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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Is there really any surprise left in the story of a small town racked by tragedy? Would something like Blue Velvet, or David Gordon Green’s George Washington really resonate today? The last movie to try was Todd Field’s fantastic Little Children. While poised to be an awards season hit, it was ignored by critics and barely made a box office dent. While marketing and studio support can easily be blamed, audiences clearly didn’t want to take another trip down sad suburban lanes. Now Green has returned with yet another look at how the problems of people spiral into events of Earth shattering consequence. And up until the final ten minutes, Snow Angels is some very powerful stuff.

One winter’s afternoon, in a small Pennsylvanian burg, the sound of gunshots fills the air. It halts band practice, where high school kid Arthur Parkinson is playing the trombone. It resonates across the football field, where his new girlfriend Lila is standing by, taking photos. It travels across town, where Arthur’s separated parents continue their blame game, as do waitress Barb and her wandering husband, Nate.

As the last echo careens off a distance source, all thoughts turn to recent events. Little Tara Marchand went missing a few weeks before, and angry parents Glenn and Annie took it very hard. Now, some suspect the tragedy has escalated beyond a tiny child and a horrible accident. Glenn was never that stable to begin with, and Annie’s done nothing by spurn and sour his feelings. The terrifying sound might just be their issues - adultery, attempted suicide, alcoholism, abandonment - coming to a head. It might be something much worse.

It’s really a shame that Snow Angels stumbles when it does. It’s not like we can’t see it coming, however. Green, who tends to underplay everything with a deliberateness that borders on the unbelievable, shows a striking lack of restraint through most of the movie. Whenever Sam Rockwell’s failure in flux character Glenn first appears onscreen, we hope his newfound religious fundamentalism will be his only obvious quirk. By the time the actor grabs a gun and starts looking for Kate Beckinsale, we’re pining for the previous piousness.

It’s not that Rockwell is bad in the role, or too mannered in what he’s trying to accomplish. It’s just that Green has pitched the rest of his narrative so down on the dour temperament key that larger than life plays like out of this world. We hold little compassion for Glenn, never understand his numerous tantrums, traumas, or transformations, and simply wait for the mechanical movie making beats to take over and get us to the foreshadowed finale (the open sequence ends with a punctuation of gunfire after all).

And Beckinsdale is no prize either. Playing white trash and trampy may be a stretch for this striking UK beauty, but again, it’s not the performance that throws us. Instead, we are constantly taken by how selfish, manipulative, and just plain unlikable Annie is. She’s like the character played by Amy Ryan in Ben Affleck’s brilliant Gone Baby Gone, except without the drug problem or the pathos.

In Snow Angels, most of Annie’s actions are inexcusable. Her affair with a coworker’s wise-ass male nurse husband feels forced, the plot point predicament like something out of a dime store detective novel. When she needs our empathy, we could honestly care less, and there is never a mea culpa where she confesses to being a stone cold, conniving witch. Instead, Rockwell’s unclear history is supposed to excuse her actions. It doesn’t work.

Luckily, the rest of Snow Angels does. The material with Michael Angarano plays out perfectly, his flirtation with Annie never pushed, his eventual hook up with Lila, a girl more in line with his age and ideals, has a breezy, offbeat grace. The boy’s backstory, including a pair of feuding parents (Griffin Dunne and Jeanneta Arnette) has little weight, but it’s really not necessary. Angarano carries everything he needs with him, and the results give the arc a real sense of purpose.

There are also some sensational supporting elements that keep us engaged. Comedian Amy Sedaris may be the last person you’d picture playing a wounded, whiny small town waitress, but her turn as Barb is beautifully realized. Similarly, little Grace Hudson is the perfect child star antidote as Glenn and Annie’s daughter Tara. While one imagines that most of her scenes were the result of extended improvisation, she never comes across as Dakota Fanning phony or, God forbid, Quinn Cummings cloying. 

Maybe it’s the fact that Green is going with someone else’s ideas here. Snow Angels is based on Stewart O’Nan’s novel, and the feeling of something written, not organic, is everywhere. Much of what happens here would probably come across better on the page. We recognize how minor moments can evolve into unfathomable horrors - human or otherwise - but we miss most of the internal monologues that fiction uses to flesh out these situations. Green hopes his camera and contemplative cinematography will carry us across these plot pot holes. Sadly, we struggle to see the significance.

For all its noble intentions and universal truths, Snow Angels is not a great movie. It’s not a grand movie. It’s barely a very good movie. But if taken at face value and allowed to be its earnest, overplayed self, the sense of cinematic satisfaction is fairly forceful - that is, until the shameless showboating at the end. It really does dampen an otherwise intriguing drama.

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

It may have been the moment when Tobey Maguire went emo, a visual gag that gave longtime Spider-man fans a similar physical reaction. Or maybe it was the flailing Fantastic Four franchise, taken out of its superhero element to be forced and family friendly. The Phantom didn’t help, and Ghost Rider only staved off the inevitable. The superhero movie was hobbled, and having a hard time maintaining its cinematic relevance.

So when it was announced that Marvel would take control of its own brand and make its own movies from its catalog, some were skeptical. Hollywood knows about film, not a comic book company. Well, all doubts now need to be cast aside. Iron Man proves that, by going to the source, the genre has finally found someone who understands it implicitly. 

Tony Stark is a wunderkind, a wealthy weapons manufacturer and all around entrepreneur known as much for his mind as his misdeeds. More comfortable in the headlines than the boardroom, he uses a mission to the Middle East with defense contractor pal Jim Rhodes to introduce The Jericho, an unfathomably destructive missile. A roadside ambush soon finds our cocky CEO in enemy hands, and they have a simple demand. Build them a similar system.

Instead Stark, with the help of a fellow prisoner, constructs a massive metal suit, a human shield capable of indescribable defenses and offensive destruction. Realizing what his company has wrought, the former hostage demands that it change course. This makes his secretary Pepper Potts happy, and his chief advisor and company head Obadiah Stane wary. In the meantime, Stark modifies his suit, turning it into a sleek, super-powered Iron Man. With it, he hopes to right the wrongs his corporate callousness created. 

Iron Man is fantastic, a sure fire blockbuster that will leave audiences breathless and fanboys wanting more. And if all that sounds like unhealthy hyperbole, this is the rare film that actually earns it. In an era where summer films tend to aim for opening weekend supremacy (and little else), this is an epic for the ages. Director Jon Favreau fills in the last missing element in his resume by creating a certified crowd pleaser, a F/X driven spectacle that mandates character count as much as CGI.

Just deep enough to avoid superficiality, so ‘whiz bang wow’ that there’s no chance of boredom, two decades of motion picture allegiance to the Marvel/DC universes is rewarded with an epic that wears it’s intentions proudly. Favreau and crew are looking to forge myth out of the post-modern jingoism, and they succeed beyond any Spider-manipulative psychobabble.

The genius move among many here is the treatment of Tony Stark both internally and externally. On the outside, much will be written about Robert Downey Jr.‘s turn here, and all the praise is warranted. Playing cocksure success and smarts with just enough self spoofing humor to keep from being unbearable, the accomplished actor with the very troubled (and public) past reestablishes his star power with what is, in essence, a collection of everything that contemporary society values.

Stark is attractive, excessively rich, a solid savant, and when push comes to power struggle, capable of tossing aside his blasé business model to fight for what is right. Sure, he also drinks, carouses, and more or less mucks up his personal life, but we love our heroes flawed. From the ancient Greeks to the online pages of TMZ, someone like Tony Stark is our own social reflection.

Internally, the first hour of the film establishes the character’s humanity equally well. Stark is given a physical representation of his personal problems - an electromagnetic implant that keeps tiny, needle-sized pieces of shrapnel suspended in his blood stream and away from his heart. From a clunky battery powered device to a smaller and more refined self-contained unit, this visual representation of the conflict going on inside our lead lends the film a great sense of balance. On the one hand, it powers the various alter ego suits. On the other, it also represents the future of his non defense contract corporate approach. It’s his Achilles Heal and his newfound conscious, a way of representing both the problems he faces and the realizations he’s come to.

By balancing these two elements together, along with some obvious nods to old school effects and new fangled filmmaking, Favreau sets the benchmark for all future comic book efforts. Some have complained that Iron Man is nothing more than an origin story, as if there is something wrong with seeing how an off kilter character like this (a guy dressed up in a high tech flying suit???) got it’s inspiration.

The Arab conflict opening is just ambiguous enough to avoid any outright stereotyping (the villains all speak various international languages, including Hungarian) and Stark’s solution to the dilemma seems like the sort of outsized mechanical master plan he would come up with. In fact, Iron Man is consistently logical and pragmatic. It doesn’t pull out the unbelievable big guns until the mandatory ‘good vs. evil’ finale.

Along with Downey, Jr. this film has assembled a crackerjack cast. Terrence Howard continues to amaze as an intriguing presence at the sidelines of the main action. His Jim Rhodes is primed to play a much bigger role come franchise time. Also impressive is Gwyneth Paltrow as Stark’s gal Friday, Pepper Potts. Intelligent without being imposing, concerned without overplaying that emotion, we get a wonderful byplay between her character and Stark.

Of course, every hero needs a bad guy to bounce off of, and Jeff Bridges is chrome-domed diabolical as Obadiah Stane. He just looks like trouble the moment we see his smug bearded mug, and our suspicions are rewarded. The closing confront may seem like standard cinematic operating procedure, but it sure does deliver.

Indeed, the main element that Iron Man offers that few of its predecessors could provide is solid storytelling matched with excellent entertainment value. Favreau’s filmmaking is compact, controlled, and never outside his capacity. As he proved with overlooked family fantasy Zathura, he’s not about extremes. Instead, he’s one of the few directors who establish an enjoyable equilibrium between the needs of the narrative vs. the mandates of the marketers. From the moment the movie opens to the final close-up, he does nothing but deliver. Anyone who still views him as an actor turned director needs to reconfigure their perspective. In fact, Favreau may be more accomplished behind the lens than in front.

Don’t be surprised when the backlash comes, however. Remember how the hype took Tim Burton’s Batman down a few unnecessary notches before the film itself reestablished its classicism. Those who’ve been chiseling away at the genre’s tombstone need to take a break - Iron Man reminds us of why the pen and ink paradigm was viewed as profitable in the first place.

Sure, this movie will make scads of cash, but what Favreau accomplishes here is something more timeless. Like Guillermo Del Toro’s sensational Hellboy, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, and Raimi’s reverent view of Peter Parker, the story of Tony Stark becomes one of the best translations from comic to cinema ever. It’s also a firm reminder of why we go to the movies in the first place. 

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Over the past few years I have amassed a mountain of songs that I’ve never listened to, and lately I’ve begun the quixotic project of trying to listen to it all and sort out which songs I actually like so I can find them more easily. Consequently, I feel like I never listen to music for sheer pleasure or distraction anymore; it’s systematic, Sisyphean work, as I keep adding more unheard music to the pile. Not that it has deterred me, but I quickly realized that this is no way to decide whether I actually like these songs. In fact, most songs, if they have managed to make it to my hard drive, are pretty okay. The often snap decision about whether they will make it into the “good” playlist is typically an arbitrary one, based on whim and giving me the gratification of decisiveness for its own sake—the joy in this procedure doesn’t come from hearing the music itself. (This is a clue to why record reviews are so often irrelevant.)

And even then, when allegedly deciding I like a song, it’s not that I really like it in that moment exactly. It’s more that I have made a promise to myself to like it later, that at some point down the road it will be in rotation on my iPod and I will grow to truly appreciate it then. This realization leads me to believe that the value of any song has little to do with its intrinsic qualities and more to do with what I have managed to invest in them; the songs are repositories for my emotional energy, the energy I’ve spent consuming and remembering them, linking them in various ways to the story I tell myself about my life.

It may be that certain qualities in songs lend themselves to this kind of emotional investment. It helps if they are a relatively blank slate. If they are too specific, they will crowd out the feeling I need to be able to pour into them to like them. If the songs have timely political messages of their own or are specific gripes about how being a professional musician sucks, they will rarely attract any emotional energy investment. Generic songs about having feelings—falling in love, going to a party, leaving home, etc. These seem to work the best. Also, context contributes to whether or not a song can attract emotional investment. If it is in the right genre, or was in a movie, or was referenced by friends or something along those lines, it gives one a reason to pay extra attention to a song, and once you have singled a song out to actually pay attention to it, you are 99 percent of the way to liking it. (Not to belabor the obvious, but liking a song is no more than a willingness to really pay attention to it when it is playing.)

As part of my project, I was listening to an album called She & Him and I was thinking it was mediocre and was going to delete it. Then I remembered why I acquired it in the first place—because M. Ward (whose other albums I have already decided to like) was part of the band. That simple piece of knowledge changed the whole way I perceived the music; it focused my attention and shifted my attitude away from looking for reasons to reject it toward listening carefully for things to like. The songs are occasions for bringing to bear pieces of information like that, to connecting memories and data about what brought pleasure before. If a song can fit into a larger structure—a musican’s oeuvre, an approved genre, memories of having heard it at the bar or whatever—it becomes more listenable, likable for that reason. But they are too insubstantial in isolation to be fairly judged on their own merits. The criteria can’t emerge from some ideal notion of what a song should be; the criteria in practice emerge from the richness of the situation, which paradoxically enough, is a product of the limitations it imposes on what you can consume.

In general, I liked music a lot more when it was scarce. When it was scarce, I was much more likely to look for reasons to include songs in my life rather than reject them. It’s often constraints that make music meaningful to me—for example, I won’t forget the one tape I had in the car when I drove across New Mexico (a compilation of the Music Machine, the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, and the Gestures); those songs will always have that peculiar resonance. The songs in heavy rotation on the oldies station in Phoenix was partial to in the 1990s—“Woman, Woman” by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap; “Summer Rain” by Johnny Rivers, etc.—will always signify that specific time and place, what I was feeling then, the drives I used to take down I-10 late at night, crossing the Maricopa County Line on the way to Tucson. I was discovering new music in a very measured way, and I felt like it was expanding my mind at a pace at which I could assimilate it, enjoy it.

Now, there’s no danger of my ever running out of music; there is no need for me to be discovering more. (Maybe I’m just old, and that’s why my discovery phase is over. Just about everything I hear sounds like something else I’ve heard already, and if it doesn’t, I get cranky over its newfangledness.) Instead, I am haunted by the fear of running out of attention. So it helps when there are limits imposed on how much music there is to consume, a limitation that was once imposed by radio playlists and the amount of money I was willing to spend on music.

Back in the day, I imagine the infancy of the culture industry also limited things—the number of records that received distribution was much smaller. This morning, I had reached the a compilation of the Shangri-Las greatest hits. After sorting out the obvious keepers—“Walking in the Sand,” etc.—I was left with 20 songs that were all cut from the same cloth, all decent in their own right, but indistinguishable from one another. Being able to hear them all at once, with no expenditure or effort, undermined songs that in isolation might have seemed dramatic, powerful, singular. And they all probably seemed that way when they were singles, and you lived with them on the radio for a finite amount of time and grew to like them or not. The songs weren’t made to withstand being clicked through, rapid-fire, to determine which are good and which aren’t. (No music is made for that.) I ended up grasping for reasons to pick one over the other to put on the keeper list, thinking ashamedly to myself, If this song were to crop up in a commercial or get covered by some other band I heard of, I’d keep it for sure. 

So while I think the subscription-type services that will allow users access to all of recorded music that Reihan Salam describes in this Slate article are inevitable, I don’t think they will do much for people’s enjoyment of music. They may discover a lot more stuff, but only in the collector’s sense of having filed away an awareness of it. It will become much harder to find the time and the discipline to invest emotional energy in a few songs when the temptation will always be there to indulge that antithetical pleasure of judging—in or out? keep or toss from the playlist? The editing will be a never-ending process, and we’ll never get to the point where we have the time to listen to the carefully compiled playlist and start making the effort of investing ourselves in the music, in bringing the songs to life so that they can return the favor later on.

Perhaps that is why muxtape, the site that lets you upload and share online “mixtapes” of 12 or so songs is such an attractive idea—not so much for the consumer but for the uploader. It takes those playlists of chosen songs and gives them an immediate broader context for emotional investment—a community of fellow listeners. It helpfully imposes some parameters, limits that sharpen your focus. It becomes a forum for making your listening habits performative. Which 12 songs will go together? How can I put my tastes to use to impress somebody out there who might be listening? Isn’t that the bottom line in amassing a mammoth knowledge of pop music in the first place—impressing people? But when you are simply listening to music—for yourself, rather than brandishing the extent of your familiarity for others—you are just remembering yourself and what effort you spent in the past to really listen. That energy returns to you, as if the song supplies it. That seems to me to be what it means to like a song. And if we don’t budget the time to make that investment, if we feel too overwhelmed with choices to bother to attach much feeling to the choices we make, we’ll end up amassing all kinds of music, enjoying the pleasures of curating a collection while not really liking any of the music.

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

The migrant experience has been the topic of libraries full of books: some good, some poor; some true, some fictionalised.  The archetypal story sees a family or an individual leaving behind a country troubled by famine or war or oppression to seek a better life.  On arrival in their new homeland, they work hard to establish themselves but encounter linguistic and cultural difficulties, if not open racism.  Eventually they triumph through a mixture of assimilation, ethnic pride and hard work.

For nations built predominantly by migration, such as Australia, Canada or the United States, these stories are part of the founding myths: the tales of Pilgrim Fathers, Huguenots, Irish potato-farmers and Eastern European peasants.  Yet the stories have become possibly more dramatic as the twentieth century brought with it unprecedented levels of dislocation.  The refugees since World War II have been almost of a different kind: more different to the people they are joining than previous groups and scarred by atrocities that their new neighbours cannot even conceive.

Australia, a nation that a mere forty years ago was excluding migrants on the basis of skin colour, has had a troubled relationship with these newer arrivals.  The influx of Vietnamese and Cambodians in the 1970s and 1980s was met with caution and even hostility.  Yet those who fled Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot have been in Australia for a generation and have adult children born and raised in Sydney or Brisbane or Melbourne.

Unpolished Gem

Unpolished Gem
by Alice Pung
Black Inc Books
August 2006, 304 pages

Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem tells the story of one such second-generation Australian.  This slight remove from the typical migrant experience is apparent from the first sentence: “This story does not begin on a boat.”  As a twenty-something, born after her parents’ arrival in Australia, Pung’s experience has been one of tension between family and environment.  This memoir tells the story of growing up in a Cambodian Chinese household in western Melbourne and straining under the expectations and rules of a family partially disconnected from the surrounding culture.  Unpolished Gem tells the story of a girl finding an identity as someone both Asian and Australian.  As the old cliché goes, she had to learn to live between two worlds.

Pung’s book is remarkable for its flair and its eye for the little quirks of migrant life: the grandmother and her disbelieving gratitude for government pensions; and the family’s progression from hostels and charity clothing to suburban one-upmanship.  Her depictions of family members are affectionate but cutting.  The fact that she has written this memoir while both parents are still living is courageous, to say the least.

Similar in many ways is Nam Le’s story “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice”, published in Zoetrope: All Story in 2006 and collected in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007.  The title of the anthology suggests something interesting: Nam Le is a Vietnamese-born Australian, now living in the USA.

“Love and Honour” tells of a young Vietnamese Australian writer studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (as the author did) and receiving a visit from his elderly father.  The narrator is reluctant to write stories about migrant life or Vietnam, preferring zombie fiction.  Even as he tries to capture his father’s stories of war-time Vietnam as a response to writers’ block, he is conflicted.

This is a dilemma common to many second-generation migrant writers.  They have spent much of their lives fighting against stereotypes and seeking to define a new identity as something more (but not less) than the children of foreigners.  The last thing that a talented young writer wants is to be pigeonholed as an “ethnic” voice, with all the restrictions that would entail.  Yet at the same time, these stories are part of their make-up, defining who these writers are.  The best path seems to be to write about it once and then move on.

I can only suppose that Alice Pung’s next book will be about zombies.

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Thursday, May 1, 2008

Like most crustaceans, the blue crab has stalked eyes. When a crab is at peace with the world, they are but two little round beads. On the prowl, they are elevated and look like stubby horns. As with insects, the eyes are compound. This means that they possess thousands of facets—multiple lenses, if you prefer—which catch and register a mosaic of patterns. More importantly, simple laboratory tests seem to indicate that the stalked and compound eyes give the blue crab almost 360-degree vision. Those who with ungloved hands try to seize a crab with raised eyestalks from the rear will have this capability most forcefully impressed on them.
—William W. Warner, Beautiful Swimmers, Penguin Books, 1976

William Warner captured, with every precise word, the glory of the natural world. His Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs and the Chesapeake Bay (with Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau, William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, and Kenneth T. Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier) is among the best books you’ll find on the shifting strengths of nature’s communities. You might not think you ever needed to know so much about crabs ...

The New York Times reports on Warner’s death:

William W. Warner, a former administrator at the Smithsonian Institution and the author of Beautiful Swimmers, a study of crabs and watermen in the Chesapeake Bay, which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1977, died on April 18 at his home in Washington. He was 88.

The Times article provides a short overview of Warner’s life from his college days at Princeton through his Naval career and his work in the Peace Corps, to his administration work at the Smithsonian. Warner wrote three books after Beautiful Swimmers: Distant Water: The Fate of the North Atlantic Fisherman (1983), Into the Porcupine Cave and Other Odysseys: Adventures of an Occasional Naturalist (1999), and At Peace with All Their Neighbors: Catholics and Catholicism in the National Capital, 1787-1860 (1994).


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