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by Bill Gibron

25 Dec 2008

David Fincher is a god. Not a lesser deity, mind you, or some manner of false filmmaking prophet. No, this inside outsider may have gotten his start in music videos, and suffered at the hands of a disgruntled studio while making his directorial debut (the oft debated Alien3), but since those uneasy early days, he’s been nothing short of sensational. With a creative output claiming one masterwork (Se7en, The Game) after another (Fight Club, Zodiac), only mainstream commercial acceptance has truly alluded him (unless you count Panic Room). All that might change with his Brad Pitt vehicle The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Loosely based on the short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, this may look like a blatant attempt to grab awards season consideration. Instead, it’s another notable notch in the man’s amazing auteur oeuvre. 

Born into a turn of the century New Orleans, orphaned Benjamin Button is blessed/cursed with an unusual malady. As an infant, he looks nearly 90 years old. As a toddler, he’s in his ‘80s. As he gets older, his body ages in reverse, decades dropping off as the experiences pile up. While living in a nursing home with his caregiver mother Queenie, he meets the granddaughter of another resident. Her name is Daisy, and Benjamin is instantly smitten. As time moves along, he holds onto his flame, even as he joins the merchant marines, aids in World War II, has an affair with a British woman (who wants to swim the English Channel), and returns home to Louisiana where he reconnects with his dying father. Yet all along, all Benjamin can think about is Daisy. Her career as a ballerina cut short and her options limited, she soon finds herself drawn into her new partner’s curious case. It will be a relationship that inspires many wonderful memories, a lot of adventure, a few heartaches, and some significant deathbed secrets.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is not a movie made for a single viewing. At nearly three hours in length, its detail and depth become distant and unclear. There are times when it looks like director Fincher is operating under a delusion of self-indulgence, basic camera tricks and CG deception taking over where narrative drive and clear characterization would suffice. But then the premise kicks in, an idea so novel and yet so simple that it often threatens to spin out of control. But this is where Fincher shines - bringing the outrageous and the outsized back into scale with the rest of his vision. As a result, Benjamin Button stands as the kind of filmmaking achievement that formidable French auteur theory was meant to celebrate. Without Fincher behind the scenes, this would be an occasionally interesting, often irritating trifle. With him, it’s some manner of masterpiece.

It also helps to have amazing actors inhabit this world, and you can’t get much better than Pitt (as the title entity), Cate Blanchett (as lifetime love Daisy), Taraji P. Henson as Benjamin’s adopted momma, and Julia Ormond as bookend offspring Caroline. Interspersed amongst the main threads are remarkable moments from Jared Harris, Tilda Swinton, and Elias Koteas. Each one accents Fincher’s amazing images with their own unique take on humanity and honesty. At its center, Benjamin Button is about the truth - the truth about living, the truth about dying, the truth about who you are, and the truth about who others find us to be. All throughout the film, secrets and stories are revealed, each one clarifying the people who populate them. At the end, the denouements build to a shattering emotional epiphany that ties everything together magnificently.

Certainly, the screenplay by Eric Roth mirrors his Oscar winning adaptation of Forrest Gump, even down to a central symbol for birth/resurrection. But unlike that Robert Zemeckis fable, spun out of Southern comforting and a great deal of Tom Hanks definitive drawl, Fincher finds the darker side to this material. After all, when was the last time you saw a mainstream movie deal with the impending death of an infant. Remember, Benjamin ages backwards, so the very youthful biology the industry tends to senseless celebrate actually becomes the harbinger for the arriving Grim Reaper. This is juxtaposed against Blanchett’s aged façade, holed up in a New Orleans hospital as Katrina is about to hit. The concept of placing the plot within the horrific events of 2005 may be locational happenstance, but it does work to underline the overall theme of life’s fascinating fragility.

In fact, the physical elements of Benjamin Button stand out as the film’s creative finest achievement. The early stages of Pitt’s “elderly” youth have an eerie provocation, while his last act teen façade is achingly Adonis-like in look. Blanchett gets an equally effective make-over, her turn as an adolescent ballerina and ‘50s fashion plate remarkable in their picture perfect, almost porcelain purity. Fincher forces the audience to rethink their previous notions of age and vitality all throughout the film. When Benjamin visits a brothel for the first time, it’s not as some dirty old man. Instead, Pitt plays the moment just right, using raging teen hormones to accent his character’s withered looks. With the movie set inside a nursing home, there’s a lot of jokes made at the expense of the infirmed and enfeebled (one man gets seven silent movie slapstick sequences, illustrating the number of times he’s been hit by lightning). But there is plenty of dignity here as well, times when what we become throughout the decades is discussed and redefined.

Yet in the end, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is really about celebrating your existence. It’s a statement on how life lived - in any order - can be taken for granted and gone in an instant. As they move through the years, trying to connect and complete their unending love, Benjamin and Daisy discover something even more shocking about their interpersonal emotions: they can survive anything. Only time treats the couple like an interchangeable pair of enigmas, each owning their own unusual approach to being and being together. The wistful qualities of the narrative, matched with Fincher’s frighteningly magnificent direction, turns something gimmicky into something grand. When the word ‘epic’ is tossed around, it’s an effort like that of those of all involved in Benjamin Button that supply a perfect illustration. Destined to grow in critical acclaim as the year’s go by, this represents Fincher at his finest - and gods rarely find a way to top themselves.

by Rob Horning

25 Dec 2008

This is not a bah-humbug post about errant Christmas gifts. Rather I have started to read Albert Hirschman’s Shifting Involvements, which offers a theory for why societies cycle between focusing on private consumption for satisfaction (a la 1950s) to becoming more involved in social action and political organization and public issues (a la 1960s). (Hirschman, however, does make this heartwarming observation about disappointment: “The ‘cost’ of disappointments may well be less than the ‘benefit’ yielded by man’s ability to entertain over and over again the idea of bliss and happiness, disappointment-bound though it may be.” Disappointment is the price we pay for all that holiday-spirit-style anticipation leading up to today. So cherish your disgruntlement!)

An analysis of how we shift from public engagement to self-involvement seems pertinent to proclamations that because of Obama’s election, as Joshua Errett writes in Now Toronto, “Hipsters essentially became hopesters.” (Barf.) Virtually every statement in the article strikes me as dubious—from the genesis of hipsters to the source of their resiliency to their evolution in response to political change. Hipsterism is not a trend so much as it is a disguise term for consumerist ideology. A hipster is a consumer, period. The term helps affiliate consumerism with youth trends, which are actually independent, subject to the fashion cycle. But consumerism, hipsterism, cannot go out of fashion. They describe the prevailing social relations, which will only change with a massive shift in underlying economic relations and ideological assumptions. If hipsterism is to disappear, it would involve a massive economic reorganization, not a change in youth fashions.

Perhaps the depth of the current recession may be sufficient to trigger such a change—though in Shifting Involvements Hirschman is eager to prove that such changes in consumer orientation are periodic and actually endogenous, that is they require no triggering events but fashion their own triggers through the inherent contradictions in collective social behavior under capitalism. Events don’t come as shocks but as culminations. His example for this dialectic is World War I, which trigger massive changes in people’s orientation toward satisfaction seeking, but was in itself, to a degree, a consequence of a widespread attitude of boredom with bourgeois prosperity. War was going to cleanse the world of decadence and bring back the time of heroes.It seems a stretch to say that the recession has been welcomed, prompted, as a wonderful return of volatility and market chaos and creative destruction after the so-called Great Moderation, but certainly some commentators take that tack when railing against bank bailouts and how they are preventing the system purge that history seems to be demanding. The resistance to Keynesian economics relates to this—as these quotes from Krugman gathered by Mark Thoma suggest. Keynes wanted us to stop regarding macroeconomics as a morality play, and recessions as something we deserve for some ideological deviation or another. I’m afflicted by this tendency when I want to regard the recession as our just deserts for consumerist myopia.

Anyway, Hirschman’s argument pertains to the question of whether this recession can prompt a lasting reevaluation of the consumerist way of life, or if it’s just another moment in a continual cycle that has already proven its resiliency. Hirschman’s chief point revolves around the contextual nature of disappointment and how it varies.

Acts of consumption, as well as acts of participation in public affairs, which are undertaken because they are expected to yield satisfaction, also yield disappointment and dissatisfaction. They do so for different reasons, in different ways, and to different degrees, but to the extent that the disappointment is not wholly eliminated by an instantaneous downward adjustment of expectations, any pattern of consumption or of time use carries within itself…“the seeds of its own destruction.”

Basically, consumption provides diminishing returns of satisfaction, and with durable goods that are not frequently consumed, the disappointment can’t be rechanneled into a purchase of a replacement. So we learn that buying a house is the ultimate reward in life, we do it, it inevitably disappoints, we stave that off for as long as we can and then we refinance and buy a bigger house. But that becomes unsustainable, with the outcome we are now seeing, which is a material expression of the escalating disappointment with a life centered around consuming housing as an end in itself. We tried bigger houses, but that reached its limit. Now we need a new option. Is it plausible to hope that it could take the form of greater public involvement with solving a collective problem like global warming. Will that disappointment be channeled into a green bubble, as we try to derive moral satisfaction from environmentally conscientious behavior?

The problem, though, as Robert Frank points out in his introduction to the new edition of Shifting Involvements, is that treating moral behavior as a consumption good, pursued for personal satisfaction, is that our motivation then weakens as the context changes.The moral satisfaction that we derive from behavior is relative to what everyone else is doing. When we are first on the blick with our Prius, our moral satisfaction is great and palpable. But when everyone already has a Prius, we get less satisfaction from buying one, as we will garner less recognition for our distinctive commitment to doing the right thing. As Frank writes, “the problem may not be that people are disappointed with the concrete results of their involvement”—the Prius still conserves fossil fuels—“or that the costs of involvement are high”—if everyone is buying Priuses, they should become cheaper—“rather, it just may be that it becomes increasingly difficult for participants to earn moral credit. Once the imbalance between effort and reward becomes sufficiently high, people’s attention shifts to alternative pursuits.” Hence there may be an endogenous limit to things like recycling, if we presume that people are participating for self-centered moral satisfaction and recognition. Such behaviors need to be removed from the sphere of pursuing satisfactions—i.e. they can’t be seen as part of satisfying personal wants and needs. They must regarded socially as being non-economic duties, a perception that ideology must produce. Hirschman points out that such things as “worship, mourning, family visits ...  are not compared with income-producing or consumption activities” thanks to certain “social arrangements.” He adds, in a crisp piece of econspeak, that “a good portion of our social arrangements is meant to prevent that equalization-at-the-margin of the satisfactions derived from our various activities which is the crux of the economic model.” What is dangerous then, when we extend a consumerist model of buying satisfaction in the marketplace and displaying our identities as though they are competing products on a social market, is that these activities protected by being considered noneconomic will be obliterated. When people fret about the commercialization of Christmas, they are targeting this tendency for economic thinking to come to govern social duties once exempt. There are no especially good economic incentives to make the trip over the river and through the wood to grandmother’s house.

by Bill Gibron

24 Dec 2008

Those of us who lived through it will never forget how it unraveled before our unbelieving eyes. As each new day brought another revelation, as White House damage control caused as much controversy as calm, as names like Woodward, Bernstein, Halderman, Dean, Liddy, and Ervin became part of our political nomenclature, only one word - Watergate - would remain synonymous with the entire Nixon era scandal. So it was with great interest that we revisited the darkest moment in American history on 19 May 1977 when British journalist David Frost scored the exclusive interview with the then disgraced President himself. Instead of bombshells, however, we got an oral history of the ex-leaders many accomplishments. Even the supposed coerced admission was half-baked and hearted.

But not now. Now, we get the power of the motion picture artform turning history into a remarkable bit of faux fictionalized payback. With his corpse cold and in the ground some 14 years now, and a great deal of Washington handwringing behind us, UK playwright Peter Morgan has taken his penchant for revising the past to create Frost/Nixon. A stage hit both abroad and here at home, it follows a failing Frost as he tries to find a way to jumpstart his sagging journalist credentials. Seen by many as a celeb-utante info-tainer, he was desperate for some smidgen of seriousness. Getting Nixon to talk seemed like the logical way to go - and since no one else was willing to pay for the privilege, Frost put his money where his mouth would soon be.

Of course, knowing little except what he saw on television, he grabbed a couple of consultants with agendas of their own. Bob Zelnick, Washington insider and lawyer wanted the truth to be told. College professor and Nixon naysayer James Reston Jr. just wanted the bastard hung out to dry. Together, they meticulously researched the possible Q&A while Frost worked out the details. Going head to head with ex-Marine Chief of Staff Jack Brennan, an approved plan was proposed. Frost would get four interview “specials”, each one focusing on a different subject. Nixon would sit down for 12 separate sessions, with Watergate not taking up more than 25% of the final product. While Zelnick and Reston complained, Frost accepted.

There’s much more to the story, a lot of it focusing on Frost and his personal stake in the Nixon material. Paying for most of it out of his pocket, and taking the heat from those who thought he was outmatched, outmanned, and out maneuvered, this was a true leap of faith. It’s from a Frost-ccentric vantage point that Ron Howard offers up his take on the Morgan material, opening up the play while keeping the claustrophobic feel of the two actors’ one-on-one. Utilizing the original theatrical cast - a terrific Michael Sheen as Frost, a fine Frank Langella as Nixon - and complementing them with a wonderful set of supporting players including Oliver Platt, Sam Rockwell, Kevin Bacon, and a surprise moment from former Bad Seed Patty McCormack (as a petrified, predatory Pat Nixon), we get the best this kind of truth stretching can provide.

Yet there’s something here that doesn’t feel right. There’s a weirdness watching events etched indelibly in your brain, especially when they play out in a slightly off-kilter, pro posthumous re-examination manner. Make no mistake about it - Frost/Nixon is engaging cinematic theater, nothing more, and a great deal less. Its import offered up via grandstanding, showboating, and inferred integrity. In dealing with what is, perhaps, the most monumental issue of mistrust ever to try and undermine American democracy, history is reduced to a series of humorless confrontations, each one meant to signify something beyond its actual weight. Articles have been written about the factual inaccuracies in Morgan’s script, but that’s really beside the point. This may be the first good film that feels a necessity to tweak the truth in order to make the inevitable more dramatic, and cinematically palatable.

Clearly, we are supposed to see Frost and Nixon as cut from the same careerist cloth. Politics and performing are mirrored here, accented by director Howard’s Me Decade familiarity. But where the ex-President is a well worn known quantity, the UK jive master is not, and Frost frequently steals the narrative attention away from his Executive Branch quarry. Sheen is particularly brilliant as the mope behind the manic mask, a consistent façade of optimism covering up the flop sweat. We become so engrossed in Frost’s failed occupation, his party time disco diversions taking precious attention away from his supposed serious journalism that we wait for the moment when it all implodes. It comes during a late night phone call with a drunk Nixon, motivational clarifications arriving in spurts of spoken epiphanies. At the end, the former leader of the free world is sunk, having given over his hand to man who simply needed a real reason to succeed.

This is not to say that Langella is bad, he’s just not the Tricky Dick we remember. There’s a passing physical resemblance and an occasional triumph of cadence, but this is a Nixon that’s too much of a fame whore, too hungry for a chance to clear his name. There is none of the aggressive arrogance we’ve come to expect from the man who uttered the infamous line “I am not a crook”. Langella just doesn’t look or act like the kind of Commander in Chief who would make an enemies list or sling epithets at fellow Washington insiders. And at the end, when a defeated Nixon sounds a last gasp wish for some manner of humanity, he’s given the good old boy brush-off, leading to the one sour note in the entire film. Howard should be commended for keeping this freewheeling inversion of the truth from constantly flying off the handle. Instead, he devises a powerful drama out of good dialogue, great performances, and a splash of celebrated synchronicity.

It may not be enough for old school apologists who think our 37th President got a really raw deal, and someone like the late Hunter S. Thompson is probably spinning around in his grave over the “one confession and out” conclusion to the plotline. But make no mistake about it - Frost/Nixon is a fine film, destined to be considered among 2008’s most powerful and provocative. But unlike All the President’s Men, which used Watergate as a backdrop for explaining investigative journalism and the rise of the reporter as an important part of the Constitutional process, there is no compelling context here - just two men, each wanting a piece of the limelight, scrambling to see who will succeed. The results are undoubtedly entertaining. The truth, as usual, has no place in such a panacea. 

by Bill Gibron

24 Dec 2008

As long as they had Paris, they had hope. Actually, as frustrated suburban housewife April Wheeler would later reveal, it didn’t have to be the famed City of Light. Anywhere other than the stifling outskirts of reality known as Connecticut would have been just fine. When they first met, April and her husband Frank connected like all post-war couples did. She was lured to his solider boy sense of overseas adventure. He saw stability and blossoming homespun sexuality. Together, the formed the seemingly perfect veneer of American Dream determination. But somewhere along the route to their white picket fence home on Revolutionary Road, the Wheelers got sidetracked. The resulting diversion left them shattered, disenchanted, and barely alive.

Thus we have the setup for Richard Yates devastating novel named after the infamous avenue, and Sam Mendes return to post-Jarhead prominence. We follow April and Frank as they meet, make love, get married, and take a home outside the sprawling metropolis of Manhattan. After years living the nuclear fantasy, she feels trapped. Relocating to Europe will be the spark that reignites their previous passion, and at first, her husband agrees. But as he falls into an easy affair with a member of the typing pool, and sees his fortunes at working failing upward, Frank no longer “feels” France. Instead, he wants to stay in the states and have another baby. This devastates April, who must resort to extreme measures to keep her own hopes and dreams alive. 

Apparently, in order to enjoy Mendes take on Revolutionary Road, you have to (a) have never read the Yates’ book it is based on, (b) never watched an episode of AMC’s au courant revisionist hipster drama Mad Men, and (c) believe the filmmaker’s previous Oscar winning effort, American Beauty, was not some award season anomaly. Add in the “isn’t that cute” conceit of having three members of James Cameron’s Titanic back onscreen (Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kathy Bates) and the pedigree everyone involved provides, and you’re either drunk on the idea of the film, or failing to see the true mess that Mendes has made. Actually, none of this is true. In a season which sees underage sex with war criminals celebrated and old racists made warm and fuzzy, Revolutionary Road stands as a bold bit of filmmaking. It’s not always pleasant, but then again, neither is life.

At its core, Mendes has made a movie about why couples fall apart. This isn’t some new or novel statement about how Eisenhower era marrieds managed the ennui of a sheltered, socially acceptable existence. It’s not the precursor to the Swinging ‘60s or the rationale for the upcoming sexual revolution, civil rights movement, or any other protracted activism. Instead, what screenwriter Justin Haythe gets out of Yates’ book is the basis for how love leaks out and slowly dissipates. With bravura work from Winslet and DiCaprio, almost every conversation between April and Frank devolves into a shouting match of unspoken horrors and simmering dissatisfaction. Many of these sequences leave the viewer breathless, their truth and honesty about as soul searching and bearing as cinema gets.

But there is more than just arguments here. Revolutionary Road stages the preamble for a kind of upheaval, even if it isn’t strongly social or political. Within each person lies a series of disappointments and unrealized dreams. Mendes makes this the nucleus of his film, following two people as they destroy who they want to be in order to preserve what they think they are. We never really see the Wheelers as a family unit. Kids are always shuttered to the side (oddly enough, their first appearance onscreen is shocking since Mendes doesn’t portray Frank or April as parent material) and friendly neighborhood get-togethers become the fodder for that night’s bickering. Neither partner wants to work - April’s pipe dream derives from the “outrageous” wages paid to European civil servants while Frank has to “find” himself. But the need to conform matched with the desire to drop out sets up something seismic in their household. When the façade cracks, the quake is truly crushing.

In a movie overloaded with amazing performances, three stand out. DiCaprio has finally “grown up” onscreen, dropping any of this youthful primping and performance preening to become a true, legitimate leading ‘man’. He looks perfectly comfortable in his gray flannel suit situation. Winslet is radiant as a bohemian broken by the Stepford sense of purpose around her. She can make a happy home, but would much rather have a fulfilled life. Balancing said need within the parameters of a patriarchal three martini and beefsteak setting is the actress’s trained tour de force. She is simply stunning at times. And then there’s Bates, bringing down her dowager immenseness to play opinionated if outside. She’s the kind of fussy, frightened mouse/spouse who talks a good game, but can’t keep her own business tidy.

Speaking of her issues, Bates is blessed with a schizophrenic son who speaks as the forward thinking voice of a future blank generation. Played with Oscar worthy aplomb by an amazing Michael Shannon, John Givings is a nonconformist in every facet of the word. During a critical sequence in the woods, a walk with April and Frank turns into something so remarkable that you feel your heart literally skip a beat - and John’s line about life is enough to start an entire subculture all its own. It’s these kinds of nuanced bits that seem to fall freely from Mendes vision. When we see Frank shacking up with his temporary secretary, her Bettie Page pertness reminds us of the erotic explosion to come, and his coworkers cut a swath across the entire dynamic of last gasp machismo.

Yet it’s the overall interaction and intenseness of Revolutionary Road that turns it from a neverending episode of the Bickersons into motion picture mastery. The fights between our main characters do come across as cruel and manipulative, but they ring with a kind of brash authenticity that’s hard to shake. And even as the storyline slow burns toward its tragic ending, inevitable and yet inexcusable, we drink in the directorial beauty and pitch perfect performances. Mendes may be the current revisionist whipping boy for a geek nation convinced that Beauty beat the rest of 2000’s competition based on some manner of industry fix. Yet it’s impossible to deny his execution here. From cast to conclusion, Revolutionary Road is fate funneled through a true artist’s muse. It’s one of 2008’s very best.

And by the way, Paris would not have saved the Wheelers. Nothing could.

by Mike Schiller

24 Dec 2008

This is the Sam Poh Buddhist Temple, located in Malaysia and dedicated to Zheng He, a Chinese admiral:

...and this is a picture of Zendesk’s “Buddha Machine Wall”, based on FM3’s little plastic box known as (predictably) the Buddha Machine:

The second is said to be inspired by the first, though it’s difficult at a glance to see how.  The Sam Poh Temple is an ornate, reportedly well-kept structure filled with Chinese artwork, Buddhist statues, and myriad flowers of types atypical to that stretch of Malaysia.  The Buddha Machine Wall is a minimalist, almost Warholian webpage consisting entirely of a series of Flash applications.

Zendesk is, apparently, a developer of help desk facilitation software.  Beansbox, which actually created the wall under the direction of Zendesk, is a web solutions company.  Is any of this making sense yet?  The cryptic blog post that Zendesk published announcing the creation of the machine doesn’t really seem to help matters, except perhaps the bit about the “Zen encompass[ing] you”.  Maybe that’s it.  Maybe the connection is inner peace and stability, as influenced by outside forces.  Sure, the connection is kind of tenuous—okay, really tenuous—but if there’s a connection to be made, that’s it.

That said, I was rather taken with the Buddha Machine a few years ago, and still bring it to the office on those occasions when i do need some calm, some music designed specifically for the background.  That it never changes or ends unless I ask it to is not only a peaceful feeling, but that the listening experience depends entirely on the listener lends the listener a sense of environmental control.  Not to mention, people love the thing—it’s always a source of questions and conversation when it comes to the office.

Despite the odd motivation (or lack thereof) in putting it together, the Buddha machine Wall is nearly as inspired.  While the novelty of the artifact disappears in a haze of flash applications, the sense of control is heightened; you still get the satisfaction of controlling when it begins or ends, but you also get the even greater satisfaction of “composing” what it is you’re listening to.  Rather than being limited to the nine loops of a single machine, one can instead build a beautiful, layered thing that still sounds like drone.  The minor-key chords of the first go wonderfully with the sparse melody of the fifth, the second tends to overpower things if used more than once, and I still haven’t found a use for the ninth.  Perhaps your experience with it will be totally different.  That’s the beauty.

What’s truly amazing is that after three years, the musical possibilities of a machine that contains less than three minutes of actual unique sound are still being explored in new and fascinating ways.  Unlikely as its source may be, the Buddha Machine Wall is at least worth a visit, and maybe even a bookmark.

LINK: The FM3 Zendesk Buddha Machine Wall

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