Monthly archives of “August 2007

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Superbad, Greg Mottola (2007)

Why did I do this. I did this because it was the last Saturday before school starts, I suppose.

Several recent articles have assessed the Judd Apatow effect in recent movies–here’s David Denby’s take, for example–and I’m too tired to chime in much more. In essence, it goes like this. The young American male of the 21st century has at his fingertips zillabytes of digital pornography and violence, and he bonds with his best male friends over this sticky glowing trough. Despite all the information available to him, he remains as confounded as Ritchie and Potsie ever were about how to conduct himself in meatspace, particularly when it comes to that creature Ritchie called a “girl,” but who is now known as a “bitch,” “ho,” or–this movie’s innovation, which will no doubt be common currency in every American school cafeteria before Labor Day–“vag.”

Apatow and his various henchmen (they are all, always, men) think this is a problem. Their method of solving it is for the guy to marry the woman he got pregnant and be a father to the child he’s fathered regardless of the fact that the woman doesn’t know or like him (Knocked Up), or for him to not have sex before marriage/commitment to monogamy (The 40 Year Old Virgin), eschew women altogether and pour his erotic energy into other forms of ejaculation (Talladega Nights), decide that women are superior to men (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) (the only tragedy among Apatow’s comedies, and thus the most enjoyable of his movies), or renege on his commitment to his male friends and accept a one-down position of mall-hopping, shopping-bag carrying docility in a monogamous relationship with a woman (Superbad).

In the final scene of Superbad, after they’ve successfully suppressed their homoerotic urges during a sleepover the night before, the two boy heroes split up at the mall to go off with their respective (female) love interests, one of whom needs to buy a “comforter,” and the other of whom needs to shop for “coverup.” No more Lords of War; it’s time for comfort and coverup. Why didn’t they just say they were going shopping for closets and nutcrackers?

What an incredibly sad and bankrupt set of choices. In none of Apatow’s movies does he contemplate the possibility of a man and woman as equal partners–economic, sexual, social, psychological, intellectual, emotional–enjoying each other’s company and bodies; in his vision, the battle of the sexes, and the battles of sex, must always have a winner and loser. Like Tolstoy, Apatow would never say that his boy heroes are “losers” for giving up their happy childhoods in order to enter a happy adulthood; he would say that they’re simply growing up, and discovering new, more meaningful forms of happiness. But, unlike Tolstoy, he’s so committed to celebrating his heroes’ nostalgia for their youth, it’s pretty clear that he sees maturation as a crushing loss. (I do too, but for different reasons.)

All Apatow’s heroes seem to me to exchange one form of meaningless, unthinking childishness for another: they go from being brainless zombies of puerile appetites jacking off to Lords of War to being brainless zombies of heteronormativity jacking off to the Crate & Barrel catalog. Might there possibly be some other alternatives?

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The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Tommy Lee Jones (2005)

Very macho movie about a tough cowboy (Jones, under his own direction) who promises his Mexican friend and coworker (Julio Cedillo) that he’ll take him back to his village in Mexico for burial if he should happen to die. Sure enough, he does, shot in a stupid accident by a racist jerk of a border patrolman (Barry Pepper). All that comes pretty early on. The bulk of the movie consists of Jones carrying the putrefying body of his friend back to Mexico with the shackled, barefoot, sunburned, snake-bitten Pepper in tow. Lessons are learned about the value of life and friendship.

Early on, Jones tries to get a little fancy on the other side of the camera, moving around in time ala Pulp Fiction and trying to get some separate storylines going ala Lone Star, but there’s no good reason for the former and he can’t sustain the latter, and he wisely simplifies once the main part of the story gets underway.

It’s all a bit dull, but I did like:

  • the amazing sunset-lit landscapes of south Texas
  • the implicit anti-anti-immigrant politics (Jones speaks passable Spanish throughout and reaps great benefits thereby; the patrolman, of course, can speak none and has occasion to wish he could; the Border Patrol is shown to be generally corrupt and inept; there are no bad Mexicans and lots of good ones)
  • the wonderful truckstop beauty of Melissa Leo
  • the really, really funny Dwight Yoakam (!)
  • and–I truly apologize for this, but it’s true–January Jones, who does the trashy girl next door thing scary good. I’ve been ogling her on Mad Men this past week and now she coincidentally shows up in this ancient bit of sediment from my Netflix queue. Sometimes people come suddenly into your life for obscure but important reasons, or at least I hope so.
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Paradise Now, Hany Abu-Assad (2005)

Said and Khaled are a couple of young, bored, and disaffected Palestinians living in Nablus. Normal young men, loving their families, dreaming of girls, working in a car repair shop, but, given the occupation, they live with a perpetual sense of being incarcerated: Said says at one point that he’s been allowed to leave the West Bank once in his life, when he was six years old and needed an operation.

This claustrophobia and helplessness, coupled in Khaled’s case with a streak of rebelliousness and in Said’s with lingering shame over his father’s collaboration with the Israelis, leads the two to volunteer for a suicide attack in Israel. But things don’t go smoothly. There are two attempts. In the first, it’s Said that panics; in the second, it’s Khalid. In both, the filmmakers do a very fine job of maintaining a strong sense of verisimilitude while at the same time evoking more abstract and metaphorical questions about the nature of the pair’s horrible errand.

All in all, I found this very impressive. It manages to take up extremely sensational and controversial subject matter and consider it with clarity and humanity.

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The Plot Against America, Philip Roth (2004)

Roth follows the fortunes of the Roth family of Newark as they live through the tumultuous events of mid-1940 to late 1942. Those years were tumultuous enough on their own, of course, but Roth stirs them up further by postulating that the anti-Semitic isolationist flyboy Charles Lindbergh, not Wendell Wilkie, was the Republican presidential nominee in 1940, and that he, not FDR, won the election. Roth opens this wound in the historical record and then sews it up again neatly, getting Lindbergh out of the White House and FDR back in just as the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in December 1942, rather than 1941.

So essentially, Roth has added a year to history, and he fills it to the hilt with resonant, funny, frightening, and entirely plausible events. I had assumed, knowing the basic idea beforehand, that the novel would focus exclusively on historical characters and situations. Far from it. This is the story of the Roth family against a (pseudo-)historical background, not an alternative history with a family thrown in for color. In fact, it’s really easy to imagine how boring the book could have been had it been conceived of by a history nerd whose idea of narrative charge was, say, detailing of the ramifications of a Lindbergh presidency for agricultural policy. Roth, on the contrary, keeps the Roth family and their struggles at the center of the novel, and as a result reminds us forcefully that history doesn’t happen to Americans, Jews, Arabs, Germans, women, children, men, presidents, Christians, Muslims, or any other collective noun: it happens in this particular kitchen, and aboard this particular city bus, and on this particular street corner, to a single particular person. Among this book’s many, many wisdoms, that one seems to me the most important, that history affects not peoples but people.

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The Bourne Ultimatum, Paul Greengrass (2007)

I imagine this must be what it feels like to have a cardiac arrest. Everything shaking and stumbling and speedy and loud. By normal action picture standards, this movie’s writing, plotting, editing, and cinematography are all sterling, and it’s also nice to get glimpses of so many pleasing locations, including Tangiers, Madrid, and Riga (performing a star turn as Turin, Italy). But for real, I was hyperventilating, and I had my fingers stuck in my ears about a third of the time, having forgotten my earplugs. And is it so much to ask for the camera to stop moving for one. freaking. second?

In between directing this Bourne and the last one, Greengrass directed the very affecting United 93. I’ve decided to think that it made a difference in how he approached this movie, even though it almost certainly didn’t. Still, though, it must be said that sprinkled in amongst the car chases and shootouts, this movie has–as a little bonus for the shamefaced culture vultures looking for a way to justify their attendance at a blockbuster by cooking up a little “reading” of the “film”–a dash of politics. The issue at hand is whether it’s OK for the government of a good country to do evil things in order to protect its citizens from yet deeper evil, and, obviously, this is a question much in play in our country today. The film’s ostensible answer is that no, it’s not OK do to harm in the name of preventing harm, but this message is essentially repudiated even as it’s delivered. We are told the government was wrong to rob young David Webb of his life and identity and turn him into Jason Bourne, a fit, trim, polite, handsome super-assassin who can speak eighty-seven languages, go weeks without sleep, food, or water, and immobilize roomfuls of ninjas with an olive pit and a cell phone.

But of course the whole reason we go to the movie is to marvel at exactly that brilliant Frankenstein in action. No one would go to see “The Webb Supremacy,” in which Webb wins the golf tournament run by his local Elks Lodge, or “The Webb Ultimatum,” in which Webb insists that his kids get no dessert until they finish their fish sticks.

I’m not sure I dare make a corollary to Abu Ghraib there, or that I even know what I’m talking about.

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Moog, Hans Fjellestad (2004)

I happen to be a big fan of electronic music, and so thought this documentary about the inventor of the synthesizer might be enjoyable, especially since it promised appearances by DJ Spooky and Stereolab, household gods around here.

Sadly, the movie’s pretty much a disaster. Moog is clearly a sweet old man, but I don’t really need to watch him walk through his garden picking green peppers and talking about how gardening and inventing are somehow related, but in a way he can’t describe. I think what happened here is that the filmmakers thought that because Moog is so awesome, all they had to do was turn the camera on and let him talk. There’s a thing called editing, and it’s important.

The best part is watching the astonishing Pamelia Kurstin play the theremin. My god! Who knew!