with a loser uncle and he’s forced to give up his dreams of traveling the world and succeeding in a career of his choice. One of the movie's most visually moving sequences is when George, informed that his brother won't be taking over the building and loan, turns away from his chosen destiny to live up to his familial obligations. Stewart’s face says it all. He knows Bedford Falls is a trap and it ultimately drives him to suicide. Should we really be cheering for dutiful martyrdom over the pursuit of personal dreams? No (fucking) way, says Capra.  Yet this romantic notion of self-sacrifice and angels getting their wings is cheered by teary-eyed American audiences every year.

In the context of Capra's earlier features, Wonderful looks even grimmer. In It Happened One Night (1934), evil turns up as cynicism and mistrust and in the status barriers that always divide people. Capra returns to these themes through all the films that follow. Whatever other adversaries they face, his heroes must always cope with these universal weaknesses, in themselves and in the people around them.

In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) Gary Cooper is the antithesis of cynicism, mistrust and snobbery; he is small-town virtue personified. The lies and entrenched interests of the city have yet to infect his Bedford Fallsish society, where they’re written off as aberrant. Deeds falls prey when he goes to town, but he is more of a threat to the corruptions of a disorganized and internally divided system than it is to him. Its immorality is localized and in the end little more than traditional American venality, which gives way before Deed's enormous personal virtue.

Venality also motivates the evil in You Can't Take it With You (1938), but here it’s more focused, spreading death and destruction as it accumulates power and money. Romantic love is again a victim of cynicism, mistrust and status, while the Vanderhoff's unpretentious virtue (the most precious commodity in Capra's world) just barely survives. This was 1938, after all. The Depression seemed interminable; war had begun in Asia and was imminent in Europe. Still, the robber-baron villain comes around in the end when faced with the overwhelming argument presented by simple human goodness just being itself. Even Edward Arnold, combining the two most loathsome occupations of the Depression (banker/munitions mogul), has a conscience and can be cleansed of his sins and his social baggage and returned to an earlier innocence.

Arnold's evil expands in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), where he’s defeated in the end but, unlike in You Can't Take it With You, is left unredeemed. The hero goes up against classic political bossism, but here the evil has become well-organized and wields the extra oomph of modern communications. Despair at first outruns victory, as in most Capra films. (The Vanderhoffs prepare to move out, even if it means betraying the neighborhood. Deeds stands silent in court. Smith collapses in the Senate.) It takes the people, usually assisted by a guilt-ridden retainer of the villain, to clear the way for good to prevail, or at least survive.

In Meet John Doe (1941), even the people turn on the hero, who again surrenders to despair. Only at the very end do the fundamentally good-hearted citizens admit their wrongheadedness and proclaim their fealty to the virtues Doe represents (ignoring the fact that he himself is compromised by participation in a massive deception). It's a good thing, because the stakes have become higher. The traditional evils of Wall Street manipulators and political bosses have given way to totalitarianism, with Edward Arnold now the leader of a fascist movement.

Politically, this is as bad as it gets. Morally, there was worse to come.

To be Old Man Potter in Wonderful, Lionel Barrymore inverted his own Vanderhoff character in You Can't Take it With You. Where old Mr. Vanderhoff is good and gracious for the joy of it, Old-Man Potter is nasty for its own sake. Prior Capra villains had purpose, whether money, power or a new order. Potter is evil with no goal or reason for being that way. Political and financial empire-building are subsumed into greed, ill will and blind destructiveness.

There is no idealism here to give the villain an arc. This evil is so complete that the villain's conversion isn't contemplated. Significantly, the only conceivable response to Pottersville — which is in fact the real world — is to escape it. Even the intervention of the people is insufficient to save the hero, whose despair puts him beyond help from human agency. Yes, George's friends and beneficiaries come together to make good the building and loan's shortfall, but that only addresses his superficial and immediate problem. We know what really saves him, what keeps him alive so the community can band together to help: divine intervention.

Capra's group of socially conscious films of the 1930s reflected a reasonably coherent fear of the intensifying class conflict, fascism and militarism that seemed then to be overtaking the world. Wonderful reveals near panic over the catastrophes and depersonalization that actually did. It’s all too familiar. Except I don’t believe that the people of the 1930s and 40s were as optimistic and naïve as Americans today. Blind optimism a la The Secret or any self-help doctrine you care to mention, and that the U.S.A. is Number One just because we say so, has had a lot to do with America’s downfall. Collective pessimism, European style, creates certain protections for society as a whole. Here, Socialism is equated with Negativism. And we can’t have that.

In Wonderful, things had become so bad that only God could save the day. And if we truly believe that God will save the day, then we are so, so screwed. Life may be wonderful, but to be able to live it wonderfully is another matter entirely.

Merry Christmas.


P.S. No angels were harmed in the writing of this essay.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Art is my Muse

Whenever I'm feeling shitty, uninspired, and worthless, I know it's time to go to the museum.  All it takes is one look at a work that triggers a party in my mind to remind me of where I come from, who I am and what I want to do.

Yesterday I went to the William Eggleston exhibit at LACMA.  Nothing can ever replace the experience of seeing the real deal; in this case, beautiful, bright, dye-transfer prints.  It was a pretty complete retrospective and my favorite prints were from William Eggleston's Guide and The Democratic Forest series.  Below are the ones that stayed in my mind and that I keep going back to:

Like Eggleston, I too strive to be a poet of the mundane. I feel re-energized and ready for 2011.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Santa Schmanta

I guess Santa is very important to us because we all remember how we found out he didn’t exist.  For me, it was really early on.  I can’t remember what I did last week, but the memory of that night is quite vivid.  Also, my family never let me forget it.  Just like the Christmas I got drunk and apologized to the maid.

First, let me disclose that I had a wonderful childhood. I feel I need to because you couldn’t really deduct that from my cynical online persona.  If you’re reading this, you probably have been exposed to my Tweets or Facebook posts, so you know how it is with me.

My maternal grandparents doted on me, my siblings and my cousins, indulging us to no end.  I can’t think of a single thing I ever wanted that I didn’t get.  I think this is why I refuse to settle for anything mediocre as an adult.  It’s good but it’s also bad to grow up happy and privileged like that because it’s hard to take when you don’t get what you want. 

Anyway, Holidays were huge in our family, especially Christmas.  The adults worked very hard to make sure they would be special and memorable.

I was around four and we still lived in Mexicali.  My mother was still married to my biological father (I call him The Biological Man) and there were only three grandchildren then.  My sister was two and my cousin Aaron was three.  In Mexico, Christmas Eve is the day when families get together for tamales and champurrado and open presents.  The adults delighted into making a big production out of Santa’s arrival and even scaring us a little bit.  And believe me, it was very exciting.  We’d hang out in the living room, on the edge of our seats, while the grown ups worked us up.  Then, my grandpa would say “Do you hear that? He’s here!”  My cousin Aaron used to get very nervous. He’d jump from leg to leg the way you do when you’re trying not to pee on yourself.  He was so skinny his pants would fall off.  Then they’d usher us into a bed room for the excruciating wait.

My grandma would get us even more excited with anticipation. We’d hear bells ringing and then we were let out to find dozens of presents under the tree and Santa standing and HO HO HOing right in our living room.  I usually went up to Santa to shake his hand.  But that night something went terribly wrong.  I looked at his shoes.  Something clicked and disappointment set in.  I watched as my sister bawled from fright and my cousin handed Santa a tamale with one tiny, trembling hand as the other hand held his pants up.  Santa took the tamale, HO HO HO’d again and left.  I didn’t say a thing. I had the good sense, at four, not to say a thing.

Days later my mom asked me if I was happy with what Santa brought me.  I said yes, but there is no Santa.  Her eyes widened.  She was about to say something, but changed her mind and pretended I hadn’t said a thing.  I didn’t let it go.  I told her I knew Cuagua (her teenage sister, auntie Claudia) was Santa.  I remember the shocked looked on my mom’s face.  She then tried to deny it and asked me how I knew.  I told her I recognized her shoes.  Cuagua used to wear black Doc Marten type of shoes then and obviously she never took them off.  I then told my mom not to worry.  That I wasn’t going to say anything to my sister and cousin.  She laughed and thanked me for being so considerate.  I kept my word and let them find out on their own years later.

I guess here is where I have to explain I wasn’t a typical four-year old with average intelligence.  I said my first words at six months, walked and refused to drink from a bottle at nine months, and spoke in complete sentences by the time I was one.  There was just no way I was going to believe in the Santa charade for a long time.  Maybe this is why every year I tell my nephews and niece there is no Santa.  They don’t believe me of course. And the oldest one is 13.  I believe they call it reverse psychology.  Besides, I have a bad rep.  You can’t take anything I say seriously, right?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Bitchin' and complaining

I continue to struggle with Photoshop, but I'm beginning to understand it more.  The photo above is a concept for the Welcome page of my website.  I'm trying to do something like this:

Problem is I don't understand website dimensions. Designs look different on different screens and sometimes they're cut off.  Even though it's fun at times, I'd rather be paying someone to do this. But I don't have the money right now.  Oh well, must soldier on.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Two or Three Things I Know...

or don't know... about Photoshop.  This is my new Twitter background and homage to Godard. I am determined.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A great sense of accomplishment.

You see that header above? I made that. Yup. With Photoshop. How? Don’t know. I just launched the program, opened a canvas and started to mess around. After two minutes, I was in tears.  So I called a friend who’s a graphic designer.  He talked me through it and I did as he said but I had no idea what he was saying to me. Of course I did it wrong. So I just pulled out a chunk of hair and tried to work it out. The result is far from perfect but it’s good enough for now.