Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Oscar Race, Part the Third: Explosions and Implosions

Today's installment will focus on Munich. It's short and spoilertastic.

The question on a thousand lips, of course, is whether the film is "pro-Israel." In that the film is a sympathetic portrait of an assassin hired by Israel's GSS to kill Palestinian assassins, somewhat. But a sympathetic portrayal of a character does not make the movie sympathetic to his every move, and on this the film honestly is balanced. Its point, which it makes several more times than necessary, is that violence begets violence; Spielberg, a Jew, has chosen to follow Avner, a Jewish assassin, about whom more written accounts are also available in the United States, but the most moving scenes are those where Avner and his compatriots recognize, and see in graphic detail, the violence they have wrought.

Granted, nobody's made the film about the terrorists at the 1972 Olympics themselves, who doubtless felt their motivating factors were as viable as those of Avner and his companions (who include some bloody amazing actors, like Daniel Craig and Ciaran Hinds. Everybody loves Ciaran Hinds. Seriously. Everyone.) Or if somebody has made that movie, it certainly hasn't reached viewers here. But Paradise Now was made and distributed, it is about suicide bombers, and from what I've been led to understand, nobody would venture to call it pro-suicide-bombing.

Munich is a gory movie, though I recognize that the term "gory" is usually used to describe gratuitous scenes of bloodshed and mutilation. These scenes are not gratuitous; they are, as I said, some of the best-reasoned and most effecting in the film. To make its point--and I say this honestly without rancor or sarcasm--it really did have to show us a bloodied arm caught on the ceiling fan.

Eric Bana is also stunningly wonderful. I had no idea he could do that. He sustains a compelling and fascinating struggle throughout; the character is mercilessly human and mercilessly conflicted, and is truly believable and honest. The film could also stand a great deal of editing throughout, and its last two scenes are almost entirely without merit. There are points at which the scene of the first terrorist attack intercut with Avner having sex with his wife actually work, but really not all that many of them, and the scene in which Avner's Israeli boss, played by Geoffrey Rush, asks him by the Brooklyn waterfront to come back to Israel, with the Twin Towers in the background, is completely useless. I'm fairly sure, though not completely, that the Twin Towers weren't even completed at that point; either way, we really do understand that violence begets violence without having to be told explicitly that buildings fell down.

Munich is the best work I've ever seen Spielberg do. I don't think that's saying much, though I admit I've never seen Schindler's List. And ultimately, I couldn't like it. My sister was a tremendous fan, which is interesting because she never likes anything, but I found in the end it was too long and made its point too many times. In retrospect, however, I'm able to see and write about its merits, more than I thought at the time.

That's all she wrote. I really just needed to get this in before midnight to keep my promise for the month, and didn't feel I had all that much to say about the movie. The next two are coming in the next five days.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Blogging Against Sexism on March 8

A link on Arbusto de Mendacity led me to Blog Against Sexism Day. I've decided I want to link myself up a li'l bit more with the blogosphere, and it sounds like an interesting project. So count me in for March 8, and give it a shot yourself if it appeals.

The Oscar Race, Part the Second: Whether Truman Is Human

I DID IT! I have now officially seen all five films nominated for Best Picture, a feat I'm not certain I've ever achieved before. With this particular list it makes me feel tremendously accomplished.

Today's film: Capote.

In some ways, the review of this film comes down to one sentence: Philip Seymour Hoffman is a superhero. He deserves every award that can be heaped upon him for this performance. A day away from viewing the film, I'm more ambivalent about it than I was when I emerged from the theater, but Hoffman's performance is honestly magical.

I wouldn't say he's a chameleon, which is what my friend Sarah said; he doesn't disappear inside the role, and nor do I, postmodern viewer that I am, exactly want an actor to do so. Hoffman's individuality gives Capote as a character what he needs for the movie to succeed. It is his individual screen presence that makes the character of Truman Capote somebody that we want to follow, in spite of his abysmal behavior, the lack of humanity with which he treats the people around him, confusing to those who have read the deep humanity in his writing.

But this is a story about teetering on the edge of inhumanity. Its contempt for the literary life in the late 1950s and early 1960s is, to say the least, open; its portrayals of the murders limned in In Cold Blood are harshly and delicately done, showing perfectly the extremes of the character of Perry Smith as played by Clifton Collins Jr., and the hanging is exactly as chilling as it has to be. Every aspect of the filmmaking--the script, the cinematography, the music--is slightly, deliberately distant. Even Truman Capote's interactions with those he's close to--his friend Harper Lee, played by Catherine Keener, or his lover Jack Dunphy, played by Bruce Greenwood--must be viewed from a greater distance when we see that his interactions with murderer Perry Smith have much more intensity and focus than those with Lee or Dunphy. We have to ask ourselves, then, if Truman Capote is really shallow, and what shallowness then means in the face of his art and artistry. Is art inextricable from the "artist's life," as it was in bohemian literary circles in Capote's time or as it is now? How does one account for Harper Lee not being the asshole that Capote is, even when writing a novel with a social conscience catapulted her into the exact same parties? Can he have a full-scale emotional experience without attempting to write it? Witnessing an execution, appearing deeply moved, in the next shot we see him on the telephone with Harper Lee, "It was a horrifying experience and I will never forget it." In the small, nasal, flaming voice that Hoffman has given the character, this line sounds even more trite than it does written, and yet we've the sense he's saying it knowing that Lee will see through him.

It is Hoffman who keeps the film from being heavy-handed. It does go on too long (the same could be said of all the nominated films besides Good Night, and Good Luck), Capote's desire for Dick Hickock and Perry Smith to be executed already mingling with our own, and thus Miller and screenwriter Futterman end up hitting us over the head (if lightly) with their teasing questions and confusions about Capote's sincerity. Granted, this is better than hitting us over the head with a closed-ended point (such as "racism makes people do horrible things," see previous post), but it's still a little too much. If it weren't for Hoffman, we would already have heard everything we needed to hear about these contrasts, but in each scene, based solely on his acting, one honestly learns something new about the character. Because we are following Capote the entire time, the questions genuinely come to us through him, rather than being foisted upon us.

Hoffman pointed out in an interview on Slate, and I agree, that the film avoids the standard dramaturgical problems of a biopic by not being a biopic. It's a film about a character who really existed, and it depicts events that in some form actually happened, but it's not trying to tell the story of Truman Capote's life. The failure of most biopics is the assumption that all of life is one cohesive journey; Miller and Futterman don't make such a mistake. It is perhaps a biopic of the nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, if such a thing is possible, but it's the character's journey surrounding this one particular book.

There's much more to say on the questions Capote raises, but not, I've found, much more to say about the film. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a superhero, and he allows all of the questions on the ethics of art and the art of ethics to permeate us without knocking us unconscious.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Oscar Race, Part the First: All Racism, All the Time

Perhaps piggybacking on the success of Fahrenheit 9/11, political movies, particularly those with a liberal slant, have had tremendous success this year. A decent number of them, in fact, have been nominated for Oscars. I'm going to devote at least part of this month to looking at the five films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. I've only seen three of them thus far, but that's better than I'm normally doing at this time of year, and this will motivate me to see both Capote and Brokeback Mountain. This posts, and the others in the series, will be utterly spoilertastic; you've been warned.

Today's film: Crash.

At midnight a few months ago, my friend Talia left me a message saying she had just seen Crash and hated it so vociferously that she needed me to see it, so that we could complain together. I was to hear several subsequent negative reviews, such that I came to mistrust the positive. When I finally rented it last night, Crash was not quite so horrible as I was expecting it to be. But ultimately, most of the negative assessments were correct.

Crash is what might be called an ensemble film; there is no main character, but rather about fourteen intersecting stories that we follow through two days in Los Angeles. Given the suburban sprawl of which Los Angeles is composed, these stories should by all realistic standards intersect much less than they do. Also, because the movie runs less than two hours and yet intends to take us on fourteen journeys, most of the characters are not characters but situations. All of the characters are scripted that way; only a few actors (Thandie Newton, Michael Pena, Ludacris) manage to transcend the lack of development and the overwrought and/or hackneyed dialogue. (Sadly, Don Cheadle, one of the best actors going today and one of the movie's producers, did not manage to do so.) The film is all racism, all the time--it's clear exactly how each character's racial identity will figure into the plot the moment one sees them in contact with a person of another race (generally within seconds of their introduction). The stories do not support or lend clarity to one another, as they would in a true ensemble film, but rather overlap in a series of inconceivable coincidences all of which are intended to show us that good people think and do horrible things and horrible people think and do good things, such that we can't judge anyone as actually horrible or actually good. While I'm as eager as the next person to get beyond the dichotomy of good and evil, I can't say I'm for neutralization either. And neutralization is the ultimate outcome of Crash's mishmash. It would like to consider itself merciless, unflinching in its portrayal of social hatred, and that would indeed be the case if the film had characters. If all these horrible things were happening to fully drawn people, we might care. As it is, Crash has no more effect than one person casually relating these stories to a co-worker. By skimping on the character development, Haggis avoids truly confronting the issues he wants the film to be about. A little more focus could have honed the film; perhaps the blurriness of the stories combined with the blurry opening credits was intended to make a point about the melting pot, but one can only stare at fondue for so long without wanting to know what it actually tastes like. Haggis intends to show us how many different kinds (races, classes) of people are racist, but there are so many that he ends up showing us only *kinds* of people: he doesn't show us people at all.

According to Crash, there are two sides to every story, but only two. Everybody (except for Michael Pena's Daniel, because his child is young, rather than an adult who's part of this horrible universe) is a horrible racist; that racism is complicated/counteracted by the fact that each character has one person he or she deeply and genuinely loves, but only one person. That one person, more often than not, is manipulated later in the film as the character's vulnerability. Redemptions and falls from grace are the spine of the movie, and more often than not are precise examples of counterbalance, having to do with the same race in a similar scenario: the black man who ran over one Asian man with an SUV he stole the next day releases Vietnamese slaves from a van he stole; the white cop who molested a woman he pulled over the next day saves the same woman from a burning car; the black man who allowed his black wife to be molested by said cop the next day saves a black man from the LAPD; the white cop who saved one black man from unjust arrest the same day unjustly shoots another black man; so on and so forth. Each weight has almost an exact counterweight, so apparently the world is ultimately in balance. It's not warm and fuzzy, per se, but again no one action is worse than another, so we can always make up for the bad we've done.

The scoring is, in a word, godawful. I'm starting to believe that no one other than Thomas Newman is capable of scoring movies, but certainly Haggis should not have done any of the music on his own (five people, including Haggis, are listed as responsible for the music on IMdB). Like much of the film, it's embarrassingly overwrought, heightening the melodrama to a fever pitch. The same can be said of most of the cinematography: every blurry shot or zoom-out is meant to emphasize a moment whose purpose is obvious or a concept that has already become abundantly clear. Yes, there is good and bad in everyone. This is a point that one could also make without a sledgehammer.

The movie does have its decent aspects, certainly. For the most part, even the actors who don't transcend the painful limitations of the script are well-cast, and those that do manage to do so are extremely impressive. I have special admiration for Pena, such that I dearly wish I could type his name properly in HTML, because he makes some of the worst writing in the film into one of Crash's few moments of actual, compelling (in this case, paternal) love. It doesn't use voice-overs and still trusts us, as an audience, to make sense of complicated scenarios (it's a shame that today's film climate is such that something so obvious counts as a good point, but there we are). The cinematography does have its moments, particularly in the scene where Matt Dillon molests Thandie Newton and Terence Howard and Ryan Phillippe stand idly and conflictedly by. There are several moments of actual acting and contact within individual storylines that are, in fact, very nice. I'll also give the movie some credit for not ending on a saccharine note, which I assumed it would, though its full circle of racism, judgment and car accidents is as close to saccharine as hatred can be. But the movie cannot allow real questions to linger; everything has exactly two sides, and they're tied into a neat knot. Paul Haggis may be able to hold a number of things in his head at once, but he is neither a complex nor an interesting thinker. He tells us how we're supposed to feel, and once we've recognized that the redemption-or-fall-from-grace pattern belongs to all the characters, predicting everyone's outcome and journey becomes easy and unmoving.

Racism's never going to end; this would be true even if Crash had not so laborioiusly endeavored to make it clear. But nor is the world composed of racism, all racism and nothing but racism. Though this film may indeed generate discussions about race, they will be short, simplistic and not terribly useful discussions, and I'm disappointed at the vast number of viewers and reviewers who seem to think the oversimplified dichotomies in Crash are honest reflections of the world in which we live.

Apparently, I'm "It"

Well, I got tagged. Which is just too bloggy for words, but what're you gonna do. I offer my filling out this survey as simple testament to my not feeling like doing work, and also my flattered-ness at being tagged by someone I've never actually met. This does not (do you hear me, Self? NOT) count as one of my four posts for February.

Remove the blog in the top spot from the following list and bump everyone up one place. Then add your blog to the bottom slot, like so.
1) Christopher
2) Damien Scott
3) Geek Boi
4) Tom
5) Gemma

Next, select five people to tag.
1) Connor
2) Mxzzy
3) Chloegoth
4) Cassie
5) Sarah N.

What were you doing 10 years ago?
I was in eighth grade at an artsy, progressive private school in New York City. I was writing a play called Beyond That Road; Melissa Kantor was my English teacher; I was a very unpleasant person but was, for the first time in years, extremely social (being unpleasant or being antisocial are, as far as I can see, the only options in middle school).

What were you doing 1 year ago?
I was teaching theater through After School Matters, the same organization I work for now, subbing at a Montessori preschool, directing a play called Suit at the Around the Coyote Winter Festival and a children's Purim Spiel at a synagogue (which lat I'm doing again this year), and beinglonely and generally miserable.

Five snacks you enjoy
Ice cream
Celery and ranch dressing
Goldfish crackers
BLUEBERRIES, when they're in season
Apples, same as above

Five songs you know all the words to
Oh sweet jeebus. I know all the words to at least two hundred songs. (Seriously--I have a list.) But some of them are:
"Casimir Pulaski Day," Sufjan Stevens
"Gee, Officer Krupke," from West Side Story
"The Gallery," Joni Mitchell
"Heaven," Talking Heads
"I've Got a Match," They Might Be Giants

Five things you would do if you were a millionaire
Live in other countries for extended periods of time
Start a youth theater company and put on whatever damn plays we wanted
Support my family
Own a home
Set up an international scholarship fund and a coupla free clinics

I plan to do most of these things anyway (save the last one). If I were a millionaire, I would probably do them with greater ease, and more quickly, but I can't say I've much desire to be one.

Five bad habits
I bite, and pick dry skin off, my lips
I tear at my cuticles
I get addicted to uncomplicated computer games--Fowl Words, on ebaumsworld, is the current drug of choice
I'm a slob
I fill out online surveys!

Five things you enjoy doing
Directing and teaching theater
Talking with my friends
Baking, particularly when I add spiciness to a recipe
Taking long walks in cities

Five things you would never wear again
Neon loafers
Flowered flannel dresses

Five favorite toys
Hot glue guns
A white plastic horse named Vashti
A stuffed pig named Smiles
The Infernal Machine, a.k.a. my cellphone

That's out of my system. Now I've got to go immediately finish the other post I've been working on, so this one doesn't stay at the top of the blog for long.

Friday, February 03, 2006

In Response to "Embellishment and Lies"

Before reading this post, please read the post that spawned it, "Embellishment and Lies in the writing of James Frey," on Blue Skies Falling. I have yet to read A Million Little Pieces, which is ironically true of all my publishing-house colleagues who have followed the scandal, but Connor's got some interesting theories on truth and its requirements.

Essentially, Connor says that the boundary between fact and fiction is so blurred, human memory so flawed, that the distinctions "memoir" and "novel" are nigh upon irrelevant, and that a society that hears contradictory ostensible "truths" spewing from every possible media source would benefit from having this acknowledged, publicized, discussed. I'd agree that the scandal of A Million Little Pieces might in fact turn out tremendously beneficial to American society, forcing the kneejerk readers of bestsellers to become critical thinkers in a fashion that might not come naturally. However, I would challenge not only Connor's answer, "Absolutely," but his question, "Do I as a writer have the right to compose a book composed largely, or Hell, completely of misleading information, and publish it as 'nonfiction'?"

I believe that this is a point at which context (the cornerstone of postmodern philosophy and scholarship) comes into play, even if it is the context within the author's mind. There are two questions here, whether I as a writer have the right to create a book composed largely or completely of misleading information and publish it as nonfiction, and whether I as a writer have the right to create a book *deliberately* composed largely or completely of misleading information and publish it as nonfiction. In other words, I'd make here a distinction between truth and honesty. While Frey is not obligated to remember everything perfectly, I would call it his obligation, in a piece he claims is a "memoir," to be truthful to the best of his abilities. There is a line to be drawn between faulty memory and outright fabrication, the latter of which was clearly the case in A Million Little Pieces.

Yes, that's a delicate balance. I've always had a personal difficulty with libel suits, for example, which Connor claims in his qualification that many individuals caricatured in Frey's book (huzzah! A fact! It is, unquestionably, a book!) would be entitled to bring. But most of the libel suits I've heard about as possibilities are related to fiction, under which distinction libel remains virtually unprovable, even in the case of scathing social satire. I object to the notion of Anna Wintour suing Lauren Weisberger over The Devil Wears Prada, or Upper East Side families going after Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus for The Nanny Diaries. (Neither of those things has happened, to my knowledge; those are just examples of light and transparent contemporary fictionalized social satire that I've read recently.) But I object to libel suits at some level *because* I believe them unprovable, because I believe that the authors of satirical fiction have adhered to social mores. Fictionalization at some level strikes me as a matter of courtesy. Even if you hate an individual or a social class and believe their treachery should be revealed, fictionalizing offers the objects the option of seeing the errors of their ways without being directly accused or having the accusations of others heaped upon them. Fictionalization offers a way out. Certainly there are those who don't deserve such an out, and for them investigative journalism is always there. Fictionalization also protects the author (from libel suits, among other things), but it strikes me in almost all cases as more courteous than a "tell-all autobiograhy."

My great-aunt taught me that before talking about a person behind his/her back, one must ask oneself three questions about what one is about to say: "Is it kind?" "Is it true?" and "Is it necessary?" and answer yes to at least two in order to proceed. To that list, Sarah's family adds "Is it funny?" an addition of which I approve. In the cases of the above-mentioned satires, they are unquestionably funny, unkind, and in the case of The Nanny Diaries one could make an argument for necessary. But if truth doesn't exist, Frey doesn't stand a chance under such criteria. Not having read the book, I can't say whether he does anyway, and I recognize that this system of judgment is not reliable outside of individual assessments. But in the question of truth and social ethics, it's worth thinking about.

So do courtesy and ethics overlap? Courtesy is the compromises we make to live as social beings on a day-to-day basis; ethics (practically, not philosophically) is the system by which we assess behavior (including but not limited to our own) both in relation to our judgments and in relation to its personal and social results. I'd say that is a decent chunk of Venn diagram. Fictionalization violates neither, though in some cases it walks a fine line, and Frey has violated both.

The distinction between "autobiography" and "memoir" was was, as I understand it, created to draw the distinction between personal narrative based on known fact and personal narrative based on the impressionism that is memory. An autobiography is to contain dates and references by which we can track and trace at least some degree of truth; a memoir is a narrative that works like memory, emphasizing certain moments and neglecting others in their entirety. However, Monet's "Water Lilies" is still a painting of water lilies, if not as we're accustomed to looking at them. One of my favorite books is Frank McCourt's memoir Angela's Ashes. I've read it at least a dozen times since its publication in 1996, each time moved to tears by the simple beauty of McCourt's prose and dialogue, and by imagining that he had lived this life and survived to write such a book. I don't know McCourt to be telling the truth about his life story; I sincerely doubt that all his dialogues are verbatim recreations of conversations that occurred in the 1930s and '40s, and not knowing anyone who can substantiate his claims, it could be utter fabrication. But certainly I feel that McCourt has made a compact with me as a reader to tell the truth as he sees it. Had I lived his life I would have had a different truth; on this front Connor is unquestionably accurate. There is no one, absolute way that the events limned in McCourt's memoir (well, technically memoirs, but Angela's Ashes is far and away the best of the three) can be proven, at this point, to have taken place. There are, however, things that one can prove did not happen, things one can prove are outright fabrications as opposed to impressions. In fabricating McCourt will have broken his compact with the reader.

Now if I were to paint a canvas red with black stripes and call it "Water Lilies," would that be acceptable? Yes, because the object in question is so clearly not a representation of water lilies; it's the inverse of "Ceci n'est pas une pipe." I'm not claiming for a second to have painted water lilies, and am using our prior knowledge of water lilies to create a dissociative experience, the compact for which is made in the clear contrast between the ostensible subject and the representation. In this manner, Philip Roth's novel The Plot Against America is not a violation of his agreement with his readers, although the protagonist in question is named Philip Roth and, like author, is growing up in a Jewish community in Newark, New Jersey, in the 1940s. The situation is fictional, an imagining, a moderate dystopia. Roth is writing a time that never existed and calling it his upbringing. Frey, as I understand it without having read the book, is writing a time and a place that existed and making people and situations out to be worse than they are, without ever having agreed that it wasn't that way.

Not all art needs to strive for truth, but all art, as I see it, needs to strive for honesty. It is a betrayal of your readers/viewers to do otherwise. And from what I've heard from those who've read Frey, there exists emotional honesty in the book; people from Oprah to my friend Kristie have found it incredibly moving. But he still does, as I see it, have an obligation to the objects of his book, to be honest about his life, in a social context, as he knows it.

Do we need to be more critical of our "politicians, scientists, theologians, entertainers, and yes, writers," and to train our children to see the line between fiction and non-fiction as ultimately blurred? Unquestionably. As an agnostic, I'm entirely comfortable telling children that there's no one, absolute truth, and I'm pleased to know believers like Connor who are comfortable believing and teaching the same. But does this extend to the premise that there is no honesty or dishonesty, that nothing is right and nothing is wrong? Ultimately, I feel Connor's argument would serve to justify a piece of writing in which a woman claimed, knowing it to be an untruth, that a genuine man in her life, a man whose name she used, raped her.

There are a million permuations of memory, certainly, and there are a number of ways, particularly stemming out of the rash of false child-abuse accusations in the late 1970s, that a woman might genuinely believe she had been raped by someone who had not, in fact, raped her. And this is where the distinction between truth and honesty comes into play. I could not fault a truly delusional woman for believing a rape that had not actually occurred did occur, and because that's her truth to the best of her knowledge, her accusation would not stand as an ethical violation. But would I fault a non-delusional woman who did not believe said rape had occurred for accusing a man in her life as a rapist by name in her memoirs? Does that stand as an ethical violation? Unquestionably. The first woman is being honest and not telling the truth; the second woman is doing neither.

Can I prove that? Perhaps not, but nor am I prepared to live in a society where it isn't a given.

My belief, in the long run, is that children (and by extension society) should be taught to believe both in the existence of strict systems--in some cases dichotomies--and in their ability to challenge such systems. To base everything on the premise that there is no truth is to forbid the development of honesty, in the long run a much more valuable commodity than truth.