Callooh Callay

Turned a corner on the revisions. Now it’s just some polishing up and then sending it off to the editor. I had some very important thoughts on writing, but now I can’t remember–oh yeah, okay, here they are.

I watched both Sorry To Bother You and Blindspotting recently, which are two recent indie films set in Oakland, with black protagonists, by black film-makers, and about race issues. I liked both, but of the two, I found Sorry To Bother You a lot more  sure-footed, because it let its images and situations do the talking for it.

Blindspotting was littered with conversations about political issues, about race, about gentrification, about police brutality, and it culminates in a powerful speech act. Personally, I think there’s a place in the world for smart narratives that are explicitly about ideas. I mean, look at Anna Karenina or War and Peace, these are two of the greatest novels ever written, and they both contain relatively earnest discussions of all kinds of issues, whether it’s rural farming methods, political reform, or whether the ballet is sinful and stupid.

But I think the number one requirement when you’re explicitly discussing these things is that your take has to be thoughtful, interesting, and transgressive. Tolstoy’s ideas are still, even now, so far outside the mainstream that it’s just a pleasure to hear his characters voice them. If you’re not doing this, if you’re voicing ideas that embody the (or at least one possible) conventional wisdom, then I think it’s better to do it the way Thomas Mann did it in The Magic Mountain, where he had Naptha and Settembrini (his stand-ins for the fascists and communists) spout a powerful mix of nonsense that gives the emotional and rhetorical effect of these philosophies without going into the ideas themselves.

In Blindspotting it was like, yeah, we get it, you have a black and a white character, and they experience the gentrification of their hometown very differently. You really don’t need to spell it all out for us by having them argue about it. That theme was at least sustained by the film, though, and in that case the explanation was simply unnecessary. It’s even worse in cases where the theme is not sustained throughout, but only comes up in dialogue, which was my feeling about, for instance, the climax of the film.

I think writers have a tendency in their work to overvalue speech, because the form itself encourages the idea that words are powerful. In this case, the medium really is the message. If words cannot, by themselves, change peoples’ lives, then there’s no reason to write books. But in work that purports to mirror life, I think we need to acknowledge the fact that peoples’ actions, or even their thoughts, are rarely changed by speech.

Watching movies has encouraged me to focus more closely, in my writing, on images. How can I convey my themes through the juxtaposition of elements? Settings, in particular, while always important to me, have become a larger part of my work, particularly on the scene level. I find myself paying more attention, in my mind, to the lighting, to the furniture, and to whatever natural surroundings there might be. This has also taken some of the weight off of the gesture, which I’ve traditionally over-used in my writing. There’s only so much that you can do with the movement of the hands, the eyes, and the face. Sigh, but I’m still not completely there yet. I’ve had a lifelong battle with the image: I’m primarily a textual thinker, and my mind’s eye is really not what it should be.

How watching movies has helped my writing

So a friend turned me on to Moviepass, which allows you to watch one movie a day for a flat fee of $9.99 a month. Yeah, it’s an unsustainable business model, and it’s probably not going to last. But it’s proven TERRIBLE for me, because I’ve gotten absolutely addicted to watching movies, and when the company goes bankrupt I’ll probably end up spending way more on movies than I do now.

Anyways, I’ve watched six movies in the last ten days. At this point I’ve seen most of the Oscar contenders aside from The Darkest Hour and The Post. I have to say, I think this is a good year for movies. None of the Oscar nominees is an embarrassment (the way Hacksaw Ridge was last year) and none are nearly as dull as last year’s Arrival or Manchester by the Sea. The one that comes closest to not being worth your time is, in my opinion, Dunkirk, simply because there’s not a lot in the movie to hold onto. But even in that film there’s a very good strand of the story (about two soldiers doing their best to escape from the beach and get onto the rescue ships) that serves to undercut and fill out the traditional war story.

Of this year’s Best Picture movies, I’d say The Shape of WaterCall Me By Your Name, and Phantom Thread are superlative, and Lady Bird, Get Out, and Three Billboards are extremely good. If any of those films won Best Picture I’d say, “That makes sense to me” (well, maybe not Three Billboards…)

I just saw Call Me By Your Name about five hours ago, which might shape this opinion, but I loved it. I’ve definitely seen friends call it beautiful, but empty, which is a fair criticism. But to me the movie seemed to have one purpose, which was to capture the heart of longing, and it did that better than almost any film I’ve ever seen. In fact, if there’s any movie that comes close to what I want to do with my own work, it’s Call Me By Your Name. I just loved how the camera lingered on the actor’s bodies. Love how it accentuated their long eyebrows. Loved the contrast between Timothee Chalamet’s underdeveloped pale body and Armie Hammer’s very developed golden physique. Loved the hints of intellect that were never taken too far. I don’t think the movie was empty. I think it examined the nature and shape of desire: the ways that you’re attracted not just to a person’s personality or to their character, but also to their body, and that the physical often comes before the personal.

Admittedly it was a very microscopic story. Yes, it was set in 1983, and yes there was no homophobia and no awareness of AIDS or HIV. But whatevs! You know, somewhere in America there are two undocumented people falling in love, and they’re not worrying about getting deported right now, because they’re FALLING IN LOVE. In some ways these character’s self-absorption feels, to me, very real.

But I recognize that this movie is hitting me right in the place where I, right now, am sitting. I do think it’s about thirty minutes too long, and it didn’t seem nearly as in command of its material as The Shape of Water did (say what you want about it, but TSoW is structurally perfect. I mean basically every element of it is perfect.)

Watching all of these movies has been good for my writing. I’ve started to ‘see’ a little bit more with my mind’s eye as I write. Now when I’m writing I’m able to zoom out and think, “Okay, what would this look like? What would the audience actually see?” I think there’s a tendency, when writing prose, to write from a place that’s too deep inside the character and not well enough connected to the events they’re actually experiencing. Ever since I’ve watching all these films I’ve been able to focus on the action itself, and I think that’s resulted in stronger scenes and better set-pieces.

Oh, and also in more variety of scenes! Because in a movie every scene can’t just be people sitting around and talking. You need movement. Variety. Changes in pacing.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about lately (this isn’t entirely related to the movie stuff) is that when I’m writing a book, I try to understand, “What is sustaining the audience’s interest” and “What is sustaining my own interest.”

The interesting thing, to me, is that the thing which sustains the audience’s interest is usually really simple. It’s just suspense. Will they or won’t they? Who did it? Will they defeat the bad guy?

It’s easy, I think, for the writer to forget about suspense, because to the writer, that stuff really doesn’t matter. After all, we mostly know everything that’s going to happen. And for us the thing that’s holding our attention is usually, well, it can be anything, actually. I try to write characters that are larger-than-life–ones which do or say things that the ordinary person wouldn’t–and there’s a certain amusement in letting those people play. I also like to create friends: people I’d like to know; people composed of the best and most interesting parts of people I know in real life. And I like to create startling juxtapositions–putting together people who in real life maybe would never know each other.

I think I’ve gotten very good at telling when my own attention is engaged and when I’m just doing what I feel like I’m supposed to. The interesting thing about following your own attention is noting the places where you get bored. Sometimes I know, even before writing a scene, that it’s going to bore me. Which makes me wonder if it’s even necessary. For instance, right now I’m writing a character who, although still in his thirties, lives with his parents. The story seems to demand a scene where he interacts with them, but the idea sort of bores me. And it’s making me think, well, maybe they’re not necessary. He lives with them, but he’s come to a sort of detenté with them, and they’re not actually that important to the story I’m telling.

This is the thing, I think, that often causes writer’s block. There’s a story you know how to tell, but it’s not the story you need to tell. And that means that writing is, necessarily, going to be torture until you re-learn the trick of listening to yourself.

I really liked Wonder Woman

JL_Wonder_WomanSaw Wonder Woman last Thursday. Was pleasantly pleased. The other DC Universe films were so bad that I had pretty low expectations, but this one wasn’t terrible. The pacing was good. The story sort of held together. And the character arc felt at least a little bit fresh and interesting.

I also thought it was interesting to have a romantic subplot that felt a little bit less shoe-horned than normal. I’ve become so accustomed to action movies that don’t have the slightest hint of chemistry between the male and female leads that I guess I’d even forgotten what chemistry looked like. In this case, it honestly did feel like Steve Trevor and Diana actually, you know, were interested in each other. And when they kissed it felt a little bit less perfunctory than normal (a little bit).

Also was interesting to see a female hero who is so much more powerful than her romantic interest. I mean it’s not that Steve Trevor can’t handle himself in a fight, but she repeatedly saves his life. She’s a semi-divine, and he’s merely human. It’s sort of the sit-com trope of the very competent wife and the bumbling husband, but it’s not something that often gets plunked into action films. Honestly, I couldn’t believe how rare it is for there to be a female superhero movie, especially when it seems like the audience out there has been very receptive to Wonder Woman.

I won’t go overboard in praising the film. It does feel like we’re sort of grading on a curve, both because DC’s other efforts have been _so_ disappointing and because we badly want a female superhero movie to do well. The movie had plenty of flaws. The action sequences, aside from the no man’s land sequence and the alleyway fight, felt a little lackluster. The villains weren’t really that menacing, and the movie didn’t feel very high-stakes, somehow.

Hmm, when I have to say what made the movie stand out or make it worth watching, I guess it’s just that Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins kind of started to sketch out what a fantasy by, for, and about women might look like. In some ways, the fantasy is disquieting: Gal Gadot is thin, she’s white, she’s beautiful, and she’s innocent. She also quite frequently doesn’t wear very much in terms of clothing. But in some ways that feels like the flipside of male superhero movies. I mean, Chris Hemsworth is white and blonde and handsome and rugged and stoic. His Thor is an aspirational figure for men, created by men, but that doesn’t mean he’s not toxic.

In this movie, too, Gal Gadot becomes one of the boys. She does this by accepting and understanding their attempts at flirtation, by slogging it out with them in tough encounters, but by also maintaining a sort of den mother appeal and seeing to all of their various psychoses and neuroses. In this she sort of replicates what a lot of successful women do (and need to do) in the workplace. They have to become one of the boys, but not too much so. I mean how many sorority girls have played den mother to a pack of frat guys in exactly the same way? How many female management consultants or doctors or lawyers have performed the same function in an otherwise male workplace? The way that Wonder Woman becomes a leader of this group is subtle and clever, but it’s also open to criticism, because it’s so tied up with her beauty and with traditional gender roles.

And yet…I don’t know…she’s a fantasy. There should be other fantasies, I agree, but I think that the desire to have a perfect body is always going to be a part of our fantasies. It’s just that for women the desire to have a perfect body has these gross connotations: why do I want this? who do I want it for?

I think with Wonder Woman, and with movies and shows like it, there can be some effort to unpick that and to create an action-heroine aesthetic that’s more for women than for men. But obviously there’s a long way to go. And, equally obviously, I’m not a woman, so I can’t really opine too much further about this matter.

(Thinking about another recent release, I think part of the appeal of Robin Wright in House of Cards is that she’s beautiful, and she’s sexual, but she’s not entirely given over the male gaze. There is a severity and a coldness to her that is the opposite of Wonder Woman, and that she would I think be written very differently if the show wanted to make her fully available to men. In House of Cards, she’s sort of a femme fatale, but unlike Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, the show makes it clear that she needs a lot more from the world than a slap in the face and a hard kiss.)

Watched the recent film adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP

Jane Austen’s novella LADY SUSAN was one of my favorite reads of 2016. It was the first work she ever completed (that we possess a copy of) and was never published in her lifetime. And not only is it awesome, but it’s very un-Austenian. There’s relatively little moralizing. And Lady Susan herself is completely unlike any other Jane Austen character: she’s sly, amoral, and unrepentant.

They recently made a movie adaptation of this novella! It came out last year! It’s called LOVE AND FRIENDSHIP. I watched the movie just now, and I liked it quite a lot. The movie really attempts to capture the slyness of the original. It doesn’t go for laugh-out-loud comedy: everything has a more mordant air. The problem is, in large part, the acting. Oftentimes, characters are trying to be sly, but they come off as vacant. You’re like, “Do they get it? Do they want us to get it? What’s happening here?”

Eventually though people seem to get onto the same page, and the movie settles down into this maneuvering between Lady Susan, her daughter, and Lady Susan’s sister-in-law. And it’s great. Also Chloe Sevigny is in it as Lady Susan’s equally amoral, but slightly better-situated, American friend. The movie is 90 minutes long. Stick it out when it comes to the first thirty of those minutes. When it starts to get going, it really gets going. Usually this isn’t true of movies, which are shot out of sequence, but in some ways the movie felt like a play: the actors eventually got warmed up and got into their roles and everything felt much more natural.

Actually I think the biggest problem is the male romantic lead, who had zero personality. And no chemistry with Lady Susan! You’re like, why does he even think himself to be in love with her? What’s going on here? Ay mi. Anyway, it’s worth a watch. And it’s free on Prime.

Saw JACKIE last night

Saw Natalie Portman’s oscar vehicle, Jackie, last night. It was an ambitious movie: a character piece about what Jackie Kennedy did in the seven days after her husband’s assassination. I appreciated the flintiness of her characterization, and it’s interesting, as always, to see how much of the Kennedy mythos was self-created. Those people were constantly self-mythologizing. I mean look at how Kennedy was packaged: not only a war, but also a Pullitzer Prize-winning writer? He was supposed to be everything: young, erudite, idealistic–the whole package. I guess this is how Democrats package our Presidents nowadays, because Bill Clinton, Obama, Gore, and Kerry all tried to be something similar. But that’s an aside.

The movie though was not good. It wasn’t a character-based story. The conflict in the story was all over Kennedy’s funeral. Jackie wanted it to have lots of pomp. Johnson thought that it might be a target for further attacks, and he wanted something lower-key (but still presumably with lots of pomp). And the movie kept trying to make the case that all the hoopla Jackie assembled was somehow of benefit to the country? I just didn’t buy it.

The size of Kennedy’s funeral just did not matter one bit. No matter what she did, it always would’ve been big. There is an argument to be made that if she and Bobby hadn’t preserved the Kennedy name and massaged his history, we would see him very differently today (as a failure, more or less), but this movie didn’t successfully make that argument

Have seen a run of good movies lately

sing.jpgEither I’m mellowing out, or I’m having really good luck, or movies are getting better. Normally I hate both the big blockbuster films and the films that’re being positioned for awards. I hate them all!

But lately I’ve seen La La Land, Fantastic Beasts, Rogue One, and an animated film, Sing, and I enjoyed them all!!!

Rogue One was a relief, because my expectations were so low. The last four Star Wars films (I do not except The Force Awakens) have been so bad. I really only want three things from an action film. I want to understand what the characters want. I want to understand why they want those things. And I want to experience some sense of tension or suspense. The Force Awakens failed on all of these counts. It was nothing more than a collection of fights that were stitched together by happenstance (kidnappings and bad luck, mostly) and neither the objective nor the motivations were ever clear.

Rogue One, in contrast, made much more sense. I knew exactly what they wanted to find at each moment. I had some sense of why they wanted to find those things. And I genuinely wondered whether and how they would succeed. It was such a relief to see a Star Wars movie that was actually watchable.

And because the movie was watchable, I saw, for the first time in decades, some of the things I like about Star Wars: the visuals, for one thing. Star Wars is such a janky, run-down future. Nothing looks like it’s well-maintained. Nothing is in good shape. Everybody dresses like they’re in the Wild West. It’s a sad, fallen place, with a few touches of grandeur. And I liked that!

I also thought they did an amazing job of resurrecting Grand Moff Tarkin. I read online a few reviewers who complained he looked fake and all CGI-ey, but that is bullshit. Going into the movie, I didn’t know the actor was already dead. All through the film I just thought, wow, that guy hasn’t aged at all in the last thirty years! Only as we were walking out did my dad tell me they’d actually digitally recreated him. You could not tell the difference! It’s amazing! This shit is the future!

Let’s see what else. On the other end of the spectrum was Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. This is the new Harry Potter film. It’s a total mess. So many plot threads get introduced in this movie. I mean they’re still being introduced well into the halfway point. The main character does not have a strong reason for being involved in the action, he just sort of bumbles into it.

And yet…I understood what they were doing. They wanted to create a world that had as much richness as Hogwarts. They wanted to make something that could support a five-movie franchise. And I think they succeeded. I was not only charmed, I am positively eager to see what happens next. I loved Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander: the naturalist who’s both bold and shy, and who’s completely unable to get along with people. And I loved the slow burn of the romance. He and the female lead don’t even kiss! They don’t even acknowledge that they like each other! It was was utterly fantastic. I can’t wait to see what happens to them in the next book.

The plot was the usual ham-handed Harry Potter allegory, but the set-pieces had a lot of charm. And I liked the characters. And I thought some nice conflicts were built in w/r/t to how the Wizarding World sees all the (incredibly annoying and dangerous) creatures that Newt is trying to save.

Umm, what else, what else, what else. Loved La La Land. The ending at first made me incredibly angry, but I think they actually managed to pull it off. I did feel the story was a bit misaligned. The obstacle that came between them in the end seemed like it came out of nowhere. I mean, it was a problem that wasn’t even present at all in the beginning of the movie.

I thought Gosling and Stone had plenty of charm and chemistry, and I liked what it had to say about art and the artistic life. These are two people who’re more in love with the idea of being artists than they are with creation itself. They’re both obsessed with the mystique of old Hollywood, and, to them, capturing a piece of that glamor is the main reason for doing what they do. Which to me felt very honest. I think most artists, truth be told, care mostly about bottling and reproducing the way other art made them feel.

The singing and dancing were very mediocre. Not a memorable song in the bunch, too, which annoyed me. But I did like it a lot. Wouldn’t be too unhappy if it won an Oscar, particularly one for Best Original Screenplay.

Oh, and what was the last one? Sing. It’s an animated movie about talking animals that get into a singing competition. I have to say, it’s a pleasure to watch a film that’s well-structured. I swear to God, they literally create these animated movies in a laboratory, and it shows. This movie had a perfect structure. You had the show’s promoter, who’s sort of a huckster, and you had the five idealistic wannabes who he ropes into this competition. And each and every single one has a core conflict, and almost every scene is about increasing their stakes. For instance, the whole idea starts because the promoter needs to save his theater. So he has an incentive for the show to be a success. But then he accidentally prints that there’s a $100,000 prize (money he doesn’t have). So now if he’s gonna pay the prize, he REALLY needs the show to be a success. And then we learn that his dad spent all of his life savings so the hero could buy this place, and if he loses it he’ll be letting down his dad.

And it’s the same with each of the singers. They all have their personal stakes (why they need, on an emotional level, to win), and they often public stakes (why they need the money). And everything’s then layered over with another level of conflict because of course not everybody can win!

It was just such a pleasure, on a storytelling level, to watch. I mean this is basic storytelling, but it’s actually really hard to make everything fit, and oftentimes movies don’t even try! So I was very very very pleased with the way this one did. And also the climax of the monkey (Johnny) storyline literally made me cry.

 

Six played-out teen contemporary tropes (most of which I’ve used)

I recently saw a teen film, The Duff, which is about this girl who realizes that in her girl posse she’s kind of the ugly one. The movie was charming, as I expected, but what I did not expect was how many teen movie tropes it played completely straight (as in, without even blinking an eye about how used-up they were). Now I am probably the last person who ought to write about this, because I too have used many of these tropes. Bum going too anyway, and I hope this criticism will be taken in the gentle spirit in which it’s intended.

  1. Antagonist is a bitchy girl who’s mean for no reason – Yeah there’re plenty of people in high school who’re mean just as a form of asserting their own dominance. But in this day and age, you’ve got to go deeper than that. Mean Girls is 12 years old! If Mean Girls had had a baby, she would be about to become a Mean Girl herself. At this point the bitchy girl thing just seems a little lazy. Also it can border on sexist, since you’re kind of just saying, “Welp, some girls are like that!”
  2. Makeover montage – Lots of teens dress like total slobs, and lots of teens would look a lot better if they dressed more nicely. What was actually nice about the Duff is that they didn’t pretend her montage had made her an order of magnitude more attractive. This isn’t like the Princess Diaries or She’s All That, where the heroine goes from nerd to stunner. And in her montage, the focus was more on loosening her up and making her act more naturally and more confidently. But still, the makeover montage feels tired. There’s got to be a better way of showing us that this person is changing.
  3. The midpoint of the movie centers upon some sort of public humiliation — In so many movies, at around the midpoint or two thirds point, something will happen: the teen will do something embarrassing that’s caught on video. Or they’ll mess up while in a play. Or they’ll accidentally get broadcast over the PA saying something pathetic. And it’ll destroy they’re reputation. This is also really understandable. Teen movies are usually centered around very private stories: one person’s hopes and dreams. Putting them at the center of some broader fiasco is a way of putting the stakes and making their problem seem more important. But it often feels like a way of sidestepping the core conflict of the story. Here the problem is that this girl, the protagonist, feels like a core part of this trio of friends, but to the rest of the world she’s only an adjunct. Any way of upping the stakes ought to somehow involve that disparity between self-image and public image. But what happens (the bitchy girl shares an embarrassing youtube video of her) doesn’t really seem to matter, because it doesn’t involve her two friends at all. It’s a way of waving your hands and making conflict in order to power the book. OF course, this is also something that I did at the midpoint of MY book, Enter Title Here, so I am completely guilty of this one.
  4. Tired cultural commentary about social media — In The Duff at one point the protagonist breaks up with her friends by unfollowing them from a bunch of social networks. At another point, the principal tries to make some statement about cyberbullying. It’s all a little bit shopworn. Sure, kids use social media a lot. So do adults. It’s a vehicle for story, but it’s not STORY itself. What matters should be the things they do or say online, not the fact that they’re happening online. It’s like if there were a bunch of movies from the fifties where kids were like, “Let’s do things in our cars! Because we have cars! And cars take you places fast! Cars can be dangerous, you know!” Like, alright, we get it. They have cars now. They didn’t used to. But it’s not a particularly interesting point.
  5. The climax of the story is a speech or article or video or underground newspaper released by the protagonist — Again, I am very guilty of this. The climax of my novel is a speech that Reshma makes at her commencement. But it still should not be done! Mostly because of the way this statement can’t help but feel preach and overpackaged. Almost always it takes the themes of the story and puts them into a trite, condensed form (adult movies, particularly comedies, do this all the time: see this year’s Bad Mom’s.) Like, come on, movies need to find subtler ways of telling us that their protagonists have grown up.
  6. Too much focus on the annual rituals of the average American public high school – The big third-act focus  of The Duff, we always knew (because it was heavily foreshadowed), was going to be the Homecoming dance. Where, of course, the selection of the Homecoming King and Queen proves to be a major setpiece. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. I suppose Homecoming is really important to plenty of high schoolers. But after awhile it becomes visually boring. We’ve all seen enough wavery lights and teen girls dancing in wedge heels and short dresses. There’s no new take on the Homecoming dance. One of the things I was happiest about in my book was that I left out Prom and Homecoming. What’s funny is that there are other rituals which almost never show up. Like you rarely see the Senior Prank or the Senior Skip Day. And you rarely see a movie that dares (as did Dazed and Confused, for instance) to just invent a tradition.

Why I think critics tend to overpraise mediocre, but ambitious, films

Yesterday I saw Arrival. It’s gotten great reviews (a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes). My Facebook feed has been abuzz with praise for it. And it’s based on a story by one of my favorite writers, Ted Chiang. And the film is the kind of thing I might like very much: a linguist rushes to communicate with a newly-arrived alien race.

I really, really wanted to like the movie. But ultimately I found myself getting kind of bored. The core problem with the movie, and the story it’s based on, is that it requires you to swallow something pretty incredible: the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. This is the idea that people think in a different manner depending on which language they speak. Thus, a Mandarin speaker has qualitatively different thought patterns (not as a result of their culture, but as a result of the language itself) from an English speaker. In the story and in the movie, this is taken to its logical extreme, when the linguist’s brain is changed in an incredible and superhuman fashion by the alien’s language.

But Chiang’s story succeeds for the same reason all of his stories succeed, which are: a) the story is so quietly moving and deeply personal that you accept whatever he’s talking about; and b) he extends his premise to the furthest and most incredible extent, so you find your own mind blown by the chilly and incredible power of his.

The movie lacks these things, and as a result, it is boring. The main character is a cypher. She’s haunted by thoughts of a child she’s yet to have, but those flashes are shown in such generic terms–yes, she is a mother who has a daughter and they do mother/daughter things–and are so devoid of context from her life that you have little understanding of her. In fact, the person in the flashes seems completely different from the person we’re watching. In the present day, Amy Adams (who plays the linguist) is utterly focused on her work, but she’s also full of fear. There’s a palpable nervousness whenever she’s on screen. In the future portions, she has neither the fear nor the passion. She’s subsumed by motherhood. Which is, okay, maybe that happens, but it seems strange when in the present she is so sexless and so completely not oriented towards the family.

So the quiet emotion doesn’t feel like it’s there. And the cool logic and rationality is also gone. For one thing, I just didn’t believe in anything I was seeing. In the movie, aliens land, and the world pauses. The day after the landing, Amy Adams comes to her university, and nobody is there. The quad is empty. Her classroom is empty.

Why? Where did all the students go? Are they really just huddling in their dorm rooms? Or booking flights to get home? I didn’t believe it. They might be frightened and anxious. They might have terrible dreams. But some portion of them would still go to class. School wouldn’t suddenly end. I mean we went to school the day after 9/11 and people went to school the day after Trump was elected, and both of these things were ultimately a lot more frightening than mysterious, but at-the-moment non-threatening, aliens.

And then the rest of it, the build up of geopolitical tension. It all seemed very contrived. Like something that needed to happen in order to raise the stakes on what’s ultimately not a very high stakes story. I’m sorry, but I didn’t believe that in the span of less than a month, China would get tired of the aliens and decide to attack them. The aliens would need to do something first. The leaders of China aren’t idiots.

So anyway, I just didn’t believe in and wasn’t invested in anything I saw on the screen. Also, the basic linguistics that we saw wasn’t particularly interesting either. It amounted to: write down words and act out what they say. Like, would it really be that easy to communicate with aliens? They actually seemed to learn each others’ language really quickly, and you almost think that within another few weeks, they would’ve been chatting as easily as you and I could.

 

The other mediocre movie I saw was Manchester-By-The-Sea. This one did well at Sundance, scored a distribution deal, and was released to good reviews (also a 90+ on Rotten Tomatoes).

This movie has a lot more good stuff in it than Arrival did. It’s about a guy who committed a terrible wrong and as a result retreated from life. But when his brother dies he’s given the guardianship of his sixteen year old nephew, and now he has the chance to perhaps forgive himself.

Casey Affleck, who plays the protagonist, gives a stolid, wordless performance. This is the guy who can’t ever express what he’s feeling. All he gives the world is a flat stare. He makes plans without ever explaining the why or how of it. The entire movie consists of nothing more than people trying to get something out of him.

But the movie contains a lot of black humor and vivid characters. There were so many nice little moments. For instance, when a guy is crying in the hospital and a nurse asks if he wants a Kleenex and then, off-screen, you hear her saying to someone else, “Hey, can you hand me a few Kleenex.”

Or when Casey and his nephew are outside the hospital, and the kid is debating whether to go see his dad, and he finally says, “Let’s just go” and Casey starts driving right as the kid opens the door, and then they have an argument about what “Let’s just go” means.

There is a lot of good stuff here.

But it’s slow. And it’s bleak. And Casey, if he changes, does so in tiny imperceptible ways. I can’t actually tell you how the movie ends, because I left about thirty minutes from the end. In the beginning of the movie, Casey gets into a bar fight for no reason. And then, toward the end, he finds himself back in a bar. I whispered to the friend I was seeing the movie with, “Hey, if he hits that guy, let’s leave the movie,” and he did, so we did.

It was just so fucking tedious. I mean I understand why he hit the guy, it was to show us that he was having a dark moment and slowly slipping back into his old ways. But the forward progress he’d made was SO tiny that it just felt like nothing had happened at all.

 

Anyway, both of these movies did really well with the critics. Arrival, weirdly, is even doing well at the box office!

Personally I’ve noticed that when a movie is really ambitious, as these two movies were, it almost always gets great reviews, no matter how shitty the execution might’ve been. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a movie critic and to have to see so many soulless Lone Ranger reboots and Pirates of the Carribean movies. But I think that because of all the dreck out there, critics give really good reviews whenever something rises even a little bit above the morass.

But I’m not a critic. I don’t see a hundred movies a year. I only see ten. And I don’t want to know if a movie is one of the hundred best that came out this year. What I want to know is if it’s one of the ten.

manchester

 

 

Lauren Bacall is the most beautiful woman I’ve seen in my entire life

Lauren-Bacalls-style-The-Big-Sleep-3-e1396883367646Watched THE BIG SLEEP today. Normally I find myself not as attracted to the stars of movies in the 40s and 50s, simply because beauty standards have changed somewhat, but in this case I was surprised to discover that the star, Lauren Bacall, is the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life.

Bogey, on the other hand, mystified me. He was fantastic in the role and not unattractive, but the way every woman in the movie winked at him and was like, “Oh, Bogey, you can do anything you want to me” made me wonder if a 1946 audience would’ve viewed him differently–to my eyes, he wasn’t even the hottest guy in that movie.

The film itself was pretty good. Extremely confusing. The Lauren Bacall character kind of stole the show–she was so much more vivid than she was in the book. On the other hand, it was weird to have so much emphasis on Marlowe. In the books, he fades into the background and feels more like a lens into this bleak, lonely version of Los Angeles, but in the movie it’s impossible to ignore him. I was left wondering what’s his angle? Why does he care? What makes Marlowe tick? You never really find out.

Oh, finally, the General was so good! I kept waiting for him to come back! He was fantastic. Half-dead and dissatisfied with life, but still kicking.

Was really, really, really, really entranced by that Steve Jobs movie. I have so much to say about it.

the-intense-first-trailer-for-aaron-sorkins-steve-jobs-movie-paints-a-picture-of-an-egotistical-and-difficult-manThis new Steve Jobs movie, the one directed by Danny Boyle and written by Aaron Sorkin, is fantastic. I have rarely been so electrified by a movie. It’s swift and beautiful and every one of the characters has such a distinct visual and personality. It’s lovingly crafted in the way that Jobs’ products were lovingly crafted. I particularly liked how the characters’ looks changed through the years, as styles changed and they grew older (in fact, the only one that didn’t work was Jobs himself. The alteration in his look between the 1988 and 1999 was utterly jarring. He went from being suited and perfectly buttoned up to looking like a bum.)

I’m way more familiar with Aaron Sorkin’s work than I am with Danny Boyle’s, so I’m going to commit the fallacy of referring to this as Sorkin’s movie. To be fair, it was FULL of Sorkin trademarks, right down to the extended walk-and-talk sequences (each act was a forty-minute walk and talk that was usually very tightly centered around Michael Fassbender’s Jobs character, with maybe one or two cut-aways to Kate Winslet’s character–she plays Jobs’ VP of Marketing, Joanna Hoffmann, or to whichever actress is playing Jobs’ daughter in this time period).

I loved the movie the way I’ve loved the best of Aaron Sorkin’s stuff. The dialogue is so fast and so smart, it’s just pleasurable to see and feel human minds move at such an intense speed. In the worst of his work, this strength can turn into pain, as the characters say such godawfully smarmy and annoying stuff. But in this movie that was ameliorated. Jobs was incredibly smarmy, but the movie understood that, and delighted on calling him out on it. (My favorite line was when his daughter points to the iMac and is like, “You can talk all you want about Picasso and design thinking and the opera and all of that, but nothing is going to change the fact that this looks like Judy Jetson’s Easy-Bake oven).

You know what the movie is like. This Steve Jobs is a monster. Right from the beginning, he’s unredeemably bad. Not only is he a dishonest businessman, but he is quite cruel to his daughter. In the first fifteen minutes of the movie he sits down and carefully explains to her that his computer, the LISA, is not named after her: the similarity in names is just a coincidence. He is worse in this movie than he ever could’ve been in life. He alienates everyone, and he does it for no reason. Even at the very end of the movie, I’m a little mystified as to why he was so awful to his daughter. He tries to sum it up by saying, “I’m badly made,” but that’s not an explanation–it’s an non-explanation. The movie spends two hours talking about him. Everyone in the film is obsessed with trying to explain him, but in the end he’s still such a cypher. As far as I understand it, the movie implies that his central problem is a need for control. At one point he berates an assistant because he asked for a complete blackout in the auditorium, but the exit lights are still on. Even that tiny amount of light is too much for him.

Okay, so he needs control. But there’s nothing more there. Why does he need control? What does it do for him? At the end of the movie, I still have no idea. He was adopted? So what. I don’t disbelieve that being adopted could cause this kind of pathology, but it’s not clear that Jobs believes that about himself. What’s really missing here is the interior life of Steve Jobs. What does he tell himself about his own actions? Why does he believe that he acts this way? How does he justify mistreating his daughter and his oldest friend? In the movie portrait of him, he talks and he talks, but we’re never given access to his interior life.

I think that’s the reason for the prime flaw of the movie–the way it constantly needs to contextualize him. Everyone is always telling stories about Jobs or analyzing him. They’ll have a big conflict with him, maybe about his refusal to give credit to anyone else, and then somebody will say, “Why are you like that? Are you really so petty that you refuse to acknowledge the worth of a project just because you weren’t involved in it?”

And that’s bad writing. It’s too much explanation. And in some ways, a bait-and-switch is being pulled here. The explanation is offered because his behavior needs an explanation. But it’s not at all clear that the explanation is accurate. Is that why he refuses to give the other team any credit? Because of his ego? Because he can’t imagine that anyone else could be right? I don’t know. The movie hasn’t demonstrated that. It hasn’t made that case to me. The portrait of Jobs is incomplete. And in many ways it’s a huge artistic failure, because this is NOT the real Jobs. Lies have been told here. Conversations–entire relationships–have been invented. And the only justification for doing that is if you’re going to end up telling a coherent story, and in this case he doesn’t do that.

But you know what? The movie is still excellent. Jobs is spellbinding. You can’t help but watch him and wonder about him. And I’m not one of those hacks who’ll throw up their hands and be like, “That ambiguity is exactly why the movie is good.” No, that’s bullshit. The movie goes beyond ambiguity. It abdicates on its responsibility to tell a coherent story, and I don’t think that’s right. But the thing it does is so rare. It creates a group of people who feel so fully alive. In that, in those moments, they feel present. It’s almost an idealistic vision–people who’ve come together to do a very hard thing–to launch a product–and are so focused on doing it. I don’t know. That’s the best way I can explain the movie’s appeal. The aliveness.

And not all of Sorkin’s work has that quality. Much of it feels the opposite. The Newsroom, for instance, felt dead. In that work, people were tools. They existed purely in order to make points. Here it’s the opposite. It’s like they’ve escaped from Sorkin’s control. Everyone knows that he has contempt for technology and for the people who worship it. And yet he also has a tremendous amount of talent. And somehow that contempt has stripped away alot of the preachiness, so that we’re left with people simply existing in the moment.

The movie did make me a little angry at Sorkin. He is such an amazing writer–better than I’ll ever be, probably–but he seems utterly unable to overcome his tics. For instance, every one of his stories features the same woman character. It’s Emily Mortimer in the Newsroom, Amanda Peet in Studio 60, Donna Moss in The West Wing, and Felicity Huffman in Sports Night (as well as Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson’s War). Only Moneyball lacks this character–perhaps because that movie had NO women). You know who I’m talking about. It’s the strong, talented woman who follows an arrogant, flawed man around and points out his faults but is also devoted to him and does what he says. It’s so fucking annoying. In this movie it’s Kate Winslet. She’s amazing! Even her voice, with its half-Polish accent, is brilliant. But she isn’t given any kind of story! Why can’t he rise above this! You just want to slap him! Reverse the sexes! That’s all it’d take to create something so fresh and surprising. But he can’t do it. I don’t know why. I think it might be because he simply can’t imagine a woman in a truly powerful position–in his shows even when women are nominally in charge, as in Studio 60 or The News Room, they end up in supporting roles, enabling and comforting the men who truly carry the story forward).

It’s such a goddamn waste.

See the movie, though! It’s fantastic! Write back to me and tell me if you bought any of its (many) explanations for why its version of Steve Jobs was such a monster.

(P.S. Seth Rogen is fantastic in this. He’s playing the typical Seth Rogen schmo, but very stripped down. And he’s so completely lovable! I mean I just wanted to hug him.)