29 October 2007

Funny Ha Ha

Next time someone complains about about a movie not being realistic, tell them to rent Funny Ha Ha. It's realistic. It's too realistic. It's the perfect wedding of form and content. It's a painfully awkward and apathetic movie about painfully awkward and apathetic people.

The main character, Marnie, is an aimless and vaguely depressed 23 year old who has graduated college and is, in her own words, 'just kind of drifting along'. Marnie is a stunning representative of what is known as Generation Q, the legion of hyper-conscious yet largely apathetic youth (though the youth in the linked article, at least, have high paying jobs...). It's not that she doesn't _want_ to do something more meaningful, it's that she can't seem to figure out how. There's a great scene where she makes a To Do list for herself, with entries like "go to the museum", and "learn chess". She obediently sets out to do these things, and seems to kind of realize how completely stupid and pointless they are. It's kind of devastating to watch her and her friends move through the world, completely unable to grow up and do something worthwhile with themselves. They are desperately trying to figure out how to be grown-ups, and for the most part, they're failing. So they kind of flail around, getting married, cooking dinners together, going through the motions, but that's the thing - it's all posturing. This is brilliantly paralleled by their largely vapid conversations, many of which are stuck in some kind of fantasy realm, or are ridiculously meta. For instance, another great scene, when a terrifically dweeby guy is trying to hit on Marnie, and goes with "So hypothetically, if I were to ask you out on a date, what would you say?" and they actually discuss this for awhile, then he says, ok, wait, so not hypothetically, I mean, I know we're just having dinner as friends right now, but would you like to go out on a date sometime? Jesus, it's so painful to watch. Because the thing is, these kids mean well, they really do. They're just dumb kids. The tragedy of it, though, is that they're not kids anymore, and it's actually kind of difficult to figure out what in the hell they could do with themselves.

Kind of brilliant, and fascinating to watch in a train wreck sort of way. Not at all compelling or entertaining, just, well, sadly accurate. It's so well done that I honestly can't tell whether the people who made it are just like the characters, or whether they just managed to somehow brilliantly portray them. I mean, obviously the guy who made the movie is skilled, it's well done, but it's just not much fun to watch. Nothing really happens. There is no redemption here, and I wonder if that's because the guy thinks that there really isn't any, or just thinks that his characters are incapable of seeing any? It's the same problem I was confronted with in my review of Clerks 2, actually. Basically, it's a movie that is a totally realistic portrayal of a certain sub-group. As such, it is hard to say whether or not it is ironic - whether the person making the movie actually endorses this worldview or is depicting it in order to say something about it. Is there some kind of critique of these people buried in the film or no? An interesting example of this in literature, incidentally, is a Polish novel by Waclaw Berent called Prochno - I believe the English translation is called Deadwood?).

The one odd thing about this movie is that it is set in the past - Marnie has a landline and an answering machine, and even uses a pay phone at one point, although at least one other character has a cell phone. This is kind of odd, because the characters seem so very contemporary. I guess this suggests that it isn't, in fact, cell phones, MySpace and the blogosphere that are to blame for the predicament of today's young adults, eh?

Anyhow, so once again, interesting to watch, but not exactly entertaining...

27 October 2007

Save the Green Planet!

This is one of the best movies I have seen in a very long time. It is absolutely incredible. Before you run out and rent it, however, be forewarned: it's not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. It's quite brutal and incredibly gory. In this, actually, it certainly occasions reflections on violence in movies and whether people like me have been desensitized to horror, because the violence is extremely aestheticized, and is actually stunningly beautiful in a really disturbing way.

I don't want to say too much about the plot because actually, the way it unfolds is one of the best things about the movie. One should enter into the film, I think, knowing as much as I did: that there's a guy who is convinced that aliens are about to destroy the planet, and in an attempt to thwart them, he kidnaps a man whom he believes to be their leader. Part of what drew me to the film in the first place, incidentally, is my fascination with horror movies where the monster looks just like a normal person. Zizek got me fascinated with this idea, that the ultimate horror is not the creepy green creature, but rather the evil that is nearly indistinguishable from the everyday. This movie handles the theme beautifully, weaving the theme of insanity into the film with incredible grace.

It's hard to explain what makes this movie so amazing - it's something about the way it uses cinema as a narrative mode. Plenty of movies look pretty, but what this film manages to do is use the actual image to produce meaning in the way akin to an incredible painting. It's really quite mindblowing. There's a bit towards the end that is especially amazing, throwing in visual references to other films and some documentary footage - it's one of the most incredible reflections on cinema as an art form that I've ever seen, and raises these really interesting issues about the relationship between film and reality. God, it really is an incredible movie. This is exactly what an amazing artwork does, I think - it shows you things in a completely unique way, producing meanings that cannot be articulated in any other mode. In other words, I cannot tell you in words what this film tells me via film, because the things it expresses cannot be fully translated into words.

In sum, wow. Absolutely amazing.

21 October 2007

Genesis, translated by Robert Alter

Oh blog, I have been neglecting you. I will strive to be better. Which means that the quality of entries may well slide, because instead of writing a bit and deciding it's not worth posting, I'm gonna go ahead and throw it up anyhow. You've been warned.

So Robert Alter has done an absolutely incredible job translating Genesis. And writing a marvelous introduction to it. I suppose it's somewhat self-serving -translator's introductions tend to be a long explanation of why one's own work is so much better than anyone else's, but anyhow, he certainly makes a convincing argument. The really incredible thing about this edition though, is the army of footnotes that directs your attention to wordplay that may have gotten lost in translation, offers some insights derived from critical work on the text, points out repetitions in the text - they're fantastic.

So as you probably recall, Genesis describes the creation of the world and then the early exploits of people living on it. It's essentially a collection of stories, linked geneologically. What really struck me, reading it this time, is that the majority of the drama of the text comes from sexual politics. Who is sleeping with who, who is fertile - this motivates most of the action. And you realize, you know, in the early days of civilization, this probably was a pretty big deal. In other words, regulating sexual politics is probably one of the big steps of founding a civilization. Also, upon this reading, with a little nudge from Alter, I started wondering how many of these plagues and spells of infertility were references to epidemics of stds...

Another things that's kind of wild is how totally different many of these texts are from their more popular, widespread versions. Onanism, for instance, commonly refers to masturbation, but the story is actually about pulling out. And the _reason_ that Onan pulls out is because he has been instructed to impregnate his dead brother's wife, and he doesn't want his children to be raised as someone else's. Which seems pretty reasonable to me, honestly. But The Lord disagrees, probably because The Lord is a real stickler for obedience. Likewise, the Tower of Babel - it's commonly conceived of as men trying to build a tower to reach heaven, and God punishing their ambition. But actually, they're just trying to build a tower as tall as heaven, because they want a monument to themselves - and that's what pisses God off (or so one could argue) - their pride in themselves, not their ambition.

Whenever I read texts like this, that have had a major impact on people, I'm always kind of surprised at how they've managed to leave such a massive legacy. Genesis especially, is an incredibly fascinating work, but how it ended up being such a cornerstone of civilization is sort of beyond me.

09 October 2007

3:10 to Yuma

I hated this movie for the first 20 minutes of it. Then slowly, slowly, I began to warm up to it, and then, about 40 minutes in, suddenly I loved it, and remained riveted to the grueling dramatic finale.

As with most Westerns, the most likeable and interesting character is the villain, here played by a genially badass Russell Crowe whose intellectual, sensitive side is repeatedly emphasized by lengthy quotations from the Bible and sketches of nature that he leaves on bushes like little calling cards of the ephemeral. Of course we are treated to the mind-numbingly dull hero, played by a typically angsty Christian Bale, trying to claim that Crowe, too, has goodness in him and the attendant reflections on whether good people can do bad things, but in this case, it's actually somewhat interesting, in that what makes Russell Crowe good is his ability to respect and recognize good (which basically boils down to integrity) in others. And by golly, we like him for his vigilante streak, which allows him to righteously slay the more irritating "good" guys who are in fact clearly scumbags.

The most annoying feature of this movie is its anachronisms. Goddamnit, couples just didn't discuss their relationships and mutual decision-making processes in the aftermath of the Civil War. No they did not. When Gretchen Mol was bitching about Christian Bale not consulting her opinion, I mentally added, "Gawd, life is so hard being a character in the Old West theme park! Ugh!" But there's something kind of charming about it too, perhaps, in that its the attempt to revitalize an old genre for new times?

One particularly amusing feature of the film, for me, was the way in which all of the action was immediately parsed and narrated. Russell Crowe blows away a few guys in rapid succession, and a minor character helpfully notes, "He's fast", thus making it perfectly clear for anyone who wasn't paying enough attention that this scene was meant to introduce them to a specific character trait. "Are y'all in a posse?" BAM BAM BAM. "I don't like posses." Check. All clear.

As my friend Ruchama pointed out, the plot is seriously flawed, because sure, Russell Crowe could have escaped whenever in the hell he wanted. BUT THEN THERE WOULD BE NO MOVIE. SO SHUT UP ALREADY.

Also amusing is the heavy dosage of homo-eroticism, common to Westerns but here so delightfully blatant that at time you find yourself thinking "God, just fuck already."

As a final note, Ben Foster, who plays the second fiddle villain, has one of the most fascinating faces I have ever seen. It's phenomenally vacant and expressionless and yet seething with emotion. It's amazing.

Anyhow, all in all, it's a kick in the pants. Worth seeing.