26 February 2011

My Dog Tulip

I meant to write about this when I saw it, but I guess I didn't. Huh. I went to see it somewhat randomly at my campus theatre, knowing nothing about it in advance. I was surprised to discover upon arrival that it is an animated film - very nicely done, incidental, a kind of wavering, colored-in ink drawing look. I was less surprised to discover that it's a movie about a man and his dog. So I settled in expecting a perhaps vaguely bland albeit pleasant exploration of the relationship between man and canine, and that's basically what you get, but with some surprises.

The movie is based on J.R. Ackerley's memoir by the same name. So the film is essentially an animated monologue (with Christopher Plummer providing the voice) by Ackerley about his life with Tulip. What makes this interesting is that Ackerley is a pretty strange guy. I mean, the dry wit and vaguely vicious contempt towards the world, you sort of expect, but what makes this movie in particular so intriguing is the sexual aspect. A large portion of the movie is about Ackerley's attempts to get Tulip pregnant (not personally, but to arrange and facilitate the process). This turns out to be highly a somewhat complicated process, and comes to involve more and more lascivious observations about both dogs and people. It's not exactly perverse, but it is a bit surprising to hear such candid - not to mention eloquent - descriptions of a dog's vagina. It's also kind of great in a liberating, celebratory sort of way.

The movie is ultimately not that great - there are plenty of nice observations about dogs and companionship and life, and the animation is nice, but it does drag a bit, and there's not really much narrative to latch on to, and the charm sort of wears off. Still, not an unenjoyable viewing experience.

17 February 2011

The Social Network

Zadie Smith* wrote a review of this movie that, I think, nailed one of its central problems, namely, that the filmmakers don't really seem to understand their main character - what is his motivation? As she says, the movie ultimately makes it about a girl, which is not only cliche and annoying, but also seems completely untrue, given what we know of the real Zuckerberg (who has been in a relationship with the same girl since 2003). The money is also clearly not the point, fun as it is. I think you can broaden Smith's musings on how to make programming cinematic and comprehensible into an overall question of how a character like Zuckerberg (or any other "2.0 Person") can be captured in film/narrative. To my mind, this is kind of exciting and fascinating - it's undeniably true that things like facebook have changed the way a lot of people conceptualize themselves and their relationship with the world, and I look forward to seeing how new forms of narrative emerge to capture that. But this movie isn't it.

Honestly, for the most part, I just thought the movie was boring. It's two hours long, and 80 minutes into it, you're kind of groaning and wanting it to be over. The Henley Regatta scene that Smith found so ravishing actually made me yell "Oh my god why is this movie so LONG" to my boyfriend (who was in the kitchen making oxtail soup). The characters are for the most part flat and uninteresting, pretty faces experiencing various degrees of outrage and self-righteousness. Yawn. The highlight is definitely Justin Timberlake, who is kind of always fun to watch, I think, and who is definitely the most interesting character in this movie. The soundtrack is unmistakably Trent Reznor's, which I found kind of touching, because no offense, to my mind Trent Reznor is kind of a dinosaur, and there's something vaguely pathetic about the fact that he's courting younger viewers with what is largely the same schtick now that most of his target audience has outgrown him.

No, the real problem with the movie is the hollowness at its center. Zuckerberg, as portrayed in this movie, is an asshole. Not even an interesting villain, just a vaguely obnoxious jerk. Sure, he's misunderstood and he wants friends and bla bla bla, but who cares? The fact that there's no clear reason for why he does what he does robs him of any chance at redemption - lacking motive, he's being a jerk just because. Likewise, facebook's development doesn't seem all that compelling - the aha! moment where Zuckerberg decides to add relationship status, pontificating about the epiphany that ultimately people are always searching for "a girl" seems both bland and obvious. There's no real reflection on how facebook both tapped into and ultimately changed various social energies and forms of identification (Sorkin apparently had never been on facebook before writing the script, which may account for some of this).

I suspect that it's getting all this buzz and acclaim purely because people are trying to find a way to express the fact that the world IS different that it was in 2003, and a large part of that is because of facebook, and they think this movie somehow expresses it for them. But that's not actually what the movie is about. It's about a guy who screwed some people over. But it's not a heist film, or a corporate thriller. I'm wracking my brains to think of what genre it really falls under. But anyways, point being - meh. You can certainly give this one a miss.

*I have really mixed feelings about Zadie Smith. I think her prose is generally elegant and appealing, and she has some really fascinating ideas and observations, but I also find her vaguely smug and melodramatic and just kind of annoying a lot of the time. This piece is a case in point - as mentioned above, I think she identifies some really fascinating aspects of the movie, but there are also a lot of annoyingly self-indulgent moment (like the squirrels in the first paragraph, come on) and a kind of passive-aggressive smugness ("I often worry that my idea of personhood is nostalgic, irrational, inaccurate." - really? Because for most of this piece, it seems like you feel superior to what you call the so-called 2.0 People) that irks me.

14 February 2011

Seraph on the Suwanee, by Zora Neale Hurston

This is, on some levels, a really messed up and troubling book. But it is also an irresistably beautiful love story, with such aptly drawn, persuasive psychology, that you kind of overlook how awful it is. If you like Taming of the Shrew, you'll love this as well. The novel is the story of Jim and Arvay, their marriage and life together. More concretely, it's the story of how Jim teaches Arvay to overcome her insecurities and be a good wife. That probably puts you off, and indeed, there are plenty of moments that make you squirm, where Jim bosses Arvay around, or rapes her. But honestly, brutal though these moments are, the narrative also tips the balance strongly in Jim's favor by making it clear that Arvay not only benefits from, but also somewhat enjoys this kind of treatment, for the most part. Her misery comes from herself, for the most part, and Jim is the greatest joy in her life. It's actually a pretty incredible portrayal of insecurity and how it warps a person's mind. But it's also just a beautiful, beautiful portrayal of love. I was so utterly drawn into this novel; I actually stayed up until 3am reading the last third of it because I didn't want to put it down.

Incidentally, there's also an interesting racial dynamic at play, which I hadn't really thought about until after I finished and went back and read the introduction. Zora Neale Hurston is well known for her portrayals of African American life, but this novel, for the most part, is about poor white people. Apparently Hurston wanted to show that what is known as Black English is actually just the language of the South. I think you could extend that further and say that she wanted to show how similar black and white culture were overall. As the introduction points out, this is most explicit in her decision to make one of the children a successful blues musician. To quote Hurston:

There is no more Negro music in the U.S. It has been fused and merged and become the national expression, and displaced the worship of European expression (...) what has evolved here is something American.

There are relatively subtle racial undertones in the novel - for the most part, Hurston avoids giving her characters any really nasty racist thoughts, though they do clearly feel themselves superior to the black people in their lives. There is one moment where lynching is mentioned, and casual though it is, it cannot fail to induce a shudder and a reminder that this was a reality of those times. But her focus is more on the class divide between the poor "crackers" and the more affluent whites.

All in all, it's a pretty incredible book, one that deserves a lot more attention.

11 February 2011

Tyler Perry's I Can Do Bad All By Myself

I'm generally interested in Tyler Perry as a phenomenon. I'm not really in the mood to rehash all that controversy and debate, so if you're not hip to it, dear reader, get on the google and InvestiHate. Or check this, this and maybe also this out for a general idea. [Edit: This is an especially good one, thanks to Max for helping me track it down] What it comes down to is, Tyler Perry creates massively popular movies about black life. He provides work for a lot of black actresses who should be getting more work. He writes movies that are striving to "better" people. But his idea of what that bettering involves is pretty controversial, and arguably pretty sexist. That he gives black actresses work is great, but that these talented women have to struggle to convincingly deliver his cliche, self-help psycho-babble lines is less great. That these movies are, often as not, formulaic, melodramatic, schlocky garbage is almost the icing on the cake. So, now that you're up to speed somewhat, and we can move on to: I Can Do Bad All By Myself.

Fascinating, in that it basically makes all this controversy completely visible. It is a schlocky, formulaic movie with plenty of stock, one-dimensional characters. It is incredibly problematic in the way it basically seems to demand utter self-abasement from its female protagonist as a path to virtue, not to mention surrendering agency rather than claiming it. The underlying sub-text about morality and vice is, as a friend of mine put it, pro-ble-ma-tic!!!

But I was also totally sucked in and emotionally engaged (sometimes you just wanna watch a trashy movie, of course). I used to get angry at movies that blatantly pushed my emotional buttons, and this one totally did, but what can I say, it worked. And I think the reason why, and what makes this movie actually worth watching in general, and not just when you're feeling like an evening on the couch with kleenex, is the music. The music is un-believable. Oh my GOD. Mary J Blige, Gladys Knight, and Marvin Winnans are amazing. I think I actually stopped breathing while Mary J Blige was singing. You can find the clip on youtube, but it's not the same. The musical numbers in this movie are like those in any musical - they derive depth from being placed in the context of the story*. Simultaneously, however, they also carry a lot of the emotional - and moral - weight of the film. Rather than preaching at our fallen protagonist, Gladys Knight sings to her, and it's so much more persuasive than anything else could be. In that sense, it's kind of a meta-reflection of what the film as a whole is trying to do, modeling the art of conversion via media. But really, it's just good cinema, too, in those moments at least.

It's a deeply problematic, and kind of crappy movie. There are a lot of things to dislike Tyler Perry for. But what this movie has going for it is not just one hell of a soundtrack, but an amazing collection of musical performances, and that raises it a cut above.

07 February 2011

Blue Valentine

To be honest, this movie wasn’t as good as I thought it’d be. Yes, the performances are amazing, and the pairing of the early and final stages of the relationship is effective and well done (even if it’s been done many times before). But I left the movie feeling somewhat unsatisfied, like something was missing. I think that something is a sense of why the relationship is falling apart in the first place. The movie is a skillful portrayal of what it looks like when a relationship is ending, but it’s all surface, with hints of things stirring beneath.

What’s intriguing about this, to me, is that reviewers of the film seem so eager to praise the film that they rush to fill in the blanks. The problem, they all seem to agree, is Ryan Gosling’s character, a “man-child” whose lack of ambition and contentedness in various dead-end jobs has caused his wife to fall out of love with him*. My reaction to the film was totally different. What I find intriguing about this disjunct is that I think that in real life, that probably is what a compelling explanation for why a relationship might end. But I think that in this movie, that's not what causes it. In fact, I think the movie tells you what the problem is early on, when it has Gosling's character remark that men are more romantic than women, they marry for love, whereas women marry when they find a suitable guy who will be a good provider. To me, the problem in this movie seemed to be Michelle Williams' character, who was an emotionally troubled, unhappy sort of woman who was incapable of communicating with others. Here we add that her family life was obviously nightmarish, and the only other relationship of hers that we see wasn't all that great either. She leaves her previous boyfriend with no explanation, no willingness to talk things over, just dumps him flat when he does something that upsets her. Granted, he seems to be a jerk anyhow, for the most part, but still, she isn't exactly being reasonable either. Meanwhile, Ryan Gosling's character is verging on saintliness. Yes, he lacks ambition, and is content to work crappy jobs and basically be a husband and dad (which he in fact explicitly says). And he's willing to do that because he is head-over-heels for his wife, and their family life is his number one priority. Yes, he drinks in the morning, but the movie is careful not to portray him as a drunken mess, or a jerk. This, I think, is a mis-step - like I said, in real life, I think he would have been a lot more difficult to live with, and that would be a problem. But I think the movie emphatically refuses to make him that. There is one scene where he shows up drunk and unreasonable and is generally a nightmare, but your sympathy clearly lies with him even at that moment, because his wife is completely impossible to talk to, and this is his desperate last ditch effort to save their relationship. She gives him no chance at all, drives him to that awful scene, and then uses it as justification to leave him. Or at least, that's how it seemed to me.

So I guess this is less a review of the movie overall than a response to what I think is a total misinterpretation of the film. I kind of hated Michelle Williams' character. And it bugs me that even in reviews, she gets to be the good guy. She is not the good guy. She's a seriously messed up woman who, I think, is basically incapable of having an adult relationship. SO THERE.

*I’m quoting an imagined aggregate of reviews here, so I may be misrepresenting them, or the ones I read may not be representative of all the reviews out there.