Saturday, April 29, 2006

AWOL in the Cabinet of Distractions

Just so's you know, I'm spending the whole weekend in the joyful, enlivening company of Dr. S, getting to know her lovely colleagues and meeting some of her department's most invigorating and promising students. Here on her home turf, I can also finally appreciate in person all the beautiful flora that she shares so generously with us. Plus, look at what she is baking for us. Quick hand count: who's jealous?

I'll be back and posting on Monday.

Image reproduced from Dr. S's own site.


Thursday, April 27, 2006


When I think about Michelle Pfeiffer, I think about Nathaniel, and when I think about Nathaniel, I think about how much he hates it when actresses muffle their natural beauty or, worse, actively dowd themselves down in order to chase an Oscar. I don't know whether he already harbored such animus toward this practice when Pfeiffer, his favorite actress, scored her first two Oscar nominations for two of her most radiant, self-consciously sexy turns in Dangerous Liaisons and The Fabulous Baker Boys, or whether it was thus Pfeiffer herself who instilled in his mind that one can be preternaturally exquisite and act terrifically and find a berth on Oscar's ballot... even if, you know, you maybe can't actually win. I'm sure Nathaniel hates it that Michelle lost to Geena Davis in The Accidental Tourist and Jessica Tandy in Driving Miss Daisy, but if, on either occasion, Michelle had lost to, say, Charlize Theron in North Country or Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby, I'm sure we would all still be breathing the ash from his own spontaneous combustion.

Those two performances as well as Michelle's nominated work in the somewhat underrated Love Field are all wonderful, but at risk of prompting Nathaniel's ire, my two favorite Pfeiffer performances both sort of wander down that garden path of cosmetic humility that customarily drives him a little crazy. Then again, when Michelle dresses down or slings hash or wears flannels or lets the tresses go unwashed, she never does it in a way that betrays any false exhibitionism (not to mention that she is never less than ravishing). She never chases Oscar, even when she's cast in a part that invites some showboating; she's too ego-less of a performer to take that approach, and beyond that, for me, her calling card as an actress is a laser-beam commitment to the severity and hard truths of her characters. No wig or costume, either frilly or frumpy, is ever going to get in the way of an emotional lucidity and an integrity like Pfeiffer's. She isn't, to me, the world's rangiest actress, or at least she doesn't seem so: some of her tics and inflections, especially that hard quality of her voice in extreme states of emotion, are a little predictable from role to role. And yet, when I sometimes get too comfortable with my assumption that Pfeiffer, however capable, works best in a confined register of parts—maybe because of her weird, recent predilection for undemanding soft-genre pics helmed by undistinguished directors—I look back over her filmography (often at some prompting on Nathaniel's site) and realize how unexpectedly she has popped up in some very disparate projects, and what new facets she has revealed in both her talent and her movies whenever she has traveled like that.

I'm staying mum about my favorite Pfeiffer performance, even though it's by many leagues my favorite, because it'll be coming up later—a good deal later—on my countdown of favorite films, and I don't want to spoil that fun. But my second favorite Pfeiffer performance is in A Thousand Acres, a movie that engendered little affection or admiration upon its 1997 release, partly because Touchstone Pictures had no idea how to sell it, and partly because, sad to say, director Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof, How To Make an American Quilt) had next to no idea how to make it. Working from Jane Smiley's terrific but tonally delicate novel, as loamy and tough and deceptively complex as the Iowan soil, the film version of A Thousand Acres makes almost every conceivable mistake of packing in too much incident, editing according to inherited sequence rather than any specifically filmic vision, shamelessly intercutting very different takes within scenes (a true nightmare of anti-continuity), and letting a lot of well-cast actors either flail about (Lange, Robards) or dully congeal (Anderson, Leigh) because they don't seem to be getting any direction.

But then there's Pfeiffer, cast as the watchful and vengeful sister Rose, the Regan to Lange's Goneril, except that the movie's forcing of perspective through Lange (aka Ginny) and the sisters' crucial imbalances of knowledge and motivation basically shift all the nervy but righteous vindictiveness onto Pfeiffer. She can handle it. Boy, can she. From the moment you meet her, whipping up Salisbury steak in a casserole dish and un-self-consciously inhabiting a farm kitchen, Pfeiffer's eyes have got a mean tint of steel, and they seem even wider and more dilated than usual. Her character has just survived a bout with breast cancer, and is still getting acclimated to her mastectomy. She bears an uncertain relation to a handsome prodigal son (Colin Firth's Jess Cagle) who has just returned to Zebulon County, and she seems to bristle around her father (Robards), even when she's superficially making nice, even before the Shit Hits The Fan. Just watching Pfeiffer sitting in a lawn chair at the potluck dinner in the opening scene—legs splayed, elbows and neckline precipitously angled, dry ice in her eyes, while Lange perches with birdlike decorum by her side—it's clear that all the energy and friction in the film is gestating inside her body, her inner abacus of justice and, mostly, injustice.

As the revelations unfold, Pfeiffer stays within her simmering glory, even as the ramshackle editing and august but ill-situated photography show no real knack for capitalizing on the performance. The convolutions of Smiley's plotline, which feel so lean and hewn in the context of her prose, find their equivalent in Pfeiffer's taut but unembellished delivery. A lot of the biggest secrets are hers to reveal, but they're terrible secrets, and Pfeiffer's Rose takes an almost unseemly pleasure in bringing them forward. Even as the pendulum of moral right keeps swinging her way, we feel less and less comfortable with her, and we wonder how much we should trust her; Lange, usually so good at watercolor gradations and coiled psychologies, doesn't come anywhere near to where Pfeiffer does with a much less intricate approach. Wondrously, when Rose actually starts to break all kinds of ethical pacts, even those with her sister, we start to like her more: the actress's ironic management of empathy and outrage far exceeds what script-writer Laura Jones has achieved. All of this comes together in Rose's climactic monologue, delievered from a cot in a cancer ward, beneath an awful "cancer patient" wig, and amidst a chapter of the film that, even by its own poorly managed standards, feels listless, unformed. Pfeiffer's Rose has to list all the ways in which she has failed at life, but she preserves an enormous and wounding pride at her categorical refusal to gloss or deny: "I saw," she says, and it's the kind of pared-down screenwriting phrase that usually dies up there on the screen, but Pfeiffer brings it fully across. You wish there were more than half a movie around her, but there's certainly a whole movie in her, and it's the one you wind up remembering.

Farm wife? Cancer patient? Gingham? Dust of the plains? Big closing speech? Yep, all that, and still no Oscar nod for Pfeiffer, or even a whisper of a chance, even in the bum year for lead actresses that was 1997. Even at the Golden Globes, where the reaching to fill the category was an audible moan in the ballroom, it was Lange who scored what Holly Hunter so memorably described as a "Hamburger Helper nomination." I didn't get it then, and I don't now, but you never get the sense that Pfeiffer cares about these sorts of things. And why should she, with her work so amply and deftly behind her? She grasped the role. She co-produced the film. She held fast under poor stewardship and among struggling colleagues. She put it over. She saw. Now you go see. (And go here for more posts in Nathaniel's Pfeiffer Blog-a-thon, on this, the eve of her 48th birthday. That's eleven years older than Gillian, and she's still a vision!)

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Picked Flick #55: The Cremaster Cycle

Matthew Barney's five-part Cremaster Cycle hurricaned its way into Ithaca, NY, in the spring of 2004, powered by a tremendous reputation that was nonetheless, at least to my hinterland ears, vague in its details. With apologies to all the visual artists and museum devotees who probably roll their eyes at Cremaster fans like me—the same way I am nonplussed when, say, people learn of Toni Morrison when she pops up on Oprah—I had heard that the films were not made in the sequence implied by their titles, that they were collectively named for the tiny muscle that raises and lowers the testicles in moments of arousal, and that they aggregated all manner of sculptural, digital, narrative, mythological, and material experiments into a behemoth visual undertaking that anyone curious about the future of movies should take some pains to see. And so I saw. And as opposed to the letdowns I have experienced in the face of other curator-approved, "post-cinema" movies (for example, Bill Morrison's Decasia, a series of arresting ideas and images that persist at least three times too long), the Cremaster movies were truly electrifying: baffling but terrifically engaging in their more arcane motifs, and persuasive as the kind of tout court double-dare to filmmakers and audiences everywhere that avant-garde classics like Un chien andalou or Meshes of the Afternoon or Dog Star Man or Empire must have been in their own days.

While an oft-promised DVD collection from Palm Pictures remains a dream perpetually deferred, I have only my two-year-old recollections of Barney's formidable imagery and curiously interwoven "plots" to write from. Of course, the whole reason why the Cremaster Cycle ranks so high on this list is that Barney's outlandish mise-en-scène, forever emphasizing the organic, the amorphous, the massive, the adhesive, and the fluorescent in quite literal ways, also retains those very qualities in my memory. I saw the movies in superficially "numeric" order (i.e., 1 and 2 on one night, 3 the next, and 4 and 5 after that), but even following that schema, you implicitly sense that 4 and 1, the first films produced, supply the erstwhile Rosetta Stones to what more fully follows. These, the shortest installments, condition the viewer into the remarkable plasticity of Barney's visions, his outré cosmetic mutations of his own body, his recurring propensity for gonadal tropes and visual puns, and his fusion of mass-cultural signifiers like zeppelins, stadiums, land-speed races, and flight attendants with his carefully considered though highly subjective apprehensions of specific occult histories: drawn from the Isle of Man in Cremaster 4, but also from Hungary, Utah, and New York City in subsequent iterations. Both within each movie and across the whole series, Barney expectorates a kind of gestalt system that no one can comfortably articulate—not even he, I suspect, based on the "synopses" at the entrancing but opaque Cremaster website. What is remarkable about the project, then, are its eerily instantaneous claims on your sensory life and your sense-making apparatus. Fashioning febrile touchstones out of the illusionist Harry Houdini, the murderer Gary Gilmore, the architectural peculiarities of the Chrysler Building and the Guggenheim Museum, the mating rituals of bees, the salt flats of the Western U.S., the emerald archipelagos of the Irish Sea, the Lánchíd Bridge of Budapest, and a full MGM cast of satyrs, nereids, headbangers, and anthropomorphic hybrids, the Cremaster films summon a force of subconscious recognition that is perversely hard to account for in anything we see or hear. The linchpin materials—smelted Vaseline, Victorian couture, body paints and plasters, shimmering silks and satins, rolling grapes, twittering birds, Art Deco surfaces just waiting to be scuffed, a lattice-work of seminal and fallopian passageways—all express the pliability, viscosity, impermanence, and unresolved becoming of all things. Thus, the potent emotional resonance of the Cremaster Cycle is due as much as anything to these media of expression, their constant flights and drops, their splittings and mergings, their plyings and smashings, and, perhaps most of all, to the melancholy flattening of every gummy resin and lofty spire and shaggy wig and crenulated frieze into two-dimensional flickers.

Every Cremaster fan harbors a favorite installment, and mine is certainly the second. Even though I lack much of a compass for navigating Houdiniana, Mormon lore, or the strange career of Gary Gilmore, Barney's figurations of Gilmore's murderous loneliness—as a mucous membrane encasing his car at a gas station, as a penis shrunk to paper-clip size, as a plaintive rodeo in desolate surroundings—evoke a blend of pathology and extraordinary pity on a par with Patty Jenkins' Monster, despite how fully Barney challenges every extant recipe for transmitting moral and psychological concepts on film. I also love the sad, grand riffs on the generic staples of the Western, and as a hard-and-fast Cronenberg disciple, I take a simpler, half-disgusted interest in the colloidal jellies and creepy supernaturalism of the opening "conception" scene. When I first composed this list, I meant for Cremaster 2 to occupy its own spot, but then—partly by noticing that I had misidentified a still from Cremaster 3 in the banner image for this feature—I realized how much my investments in every Cremaster segment seep and pour into the others. Having therefore proven inept at compartmentalizing my memories of these movies, I am now opting for the more cowardly but also more truthful position of commemorating them all in their uncanny wholeness: a totality far greater than the sum of its prodigious, elliptical parts. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image reproduced from

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Fred's Poems: "Praises"

Fred was a great lover of food, and so...

"Praises" by Thomas McGrath
The vegetables please us with their modes and virtues.
                                                                              The demure heart
Of the lettuce inside its circular court, baroque ear
Of quiet under its rustling house of lace, pleases
      And the bold strength of the celery, its green Hispanic
¡Shout! its exclamatory confetti.
                                              And the analogue that is Onion:
Ptolemaic astronomy and tearful allegory, the Platonic circles
Of his inexhaustible soul!
                                    O and the straightforwardness
In the labyrinth of Cabbage, the infallible rectitude of Homegrown Mushroom
Under its cone of silence like a papal hat —
                                                                  All these
Please us.
                And the syllabus of the corn,
                                                            that wampum,
                                                                                    its golden
Roads leading out of the wigwams of its silky and youthful smoke;
The nobility of the dill, cool in its silences and cathedrals;
Tomatoes five-alarm fires in their musky barrios, peas
Asleep in their cartridge clips,
                                                                colonies of the imperial
Cauliflower, and the buddha-like seeds of the pepper
Turning their prayerwheels in the green gloom of their caves.
All these we praise: they please us in all ways: these smallest virtues.
All these earth-given:
                                and the heaven-hung fruit also...
                                                                              As instance
Banana which continually makes angelic ears out of sour
Purses, or the winy abacus of the holy grape on its cross
Of alcohol, or the peach with its fur like a young girl's—
All these we praise: the winter in the flesh of the apple, and the sun
Domesticated under the orange's rind.
                                                            We praise
By the skin of our teeth, Persimmon, and Pawpaw's constant
Affair with gravity, and the proletariat of the pomegranate
Inside its leathery city.
                                  And let us praise all these
As they please us: skin, flesh, flower, and the flowering
Bones of their seeds: from which come orchards: bees: honey:
Flowers, love's language, love, heart's ease, poems, praise.

[Editor's note: this was not the easiest blog entry to format, but the poem is so mouth-watering that is worth it. Now, back to grading. Oh, and see here and here for more of Fred's favorite poems.]


Supporting Actress Sundays: 1958

1958 can hardly be accused of being a banner year for Oscar. I've seen three bonafide American masterpieces from that year—Hitchcock's Vertigo, Welles' Touch of Evil, and Sirk's A Time to Love and a Time to Die—but none of them made much headway with the Academy. The Hitchcock and the Sirk settled for technical nominations, while the Welles was shut out entirely. Meanwhile, the Academy's own choices for the Best Picture lineup are a uniquely mediocre lot: the festive but bloated Auntie Mame, the sanitized and weirdly restructured Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the aggressively preachy The Defiant Ones, the instant antique Separate Tables, and the improbable nine-noms-and-nine-wins juggernaut Gigi, an opulent exercise in treading water, whipped up by Lerner and Loewe to kill time until the film rights to their still-running Broadway bonanza My Fair Lady finally became available. Fallow Oscar years tend to produce either especially interesting or especially dull acting rosters: the Academy either culls what it can from the movies it's nominated elsewhere or, out of desperation, it branches out toward performances and films other than the kinds they typically prefer. Surprisingly, the two Best Picture nominees most likely to yield Supporting Actress contenders that year were the two that got blocked: Judith Anderson, a past nominee for Rebecca, couldn't make it in as Tennessee Williams' Big Mama, and Hermione Gingold, despite winning the Golden Globe for Gigi, got smacked with a resounding non.

To find out whom Oscar did anoint, follow the rabbit hole over to StinkyLulu's blog, where he has been profiling the nominees all month in the trial run for his new feature, Supporting Actress Sundays. Today is the Big Day where he and his invited guests, Nathaniel and I, rate the entrants from 1958, pick our own winners, and speak up for anyone whose absence from the list really galls. Extra sweet dessert: Nathaniel's homemade clip reel. Have fun... and cast your vote for the next Year in Review!

Image © 1958 United Artists, © 2002 MGM/UA Home Entertainment, and reproduced from DVD Times.

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Saturday, April 22, 2006

On the Redesign

The faults are all mine; the credit is all Sean's Peter's. Do you like it? The overhead banner has been changed, obviously, and I've widened the main-text field a bit. And yes, I'll plan to rotate the banner image periodically if I stick with this template—though to what, I'm not promising. Let me know your thoughts.

Picked Flick #56: Postcards from the Edge

For reasons I have just specified below, Sandra Bernhard would have won my support for the Best Actress Oscar in 1990, even though Without You I'm Nothing is obviously not the sort of vehicle to which the Academy pays any mind—not only because they resist formal experiments, but because they don't even like to laugh. Unless, that is, the responsible party is someone like Meryl Streep, whose tragic-dramatic prestige conversely assures them that a little merriment never killed anyone. In Postcards from the Edge, Streep sufficiently tickled the voters' funny bones to at least score her a nod the year Bernhard should have won. Streep and Bernhard: few people's idea of a seamless pair, but they do share a knack for zeroing in on their targets, especially their punchlines, without hiding the mechanics of how they're doing it. Streep is a kind of performance artist: you watch the woman she's playing, and you simultaneously watch her play that woman. Sometimes, yes, this method can feel a bit clinical, especially when, as in Out of Africa or Dancing at Lughnasa, the tricksiness of her preferred style is out of proportion to the dullness of the character. At her best, though, Streep's "intellectual" quality is actually a conduit for a bountifully generous entertainer's impulse: both the character and its construction are invigorating spectacles, and for an audience to be gifted with both at once is like following a full and zesty meal with a rich and flavorful dessert. You can even eat them at the same time! You can go back and forth! Meryl's here to give give give. Take what pleases you. Enjoy it all. She, at least, is having a ball.

Postcards from the Edge hails from that period in Streep's career when she suddenly and understandably appeared apprehensive about forever playing pietàs and martyrs and wailing women from across the Earth's four corners. She had a Funny Period the same way Picasso had a Blue one, and though I haven't actually seen any of its other avatars (She-Devil, Defending Your Life, Death Becomes Her), her work in Postcards is so lively in detail that, again, you feel like you're getting several performances for the price of one. Meryl tokes up, she zones out, she trips, she sings twice, she shoots guns twice. But the real action is in the shifting sands of her face and her tiny symphonies of physical accents, whenever she's about the deceptively simple business of selling a line or a scene, or even a fellow actor's performance. Watch what a comic tour-de-force she finds just by crouching among a wire-rack of costumes on a movie-set, her eyes and her relative posture our only inlets into a twelve-tone coloratura of comic humiliation. Waking up, unexpectedly, in a rehab center, she parses out into multiple comic beats what many actors would fold or purée into a single affect: her dazedness, her breath, her shame, her fright, the blinding whiteness of the light and the room, the puzzling discovery of a plastic hospital bracelet around her arm, her dawning recognition that news of her predicament has certainly, already sprinted to undesired destinations. Carrie Fisher has filled her autobiographical script with choice one-liners and her trademark sensibility for observing life askance. "I have feelings for you," confesses a sun-kissed Dennis Quaid, to which Streep responds, "Well, how many? More than—two?", and while the line is a great gift to her (and there's way, way more where that came from), her muffled, almost foggy playing of it is a cadeau to Quaid, an earnest tryer who rarely knows, and certainly didn't know in 1990, how to anchor a scene or vary its rhythm. Streep forces him to shake things up, just like she keeps Shirley MacLaine's campy grandiloquence on a liberal but certain leash, letting her do her Thing, even getting her own zappy charge out of it, but also keeping everyone in service of the movie, especially of Fisher's voice. Like Streep, Fisher is possessed of a sophisticated hamminess that she isn't at all bashful about trotting out, so it's no surprise that the two women are such ample enthusiasts and protectors of each other. Fisher's overriding and self-analytical theme, that she has no idea who she is or who she should be, or whether those two concepts even remotely go together, also creates a winning ironic frame for Streep's own chameleonism: watching her change shape and mental fabric, even within seconds, weds the familiar pleasures to some new questions about exhibitionism and avoidance.

Watching so many modern film comedies, I can't help wishing that they had been made fifty years ago; it's the single genre where the drop-off in quality strikes me as the most precipitous, largely because filmmakers' confidence in things like words, speed, and economy have shriveled to the size of a maraschino cherry. Postcards, though, is a rare example of a film that wouldn't be funny at any brisker pace, or with more rapid-fire actors. A more intricate style wouldn't add much—and besides, at zero cost, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus is already having fun moving Streep around the foregrounds, middle-grounds, and backgrounds of his shots, and she mines different kinds of comic gold depending on where she is: a miracle. Finally, in a major departure from most Hollywood comedies about Hollywood, Postcards feels credibly conditioned in what the industry actually is and how a set might actually feel: the anodyne hallways and lots and trailers, the dead intervals between camera set-ups, the way in which Streep's humbled B-lister keeps getting into personal fender-benders with producers, directors, wardrobe assistants, and crass starlets. Hollywood as a way of life, with its own cadences and its own soil, tillable for its very own jokes, is largely divorced from the clichés of celebrity and grotesque wealth. This Edge, then, is a terrifically accessible place, recognizable as a movie about parents and children, about Achilles heels, about the weeks and months of life that seem totally ceded to personal embarrassment, whether or not you have a drug problem, whether or not your mother is Debbie Reynolds Shirley MacLaine Doris Mann. For her part, Meryl Streep will return at two more points higher on this list, in more recognizably Streepish vehicles, but of all of her movies, this is the one that's most easily and comfortably open to visitors, especially old friends, and it never ages or disappoints. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1990 Columbia Pictures.

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Picked Flick #57: Without You I'm Nothing

"They call me... Peeeea-ches!" Sandra Bernhard sings, with shrill and seemingly misplaced pride, looking utterly ridiculous in her calico West African robe and matching headwrap, and certainly no less ridiculous with her arms now raised in triumph at the finish of this, her rendition of Nina Simone's terse and forlorn "Four Women." The spirited sincerity of her performance is matched only by the stunning incongruity of both the performer and her approach. We could hardly have imagined that Bernhard was headed here when, in a short prologue, she addressed us from her backstage makeup mirror, trimming a few split-ends and testifying in the deadest possible pan, "I have one of those hard-to-believe faces: it's sensual, it's sexual. Sometimes, it's just downright hard to believe." Even if you aren't an English professor, you want to emend the redundancy. Or you may, like the sozzled, affronted, and undisguisedly bored patrons in Bernhard's audience, want to make a shuffling break for the exits.

In short, ten minutes into Without You I'm Nothing, everything has already gone wrong—although every viewer will probably cite a different epiphanic instant when the tawdry errancy of the film reveals its brilliant comic design, exposing that the uneasy laugh you're having at Bernhard's expense is actually the laugh she's having on you, and on herself, and on almost everybody. Like Margaret Cho's I'm the One That I Want further down on this list, Without You I'm Nothing is a perfect screen transfer of what Bernhard frequently touts as a "smash-hit one-woman show." Bernhard, though, unquenched by her clever conquest of the stage and her fearless lampooning of her own image, reimagines her material as a scabrous, slippery, and uproarious subversion of the stand-up documentary. Which isn't to say that Without You I'm Nothing doesn't deliver, quite lavishly, as a purer and simpler form of comedy. Bernhard, after a garish close-up of her ankles in wine-colored tights, themselves planted in chintzy gold high-heels: "When I was a little girl, I used to come home for lunch every day, and I'd pretend that my mother was a waitress in a roadside café: 'I'll have a side-order, ma'am!' A side-order consisted of a chunk of white-meat tuna, a dollop of mayonnaise, some carrot strips, and potato chips. And then I'd sit at the counter, and ignore her." Later in the same monologue, now taking shape as Bernhard's envious ventriloquizing of her neighbors' blissful Gentility: "I'd fantasize that I had an older brother named Chip, and a little sister named Sally, and my name would be either Happy or Buffy or Babe, one of those big sexy blondes who plays a lot of volleyball... 'Oh, God, Chip, you are so cute! I wish you weren't my brother so I could fuck you!'" In her next persona, as a blowzy chanteuse: "We've been all over the country, me and my Jewish piano player... I would love to dedicate the show tonight to all of those who enjoy Remy Martin, because I love to sit around my motel room after my show in my bra and panties and say to someone, 'Get me a Remy Martin with a water back, God damn it!'"

Maybe none of this is funny in transcription; in fact, if it reads as crashingly, irredeemably dull, this would suit Bernhard's comedy perfectly. Only half the fun resides in Bernhard's priceless oscillations among a dozen diva archetypes—the disco nightmare, the quivering addict, the crooner with the murderous melismas ("Me and Mrs. Jo-o-o-o-o-ones"), the soured Supreme, the shameless product endorser, the fulsome patterer, the high-class auction fiend who thinks she's best friends with Andy, the gay icon in the age of genital panic ("I would feel just a little bit better if you would apply some spermicidal jams and jellies to the area"). The other half springs from her almost scary willingness to push every envelope of cliché, foolishness, coarseness, ethnic and subcultural appropriation. If ex-best-friend Madonna, classically skewered here, is the undefeated champ of trendy pilfering, Bernhard is an unbeatable anatomist of the thieveries, parodies, and pillories that are the spines and the mitochondria of pop entertainment. The bad jokes are made funny—hilarious—by the good ones. The throwaway lines and gestures are as memorable as the big numbers. The critique of white celebrities' desperate courting of black approval has got Bulworth beat by 20,000 leagues. The deployments of lighting, angle, and montage are as deft but also as silly as the spoken-word caricatures, and the whole thing is weirdly, riotously exalting. And if that "Age of Aquarius" finale in The 40-Year-Old Virgin had you chuckling, just look at what Bernhard does with, and to, "Little Red Corvette." (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

Image © 1990 M.C.E.G. Virgin Home Entertainment.

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Friday, April 21, 2006

Six Reasons to Read James Baldwin

My life on Fridays is the opposite of my students': I barrel outward for public excitement during the afternoon, and then laze inside the comfort of my own walls at night. After a long week of work, today has been a good day: I caught a 2:30 matinée with the friend who drove me to the emergency room last week; my own, all too typical way of paying her back. I came home and fell asleep on my couch, just long enough for the pizza I had ordered before I conked out to show up in what seemed like no time at all. (Could I have planned it any better if I had tried?) And now, I'm snuggled up with 600 pages of Brother James.

The whole semester has been a lip-smacking tour of some of my favorite writers, passing me among themselves in constant, exquisite relay: the aqueous impressionism of Virginia Woolf, the pop provocations of Suzan-Lori Parks, the felonious thrums of Jean Genet, the once and future histories of Steve Erickson, the dangerous metatheatre of Adrienne Kennedy, the kerneled secrets of Herman Melville, and, most recently, the dazzling polymorphisms of Vladimir Nabokov. Now, it's onward and inward to the preacherly passions and aching memories of James Baldwin's Just Above My Head, a novel I am reading for the first time so that I can more fairly assess a student's analysis that has made its way across my desk. The slip and slide of flashbacks, couplings, and rhetorical set-pieces in a Baldwin novel can't ever be captured by an excerpt, but, taken as a set, I hope these sentences—all from Chapter One of the Dial Press hardcover edition—will delight the coverted and entice the uninitiated:
  • Ain't it so, Jimmy: "Some people look at you like you've farted when you try to tell them the truth, or when they know you mean what you say." (15)

  • Of a late brother: "I was always able to make Arthur listen to me because Arthur always trusted me. I miss him, miss, miss, miss, miss him, miss him worse than you miss a toothache, worse than you miss the missing tooth, worse than you miss the missing leg, even worse than you miss the stillborn baby." (23-24)

  • Of a friend's breakdown: "One morning, fucking, he realized that the devil had got inside his woman, and was pulling on his prick, and he tried to beat the devil out of her. He didn't reach the devil, neighbors broke down the door and pulled him off and out of her, and carried him away. They had to carry her away, too, poor girl, nobody's ever seen her since, not, anyway, to recognize. Crunch is still alive, somewhere upstate." (39)

  • A woman remembering a hypocrite: "He always looked to me like a fat round bug, with a mustache. And, later on—or, maybe, even then, because he was repulsive to me—I used to wonder how any woman could ever look at him naked, and not throw up. I mean it. Making love to him had to be like mixing a chocolate cake for a couple of weeks." (41)

  • The same woman remembering the same hypocrite: "I sensed—I guess I knew—that I had come to the end of my ministry—of that part of my ministry, anyway—and that it was my house that I would have to set in order. If I was to live. I was preaching Mother Bessie's funeral. But you don't always get carried to the graveyard when you die. Reverend Parker proved that. Mother Bessie smelled of age—of sour clothes, sour food, sour stomach—I could deal with that, I could even accept that I might smell that way one day, just like I know I'm going to die one day. But Reverend Parker, and almost all the other ministers, they smelled—of corruption. It was in their hands, in all that self-righteous lust—you can see it when they're eating the Sunday chicken dinner. Hell, I could see it when they looked at me, like I was the breast and the wing and the stuffing. And the Lord wouldn't mind if two of His faithful and weary servants gave each other solace and comfort for a little while, under the stairs. And I couldn't deal with that." (44)

  • I wonder if this is true: "No one knows very much about the life of another. This ignorance becomes vivid, if you love another. Love sets the imagination on fire, and, also, eventually, chars the imagination into a harder element: imagination cannot match love, cannot plunge so deep, or range so wide." (53)


Fred's Poems: "On Living"

"On Living" by Nazim Hikmet
translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk


Living is no laughing matter:
              you must live with great seriousness
                            like a squirrel, for example—
              I mean, without looking for something beyond and above living,
                            I mean living must be your whole life.
Living is no laughing matter:
              you must take it seriously,
              so much so and to such a degree
      that, for example, your hands are tied behind your back,
                                                        your back to the wall,

or else in a laboratory
              in your white coat and safety glasses,
              you can die for people—
even for people whose faces you've never seen,
even though you know living
              is the most real, the most beautiful thing.
I mean, you must take living so seriously,
              that even at seventy, for example, you'll plant olive trees—
              and not for your children, either,
              but because although you fear death you don't believe it,
              because living, I mean, weighs heavier.


Let's say we're seriously ill, need surgery—
which is to say we might not get up
                            from the white table.
Even though it's impossible not to feel sad
                            about going a little too soon,
we'll still laugh at the jokes being told
we'll look out the window to see if it's raining,
or still wait anxiously
                            for the latest newscast...
Let's say we're at the front—
              for something worth fighting for, say
There, in the first offensive, on that very day,
              we might fall on our face, dead.
We'll know this with a curious anger,
      but we'll still worry ourselves to death
      about the outcome of the war, which could last years.
Let's say we're in prison
and close to fifty,
and we have eighteen more years, say
                            before the iron doors will open.
We'll still live with the outside,
with its people and animals, struggle and wind—
                                          I mean with the outside beyond the walls.
I mean, however and wherever we are,
      we must live as if we will never die.


This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
              and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet—
              I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
              in pitch-black space...
You must grieve for this right now
—you must feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
                                          if you're going to say, "I lived"...


Thursday, April 20, 2006

Fred's Poems: "Asking," "Syzygy," and "Encounter"

I know I said I wasn't going to post again until tomorrow night at the earliest, but I have to tell you quickly about a terrific event in which I participated tonight, as both reader and listener. Close friends of my friend Fred Pfeil—who, as many of you know, died last November—organized a poetry reading for late this afternoon, where his wife, several of his colleagues, and a generous handful of students paid tribute to him by reading some of his favorite poems. It was so moving to hear people with whom I work every day, many of them poets or fiction-writers in their own right, lending their voices to a group of poems that represented Fred and his spirit so well. Some were sad, some were funny, some were canonical but most were contemporary, and a smattering were by Fred himself, or by the readers who delivered them. Happily, every single poem shone to sensational effect within the context of the whole event, but of course I had my favorites... and since they piqued my interest and raised my spirits so much, I'd like to share them with you, spread over a few entries in the next several days.

"Asking" by Hu'u Thinh
I ask the earth: How does earth live with earth?
—We honor each other.

I ask water: How does water live with water?
—We fill each other up.

I ask the grass: How does grass live with grass?
—We weave into one another
creating horizons.

I ask man: How does man live with man?

I ask man: How does man live with man?

I ask man: How does man live with man?

"Syzygy" by Arthur Sze
I notice headlights out in the living-room window
then catch the bass in a pickup as it drives by.
I am shocked to learn that doctors collected
the urine of menopausal nuns in Italy to extract
gonadotropins. And is that what one draws,
in infinitesimal dose, out of a vial?
I remember a steel-wool splinter in my finger
and how difficult it was to discern, extract
under a magnifying glass; yet—blue mold,
apple dropping from a branch—it is hard to see
up close when, at the periphery, the unexpected
easily catches the eye. Last Thursday night
we looked through binoculars at the full moon,
watched it darken and darken until, eclipsed,
it glowed ferrous-red. By firelight, we glowed;
my fingertips flared when I rubbed your shoulders,
softly bit your ear. The mind is a tuning fork
that we strike, and, struck, in the syzygy
of a moment, we find the skewed, tangled
passions of a day begin to straighten, align, hum.

"Encounter" by Czeslaw Milosz
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.


Cannes Lineup

It's in. How come I'm not excited? (Lynch's absence doesn't help.)

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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Still to Come, in the 50s

Speaking of being less than halfway through, we're only seven films out from the midpoint of my favorite films countdown. I probably won't be able to post again until Friday evening or so, but coming up in the next seven entries, none of which are ties: a sassy lass, a Southern sojourn, a spiky self-caricature, a Hollywood memoir, a wharfside melodrama, a whole lot of goo, and a guy who totally gets eaten. Think you know where we're going? You know where to post your guesses. I'll be polling you, too, for your favorites among #s 51-100, because list-making should never be confined to just one person.


Picked Flick #58: In the Mood for Love

Pardon me for a moment as I swan off to buy some noodles. From a street vendor. Dappled by a sudden spray of rain. In my cheongsam. Hair piled high. Accessorizing perfectly with my natty enamel noodle-pail. [Sighhhhh]

You know, as many times as I have defied the old homily and, indeed, tried this at home, it never quite works out. I rocked a lot of ramen noodles in my years of graduate-student penury, but even with Michael Galasso's indelible theme surging through the kitchen and all the lights turned down low, trying to keep my elbow straight and my neck proud and my hips in a perfect pendulum, wouldn't you know that the elusive spark of sad, swollen Romanticism, of rue dans la rue, never came close to igniting. The only part I successfully conjured was "sad," and not even in the way I intended. Oh, but don't be laughing. Y'all know you tried, too.

As with The Crying Game, but working in an opposite direction, I have experienced a pretty notable swerve in my repsonse to In the Mood for Love. In this case, I have grown almost habituated, if such a thing is possible, to Love's rapturous mise-en-scène and its intricately woven sound elements, hypnotized and transported as I am by the miracle that is Maggie Cheung. I love the word "equipoise," but I wonder if it describes any single thing in the universe so well as it does Cheung's absolute and yet sensationally un-fussy control over the line of her body, the most minute calibrations of every feature, every lash. Sitting in a chair, casting her eyes over a newspaper, her posture is not an I or an S or an L, but some kind of sublime, pristine character missing from our alphabet. Her playing of scenes like Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow's evening out at a restaurant is suffused with an emotional urgency that is almost chemical, nowhere manifest and yet everywhere felt; by comparison, even such an accomplished telepath as Julianne Moore seems like she's doing handstands and flagging out semaphores in the somewhat analogous scenes in The End of the Affair. Other actors have dazzled in Wong's movies, though usually by sculpting themselves into ravishing emblems of cool like Brigitte Lin in Chungking Express or Carina Lau in Days of Being Wild, or black holes of devouring need like Leslie Cheung in Happy Together, or plaintive alter egos like Tony Leung in almost everything. But Cheung in In the Mood for Love exhibits an utter, respectful reverence for the art-object that Wong is creating around her, without ever seeming merely ornamental or rooting herself into any one attitude or affect. She is sad, resigned, perceptive, aroused, a good neighbor, a rattled wife, a creature of new and sudden impulse, a pilgrim returned to former haunts, and in every one of these guises, she has the clarity and soft color of blown glass, but also the veins and arteries of a human person.

As for the film, I must admit to wishing that the coda at Angkor Wat didn't feel quite so monumentalizing of what is, at heart, a gorgeous empherality. In general, I sometimes feel about Wong that, if this makes any sense, he makes movies for people who read magazines that I wouldn't like—the shimmering sheen, the insistent motifs (both visual and sonic), the lingering sense of a fold-out centerfold spread are all, at times, a little much. In short, I do love Wong, but I do have to be in the mood. Happy Together is my favorite of his films, partially because it's the most willing to rip itself open and trace some real edges in the material, without losing the power to stun us with unexpected elegance, artful caesuras. Still, even more than that film, In the Mood for Love concocts such a potent aura of feeling, deepening and darkening its flavors with each re-viewing, that my lingering disputes with Wong's aesthetic all but float away while I'm watching. It's cinema as absinthe. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The Buzz

Probably not a great idea to rush myself to judgment on such a ruminative and atmospheric film, but who said reviewing films was a good idea? Short notes here about my successful (read: awake and alert) return to The Spirit of the Beehive.

I'll be back at the same revival house shortly for a new print of Blue Velvet and—O, heavenly thought!—another new print of Days of Heaven. All in the next two weeks. That is, if the next two weeks don't kill me; those of you who teach know what I am talking about.

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Picked Flick #59: The Crying Game

Neil Jordan's The Crying Game lives and dies by the power of the narratives it produces, both within the movie and among its audiences. I saw the movie when I was in high school, and yes, I had already surmised the Twist. Oscar's taxonomies only confirmed suspicions that I had already gleaned from the unique sort of hubbub swirling around this tiny picture. People I knew seemed as proud not to have "figured out" the riddle as they normally were to outwit one—what was that about? Time Magazine devoted a stand-alone story to the movie, which was exceptional enough, but then when I re-read the article to figure out why it read so strangely, and I noticed how stringently the whole article refused personal pronouns, my inner switch really clicked. For me, though, Knowing the Secret was only the start of the voyage, and the fun. As a 15-year-old, privy only to the dimmest and most distant Morse Code bulletins about my own desires, the prospect of seeing a movie where homosexuality figured so decisively—and presumably in a way that avoided or at least challenged the old stereotypes, since otherwise, would Time have cared?—was almost unutterably delicious. My older brother and his friend saw it the night before I did, and though they were both totally stunned by "the" revelation, neither of them were all that moved. They drove me to the same shopping-mall multiplex the next night so that I could see for myself, and then joined me right following for Scent of a Woman. Thank goodness Scent hardly required more than a modicum of attention, so I could easily sit there replaying The Crying Game over and over inside my mind, hyperstimulated to a level that verged on the narcotic.

Watching The Crying Game now is nothing like the same experience, for any number of reasons. Both in my personal life and in the wider culture, the film's images of a gay watering hole and its verbal and visual rhetoric around homosexuality seem almost quaint. Maybe in 1992 The Crying Game already looked quaint to people who had actually visited a gay bar or a drag performance, or who had real-life honest-to-God queer acquaintances. As for me, I was watching from a vantage of such conjecture and fantasy that I remember feeling wholly seduced, not by the secrets but by the surfaces: how beautiful Dil was, how much I liked her form-fitting wine-colored suit and Miranda Richardson's heavy cable-knit sweater (thus commencing my 14-year affair with Sandy Powell), and best of all, how capably and, in my opinion, sophisticatedly the film interwove its sexual themes into other political arguments. In a film that, as far as I had been told, pivoted entirely on one big reveal, it seemed to me that The Crying Game was about sexuality only to the extent that it was about everything else that it was about. Captation, friendship across enemy lines, a lover's grief, unwelcome revenants from the past, hot and cool approaches to protest and subversion... The Crying Game didn't deny or derealize queer sexuality, but nor did it divorce sexuality from a bigger, gnarlier knot of human problems, and this, for me, was its Big Twist. As little as I had let myself really think about homosexuality, I had thought even less about terrorism and guilt and secret honor, and even less than that about how sexuality could bleed through, in, around, and as those other ideas. Similarly, as floored as I was by Jaye Davidson's performance as Dil—not his casting but his performance—and as therefore aggrieved as I was by Oscar's preference of Gene Hackman, I also clocked Adrian Dunbar's searing indignation, Stephen Rea's recessive sadness, Miranda Richardson's shifting web of motivations, and Jim Broadbent's unobtrusive whimsy as the barman. The Crying Game, just as much as Howards End the same year, was my introduction to great character acting; understandably, it took another year or two for me to recognize that people outside of Britain knew how to do this.

When I watch the film now, I am conscious of an enormous reversal in my relation to it. At times, the mystery of Dil seems actively to impede the flow and clarity of the picture, and a few of her boozy, pill-popping, floridly bruised, bondage-inflected episodes near the end feel none too advanced from Celluloid Closet tropes. The innuendoes of admiration and genital contact in the opening scenes between Rea and Forest Whitaker are much too obviously suggestive of later turns, although it's still a powerfully understated study in tacit, almost illicit affinity between hostage and patrol. Anne Dudley's score is as impressively Hitchcockian as Jordan's writing, and even if the screenplay, which I remembered as such a sinuous exercise in subtle connections, now feels a little bullish and schematic, I'm still duly impressed by the performances and by Jordan's success in getting his own head into such territory in 1992, much less that of his rapt global audience. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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In Which Nick's Flick Picks Senesces, While a Punk Rock Mama Only Gets Better

Following the candy-colored trail from the mugging back into my normal life, I went to the eye doctor's office yesterday to get a prescription for new glasses, only to have Pawel the Optician tell me that I have keratoconus, which means that I already see about three times worse out of my right eye than my left, because my cornea in the right eye is growing into a cone instead of a sphere. Sort of a square-peg/round-hole situation. In a couple of decades, I will either a) have to wear rigid gas-permeable contact lenses, and maybe only in one eye—my own update on the legacy of the Edwardian monocle; b) have a corneal transplant, or a plastic gadget inserted under my cornea; or c) do none of the above, and simply peer one-eyed at everyone like a character in The Dark Crystal, or the guy in "The Tell-Tale Heart." In the grand tradition of blogging, I would open this to a vote, but I know that you would all vote for (c). It has the most literary panache.

Meanwhile, the Saints keep marching in, as yet another all-star in my life celebrates a birthday. Not Clementine, even though I suspect that her mom, the real birthday girl, wants no better gift than to have as many people as possible see how cute Clementine is, and how unbelievably awesome her wardrobe is. Longtime readers of this blog have already heard so many paeans to Amanda and to Clementine that I wonder what else I could add.... except that, as much as she worries time and again on her blog that her friends think we have lost her to Mommydom, it is such a joy to see her inhabit that new part of her life with such bliss (give or take a sleepless night and a latching drama, here and there), and with all of her one-of-a-kind charisma and humor and perspective. I love reading Amanda's blog as a way to stay updated on her own life between phone calls, but I also love reading the comments by other mothers—some of them known to her, I think, and others not—who feel that she has articulated something they're all feeling, or feel that she's put an especially articulate or comical spin on it, and that neither she nor they are alone in their experiences. That's what it was like to go to grad school with Amanda, too, and she still gives the best, most practical advice. (I especially savor the moments when my own Mom quotes Amanda back to me, the way other people quote Plato or the Dalai Lama or Oprah, and we "mmmmm" our mutual agreement with whatever Amanda originally said.) She's still the funniest, the most authentic, the least predictable person you'll ever meet, she has this incredible integrity, she sticks up for herself and isn't afraid of pushing envelopes, and she's still my favorite poet. She doesn't even know this yet—except, well, she does now—but a member of my department faculty wants to bring her to campus next year to share her work, and to convince students that you don't have to be boring or emptily experimental or dead to be a poet.

Happy birthday, Punk Rock Mama. I hope I see you soon, and I hope that when I do, I can actually still see you!


Monday, April 17, 2006

Cinema Interruptus

Really, I blame the government, since I was up so late doing my taxes—why does the Connecticut Part-Year Resident form have to be so byzantine? But, my anger also lies with myself: tonight I lucked into an on-campus screening of a restored 35mm print of Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive, the very day that one of Nathaniel's readers named it as having one of the best child performances ever, and in perfect synchronicity with my own embarrassingly sluggish New Year's Resolution project, and with a free ticket to boot... and then I promptly fell asleep less than a minute in. I woke up about 50 minutes later, to find little girls hanging little wooden organs on a life-size anatomical model in a schoolroom, and then wandering out to a shack in a field (see photo). Beehive is only playing one more time, tomorrow, so I'm going to sleep early and staying in bed late.

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Picked Flicks #60: The Baby of Mâcon & The Pillow Book

I wouldn't be surprised at all to learn that Peter Greenaway is not the child of two humans, but the offspring of a building and a painting, born on the hottest day of the year in some very, very chilly place. His cinema might be the most immediately identifiable of any English-language director, and maybe of any director, period: he doesn't seem to have seen or cared about the work of other filmmakers so much as he has traveled the world to behold giant plinths and catafalques, leafed through Da Vinci's notebooks and Euclidean proofs, and made the best of a poor situation, committing his imaginary worlds to film because it's the only form that anyone is willing to subsidize. Effectively, he's been making CD-ROMs since the days when people still bought music on cassette tapes. His images dissolve into and hyperlink to each other, massive as all creation when they aren't cropped and subdivided into defiantly atypical aspect ratios. Art, math, money, and frank sexuality intersect in his movies, just like on the internet—just like everywhere, really—except that with Greenaway at the helm, this collision of humanity's great passions winds up looking like nothing any other person would ever conceive, and perhaps not like anything that any other person would ever want to see. Greenaway leaves a lot of moviegoers cold, and conversely, some of his most ardent supporters are curators, academics, and high-cultural separatists who are rarely caught in any screening venue where popcorn has ever been sold. I almost walked out of the impeccably mounted and ferociously acted The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, whose sour misanthropy seems aimed not just against people but against movies themselves. The Belly of an Architect might have been a better intro, 8½ Women might have been better consigned to the dustbin of stunted ideas, and as for Prospero's Books, though I'm now quite taken with its multimedia collage of Elizabethan idioms, it didn't really impress me until my third or fourth try.

Despite this spotty track record, Greenaway is a director who interests me tremendously; I'm not easily put off by someone who will work this hard to make such exquisitely eccentric objects, alternately impenetrable and rife with insinuations. Twice, his epic blends of the epicurean and the rectilinear have produced something that really floored me. Go figure, then, that my favorite of Greenaway's movies, The Baby of Mâcon, is the one that's still illegal in the United States, presumably because it's the one that comes close in its esoteric way to saying something that the United States needs to hear. Julia Ormond, happening upon a director even frostier than she is, comes wickedly alive as a hot-blooded French woman in a 17th-century village beset by famine, plague, and fallow fields. The only sign of new life in Mâcon is the pristinely beautiful baby that springs, incongruously, from Ormond's obese and haggard mother; boldly braiding her own self-interest into the town's thirst for a positive omen, she claims the flaxen-haired infant as her own virgin birth, and then seduces the local bishop's icily skeptical son (Ralph Fiennes) with the brazen magnificence of her lie and the voluptuous offering of her body. Every main character is paradoxically addicted to the ideal of holiness and the spark of carnality, leading to the sorts of perverse hypocrisies and self-gratifications that, in Greenaway's films, always get you killed in an especially macabre way. If anything, The Baby of Mâcon is even more lavishly mounted than most Greenaway pageants, and even more Artaudian in its sickening climax of violence. By staging the film as a Jacobean revenge drama—Sacha Vierny's camera glides fluidly but anxiously through the tense action, the offstage grumblings, and the murmuring audience of puffy aristocrats and smudgy commoners—Greenaway poses questions about voyeurism and cruelty that encompass both his viewers and himself, further layering the implications of this scary horror-melodrama about fundamentalism, superstition, jealousy, and prurience.

After the international PR disaster of The Baby of Mâcon, Greenaway's next film was the luxuriously synesthaesiac The Pillow Book, an absolute corker of a 90-minute movie that unfortunately continues for 45 more minutes, working hard in the process to numb and obliterate everything that is almost impossibly gorgeous in the preceding material. Vivian Wu plays Nagiko, a haughty Japanese model with an insatiable yearning for having calligraphy painted on her skin. Wu is a shrilly maladroit presence, and the premise wouldn't work at all if it weren't realized in such sinuous detail, but so it is. The Pillow Book lists two directors of photography, three production designers, four costume designers, and two calligraphers in the opening credits, and indeed, the movie comes closer than any other to constituting its own elaborate, absorbing museum—one where you're encouraged to sniff and caress the artwork, to strip the clothes off the models, to run the paint along your tongue like it's a spice. This unparalleled mise-en-scène, the creatively embedded frames, and the arresting sonic mix of Japanese pop, monastic chants, and avant-garde rock together yield a new kind of movie, a three- and almost four-dimensional environment. Customary film grammar hardly accounts for how the movie works, either when it's scoring or when it's flailing, and if its structural repetitions ultimately grow a bit tedious, its fearless peculiarity and almost aphrodisiac blend of skin, music, and curvaceous lettering make it worth digesting in multiple doses, even if they're small ones. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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Sunday, April 16, 2006

Ecstatic IRS Hip-Hop Joint 2005

Delivered from the land of the un-taxed grad student stipend! Halle-LU-jah!
I'm as good as the best of them and as bad as the worst. Fork it over, Sam, mon oncle!


Even More Reindeer Games

Here's an entire preview reel of coming and in some case constant attractions: three sandboxes in which Nick's Flick Picks has been invited to make lists and sandcastles and mudpies (oh my!).

First, I realize with utter horror that I have not plugged the ModFab 6, a sexy sextet of wonks and wags that ModFab and his readers elected a couple of months ago to weigh on occasionally on matters big and small: artistic, political, ephemeral. ModFab's is still the blog I most admire for breadth of interests, regularity of updates, ratio of laughs, streamlined innovations of form, and the occasional, delectable sharpness of claw. Meow, indeed! The half-dozen angels winging around our proud and fearless Charlie include some regular bill-sharers on my own blog (Nathaniel, Dr. S), two more recent but huggable acquaintances (par3182 and StinkyLulu), and the fetching Melissa, whom I've met one single time—but as Jacqueline Susann reminds us, once is not enough, and I can only imagine she was thinking of Melissa when she said this. Most recently, Tha 6 have suggested some pastimes for Spring, some dance-floor necessities, and some diamonds in the rough hauteur of the Whitney Biennial. You never know what we'll be up to, into, or down on next, so stay tuned!

Meanwhile, two of the 6'ers are exciting my taste-buds with their own projects. Nathaniel, with the rodeo swagger of Jack Twist himself, has lassoed more than two dozen bloggers as participants in his Michelle Pfeiffer Blog-a-thon, kicking off on April 28th, the eve of Her 48th birthday. You don't have to be a Pfan to read—or, better yet, to post your own Pfilm review, Pfeiffer-related memory, tangential observation, praise-poem, watercolor, acrostic, Pfeiffer-themed quilt-pattern, velvet canvas, or any other tribute you might devise. Just send a URL off to The Film Experience, and he'll tie it all together, boosting traffic for all and raining glory down on Her Pfeline Elusiveness.

Lastly, StinkyLulu is now devoting every holy day of rest to a truly spiritual enterprise: Supporting Actress Sundays, turning each week to a nominee from years past. The 411: Stinky consecutively screens and reports on all five nominees from a given race, and at the end, Nathaniel, me, and all of you are invited to weigh in with your own impressions and shoulda-won vote. Right now, even as we murmur, Stinky is nearing the end of the 1958 cycle. Today, you can read why he found Oscar's own choice, Wendy Hiller in Separate Tables, to be such a pleasant surprise. Next week, we three talking heads have our scheduled smackdown. (Some disagreement has already been registered in relation to Martha Hyer in Vincente Minnelli's Some Came Running). From now until then, you can cast your own vote as to what year Stinky should take up as his next renter's obsession.

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Play QTA's Reindeer Games!

Queering the Apparatus is always one of my favorite blogs—because it treats some of my own favorite topics *and* makes me think about things I otherwise wouldn't, always filtered through one of the Web's most compassionate, optimistic, and articulate voices. If there's ever an award for Most Rhetorically Powerful Blog Entry, I might have to tap QTA's post on World AIDS Day, which I still think about on a weekly basis, more than four months after he wrote it.

Now, on a much lighter note (range doesn't get broader than this, folks!), QTA is taking a poll about favorite acting performances from 1980 through 2005 that weren't even nominated for the Oscars. And he wants our opinions! Y'all know that I love few things as much as an open-ended invite to list-make about the Academy, and, even better, about how superior my own taste is to the Academy's. So, in the continued spirit of doing whatever the f*** I want this weekend, I've just spent the last 15 minutes cobbling up the following list.

As ever, I only show you mine because I want you to show me yours. Rock the Comments section, and don't forget to fire your picks off to QTA. And, when you send your list of performances that inspire you, include a short word (or a long one!) about why QTA also inspires you. His is an example we could all follow; let's tell him that we know so!

Nick's Favorite Un-Nominated Performances
Using Oscar's timetables for American release dates
1980. Lily Tomlin (Supporting Actress, 9 to 5)
1981. Jessica Harper (Supporting Actress, Pennies from Heaven)
1982. Albert Finney (Actor, Shoot the Moon)
1983. Michael Keaton (Actor, Mr. Mom)
1984. Carmen Maura (Actress, What Have I Done To Deserve This?)
1985. Mia Farrow (Actress, The Purple Rose of Cairo)
1986. Marie Rivière (Actress, The Green Ray)
1987. R. Lee Ermey (Supporting Actor, Full Metal Jacket)
1988. Jeremy Irons (Actor, Dead Ringers)
1989. Meg Ryan (Actress, When Harry Met Sally...)
1990. Jennifer Jason Leigh (Supporting Actress, Miami Blues)
1991. Ice Cube (Supporting Actor, Boyz N the Hood)
1992. Gary Oldman (Actor, Bram Stoker's Dracula)
1993. Leslie Cheung (Actor, Farewell, My Concubine)
1994. Julianne Moore (Actress, Vanya on 42nd Street)
1995. Julianne Moore (Actress, Safe)
1996. Tony Shalhoub (Supporting Actor, Big Night)
1997. Debbi Morgan (Supporting Actress, Eve's Bayou)
1998. Lisa Kudrow (Supporting Actress, The Opposite of Sex)
1999. John Malkovich (Supporting Actor, Being John Malkovich)
2000. Forest Whitaker (Actor, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai)
2001. Maggie Cheung (Actress, In the Mood for Love)
2002. Isabelle Huppert (Actress, The Piano Teacher)
2003. Jack Black (Actor, School of Rock)
2004. David Carradine (Supporting Actor, Kill Bill, Vol. 2)
2005. Daniel Day-Lewis (Actor, The Ballad of Jack and Rose)


Angel of Britannia

Happy 47th birthday to Emma Thompson, who seems to belong to that high-altitude class of women like Dolly Parton, Tina Turner, and Annie Lennox whom absolutely everyone likes. Like most Americans, I "discovered" Emma via her pristine, Oscar-winning performance as Margaret Schlegel in Howards End—a performance so dextrous, subtle, literate, and intellectually alive that one can hardly believe that it won. That statuette was only the beginning of her annus mirabilis in 1993, when she snagged two more nominations for The Remains of the Day and In the Name of the Father. I recently revisited the latter film and liked the performance a little more than I had remembered, but still, neither one is any competition for her real triumph of 1993, the saucy, funny, occasionally short-sighted Beatrice she contributed to Much Ado About Nothing: a living, breathing human in a Shakespeare film, and a shimmering romantic vision at the same time.

If you've seen all of these movies, and if you're reading this site you probably have, may I recommend some of Emma's less heralded performances—as the spiky and grief-bitten photographer in The Winter Guest, directed by Alan Rickman, or the politico's wife she played so well in Primary Colors that Hillary Clinton, though hardly the same woman as Susan Staunton, seemed newly illumined, and that without the irritatingly direct mimicry that so preoccupied John Travolta in the same movie.

We see less of Emma these days than I'd like, especially since she's often inhabiting movies aimed squarely at the demographic of her own six-year-old daughter. But I'm sure we'll see more of her eventually, since she can do anything. Truly, anything. I still say she'd be a kicker of an Oscar host. Or she could pull a Glenda J. and dump acting for politics, which to a certain extent she has already done. Or she could share some draughts of that 7% Solution of Human Perfection that she's been hoarding all these years.


Friday, April 14, 2006

A Brief History of Violence

The world gained four new and probably unwitting Nabokov scholars at 10:30 last night, when, amid my walk home from teaching my grad class, I got roughed up a little and had my backpack stolen by a noticeably bored-looking foursome. Aside from a sore jaw, where the first guy hit me before I dropped to the ground, I assure you all that I am absolutely fine—literally, not a scratch on me, and none of the punches or kicks (of which there really weren't many, as these things go) were anywhere near my face, ribs, teeth, whatever. I walk home on one of the best-lit and most-traveled streets in Hartford, and as soon as I relinquished my backpack, all four guys were gone, not even 15 seconds after the incident began. I was home within minutes, and well taken care of by the cops who logged the case and by the friend who took me to the emergency room, where we quickly decided the promised 3-hour wait (and this beginning at 1:15am!) wasn't really worth it. So far, I'm not even bruised anywhere, though I'll keep you updated about any late-breaking iridescence, if it comes in any particularly cool colors. I might still go to a Convenient Care drop-in center today to make sure my jaw is just sore and not actually damaged or dislocated—which I really, truly don't think that it is, since I'm in no pain whatsoever—but otherwise, case closed.

If you're reading this and know my family, please don't mention any of this yet, since I haven't had a chance to let them know; I'm posting this now because news travels nowhere faster than among blog-friends, and I didn't want to alarm anyone who reads Tim R's typically kind and compassionate remarks in his Comments section, following what had already been a supremely generous and chummy post.

As for the pirates' haul: I doubt that my paperback of Lolita, Harold Bloom's critical anthology concerning same, and Frank Bidart's Desire can possibly be what they had in mind, as was confirmed by the spat-out "We don't want this shit!" overheard from a block away, after the first disappointed rummage through my knapsack. Small comfort: any roving bands of high-school-age street thugs overheard spouting "The Second Hour of the Night" will hereby render themselves unduly suspicious, not to mention remarkably erudite. What they're doing with the glasses they knocked off my face I can only imagine, and presumably, they got a little happier when/if they discovered the brand-new digital camera in the pen pouch, making my new headshot at the top of this blog a very, very limited edition. Nothing turned up along the walk back to work this morning except two pens and my dirt-smeared papaya lip-balm; when I didn't find anything in the nearest, fullest public trash can, I was (perversely) almost as disappointed to have what I considered a very savvy forensic instinct unrewarded as I was not to find my stuff. And obviously, compared to having my health, teeth, wallet, keys, etc., what got taken ain't diddly. Now that I've filed all the requisite reports, I'll happily rack it up to Just One Of Those Things... except for the fact that clearly, taxes aside, I get to do whatever the f*** I want this weekend.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Doctor Is In, and She Is 30

She has already popped the secret over on her own blog, but in a characteristically circumspect way, so I don't have any qualms about blaring the truth over here, too: Dr. S, mystery proprietress of the Cabinet of Distractions, today begins her fourth decade as one of the best people on Earth. I met Dr. S in the Spring of 2000, when we were both enrolled in a graduate seminar about narratology in 19th-century British literature. It was a good class, but not great, and invitations for student involvement were rarely if ever extended by our cheerful and smart but somewhat hapless professor. And yet, and yet, with the easy grace of a gliding bird, Dr. S managed to share her voice and guide all of us toward these pristine, enthusiastic observations about these beautiful, complicated books. I have never actually sat in a classroom where Dr. S was teaching, but I have absolutely no question about the kind of world she surely creates for her students: boundless with questions, curiosities, and wonderments; exuberant, even about esoterica; finding and emphasizing the fun in intellectual refinement and discipline; eloquent and serious, but never self-seriousness. Learning alongside her is so stimulating and joyful, it quickly turns into learning from her, and then into learning to be like her.

Dr. S is a legendary baker, a funky-fresh bass player, and a font of hilarity. I love, love, love her bookish side: she reads all the Booker Prize nominees every year and is never ever satiated of new ways to enjoy language, to observe a story. Her apartment in Ithaca was a botany bay of books, magazines—you felt like books might actually thrive under her care. Her eye for detail is fabulous, and her memory constantly astonishes. She describes her family in such intimate, loving detail that I have a much fuller sense of them, despite their being virtual strangers, than I have of many people whom I have met many times. She adores witty irreverence as well as scrupulous, serious preparedness: so many of us teeter way too far in one direction or the other, but she fuses them—for example, she'll plan a road-trip with such thorough, perfect foresight that there's plenty of time for eye-catching detours and gourmet lazes.

Places I have been with Dr. S, feeling so glad I know her: open-air weddings, fusty conferences, lakesides, airports, floating docks, hotel rooms in unfamiliar cities and tiny towns, double-features of depressing movies, group screenings of uproarious ones. Innerspaces I have traveled with Dr. S, and how: gamboling around Thomas Hardy, gadding about with W.G. Sebald, whirligigging through Jonathan Franzen, musing with Virginia Woolf, both chuckling and bristling at Anthony Lane, smarting from the subtle stings of Persuasion-era Jane Austen.

I really and truly love her blog; it's delicious fun to feel like a privileged spectator among bigger and bigger audiences, relishing her voice and—through her terrific photographs—seeing the world as she does. She knows the makes of cars, the names of flowers, the full history of the building and department where you both work, and which you yourself take rather drably for granted. She is stunningly generous: who folds 1,000 paper cranes to decorate a reception hall? Who drives to the airport to retrieve the tiny, unpredictably precious object that post-9/11 security guards don't want you carrying on? (A longer and more bizarre story than I can articulate in full...) Who spends six years in a humanities Ph.D. program and manages to be liked by every single person?

Dr. S has all of these qualities and more, and in fact, she's so lavishly gifted that even people accustomed to taking pride in their abilities are humbled and moved by hers, regularly. Quite unwittingly, this must involve a lot of pressure: as with most people who do extraordinary things with what looks like effortlessness, she pours heroic amounts of effort into almost everything. One of those people who loves giving gifts and sharing encouragements or advice, she feels needlessly sorry when she has none to offer; her intelligence and empathy and decency are so fundamental, I imagine that giving them so freely and regularly means giving huge parts of herself, daily. So I hope, publicly, that her birthday is an occasion for her to give lots and lots and lots to herself, to delectate in as many simple pleasures as a campus in April allows, and to hear from as many people as possible that we love not just everything she does but everything she is.


A Trip to Mt. Olympus

A few posts ago, I alluded to a project that kept me busy through much of last week. Here's the scoop: I spent an hour and a half of last Thursday morning interviewing Lynne Ramsay, whom I consider the most interesting young filmmaker working in the English language, and whose Morvern Callar is still my favorite film of this decade, give or take Russian Ark. (The Scene Stealer is also on record as a big fan.)

Ramsay was an absolute delight to talk to, remarkably humble and accessible for someone who, at least for me, inspires such total awe. I had a great time asking her about her experiences in film school, her working method with her brilliant cinematographer, her three impeccable short films (all of them available on the Criterion DVD of her first feature, Ratcatcher), and her pair of upcoming projects, both of which sound like bold new choices for a director who seemingly can't put a foot wrong.

All of this was sublime enough for me without the cosmically ordained moment when I asked her about the last occasion when a movie really blew her out of the water, and she described watching Ingmar Bergman's Persona, deep in the Australian bush, in a tent she was sharing with Jane Campion. Most of you will understand immediately why I experienced this confession as pure delirium, verging on phone sex, but if you're confused, click here and take note of #1 and #5.

The interview will appear in the May '06 issue of Stop Smiling Magazine, for whom my next assignment will be a review of the forthcoming 7-disc set of Tennessee Williams adaptations. What I ever did to or for Stop Smiling to prompt all this kindness, I will never know.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Picked Flick #61: Female Perversions

Were any of you alive for the days when I was still Picking Flicks? Or, like the New Deal or the Loch Ness Monster, is it something you've just heard about? Somehow, I've let this ball drop since all the way back in January, when we left off with Best in Show at #62. Shortest possible explanation: my bad. If you're new to this blog and don't even know what I'm talking about, find out here. Otherwise, without further ado...

In a just world, not to mention an extremely entertaining one, Susan Streitfeld's Female Perversions would hold the utopian potential to unite two truly disparate audiences: first, the academic eggheads who know that the movie, virtually alone in the modern cinema, is a fictionalized adaptation of a monograph of psychoanalytic literary theory, and second, the swells of tabloid-chasers and thrill-seekers ushered toward the movie by the title alone. It would be easy, and probably right, to say that Female Perversions is unlikely to match the expectations of either audience, but I think it's more interesting to consider how the movie actually rewards them both, at least partially. Scholastic theory on gender and sexuality can sometimes be so desiccated of the juices and shivers and intimate, saucy introspection through which sex is actually lived and breathed; on the other hand, standard-issue erotic thrillers and sexploitation films are often bizarrely disarmed of any guiding concept of what actually is sexy, or of what actually inhibits sex, or rhymes with it, or assumes its value when sex itself isn't available or, for whatever reason, desired on its own terms. Female Perversions, not just because it melds Freudian archetypes and fleshy, femmey spectacle, possesses a genuinely erotic flavor. It has the sexiest thing a movie can have: a distinct point of view, persuasively showing us what this director, or at least this film, considers titillating, pedestrian, shameful, furtive, funny.

Tilda Swinton stars as a hotshot lawyer named Eve. Right off the bat, you can tell that subtlety isn't the movie's elected forte, and yet, why and how Swinton's character is an "Eve" is hard to pin down. A rising star on the legal circuit with a prestigious judgeship all but guaranteed to come her way, she embodies a mix of professional competence and self-alienation that isn't exactly unfamiliar—don't all professional women in American movies eventually realize that they don't know who they are?—and yet, because she's played by Swinton, Eve's unraveling doesn't feel conventional. Instead, it's a strangely out-of-body experience, navigated by the only Brechtian actress working in modern film, whose masklike and yet disarmingly lucid face always works in ironic tandem with her stiffly elegant body. Surrounding Swinton are a clutch of other women who were case studies and paragons in Dr. Louise J. Kaplan's original book (full title: Female Perversions: The Temptations of Emma Bovary), and whom the screenplay by director Streitfeld and co-writer Julie Hébert determinedly maroon somewhere between being characters and ciphers. Amy Madigan, a coiled and arrestingly spiteful actress, has her finest hour here as Madeleine, the black-sheep sister of Swinton's powerful up-and-comer. Madigan shoplifts a silk scarf with a memorable glower, she all but deliberately sabotages her sister's professional coronation, and she manages the neat trick of constantly messing everything up for everyone in the movie (including for herself) without sacrificing the audience's interest. Frances Fisher blowzes around as a good-time girl, Laila Robins is tearful as a dressmaker in a trailer, Paulina Porizkova strides through her scenes as an immaculately tailored rival of Swinton's, and Karen Sillas—an underrated and little-remembered presence from Tom Noonan's What Happened Was... and some Hal Hartley films—stands toe-to-toe with Swinton as one of two lovers whom the bisexual Eve keeps stringing along. Marcia Cross puts in a mysterious cameo, basically the same shot repeated several times, as Swinton and Madigan's abused mother, and an unknown, almost androgynous waif named Dale Shuger slides even more slivers of unease beneath your skin as Edwina, a teenaged girl who flees from all the parodic female visions around her, retreating into an intensely private life of scarring her flesh and burying the pads and tissues stained with her ovulated blood.

The plot uniting all of this is never Female Perversions' strongest hook, and neither the final act of the picture nor the embedded flashbacks and dream-visions have the strange, arresting depth of the scenes where the characters just orbit and strut around each other, like Caryl Churchill characters transported to the American Southwest: indolent, almost, yet full of curiosity-sparking contradictions. The production design, particularly in Eve's coldly modernist office and in the most Kubrickian lingerie boutique you'll ever see, amplifies our confusion about where the movie is really happening: is this story all on the surface, nothing more than the sum of its aggressively allegorical symbols, or does some threshold of revelation await us beneath all the layers of intentional affectation? Female Perversions plays like some mathematical proof you keep wracking your brain against, trying to derive the absolute value of Woman, or maybe even of Gender. (The movie's tagline read, "It's all about power," and fans of Butler or Foucault will eat it up like double-chocolate mousse.) Happily, the cul-de-sacs and errant stabs at solution are actually more rewarding than the half-hearted "explanations" behind all of this theatre. Meanwhile, any drama that can boast three or four truly interesting women, and cast such peculiar and palpably brainy actresses in the roles, is not a gift to question. In fact, the film radiates an almost totemic mystique, no less so because it has become rather hard to find, and tends to pop up in unexpected places: like, say, the "Special Interest" Shelf at BestBuy, better known for stocking the onanistic oeuvres of Traci Lords. Porizkova, a presence for only two short scenes, lounges around in bedsheets on the box art, from which Swinton is entirely erased, and you don't have to look hard to find Zalman King's name among the co-producers. But as they say, good things come in smutty packages. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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