All posts tagged “Los Angeles



600 Miles, Gabriel Ripstein (2015). You can’t just point a camera at someone driving a car with golden hour light on their face and let it run for three minutes. It’s not suspenseful; it’s boring. A small story like this depends on effective characterization and unfortunately that doesn’t happen here. Too bad because we have a  dire need to see normal human Mexicans on the screen instead of just caricatures and thugs.

Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle (2015). So ridiculous it almost gets fun, but no. This is terrible.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain (2012). Really wanted to like this but the prose is so jumped-up it made me nervous like I’d had six cups of coffee. Someone told Fountain that there need to be three fancy whiz-bang usages per page in order to keep the reader’s interest, maybe? There was a point where I thought we were getting into Tim O’Brien-style magical realism, but then it turned out that I was just being asked to believe something totally unbelievable, and that bothered me. I guess Ang Lee made a movie out of this in super high 3D HD; I don’t get why.

Alabama in the Twentieth Century, Wayne Flynt (2004). I’ve been meaning to get to this for a long time. It’s an academic history from a university press, and thus unsurprisingly a little long on data and a little short on synthesis for the lay reader, but I still came away with a much better sense of the political, social, and cultural dynamics of my adopted home state. In a nutshell, it’s run by an oligarchy of major landowners and businessmen who by and large don’t give much of a hoot about the public good.  Which is more depressing: Watching my true home states in the Midwest devolve from their progressive labor-informed roots into paranoid right-wing madness, or living in a place that never had any progressive labor-informed traditions in the first place?

Straight Outta Compton, F. Gary Gray (2015). Trucks with a lot of the Behind the Music clichés, sure, but they’re clichés because they’re so frequently true. It’s really a pretty good movie, well-acted and visually dynamic. As with all based-on-a-true-story stories, there are certainly robust arguments to be had about what got put in, what got left out, and what got made up. For example, there are some gestures toward acknowledging the violence against women perpetrated by the group, but IMHO not enough.

The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino (2013). I keep going back and forth on this one. It’s a classic imitative fallacy problem: Is the movie critiquing self-indulgence, narcissism, half-baked art, vacuous philosophizing, and bourgeois complacency, or is it an example of all of the above? Maybe both/and. It’s certainly delicious to look at, and I do find myself smiling an awful lot. Makes me feel both wistful and embarrassed to feel anything at all.

The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer (2012). Everyone said to watch this, but when I read about it I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to handle it. My solution was to watch it in several successive sessions, not all at once, which worked OK. It is so weird and heartbreaking and mesmerizing and horrifying and beautiful. It should never have been made and it’s a fantastic accomplishment. I watched it two months ago and I’m still not over it. It’s like Night and Fog crossed with 8 1/2. It’s about corruption and genocide and torture and power and all that. And it’s also very much about history and historiography, particularly how monstrous crimes get narrativized and thus normalized. So you have to grapple with abstract questions about historiography and representation and power while simultaneously grappling with very non-abstract realities of people killing each other in cold blood. It’s a lot to take. This really deserves thinking about at more length and in more detail but I’m kind of scared of it.

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, Göran Olsson (2011). Terrific footage shot by Swedish journalists forms the backbone of this documentary, and it’s fascinating and wonderful to watch. When the editors and director start trying to be synthetic historians the piece gets a little watery, since they are incapable of seeing their subjects as anything but totemic heroes. Never mind the commentary and absorb this instead as raw history; it’s fantastic.




Heat, Michael Mann (1995)

heat_1995_pic01In my yoot it seemed obvious that cinema auteurs fell into two categories: then (chiefly for me Renoir, Keaton, Murnau, Lang, Wilder, (Anthony) Mann, Fellini, Hitchcock, Godard, Antonioni, etc.) and now (Haynes, Lee, Almodovar, Lynch, Scorsese, Coen, Kar-wai, Haneke, etc.). It’s weird to get old and realize that one of the finest films of my “present” is twenty years old this year.

Speaking of art and time, let me also take a moment to mention the importance of patience. Mann wrote his first treatment of Heat in 1979. Good work takes time to develop, but good work lasts. I saw this first in a second-run movie theater in Houston in 1995 and I saw it again on HBO last night, and it’s lost none of its potency.

Heat is one of the best ten policiers of the second half the twentieth century, which puts it in the company of The Godfather, Chinatown, Touch of Evil, Sunset Boulevard, North by Northwest, and Blade Runner. It is so perfectly paced and edited that despite its length (170 minutes), its grip on the viewer’s attention is never loosened. We are moved inexorably from mood to mood, theme to theme, character to character, as the film’s web of associations, correlations, contradictions, tensions and releases (good guy/bad guy; intimacy/loneliness; coherence/chaos; instinct/cognition; commitment/freedom; etc.) draws ever tighter around us. It is deeply Classical in its symmetries, its pathos, its obsession with timê. Its final peripety comes in the form of a cell phone call from Jon Voigt. I’d love to watch it with Alexander Pope, sharing a box of Milk Duds.

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Her, Spike Jonze (2013)


Gentle dude, simultaneously steeped in self-help and emotionally clueless per the modern manner, falls in love with the perfect woman, a computer programmed to like him. Nice conceit — Pygmalion in the Matrix — and a lot of ink’s been spilled on it, so I’ll skip the obvious commentary about “modern love” and “our contemporary moment” and just mention my disappointment with the extreme gynophobia of this supposedly enlightened hipster enterprise. In the end, the message here is that not only are real women terrifying and incomprehensible, so are artificial women created exclusively to serve men. Sad movie in all the ways Jonze intended and a number of ways he almost certainly didn’t.

Here, let me put this as concisely as I can: How many more stories where we’re expected to care about the emotional travails of a man-child who’s terrified by confident women and utterly without self-awareness?

Look at him there on the poster: Surrounded by accolades and still so confused and sad. Isn’t he adorable?

Now that I think about it, Jonze has really hit on a elegant solution to the problem of terrifying women. He’s made a movie where the hyper-intelligent, hyper-sexual, and therefore hyper-intimidating woman is literally invisible! So much easier to deal with than the breathing and eating kind. Though still of course impossible to deal with. Because, you know, women.

I will say that the mise-en-scène here is terrific. Gorgeous Portra colors and brilliantly subtle suggestions of a Los Angeles fully recognizable yet eerily skewed into a near future. And there are some sweetly off-kilter passages of dialogue that make me smile. But mostly this is just a wallow in very old-fashioned gender stereotyping, dressed up in a few postmodern tropes.

Actually, I guess now that I think about it there’s just as much misandry as misogyny. Everyone’s such a type. Bleh.


The Canyons, Paul Schrader (2013)

aaaExhausted people filmed in an exhausted palette in the city of exhaust. I have my reasons for not being able to look away — Schrader is a fellow expatriate from my Midwestern Dutch Calvinist tribe — but there’s not much reason for anyone else to watch this unless, like me, they have to. Bret Easton Ellis’s script tries desperately to be edgy and perverse, but since every character who passes in front of the camera is a two-dimensional cartoon of mean self-interest, it’s practically impossible to care when they do all the horrible things to each other that they do. Schrader’s glacial camera, as ever, aspires to Antonioni-like gravitas but mostly just seems aimless and slightly bored; we spend a lot of time watching people climb stairs and walk to and from their cars. I think Lindsey Lohan and James Deen do pretty well chewing the cardboard lines they’ve been given to speak, but neither are fantastic actors, and their surges from whimper to shout and back again have a high school drama club quality about them.

No need to read further if you don’t know the Calvin College fight song.

OK, so now it’s just us. The once-innocent kid’s character reaches all the way back to Kristen VanDorn from 1979’s Hardcore — they’re both good Michiganders perverted the second they step on Californian soil. But Schrader seems a little tired, or confused, or mellowed; the bracing shock with Kristen was that it turned out she’d chosen depravity. This kid, Ryan, seems to have sort of fallen into it out of a kind of indifference, or even laziness. Maybe that’s Ellis’s influence. Meanwhile, of course the depraved psychopath is named “Christian.” Of course Ryan is from Michigan. Of course the psychopath has a freakout where he mocks the kid’s naiveté and tells him to go back to Michigan. Of course the innocent lamb has her throat cut, and her murderer faces no damnation. These gestures will go unnoticed by some, but they’re almost comically obvious to us. For me, they’re also almost comforting, in a strange way.

I think often about something John Currin said in Calvin Tomkins’ fawning 2008 New Yorker profile of him: “You should never will a change in your work—you have to work an idea to death. I often find that the best things happen when you’re near the end.” This is a frightening notion to me as a writer. I have a great fear of being boring, and repetition seems like a sure path to being boring. At the same time, I think Currin is certainly correct. Every time Cezanne figured Mont Sainte-Victoire, his understanding of color and space, and ours, deepened.

I think that’s all I have to say on this subject for now.


The Future, Miranda July (2011)


Jesus, between this and Beginners, I’m starting to wonder whether I need to personally go out to Los Angeles and slap everybody. I adored You and Me and Everyone We Know, and I think Miranda July’s a delight in every way, but here’s a deadly example of how quirky can very quickly render out as tedious. Or maybe — here’s the relentless fear — I’m just getting too old? Have had my fill of quirky? I can in fact well imagine seeing this in 1988 alongside, say, Betty Blue, and experiencing it as soul-scouring. Was I blind then or am I deaf now?

Ach, that’s all nonsense talk. If I’m old, I’m old enough to know that daddy things go in cycles, the way that Kanye West is just ampin’ like Michael, and what we have here is Stranger than Paradise for the new ones same as Jarmusch put Godard in Sandusky for us. No harm, no harm! But no joy. I was glad the cat died; it was creeping me out.

Must be said: As ever with July, the details persist: I completely buy the kid digging a foxhole in the backyard, and answering, when queried about where she’ll pee, “I’ll do it here. Like a soldier.” Also a plus is that no one is rich. And also I loved the guy who put the old blowdryer on Craigslist. Actually, I’m realizing now that I enjoyed the first 45 minutes a lot more than the second.