Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Thom Yorke covers Neil Young

One of my favorite bands covers one of my favorite solo artists.

See the great clip below.

Radiohead :: "Tell Me Why" (neil young cover) from gorilla vs. bear on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Woody's on-set journal

Last week, the New York Times published snippets from Woody Allen's fake on-set journal for his new film Vicky Christina Barcelona.

It's probably the funniest thing Woody's written this decade.

For me, Allen's comic style is all about absurdism and nihilism. Lately, it's mostly been the latter. Read any new Woody interview, and you'll hardly believe such self-deprecation and cynicism comes from the same man who once acted like this in front of cameras:

In his New York Times piece, Allen is on fire, echoing his Side Effects glory days. The punch lines, as before, are total left-fielders, each with their own strange sense of logic. Mostly, it's nice to see Woody have the confidence to put himself on the line again, like he used to as a stand-up comic. Instead of mumbling about lost opportunities and his own inadequacies, he's actually making an effort to entertain.

Here are some of my favorite bits:

"Barcelona is a marvelous city. Crowds turn out in the streets to watch us work. Mercifully they realize I’ve no time to give autographs, and so they ask only the cast members. Later I handed out some 8-by-10 photos of myself shaking hands with Spiro Agnew and offered to sign them, but by then the crowd had dispersed."

"Filmed at La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s masterpiece. Was thinking I have much in common with the great Spanish architect. We both defy convention, he with his breathtaking designs and me by wearing a lobster bib in the shower."

"Once again I had to help Javier with the lovemaking scenes. The sequence requires him to grab Penélope Cruz, tear off her clothes and ravish her in the bedroom. Oscar winner that he is, the man still needs me to show him how to play passion. I grabbed Penélope and with one motion tore her clothes off. As fate would have it she had not yet changed into costume, so it was her own expensive dress I mutilated. Undaunted I flung her down before the fireplace and dove on top of her. Minx that she is, she rolled away a split second before I landed causing me to fracture certain key teeth on the tile floor. Fine day’s work, and I should be able to eat solids by August."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ben Stiller: Actually funny?

Ben Stiller is a pretty easy target. Nauseatingly over-exposed with a limited range to boot, Stiller has pounded the same two drums for well over a decade. When he's not stumbling into embarrassing situations, à la Ross from "Friends," he's going bat-shit over-the-top, doing just about anything for a reaction (Heavy Weights, Happy Gilmore, Dodgeball, etc.).

Quantity, not quality, is Stiller's game. His resume boasts titles like Along Came Polly, Night at the Museum, Madagascar, and Starsky & Hutch -- in other words, Stiller's reworked Woody Allen's neurotic Jew for broad, Blockbuster-ready comedies.

Buried under the mediocrity, however, Stiller is actually a smart, talented comedian. A comedian, though, with one pressing flaw: He can't seem to say no. Like his buddy Owen Wilson, Stiller dilutes any effect his stronger projects may have with the likes of Duplex and Meet the Fockers.

Here's my point: Strip away the nonsense and look only at Stiller's output as a writer/director. Without films like The Heartbreak Kid muddying the waters, Stiller's real talent pops into focus. Suddenly he's not Ross from "Friends;" he's an idiosyncratic comedian whose films and TV shows are often too weird for mainstream audiences.

As director, Stiller has made just six major projects:

Tropic Thunder
"Heat Vision and Jack"
The Cable Guy
Reality Bites
"The Ben Stiller Show"

When you distill his filmography of all the garbage, you're left with a canceled-turned-cult-classic sketch comedy show, a Gen-X dramedy, a boldly off-putting dark comedy, an un-aired TV pilot featuring Owen Wilson as a talking motorcycle, a pun-laden and intentionally stupid satire of the fashion industry, and, his latest, a vulgar Hollywood satire that's already managed to piss off a number of special interest groups.

There isn't a single dud in the bunch (I haven't seen Reality Bites, however). "The Ben Stiller Show," which I am familiar with only via YouTube, featured a pool of talented up-and-comers like Judd Apatow and Bob Odenkirk. The show was entirely too strange to sustain an audience, which led Fox to ax it after 12 episodes.

A similar thread runs through much of Stiller's directorial output. At a time when everything Jim Carrey touched turned to gold (in the monetary, box-office sense), The Cable Guy revolted audiences and most critics with its discomforting humor and generally unpleasant tone. Stiller's penchant for the bizarre is on full display, best exemplified by a recurring non sequitur involving the Menendez brothers (Stiller plays both roles).

Most people enjoy Zoolander, but most write it off as some variation of "funny but dumb." As if the film's punishing idiocy isn't intentional. Released in 2001, Zoolander foresaw just how dumb we were becoming as a society, with dialogue featuring now-everywhere turns of phrase like "for serious" and "bra." I'd compare the film to a clever pun: Some chuckle against their will, some groan at the stupidity, and a handful think it's the funniest shit they've ever heard. I tend to fall in that last camp. Perhaps this comes down to a matter of taste, but it seems silly to me that the same people who take the high-brow road on lines like "Are you challenging me to a walk-off... Boo-lander?" find Stiller's mainstream, uninspired comedies so entertaining.

The same arguments go for "Heat Vision and Jack" and Tropic Thunder, two self-aware comedies as clever as they are absurd. Both are fun riffs on existing genres, and both could superficially be described as "stupid." But, as I've tried to argue, Stiller's no idiot. "Heat Vision" is an undebatable cult classic, while Tropic Thunder goes far enough with its satire to actually offend people. Like a good Colbert monologue, the movie apes the offensive, pushes farther than toothless satire, and dares you to fall for its trick.

As for "Heat Vision," it's almost best to go into it blind. It's even campier than Zoolander, thus even more open for simple take-downs like "dumb" or "cheesy." But, like all of Stiller's work that's worth watching, the incessant silliness makes it hard not to give in. The individual moments, when viewed in isolation, often seem stupid and needlessly strange. But Ben Stiller's talent lies in his ability to take 100 moments of lowbrow humor and assemble them into an inventive, intelligent whole. Zoolander is filled with 100s of dumb jokes, sure, but I'd never call it a dumb film.

For someone who leads a cinematic movement called the "Frat Pack," Stiller is a surprisingly gifted comic. Here's hoping it doesn't take him seven years to direct another movie.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The loss of Manny Farber

With four whole months left to go, 2008 is shaping up to be a particularly devastating year for celebrity deaths.

I'm sure you've heard of the more high-profile public figures who've passed away recently, but here is one for the film nerd circuit: Manny Farber.

You can learn a great deal about his work here and here.

Around this time last year we lost Bergman and Antonioni, two giants of art cinema. Now, we've lost the giant of film criticism.

And just in time for those late-summer blues, no less.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

How much "trash" is trash?

I edited a short video last November on the University of Iowa's waste characterization sorting project, a student-led venture to learn how much of the university's "trash" is actually recyclable.

Their answer: nearly half. That's a lot.

You can watch the five-minute video below.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Anatomy of a dinner table scene

I'd like to dedicate this post to my favorite cinematic setting:

From 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to Talladega Nights, the last few years have given us a number of show-stopping sequences set in the nuclear family's most familiar setting: the dinner table.

For a visual stylist, a dinner table is one of the most boring cinematic environments imaginable. Barring some table-flipping theatrics, most dinner table scenes consist of people sitting around eating and talking. Like the dinners you probably have with your family, nothing really happens. Maybe a raised voice or a dismissive look, but nothing in the way of high drama. If you seek escapism from the cinema, you'll probably be disappointed by a film that relies on the dinner table to propel its narrative. It's just too familiar, too routine.

The dinner table scene, I'd argue, is defined by stasis and longing. In a few of the sequences I discuss below, the dinner table forces two or more conflicting individuals to sit in the same room with one another. And they're stuck. The formal dinner is a convention, a social obligation that embodies their domestic shackles. They must sit and partake, though they long to be elsewhere, often anywhere else. They sit put, confronting what they wish to avoid, and it's this forced compliance that creates the tension and humor within the best dinner table scenes.

No film better displays my thesis than 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

Take a minute and really look at that image. Even if you're not familiar with the film, I bet you can spot our protagonist. And, moreover, I bet you have a pretty good sense of the character's motivations and desires. She's placed smack in the middle of the frame, encircled by an animated group of husbands and wives.

To do the scene and the film justice, I need a brief plot synopsis: Otilia (the girl above) helps her friend Gabita get an illegal abortion in 1980s Romania. During the arduous process, Otilia must leave and attend dinner with her boyfriend and his family.

That brings us to the scene above -- a brutal long take of Otilia sitting and waiting until she can race back to Gabita. In this sequence -- like comparable scenes in other films -- the dinner setting becomes a signifier of domestic life and adulthood. The urge to escape signifies youth, rebellion, anger. In a shot lasting upwards of five minutes, Otilia (and the viewer) must listen to the spirited, asinine banter of her elders. They seem happy, but Otilia knows she could never be happy as one of them. She sits only out of obligation; she "makes an appearance" to appease her boyfriend, all while Gibita (a young woman forced by her government's laws to meet a sleazy, back-alley abortionist) suffers alone in a motel room across town. You can see it all in her face.

In this dramatic example, the dinner table is nothing short of a hellhole. It represents patriarchy and submissiveness to a male significant other, the complacent ways of elders, an obstacle toward one's true desires. It's also horrifyingly evocative, using off-screen sound to reaffirm Otilia's inability to move anywhere outside of the current frame. Gabita's pregnancy carries with it notions of adulthood and domesticity, which terrify Otilia, and make five stagnant minutes with married couples and her boyfriend a taxing, nightmarish experience.

This scene in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is the most effective dinner table sequence I can recall because it does so much with so little. From my personal experience, bad family dinners are all about concealed emotions, forced formality, and placing social obligation over desire. They also have the power to make a half-hour feel like a midnight screening of Gods and Generals. The above scene captures all of these emotions; it's 2007 most memorable cinematic moment.

Storytelling, Todd Solondz's film from 2001, uses the dinner table construct in a similar way:

This film, in a much more obvious manner, uses the dinner table to connote upper-middle class yuppiedom.

As shown in the trailer, Solondz's dinner table is a narrative device to create conflict. As a writer, he forces characters with differing worldviews to interact within close proximity of one another. It's like a warped version of "Big Brother," but it's also undeniably exciting. He brings them together using dinner, the family event that hangs the day together. Scooby cannot leave dinner (nor can he leave the family he despises) until he provokes his father to throw him out after a series of smart-alecky quips concerning Hitler. That, certainly, is not conversation suitable for the dinner table.

In the still image above -- a family of five waiting for the black sheep of the family to come to dinner -- Solondz's high-angle shot and circular blocking give the family a cult-like presence. It's all pretty heavy handed, but the scene still works as a textbook example of how dinner table sequences establish conflict: They create a societal norm (often the family institution), insert an outsider, and use the awkward closeness of the figures to strike tension.

David O. Russell's I Heart Huckabees offers a spectacular example of this construction at work:

In the scene above, two activist liberals somehow find themselves having dinner with a caricature of the American Christian family. The director's use of Altman-like overlapping dialogue makes this one of the funniest dinner table sequences I can recall. Note how baby-faced Jonah Hill and his sister incessantly talk over one another in the first minute, setting a stage of slight discomfort for the shouting match that comes later.

Russell is mainly out to mock suburban America, which isn't a particularly new or intriguing goal, but his attention to detail elevates the scene above broad-stroke parody. Besides the vitriol, I enjoy the mother's tired eyes and drab wardrobe, both of which suggest a long day for a stay-at-home mom; I enjoy the tacky "PASTA" bowl that screams Target or lower; I enjoy lines like "There'll be no Internet tonight" and Jonah Hill's cell-phone game taunts, both of which use contemporary technology as a way of placing the family in the here-and-now and hinting at communication technology's takeover of the suburban family dynamic.

It's a mean-spirited scene brimming with cultural stereotypes, some of them more insightful than others. But, as with other films discussed here, it's the standout scene in the movie because it generates conflict and comedy by plopping volatile individuals in the same room, daring them to follow the social conventions of the dinner table when they'd much rather throw a punch.

American Beauty, another film situated in the suburbs, takes the classic dinner table tropes and ramps them up to 11:

It's all there, just with more shouting. Annette Benning's character is a clear caricature of prim-and-proper suburban formality, while Kevin Spacey plays the outsider role who regresses to a state of teenage anger. The scene is over-the-top, clearly, but it works because of Thora Birch's awkward presence. I get the sense that Spacey and Benning really want to argue, but they also REALLY want to argue their case to a third party. Pay close attention to the first five seconds, in which no words are spoken, but a sense of hostility comes across in the actors' sharp gesturing. They don't want to get into it just yet. One can imagine they've argued on and off for hours, shouting their cases to the point of futility. Now they want someone to act as jury and judge: their teenage daughter. This is why Spacey commands her to sit down with such violent authority. Without her, there are no witnesses, no one for whom to play the victim.

Viewed this way, Benning and Spacey's overacting makes sense -- both characters are straining themselves to convince Birch that the other one is to blame for the family's gradual dysfunction. It's the sort of perverse dynamic that sounds entirely plausible for a family dinner.

For a final example, I turn to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Skip to the 19-second mark for a snippet of a subtler, more refined approach to the dinner table scene.

The sequence, as you could tell, belongs to Casey Affleck. A more flamboyant actor (i.e. Spacey) would have killed the mounting tension, probably by raising his voice after each listed similarity. Affleck's faux-casual shrugs, raspy voice, and neurotic smiling all suggest that he's thought about these things a lot and wants to avoid showing it.

For me, the dinner table setting heightens Affleck's every word. There is a total sense of domestic silence, which makes his creepy parallels land with a thud. And, more significantly, Pitt's presence at family dinner gives the scene a brotherly undercurrent.

Affleck seems to have mixed feelings about speaking with Pitt -- while he idolizes him, he's also afraid of meeting the man he's worshiped since childhood. Perhaps he doesn't want to shatter the mythical illusion he has of Jesse James by meeting the real person (five minutes with a belligerent Bob Dylan would probably have a similar effect on me). The mandatory family dinner, thus, is the perfect setting: Affleck can recoil into imagination in his bedroom, but he can't escape what's facing him at the table. So he sits mousily, longing to leave before his brothers embarrass him. Once he starts talking, though, the warm, familial setting loosens his lips.

I'm sure I missed many of the all-time great dinner table scenes. These were just a few from this decade that've stuck with me in particular. I'll leave you with another classic in the field:

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Price of Water in the 21st Century

A few months back, I posted a documentary short on the 2004 tsunami and its devastating aftermath in Sri Lanka. I edited the video -- about which you can learn all you ever wanted to know here -- for my job at CGRER.

The docu-short sprung from a story I wrote for the University of Iowa's International Accents magazine on water privatization, the topic of this book I am currently reading.

Well, after a few delays, the piece is finally available online and in hard-copy form around Iowa. You can read it here.

You can also learn more about water privatization, from an admittedly partisan source, here.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Jeannie Moos strikes again

CNN correspondent Jeannie Moos specializes in the shockingly inane.

Here she is with her latest opus, a piece on the "Montauk Monster."

Note Moos' Austin Powers jokes, Leno-style man-on-the-street antics, distinctly grating voice, and shameless ability to lunge on camera as much as possible. Such are the trusty tools in Moos' journalistic toolkit.

There may be a time and place for fluff-mongers, but CNN during an election year isn't it. It'd be one thing if she were funny. Even then, there's no justification for CNN wasting its resources on segments in which a woman walks around "the concrete beaches of Manhattan" with a beach ball and pail, showing random people a picture of some gross thing found over 100 miles away.