Saturday, November 11, 2006

Movie Review: Martin Scorsese's The Departed: (Good + Bad) x Cop²

In the Hong Kong crime picture released here as Infernal Affairs (2002), a gangster grooms a young man to be a mole in the special police unit that is trying to shut down his operations. At the same time, a super-secret undercover cop infiltrates his gang. The suspense lies in whether the dirty cop or the undercover plant will figure out the other's identity first. It's a heroic romance in which the good cop and bad cop are cracked mirror images of each other, but it's fairly dimensionless as romance—i.e., it is not "about" the moral confusions surrounding undercover work. Though the good guy and the bad guy are each disguised as the other, the values nonetheless remain melodramatically polarized. About all there is to engage you is how it's going to be resolved this time around (only one of the cops remains alive at the end, but their personalities are ironically reintegrated—a "tragic" happy ending). In sum, the concept is nifty and the movie runs a sleek 101 minutes.

Martin Scorsese's The Departed transplants the story to Boston where the police are trying to bring down a mobster named Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) who has bullied his way to dominance over the working-middle-class Irish neighborhood where he runs a protection racket, a dope ring, a fencing operation, etc. The undercover cop Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the mole Collie Sullivan (Matt Damon) are also Boston-Irish and Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan seem to be reaching for an epic vision of Irish-American corruption in the cradle of American liberty.

You catch the sociological sprinklings—a quotation from Joyce (improbably identified by a 12-year-old); Freud's statement that the Irish were impervious to psychoanalysis; the fierce refusal of a bereaved mother to "rat out" her son's killers. But the moviemakers haven't changed the narrative significantly, and the fact that the same story and characters originated in a movie set in Hong Kong should have told them that whatever they were accomplishing by lengthening the movie to 152 minutes they were not by the same process deepening it.

The Departed isn't victim to the self-deception by which Scorsese and screenwriter Wesley Strick spread a little guilt among the "good" characters to make Cape Fear (1991) worthy of their efforts. But it's indifferent enough, a project made with the kind of nondescript moviemaking skill any big-budget generalissimo would be capable of. The Departed is ambitious yet shallow, bloated yet weightless.

Scorsese appears to have believed he could turn a slick gangster picture into an Irish Godfather. I didn't get a feel for the local circumstances that produced Costello and his minions, however. The scene in which Costello recruits the child Collie by buying groceries for his mother is too simplistically illustrative, like the Warner Brothers gangster pictures of the '30s in which the fact that a boy trips a girl on roller-skates for fun is enough to tell us that he'll grow up to be no good. As for Billy's background, we learn it from an abusive grilling by an undercover recruiter (Mark Wahlberg) who is convinced that Billy is too erratic to be a good cop above-ground. This is Wahlberg's best scene, but the exposition about Billy is too clearly announced. Whether showing or telling, the movie is clumsy and obvious. (To do Warners justice, Marked Woman (1937) starring Bette Davis as one of the prostitutes who helps convict the gangster based on Lucky Luciano, has a more nuanced sense of situation than The Departed.)

Too many elements are misjudged. Impossibility is not a fault in romance since romance is the genre of fantastic wish-fulfillment (e.g., Superman to the rescue). But inconsistency, when, for example, the moviemakers don't stick to the terms they themselves have established, is a problem. Thus, we may fairly object when Costello arranges a secret meeting in a porno theater and then gratuitously makes a spectacle of himself with a dildo. The movie is trying to key itself to Costello's ungoverned male self-assertion, to show it, in fact, as a general condition, on both sides of the law, but ends up pushing the hyper-masculine brinksmanship too hard. Wahlberg's role has to be overdone to be done at all (he was more compelling in the low-key party scene in IHuckabees), which you could also say of Costello and the roles played by Alec Baldwin and Ray Winstone. The contrasting suggestion that Damon's Collie is a latent homosexual serves no respectable purpose at all.

Nicholson has been as overhyped playing Costello as he was playing the Joker in Batman (1989). He's better than that here, but his role hasn't been meaningfully developed from the one-dimensional greasy fatcat in the original. (Some of what's been added makes no sense: why, for instance, does this Irish mobster attend a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor?) In other words, he's been asked for a star performance in a role conceived as a star turn. Rounding out his fourth decade of fame and critical adulation, he has not become a lazy actor. In About Schmidt (2002), he quietly updated for his current age his earliest star persona—the man in a rage against bullshit. He was supported by Alexander Payne's script, however, which completely reconceived Louis Begley's source novel. He's not lazy as Costello, either, nor does Scorsese direct him lazily, as Nancy Meyers did in Something's Gotta Give (2003) (apart from the scene in which he watches Diane Keaton's stage version of their unhappy affair), but his part has been written lazily and it comes to nearly the same thing.

And yet The Departed is compelling, more so than Gangs of New York (2002) and The Aviator (2004), Scorsese's two previous big-prize contenders, put together. (Gangs of New York was so set-bound and stiffly choreographed it's hard not to think of it as Gangs of New York, New York.) What Scorsese gets exactly right is the casting of Damon and DiCaprio as the inversely criminal cops. Damon makes you believe he's the brilliant guy who could pull off the deep-dyed imposture, but he also shows the kind of brittleness that would come from doing it. This is a breakthrough performance for him because he creates his character in an openly, brashly entertaining way, especially when he's flirting with Madolyn (Vera Farmiga), the police department psychologist. It's such neat work because Damon is "convincing" as the mysteriously corruptible pug-nosed altar boy without taking the role more seriously than the picture warrants. He gives Collie the roundness and vulcanized bounce of a cocky-brainy guy who has never met anyone he couldn't deceive, and it doesn't matter that we don't believe in the means by which he does it—e.g., sending nick-of-time text-message warnings to Costello from a cell phone he has to keep in his pocket to avoid detection. (Surreptitious cell-phone messaging is even less photogenically suspenseful than after-hours file-cabinet rifling and race-against-time xeroxing and computer file deletion.)

In other words, Damon plays his role comically, in a slightly distanced, aestheticized manner. If he doesn't quite have the high artifice of certain commonwealth actors, from Laurence Olivier through Peter O'Toole right on up to Guy Pearce, Ewan McGregor, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, he does take as much gleam-eyed pleasure in acting here as Montgomery Clift did in Red River (1948) and The Heiress (1949), and without Clift's youthful indolence and self-regard. Damon is hard-working but all the desperation is Collie's.

Damon is lucky that the earnestness has been left to DiCaprio, who's better at it. The undercover cop's role has been expanded more from the original, though to less effect. I do believe that Scorsese, Monahan and DiCaprio think that there is some genuine psychological probing of character going on here, i.e., the wages of doing good by doing bad. Concededly, Billy's activities are more plausible than Collie's; he does the kind of things undercover cops have to do. But psychological realism is built up from observation, and that is clearly not how The Departed was written. Moreover, to the extent DiCaprio pulls realism off, the movie becomes lopsided.

I found the claims of psychological depth easier to dismiss than DiCaprio's performance, however. He's so imaginative and physical an actor that the role of a sheep in wolf's clothing—more conceit than character—comes together. DiCaprio has beefed up and as a result has a carnal presence, and a command of means and space, unlike anything he's shown onscreen before. He can't overcome Damon's advantage in not taking the proceedings too seriously, but I can't imagine any other actor who could have made DiCaprio's choices and performed them any better.

The movie gains life entirely from the interplay among the actors, and both of the young stars are wonderful opposite Farmiga, who, with her mournful receptiveness, is possibly the least bland shrink in movie history. (No actress has ever been more memorable in the classically thankless role of the good girl observing the men in a crime picture.)

The biggest shock is that Scorsese's moviemaking is so untoned. Even Casino (1995), disastrously over-narrated as it was, showed more technical control. Here the cinematography is edgy in what seems like an entirely random way. (You pick up the visual references to The Third Man (1949) precisely because they stick out like cowlicks.) There's no click here between the director and his subject matter, and because he hasn't thought the material out in terms of sequences, the movie has no discernible larger rhythms. The actors are good enough that the movie is interesting moment-to-moment even though it feels aimless compared to the tight original. After it lumbered to a close, it took me about ten minutes to realize how much I had liked Damon's performance, and another day for DiCaprio's to register.

Scorsese has never been more respected than he is now and yet in his latest movies he's been turning into a monument to his former glory. It may be an inevitable fate for the most "intense" director in American movie history. By age 64 it shouldn't be surprising if he's burned through the kinds of obsessions and passions that made him famous, but, hell, Wagner with Parsifal, and Verdi with both Otello and Falstaff, were still pushing their art forward when they were even older. If any veteran director still has great work in him, I would bet it's Scorsese. If, unlike The Departed, that great work doesn't take the form of projects he can pre-sell to the industry gatekeepers based on his previous successes, however, we may never get to see it.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

"I OWN THE LEAGUE": This story wins TMQ's Biggest Jerk in Sports award for the month of November:

The South County Raptors, a scrappy football team made up of 12- to 14-year-old boys from southern Fairfax County, were supposed to meet the Herndon Hornets today in the first round of the county playoffs.

Instead, the Raptors are at home, their season over with no possibility of a championship after a league commissioner fired the head coach and the assistant coach this week. Their offense? They moved the commissioner's son from defense to offense for the final game of the season last Saturday, an overtime win that put the Raptors in the postseason.

"Scott does not sit out on defense -- ever," the commissioner, Dan Hinkle, had warned the head coach, James Owens, in an e-mail sent before the season began about how he should play Hinkle's son, 12. On defense, the father said, "he goes in and stays in. That includes all practices, scrimmages and games. This entire league exists so he can play defense on the best team in his weight class. . . . He is my son, I own the league, and he plays every snap on defense."
Living in Alabama and listening to talk radio during football season has given me a lot of insight into the mentality that could lead one to think that the football position your 13-year-old son plays is so important that it's worth making a complete ass of yourself.

This father probably realizes on some level that he's made an unpopular decision but believes he's standing up for an important football principle that other people don't understand because they're "not committed to winning" or some other nonsense. Or worse, he's congratulating himself in a macho way for "putting his family first" -- although anybody who reads the article just ends up pitying his son and anybody else who has to put up with him.
LAWYERS BEHAVING BADLY: Don't miss the salacious story of the fall of the law firm Milberg Weiss. Delightful details include a crazy Maltese attacking a waiter in a New York hotel room, an exotic dancer passing out flyers in a law firm lobby, and a Picasso hidden in a Cleveland storage locker.

Monday, November 06, 2006

DVD Review: Robert Towne's Ask the Dust: Laughing at Your Own Funeral

He hurried away, leaving her looking after him, speaking words he lost in flight. He walked half a block. He was pleased. At least she had asked him. At least she had identified him as a man. He whistled a tune from sheer pleasure. Man about town has universal experience. Noted writer tells of night with woman of the streets. Arturo Bandini, famous writer, reveals experience with Los Angeles prostitute. Critics acclaim book finest written.

John Fante, Ask the Dust (1939)
In writer-director Robert Towne's adaptation of John Fante's novel Ask the Dust, Arturo Bandini (Colin Farrell) is an Italian-American from a small town in Colorado, where he grew up being called "Wop" and "Dago" and "Greaser," who arrives in Depression-era Los Angeles hoping to become a great writer. He pours his heart out to H.L. Mencken, editor of The American Mercury, both in his head and in submission letters accompanying short stories. (One letter is so stirring that Mencken removes the salutations and publishes it as fiction.) Arturo is dying for experiences he can write about but he's too diffident to go out and get them. He has exactly one bold move: he gives a signed copy of a magazine containing one of his stories to his landlady as a way of sweet-talking her into renting him a room despite the fact that he's unemployed; he gives another to Camilla Lopez (Salma Hayek), an ember-eyed Mexican-American waitress at a local bar where he goes to spend his last buffalo nickel. (His valise is half full of copies of the magazine.)

Arturo is boyishly open-faced but so thin-skinned he's not in fact very nice, notwithstanding the fact that he declares himself a lover of man and beast alike. Ethnic prejudice has distorted his feelings—he wants to make a name for himself that he won't be ashamed of. In Los Angeles, Bandini is sometimes taken to be Mexican, which to Arturo is even "worse" than Italian. All the same, he can't get over his attraction to Camilla, who is almost as touchy as he is. She's not an intellectual (she can't read English; the story Arturo tries to impress her with is doubly wasted on her) and so her pride and susceptibility aren't as neurotic or morbid as Arturo's. She's positively fiery, but also down-to-earth; her temper seems to intensify the pleasure she promises, pleasure Arturo is too unsure to grab, though she's offering.

Camilla doesn't have Arturo's mean streak, but in some ways she's even more hesitant about him than he is about her. She'd like to sleep with him but is also holding out for an opportunity to make a better life. To her, the chief opportunity appears to be marriage to a blond American-American named Sammy White (Justin Kirk), although he occasionally hits her and has TB besides. When Camilla realizes she's in love with Arturo, she doesn't tell him as much but asks if he'd ever consider changing his name—she wouldn't want to raise her kids with the last name Bandini. (She has fancifully registered her car under the name "Camilla Lombard.") Arturo points out that he hasn't proposed.

It takes Arturo and Camilla ¾ of the picture to get together because they're so bristly they can barely see each other without fighting. The text cues us that their problems arise from the difficulties of "ethnicity" in the pre-assimilation era, but the wonderful thing about the picture is that Towne plays the tension between them for comedy rather than pathos. The script makes ethnic prejudice in Southern California palpable (e.g., in Newport Beach, Arturo and Camilla sit down to watch the movie Dames (1934)—in which Ruby Keeler announces her independence with the old catchphrase, "I'm free, white, and 21"—and an Anglo girl moves away from Camilla) but it stops short of turning the lovers into victims. (The treatment of the immigrant subject, with its turbid mix of idealism and resentment, is reminiscent of some of Paul Muni's "accent" melodramas, Bordertown (1935) and Black Fury (1935), though it's much less heavy-handed.)

Arturo and Camilla have more stature than, say, Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert in Far From Heaven (2002) precisely because we see that they're primarily victims of their own reactiveness. Fante and Towne give them enough existence to make mistakes, and so we can identify with them without sinking into self-pity. Because they're trapped in their emotions, Arturo and Camilla can't see that they're romantic-comic sparring partners: every insult and outrage, every missed opportunity, binds them more tightly. (Arturo can't keep the ardor out of his voice when he's belittling Camilla for wearing huaraches.) Farrell and Hayek both get the joke, and understand that it can't be played too openly for laughs. Arturo and Camilla have to want to be in a grand romance that they helplessly shut themselves out of. The poor fools eye each other with tormented longing while from the outside they appear as married as they could get without a license or ceremony.

Colin Farrell is incredibly good, considering he's nobody's idea of a bashful or sexually inexperienced man. (This is the guy who made a sex video of himself in which he pauses while eating his girlfriend out to say, "Holy fuck! My breakfast, lunch, and dinner right here, I'm not even fucking joking.") Farrell is an unpredictable little bullet of a star. In Minority Report (2002), he nakedly enjoyed stealing scenes from Tom Cruise, as if acting were a competitive sport played one-on-one and aerobically fast, like racquetball. And in Intermission (2003), his ferociously physical hooliganism—swinging a shovel as he ran from a crime scene through traffic—embodied a certain sociopathological allure that has been central to movies since forever. He seemed born for the medium, as much as James Cagney.

I can see why these supporting performances would have made directors think Farrell can do anything, but he can't. In Oliver Stone's Alexander (2004), Terrence Malick's The New World (2005), and Michael Mann's Miami Vice (2006), his limitations became stunningly clear. He lacks the breadth of personality to play an epic hero, even a flawed one. And apart from The Recruit (2003), in which the role of a filial apprentice justified his junior quality, his physical assurance isn't all-purpose enough for action heroes. Even his suits in Miami Vice seemed bigger than he did. (There's more than one set in the game of stardom; Tom Cruise retakes the lead.) When Farrell experiences doubt while playing a commander of men, he suddenly seems puny; the walls of those big-budget movies collapse inward on him.

On the positive side, it may be that Farrell's face is too particularly expressive for a generic knight in such overblown productions. His Alexander was embarrassing but no more so than Clark Gable's performance as Parnell. Farrell isn't dismissible, he's simply less adaptable than we might have expected. He's resourceful enough, however, that miscasting per se isn't the worst thing that can happen to him. In A Home at the End of the World (2004), he actually benefited from being miscast. His role as a gayboy's dream of a bisexual best friend—a pure-hearted stud who never says No and is never put out by his lovers' complexes and tantrums—was a pink smoke ring. Farrell obviously had to hold back to play that utterly innocent, blocked manchild, but the obviousness made him amusing to watch. The confusions that played on his face were so clearly crafted that I was drawn to the working actor even though I rejected the character he was playing. Something similar is going on in Ask the Dust, except that I don't reject the character.

John Fante worked in the tradition of the expostulating modern bard, which includes Whitman, Henry Miller, and Charles Bukowski (who wrote the 1979 introduction to the copy I read). Consequently, the book centers more securely than the movie on Arturo's emergence as a published novelist. The love story feels secondary and is at times somewhat tiresome because Arturo and Camilla, who is masochistically in love with Arturo's rival, never seem as movie-ishly right-and-wrong for each other as Farrell and Hayek do.

This is the way in which the old-movie romantic Robert Towne brings so much to the project. As his script for Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) still shows, Towne does haunted nostalgia better than anybody. Ask the Dust is another Los Angeles story about doomed lovers in the '30s, and Towne has given the book's dialogue a brilliant polish for the screen (including an exchange between Arturo and Camilla about the color of his eyes that is the best on the subject I can remember, and no less romantic for being bitter). Towne's love of the era and his tough-guy jocularity give everything a dark shine, including the quietly anguished episodes involving Hellfrick (Donald Sutherland), a drunk who cadges nickels off Arturo, and the garrulously anguished ones involving Vera Rivken (Idina Menzel), a mad literary groupie who stalks him.

The old-Hollywood combination of "sultry" and "funny" could make otherwise unremarkable stories like To Have and Have Not (1944) and Gilda (1946) teasingly memorable. You know that the villains will be vanquished and the lovers will end up together, but the oddly heterogeneous tone gives the story suspense on a different level: you never know how any scene will play. The story may be a political melodrama, but the characters interact with the bantering suggestiveness of a burlesque show. The pretense that the moviemakers are primarily interested in telling the story is perhaps hypocritical, but you can't take it seriously enough to resent it.

Towne's coke-dealer redemption romance Tequila Sunrise (1988), starring Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfeiffer, runs more in this pop vein. By contrast, Ask the Dust, starting with Fante as its source, is a tragicomic romance that has both feet planted outside the world of movies, and fiction, too. In this movie, as we know from our family histories, the melting pot is not only an idealistic metaphor but a fact that is as hard to accommodate yourself to as any fact of life. Towne has a perhaps unique ability to make this ill-fated movie romance classically seductive while doing full justice to its authentic subject.

Towne's canniness as a writer and casual sophistication do wonders for the actors. Everything that can seem undersized about Farrell works for the role of Arturo, with whom we can empathize because of his bad behavior, which is both amusing and shocking—e.g., his spiteful gesture of pouring a complimentary beer into the cuspidor because Camilla lied when she said she'd read his story. Even Arturo's measliest qualities, the way his walk changes after he's maliciously poured a cup of bad coffee over the nickel he left on the table to pay for it, are charged with his bewildered emotionality, including the sexual drive he can't carry through on. Farrell's diminutiveness emphasizes the character as written here, and his eyes, which can seem beady with anxiety, or pleading under the circumflex brow, are just right for a man who's anxious that he won't be able to show the world what he's almost sure he has in him.

Farrell fuses his imagination with Arturo's pettiness and fearfulness, and the way they're knotted up inside with his ambition. Though this isn't made explicit in the movie, Towne and Farrell nail Fante's acuteness about the ambiguity of whether a man's ambition makes him a bigger or smaller person. In the book, Arturo soliloquizes: "War in Europe, a speech by Hitler, trouble in Poland, these were the topics of the day. What piffle! You warmongers, you old folks in the lobby of the Alta Loma Hotel, here is the news, here: this little paper with all the fancy legal writing, my book! To hell with that Hitler, this is more important than Hitler, this is about my book."

Hayek can be more relaxed than Farrell because she's better suited to her role, which is also less complex. She's luscious as hell, but Camilla's yearnings are touchingly ordinary, her self-seeking innocently transparent, and Hayek gives her a lovely, simple-hearted plaintiveness, and more gallantry than Arturo as well. She can be outright funny, when she accepts Arturo's invitation to Newport by saying, "It's your funeral!" But she's more distinctively memorable when she asks Arturo to come to bed. The weariness that cracks her voice resonates with the exasperation we've all felt with our lovers, ourselves, our absurdly complex entanglements—Why can't this just be easy?

The characters brought in for contrast are a mixed bag. Justin Kirk has an indelible scene in which he advises Arturo how to "break" Camilla. (He displays a recognizable male authority but I can imagine women getting queasy at his horseman's gestures.) The episodes involving Vera Rivken, however, contain a floridly literary psychology that is both dank and obscure (same as in the book), and Menzel's performance is, perhaps inevitably, too self-conscious.

At the same time, Vera brings out different sides of Arturo in his confrontations with unromantic reality. Farrell tops himself when Arturo is in Vera's Long Beach apartment and the disturbed woman begs him not to hurt her. Arturo, trying to reason with unreason, argues, "Why would I hurt you? Why would I bother? I don't even love you!" That revealing syllogism (Towne's invention), which Farrell makes unself-consciously articulate in a way perfect for the angry wannabe Arturo, encapsulates everything I remember about being young, insensitive, and desperate for experience. It's the most perfectly horrible movie line I've ever identified so closely with.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

I'LL BE traveling tomorrow and part of Election Day, so I will not be posting much on the frantic last-minute get-out-the-vote efforts (and associated legal actions).

As for predictions, I will only say that one would not have lost money in either '00, '02, or '04 by betting on the GOP to outperform expectations. So that's my bet: The Republicans will lose seats, but it won't be the slaughter that the MSM is giddily preparing for. (Kaus is feeling the same vibe I am.)

In other news, I watched part of the Sunday morning talk shows today for the first time in a while. Good grief, what has happened to This Week? It seems a large chunk of the show is now devoted to inane late-night jokes and minor celebrities who've died recently. And Donna Brazille is unwatchable. Anyone who repeatedly -- on national television -- pronounces N-O-T-H-I-N-G as "nuttin'" has no business opining next to George Will. I won't make the mistake of tuning in again anytime soon.
SIGNS OF DISASTER: Wonkette has some creative political signs for all you partisans to hammer into your lawns in the waning hours of the campaign (like "Vote Against Republicans: They're All Gay").

Saturday, November 04, 2006

A FOX NEWS REPORTER gets waterboarded: video here.
CONSERVATIVE HERO J. Harvie Wilkinson III of the 4th Circuit wrote a WaPo op-ed in September against constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage:

Ordinary legislation -- not constitutional amendments -- should express the community's view that marriage "shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman." To use the Constitution for prescriptions of policy is to shackle future generations that should have the same right as ours to enact policies of their own. To use the Constitution as a forum for even our most favored views strikes a blow of uncommon harshness upon disfavored groups, in this case gay citizens who would never see this country's founding charter as their own.
Link via this Slate article by Dahlia Lithwick, which argues that a state constitutional amendment on the ballot next week in Virginia would be a jurisprudential nightmare for gay and straight alike.
"I GO HOME, I have dinner with my family, and I then start working again in the evenings..." An unintentionally hilarious 50 second-clip on "work-life balance" from Kirkland & Ellis.

Link via Southern Appeal.
BILL FRIST appears to be building his own version of the White House in Nashville.
PORNO AND PUMPKIN ROLLS: There's something for everybody today at the KC!
Quote of the Day:
“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”
~ Bertrand Russell

Song of the Day:
Dropkick Murphys, "I'm Shipping Up To Boston"

Happy Birthday:
Walter Cronkite
Robert Mapplethorpe
Will Rogers
William of Orange

LET ME SEE THAT PUMPKIN ROLL: This is the dessert I made for a Halloween party we attended this week. The concept was my husband's. I think it turned out pretty well. I used this recipe for the pumpkin roll and filling, but I added some frosting on the outside from this recipe (I didn't use the pecans because there were already walnuts in the cake).

I followed the instructions here for the meringue mushrooms. It took them nearly three hours to get completely crispy in my oven, rather than the two suggested in the recipe. They are easy and taste quite good.

I came up with the spiders myself. I used royal icing with lots of cocoa powder to make them dark brown. Piping them involved a lot of trial and error; the first few were spider-ish only in a very abstract sense. I ended up making about ten to get the four good ones I used. Also, I made them two days in advance so they would have time to harden before the party. Posted by Picasa

Here is a close-up of the mushrooms. You can see the spider waving its leg on top! Posted by Picasa
Movie Review: John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus: It's All Porno

There is no strict categorical distinction between pornographic and non-pornographic fictional movies. The most useful definition of filmed pornography is a work made with the intention that the audience will masturbate while watching it; the graphicness of the sex simply serves that end. This intention does have an enormous practical effect: does anyone with XXX discs at hand pop Basic Instinct (1992) or Wild Things (1998) into the DVD for a five-minute whack before work? At the same time, people have always derived private "pleasure" of whatever kind they choose while thinking about certain Hollywood stars they've seen in movies. Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Jane Russell, Rita Hayworth, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford, Raquel Welch, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie would scarcely have had the careers they've had if this weren't the case. It breaks down to a binary distinction: supposed non-pornography is no more than any movie the makers do not intend you to masturbate over while watching it.

Bruce LaBruce's The Raspberry Reich (2004) crossed this non-existent line by mixing hardcore sex with political satire of western terrorist cells. (His approach was like the Marquis de Sade's in Philosophy in the Bedroom—alternating genres in order to turn you on to the characters' ideas, despite yourself.) John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus crosses the same line, but starting from the other side. Shortbus interweaves the stories of three New York City couples with sexual-emotional dysfunctions—i.e., it's a "relationship" movie—but it begins with explicit scenes of the characters having sex. There's full nudity, wood, real in-and-out, cumshots, all the bits you usually don't see at the movies, from nuts to soup. These interludes are not shot in such a way that you wish you were at home and more "comfortable," however. Mitchell worked with the actors to develop the characters and storylines and the sex is tied directly to what they came up with. In other words, the sex is "justified."

Probably too justified. The problem with explicit sex in a supposedly realistic work of fiction is that the sex is almost always too emphatically informational. In movies, I have never seen anything else that approached Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972), in which the characters hole up for a three-day sexual escapade. They indulge fantasies, which turn out to be decidedly unsustainable once the demented holiday ends; there's no road back to daily living, not together. In Last Tango the emphasis is warranted because it's about a man acting out his conflicts in sex games, and the conflicts are developed with a minutely realistic acuity. And it can't be called naïve because it dramatizes the limitations of those games.

In Shortbus, Mitchell and his actors may have started out with the determination to show us a side of character we don't generally see, but their notions of character turn out to be so conventional that the sexual proclivities are reabsorbed and neutralized. The sexual acts we witness are simply too coordinated with these conventional characterizations.

Even if you have not seen these specific characters before, they have a very "Hollywood" shape: the former hustler who's suicidal because he can't feel his boyfriend's devotion; the dominatrix who longs for unmediated, unstaged contact with other people; the couples counselor who has never had an orgasm. These three, and their various partners, come together, so to speak, at an orgy house called Shortbus presided over by a semi-transvestite hostess (played by Justin Bond, the drag half of the retro lounge act Kiki & Herb), where they learn about themselves, find the help they need, get past false breakthroughs to real ones.

If nothing else, you will never see a movie that is more idealistic about the potential of public group sex. What I believe people quickly learn at orgies, however, is that if they go in seeking anything besides getting off, that is, if they go in looking for a lifemate, happiness, salvation, whatever, they're bound to be disappointed, and they may not even get laid. Of course, sexual exploration can be part of a process in which a person finds any or all of the above, but the hardcore sex at Shortbus doesn't have the haphazard, recreational quality such encounters have in life.

Thus, for example, the hustler's problem with intimacy is symbolized by his inability to let himself be buttfucked (as if any gay man who doesn't want to be must have a psychological block against it). The boy who saves him from suicide is the first to penetrate him and as a result his life is turned around. Sorry, but that's just putting the corn in cornhole—as a matter of narrative aesthetics nothing to cheer about. In fact, the only good thing about this episode is pornographic: the hustler is hot and the boy is really cute. We hardly need the inducement of this formulaic storytelling to watch them go at it. (Altogether, the participants at Shortbus are better looking than you're likely to find at any public sex club, and much less drugged out.)

All that said, I still prefer Shortbus to fake porno like Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005). It's good to see performers who aren't as manicured as usual, and the physical fearlessness and frankness is infinitely preferable to the cock-teasing coyness of almost every other movie selling sex. And when Mitchell keeps his revelations about sex in the comic range, he really hits on something: it's a great way to loosen the audience up for the topic. With a mite more skill, the sequence in which the pre-orgasmic therapist inserts a vibrating egg into her pussy and then has spastic reactions when her bored husband loses the remote control device and some guy tries to change the TV channel with it could have been one of the great slapstick sequences of all time.

Instead, Mitchell goes for pathos. The three leads all end up in tears and there's something forced about it, as if Mitchell and his actors confused misery with truth and were just too eager to show us. It's a far more demeaning form of exhibitionism than performing public sex acts.

All the same, the acting is unaffected and there are a lot of incidental pleasures. I especially enjoyed a young man's demonstration of how to be a model, and if you never thought you'd see a rim job in a "non-pornographic" movie, you probably never imagined you'd see a rim job like the one in Shortbus at all. For all the rote depressiveness, it's an enormously friendly movie, and it will give adults who aren't put off by zoo-naked sex more to talk about, even in disparagement, than anything showing at the Cineplex.

Thursday, November 02, 2006