Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Presidential Endorsements

The Chicago Tribune has taken heat for its endorsement of President Bush (registration required). So much so, that the Trib's Public Editor has written a column explaining "how [they] came to make [their] endorsement."

The endorsement read, in part, as follows:
Bush's sense of a president's duty to defend America is wider in scope than Kerry's, more ambitious in its tactics, more prone, frankly, to yield both casualties and lasting results. This is the stark difference on which American voters should choose a president.

There is much the current president could have done differently over the last four years. There are lessons he needs to have learned. And there are reasons--apart from the global perils likely to dominate the next presidency--to recommend either of these two good candidates.

But for his resoluteness on the defining challenge of our age--a resoluteness John Kerry has not been able to demonstrate--the Chicago Tribune urges the re-election of George W. Bush as president of the United States.
It goes on to criticize the perception that Bush has done nothing but create enemies out of former allies and to attack Kerry's "serial[] dodg[ing]" on "the most crucial issue of our time." It also advocates the President on domestic issues, though it concludes that "[t]his country's paramount issue ... remains the threat to its national security."

The Trib felt compelled to defend this endorsement because of "the furious response by so many readers this week to Sunday's presidential endorsement editorial--there easily were at least 2,400 communications to editors, reporters, customer service representatives and the letters editor."

The Trib's defense of itself is perfectly sensical:
Besides the seasoned judgments of its members, the editorial board is guided in making its decisions by what might be called the "Tribune manifesto," a statement of philosophical principles and attitudes. Based on a 1969 editorial that marked a change of administration--nay, a change of era--at the newspaper, the document was updated last year by Dold, Lipinski and Smith. One exemplary paragraph:

"The Tribune believes in the traditional principles of limited government; maximum individual responsibility; and minimum restriction of personal liberty, opportunity and enterprise. It believes in free markets, free will and freedom of expression.

"These principles, while traditionally conservative, are guidelines and not reflexive dogmas."
The real kicker is the following, which makes me agree with the Trib and think that the people who emailed the Trib are fools who haven't a clue what paper they've been reading:
[The Trib has] endorsed the Republican candidate in every presidential election since at least 1872, and ... support[ed] Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate in all but two or three cases.
Although this year turns out to be one of those Senate years. The Trib has endorsed Barack Obama.

What just tickles me is the reaction people have to a newspaper that doesn't conform to their beliefs. (According to Wycliff, the Trib got this question frequently: "How does a "Republican newspaper" manage to operate in a Democratic city?" As if they are entitled to a newspaper that "agrees" with the mainstream.) It's like the reaction to Fox News. Suddenly we have a media organization that's willing to kick the standard shtick. Maybe instead of just accusing Fox News of being conservatively biased, liberals should look at the media organizations they "like." Do they like them because the media organizations are in fact unbiased, or do they like them simply because the media organizations don't rub them the wrong way?

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Movie Review

Julianne Moore in Laws of Attraction and The Forgotten: "Do I look happy?!"

It's impossible for me to describe how good Julianne Moore is in Laws of Attraction, now available on dvd, without saying a few unkind words first, just when they're least warranted.

Moore first gained major attention in the movies in Louis Malle's Vanya on 42nd Street, a powerfully simple staging of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. In it she is, as always, stark staring gorgeous as well as highly skilled, but she's also awfully self-conscious, tight-jawed. Her effects, such as her hard-edged laughter that breaks out like hysteria, seem especially calculated next to Brooke Smith, with her imperceptible transitions between emotions. Smith gives perhaps the most unaffected great performance in American movies, and I couldn't help feeling that critics, responding like Dr. Astrov in the play, looked past her to Moore because of Moore's looks.

Moore usually gets respectful reviews at least, and is also popular with her nominating fellow actresses in the AMPAS despite having extremely limited audience rapport. She's a star for an upscale female audience--she wears beautiful clothes beautifully, her lustrous red hair and gleaming-bloodless skin look expensively maintained, she has flawless bearing and poise. Moore's acting is intelligent but resolutely toward the cool end of the thermometer, and its limitations in Vanya on 42nd Street have become more pronounced with time and with a string of roles that play into those limitations.

In Todd Haynes's Safe (1995) and Far from Heaven (2002), and in The Hours (2002; click here for my review), Moore's emblematic specialty is that glassy, far-away, I'm-not-really-smiling smile that the conventional world has made her characters wear. This repression results from social forces that keep women cooped up in suburban homes where no one can hear them scream. If only they had the gumption to scream. (How can her teeny little stammering good-girl voice not be meant as a joke in Safe?) And they often look as if they're wincing, or would be if their blood pressure were a little higher and they could just focus on the bad feelings. As these depressive entombed brides Moore doesn't give us big moments but the suppression of them. The personal may be political in these movies, but it's not especially personal.

The problem from a dramatic standpoint is that from the outset Moore's characters read as incapable of happiness. Has any screen beauty ever come across as less susceptible to simple pleasure? So when things start falling apart it doesn't seem as bad for them as it would be for a woman with a full range of responses. In Safe she plays a wife who actually does have a headache, every night, and who apologizes for it to her husband. (True, she may have an immune system deficiency, and how would you like that? But in the movie, with its attenuated rhythms and non-committal view of her ailment, its air of Stepford Wives alienation and stasis, her illness, whether organic or psychosomatic, symbolizes the sterility of suburban monogamy.) In these roles Moore is a victim, not a heroine. She fades and we're supposed to identify with her although she hasn't exerted herself much to find a more fulfilling way of living.

As a victim she's a peculiar fantasy object, offering masochism without eroticism. (Even in The End of the Affair her nude sex scenes have a peculiarly objective quality, as if she could represent desire without quite embodying it.) Her kind of masochism is moral masochism--she's the idealized supersensitive female, too delicate for this coarse-grained world. Her performances are meticulously controlled, her face a liquid crystal display screen of unspoken pain, but she's limited by her own impressive control. At times she's so purposefully tight her technique threatens to take her all the way around the board and back to Tippi Hedren, square zero.

Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia (1999) was one time Moore showed some energy, and it didn't work, either. In her defense, the role of a woman who loves the dying old man she married for money so much she can't live with the guilt is unplayable nowadays. It's like a Joan Crawford role from the '40s, the inherently noble fur-clad sinner who can find redemption only in death. The part shouldn't burn that many calories--nobility just shone off the Crawford mask. Agitated to delirium, and throwing herself around the house, her attorney's office, the pharmacy, Moore pushes her technique in a role so tacky there's nothing technique can do for it. She's aerobically mannered without being convincing at the simplest level, as a girl who netted a rich husband with sex. It's a godawful performance, the most serious lapse in her natural good taste, which otherwise seems like the main thing holding her back.

I don't blame her for The End of the Affair (1999), Neal Jordan's overripe yet immaculately "literary" treatment of Graham Greene's unmatched work of classy spiritual porn. It's the story of an adulterous affair in London during World War II between a government official's wife (Moore) and her novelist lover (Ralph Fiennes), whom she walks away from, without telling him why, when he's injured in the Blitz and she promises God to give him up if he survives. The material needs a compulsive, trash-loving hand to keep the goo stirred up, but the movie is so earnestly narrated (and so insistently, lest we miss a particle of its richness) that Moore while unusually responsive nevertheless seems encased in it.

In her stunning period suits, with linings and kick-pleats in heated contrasting colors, Moore is an exquisite animated mannequin who suffers emotionally, morally, physically. Even the graphic sex scenes are too deliberate--the movie uses them to romanticize the characters' religious torment. The lovers are miserable and yet so dang glamorous the movie seems to think we'll envy them. You and I would just be screwing around on the side but when these two go at it they feel the earth move, and then heaven itself. (They tempt Fate, which deigns to respond.)

It plays not like a recreation of, but an artifact from, the past, one of those movies like The Garden of Allah, Camille, Waterloo Bridge, Now, Voyager, Casablanca, Brief Encounter about great yet impossible loves. So why isn't it fun? The whole thing is beyond purple and yet so careful and reverent you can't even enjoy it as camp. (It could work if they just pulled back a bit from the material--let the sheets dry before waving them like banners--and played into the irony of the situation. But that wouldn't appeal to the English Patient crowd it's targeted at. For all the wit, I didn't laugh once.)

Altogether The End of the Affair adds to the impression that it would be futile for Moore to work in a brisker popular form, but that's exactly what she does in Laws of Attraction, to spectacular effect. (Not that it was popular, but who can solve that mystery?) What's perfect for her is that the movie uses manic farce to crack the self-possession that usually keeps her so remote from us.

Her character Audrey Woods is a professional correlative of Moore: a top-shelf, Yale-trained, Manhattan divorce attorney who is too much of a control freak to have a romantic life. (In other words, she's playing the kind of woman most likely to identify with her as an actress.) In a high-profile case of the kind she's never lost, Audrey is thrown by the deceptively rumpled, low-key style of opposing counsel Daniel Rafferty (Pierce Brosnan), who enjoys discomposing her as they subsequently face off in a series of courtroom battles and subsequent media interviews (in which they speak in code to each other through the camera). They fall in love while breathing the toxic fumes of one failed marriage after another. They just might stand a chance--they've done all their fighting right upfront.

It's best to say outright that Laws of Attraction isn't close to perfect. If the details of the law and courtroom procedure and professional ethics strike you as odd (e.g., an attorney offering to settle a case for the amount of his own fee), the safer guess is that the screenwriters are just making shit up. On the other hand, much of the comic writing is first-rate, but not all of the lines or situations are as good as the best ones. And Michael Sheen and Parker Posey play a divorcing rock-star couple in a style that doesn't suit the movie and is grating in itself. (Posey, the most fearless comedienne of her generation, continues to baffle mainstream moviemakers.)

More problematic is that while Daniel falls for Audrey immediately, and keeps coming at her, that kind of amorous drive is beyond Brosnan, all the more so because it has to be inextricable from the competitive lawyerly tricks he plays on her. Daniel has to be anarchic, impulsive, manipulative, passionate, and steadfast. Brosnan, who doesn't have a star persona but doesn't fuse with his characters, either, isn't centered enough, isn't present enough, to be the embodiment of headlong romantic spontaneity. (It would have been a nifty, unironic pendant to George Clooney's peerless performance in the Coen Brothers' Intolerable Cruelty last year.)

Still, Brosnan is good at slyness and serves as a foil to set off Moore's tightly-wound, nutcracking A-student attorney. (She lays out an array of colored pens to take notes during trial and you know each color has a very specific application.) Frances Fisher as Audrey's 56-year-old mother, still very much interested in whatever game is afoot and dismayed by her stay-at-home daughter, also helps to bring Moore out by contrast. Fisher's smirk is the mother's sign of recognition that as difficult as life is, as much doing as it takes, it's still full of unexpected and intriguing opportunities. She may be a high-maintenance witch at some level (she objects to being called "Mom" in public), but she's right about her daughter, who should be taking a chance with Daniel, especially since she wants to, rather than sitting at home eating junk food and watching him on TV. (Fisher is teasingly smooth and has never been more effective.)

What's amazing is seeing Moore use the energy wasted in Magnolia to particularize the fearful expectation behind that glassy smile--she loses her composure time after time with a slapstick jolt. In the opening sequence, for instance, Audrey reassures her client with professional compassion that a last-minute switch of the other side's attorney can only be a good thing for them. The movie then cuts to Audrey calming a panic attack in a bathroom stall by stuffing a Hostess Sno Ball into her mouth. It isn't just the juxtaposition that's funny, it's that Moore makes the jump without losing her highly articulated skill. (She seems to be able to roll her eyeballs separately.)

Losing it with new variations on her style, Moore is like Julia Roberts gone dizzy in My Best Friend's Wedding (1997) but with the pointed technique of a stage-trained actress. And she's brittle without seeming as damned fragile as she usually does. Plus, comedy extends her emotional range at the same time it limbers her up physically. In Laws of Attraction her disappointment is grounded in palpable romantic and sexual longing. Audrey's not just another frozen sufferer; she may be a high-powered control freak, a priss with only a professional interest in her own glamor, but she's averse to emotional risks not because she lacks feelings but just the opposite. In the course of the movie she changes from a woman who maintains perfect control in public and private to a woman who stands to lose something personal she can't bear to lose, and for once I was able to identify with her. This is the best female-yuppie comedy since Diane Keaton was startled back to life in Baby Boom (1987), but it's also as shrewdly judged a use of an actress's dominant characteristics to enliven her screen image as any since Bette Davis put her melodramatic punctuation to comic use in All About Eve (1950).

Currently, Moore can be seen in a much more financially successful movie, Joseph Ruben's The Forgotten, which, though a trashy thriller, is a return to the morgue slab for her as an actress. She plays a mother whose son died in a plane crash but who comes to suspect something more nefarious, otherworldly, in fact, when her mementoes of the boy and other people's memories of him start disappearing. To boil it down, it's a chivalric romance in which the female knight's sole, but invincible, weapon against the evil wizard is maternal love.

The movie should have more grip because this is one way in which we feel a woman's power is greater than anything a man can oppose to it. The story should come off as the form of female romance, if only we sensed that science fiction had enabled the makers to strip movies like Stella Dallas and Now, Voyager and Imitation of Life and Mildred Pierce and To Each His Own and, more recently, Lorenzo's Oil to their resilient generic bones.

The critics haven't picked up on the fact that it's a quest romance, but the moviemakers certainly knew: the alien-run airline Moore's son flew on is called QuestAir. Which makes it surprising as well as a shame that they don't do more with the romance narrative. Even in terms of excitement the movie would be better if it broke the conflict down into separate battles that brought out distinct aspects of maternal love in scenes of mounting tension (and perhaps offered evidence of its darker forms for contrast, e.g., covering up a son's crime, as Edith Evans does so sensationally in The Last Days of Dolwyn (1949), flooding an entire village to hide the evidence). Anything to vary this simplest of romances a little and give it some shape. (If the narrative were worked out more thoroughly you'd pay less attention to such idiotic details as the fact that aliens who can erase human memories are still subject to bankruptcy proceedings.) But the movie puts too much emphasis on the mere plot secret that extra-terrestrials are behind it all, on the shocks (people sucked instantaneously off the face of the planet), and on Moore at her least multifarious. The only time she seems like a real person is when her character pretends to be someone else.

Which isn't to say Moore sits down on the job, but rushing about doesn't do any more for her in The Forgotten than it did in Magnolia. The National Security Administration is in league with the kidnaping aliens, and a suspicious New York cop is on the trail of the jurisdiction-jumping NSA, so, after Moore has run from her husband and her shrink who want to institutionalize her, she runs from the NSA officials and from the cops. And runs and runs. (That's really her running, too.) Finally, when she's face to face with the chief alien, possessor of horrifying supernatural powers, she tries to run from him. This showdown is the moment to reveal the full majesty of her maternal instincts, but why dramatize your premise when you can blow the windows out of an abandoned warehouse instead? The Forgotten is bad news, but the good news is that until I saw Laws of Attraction I wouldn't have thought they were wasting Moore as much as they are. Now I know.

For the record, Joseph Ruben has directed some wonderfully entertaining movies, including Dreamscape (1984), starring Dennis Quaid; The Stepfather (1987), the most characterful of serial-killer movies, with a brilliant Terry O'Quinn as the wily, straining-to-be-normal psycho; True Believer (1989), starring James Woods and Robert Downey, Jr. in the jauntiest of uncovering-a-coverup movies; and Return to Paradise (1998), an earnest romance in which Anne Heche deceptively seduces Vince Vaughn into doing the right thing in an international crisis. (She's a temptress who turns out to be the damsel in distress--she uses foul means to get the reluctant knight to do fair work.) Return to Paradise is underpopulated by comparison to the Humphrey Bogart pictures it resembles, Casablanca (1942) and To Have and Have Not (1944), but it has electric conversational shifts and the stars' performances are, if less iconic, more believably urgent than in those old standards.

To see intelligent, far more positive reviews of Moore's performances, try Stephanie Zacharek's Salon review of The Forgotten, David Edelstein's Slate review of Far from Heaven, or Michael Sragow's Salon review of The End of the Affair. There's also a compilation of review sources at Julianne Moore Is God (last updated in 2002).

And finally: in real life Julianne Moore fights scary aliens on another front as well.

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

I cannot recommend the Rollpat silicone pastry mat. I have heard great things about its cousin the Silpat, but as a surface for rolling out cookie dough for cut-out cookies, my Corian countertop was far better.

Over in the products-I-love category, I received this life-changing device about a month ago. It's even more wonderful than I'd imagined.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Kids will say the darndest things...

From this week's on-line ABA journal: How kids describe their lawyer parents. Absolutely hilarious. Here's one of the funnier snippets...
After my 4-year-old daughter informed me that her aunt (my sister is a doctor) "makes people better," I asked her if she knew what Mommy does. She nodded and said, "Mommy squeezes out minority shareholders." Obviously, she’d been listening to Daddy.
Much more here.
Lyric of the Day:
"But now my life's a canvas, painted with your love."
~ Atlantic Star, "Masterpiece"

Happy Birthday:
Johnny Carson
Michael Crichton
Al Leiter
A Reason poll has some notable libertarians revealing who they'll be voting for and why.
Scrappleface parodies the NYT's endorsement of John Kerry:

"One wrestles with how best to describe Mr. Kerry; a seasoned, steady, accomplished man who cuts a dashing figure as he snowboards and bikes across the American political landscape. He's a career Vietnam veteran, distinguished war protestor, protector and resuscitator of family rodents, loving husband of two women with whom he shared the burden of enormous wealth, friend of downtrodden trial lawyers and, to a certain extent, he is also a U.S. Senator."
Also, that object under Bush's jacket during the debates has been identified: "It's a spine."
The New Republic online is running some of the magazine's presidential endorsements over the years. Good stuff.

Here's John Dewey endorsing Al Smith over Herbert Hoover in 1928:

I do not regard the final issue of prohibition of manufacture and sale of alcoholic liquors as settled; I believe that in the end, in this particular regard, social welfare is more important than what is called "personal liberty."
Here's a three-part endorsement in 1924. First, there's Walter Lippman for Democratic nominee John Davis:
I shall vote for him because I believe that in this post-war world of fierce nationalisms his strong Jeffersonian bias against the concentration and exaggeration of government is more genuinely liberal than much that goes by the name of liberalism.
Then, Chester H. Rowell for Calvin Coolidge:

To have come through the greatest storm of scandal that has stirred our generation, not merely personally untouched, but with his vessel unwrecked, is a test of results that is not vitiated by any temperamental criticism that he should have been more emotionally dramatic about it.
And finally, Herbert Croly for Robert La Follette of the Progressive Party:

Cherishing as I do the vision of a moral and social order which will interpose fewer obstacles between human beings and their fulfillment, I obviously cannot vote for President Coolidge.
Here's the TNR editors' grudging endorsement of Walter Mondale in 1984:

Despite [President Reagan's] amazing youthfulness, he is not a young man. He would be nearly 80 at the end of his Presidency, and as a man approaches that age he seldom becomes more energetic, more creative, or more flexible. From now on the tune will be called increasingly by the Republican Party we saw on display at the Dallas convention--"all those beautiful white people," as Nancy Reagan once described a similar gathering.
Finally, here's the editors' endorsement in 1980 of independent candidate John Anderson: It's mainly an indictment of Jimmy Carter, but there's a deliciously un-prescient assessment of Ronald Reagan:

Based on his record as governor and his campaign image, he strikes us as another cautious, conservative sort who probably wouldn't do much of anything.
Kudos to them for reprinting that.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Howard Kurtz mulls over the burning question: Is InstaPundit biased?

InstaPundit's response: "Of course I am!"
Quote of the Day:
"I no longer prepare food or drink with more than one ingredient."
~ Cyra McFadden

Song of the Day:
The Beatles, "Eight Days A Week"

Happy Birthday:
Mickey Mantle
Viggo Mortensen
Tom Petty
Christopher Wren

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

ABC News reports that Republicans have better sex lives and fake orgasm less than Democrats.

Just ask Governor Schwarzenegger.

(Links via Best of the Web.)
Quote of the Day:
"Which breakfast pastry is named after the French for 'shape of the waxing moon?'"
"Pop Tart?"
~ The Weakest Link

Song of the Day:
Sting, "Fragile"

Happy Birthday:
Evander Holyfield
John Lithgow
This video of John Edwards arranging his hair is a must-see.
Speaking of coming unhinged, Alan Keyes is now claiming that gay adoption leads inevitably to incest:

If you are masked from your knowing your biological parents, you are in danger of encountering brothers and sisters you have no knowledge of."
Others have made the obvious point that this line of argument would nix even heterosexual adoption, which you'd think Keyes would be a fan of.

Then again, we wouldn't need adoption if we'd take the advice of some social commentators and stone unchaste women to death. Just a thought.
David Brooks says Kerry is coming unhinged:

Some Democrats have been unable to face the reality that people have been voting for Republicans because they agree with them. So these Democrats have invented the comforting theory that they've been losing because they are too virtuous for the country. ... This year, many Democrats decided, we'll be vicious in return.
Meanwhile, Jim Lindgren predicts Kerry will win the election.

I'm far from an expert, but it's my hunch that Kerry will do slightly better than the polls -- even the last-minute ones -- will predict. And with Bush's purported lead is already so small, slightly better could be more than enough.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"When I am abroad, I always make it a rule never to criticize or attack the government of my own country. I make up for lost time when I come home."
~ Winston Churchill

Song of the Day:
Lucinda Williams, "Those Three Days"

Happy Birthday:
Chuck Berry
Mike Ditka
Jesse Helms
Wynton Marsalis
George C. Scott

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Quote of the Day:
"I write down everything I want to remember. That way, instead of spending a lot of time trying to remember what it is I wrote down, I spend the time looking for the paper I wrote it down on." ~ Beryl Pfizer

Song of the Day:
Solomon Burke, "Cry To Me"

Happy Birthday:
Eminem
Jimmy Breslin
Rita Hayworth
Alan Jackson
Wycleaf Jean
Evel Knievel
Norm MacDonald
Arthur Miller

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Movie Review

Bruce LaBruce's The Raspberry Reich: Revolutionary Corn, Revolutionary Flakes

In her 6 April 1968 New Yorker review of Jean-Luc Godard's La Chinoise, Pauline Kael began:

A few weeks ago, I was startled to see a big Pop poster of Che Guevara--startled not because students of earlier generations didn't have comparable martyrs and heroes but because they didn't consider their heroes part of popular culture, though their little brothers and sisters might have been expected to conceive of them in comic-strip terms.
Well, we're way past being startled anymore, I should think. In Bruce LaBruce's The Raspberry Reich, a small band of left-wing terrorists in contemporary Berlin have incorporated the radicalized student generation of the '60s that Godard made movies about, "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola" as he put it, into their romanticized pop politics right alongside Che. LaBruce's little sect models itself on the German Red Army Faction (the "RAF"), a/k/a the Baader-Meinhof gang, perpetrator of terroristic crimes in the '70s. The head of the group, and its only female member, calls herself Gudrun after Baader-Meinhof member Gudrun Ensslin and dons a blonde wig in order to more closely resemble her as she spews slogans to the impressionable guys under her.

Gudrun's ideological base is Marxist, of course, but she tilts toward Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse's individual blends of historical materialism and psycho-sexual theory. In this light she has updated Karl Marx's formulation, "Religion is the opiate of the masses." Shaking her synthetic mod locks she cries, "Heterosexuality is the opiate of the masses!" to which one of her confused boys replies, "I thought opium was the opiate of the masses." (The funniest variation on the original since "Marxism is the opiate of the intellectuals.") Pushing a recalcitrant boy toward her idea of revolution, Gudrun insists, "It's time for you to put your Marxism where your mouth is and help us initiate the homosexual intifada."

In "honor" of the RAF's kidnaping and murder of Hanns-Martin Schleyer, an industrialist with a Nazi past, Gudrun plans the abduction of the son of an industrialist. She had previously forced her own companion Holger to have sex with Che, the masturbatory gun fetishist of the group. (When Holger objected, "But I'm your boyfriend," she exulted, "The revolution is my boyfriend!") She now forces one of the gang to have sex on video with the captive, who, it turns out, is perfectly willing. He's actually been trying to escape from the old man, who wants to institutionalize him and subject him to a "cure" for his homosexuality.

Her radical enterprise falls apart because Gudrun doesn't perceive or can't control the drives she stirs up. Some of the guys turn out to be more sexual, some more criminal, some more conventional, than is good for a group of supposedly dedicated terrorists. Gudrun isn't really paying attention--she's theorizing, with exclamatioin points. Gudrun's revolution is 1% theory and 99% exhibitionism, combined in a way meant to impress, cow, and stimulate her followers, not to persuade them, or anybody else. In the end all she's exhorting the guys to do is screw, play with guns, and shoplift. It wouldn't take even 1% theory to get some guys to do this.

But when the gang's plans go awry, Gudrun the survivor follows Holger, who always wanted only to marry her, confine their sex to the bedroom, and have kids. We last see Gudrun pushing a stroller and telling little Ulrike (as in Ulrike Meinhof) the same "glorious" stories of the RAF she had bored the boys to distraction with a few years earlier.

The movie is full of details about the notorious terrorist cells of the '70s, including the infamously ragtag and incompetent Symbionese Liberation Army, but as LaBruce's dialogue indicates, this is not a realistic recreation (unlike Paul Schrader's fine Patty Hearst (1988)). The Raspberry Reich makes no attempt to stage the action realistically, and it's like a vacation from the suspension of disbelief. LaBruce owes a debt to La Chinoise, which was "difficult" and broke through generic categories but remained culturally "respectable." But The Raspberry Reich, repetitive, disorderly, and flagrant, has more more in common with the work of underground professional amateurs, like Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and John Waters, than with the work of Godard.

Godard was comfortable with actors and movie stars. LaBruce isn't interested; he wants the characters to seem fake. As he says in this interview with Filmmaker Magazine, "[S]ome people who don't understand my films, they'll go, 'Well the acting was really bad.' Well, who cares? I don't care if the acting was bad. That's not the point--or that was the point!" The movie is in English, but the actors aren't native speakers. It shifts back and forth between Gudrun's tirades and more intimate conversational scenes among the boys, and though Susanne Sachsse, who plays Gudrun, is a stage actress she doesn't have the command of English to put the rhetorical flourishes across, and the boys' scenes are never more than thinly realized. LaBruce cultivates the inevitable awkwardness in the first place because the clumsiness and obviousness function as satire of Gudrun (who can't see, as we can, that her theories aren't working out as she imagined). LaBruce's use of camp is thus fairly complex but still as entertaining as if Gudrun had been played by a nothing-to-lose drag queen.

If anything puts the movie over, it's the big laughs LaBruce gets from the wigged-out radical sloganeering. One of two gangmembers on a couch watching TV scoffs that Gudrun thinks cornflakes are counterrevolutionary, and the other boy (with whom he's about to have sex) says, "Cornflakes are counterrevolutionary!" and explains how. Even better is when Gudrun (overcompensating for her German accent) convinces Holger and Che to steal from a mom-and-pop grocery store instead of a corporate chain by reasoning: "Sometimes the exigencies of the revolution necessitate the adwancement of praxis over theory." I was an undergrad in Berkeley in the early '80s where adherents of every conceivable revolutionary lunacy said similar things with utter self-seriousness. (One bitterly unhappy young woman claimed that the taboo against incest was an oppressive, bourgeois-patriarchal construct. She has since committed suicide, and who can wonder.) For me, LaBruce gave vent to years of disbelief with this florid-yet-deadpan clowning.

The awkwardness of the boys is somewhat different. If their "bad" acting seems to be of a familiar type it's because they're all actual porn stars. When it comes to breaking through generic categories LaBruce puts Godard in the shade; the most offputting aspect for most moviegoers, no matter how cosmopolitan, would have to be that The Raspberry Reich includes explicit sex, money shots and all.

These scenes would be considered "gratuitous" by conventional narrative standards (and I don't just mean Hollywood standards) and they can't be said to work in terms of the characters or story--supposedly hesitant guys finish off their first acts of gay sex not only with gusto but evident expertise. LaBruce, who directed the controversial skinhead-fetish porno movie Skin Gang (2000), doesn't justify the sex acts, which can be enjoyed for their own sake (the guys are as unrealistically good-looking as in any gay porn). His immediate intention is to prevent the movie from being a user-friendly consumer item. But the sex scenes also function more generally (as they do in the Marquis de Sade's incomparable Philosophy in the Bedroom) to keep you aroused in ways you usually aren't while thinking.

LaBruce is often referred to as a "provocateur," and in interviews he glorifies the freedom (conceived in terms of permanent adolescence) that he got from the punk movement. He seeks a revolution that keeps on revolving. So he's turned off by a gay movement that focuses on integration into middle-class monogamy and finds even gay porno movies too conventional. (As he says in the Filmmaker interview: "Everything is contrived to present the illusion of sex spontaneously unfolding before your eyes, but it's actually extremely calculated. It's an industry, so you are pushing out this product.")

Thus, the irony of The Raspberry Reich is that whereas LaBruce plainly satirizes the sloganeering Gudrun, he shares a fair amount of her ideas. Here he is at his most inappropriately humorless: "In [The Raspberry Reich] one of the slogans is 'Madonna is Counter-Revolutionary', and I do mean that literally.... Madonna ... zeroes in on revolutionary moments (usually gay and/or black subcultural manifestations), but with the strategy of co-opting, neutralizing, commodifying, and ultimately exhausting and abandoning them. She is the ultimate example of someone who uses radical chic for exploitative and purely capitalistic ends."

LaBruce couldn't have written Gudrun's lines if he didn't see what was funny about a walking, talking revolutionary doll. But he's more disappointed in what this bodes for revolutionary politics than he is disgusted or even amused. As he says in this interview posted on the website This Is Baader-Meinhof:

The platforms of the ultra left wing terrorist groups which emerged from [the student protest movements of the '60s] were based on these humanist, egalitarian ideals. They believed, however, that any ends justified the means to achieve these goals, which placed them in morally untenable situations, eventually rendering them almost indistinguishable from their avowed enemies. (The oppressed becoming the oppressor is a theme that runs throughout my movies.)

With The Raspberry Reich I wanted to revisit these ideas and sentiments in a more modern context. After 9/11, particularly in North America, the left was castrated and rendered virtually silent. I wanted to make a movie that gave voice once more to the left wing, anti-corporate, anti-capitalist rhetoric that was once part of the public discourse but which had become completely absent. The movie also operates as a critique of the left, skewering people who either don't practice what they preach, or who become so self-righteous and intractable in their beliefs that they themselves become oppressive and dogmatic.
Clearly, LaBruce would see someone like Gudrun as having fallen off from a radical ideal.

This formal statement of his intentions, however, doesn't describe how the movie plays, in part because it doesn't account for LaBruce's rejection of professional moviemaking polish and discipline. But what happens onscreen also supports what I noticed in Berkeley, that the politics were always secondary to the gratification the leaders of the group drew from controlling the interpersonal dynamics. (In addition, the political theories, with no experience-testing behind them, and perhaps none possible, were illusory, never more obviously so than when they were carried into the streets, but LaBruce doesn't consciously go that far.)

LaBruce even holds repugnant views, such as this bizarrely unconvincing rationalization from an interview with Kultureflash:

The misguided notion that homosexuality is forbidden in Middle Eastern and Arab cultures is a really good example of how the west completely misinterprets Muslim attitudes and practices. Only when homosexuality becomes overt or organised is it severely punished.
But although you pick up on LaBruce's commitment to oppositional ideology in The Raspberry Reich, it doesn't kill the movie, as it killed Godard's work after 1968. LaBruce himself says in the Filmmaker interview:

I was starting to get too ideological, and I was trying to make very specific ideological points about sexual representation and the objectification of women, and I realized, as a filmmaker and as an artist--because I had a background as a critic, from film theory--I had to just drop all of that theory and just go more by instinct and not try to figure out where these images or the impetus of my work was coming from, and to just let it come out without thinking about it so much.
Well, in The Raspberry Reich out it comes and no one can stop it. LaBruce has an anarchic, pleasure-seeking instinct that jargon and theories can't hold out against. (Pleasure and dogma occur in almost the reverse proportions from Alfonso Cuarón's punitively moralistic escapade Y tu mamá también.) I'm pretty sensitive to left-wing censoriousness, to revolutionaries' indifference to practical experience and individuality, and I can say unequivocally that it's possible both to laugh like a hyena at the satire in The Raspberry Reich and to get off on the dirty bits, sometimes simultaneously.

With Sachsse's Gudrun LaBruce captures that naked-bulb glare and buzz of personality you used to get in underground movies, but overall The Raspberry Reich doesn't feel druggy or aimless or desperate or even inwardly obsessional. LaBruce leans towards the wordy-critical perspective of Godard (with phrases flashing on, and scrolling across, the screen) but his method plays more like the camp carelessness of John Waters. In the opening, for instance, Gudrun forces Holger to have sex with her in the elevator of their apartment building; an older couple threatens to call the police but once back in their own apartment the infection hits them and they have wild sex on their kitchen table. Later, Holger and Che, who really take to this gay sex thing, are all over each other in public while German matrons, candidly caught on film, glare and mutter. For all his ideological commitment, LaBruce seems to have as much fun stealing footage in public as Mack Sennett and his Keystone jokers did in the 1910s with their totally unambitious comedy shorts.

In many ways The Raspberry Reich is a defiant mess, which I mean as praise. Why should you care whether the actors sustain the illusion of being the characters, whether the director keeps his crayon within the lines? Are you ever unaware you're watching a fiction film? I also prefer blatant porn to the coy prick-teasing central to American pop entertainment. LaBruce may not be absolutely "right" in all his choices, and sometimes his needle gets stuck in a groove, but despite a totally rambunctious id and a heedless rejection of propriety, the movie holds together analytically. You won't miss the point but at the same time what's onscreen feels arrived at intuitively, which is why the movie can cohere without conforming exactly to LaBruce's intentions as he articulates them in interviews. He's probably the kind of "revolutionary" spirit who can't be contained in any program. Thank goodness. The Raspberry Reich is as thoroughly, gleefully disreputable a work of political critique as you could hope for.

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

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

We didn't get to watch Desperate Housewives, by the way. ABC was showing Redskins-Ravens and the show was delayed till midnight, which is past my bedtime these days.

So we haven't seen the show at all yet, and we can't assess whether it's good enough to stand in as Official Guilty Pleasure of the KC while Alias is on hiatus.
Duke prof Peter Fever comments on a survey of voting preferences of the military: "By an astonishing 72 to 17 percent margin, the active-duty military personnel who took the survey favored Bush over Kerry."

This despite Democrats actively courting the military vote. What does it mean? Heck if I know.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Lily tells me she's excited about watching Desperate Housewives tonight. I just gotta say -- doesn't that show make you think somebody watched Sex in the City and decided it'd be a profitable idea to make "Sex in the Suburbs"? As Lily says, female angst at a later age and later point in life.

Speaking of Lily, I posted a few posts under her name a few days ago, but didn't realize it until today. I've changed those posts to reflect that I in fact posted those things...
Faulty reasoning just pisses me off.

Try these on for size:

(1) "If the Twins hadn't been 'penalized' by the Ground Rule Double rule, they would have won game two of the Yankees-Twins series." I heard this on TV last night as I watched Game Four on Fox. This is absurd. As absurd as the Paul Hamm "if the Korean gymnast had received a higher score on the fifth of six events, the Korean gymnast would have won" thing. The ground rule double that appeared to have taken a run away from the Twins occurred in the eighth inning. They certainly might have won, but there's no way to say that they would have won.

(2) "The Supreme Court 'upholds' a law simply by refusing to hear an appeal of a constitutional challenge to that law." The most recent occurrence was the Court's denying cert on the National No-Call list. The fact of the matter is that the Court did not uphold the constitutionality of the No-Call list. It simply refused to hear the particular case that was on appeal. It could still, at some point in the future, hear a constitutional challenge to the No-Call list.

(3) "Yankees win on a wild pitch." First of all, there's absolutely nothing wrong or cheap about winning on a wild pitch (or a passed ball, as the call should have been). But back to the point, the win was not only because of the wild pitch. What about giving a little more credit to Mariano Rivera closing out the Twins' last three at bats?

Now, let me add a caveat. I recognize that in many situations -- such as op-eds or blog posts -- an argument is presented as a pithy conversation-starter, one that doesn't attempt to address all the nuance or the counterarguments that could be relevant. In fact, I hate when people fail to note that some arguments have been limited -- sometimes intentionally because of space constraints. These arguments that I'm talking about, however, are presented in their entirety. They are meant to be the whole and complete argument, and they are incomplete. That pisses me off.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Here's something funny...

I came across "Fresh Talk" the other day. "Fresh Talk is a weekly Saturday column [in the Hartford Courant], and invites submissions from writers younger than 30 with ideas on hot topics or matters they think people ought to know about."

Now let's take a look at two of their columns. Here's one by an accomplished writer who has two kids in college. She writes about going back to school. That sure doesn't seem like a piece by a writer younger than 30 on a "hot topic or matter[]" that "people ought to know about." And is it really "fresh" if she's an accomplished writer -- one who "sold [her] first novel to a major publisher, been free-lancing for magazines for years and had [her] own monthly column in Northeast and an array of award certificates from the Connecticut Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists."

Okay, maybe that's just an anomaly. Here's another. This one is by a very recent college graduate telling us in fairly unoriginal writing about a fairly unoriginal topic -- what to do with himself after college. His conclusion? Also unoriginal. He says "Coming from college, I am accustomed to being given my goals: pass this class, study this subject. It is difficult to know where I should be, but, as I start out, I won't passively adopt the goals of others. Nor will I simply follow goals I've previously set without questioning their continued relevance. I may not know where I should be, but this mind-set may help me find where I want to be."

At least they got the under 30 part right.

It turns out that the only thing fresh about "Fresh Talk" is that it's printed a column about breasts.
Have you ever wondered why service industries don't try to have hours staggered differently from normal business hours?

I ordered a couch recently that came with a defect. The incentives in furniture sales really are screwed up. Think about it. You're basically buying something sight unseen because you're shopping floor models, but receiving your product from the warehouse or factory. The product is so large that you can't really move it yourself, so you pay them to deliver it. Then it's in your apartment and you can't do anything about it.

But I digress. I called the customer service and they said they'd send someone out to look at it. Problem is -- I work, like many other people in the world, and I'm single and live alone. So... the first time they can come is on a Saturday six weeks from now. This is, of course, the same experience I've had in the past with the cable people and the telephone people ... Why is it that they don't have people work early mornings and evenings? Give them the day off. And the real kicker is, the service companies always sound surprised when you tell them you can't be there between 8 and 6 on weekdays, the only times that they are prepared to come to your house.
Under Cruel Irony in the dictionary you will find this: Jimmy Fallon, a Yankees fan, plays the lead role in the coming Farrelly brothers movie about a rabid Red Sox fan.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

KC Friend Elbert Lin is advocating a "None of the Above" option on the presidential ballot for those who want to vote but don't like their choices:

[T]he fact is, we all stand to gain from such a ballot change. Those who now vote for a presidential candidate simply because that candidate is the lesser of two evils (and not out of any feeling of support) will no longer do so. The result will be a more accurate measure of the support for the candidates in the election. In particular, we will all garner a far better sense of what the mandate for the president actually is.
See similar proposals here, here, and here.

Adrianna Huffington has advocated a write-in "none of the above" movement, but Lin's proposal would actually print it on the ballot.
"Giant Gambian pouched rats of Mozambique, Tuesday Morning Quarterback salutes you!"

It's a football wrap-up, and so much more.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Movie Review

Irony and Romance, The Sliding Scale

Romance is the genre that dramatizes our dreams of ideally effective action against the forces of evil. The white knight learns from his tutelary figure how to defeat the black knight, the ogre, the dragon, and the sorcerer in defense of the damsel and in doing so revives the entire community. He fights for the values that bind the community, earning the deepest gratitude of everyone in it who identifies with the forces of good. This gives dimension to his heroism and explains why he has been a focus of projection for boys since forever.

Irony is the genre that slaps us awake in the middle of those dreams. It apes the structure of romance but fills it in with realistic details that won't cooperate with the fantasy--e.g., Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Irony presents stories based on our lowest estimates of ourselves, saying to us, in effect, "You can fantasize all you want, but you're no hero and your plans never work out as satisfactorily as you hope." (Critics who complain that ironists look down on their characters manage to be correct and to miss the boat at the same time.)

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

In practice, however, irony and romance aren't so cleanly antithetical. There's often a breaking point at which irony turns into romance. It can be a drag, for example, in the Robin Williams or Jim Carrey comedy that goes soft, "redeeming" the character whose outrageousness has been our main source of entertainment. A lot of us prefer our irony neat, and Will Ferrell's Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy is a straight shot of that good stuff. In last year's Elf, the turning point after which you knew that James Caan's daddy figure would be reborn and Ferrell would be happily integrated into his family came so early it killed the comedy. Anchorman makes up for that with total singlemindedness.

Ferrell plays the star local newscaster in '70s San Diego who resists the introduction of a female co-anchor even though he's dating her (having won the competition with his colleagues over who will lay her). The elements of romance are burlesqued from beginning to end--jousts in the form of vicious rumbles against rival stations' newsmen, a spiritual crisis brought on by the death of his dog, a heroic return occasioned by the need to cover a much-anticipated birth of a panda at the zoo, and a rescue of the damsel from the zoo's bear pit in which he and his resurrected dog collaborate. Ferrell is an even more poker-faced skit artist than Mike Myers, and he has a more specific and more generally serviceable specialty, playing characters who are oblivious to the chasm between how they picture themselves and how they come across.

Napoleon Dynamite

Anchorman was the funniest American comedy this year until Napoleon Dynamite, which is likewise a deadpan parody of a romance. The title character is a gape-mouthed, drowsy-eyed high-school kid in small-town Idaho who longs for the kind of skills that he imagines will make him popular with girls. (Among the things he considers "skills" are having a "sweet" bike and being able to grow a mustache.) To compensate for his lack of skills he fantasizes, exaggerates, and lies, and it isn't clear that he knows the difference. (He covers notebook pages with drawings of the "liger," a hybrid of lion and tiger "bred for its magical powers," and he talks about this beast not only as if other people could have heard of it but as if it were real.) Napoleon is a loser by most external standards and we're free to laugh at him because he's not even loveable. He has the petulance of an adolescent who's always ready to snap at people because they aren't able to guess what he's thinking. They actually have to ask him questions to find out. Idiots!

Jon Heder gives a classic slapstick performance, something along the lines of the silent great Harry Langdon, that sleepy-headed weirdo baby, after a hormonal growth spurt. You have to see Heder move; he runs, dances, and even swallows in gangly character. And he never appeals directly to the audience but understands that irony is a form of identification with character, with Napoleon's very awkwardness and preposterousness (as the co-writer and director Jared Hess makes clear in this interview with Screenwriter's Utopia).

Tina Majorino is nearly Heder's equal as the shy but enterprising girl who loves him. A gravely self-serious photo-i.d. photographer and lanyard artisan, she's got her own absurd dimness, an independent source of comedy, which is more than you can say for almost any heroine in Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, or Langdon. (Hess's wife Jerusha co-wrote the script with him and is probably responsible for the relatively soft-grained, characterful female slapstick.)

To maintain Anchorman's hermetic seal, Ferrell and the moviemakers no doubt had to win a staring contest with their distributor, and themselves. I hope Ferrell never blinks again. All the same, their movie is the work of fully-vested insiders compared to Napoleon Dynamite, which has a special grace, probably because Heder and the Hesses are young and unpracticed. (Their freshness is all over Jared's interviews with Screenwriter's Utopia and this one with IndieWire and this article in USA Today about Heder.)

In addition, all three are Mormons who met at Brigham Young University, which ought to turn all kinds of stereotypical notions on their heads. (Jared said to Screenwriter's Utopia, "I don't feel there is any Mormon culture in the film," but both Jared and Heder carried out two-year proselytizing missions and that experience may account for the number of people in Napoleon Dynamite who sell things door-to-door. ) These Mormon tyros make the big-industry comedians look square by comparison. (Click here for the MTV.com page on Napoleon Dynamite.)

At times Anchorman gets by on being so purposefully bad it doesn't need to be that adeptly written or performed, though a considerable amount of it is. Napoleon Dynamite is more original, but it too works by parodying romance conventions: Napoleon has rivals and must defeat them at the climax, thereby saving his best friend and winning the girl. As in Anchorman, Napoleon's combat skills develop fully within the mode of irony, but his triumph sneaks up on you without your even being aware the movie has a plot. The characters' misadventures unspool in a series of first-rate blackout sketches, which play out leisurely but are cut together with the snap a young director could have learned growing up on The Simpsons. And verbally Napoleon Dynamite is the most entertainingly imitable comedy since Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (both in Heder's delivery and in such lines as his announcement to his girl, "I caught you a delicious bass"). It likewise features a melodrama involving nasty popular kids versus ironically heroic Z-list kids, but the melodrama in Romy and Michele is too insistent--like we care. The Hesses finesse it so you get the surge without disrupting the ironic circuitry.

Shaun of the Dead

Last year's Bad Santa starring Billy Bob Thornton went so far with its travesty of holiday movies like Miracle on 34th Street that you could trust the moviemakers hadn't just tacked the unironic redemption on at the end to appeal to the audience. They staggered their way to it honestly. Usually, however, when moviemakers segue from irony to romance it seems as if their irony had been a passing attitude rather than an aesthetic commitment.

In the British movie Shaun of the Dead, the inevitable switch to romance taints the irony that came before like backwash. Shaun is an overaged slacker who loses his girlfriend because he can't outgrow his ambitionless best friend. The two guys like to sit on the couch playing video games and making fart jokes, or to drink and smoke at the pub, and Shaun expects his girl to tag along. Shaun has become a permanently adolescent zombie, but when a viral epidemic causes the dead to rise and feed on the living he becomes a man of action who can take heroic risks, improvise as the desperate situation mutates, feel the importance of the moment and convey his feelings directly. He rescues his girl and defeats his rivals, and by the climax you have only a vague memory that the movie started out with a hyper style keyed to the unidealized view of the hero and with the star Simon Pegg expressing the character's dilemma with superbly timed alternations of attention and distraction (his mental mouse and cursor only randomly connected).

Irony lampoons the elements of romance. In Napoleon Dynamite the climactic battle is a dance; in Shaun of the Dead the hero's trusty sword is a cricket bat (a choice arrived at after various alternatives, including LPs, have been tried and discarded). The weapon stays the same throughout the picture, but the attitude shifts to decisive and disappointingly bland romance, ironic only to the extent that it's fantastic. The movie attempts a late save by making the aftermath of the horrific outbreak comic (the zombies aren't destroyed but put on chains and hired for menial work like rounding up shopping carts in parking lots), but it's too late. The movie has already shown us that its heart is in the right place and this proves fatal.

Wimbledon

The British tennis movie Wimbledon, starring Paul Bettany and Kirsten Dunst, has an even slimmer margin of irony. The weapons are tennis rackets, of course, the battles on the courts, and the hero unlikely (he's overaged for championship matches and was never driven enough to be that successful anyway). All the same it's played as a relatively straightforward romance, with ogres (the girl's father) and rival bad knights (the girl's ex-boyfriend), tutelary figures (the girl herself and the hero's father), a damsel in a tower guarded by a dragon (a barking pooch), a trusty steed (a convertible sports car), and a crisis which leads to a victory that returns vitality to the land (not only does the hero's success at Wimbledon reunite his estranged parents it rouses the entire nation). Wimbledon thus has leanings toward national epic, a fictional British counterpart to Miracle, the movie about the American hockey team's gold-medal win at the 1980 Olympics.

Dunst teases and challenges Bettany, bringing a physicality out of his recessive personality. (Dunst does for him as an actor what her character does for his as a tennis player.) But I'm not very big on this kind of romance: the substance is too thin (it doesn't tell you much about tennis) and the fantasy at once too blatantly and yet coyly masturbatory (I prefer undisguised porn). But this doesn't explain its failure with the American mass audience, which does feed on such stuff. Wimbledon probably isn't a hit here because, for starters, the hero's main rival is American, not just by nationality but by supposed national type: cocky, obnoxious, insensitive.

Worse, this is also true of Dunst as the hero's girl, a rising star on the women's circuit. On the one hand, she rejuvenates him and teaches him how to bring his game up to championship level (even if it means creaming his best friend), and thus has a tutelary function. On the other hand, she rejects him midway and throws him off his game, and thus also functions as an evil temptress (like Barbara Hershey in The Natural). She gets hers, though, and women in particular must feel they were suckered into the theater when Dunst is defeated on the courts because she had sex with the hero the night before. If the moviemakers wanted her to be the "girl" cheering from the sidelines why did they make her a tennis sensation in the first place?

In addition, the reluctant, and possibly overmatched, knight is a tricky figure. For American audiences it takes a certain kind of masculine confidence to counterbalance it (like Bogart's in Casablanca and To Have and Have Not, for instance, or Bruce Willis's more recently). American audiences will go for a cocky-juvenile romance hero who has to learn a thing or two before he can win big time; they crowned Tom Cruise in this guise. Bettany is a more nuanced figure, more scaled to life--qualities cast away in such a conventional romance--but in any case he's so self-effacing it's hard to believe he's ranked even 119th. (This I take to be a British fantasy on the part of the moviemakers--they have the raw talent to lead the world in the place of the Americans, they're just too genteel.)

As a result, Wimbledon isn't enough of a dead-ahead romance to please a popular audience here, and not enough of a realistic depiction of what it's like to be an older player in a tough game to please a more discerning crowd. If the makers wanted it to be "thoughtful" then it shouldn't be a competitive romance but more like Ron Shelton's Kevin Costner sports movies, Bull Durham and Tin Cup, in which the hero competes mainly against himself. Instead, the romance rivalry descends like doom on the plot. As soon as you see the young American champ, who's slept with Dunst and whose serves travel in excess of 140 mph, you know that Bettany will have to play him in the final match and you know Bettany has to win--because the movie hasn't been promoted like one in which the hero loses. The director Richard Loncraine has used CGI to make the game as visually exciting as it could be, but the predictability of the romance outcome draws the climax out excruciatingly. No amount of charm on the part of the stars can overcome the pall of generic conventions used in such a rote manner.

Hero

Currently, the romance with the least degree of irony would be Zhang Yimou's Hero. It's about knights who fight for ideas with swords, ironic only in the sense that the nameless protagonist fails in the quest he set out to accomplish, though not in the one he comes to accept. He poses as a man who has eliminated legendarily invincible assassins intent on killing Qin Shi Huangdi, the infamously cruel first emperor of China, and manages himself to get within killing distance of him. But the emperor, who wants to hear this "hero" recount his exploits, is shrewd enough to see through his various yarns, told successively in varying dominant-color schemes. In the process of drawing him out the emperor changes both the assassin's attitude and his own. The result is the unification of the nation.

Though Hero employs current moviemaking technology and follows the recent trends in martial arts choreography, from Yimou's remarks in this interview with the Chicago Tribune it's plain he has the best, traditional reasons for making a romance--to exemplify and promote national and spiritual principles, to use narrative to transmute ideas into group sentiment. In the West we're familiar with Hero's motives as Verdian themes from the transitional works I Vespri siciliani (1855), Simon Boccanegra (1857), Un Ballo in maschera (1859), and La Forza del destino (1862): the necessity of sacrifice on the part of one of the antagonists in order to end a vendetta and the primary importance of national unity. Unfortunately, Hero lacks that combination of mastery and discovery that Verdi shows in these operas.

The fantastic combat scenes in Hero, accomplished with wires and CGI, are impressive but in a relatively impersonal way. Yimou seems to be working in a borrowed style. Indeed, this movie bears no resemblance to the much more formally static works that made him famous. As a result the movie doesn't have the crispness that an action master like Akira Kurosawa brought to his breakthrough works. And though it does sweep along that's due in large part to the fact that the script recounts the same events in several versions within a short enough span of time so you can appreciate the differences. A lot of the most pictorial effects--the protagonist's face moving in slow motion through individual raindrops, antgonists running across the surface of a lake seen from below, or action laid out against geological panoramas--make the movie look like a sequence of (admittedly sleek) TV commercials. Yimou's work here is absorbing and fleet, and all the actors score, especially Maggie Cheung who maintains movie-star allure in a range of styles as the protagonist's story changes, but I would be more careful than most critics have been not to oversell it.

A Dirty Shame

A Dirty Shame, the latest movie by John Waters, brings the interplay of irony and romance full circle. It stars Tracey Ullman as a drab, prudish, picklepussed Baltimore housewife who suffers a concussion which turns her into a raging, exhibitionistic nympho. This isn't just a physiological condition. She's the final apostle of a mechanic named Ray Ray, played by Jackass host Johnny Knoxville, who believes that number 12 will be the One to lead the world to an overwhelming sex act never before performed.

It's all a put-on, of course, and Waters can beat Ferrell and his team any day at purposely bad. The challenge for Ferrell is to appear incompetent in a way that registers as if it required effort--the difference between Anchorman and Elf. Waters, the most consistently entertaining of permanent amateurs, has never bothered to develop any conventional skills. The difficulty for him is finding actors with the right mixture of bravado and desperation, which came naturally to Divine, the obese cross-dresser Waters met in high school who starred in his first, way-underground cheapies. (There's nothing else in movies like the scene in Female Trouble (1975) in which Divine out of drag rapes Divine in drag.)

In Cecil B. DeMented (2000) Melanie Griffith wasn't far enough out of the mainstream to be in on the joke of playing a nasty, fading star who's kidnaped by a band of extremist independent moviemakers and forced to star in their anti-Hollywood guerrilla movie. You and I may think Griffith has become grotesque but she doesn't, and, as she showed in Adrian Lyne's woefully romanticized Lolita (1997), she lacks the high style and push it would have taken to give the movie a center, as Kathleen Turner did with Serial Mom (1993). (To retract my claws a bit, Griffith has some good watchful moments in Cecil B. DeMented, and does a wonderful quick, maternal shake of her head when Maggie Gyllenhaal makes a suicidal remark.)

Tracey Ullman is as consonant a star as Waters has had since Divine's death (right after the release of Hairspray (1988).) She's a small miracle here, expertly overdoing sketch acting in a way that somehow simulates a total lack of training. Ullman runs through the movie, literally, grinding her pelvis and grimacing, channeling Waters's guiding impulse to achieve as much eruption with as little control as possible.

When Waters was a perverted midnight-movie specialist he didn't have to fake it. Now he does, and it has changed things in his movies. Watching Divine eat poodle poop off the sidewalk in Pink Flamingos (1974), you didn't have the sense that these creatures could ever fit into the world above ground. (Perhaps clearest in the shot of Divine strutting down the sidewalk past gapers unaware a movie's being shot, while "The Girl Can't Help It" plays on the soundtrack.) Waters has been integrated into the culture now and there's something quaint about his outrageousness. He may not be a big-time director but he's not an unbankable freak, either. He's genially "inclusive." So in A Dirty Shame a big part of the joke is that the self-styled "Neuters," neighbors who want to put a stop to Ray Ray's orgasmic-ecstatic revolution, object to sexual specialties that real-life sheltered suburbanites wouldn't know about. The culture has broadened to such a degree that Waters is almost in the position of selling nostalgia for the good old repressed days when he had the power to shock.

Waters doesn't worry about his position too much, however. He just whips up the hysteria and chortles over it with total ironic detachment. I have never seen him attempt direct emotion in a movie--once this gay boy saw what life could be like at camp he never went home again. The intentional overwriting and unmodulated acting, the over-the-top and under-the-skirts naughtiness, make A Dirty Shame arguably Waters's funniest movie. (It's helped a lot by a soundtrack filled with brazenly suggestive old pop tunes like "Tony's Got Hot Nuts (Ten Cents a Bag)".) At the same time, when a snake wriggles out of evangelical Ray Ray's fly, it is to Waters, albeit entirely within the overarching irony, a religious moment. It's the romance ethos for his world--a lower-middle-class Baltimore gone sexy in every way, conceivable and inconceivable. He'd mean it if he meant anything.

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