Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Lies, Damn Lies

I saw Al Sharpton interviewed on CNN yesterday. He was asked about the Democrats and the Kerry campaign having made Vietnam an issue in this election. Sharpton's response: Vietnam was just part of Kerry's bio. It was the Republicans who cherry-picked (my word, not his) it out of the bio and made it an issue. Is there anyone out there who believes this? In the bitingly sarcastic words of Lily, with whom I talked about this issue yesterday, "was Sharpton at the DNC? Oh yeah, he was."

I also saw George Shlatter (producer of "Laugh-In") interviewed by Neil Cavuto. Cavuto asked him about "Hollywood liberals," a term to which Schlatter took great offense. Schlatter made a distinction between disagreeing with Bush's policies and initiatives and failing to support Bush. Cavuto literally asked him something like "So, you're saying that much of Hollywood doesn't support Bush's initiatives and policies?" Schlatter: "Yes." Cavuto: "So, they don't support President Bush." Schlatter: "No."

???

Maybe it should be "Hollywood idiots."

I'm home on vacation between jobs, so hopefully there will be more posting this week than there has been in the past few weeks...

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Lyric of the Day:
"These seconds when I'm shaking leave me shuddering for days."
~ Counting Crows, "Anna Begins"

Happy Birthday:
Geraldine Ferraro
Branford Marsalis

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Enough Tax

I hereby declare Tax Quote month on the KC to be over.
Quote of the Day:
"It took an IRS accountant to catch Al Capone."
~ IRS Recruiting Poster

Song of the Day:
Elvis Costello, "Let Them All Talk"

Happy Birthday:
Tim Burton
Sean Connery
Elvis Costello
Regis Philbin
An inspiring article describes what happens when dedicated and innovative teachers buck the public school bureaucrats.
Slate suggests abolishing August, the month that gave us Kathie Lee Gifford, Fidel Castro, World War I, and the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour.
Burning Sensation

This surreal article features a former star of the TV show The Facts of Life defending the practice of "hot-saucing" as punishment for naughty children. In lieu of spanking or time-out, the parent dabs hot sauce on the child's tongue. This sounds like a joke to me, but according to the article the practice is widespread.

I'm not opposed to the occasional spanking, but punishment-by-condiment seems unusual, if not actually cruel.
"I just can't rave and scream and burp enough."

So says a patron of Galileo, a chic Washington restaurant that has just declared bankruptcy.
Movie Review

Random Late Summer Notes: Blah Blah Blah

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is the latest multicultural variant of the lowbrow buddy comedy in which the heroes just want to get high and laid. This strain includes Cheech & Chong's movies, starting with Up in Smoke (1978), and the best of them all, Friday (1995), costarring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker (who gives the most gloriously unregenerate comic performance since Chaplin's short movies of the 1910s).

There are two new aspects here: one is that the Korean Harold and the Hindu Kumar are model minorities. Harold's problem is that everyone assumes since he's Asian he must be a highly-paid number cruncher, and, in fact, he is a junior analyst at a New York investment bank. Not very sexy. And Kumar's problem is having more opportunities to go to med school, and become a surgeon like his father and brother, than he has interest in the practice of medicine.

This is connected to the second new aspect, which is that Harold & Kumar is the first openly assimilationist low comedy. Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, born Dino Crocetti and Joseph Levitch, became huge in nightclubs and the movies and on TV in the era of Italian and Jewish assimilation into suburban middle-class America. But Martin played an Italian character only once in their movies, in The Caddy (1953) (in which he sings the excruciating "That's Amore," the "pizza pie" lyrics of which are incomprehensible without reference to the scene in the movie), and Lewis never played a Jewish character.

Harold and Kumar not only are Korean- and Indian-American characters but feel hampered by model-minority stereotypes that are true of them. The point is that normal Asian-American guys are just like normal not-Asian-American guys. Although Harold is Korean he doesn't want to be another nerd in the East Asian Society, or to date the Korean girl his parents would approve of and whom he fears he'll have to marry no matter what he wants. Kumar at least has the nerve to torpedo his father's plans for him, but both of them want into the messed-up, raunchy club they're presumed to be too good for. It's so unfair.

I wish the movie had made more of this irony, that Harold and Kumar pursue downward mobility on a recreational basis, and less of its forced critique of racism. The script actually compares Harold and Kumar's misadventures to the historical treatment of African-Americans, but if the makers had thought about it for three seconds they'd see there can't be any comparison between the "plight" of a boy who doesn't wanted to be herded by his father into top med schools, which are flinging their gates open to matriculate him, and the exclusion of blacks from any but menial occupations.

The ethnic taunts the boys endure lead the movie into various melodramatic subplots and it's interesting to see that melodrama, treated seriously rather than comically, debases even an intentionally unambitious comedy like this. Some obnoxious, racist kids end up going to prison for a jumbo bag of pot that actually belongs to Kumar. In a movie that features an African-American professor thrown in prison for nothing, how can it possibly be a funny outcome for anybody to be jailed for something he didn't do?

And I don't mean to whine, but there sure are a lot of fag jokes for a movie that makes such a big deal about ethnic and racial prejudice. Plus, although I know the scenes of prejudice are supposed to be exaggerated, I couldn't tell what they're an exaggeration of. A med school admissions interviewer in the northeast corridor who thinks to say "colored" before "African-American"? Racist, monster-truck-driving, kayak-toting, skateboard punks in Hoboken? Whatthefuck?

Turning to what really matters: are the guys funny? Kal Penn (Kumar) sure is as the handsome juvenile hero's feckless pal who gets them into one "fine mess" after another. Not as good as Stan Laurel or Jerry Lewis or Chris Tucker, but then the material isn't as consistent. Still, Penn is hilariously single-minded in the beginning, blowing a med school interview by taking a cell phone call, or using his roommate's grooming scissors on his pubes, or raving excitedly about the "dirty pussies" at Princeton.

As good as Penn is, though, those Princeton girls made me laugh harder longer. Their squint-and-grunt expressions in the game of "battleshit" are priceless, and scatological humor featuring women is even rarer than interesting roles for Asian-Americans in mainstream movies.

On the minus side, John Cho (Harold) isn't a comedian, not even as the straight man exasperated by his clownish partner. In Better Luck Tomorrow (2003) Cho amazingly could suggest his character's conflicting drives and feelings without dialogue--his face could look both opaque and transparent in the same shot. That's appropriate here, too, but it's not funny perhaps because there's nothing cartoony about him. He's a dramatic actor and his skills are too subtle, and not sunny enough, for this material. He also strikes me as very comfortable in his masculinity (he looks pretty hot in the animated burgerland fantasy) and so casting him as a shy young man who's unable to assert himself just diminishes him. Cho's body language contradicts Harold's supposed diffidence, and in fact the only time he clicks in the movie is when Harold gets angry at the White Castle. (Though Cho does squeeze out a funny, tight smile when pointing out to a racist cop that his name, unlike Kumar's, is inoffensively familiar.)

The Manchurian Candidate

Speaking of Whatthefuck? the remake of John Frankenheimer's 1962 classic The Manchurian Candidate botches everything distinctive about the original to such an extent you think, "If they didn't get it, why did they want to remake it?" The remakers don't approach the older movie like fans but like engineers humorlessly addressing a technical problem: how to update the components without compromising the structure.

The original is a paranoid thriller about some American soldiers captured in Korea and brainwashed by their Chinese and Russian captors as part of a grand conspiracy to put a covert Communist in the White House. It always heads in the direction of its own improbability, disorienting you for your amusement with material you can't assimilate or believe. For instance, it shows you the brainwashing scenes from the captured soldiers' perspective without telling you what's really going on. These scenes, in which the soldiers appear to be at a meeting of a ladies' garden club, feature the most dementedly funny footage ever put in a violent thriller.

On top of that, the conspiracy (getting a clandestine red elected as Vice President and then assassinating the President) has a fine bit of effrontery at its heart. The VP candidate is a parody of Joe McCarthy, portrayed as a brainless boor, but when unmasked he is--a Communist, and thus a justification of McCarthy's own warnings. The original thus treats the Communist threat as real but in a jokingly exaggerated way. It had something to offend everyone.

The Communist threat was real, of course, but is no longer, and so the new moviemakers have replaced the Red Chinese and the Soviets with businessmen, which doesn't fit the premise. As Ronald Reagan made plain, and exploited to their detriment, totalitarian dictatorships rack up unsustainable costs in order to keep their warlord grip on power. Businessmen seek profits on income, and government is a massive, unproductive outlay they don't need. Worse, these new moviemakers aren't kidding. They really think that big business is out to conquer the world (though they probably discount the threat of Communism). By any and all indications they give in the movie, however, they have absolutely no clue what they're talking about.

I keep formulating my disbelief over the new movie in a way that answers itself: If they're so very ignorant about business why are they paranoid about it? The villain in this new Manchurian Candidate is a business entity, repeatedly called a "private equity fund." In the real world (and speaking generally), private equity funds are partnerships that seek capital from large investors (e.g., tax-exempt institutions, such as state pension funds and universities, and wealthy individuals) to invest in buyouts of undervalued businesses, or startups, in single or multiple sectors, depending on opportunity, the fund managers' experience, and other factors. They're operated as partnerships rather than corporations in order to avoid corporate-level taxation on their income. (Click here for a more positive take than the movie's on the kind of international business activities private equity funds conduct.)

A fair amount of the information about the movie's private equity fund, Manchurian Global, is provided in voice-over news reports, and among the sins ascribed to it only the accusation of price-gouging is at all plausible. (This could happen if the fund bought a large enough stake in a company to influence management decisions. All the same, overreaching in business is hardly a recent phenomenon.) My favorite nitwit bit in the movie is the reference to the private equity fund's operating through a "subsidiary partner," which is a phrase comparable to Faye Dunaway's "sister-daughter" in Chinatown except there's no possible situation in which it could be used. And how on earth would a private equity fund make money from capitalizing a private army? What's the nature of the income stream--interest? dividends?

The moviemakers have no inkling of how to approach these issues and neither do the mystified critics. The movie's nefarious private equity fund is referred to as "a huge corporation" in The New Republic, "a multinational corporation" in the Austin Chronicle and the Dallas Observer, "a Halliburton-like multinational corporation" in the Onion, a "global conglomerate" on FilmThreat.com, a "multinational conglomerate" in Slate, a "multinational defense conglomerate" in the New York Times, and a "multi-national corporate conglomerate" in the Oregonian. ("Why say 'gila monster' when you can say 'Godzilla'?" appears to be the operative theory.) Even the Wall Street Journal, for goodness' sake, calls it "a vast multinational corporation." (Isn't it odd that writers, of all people, wouldn't realize that different phrases have different meanings?)

Even sadder than the imprecision of the paranoia is the embracing of it: Slate finds compensation in the "dread that permeates" the movie, and of course all of the appreciative reviews could be keyed to the sentiment in Rolling Stone, that, with the villain changed into a "powerful corporation" "in the Halliburton-Tyco-Enron era," the climax "couldn't be timelier." Which is ironic, since, according to this Deal.com report, "Through the early part of the [current] decade returns had lagged and many [private equity] funds were in the red as valuations fell and it became increasingly difficult to exit investments." I take all this critical palaver simply to mean that the movie twitches with the same complacently ill-informed liberal anxiety that moves the critics. My point isn't that a writer should have to pass a course in business organizations to qualify as a movie critic, but that mainstream critics' field of endeavor is the art of narrative, not business or politics--if only they knew it!

I wouldn't be surprised if the moviemakers, and these critics, thought a private equity fund could make money by direct ownership of oil fields rather than by indirect investment in oil companies, and that having an automaton in the White House would free them from all restraints. But don't they think this has already happened, and yet somehow The Manchurian Candidate still comes across as far-fetched, and neither insightful nor prescient.

There's another critical reflex at work here: Meryl Streep is once again getting rave reviews, as a U.S. Senator from New York who serves as the bridge between business and government in the conspiracy. Streep does have spectacular comic technique, but not really a comic spirit. Watching her as the Machiavellian mother of the political dupe is like watching Joan Crawford in the role, if she'd had the emphatic vocal and gestural address of Rosalind Russell but her same hefty, smothering, deliberateness. Streep's delivery is amazingly varied and always shrewd in a highly theatrical idiom. You can't help but be impressed, and that's part of the problem.

Streep lacks the shameless, caricatural quality Angela Lansbury brings to the role in the original. Lansbury doesn't play a character in a realistic sense but outlines the grotesque creature, and her very distance from the part she's outlining with such bravura becomes the center of the aesthetic experience. In short, a witty but indelicate irony is central to Lansbury's performance. Streep, by contrast, isn't trying to be grotesque and is too conscious a craftswoman for irony. She's such a scrupulous realist that she's quite convincing as a tough politico. But she's so plausible in the scene in which she has to win the vice-presidential nomination for her son that you can't imagine what greater edge she's hoping for by implanting a computer chip in his brain. (She shows too much relish for winning the old-fashioned way.)

Remember, too, that when Lansbury bustles and squawks as the woman behind the numbskull vice-presidential candidate, the character is consciously playing a role. Streep, by contrast, is straightforwardly strong in and out of the conspiracy, and the script has the lady senator being openly supported by the bad guys, whom she confers with in public. In this way Streep moves closer to Lansbury's untwisted performance in Frank Capra's straight-up political melodrama State of the Union (1948), and her faults are only accentuated by the movie's earnestness, although the director Jonathan Demme does cut her scenes to enhance her timing. (Streep at least rouses you from your torpor, which is more than you can say for Denzel Washington, giving one of his numb-lipped, downcast-idealist performances.)

The updated joke was probably supposed to be something like "Republicans are the new Communists," but it doesn't detonate like a joke. The original movie was an act of comic provocation; this new one turns into a grim and muddled attempt to provoke thought and perhaps outrage. (The only thing I found myself thinking about afterwards was whether this new movie is supposed to take place in a world in which the first movie exists.) To fans of Demme's work from Citizens Band (1977) through Married to the Mob (1988) he's a god among moviemakers, but here he turns out to have a head of clay.

Collateral

Collateral, directed by Michael Mann from a script by Stuart Beattie, offers about as thoroughly worked-out an allegory as you'll find in movies. Tom Cruise plays Vincent, a hitman, who hires Jamie Foxx's Max, an L.A. cab driver, to chauffeur him around town while he bumps off witnesses set to testify against a druglord. Max is the hero, and Vincent, his antagonist, is a sociopath who feels no qualms about killing for hire. At the same time, however, Vincent represents the kind of assertive masculinity that Max sorely lacks and could use in order to effectuate his business plans, cope with his mother, win the girl.

The script works it out as a progression: first, after Max discovers what Vincent is up to, he fails to beg or buy his way out of staying on as Vincent's driver; then Vincent rescues Max from muggers after Vincent has lashed Max's hands to the wheel of the parked taxi while he takes care of business; then Max gets himself in a position in which he has to convince the druglord that he himself is Vincent; and finally Max uses Vincent's own means to defeat him. Which is to say that Max "has to" take on the parts of Vincent's personality that are, regrettably, useful to a man in this wicked world, and discard the rest. Max, thus, doesn't kill Vincent so much as digest him.

Similarly, Jada Pinkett Smith's Annie is the damsel in distress and, in perfect conformance with the allegory, it's the killer Vincent, confident beyond the bounds of common morality, who necessitates Max's calling her, which Max had previously lacked the nerve to do. It is thus significant (though not interesting) that Annie is the prosecutor out to convict Vincent's druglord-employer by calling to the stand the witnesses Vincent kills. Collateral isn't a work of realism so it doesn't matter as much as it otherwise would that once Vincent has killed the four witnesses it would be unnecessarily risky for him to kill the prosecutor whose case he's already destroyed. What matters is that Annie represents the virtue that Max doesn't discard even after he's taken on Vincent's violent aggression, the visceral sense that right is right that he manfully defends in the climax.

Collateral isn't an exposé in the manner of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic (2000), it's a chivalric romance involving a struggle between a white and a black knight (traditional moral color here the opposite of the actors' skin pigmentation, and steeds replaced by the cab). As with all chivalric romances, the topic is what kind of knight the hero will turn out to be, a dramatic subject that gives rise to no suspense whatsoever.

That's a problem, as is the fact that the allegorical framework is too simple to support the action set-pieces (which pale next to the crystal method of Paul Greengrass in The Bourne Supremacy) and the maunderings about jazz improvisation and insignificance. The characters could be called Aggression, Sensitivity, and Morality, and you wouldn't need more than a single-paneled fresco to get out of the interplay all there is to be gotten.

This is where virtuosity comes in. Or should. To put it succinctly, Tom Cruise is the last actor to cast as a character whose keynote is "improvisation." (The same complaint could be made of the whole picture: a coyote can't cross the road without getting sucked into the movie's symbolic matrix.) Even if nothing else were altered, the movie would play better if Cruise and Foxx switched roles. As it is, Foxx, who's been terrific letting loose in a comedy like Booty Call (1997), isn't asked to improvise but to play a timid character who "learns" the importance of improvising. In other words, Foxx is not used for what he's good at, enlivening a movie from its low end, but to demonstrate how an unassuming man can get a new lease on life as an action hero.

As for Mann's own virtuosity, the substance of the movie is so trivial that the nervy, scanning, night-vision camerawork just seems mannered. He seems to have read the script and gone ahead despite his better judgment; he's still looking out the car windows for something to make a movie about as he's filming the convictionless scenes. Unfortunately, the movie was shot on high-definition digital video and images that are supposed to have a burnished quality--the polished surfaces of an urban hell--have the dull sheen of images reflected on plastic rather than metal. In extreme close-ups, Foxx's face sometimes scans as flat as a refrigerator magnet, and the whole movie looks like surveillance camera footage. It's another example of Hollywood spending a lot more money to do badly what independents have done well for a fraction of the cost (e.g., Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later (2002), in which the dimness of vision made poetic sense).

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Olympics

I love the Olympics. I love all the things that everyone else loves about the Olympics -- the stories, the fellowship, the patriotism. I also love that there are so MANY sports being competed at one time in one place. It's just such a fascinating event. It is at the same time a super-competitive event (the world's best athletes in not just one sport, but all major and many minor sports competing against each other) and no more competitive than your elementary school "Field Day" where ribbons were given out for "participation." We want to determine who the best of the best are, pit people against each other, countries against each other, and yet at the same time, really do no more than bring people together in a celebration of fellowship through sport. It leads, amazingly, to such things as huge favorites -- favorites who regularly compete at a high level for thousands and millions of dollars -- choking on the pressure of competing for your country and for a small piece of gold, silver, or bronze. For so many of these athletes the Olympics is something special -- more special than a world championship. It is, of course, more than "just another meet" in a very literal sense; you're surrounded by "just other meets" in a whole variety of other sports. But then there's that intangible difference. I mean, if you're a swimmer at the Olympics, it is sort of "just another" world championship. What is it that increases the pressure, that makes the Olympics something different? I don't know, but I can feel it, and so can they, and I love it.

I've been on a bit of a hiatus, which will probably continue. I'm preparing to move to a new city, which means that I've been trying to pack and finish up all my stuff at work. Add to this my obsession with the Olympics and you can, I'm sure, understand why I've been away from the blog.
Olympics

I love the Olympics. I love all the things that everyone else loves about the Olympics -- the stories, the fellowship, the patriotism. I also love that there are so MANY sports being competed at one time in one place. It's just such a fascinating event. It is at the same time a super-competitive event (the world's best athletes in not just one sport, but all major and many minor sports competing against each other) and no more competitive than your elementary school "Field Day" where ribbons were given out for "participation." We want to determine who the best of the best are, pit people against each other, countries against each other, and yet at the same time, really do no more than bring people together in a celebration of fellowship through sport. It leads, amazingly, to such things as huge favorites -- favorites who regularly compete at a high level for thousands and millions of dollars -- choking on the pressure of competing for your country and for a small piece of gold, silver, or bronze. For so many of these athletes the Olympics is something special -- more special than a world championship. It is, of course, more than "just another meet" in a very literal sense; you're surrounded by "just other meets" in a whole variety of other sports. But then there's that intangible difference. I mean, if you're a swimmer at the Olympics, it is sort of "just another" world championship. What is it that increases the pressure, that makes the Olympics something different? I don't know, but I can feel it, and so can they, and I love it.

I've been on a bit of a hiatus, which will probably continue. I'm preparing to move to a new city, which means that I've been trying to pack and finish up all my stuff at work. Add to this my obsession with the Olympics and you can, I'm sure, understand why I've been away from the blog.
Olympics

I love the Olympics. I love all the things that everyone else loves about the Olympics -- the stories, the fellowship, the patriotism. I also love that there are so MANY sports being competed at one time in one place. It's just such a fascinating event. It is at the same time a super-competitive event (the world's best athletes in not just one sport, but all major and many minor sports competing against each other) and no more competitive than your elementary school "Field Day" where ribbons were given out for "participation." We want to determine who the best of the best are, pit people against each other, countries against each other, and yet at the same time, really do no more than bring people together in a celebration of fellowship through sport. It leads, amazingly, to such things as huge favorites -- favorites who regularly compete at a high level for thousands and millions of dollars -- choking on the pressure of competing for your country and for a small piece of gold, silver, or bronze. For so many of these athletes the Olympics is something special -- more special than a world championship. It is, of course, more than "just another meet" in a very literal sense; you're surrounded by "just other meets" in a whole variety of other sports. But then there's that intangible difference. I mean, if you're a swimmer at the Olympics, it is sort of "just another" world championship. What is it that increases the pressure, that makes the Olympics something different? I don't know, but I can feel it, and so can they, and I love it.

I've been on a bit of a hiatus, which will probably continue. I'm preparing to move to a new city, which means that I've been trying to pack and finish up all my stuff at work. Add to this my obsession with the Olympics and you can, I'm sure, understand why I've been away from the blog.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"If [a United States Supreme Court Justice is] in the doghouse with the Chief [Justice], he gets the crud. He gets the tax cases . . . ."
~ Harry Blackmun

Song of the Day:
The Ronnettes, "Be My Baby"

Happy Birthday:
Meriwether Lewis
Edward Norton
Robert Redford
Christian Slater
Patrick Swayze
E. J. Graff implores opinion leaders to refrain from turning Jim McGreevey into a lavender hero. The real story isn't that McGreevy's gay, says Graff. It's that he's a sleazy adulterer:

[T]he punditocracy is going to get it wrong, casting McGreevey's resignation not in this lineage of male sexual hypocrisy, but as part of the new debate over lesbian and gay rights. McGreevey was hoping for exactly that when he announced, "My truth is that I am a gay American." The Human Rights Campaign quickly echoed that line, when its spokesperson Steven Fisher said, "Coming out is a deeply personal journey, and Gov. McGreevey today showed enormous courage."

Oh, please. Do we really have to line up behind this guy?

Gays and lesbians should leave this guy dangling on his self-constructed gallows. Backing McGreevey only gives ammunition to the religious right, which will spin his resignation like this: "See, gays really are breaking up the American family. Gay sex equals adultery, literally." No, let McGreevey clean up his own scandal, whether he's fleeing a lawsuit or blackmail or some other ugly consequence of sexual double-dealing.

Indeed. One gets the sense that the sex is only the beginning of the ugliness in this case.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Click here for dispatches from the National Scrabble Championships, held earlier this month in New Orleans.
Kitchen-type stuff

1.) Tyler Cowan has updated his DC Ethnic Dining Guide.

2.) An article describes the oddities that make up Pennsylvania cuisine.

Scrapple, in particular, is incomprehensible to many people. I grew up eating it, but our version was heavier on the cornmeal than on the meaty bits, so it ended up being more like fried slices of polenta with sausage mixed in. And doused with syrup, of course.

Other weird food traditions I associate with Pennsylvania: sugar on tomatoes, salt on watermelon, and bologna on raisin bread. None of which I endorse.
Quote of the Day:
"A well-timed death is the acme of good tax planning, better even than a well-timed marriage."
~ Donald C. Alexander

Song of the Day:
The Cranberries, "Dreams"

Happy Birthday:
Jim Courier
Davy Crockett
Sean Penn
Robert De Niro
Mae West

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Movie Review

M. Night Shyamalan's The Village: Romance of the Woods

As part of the publicity for The Village, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan apparently pretended to have a falling out with the makers of a supposed documentary about the new movie that aired on the Sci Fi Channel. The falling out wasn't real and the documentary turned out to be a three-hour infomercial. News outlets have reported that the American press is angry about the "hoax." In addition, a Disney representative reportedly asked critics at press screenings not to reveal the new movie's plot twists.

Maybe the clumsy p.r. explains why the reviews of The Village have been so harsh. The critics focus almost exclusively on the plot, insisting like children that they weren't taken in or scared, and like undergraduates that they're far too sophisticated for Shyamalan's pretentious and either simplistic or indecipherable "message" or "allegory." (The latter term is used as a pejorative synonym for moralizing though without comparing the movie, favorably or otherwise, to such undeniable classics of allegory as the Romance of the Rose, The Faerie Queene, or The Pilgrim's Progress.) The booby prize may go to Chris Kaltenbach who carps in the Baltimore Sun that the setting anachronistically looks like 16th-century Salem, Massachusetts, but altogether a more obtuse set of reviews, a more gruesome compendium of sarcastic "wit," would be hard to fake.

Is being able to guess the movie's surprise entirely a bad thing? First off, a surprise works only once. And if it's essential to enjoying the movie, wouldn't that mean that the more successful the surprise the more disposable the movie after the first viewing? To me, the foreseeability of the twist at the end of The Village indicates that it's plausible.

The story takes place circa 1897 in a rural Pennsylvania community the elders of which have arranged an anxious truce with the malevolent creatures (referred to as Those We Don't Speak Of) inhabiting the surrounding woods. The elders require villagers to request permission to go into the woods, or through the woods to the "wicked" towns beyond, which is always denied, even to get medicine not otherwise available. When the creatures make a spate of attacks on the settlement's livestock, the elders hold meetings to discover who has roused the enemy. But The Village isn't like Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery," in which there has to be a scapegoat. Shyamalan's elders, who have raised their children to speak what they seem to think of as a wholesome version of English, without slang or even contractions, in which it's all but impossible to speak deviously, want everybody to be safe and happy. The question is whether the elders can remain mild-mannered and still enforce their better way of life.

The plot secret involves the nature of the creatures, but also the reason the elders have formed this community out in the woods. They have a specific reason, as do the transcendentalists in Nathaniel Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance (modeled on Brook Farm), and the escapees in As You Like It, for that matter. It strikes me as believable enough, given the history of such American utopias as New Harmony and the Oneida Community. My own sister moved to rural Vermont in the 1980s in order to live where she wouldn't have to lock her car; she ended up living in a cabin a mile's walk through the woods from where she parked it.

The explanation in The Village also justifies the inauthenticity of the movie's recreation of the 19th-century setting, but at the same time this is where Shyamalan has brought criticism down on his own head. He cantilevers that explanation against too much of the running time of the movie during which you feel veteran performers like William Hurt, Sigourney Weaver, Brendan Gleeson, and Cherry Jones conveying more information than you can make sense of, without creating adequate characterizations. (The elders would be more memorable if the movie were more allegorical, i.e., if each one represented a singled-out human trait.) You just think they're overacting, and even once you know what's behind their efforts, it's not as if you can replay the movie to appreciate the nuances. This aspect might be better on second viewing but doesn't encourage you to give the movie a second shot.

That isn't the case with The Sixth Sense (1999), which gets to you because the boy's extra-sensory perception stands for the vulnerability of childhood. His sixth sense makes him a little clairvoyant detective, and what he exposes--a crime against a girl by her own mother--shadows your concern for the boy whose heroic power is both a gift and an affliction. He's deeply spooked, and the movie makes you feel for him as intensely as his own mother does. (Toni Collette's intent naturalistic acting thus works in this ominous supernatural context far better than in the friendly but thin realism of About a Boy.) I was surprised by the ending of The Sixth Sense, but I was already securely in the movie's thrall, held by Haley Joel Osment's rapt, reluctant-sibylline performance.

With Unbreakable (2000) Shyamalan tried to do it again with adult stars playing grown-up traumatized children. But the situation doesn't tap into our remembered vulnerability as effectively, perhaps because the concept of two adult men discovering their comic-book opposition--one an unlikely and hesitant superhero, the other a villain whose ironic quest is to get the superhero to fulfill his role so that his own twisted life will make sense--is too "nifty," not primal enough, to be played straight in the manner of The Sixth Sense. The incongruity of Bruce Willis's depressive loser coming to accept that he's invincible isn't developed and so can't work in the movie's favor. We keep getting the giggles but the movie is too muted to know what to do with them. (At the train station, for example, when Willis has visions caused by criminals brushing against him, he seems to wait for a really good one before acting, like a fisherman throwing puny trout back into the stream of consciousness. What follows is standard serial-killer movie suspense.)

That's why the openly comic approach of Signs (2002) was such a satisfying next step for Shyamalan. Mel Gibson slows his timing down so that the hurting-widower gaze and the cartoony bug eyes that he used alternately in the Lethal Weapon movies merge. Gibson is woeful as all get-out as the preacher who's fallen from grace after the death of his wife, but he delicately plays the helplessness that this exposes him to in the face of an alien invasion for laughs. At times he keeps the comedy zinging just by observing how the invasion is affecting his brother and kids. Though himself a notorious true believer, Gibson daringly gives us spiritual slapstick. And he teams up wonderfully with Joaquin Phoenix as his brother, who somehow combines brute lumpishness, athletic masculinity, and childish openness, and makes this threatening, stunted young man comic. The moment when Gibson discovers his children and brother wearing the tin foil hats is as deliberately wacky as anything in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! (1996), and funnier for being unexpected.

Signs, too, has an allegorical level of meaning--faith is for the moments that most cause you to doubt--and no, this meaning is not especially profound. But who goes to these movies with a reasonable expectation of profundity? What's important about any movie, including those that are profound, is the experience of sitting through it, how it plays. Shyamalan is an ingenious popular entertainer--when did that become an affront to critics?

What nobody has mentioned is that Shyamalan has done something new for him in The Village: at the center is a stirring love story involving Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard, and if the studio had any sense they'd be pitching the movie to women.

I can't be the only person who's always glad to see Joaquin Phoenix onscreen. The kind of young actors who get a lot of attention either have flashy technique (Nicolas Cage, Sean Penn) or are sold like reliable-but-always-updating products (Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt). Phoenix hasn't received, or perhaps isn't receptive to, buff-and-polish star processing and has never had much in the way of technique. Yet he so thoroughly, so physically, imagines his way into character that there isn't a lot refined technique could do for him. When Penn's dramatic-technique switch is on, his sensitivity switch is off. Phoenix is always sensitive, and has been since his earliest adult appearances, in Gus Van Sant's To Die For (1995), Inventing the Abbotts (1997), and Return to Paradise (1998). In Gladiator (2000) he drew me in playing a sadistic, incestuous, literally back-stabbing villain more than Russell Crowe did as the stolid hero (and Phoenix was totally unself-conscious about the period setting to boot, just as he was in Quills (2000)).

Phoenix is probably the best tender juvenile since Anthony Perkins or Timothy Hutton, but without the sense of sexual blockage that limited their careers. He has bluff masculinity without callouses. His boyish nerves are fully exposed, but he's too butch, and even menacing, for pathos, which could be grotesque given he can fill space like an adolescent bull. Instead, at his best, he manages to play his natural-manchild persona for comedy that is broad and yet slyly understated--he gets a big laugh in The Village just by standing stockstill and mute when the wrong girl joyously proclaims her love for him. Foolishness just seems to add to his underlying strength, and his boyishness creates drama--you want to see him grow into adult awareness and mastery of that strength.

Although Lucius Hunt, Phoenix's character in The Village, is tongue-tied, you're always aware of what he's feeling, and it's always noble without being icky. Phoenix as Lucius quietly embodies the ideal the elders created the community to foster. For her part, Howard's character Ivy Walker, who's (mostly) blind but radiantly vital, matches a popular contemporary female self-image: she's a tomboy who likes physical activity and joking but she's also somewhat helpless. Bryce Dallas is Ron Howard's daughter; growing up in a moviemaking family may account for her utter ease in front of the camera. Personality just shines off her, but she can also focus and direct it. For both Howard and Phoenix the awkward dialogue presents no bar to expressiveness.

Howard spectacularly combines self-reliance with rescue fantasies, but Shyamalan is better at filming the latter, perhaps because they tie in to male fantasies he shares. Boy, does he film them well. When the creatures interrupt a wedding, we see Ivy purposefully taken by the hand and led to safety before we see who's taken her, and yet we know it's Lucius. And the scene on the porch in which Ivy's teasing and Lucius's own emotion sweep him past his inarticulateness is one of the most stirring declarations of love I know of. Phoenix gives it the force of an outburst, a breakthrough into the kind of romantic bond we dream of.

Lucius's declaration is so simply shot and surprisingly potent it's possible that Shyamalan himself didn't know what he was going to get from Phoenix--it feels like an upsurge of naked emotion. By the end, however, it's Ivy who has to undertake a quest through the threatening woods to save Lucius. The female version of the journey-as-ordeal is not unheard of in romance: the most realistic and the most powerful may be Jeanie Deans's walk to London in Walter Scott's The Heart of Mid-Lothian (based on the historical, and aptly named, Helen Walker), the best known nowadays, and the most fantastic, Dorothy's journey to the Wizard of Oz. This narrative trope also includes Little Red Riding Hood, Little Nell on the road with her grandfather in The Old Curiosity Shop, Eliza's dash across the frozen river in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Scarlett O'Hara's arduous return to Tara from Atlanta with the postpartum Melanie in the wagon in Gone With the Wind, and Katharine Hepburn's transformative river voyage in The African Queen.

As a romance device, the journey/ordeal is more common with a male protagonist, (e.g., Odysseus's wanderings, the adventures of all knights-errant, Tamino's Prüfung in The Magic Flute, Martin Chuzzlewit's fevered, abortive sojourn in the U.S. and David Copperfield's trudge to his aunt's in Dover, Huck Finn's trip down the Mississippi, etc.), but it serves the same function either way. And Ivy's blindness doesn't make it ridiculous: it's a test of spirit not a literal Olympic event. (Click here for the etymology of "ordeal" and here for historical accounts.)

The problem with this final section of The Village is that it's intertwined with the surprise revelation, which is in a realistic, rather than a supernatural, mode and thus blunts the impact of the ordeal, which is essentially a romance element, i.e., fantastic (Ivy is blind, after all). Shyamalan does not show Scott's ability in The Heart of Mid-Lothian to dovetail genres. This may also be why the ordeal is so indifferently shot (unlike the act of violence that necessitates the ordeal, which is as unaffectedly startling as any I can recall). By the time Ivy sets out we know too much to have responded if it were made spooky, and yet it needs some stylized distancing technique because it's symbolic, an internal struggle projected out onto the world. Not to mention, by this time Lucius is out of commission, and, as good as Howard is, she's better when she's provoking and responding to Phoenix.

Shyamalan works out a solid premise and expands his range, but makes some miscalculations. The combination of genres is altogether stumbling. The problem with Adrien Brody's role as an unbalanced young man isn't that the character is the village idiot, or that the actor overdoes it, but that his symbolic function as the personification of the folly and criminality that are inescapably human (like Dickens's Barnaby Rudge) doesn't quite mesh with the realistic explanation any better than the ordeal does. They might have, perhaps, but don't.

In addition, the movie could use more humor. Having one of the kids make a crack about the fact that they speak of Those We Don't Speak Of all the time could have turned a minus into a plus. (If Shyamalan didn't intend this irony then the name must be an error for Those Whose Name We Don't Speak, or some such.)

Finally, I'm not too attached to the movie's intimations about how fear can unite a community. The experience-tested home truths dramatized by the love story, however, along the lines of, "Love heals ... the wounds it's responsible for inflicting in the first place," do resonate, because of the performances and direction. And as for the deficit of humor, the grave, tremulous mood protects the love story and it's more than a fair bargain. The scene on the porch between the two young, uncorrupted stars suffuses the entire movie and has made me forgive, if not forget, the movie's flaws.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Friday, August 13, 2004

I'll be heading for Kateville tonight, if the weather cooperates. Blogging will be... well, the way it usually is on weekends around here.

If you need to occupy yourself, check out InstaPundit, who's still asking questions about Kerry in Cambodia. Here's hoping this story survives gay governors and hurricanes, though I don't have high hopes.
Quote of the Day:
"[The IRS] may take some solace in the fact that Matthew was a tax collector before he became a saint."
~ Donald C. Alexander

Song of the Day:
Madonna, "Rain"

Happy Birthday:
Fidel Castro
Dan Fogelberg
Alfred Hitchcock
Annie Oakley

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Now they tell me...

Slate looks at the future of biological clocks and alerts me to hold onto my wallet: "at the very moment when she's finally paid off her school loan, a young woman will be saddled with yet another unavoidable expense" -- deep-freezing her eggs.
Quote of the Day:
Regis Philbin: "You're a genius."
Contestant: "No, I'm a tax attorney."
~ Who Wants To Be A Millionaire

Song of the Day:
The Beatles, "Let It Be"

Happy Birthday:
Cecil B. DeMille
George Hamilton
Pete Sampras

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Random News

Some stuff that caught my eye today:

Idiots are planning vacations to Iraq. I'll say it -- I will not shed a tear if something happens to these people. In the law, we have a fancy phrase for this: assumption of risk.

President Bush is against admission benefits based on legacy status. Well, heck -- if this catches on, I'm not going to give any more money to my alma maters.

Someone I know from college lives in Berkeley and collects TVs ... on his front yard ... "just because."

China continues to put the thumbscrews to Taiwan (ignore the prompt to download Chinese character software -- just click "cancel" or "no" and the English version of the article will come up). I don't believe for a second that the Athens Olympic Committee made the decision to renege on an advertising contract out of a reason other than pressure from mainland China. This leads me to wonder what the 2008 Olympics will be like for athletes from Taiwan. Will China find a way to ban them -- or create an incentive for them not to show? An offer they cannot refuse?
Quote of the Day:
"Everything today is taxes. . . . What better seat on the grandstand of life can I offer you than that of tax counsel. . . . Who is the figure behind every great man, the individual who knows his ultimate secrets? A father confessor? Hell no, the tax expert."
~ Louis Auchincloss, The Partners

Song of the Day:
Marc Almond, "The Sea Says"

Happy Birthday:
Jerry Falwell
Alex Haley

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Taiwan Returns to Little League World Series

I'd been wondering why Taiwan's little league team disappeared from the scene in the mid-90s. It turns out that they had withdrawn from the league. They're back, and have won the Asia region this year.
Quote of the Day:
"Internal Revenue Service: The world's most successful mail order business."
~ Bob Goddard

Song of the Day:
Michael Bolton, "Once In A Lifetime"

Happy Birthday:
Antonio Banderas
Jimmy Dean
Herbert Hoover

Monday, August 09, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"[E]very stick crafted to beat on the head of a taxpayer will metamorphose sooner or later into a large green snake and bite the [IRS] commissioner on the hind part."
~ Martin D. Ginsburg

Song of the Day:
Live, "Dealing Dreams"

Happy Birthday:
Gillian Anderson
Melanie Griffith
Whitney Houston
Deion Sanders

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Settled In

We interrupt the Tax Quote of the Day series to bring you the moving-in lyric below.

My car is full of books and clothes destined for Goodwill, and the apartment is in order. It has been a productive weekend.
Lyric of the Day:
"The secret to survival is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep."
~ Kenny Rogers, "The Gambler"

Happy Birthday:
Keith Carradine
Dustin Hoffman

Friday, August 06, 2004

From the Separated at Birth files

Harold and Kumar star Kal Penn: (a great movie, by the way, that Harold and Kumar)





Scrubs star Zach Braff:



If this election is decided by the likes of Reg Weber the sausage maker, god save this country.
Quote of the Day:
"A tax return is an attested document. It is signed by the taxpayer and the preparer under penalties of perjury. It is not an opening offer."
~ Lee A. Sheppard

Song of the Day:
The Spice Girls, "Oxygen"

Happy Birthday:
Lucille Ball
Geri Halliwell
David Robinson
M. Night Shyamalan
Andy Warhol
Michelle Yeoh

Thursday, August 05, 2004

News from the Hogwarts Set

"He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has been named." It's Ralph Fiennes.
Movie Review

Joshua Marston's Maria Full of Grace: Thicker Photographs

Drug smuggling has given rise to such urban legends as the hollowed-out dead baby (the "crack-o'-lantern"?) and though the idea of drug mules--people who swallow rubber-encased drugs before boarding international flights--sounds like another, apparently they do exist. (Click here for a Dutch news report on the phenomenon, including an X-ray; click here for a BBC interview with a Colombian drug mule now in prison in Britain.)

In Maria Full of Grace, the new movie by first-time writer-director Joshua Marston, this is how a mule brings drugs into New York from Colombia: the powdered drug is spooned into the cut-off tips of surgical gloves which are tied off and compressed to form pellets about the size of two red globe grapes (which she's coached to swallow whole for practice). Having taken medication to slow her digestion, the mule then downs 50 or 60 of these pellets (the number depends on the size of the mule) and flies into the metropolitan area. On arrival, handlers take her along with two other mules to a motel in New Jersey and wait for them to excrete the pellets, which they have to wash themselves, wipe with toothpaste so as not to offend the handlers, and collect in a bag for counting and weighing. (In a technique called "shotgunning" (see this OffOffOff interview with Marston), multiple mules are sent on each flight, so that if one gets caught it will serve as a distraction and permit the others to get through.) As the Dutch report explains, a Colombian mule can earn between $5,000 and $8,000 per trip, coming from a country where the average annual per capita income is around $2,000.

It's hard to imagine workers used more impersonally in their trade than drug mules, and Marston attempts to restore individuality to his title character whose function as a smuggler, after all, is to pass through the world unnoticed. As Marston says in the OffOffOff interview:

[W]hat I was interested in doing was not telling a story that we've seen already from the top down, from the point of view of the DEA agent or the drug trafficker [i.e., Steven Soderbergh's Traffic (2000)], but telling it from the bottom up, from the point of view of someone fairly low on the totem pole who is suffering through this experience. And in that way, I wanted to make it not so much "matter-of-fact" but everyday.... It was, "What is it like to do this," rather than, "What's the most dramatic, glitzy, hyped-up way that we could do it with the flash of 'Miami Vice'."
Marston conducted extensive research, both among recent Colombian immigrants in Queens and in Colombia, and centered the story around the seventeen-year-old Maria (Catalina Sandrino Moreno) who, at the beginning, works on a flower plantation outside Bogotá stripping thorns off roses in preparation for bundling and shipping. We see enough of her repetitive job and of her quarrelsome home life with her mother, older sister, and the sister's baby, who all depend on her pay, to know that she'd be open to a big-money temptation. She also needs money because she's pregnant and morning sickness causes her to lose her job. She is sensible enough not to marry her boyfriend Juan, whom she tends to challenge petulantly and who responds defensively. (Marriage would entail either moving in with her family, who dislike him, or making a round dozen at his family's home, and in any case they're not in love.) Maria comes across as a fundamentally level-headed girl whose rebellious streak combines with extremely narrow opportunities to lead her down a bad path.

Marston was asked by OffOffOff how he got involved in moviemaking:

Well, I was a photographer since being in high school, and loved taking photographs--particularly abroad, when I traveled--meeting people, using it as a way to sort of be a fly on the wall. But I often felt like the photographs were somehow too thin, that I would always want to tell a five-minute story about what was behind each image, and so I wanted something that was thicker, that was more narrative.
You wouldn't mistake Maria Full of Grace for a documentary, but it does have an open-to-the-world, objective quality that the concept of "thicker photographs" describes perfectly.

In addition, the movie is entirely in Spanish with subtitles. Marston is not a native Spanish speaker and says in this interview with Dramatic/Romantic Movies that he encouraged the actors to reword his dialogue according to the Colombian Spanish specific to the region where the movie takes place. The movie feels researched without feeling lifeless, and one way and another Marston presents such a straightforward view of Maria's situation and experiences that he seems to have used his control of the project to disappear into it.

From a structural point of view, he accomplishes this by means of total resistance to the genres of melodrama and heroic romance. The first villain in a Hollywood movie would be the foreman on the flower plantation, who makes Maria clean her vomit off the roses he's planning to throw away. But Marston is not a hysteric, or an opportunistic manipulator, as you can see from this comment in the OffOffOff interview about what he wanted to convey about the plantations:

Two things. One is that from a managerial point of view, I was struck by the incredible strides that have been made in improving the quality of work and the care of the workers. And from the point of view of the workers, what struck me was how awful the work is and continues to be, and how poorly the workers continue to be treated. So both things [were] going on--that it is a lot better than it was 15 or 20 years ago, but it still remains not very nice work, and it still remains work that you do on your feet for long periods of time.
This distinguishes Maria Full of Grace not only from Hollywood movies and TV shows, but from well-intentioned left-wing crap like Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things (2002), in which the virginal Turkish-immigrant heroine not only has to work for starvation wages in the garment industry but is forced to blow her supervisor, as if the moviemakers didn't trust us to sympathize with a piece laborer who wasn't also a rape victim.

The more obvious villains would be the drug smugglers, both the patriarchal local kingpin in Colombia who interviews Maria for the job and the young thugs in New Jersey who watch TV and snap at the girls while waiting for them to shit out the pellets. There's no question that these men threaten the girls: the kingpin, for instance, tells Maria that in case a measurable amount of the drugs goes missing he knows the names of her entire family, down to her baby nephew. And when something does go wrong in New Jersey--if one of the pellets ruptures inside a mule she's exposed to a lethal dose--the handlers refuse to get a doctor and then make a bloody mess (scaring Maria, who takes off with the drugs).

Even then Marston doesn't pump the situation up but works it out in a way that makes sense. The handlers are brutes and scum, but Marston has them act rationally within the restraints of an ongoing trade, i.e., with some thought of their reputation among the mules whom it's more efficient not to have to replace. They behave nastily but without sadism of the melodramatic kind that makes you root for violent retribution when the gang is inevitably busted up. That is, Marston doesn't treat us like action movie addicts; Maria isn't cheated and the gang isn't busted up. His beautifully stated intention was "to show one working world and then to show another working world--drugs and flowers," and he lives up to it fully.

This lack of melodramatic shaping is connected to the lack of heroic romance, any sense of Maria as a knight cleaning up the dirty business. In other words, no "In a world where ... , at a time when ... , one woman dared to ... " bullshit. (You can see how they'd do it in a Hollywood remake: compress what happens in this entire movie into the first 30-40 minutes, cast Jennifer Lopez as Maria, and have her become an FBI-agent-with-a-mission who brings down the drug cartel and liberates all the mules.) Marston achieves a nightmarish quality on a socio-political topic entirely without distortion or hype. This may be unprecedented in American movies. (Maria Full of Grace makes a shaming contrast to Oliver Stone and Alan Parker's Midnight Express (1978), the story of an American student jailed in Turkey for drug smuggling, with its eroticized violence.)

Maria Full of Grace is too absorbed in the details of a strange, underpublicized corner of human activity to be dull, but all the same there is a limitation to Marston's otherwise admirable focus on Maria's experiences. Although the character is perhaps more self-reliant than might be typical among girls in her situation (emphasized by the casting of Moreno, an urbanite college student who can't help but exude a certain air of entitlement), the movie works that trait into a coherent fictional personality. It also gives you a sense that Maria's defiance, which might be admirable in other contexts, is part of what gets her into the drug mule team, which is to push naturalism in the direction of tragedy (though her outcome isn't tragic).

But, finally, Marston's concentration on Maria's perspective, while scrupulously done, falls short of the vision that would connect it to something larger. For instance, as the movie presents her situation, there's no decent work for Maria outside the flower plantations, but we're not told what the range of less desirable possibilities includes. Suggesting that Maria doesn't have much choice is to say that her character doesn't matter as much in determining her fate as it would for a more fortunate girl. But the movie nevertheless sticks to Maria so closely that we don't get a scan of Colombian society, which we need if Maria's social position is such that her character doesn't have the full range of action, dramatically speaking.

This is a central paradox in the movie, but Marston doesn't seem to realize it. Which is not to say I'm bemoaning the lack of a Marxist vision, i.e., melodrama that insists it's a higher historical truth. (The lack of Marxist melodrama is especially surprising given Marston's spell in academia as a political science grad student at the University of Chicago.) The model I'm thinking of would be, rather, the panoramic realism of Tolstoy and George Eliot, which acknowledges the countervailing influences of social forces and historical trends on the one hand and individual character on the other.

Perhaps it's too much to demand godlike artistic omnipotence on his first go, but in his first book Theodore Dreiser shows how Sister Carrie both betters and loses herself according to her limited opportunities, which he depicts on a broad scale. (He can do it within the compass of two sentences: "When Carrie renewed her search, as she did the next day, going to the Casino, she found that in the opera chorus, as in other fields, employment is difficult to secure. Girls who can stand in a line and look pretty are as numerous as labourers who can swing a pick" (ch.38).) By temperament Marston might have more in common with the Abraham Cahan of The Rise of David Levinsky, which shows us with unvarnished naturalism a society on a broader scale than Maria Full of Grace. (The only plus side to the lack of vision in Maria is that, despite the title, Marston makes almost nothing of the sacramental symbolism of swallowing the pellets.)

Marston's movie doesn't get beyond the kind of journalism that opens with a "human interest" paragraph because he recreates Maria's subjective experience so respectfully it's as if he'd consider it a violation of the girl to move from an external vantage to an internal one. He's too fastidious to use Maria for muckraking purposes (cf. Michael Moore's exploitation of the bereaved war mother in Fahrenheit 9/11), which is fine, because the muckraker's fervor often distorts his reportage, anyway, but Marston's case-file-approach still lacks dimensions. He can't be said to identify with Maria, to imagine what it would be like for him to be her.

Thus, though Maria's character flaws contribute to her troubles, the movie implicitly excuses the flaws by reference to her opportunities (even when she resents paying for medicine for her nephew). This means that, unlike her friend and co-worker Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), whose babyish gluttony the movie treats with noticeably less sympathy, Maria isn't truly corruptible. Marston doesn't even debit Maria's moral account with her collaboration in the drug trade. She's a naturally stain-resistant soul, like little allegorical Oliver Twist among the pickpockets.

Americans are bound to feel a movie-specific loss: although Moreno, who has never acted before, can turn a gorgeous, grave valentine of a face to the camera, she can't express drives that wouldn't fit Marston's scheme. Thus, she can't give a complex, "You go, girl!" performance of the kind given by Barbara Stanwyck in Ladies of Leisure (1930) and Baby Face (1933), Constance Bennett in Bed of Roses (1933), Ida Lupino in The Hard Way (1943), and Lonette McKee in Sparkle (1976) as working girls making their way in tough rackets. Maria is plausible anecdotal evidence, but not a fully imagined character.

Thus, you can respond to Maria's story and still wish Marston were less sober. This may be clearest in the sequence on the airplane, when a nervous Maria goes to the bathroom and poots out two of the pellets. She's not given to panic, so she washes the pellets off, coats them with toothpaste, and swallows them back down. Marston presents it as a tense situation, a close call, but if you think about it, if it were you, you might very well be rolling your eyes and even laughing in your sick fear, thinking, "Of course, this would happen to ME." This mishap had the potential to be one of the most daring slapstick moments in movies (like a horrific version of the candy factory episode in I Love Lucy). Roman Polanski, a black humorist, clumsily made too little of the slapstick with the pickle jar at the end of The Pianist (2002). Marston, honest soul that he is, doesn't even recognize the opportunity he wastes.

Still, Marston's only real error comes when Maria is collared by the immigration drug screeners at the airport. Because she's pregnant they aren't allowed to X-ray her, but they see right through her anyway. So it's not only unconvincing that they'd let her go, but some people in the educated, art-house audience, unsure how to react, cheered when she was released. They wouldn't cheer, I suppose, if they saw the results of her getting 60-odd pellets of drugs onto the streets, but even if you stay within the story, I'd rather see Maria in prison for four years than working as a drug mule. The whole point of the movie is that being a drug mule is a horrible existence. Marston wants real-world complexity and yet his utterly straight-faced movie can't coordinate the opposing feelings generated by this single episode.

Marston is so very serious he comes close to inspiring irreverence: when Maria gags in her first attempts to swallow the grapes, I wondered if that had any connection to why her boyfriend isn't in love with her. It wouldn't have hurt the movie at all if she herself or the girl training her had said something along these lines. It would have made it more roundedly human. Throughout I couldn't help thinking of wonderful opportunities for low-brow parody (e.g., if there's another Airplane movie). There's tempting material even in actual news reports, for instance, this story about a dog used as a drug mule that Dutch authorities for safety reasons won't permit to be sent to England for the trial of the people who implanted 11 canisters of drugs in his body. (Do the British want him to testify? Can't they just depose him in the Netherlands?) I can scarcely think of a person I've ever met whose story, if faithfully replicated, wouldn't elicit a more varied response than Maria Full of Grace does.

When asked why he let the actors have so much say in shaping their characters, Marston replied:

Because I'm not a Colombian and because I'm not a native Spanish-speaker. And because they, all the actors, have a whole set of knowledge and experience that is relevant to their characters that I could never have. It would be presumptuous of me to dictate and close off what the script was.
"Presumptuous" of the writer-director to have final say? He speaks as if there were no difference between the actors and the characters they play. (Hint: one of these groups is not made up of real people.) At a certain point this degree of tact becomes indistinguishable in its onscreen result from lack of imagination. Last year's celebrity drug-burn story Wonderland had more aesthetic shape precisely because it was free to disrespect its central character, porn "legend" John Holmes.

Marston has made an amazingly lean debut feature. He has risen above the almost overwhelming temptations in American movies to shape his story for melodrama and heroic romance. He has gathered data so as to have an accurate sense of his story and then intelligently and steadily crafted the data so as to present the story as it would likely play out, and to convey what it would feel like to its protagonist. But everything he trimmed wasn't fat.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.
Quote of the Day:
"The tax bar is the repository of the greatest ingenuity in America, and given the chance, those people will do you in."
~ Martin D. Ginsburg

Song of the Day:
Sting, "Fragile"

Happy Birthday:
Neil Armstrong
Patrick Ewing

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

The friendship you wish were something more: who hasn't been there? But University of Massachusetts student Matt Brochu had it particularly bad, and he also had a newspaper column. So he wrote this cri de coeur, entitled "What She Doesn't Know Will Kill You." And it got noticed off-campus, reports the WP:

Through instant messaging, the column spread from Amherst, Mass., to Boston to Austin to Muncie to Berkeley. It spread to England and Belgium and to a Navy enlistee in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and to a woman in eastern Canada who "almost cried" when she read it. The Web site for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, where Brochu's column was posted, was flooded. A typical column gets at most 1,000 readers in one month. Brochu's got 570,000 hits from November to March.
The column is super-cute. By the end, Brochu's at the end of his rope. The objection of his affection dumps her loutish boyfriend:

But nothing changes. She doesn't know. You get that library elevator feeling in your stomach that she'll never know. You get that feeling that you'll be forced to write a cheesy Collegian column about her that makes "Sleepless in Seattle" look like "Girls Gone Wild." It would just be nice if once in your life, things worked out the way you wanted them to.
Hey, it's been known to happen!

But not for Matt. He didn't get the girl, but now he's dating someone else. He's glad he doesn't have to wonder what-if. And he no doubt inspired intense conversations on futons all over the country.
Via Kaus, I see that Soxblog has picked up on something I wondered about back in March: Why did John Kerry get his law degree from Boston College as opposed to, say, Harvard? (See another post here.)
If you're not from Boston, you might be unaware of the following truth: No one here, in spite of Boston College's undeniable strengths, would eschew an invitation to attend Harvard Law School to attend B.C. It's simply not done. Thus we can reasonably infer that Kerry did not get in to Harvard Law.

And that's remarkable. Given his family connections and his post graduate work both in the war and later protesting it, his admission should have been a given. The only thing that would explain Kerry not getting into Harvard would be that he performed dreadfully at Yale.
Soxblog questions Kerry's intelligence and calls for him to release his transcripts.

I'm not convinced this is territory into which Bush supporters should wander. But recall W's last opponent had a less-than-stellar record, as this account notes:

Gore's undergraduate transcript from Harvard is riddled with C's, including a C-minus in introductory economics, a D in one science course, and a C-plus in another. "In his sophomore year at Harvard," the Post reported, "Gore's grades were lower than any semester recorded on Bush's transcript from Yale." Moreover, Gore's graduate school record - consistently glossed over by the press - is nothing short of shameful. In 1971, Gore enrolled in Vanderbilt Divinity School where, according to Bill Turque, author of "Inventing Al Gore," he received F's in five of the eight classes he took over the course of three semesters. Not surprisingly, Gore did not receive a degree from the divinity school. Nor did Gore graduate from Vanderbilt Law School, where he enrolled for a brief time and received his fair share of C's. (Bush went on to earn an MBA from Harvard).
I suspect what we have here is three men who have achieved their successes through something other than Hermione Granger-, Hillary Clinton-style academic bootlicking. They may have used charisma, ambition, family connections, or dumb luck. But as much as we A-students like to snicker about the kids who didn't make the Dean's List, I'm not sure any of it says much about their fitness for the presidency.

UPDATE: The WP has the explanation for why Kerry didn't go to YLS: It was his wife's fault!

The law became Kerry's Plan B. The Yale graduate wanted to return there to law school but could not because his wife, Julia, was expecting a baby. His next choice was Harvard, then Boston University, but he applied too late. Boston College offered the opposite of Yale's theoretical approach -- it was famous as a training ground for politicians -- but BC had an opening, and Kerry took it.
Not sure what the direct connection is between having a pregant wife and where one attends law school (New Haven isn't that bad, after all), but there you have it.

UPDATE II: Ann Althouse isn't convinced on the applying-too-late point: "[O]ne loses a Congressional election in November. That leaves a good two months to apply to any law school."
Quote of the Day:
"It is seldom given to mortal man to feel superior to a tax lawyer."
~ Anthony C. Amsterdam

Song of the Day:
Alabama, "How Do You Fall In Love"

Happy Birthday:
Louis Armstrong
Roger Clemens
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Billy Bob Thornton

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

On Saturday, with Kate's help, Iris and I managed to schlep all our belongings out of our old first-floor apartment and upstairs to a new and improved LilyPad that occupies two stories. I have only lived with cathedral ceilings for three days, but I'm afraid there may be no going back.

God, my blogging has been suckalicous since, er... last September. I've just been re-reading some of our old posts from the era when we used to blog furiously from YLS classrooms while our professors lectured. Those were the days. No cathedral ceilings, but lots of other important stuff I seem to be running short on these days.

Someday I will have the energy to form opinions about things, and rediscover my blogging voice. Someday I will want to come home from work and do something other than collapse in front of the Law & Order channel. Someday I will hang pictures in my new bedroom. Someday.
Quote of the Day:
"Love will find you when you least expect it. Which makes it more like the IRS than we think."
~ Jeff MacNelly

Song of the Day:
Metallica, "The Small Hours"

Happy Birthday:
Tony Bennett
Tom Brady
James Hetfield
Martin Sheen
Martha Stewart
The Bar

Congrats to those who just finished the bar. I promise that everything will be okay. Advice to Sua Sponte, who appears to be on the verge of being misled by someone in the thick of bar studies: You can learn it all from Bar/Bri. Some background will make things easier, certainly, but on the whole, what you learn in law school will inevitably be a small percentage of what you need to know for the bar. So take the classes you think will be interesting or useful in your career. If you plan to clerk in a Federal Court, definitely take Fed. Jur. or Advanced Civ Pro and pay attention! (I've discovered that just having taken a class is worthless without having paid attention when you were in the class. Obvious in hindsight. Rats.)
The Missing Link

Monkey walks upright.
Packing the Court

Jonathan Turley of George Washington U. Law School suggests adding Justices to the Supreme Court to dilute the power of any one particular Justice. He wants to add ten.

The article doesn't talk about Turley's answer to whether a larger Court would dilute Court opinions. The difficulty of getting five people together already results in qualified, vague, and cryptically worded opinions. What happens when you need ten justices to agree on one opinion?
Revisionist History

Michelle Malkin has written a book that takes an unusual stance on the Japanese Internment. I am looking forward to Eric Muller's review of the book.
Eating the Cake, Too

Unless you live under a rock, you heard that certain financial buildings in DC, Newark, and NYC were put on Orange Alert today.

Right on cue, people accused the Bush administration of issuing this alert as a political strategy. For instance, this Washington Post article on the alerts reports the following:
The seeming dissonance in the official messages has worn on many residents, quite a few of whom have come to discern a political agenda in such alerts.

Richard Murdock rode the F-line subway into Brooklyn on Sunday, studiously unconcerned about the hubbub around him. "I wonder if it has anything to do with this," he said, pointing to a newspaper headline that President Bush was readying new political ads attacking Democratic nominee John F. Kerry. "I believe this is all about politics and fear and creating a climate. I have zero worries."

In Manhattan, architect Beth Miller lives and works near the New York Stock Exchange. "It's one of the ploys by the Republicans to take attention away from the stupidity of what they are doing," Miller said. "It's a media frenzy. You can get hit by an air conditioner falling out of a window."
Howard Dean said this to Wolf Blitzer on Late Edition:
“It’s just impossible to know how much of this is real and how much of this is politics, and I suspect there’s some of both in it,” Dean said on CNN’s “Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer.”
Now, let's set aside for the moment the fact that this alert was accompanied by very specific information that had been discovered -- including terrorist documents that noted the average number of pedestrians at midday around one of these financial buildings. Let's set aside that compelling information. What would these people say if there was a successful attack -- if the administration didn't issue these alerts and something happened? Wouldn't these same people accuse the administration of failing to stop the attacks?

You can't win. I can, on one level, understand the skepticism. The problem, of course, is that it's very difficult to prove that these alerts are justified. If the alert is successful, it probably sends the terrorists into hiding, or changes their plans, but the only evidence of that is that no attack happens. But if no attack happens, people who dislike the administration wonder whether the alert was real. Again, never mind that the situation here is different from others -- that here the administration has released some very compelling information. So what would the critics have the administration do? I'll take the criticism of these alerts, the labeling of the alerts as "political," if the critics promise not to then blame the administration if, as a consequence of scaled back and less frequent alerts, a terrorist attack occurs.

Do they want the cake or do they want to eat it? I just don't see how they can have both.

According to Newsday, the release of specific information does seem to have resulted in less criticism than with previous alerts.

Monday, August 02, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"[It] was like listening to a tax lawyer read the lyrics to a love song. All the words were there, nothing was inaccurate, but all the sizzle was gone."
~ Patricia Thomas

Song of the Day:
Wilson Phillips, "Hold On"

Happy Birthday:
James Baldwin
Hallie Eisenberg
Lance Ito

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"Just let 'em feel that you can save 'em something on taxes and nobody will keep you out."
~ Warren Buffett

Song of the Day:
Grateful Dead, "Sugar Magnolia"

Happy Birthday:
Coolio
Jerry Garcia
Francis Scott Key
Yves Saint Laurent
Herman Melville