According to this piece by Sarah Boxer, in The New York Review, I don’t know how to blog.
whatever you think you’ve been doing for the last 3 years, dude . . . you’ve been doing it all wrong.
My reaction? Kind of like the guy on his death bed said, after encountering the winning numbers printed on his lottery stub: “better late than never.”
According to Boxer, what distinguishes my work from true blogging is that I don’t:
thrive on fragmented attention (one-liners, song samples, summarized news);
(I mean, if you discount these bullets I’m just beginning to work through).
I also fail as a blogger, because I:
fail! To: punctuate?
eschew the use of punctuation and acronyms to express my feelings—a la :-) or ;-)
And, I fail as a blogger because:
I tend not to adopt the mien of an impresario, curator, or editor—picking and choosing the snippets and headlines found on-line;
PRESIDENT’S DAY NEWS FLASH: Elder Bush Backs McCain
Looks to get back in the picture as his new VP
Okay, so I’m having a little fun here, at someone’s expense. Yours, McCain’s, G.H.‘s. Mine. (But really, doesn’t that creepy sneer on senior and the semi-dazed, semi-satisfied look on McCain’s face make you suspect that something unsuspected is happening off-camera?)
Taking a position at a local high school/middle school library in the fall of 2007 held unexpected benefits. Sure, I thought being surrounded by books would be great, but arriving in time to check in books returned before school starts each day allows me a glimpse into the literary life of the teens here: I have the advantage of seeing which books go out over and over again. And I can grab them the next time they come through—if the kids are reading them and telling their friends, chances are that the story is well written. Attention spans are short in high school these days. And take out those earbuds, if you please.
Of course I try to be somewhat discriminating, and have managed to avoid the lure of Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries, Queen of Babble) and Megan McCafferty’s novels, wittily titled things like Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, which appeal heavily to our older teen girls. Meanwhile I was glad I’d already read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy as with the first movie coming out in December the resident copies have been in high demand. I was quickly alerted to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series (Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse) about high-school-attending vampires and werewolves in perpetually rainy Forks, Washington (now in movie production) and tore through the first three novels. Although the premise may sound a bit dicey, the characters are totally compelling and the dialogue in particular is genius. I’m now pining for the fourth (Breaking Dawn), currently being written and due to be released in August 2008. Meanwhile I received a tip that led to my discovery of Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy, an account of late 19th century English boarding school girls dabbling in the occult, and whizzed through the first two novels. The third, The Sweet Far Thing, was just released in December 2007, and I was in a good position to lobby the head librarian to add the final chapter of Gemma’s adventures to our most recent order of books.
Having the opportunity to discover a whole new generation of page turners is just the thing for a jaded English major who remembers plodding through Dickens and Nabokov (excluding The Defense or Invitation to a Beheading, naturally). Sometimes a little light reading is enough to re-invigorate an appetite for the pure pleasure of fast-paced fiction. What are you reading this week?
Before I press the ‘play’ button of what seems to be an illegal recording (probably made by the projectionist of a north American cinema, early in the morning today) of the first Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Steven Spielberg, 2008) trailer, I try to think how many times I’ll finally watch these 103 seconds until the movie is finally released worldwide on May 22nd, even if a second trailer comes up before that day (it will only add to the obsession…).
When I think that I’m ready, I close my eyes for a second, take a deep breath and finally press the button.
It starts… Wait a second! What is this landscape shot before the Paramount and Lucasfilm logos? Just a jungle, but not a very spectacular one (if this were some Lord of the Rings’ stuff, it would surely be much better looking) and…Hey!...this is not a very surprising transition, between the classic mountain peak of the Paramount logo and this kind of inverted view of a mappa mundi. I really hope this is not the actual transition in the movie, because it doesn’t measure up to the ones we have seen in the past trilogy: the real mountain peak in Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981), the engraving on the gong in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Steven Spielberg, 1984), and the rock –no, not the so-called actor; an actual rock, made of stone– in the desert in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg, 1989).
As far as fans like me go (and there’s a lot of Indiana Jones’ fans out there), every new detail of the upcoming film is important. I recall the famous tagline ‘If adventure has a name, it has to be Indiana Jones’ which served as publicity for the second film. And today we have been blessed with three new taglines that will be part of our fanatic lives from now on (I wonder who is responsible for these…) and they are:
“He protected the power of the divine”
Hmm… Was John Waters one of the many involved with this project, before he died? Jokes apart, this is not right; it’s ultra complicated: it will surely please both Christians and Jews; and taking into account that the only figure we have seen until then is Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) dressed in Arab robes, the word ‘divine’ might be an opened invitation to Muslims as well; and, why not? For the same reason, welcomed are Buddhists and people from any other confessions everywhere. But the tagline skips the name of the famous box that we see on the screen, the Ark of the Covenant. Is this because, as rumored, the relics will play in important part in the plot of the new movie?
“He saved the cradle of civilization”
Ah! Wait a minute! Are they implying that the old village where the Sankara Stones were stolen, in deep India, is where human life started? (Coincidentally I read the other day that Lucasfilm has offices in Singapore, and that they’re doing really well…) Are they implying that we all descend from that Indian village that already had far too many children to feed? Ok, I get it. It is just another joke! Lucas, you bastard! What a twisted way for referring to the increasing number of westerners adopting oriental children (that may explain why we don’t get a single glimpse of Indiana taken from the Temple of Doom movie, just shots of Indian children running and being embraced by their ‘real’ parents).
“He triumphed over the armies of evil”
This is very straightforward stuff. Nazis were evil. That we already knew. Then I notice something: the order of the two following brief sequences taken from Last Crusade is inverted; first we get a glimpse of the famous sunset prior to the final credits, in which Jones Jr. has to hold Jones Sr. (Sean Connery) up on his horse, in a classic gesture between alcoholics; and then we see the hand of Indiana anxiously looking for a glass. Is alcohol the real evil, and not the Nazis? Is that why the character of Marion Ravenwood is showing up in the new installment of the series? Because she was the one that could drink endlessly in Raiders? Are we going to be shown the consequences of heavy drinking? Is the ‘crystal skull’ of the title a metaphor for sick liver?
Then, as a conclusion and comment on what’s to come, we are simply told that “On May 22nd… The adventure continue.” What? After so many years, you introduce the man in the hat with a mere “The adventure continues?” Just that, something that could have been either said of The Bourne Ultimatum or The Da Vinci Code? Are you crazy, Spielberg? Was it David Koepp’s (the final script’s author) idea? We want to know…
There are simply too many questions.
And really, the new stuff, the first official images of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, won’t answer any. On the contrary, they will produce more.
The new material starts with something we have never seen in an Indiana Jones movie, and it’s the image of an USA flag. Is it some kind of reaction to the recent return of Rambo, as in this turbulent times, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were trying to say ‘Hey, Sylvester, Indiana Jones IS the one and only national American hero’?
We also see a desert and a caravan of military vehicles, but it instantly dissolves to a scene that I already dare to consider anthological, one that is right now part of the mythical imaginarium of the series: In an aerial shot, we’re shown a car, surrounded by soldiers, and a hat –the kind of hat we know so well– lying on the floor; after being extracted from the boot of the car, only the booted feet of Indiana Jones are really visible to us, just before his hand clutches the aforementioned hat and before we see the shadow of the man putting it on his head (and the number 1B7731 painted over the U.S Army Ford car behind him; you, deciphers! get to work!).
And then, the first funny line (it seems that, between action and humor, Lucas & Spielberg have finally opted to make fun of Indiana): Ray Winstone’s character says “This ain’t gonna be easy” and Indiana Jones replies “Not as easy as it used to be”. It is not a joke per se, it’s more like the first example of the self deprecatory Indiana Jones that we will surely see, as Lucas had promised: confirmed, the issue of Harrison Ford/Indiana Jones’ age is included in the plot.
The next scene strengthens this theory, as Jones, taking hold of his whip, swings on the air… but fails to land on the jeep that Cate Blanchett’s character drives, in what happens to be the warehouse taken from the last scene in Raiders –the one in which the actual relics are kept hidden, presumably forever– and crashes instead into the following vehicle, in a slapstick solution that Ford sanctions with the line “I thought that it was much closer”.
So Frank Marshall said the truth as well: this movie will have a similar tone to the Last Crusade, where humor reigned. There’s one more sketch, and it closes the show, for now. In the middle of a stormy night, while in an ancient Maya or Aztecan temple, Shia Labouf simply asks “You’re a teacher?”, and Jones seriously replies, “Part time”, in a concise dialogue-driven joke in the same vein of the many we saw between Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in Last Crusade.
All in all, the trailer reveals three different locations or/and parts of the movie. It is clear that there will be something going on in some south American jungle and ancient temple; and that the Russians will get into the famous warehouse (or maybe is just another warehouse, as I don’t recall the one in Raiders having highways in between the piles of boxes), and there’s obviously Roswell, New Mexico, as we can read on some metallic surface to which some glasses (Dr. Jones’?) get mysteriously attracted due to some magnetic force.
And, of the three locations, only one is where the opening sequence (the equivalent to the temple ransacking in Raiders, the club scene and subsequent escape in Temple of Doom, and the Cross of Coronado chase with a young Indiana Jones in Last Crusade) takes place; it can’t be the warehouse, as that would imply that the Russians, led by Cate Blanchett, would appear in both the prologue and the central storyline of the movie; it can’t be the jungle either, for the same reason (there are scenes with Cate Blanchett, along with the rest of the characters); so it should be that part that takes place in Roswell, where Jones is accurately presented, in the way described before. But who knows, maybe the script is really full of surprises and unexpected twists; after all, Lucas has had plenty of time to come up with something truly remarkable…
Either way, and apart from having an introduction like the previous films, the trailer gives clues about some other kind of homages or similarities that may be central to the heart of a storyline that, for a start, includes previous characters like Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen). And these clues are, for example, the moment when Jones tries to push Cate Blanchett’s car out of the road (as he successfully does with a Nazi sidecar in the truck sequence from Raiders) or the brief moment where we see, from a subjective point of view, how some kind of debris is quickly approaching Harrison Ford, Karen Allen and Shia Labouf’s car, a similar peril to that in Last Crusade when one of the Nazi bikers manages to perch the front wheel of his vehicle upon the Joneses’ sidecar. And there is, again, a fight between Jones and some super villain, a part that Pat Roach (Chief guard in Temple of Doom and 1st mechanic in Raiders) would have surely played if he was still alive. And of course, there is a temple, there is a bunch of menacing natives and many reasons to run. And there is also a generous ration of tricky ancient mechanisms, like there’s always been in the series.
And all the way through the end of the trailer, we don’t get to hear a single new note by John Williams, but that’s right, as this moment, the first images of a moving Dr. Jones in almost 18 years, deserve no other musical accompaniment that his trademark fanfare. Yes, there’s some music we had never heard while we see the sequences from the previous movies, Indy’s past feats. But it can’t be John Williams’; it’s too vulgar, unspecific and out of place, it doesn’t belong to the saga, has nothing to do with its flavor.
And we neither get to see John Hurt -the rumored face of Abner Ravenwood, father of Marion–, I think… Wait, have I missed something? Let me see the trailer again… Ah, yes; there he is: hidden in one of the passengers’ seats of the boat that Indiana Jones rides on the edge of the jungle. By the way, there is something in the visual perfection of that aerial shot that makes me suspect of some digital effectification; maybe Spielberg and Lucas have not really stayed true to his promise of not using them? The truth is that the last thing we see, before the trailer ends, is the actual Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull logo. And it really seems more like a 3D Studio model than an old style drawing…
PS: I have already seen the trailer seven times today. Still 97 days to D-day and counting…
Real life is not always compatible with ‘reel’ life. What this means is, not every true story can turn into a true work of cinematic art. For every pedestrian effort “based on…” someone or something that actually existed/exists, we get the rare gemstone that radiates beyond its ‘to tell the truth’ trappings. When it was announced that Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe would star in a film about the heroin trade in ‘70s Harlem, American Gangster became a potential instant classic just waiting for box office canonization. Of course, few knew the project’s already jaded history and near disintegration. Yet when the movie finally hit theaters last Fall, the precarious beginnings yielded a solid mainstream hit. For all its glitz and glamour however, Gangster has so far failed to become legend. As part of the new three DVD deluxe edition released by Universal, we begin to gain some perspective on how this potential epic missed the mark.
For those unfamiliar with the basic storyline, here is the breakdown. Frank Lucas, a low level hood from the Carolinas, was at one time the chief henchman for longtime NYC kingpin Bumpy Johnson. After the don’s untimely death, the apprentice vowed to create the same kind of classy, corporate like Drug Empire as his mentor. Realizing that buying directly from the source can cut down on the middle man, and increase the product’s (heroin) purity, he travels to Bangkok to meet up with an old military friend. They strike a deal with the locals, and soon, kilos of high grade opiate are making their way in the metal coffins of fallen Vietnam vets.
It’s not long before Lucas owns the streets, and he brings his entire family up from the South to help him out. He even has the mafia buying their Blue Magic from his organization. When his cop buddy gets involved in graft and dope, honest officer Ritchie Roberts decides to bring down whoever is pushing. Of course he must cut through massive corruption among his fellow policeman, a lack of real leads, and Lucas’ expertly planned process. All it takes is a tip, and a trail to follow, and both sides of the law are destined to butt heads.
Sounds solid, right? It feeds the audience’s inherent love of crime and violence. And you’ve got Washington and Crowe near the top of their game as marquee matinee idols. So what went wrong? Why isn’t American Gangster the post-millennial Scarface, or a direct urban Godfather? For the most part, the fault lies squarely with director Ridley Scott. Not satisfied to pare the narrative down to its essential elements, what should be a tight little thriller becomes one of the most bloated individual character studies ever. Lucas has several siblings and they each get their moment in the escalating running time. As the leads, Lucas and Roberts get their own elaborated (and belabored) backstorys. Very little of the actual mechanics of the drug racket is revealed and the subtext is very light on understandable ethics. We never once see characters contrite or repentant for their acts, and attention getting monologues replace scruples as the main social statement.
As a result, Gangster goes wonky in ways that even an extended director’s cut can’t fix. If anything, the main body of the Lucas/Roberts relationship should have been boiled down to the police procedural, leaving much of the superfluous personal ‘flavor’ out of the mix. We don’t care about our drug lord’s kin (they are cardboard cutouts of clichéd types) and Roberts’ parenting issues are never interesting. Yet somehow, Scott thinks this makes his leads more endearing and easy to identify with. Instead of humanizing them, however, such sidetracks deter from what we are really most concerned about. What ultimately saves the experience, turning it into a memorable entertainment, is the high level of craftsmanship. It’s almost as if the filmmakers knew that by delivering quality technical and production merits, the interpersonal issues could be overcome.
Ridley Scott almost confesses to as much during the DVD’s audio commentary. While he is defensive and quite defiant at times, he (along with a separately recorded screenwriter Steve Zaillian) spends a great deal of time praising the individuals behind the look and feel of the film. Scott is typically a technical narrator, offering perspective on how artisans recreate the look and feel of different eras. He’s also a stickler for the foundational aspects of the film medium. So one has to read in between the kudos to get to the meat - and during the course of the discussion, we hear a few faint mea culpas. They’re not obvious, but they hint at a director realizing he may have taken the wrong track now and again.
Of course, the one element here that tends to get lost in the glare of critical evaluation is why American Gangster got made in the first place. Without Scott, and his continuing connection to accidental A-lister Russell Crowe, this was a dead project. As Fallen Empire, the detailed and dense documentary on the film (included here as part of the extras) points out, the film was in the perpetual Hell of Hollywood’s development pipeline for years. Everyone from Don Cheadle to Benecio Del Toro was considered for the roles of Lucas and Roberts, respectively. Directors such as Terry George and, most famously, Antoine Fuqua, wanted to make this movie, but Universal continuously balked over budgetary concerns. Some have even suggested that Fuqua was the unfair recipient of some industry payback when his Training Day karma failed to carry over commercially to his decidedly odd take on King Arthur. That he was an African American filmmaker being replaced by a white Anglo Saxon added more fuel to the fire.
Indeed, one of the things DVD does best is provide creative and corporate context to the cinematic artform, and there’s no denying the power inherent in the American Gangster material. The chance to see Lucas and Roberts in person, discussing the era and their part within it, more than makes up for the lack of supporting evidence that everything in the film is 100% true - not that Scott and Zaillian don’t strive to convince us of the claim. Much of the aforementioned commentary track is taken up with point by point breakdowns on factual accuracies and fictional liberties, and yet very little mention is made of one Leroy “Nicky” Barnes. For those unfamiliar with the man, look up the nickname ‘Mr. Untouchable’ and you’re destined to find the New York Times Magazine cover story which crowned the drug lord with said moniker. Barnes claims that he was the real heroin king of Harlem (why anyone would want to argue over such a stature seems surreal) and a daring documentary released before Gangster seems to undermine much of what this dramatization has to offer.
Indeed, a main flaw in American Gangster is the underlying belief that we are getting a decidedly myopic and whitewashed view of this story. Lucas is referred to as “an illiterate Southern rube” by Barnes, and while such a putdown seems appropriate, considering their supposed street dealing rivalry, it makes the clean cut cosmopolitan version offered by Washington seem shallow at best, fake at the very worst. Gangster does pay the man lip service, offering Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. as a clownish version of Barnes, but this doesn’t deflate the opposing positions. On the one hand, Scott and company argue that Lucas leapt into upper Manhattan, took the place of his mentor Bumpy Johnson, and single handedly rooted out the mafia in his African American neighborhood. Yet Marc Levin’s fact-based film of Barnes argues nearly the same exact thing - which goes to the very heart of the narrative.
In fact, one imagines that another way to make the film better was to simply remove the awkwardly righteous Roberts and stick with a Lucas vs. Barnes territorial showdown. While Crowe is fine in the role (though hardly believable as an American street cop), there is a hint of racial inequality in the personality he is given. Roberts is viewed as noble but flawed, married to the law as his personal life falls apart. He turns down bribes, refuses to keep thousands in unlaundered drug money, and basically makes his fellow officers uncomfortable with his ‘by the book’ bravado. He might make an intriguing yin to Lucas’ urbane yang, but the role is like subterfuge, undermining all the dramatic weight this story could hold. Toss in the fact that no one ever really pays for, or even addresses, the death of innocents at the hand of unrefined heroin, the destruction of Harlem, and the lingering poison that continues to possess the region some three decades later, and American Gangster becomes less than a classic.
Still, it’s hard to deny the inherent power in a group of well trained professionals doing some of their best work. Though it lacks the qualities that make something mythic (and the announced 18 minutes of added footage in the ‘director’s cut’ does little to change that), the film remains a genuine journeyman joust. There are times when Scott seems the perfect director for the material. He has always been proficient in producing period specific spectacle, be it ancient Roman (Gladiator) or completely imaginary (Legend, Blade Runner). He also has a wonderful way with actors, using his background in advertising to consistently put their best face forward. There are also moments when the Englishman is clearly out of his league. The various party scenes play like a white dude’s misinterpretation of Soul Train, and we never get a real feel of the Harlem community pre or post Lucas’ lamentable influence. It all stays the same - slightly sepia toned and CGI tweaked.
No one knows the real story about what happened to New York City’s black population during the late ‘60s through early ‘80s except the people themselves and the participants in their racket. Roberts may have indeed been a saint in slightly baggy street clothes, Lucas an amenable snake in the ghetto grass. And Barnes may have been both clown and competitor. But when one steps back out of the limelight glare given off by American Gangster, when they whittle away the superfluous moments of movie iconography and staged seriousness, it’s clear that, somewhere amidst the pomp and circumstance, someone is lying. What happened in real life just didn’t make it over into “reel” life. Perhaps if all the facts were presented, unfiltered and unadorned, we’d get a better handle on the truth. But as this otherwise stellar DVD of American Gangster suggests, accuracy is a lot like opinion - everyone has their own version.