21 June 2011

Summer nights

First day of summer. Still full of promise.

"It has a long way to go before it can even be called simplistic"

So, at the risk of proving what my close friends and family already know -- that I can be kind of a monomaniac on certain subjects -- I can't resist throwing in some juicy bits of Christopher Hitchens' take down of David Mamet:
This is an extraordinarily irritating book, written by one of those people who smugly believe that, having lost their faith, they must ipso facto have found their reason. In order to be persuaded by it, you would have to be open to propositions like this:

“Part of the left’s savage animus against Sarah Palin is attributable to her status not as a woman, neither as a Conservative, but as a Worker.”

Or this:

“America is a Christian country. Its Constitution is the distillation of the wisdom and experience of Christian men, in a tradition whose codification is the Bible.”

Propagandistic writing of this kind can be even more boring than it is irritating. For example, Mamet writes in “The Secret Knowledge” that “the Israelis would like to live in peace within their borders; the Arabs would like to kill them all.” Whatever one’s opinion of that conflict may be, this (twice-made) claim of his abolishes any need to analyze or even discuss it. It has a long way to go before it can even be called simplistic. By now, perhaps, you will not be surprised to know that Mamet regards global warming as a false alarm, and demands to be told “by what magical process” bumper stickers can “save whales, and free Tibet.” This again is not uncharacteristic of his pointlessly aggressive style: who on earth maintains that they can? If I were as prone to sloganizing as Mamet, I’d keep clear of bumper-sticker comparisons altogether.
Hitchens and Matt Taibbi have a superlatively cruel way of slashing up their targets. They do the awful thing of actually  checking on the facts. They then brazenly point out factual errors. After that bit of wet work they'll pull from Rhetoric 101 to show errors in reasoning that make the subject look like some brain-damaged moron from a remedial literacy class.

My chief issue with Mr. Mamet is that his conversion has left him so completely unoriginal in his opinions. We don't really need anyone else parroting the lines, and not a guy with his smarts. If only he'd come up with something on his own on the topic, that'd be something. Instead of a rehash of very tired cliches you'd hear from any numbskull Rush Limbaugh listener.

Read the full review here.

19 June 2011


Thrush from Gabriel Bisset-Smith on Vimeo.

Part of the reason I like this is because it uses the same techniques as a digital storytelling workshop -- just straight on photos, a voice over and some music -- nothing else. It is well told and edited, flashy and all, and the movie's clever in suiting its theme to the manner of its telling.

14 June 2011

A new kind of script

Movies always belonged to one man — the director — and early movie-makers like Griffith and Chaplin knew it. Then along came talking pictures. Words are something else again, and they frightened the boys who didn’t know many, so they brought out good writers like Faulkner and Fitzgerald. But such people can’t and don’t take, or even understand, fiddling and mangling, and so they were lost or went away. Right then and there it should have been obvious that a new method had to be found…Why not a new kind of script? A kind of outline of action, the sequences in order, the characters loosely defined, the end in view. Beyond that — and that, of course, is a great deal — you would write only the first few lines of each scene, leaving the rest to be improvised, going loose with what is there, or throwing it out if something better came along…That’s the kind of script I’d like to try someday.
- Lillian Helman 



On July 10, 1972, in La Junta, Colorado, a twenty-eight-year-old ex-MIT philosophy instructor named Terrence Malick began filming Badlands, a script based on the true story of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, teenage lovers whose 1958 murder spree across the Nebraska plains made national headlines. To finance the picture, Malick had raised $250,000—a pittance even by the standards of the day—and to play the leads he had hired a journeyman TV actor, Martin Sheen, and an unknown, untrained actress and onetime folk singer, Sissy Spacek. 
Badlands tells a classic lovers-on-the-lam story. In a shabby South Dakota suburb, garbage man Kit Carruthers meets thirteen-year-old Holly Sargis as she twirls her baton in her front yard. They fall in love, but after Holly's father deems Kit unsuitable, Kit shoots him dead in the Sargis living room. Kit and Holly flee across the vast, empty badlands of South Dakota, killing anyone who gets in their way.

The action behind the scenes was hardly less turbulent. The mild-mannered Malick brawled with his producer, brutalized his crew (which turned over at least twice), and saw a special-effects man gravely burned in a terrible accident. As the shoot ran on and on—twice as long as it was supposed to—crew members quit en masse. Back home, they would tell their friends Malick had gone crazy. That he had amassed more than a million feet of footage. That he just wouldn't stop shooting. A movie that had begun production in 100-degree heat wrapped amid snow flurries. 
Malick's belief in his picture never faltered, though, and after ten months in the editing room he emerged with what critic David Thomson has called "one of the most assured debuts in all of American film." Badlandslaunched not only his own career but also those of Sheen and Spacek, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, producer Edward R. Pressman, art director Jack Fisk, and many others.




08 June 2011

The coming mono-celeb

Ryan Oakley dissects Oprah and Lady Gaga:
Watching these two talk the same mumbo jumbo made me think of the always pithy Guy Debord:
Media stars are spectacular representations of human beings, distilling the essence of the spectacle’s banality into images of possible roles.  Stardom is a diversification in the semblance of life – the object of an identification with mere appearance which is intended to compensate for the crumbling of directly experienced diversification of productive activity.  Celebrities figure various styles of life and various views of society which anyone is supposedly free to embrace and pursue in a global manner.  Themselves incarnations of the inaccessible results of social labour, they mimic by-products of that labour, and project these above labour so that they appear as its goal.  The by-products in question are power and leisure – the power to decide and the leisure to consume which are the alpha and omega of a process never questioned.  In the former case, government power assumes the personified form of the pseudo-star; in the second, stars of consumption canvass for votes as pseudo-power of life lived.  But, just as none of these celestial activities are truly global, neither do they offer any real choices.
And it made me think that, within my life, we may see a celebrity singularity.
Right now, in a corporate laboratory, scientists are creating OPGAGARAH. They’ve tried before. Tyra Banks was their most recent failure. But they will get it right.
Then, we shall have one media personality who appeals to every demo/psychographic. A monopoly on all culture. A common goal that tells us to love ourselves and our dreams will all come true. A psychic hegemon to cower before while aspiring to be. Someone that both parent and teenager likes. A beautiful monster that eats life and shits profit.
Don’t be surprised if it’s called MOM.

06 June 2011

03 June 2011

Tarkovsky's Mirror

One of the greatest movie sequences ever.

From Tarkovsky's Mirror

Nan Goldin

All photos (c) Nan Goldin

02 June 2011

I don't know where she's going

.. but it looks like fun.

Con Man - David Fucking Mamet

To hype his new book of essays, David Mamet is doing the rounds. He's the subject of a piece in the Weekly Standard and one of those snotty Q and A's in the Sunday Times. These Q-and-A's are generally geared around the outrageous or inflammatory quote or a gotcha moment, and I usually regret wasting time on them.

But this was David Mamet.

Now David Mamet's written some fine plays, screenplays and directed a pretty good movie or two. His essays mattered to me, and he introduced me to Seneca, for which I'm grateful. His career as a film director is a hash. I admire his first film, House of Games. The script was strong, as you'd expect, and dealt with his favorite themes: con men, the morality of poker, the trickery of psychologists. But what interested me most was how he managed a dream-like effect within the neo-noir structure of the story. All those middle shots. The steady, unblinking camera that seem to hold the scene just a few beats too long. The flat affect of the acting. It added up to a film that was slightly surreal and nightmarish, weirdly effective.

As he grew more experienced, or perhaps, just competent, his films lost that quality and became merely workmanlike. The only real distinctive aspect of his films is the uninflected acting style he inflicts on his cast. Some of them, like his poor wife Rebecca Pigeon, seem to flatten out to a zombie like trance, which is sort of interesting. The bigger guns, such as Alec Baldwin or Gene Hackman, just bring their own game and look like regular Hollywood types. He's on the record as saying he only wants to direct genre movies, and in that, I don't think he's quite succeeded. Maybe on the level of a no-name hack from the 1930s or 40s who never enjoyed a revival, but you put up any of his work against, say, Sexy Beast or Croupier, and his limitations show through.

Other than that odd acting, born, no doubt, of Mamet's applying his own acting theories on his more pliable cast members, they're boring. Heist was one plot reversal after another until it became a dried up crossword game of a picture. Spartan ended with a deus ex machina so clumsy, a screenwriting 101 prof would've given it an F. And she would've been right.

After his first movie or two, he wrote a book, On Directing, which is stimulating nonsense. Mamet himself went on to violate most of the precepts he laid down in it.

Still, his script for The Verdict is a fine piece of work. Glengarry Glen Ross is a helluva a play, and the Lakeboat is a tender, elliptical love story.

But what's he done lately? I can't say. The Unit was okay popcorn TV, all brawn and big guns and nefarious politicians screwing over heroic front line soldiers. If you didn't think about how much that story resembled a certain narrative peddled after World War I, and later by Ollie North, it was okay. Bambi Meets Godzilla was a rehash of ideas he stated more succinctly in Three Uses of the Knife.

Now he's come out as a conservative, chip on his shoulder and ready to take on . . . who? Rachel Maddow, I guess, or the semi-mythical Volvo driving readers of the New York Times where he throws some jabs in that Q and A.

For example, in discussing the obscene amounts paid to CEOs who fail companies and tank their profits, Mamet quotes Friedman to the effect that the question is not what are the decisions but who makes the decisions. If you consider that, it's nonsense. Of course it makes sense what the decision is. If a death sentence is handed down, and you are the condemned man, you're dead. Less dramatically, use the example of health care. It very much matters what the decision is -- to treat, to cover the cost, or not -- whomever makes that decision.

He goes on to say that it's his job to alienate his audience, which is just laughable chest pounding. He has not alienated the public. This is a useful pose. If he had truly alienated the public, his plays would not be performed, he would not be hired to direct or write films and television, and he would not earn $2 million per screenplay. For an example of a true iconoclast and what happens to writers who do, in face, violate the status quo, examine the career of Peter Handke. Handke was once a respected playwright and novelist who co-wrote Wings of Desire. Because of his views on Serbia, respectable theatre companies, such as the Comedie Francaise and so on, refuse to stage his work. He is a pariah without access to mainstream media. Hollywood conservatives don't suffer very much. Reagan went on to become president. Schwarzenegger became governor, Jon Voigt still gets parts, Vincent Gallo goes his own way, and Bruce Willis's career seems to be as solid as any aging actor's. They even get the spurious satisfaction of going rogue -- how sweet!

He goes on. He takes a few potshots at intellectuals and academicians.

What's most risible about these macho, supposedly anti-academic conservatives is how few of them actually made a living in the rough and tumble world of their mythical and exalted free market. Milton Friedman was an economist, a species of thinker related to voodoo priests. Thomas Sowell taught at Howard, Cornell and Rutgers, among other universities. He now has a fellowship, that is, the modern form of patronage, at the Hoover Institution. Mamet himself has taught at Columbia and Goddard.

This makes Mamet a fraud and a hypocrite, unless he is willing to refund his salary and the tuition his students paid him.

As a lumpen intellectual and left-libertarian, I'm surprised to realize I have more real world business expertise than any of those guys. I worked for small firms. I started a company. I freelanced. I worked for a behemoth business. And with all that rough and tumble amid the bloody teeth and nails of global capitalism, I haven't seen much to change my opinion that government can deliver some things the market cannot. I share conservatives suspicion of government and unions. But I also suspect, with some well documented reasons, corporations and the upper echelons of the military establishment, which somehow get a pass in your standard conservative's worldview.

But, back to Mamet. It's hard to be a macho writer in the United States, and has been nearly impossible for the last 30 years. Mailer was the last man who could pull it off. He served in a war, as did James Jones. Guys in Mamet's generation -- the equivocal boomers -- can't manage the machismo. It stinks of playacting, this nice lawyer's kid taking up pistol shooting and knife tossing in his middle age. Even the involvement in obscure martial arts really can't balance the fact that this is a guy who writes and reads for a living and so should just deal with the condition of being an intellectual instead of fleeing it with shame. This is Mamet, after all, the theatre major and playwright strutting around in battle fatigues in the Village while boys in real fatigues were getting killed in the army -- the army, he now says at the safe age of 62, he wished he had served in. Lord knows, it can tough being hetero in the theatre, although you are surrounded by lots of willing women, so  . . . maybe not so tough.

He winds up his little tete-a-tete with, "I went to a consultant a few years back, and he said, “You want to make your life better?” I said, “Yeah, sure.” He said, “Stop drinking and don’t read the newspapers.” So I did both."

In another telling of this story, he attributes this same advice to his rabbi. Not sure why this increasingly religious Jew would substitute the anodyne "consultant" for the rich and rendolent "rabbi." But.
This anecdote explains a great deal. Quitting drinking has obviously soured his disposition. Genial men who have made it up the ladder of success often look down and think that maybe the people left behind could use some help. Conservatives, who like to ignore the benefits that fell in their laps along the way, usually say: Fuck you. I got mine. Go fuck yourself. You and your schools and your roads and your medicare -- get your grubby paws off my money.

Giving up on newspapers means Mamet's also missed out on some events lately that might call his conservative views into question. Little things like those robust and unregulated financiers nearly bringing the global financial system down -- only to have their venal asses bailed out with tax money.

My tax money.

Oh, and last year, that little thing in the Gulf of Mexico? More hi-jinks from benevolent capatilists who managed to poison the ocean and waste millions of gallons of oil.

What's disappointing is that Mamet used to think for himself. You might not always agree with him -- I often found myself shaking my head over his positions, but he had the rare virtue of working things out for himself and then putting those positions out there. Now he seems like just another mouthpiece in the chorus, listening to, and taking seriously, thinkers like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

Con men always fascinated Mamet. They populate his plays, essay and screenplays. It's not a big surprise, then, that he's become one, politically. Conservative principles always seem to serve as cover for transferring wealth from the pockets of the middle class and the government to their own coffers.

So David, keep you eye on your wallet as you swill your Perrier out there with your new pals.

Decline and fall

Who knew that Madonna would ever look like an original, but Lady Gaga managed to do that.