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Sunday, May 11, 2008
David Lynch is very much like God. I watch his movies the way I look at the creation of the world: most of the time I can’t claim to discern what’s going on, but someone seems to have gone to a great deal of trouble.

There are some movies that require a certain commitment of time to figure out what is going on. David Lynch’s movies, I’ve become convinced, are about trying to figure out what’s going on. And that’s fine, as far as it goes. In its art-for-art’s sake, uber-pretentious, anti-commercial, anti-audience sensibility, Lynch hoists a freak flag that is, upon closer inspection, a fuck you flag. The question, as it is with all challenging art, ultimately must be: is it worth it? His films are odd and unsettling, and they are often unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. And yet: is that enough?


Well…take any of his films, then take away the attractive female characters, their inexorable (contractual?) nudity, and the handful of very brief—but very brilliant—scenes, and Lynch’s work seems to be a series of somethings that seek to defy being identified for what they look and smell like. You are left with an oeuvre that seems to separate viewers into three camps: the good (those who claim to “get it”), the bad (those who don’t, or can’t), and the ugly (or, the angry; those who tried to get it, failed, and then, upon repeat viewings, determine that they are unworthy and, most importantly, uninterested).


Consider me ugly. Not angry, but certainly perplexed at the consistent, and reflexive, critical accolades. And let’s acknowledge the fact that Lynch does not merely have fans, he has advocates. Defenders of the faith. Crusaders. As a proponent of acquired taste anomalies running the gamut of high and low culture and all points in between (especially the points in between), I appreciate the allure, and I don’t begrudge it. What I am curious about is, who are these people, and what is it they actually see in these films?


Tagged as: david lynch
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Sunday, May 11, 2008


In one week, we critics will know for sure. The time frame is ten days for the rest of the moviegoing rabble. Barring any cosmic collision or other Earth shattering event, the fourth (and hopefully, final) installment in the chronicles of one ‘part-time’ professor Henry Walter “Indiana” Jones, Jr. PhD will finally unfold. It’s been an astounding 27 years since the original Raiders of the Lost Ark redefined the popcorn action movie, setting up a series of like minded entertainments that would come to dominate the ‘80s. In between there have been two sequels (Temple of Doom in 1984, Last Crusade in 1989) and a TV series outlining the archeologist’s earliest exploits.


And now, a mindboggling 19 years since the last motion picture wrapped up the man’s myth quite nicely, reputation ruiner George Lucas and his blackmailed partners in crime Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford, are reviving the series for one last shot at…well, some kind of glory. Given the god awful title of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the top secret project has seen its far share of controversy. From Ford playing the character at his advanced, AARP-like age (he’ll turn 66 this July), to the pre-production hoopla over the hiring - and unexpected firing - of writer Frank Darabont (who handled similar chores for the property when it was on television), fans have prayed that none of Mr. Star Wars Prequel’s pedestrianism transferred over to this title.


As of today, all signs point to pathetic…or at the very least perfunctory. The trailers have taken the original movies’ mystique and washed it in a veil of forced nostalgia. It wasn’t until recently that we actually got to see parts of the plot, and the From Russia with Love meets Apocalypto vibe isn’t fooling anyone. Now comes the first major death blows - anonymous early reviews on websites like Ain’t It Cool News. Spielberg and company are livid, publically complaining that the first “official” showing for critics won’t be until Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull plays Cannes on 18 May (the same day it screens for other media outlets around the US). Yet somehow, secured to a surreal policy revolving around blind bidding and state’s rights, a few exhibitors have seen the movie - and their opinion is not pretty.


In general, most believe the film won’t match the hype, that obsessives who’ve languished over their VHS/DVD copies of the trilogy will be greatly underwhelmed by what’s onscreen. They point to the well-hidden plot (more on this in a moment) and over-familiarity with the material as weak points, while giving marginal praise to what Spielberg and his capable cast do behind the camera (though Shia LaBeaof suffers the harshest words). While it represents the smallest majority of those who will finally establish the critical consensus on this highly anticipated summer stock, it’s clear that, at least out of the starting gate, Lucas’ decision to reprise this franchise is meeting with high expectations and less than satisfied reactions.


And then there is the storyline. Without going into heavy spoiler territory (and if you want to walk in completely unaware, skip this paragraph and move on), Dr. Jones is a now a WWII vet, compelled by the Soviet government to find the legendary Crystal Skull. Apparently, it’s actually part of an alien skeleton (located in Area 51 - how original) and once returned to its rightful resting place, it provides a source of great power. LeBeaof plays a character named Mutt Williams, who may or may not be Jones’ son, and Marion Ravenwood is back as well. The trailer promises Ama-zombies, jungle car chases, and the standard stunt physicality that made these movies so memorable.


Clearly, any return to this character and these movies creates an almost impossible level of fan frenzy. It’s the reason that Temple of Doom consistently remains the least loved entry in the franchise. Of course, coming on the heels of the brilliant masterpiece that is Raiders, it’s not hard to see why. But as with most one-sided perspective, forged out of personal want more than medium needs, a sequel must suffer through the classic cinematic Catch-22. It has to provide more of the same while being different enough to warrant its existence. It has to recapture the old magic while making new, retelling the same story with the same characters while bringing a freshness to both.


It’s a dodgy motion picture paradigm, one that few filmmakers have ever successfully maneuvered. Peter Jackson may have won an Oscar for The Return of the King, the last installment in the Lord of the Rings epics, but many look at The Fellowship of the Ring as the franchise’s best (good luck with those Hobbit prequels, Guillermo). Similarly, The Matrix may have redefined the artform - at least for a few years - but the subsequent slam bam revisits created more hatred than holiness. Spielberg himself, perhaps the only director capable of capturing lightning in a bottle more than once, has been reluctant to revisit his oeuvre. Over the course of 24 feature films, he’s only been involved in four sequels - the three Indiana Jones films, and a Jurassic Park repeat.


Of course, he’s the only director who could pull this off. While marginalized by minds who think it’s easy to make sharks suspenseful, flying saucers fascinating, aging white men heroic, or animatronic extraterrestrials believable, he stands as one the greatest auteurs of all time. While his participation in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seemed obvious, a lot had changed in his career since Dr. Jones and his Dad rode off into the sunset nearly two decades ago. Armed with a couple of Oscars, and more than enough industry and commercial cred, going back to this already established property seemed antithetical to his own career needs. Of course, imagine the uproar had Lucas left him out of the project all together, or worse, decided to direct it himself.


Perhaps that’s why everything has felt a little forced since the very beginning. The fourth film was announced a couple of years ago, and comments by Ford even indicated the ticking time clock bomb hanging over everyone’s head. While age is never a major issue in Hollywood (the biz will reconfigure any narrative to meet what they consider to be profitable demographic designs), having someone your grandfather’s age play a rough and tumble man of action pushes the boundaries of believability. The early pre-reviews don’t criticize Ford or his performance - they leave most of the vitriol for Master Shia - but with his sagging star power and paltry box office returns, Indie isn’t innocent either.


As the time clicks away to the planned press screening, as both sides gather ammunition and prepare for a fight, as the turnstiles twist and the money starts rolling in, only time will dictate the final legacy for the Indiana Jones franchise. If this movie makes scads of cash (outside the critical accord), you can bet that the suits will be slobbering for more. If it fails to attract an overwhelming financial windfall, this may be the man-myth’s last hurrah. Whatever the case, it may be time to gear down the rabid love for the series to something more realistic. Sadly, like the serials that inspired them, the time may have long since passed for this particular product. 


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Saturday, May 10, 2008


Film fans look to DVD for one thing mostly, and that’s contextual clarity. We want to understand the artistic decisions made, to get close to the production and feel the organic flow of filmmaker and star, script and screen time, each element adding its own particular aroma and spice to the overall cinematic stew. More times than not, the medium leaves us wanting. The powers that be spruce up a failing film with lots of EPK bells and whistles, but end up giving us any real making-of means. Then there are the instances where a multidisc special limited edition box set experience goes overboard, providing insight wrapped in more minutia than any brain can handle. The perfect DVD experience is one that explains itself while also letting the film do an equally fine job complementing the conversation.


For example, The Great Debaters has issues, as both a movie and as an example of the home theater format. On the product side, this two disc collector’s edition from Genius Products and the Weinstein Company uses historical perspective and cast/crew interviews to highlight the already present subtext involving race, region, and the reality of the times (the 1930s). Missing, of course, is a commentary from star/director Denzel Washington discussing any aesthetic or pragmatic decisions. Equally absent is a justification for all the fact fudging that goes on in the narrative. Wiley College and its students did defeat a prestigious school in 1935 as part of a speech competition. It was not Harvard, however, but the University of Southern California. And to this day, there are issues with the event itself, since it may not have been “officially” sanctioned by any national debate organization.


The story offered is satisfying, if occasionally stilted. Young James Farmer Jr. (a revelatory turn by young Denzel Whitaker) is desperate to be on Wiley’s debate team. At 14, he’s a protégé, attending school where his father (Forrest Whitaker, no real life relation) is President. Into his life comes three compelling figures. One is teacher Mel Tolson (an oddly disheveled Washington), the inspirational head of the forensics squad. In his spare time, the Professor champions the rights of sharecroppers and supports Communism. The others are fellow students Henry Lowe (Nate Parker) and the sultry Samantha (Jurnee Smollett).


He’s a womanizing drunkard, spending far too much time at out of the way juke joints. She’s a big city gal with even bigger personal dreams. Together, they form the basis of a team that succeeds beyond everyone’s wildest dreams. Of course, there is trouble and intolerance all around. Yet even in the dangerous Jim Crowe South, they manage to make a name for themselves - so much so that Harvard comes calling, issuing a challenge: be the first ever black university to take on the prestigious Boston college. It’s an opportunity too good to pass up - even if events conspire to make the journey more difficult than it should be. 


Part of the problem with The Great Debaters is that’s it’s an amazing true story tempered by a series of scattered ambitions. It strives to take on so many heavyweight issues and important causes that it ends up underselling each and every one. There’s the inherent human interest, a group of compelling characters, many hot button historical pitfalls, and an attractive “overcoming adversity” angle. Toss in the always dramatic issue of ethnicity and skin color, and you’ve paved your way to awards season glory with nothing but the best intentions.


Yet Washington’s turn both before and behind the camera is awfully shallow. He takes a story that should soar and reconfigures it as a stodgy, over-simplistic pile of preaching. It could also be the star’s limited experience behind the lens. After all, he’s only directed one other film - 2002’s Antwone Fisher - and the lack of expertise means he’s more journeyman than genius. There is very little visual or artistic flair here as he barely skims the surface of the subjects being explored. Of course, it’s not all his fault. Screenwriter Robert Eisele substitutes grandstanding for guts, going for the cheap shot vs. the choice moment. The result is a message movie that unnecessarily stacks the deck in favor of feelings that no one would ever challenge.


Right away, the gratuitous manipulation is noticeable. Wiley did not debate the 317 year old institution back in the ‘30s, and the team’s triumph over USC was undermined by charges that the competition fell outside the parameters of the proper governing bodies. Both facts find no purchase in this overly earnest exercise. While the DVD gives producers a chance to argue that the modifications keep the ‘spirit’ of the story intact, the truth is that it only makes things maudlin and melodramatic. Since we’ll instantly care about these kids no matter what (bigotry has that kind of sway over an audience) there is no need to make the triumph any bigger, the stakes any higher. Yet that’s exactly what The Great Debaters does.


Similarly, Washington is far more interested in showing Texas as a raging hotbed of horrifying injustice than dealing with the intricacies of debate. There’s a diabolical drawling sheriff (John Heard) who has “failure to communicate” written all over his puffy red face (never mind the neck) and a typical Southern citizenry who use gentility to mask outright personal disgust. We even get the mandatory moment when the educated, erudite black man - in this case, the direct and dignified university President - gets demeaned by a couple of card carrying bumpkins, the better to establish the obvious social dynamic at play.


Let’s face it - racism is a repugnant part of our nation’s notoriety, and no story like this can avoid the subject. But you’d figure with individuals behind the scenes like Washington, Whitaker, and producer Oprah Winfrey, there’d be more thought behind how it’s portrayed. Instead of a constant, the prejudice around Wiley appears like an occasional inconvenience. The only time the fear factor works is during a late night drive when the team comes upon a particularly disturbing lynching. The mob mentality is pure evil incarnate.


In addition, you’d figure a film about the power of words would have something more solid to say on the subject. But aside from a midpoint putdown of a student’s desire to know more about Tolson, and the last act oration, the speeches are constantly compromised. Washington wants to have it all - the great performances, the stellar cultural commentary, the obvious underdog vs. the establishment take down, the smaller interpersonal moments that make a movie sing. And while his cast is quite capable and willing to work with him, (young Whitaker is especially good, encompassing great wisdom while still lost in an adolescent’s torn psyche), he shutters their performances. In its place are questions left unanswered and inferences all but unexplored.


Still, what’s on the screen is engaging and interesting, almost from rote. We know where the movie is going from the minute the team is announced, and the dynamic between the students is as clear cut as broken glass. There will be petty jealously, personal doubts, and the last act decision to rise above both. The debate scenes feel truncated and underdeveloped, as if the creative team figured no one would sit through an actual exchange of ideas. It’s a mainstream, middle of the road approach that keeps this film from finding the inspiration inside the situation.


And yet we cheer. We want Wiley to win, to take down the decent (if slightly stuffy) Harvard men and show them that color creates no boundaries, just plausible positivity. We enjoy the acting and delight in seeing fresh new faces tear into the established stars. There are moments of great joy, great sorrow, great interest, and great contrivance here. Oddly enough, only the debaters themselves wind up being similarly grand. As a movie, The Great Debaters misses too many possibilities, and harps on too many ancillary issues, to be stellar. As a DVD, it misses a golden opportunity to put all our personal qualms to rest. Instead, it continues to tow the motion picture party line. This makes both formats solid, but that’s all.


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Saturday, May 10, 2008

This paper by Anders Albrechtslund elucidates some of the ideas I was trying to get in my post about Peyton Place a few days ago. Called “Online Social Networking as Participatory Surveillence” it flies in the face of ordinary English usage and tries to spin the word surveillence as having potentially non-pejorative connotations, and he explores the “positive aspects of being under surveillance”. Chief among these, in his view, is subjectivity building through “empowering exhibitionism.”


Surveillance practice can be part of the building of subjectivity and of making sense in the lifeworld. An illustrative example is Hille Koskela’s (2004) discussion of the use of webcams, TV shows and mobile phones. She introduces the concept empowering exhibitionism to describe the practice of revealing your (very) personal life. By exhibiting their lives, people claim “copyright” to their own lives, as they engage in the self–construction of identity. This reverts the vertical power relation, as visibility becomes a tool of power that can be used to rebel against the shame associated with not being private about certain things. Thus, exhibitionism is liberating, because it represents a refusal to be humble.


This echoes a point I was trying to make about Peyton Place and how it models the transformation of gossip into entertainment. Rather than being ashamed about what people in your small town are whispering about you, print it for the world to read and revel in your celebrity-like notoriety. Individuality, identity, subjectivty—call it what you will, but it is not a natural state, but a process that requires social interaction and recognition of a particular sort. Althusser call it ideology and attributed to a society’s institutions. So perhaps it is enough to see social networks as a kind of ideological state apparatus, another tool with which subjectivity is constituted within ideology, weaving the consumption of technology right into the core of one’s identity.


“Participatory surveillance” is presumably a good thing because by volunteering to be watched, you appear to seize control over its effects. If someone peers through your window and sees you do something, it could be embarrassing. You might have to live in fear that someone might be looking in. But if you open the shade intentionally and make your private life a performace, whether or not someone is watching is nothing to be afraid of. Or rather, it causes a different fear, that not as many people are watching who might be. There is an irresistible urge that sets in to scale up one’s identity, since the tools exist to do so and to measure how large one becomes online—to track how many friends one has and how many page views one gets.


Albrectslund seems to imply that social networks allow us to escape merely existing in the panopticon of modern society passively, instead affording an opportunity to dictate how we will be watched and what sort of identity will result. This seems mistaken to me; the illusion of control masks the discipline, and participants don’t necessarily think through the implications of so much publicity, lulled as they are by the apparent power they feel in expressing themselves and in broadcasting it to a potentially limitless audience. But even if you elect to be poured into a mold, you can’t then take credit for the shape you are then frozen into. It would be akin to the citizens of Peyton Place reveling in their notoriety once their local shame became a matter of national delectation. But, one might protest, the identities constructed online in social networks need not be shameful, as the gossip that made the characters of Peyton Place “interesting.” Perhaps not, but the potentially huge scale of online friendship seems to lead people to turn to the lowest common denominator to appeal to others online and build their friend network. They learn what that lowest common denominator might be from Peyton Place‘s successors; the forms of gossip in the media that teach us what sort of things—invariably scandalous—make private lives more broadly interesting to people in general, who would otherwise have no connection to these lives now up for consumption as entertainment. That’s perhaps what drives people to post naked pictures and tell embarrassing stories about themselves and that sort of thing. Such is much more likely to become the substance of “friendship” when it is no longer conducted on a local, face-to-face scale.


Albrechtsund notes that “participatory surveillance is a way of maintaining friendships by checking up on information other people share. Such a friendship might seem shallow, but it is a convenient way of keeping in touch with a large circle of friends, which can be more difficult to handle offline without updated personal information – untold and unasked.” That is, it seems a means of negating deeper, local friendships in favor of a shallow and more extensive network of friends mediated online through a proprietary system that can be use to disseminate messages—ads and such—having nothing to do with the “friendships” maintained there but coming to be ingrained in their substance—the marketing space becomes the same space in which friendships exist. Whether that is all that different from our ad-saturated lives in the real world is another question.


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Friday, May 9, 2008

I’m gearing up for some author interviews this week, so I thought I’d scout about for some fun ones to share this morning…


Elinor Lipman talks to the Beacon Journal about Helen Hunt’s adaptation of her Then She Found me


[A]bout three years ago, a screenplay with Hunt’s name attached reached Lipman. After reading it, she asked if she could have an e-mail forwarded to Hunt—basically that she was happy with what she had read.


‘‘I sent a small, little e-mail. I got back a very long, heartfelt e-mail from her,’’ Lipman said. ‘‘How the book meant a great, great, great deal to her. Helen was very generous.’‘


Then She Found Me hit cinemas in LA and New York in April, with wider release this month.


Publisher’s Weekly writer Kevin Howell interviews Barbara Walters about her book, Audition (Knopf, May)


I think I was able to write the book because I am happy. Because a lot of the ghosts have faded. And because I am very contented with my work now. It’s just a good place for me to be in right now and I’m not auditioning anymore. Except for this book. When I read the book, I was concerned that that every other chapter was telling you how guilty I felt. So I went back and took a lot of guilt out.


The Kansas City Star talks to Gregory Maguire about the musical, Wicked, based on his 1995 book, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West


To some extent I was shocked at how well it worked, I gave myself the privilege of not being too involved in the development. I figured if L. Frank Baum didn’t come back from the grave and haunt my dreams while I was writing, then the least I could do was allow the same creative distance from me.


New author Geri Halliwell tries out the Independent‘s 5-minute interview


If I weren’t talking to you right now I’d be reading a book I’m reviewing for the Orange Fiction Award, The Road Home. I’m 23 pages in. It shows Britain through the eyes of Polish man working here.


Rose Tremain’s The Road Home was published by Chatto and Windus last year.


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