Ghostbusters: The Compromise Candidate of Summer Blockbusters

When Sony announced that it would be remaking the rightly beloved 1984 Ghostbusters movie, with women wearing the proton packs and Bridesmaids‘s Paul Feig on board to direct, you didn’t have to look too hard at the galleon being craned up for a retrofit to see the unsavory barnacles of terrified white manboys clutching onto the hull for dear life. Fan entitlement, long rooted in a patriarchal sense of childhood nostalgia that the Daily Beast‘s Arthur Chu shrewdly pinpointed as “‘pickup artist’ snake oil — started by nerdy guys, for nerdy guys — filled with techniques to manipulate, pressure and in some cases outright assault women to get what they want,” once again failed to do a little soul-searching and reflection on what its inflexible stance against the natural evolution of art truly means.

Just as some vocal fans protested the excellent film Mad Max: Fury Road for being “a piece of American culture ruined and rewritten right in front of their eyes,” the Ghostbusters absolutists knew that the studios wanted their dollars and that they could still get away with voicing their reactionary sentiments through the same cowardly anonymity that allowed Donald Trump to emerge as presidential candidate.

Much as a “silent majority” had propped up Trump under the illusion that a billionaire’s outspoken sexism and bigotry somehow represented an anti-establishment “candidate like we’ve never seen before,” these fans downvoted the new Ghostbusters trailer in droves when it was released online in April. One month later, a smug bespectacled mansplainer by the name of James Rolfe put a human face to this underlying sexism, posting a video (viewed by nearly two million), shot in what appeared to be a creepily appropriate basement, in which he vowed not to review the new remake:

You know what everybody’s been calling it? The female Ghostbusters. I hear that all the time. The female Ghostbusters. Does that mean we have to call the old one the male Ghostbusters? It doesn’t matter. But I can’t blame everybody for identifying that way. Because there’s no other way to identify the movies. There’s no other name for it.

Maybe you’d view movies this way if you’d spent a lifetime refusing to live with your shortcomings, carving the likenesses of Stallone and Schwarzenegger onto your own personal Mount Rushmore when not ordering vacuum devices or getting easily duped by Cialis scams. But the crazed notion that gender isn’t just the first way to identify a remake, but the only way to do so, speaks to a disturbing cultural epidemic that must be swiftly remedied by more movies and television starring women in smart and active roles, unsullied by the sexualized gaze of a pornographic oaf like James Rolfe.

It’s worth observing that Sony — a multinational corporation; not the National Organization of Women, lest we forget — had been in talks with the Russo Brothers well before Feig for an all-male remake, a fact also confirmed in a leaked email from Hannah Minghella. The Hollywood machine only cares about gender parity when it is profitable. It continues to promulgate superhero movie posters that are demeaning to women. It erects large outdoor ads flaunting violence against women. (Deadline Hollywood reported that the infamous X-Men Apocalypse ad featuring Mystique in a chokehold was approved by a top female executive at 20th Century Fox.) And when the studios do flirt with “feminist” blockbusters — such as Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punchthe results are dismayingly objectifying.

Despite all this, I entered the press screening of the Ghostbusters remake with an open mind and the faint hope that there could be at least a few baby steps towards the game-changing blockbuster that America so desperately needs to redress these many wrongs.

carolmarcusI’m pleased to report that the new Ghostbusters movie does give us somewhat reasonable depictions of women as scrappy scientists, at least for a mainstream movie. The film is refreshingly devoid of Faustian feminist bargains such as Sandra Bullock floating around in her underwear in Gravity or Dr. Carol Marcus flaunting her flesh in Star Trek: Into Darkness. We are introduced to Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) practicing a lecture in an empty Colubmbia University classroom, having to contend with an embarrassing pro-ghost book (Ghosts from Our Past: Both Literally and Figuratively) that she co-wrote years before with her friend and academic peer, Abby Yates (played with the expected enjoyable verve by Melissa McCarthy). Erin, who dresses in wonderfully dorky plaid suits that the dean cavils about, is up for tenure and is understandably queasy about anything that stands in the way of her reputation. Leslie Jones plays Patty Tolan, an MTA inspector with a necklace telegraphing her name who serves as a counterpart to Winston from the original film, and has far more scenes to establish her character than poor Ernie Hudson ever did. Screenwriters Katie Dippold and Feig deserve credit for making Patty more than a token African-American, active enough to ensconce herself with the founding trio and provide some New York know-how in a way that Winston, confined to “Do you believe in God?” car banter and doing what he was told, never quite received in the original.

katemckinnonThe sole disappointment among the new quartet is Kate McKinnon as weapons expert Jillian Holtzmann. McKinnon mugs artlessly throughout the film, almost as if she’s channeling William Shatner or Jim Carrey at their worst, too smitten with an impressionist’s toolbox of overly eccentric tics. While McKinnon’s performances have worked in five minute doses (especially in her very funny impressions of Hillary Clinton on Saturday Night Live), this is not an approach that is especially suited for ensemble work on an IMAX screen. McKinnon quavers her bottom lip and enters each shot with a distracting “funny” walk that contributes nothing whatsoever to her character or the scene. The effect is that of an actor exceedingly ungenerous to her colleagues, one that not even the continuity person can track. (Jillian’s glasses disappear and reappear several times during any given scene.)

loripettytankgirlMcKinnon seems to be doing a caffeinated and charmless impression of Lori Petty from Tank Girl. She’s a terrible stage hog throughout the film, whether by her own choice or by Feig’s design. Even accounting for the script supervisor’s absenteeism, one gets the suspicion it’s more of the latter, perhaps shoehorned into this movie because of a studio note. How else can one explain an early moment in the film where McKinnon stands passive before a ghost and says, “You try saying no to these salty parabolas” while chomping potato chips? This line, which sounded more like bottom-of-the-barrel Madison Avenue than a honed sentence written by Parks and Recreation alumni, justifiably did not get much of a laugh, not even among the ringers who were planted in the middle rows at the screening I attended. And when your source text has indelible lines like “Back off, man, I’m a scientist” and “You….you’ve earned it,” it’s probably best to work interactive human behavior rather than commentary upon a snack.

haroldramistwinkieI’ve long maintained a loose theory that you can tell a lot about a comedy movie by the way it refers to food. Weird Al Yankovic’s gloriously underappreciated UHF celebrates its benign strangeness with a Twinkie wiener sandwich (and the original Ghostbusters, of course, features Harold Ramis holding up a Twinkie with some class). Zoolander revels in its splashy flash with an orange mocha frappuccino. Shaun of the Dead features a completely invented snack called Hog Lumps, suggesting the mad invention pulled from cultural reference.

The Ghostbusters remake features a tired repeat gag of Abby constantly complaining about the lunch delivery man not including enough wontons in her soup. And there’s really no better metaphor to pinpoint what’s so wrong about this movie. Because while I loved 75% of the ladies here (and grew to tolerate McKinnon’s annoyingly spastic presence as the film went on), there weren’t enough dependable wontons floating in this movie. Not the dialogue, which isn’t as sharp and snappy as it needs to be. Not the generic CGI look of the ghosts (including Slimer), which can’t top the organic librarian and taxi driver in the original film. Not the story of a bellhop who hopes to unleash a torrent of trapped spirits into New York (although this is better than Ghostbusters II‘s river of slime). And based on the exasperated sighs and silence I heard around me, I wasn’t the only one. It says something, I think, that the Ghostbusters end up fighting a giant version of their own logo at one point.

I really believe that there’s a very smart story buried somewhere within this somewhat pleasing, if not altogether funny, offering. For example, Dippold and Feig have replaced the original film’s EPA as meddlesome government entity with the Department of Homeland Security, which wants the nation to believe that the Ghostbusters are cranks. This is an interesting and timely premise to pursue in a reboot made in a surveillance and smartphone age. (Indeed, there’s even an appropriate selfie stick gag halfway through the film.) It’s moments like this where the Ghostbusters remake wins back your trust after a clunky moment. But there comes a point when the movie decides to throw its hands in the air, becoming yet another loud, boring, and predictable romp featuring the destruction of Manhattan. Again?

And there are cameos. Annoying, purposeless, time-sucking cameos from the surviving members of the original Ghostbusters cast. This not only adds needless bulk to the story, but it isn’t especially fair to the new cast trying to establish themselves, especially in a movie that is already on somewhat shaky ground. Bill Murray as a famous debunker is the only cameo that is fun (and it also buttresses the film’s half-hearted exploration into belief). But instead of confining Murray to a walk-on role, the filmmakers have Murray show up at Ghostbusters HQ (a Chinese restaurant instead of a firehouse), where one can’t help but be reminded of the original’s considerable strengths.

Feig and his collaborators have forgotten what made the first film become a classic. It was the funny human touches of Rick Moranis parroting William Atherton’s pointing as Louis was possessed by Vinz Clortho or Bill Murray wincing as he opened up the lid of Dana’s leftovers or Janine peering around a partition in the back (a shot repeated in the remake, but with tighter focus and less art and subtlety) as Venkman and Walter Peck squared off at the firehouse. There simply isn’t enough of this in the remake. Today’s filmmakers — even somewhat decent ones like Feig — seem to have turned their backs on why we identify with characters and why we go to the movies. And who the hell needs to pay a babysitter and bust out the credit card for a far too large tub of popcorn when there are far more interesting characters on television?

I want to be clear that I am not here to write a hit piece. This remake isn’t awful in the way that Ghostbusters II was, but it’s far from great in the way the original film was. This should have been a groundbreaking motion picture. It damn well needed to be to beat back the James Rolfes and the Gamergate trolls and any other boneheaded atavist with a keyboard and an Internet connection.

We sometimes have to vote for compromise candidates in two party political races. But when the summer gives us several dozen blockbusters to choose from, is the half-hearted Ghostbusters remake really the progressive-minded movie we should accept? Is an incremental step forward in mass culture enough to be happy with? Or should we demand more? I’ve thought about this for the past few days and I’ve increasingly come around to believing that audiences — and women in particular — deserve far better soup and a hell of a lot more wontons.

Giving the Upscale Types the Graphic Novels That They Want

SHOPLIFTER
by Michael Cho
Pantheon, 96 pages

In a recent interview, Michael Cho claimed that his crisp illustrative style developed from reading adventure comic strips from the 1930s and the 1940s. While one sees something of Noel Sickles’s thick shadows fringing his subjects and Roy Crane’s tidy closeup panels in Cho’s work (superbly featured in Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes, a gritty collection of still life illustrations), there remains a fundamental quality missing in Shoplifter: namely, the resounding thump of a human heart.

michaelchoshoplifterThis graphic novel tells the story of Corrina Park, a young woman who works in an advertising agency. There is nothing interesting or unusual about her, unless you believe the occasional pilfering of a magazine from a convenience store to be jaw-dropping criminal mayhem. She complains about an unfulfilled creative life. She spends her evenings in a spacious apartment guzzling down wine and watching television. She listens to her boss quote Khalil Gibran while he steeples his fingers in the hackneyed manner of a corporate stooge smuggled from behind the arras at the last minute. While I was very fond of Corrina’s hissing cat (and what does it say that the only real character with any personality in this dull and pandering volume is an animal?), I could not find any open nook in my warm and expansive heart for this extraordinary listless protagonist. Corrina is no different from millions of young bourgie aspirants whinging throughout North America. If I wanted this kind of vanilla and unadventurous narrative, I’d spend two insufferable hours being barraged by other people’s First World problems at the Whole Foods overlooking the Gowanus Canal.

Cho certainly has the chops to transpose his observations onto the page. A hip bestubbled specimen named Ben offers a perfectly complacent and beery look when he says, “Yeah, you too, Corrina,” at a party. When Cho populates his frames with strangers, especially on subways and at the party, there is a feral yet controlled quality to his illustrations. I also appreciated the deliberately cramped framing at the convenience store, almost as if we are witnessing the action through an impossibly placed surveillance camera. But it’s maddening that his characters lack the dimension to match the artwork.

Michael Cho is a man who does not court danger in any way. Even Shoplifter‘s denouement plays out like a didactic game of Whac-A-Mole, with its shopworn trope of a shopkeeper with a heart of gold. Yet at least one middlebrow hack wheezing in Los Angeles has risibly suggested that Cho is “operating out of a tradition,” without remembering the degree to which 20th century artists were persecuted for their “unwholesome” tales. As astutely documented in David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague, comic book artists faced professional and criminal punishment, as well as charges of contributing to “juvenile delinquency,” simply because they had the effrontery to tell visual stories that were odd or weirdly imaginative. It’s bad enough that the contemporary fiction market has become saturated with mediocre narratives of privileged people blogging or vacationing in Europe, but do we have to flood the comics market with this gutless junk as well?

Now that comics have become widely accepted, with unscrupulous sharks in suits sauntering through San Diego’s relentless cacophony to snatch up any young pup who can make them a few easy bucks, I’m wondering why someone as talented as Michael Cho has willfully ignored the fiercer tradition that made comics fun in the first place.

Native Sons in Philadelphia: Why We Need More Novelists Like Jean Love Cush

ENDANGERED
by Jean Love Cush
Amistad, 272 pages

There are petulant Caucasians who stretch out their soft, unfettered, and upper middle-class hands for the gluten-free, vegan muffins at their cozy corner bakery when they’re not waiting for the afternoon dacha trip to stave off the high stress of a Tuesday morning hot yoga session. And then there is the rest of America: those who try to make ends meet with a minimum wage job and little more than a high school education, families crowded inside small apartments who go to bed with the nightly reports of gunfire, and young African-Americans who cannot run into a cop without being handed some bogus rap (and, in the case of Eric Garner, killed for wanting to be left alone). One world remains blissfully unaware of the other. The other world must contend with its stories being excised from mainstream culture, even as it must stifle its anger at being marginalized or erased altogether from vital conversations.

One would think that the variegated possibilities of literature would be robust enough to bridge this awful gap, but we have seen whitewashed book covers, YA characters of color doomed to what Christopher Myers refers to as “the apartheid of children’s literature,” bestselling African-American authors told that there is no audience for their work, and racism still lingering in the science fiction world. Yet Jean Love Cush’s Endangered, a powerful work of fiction that, in a more civilized and inclusive world, would be discussed at book clubs and held up in independent bookstores as a vital glimpse inside neglected truths, has been completely ignored by newspapers and abandoned by purportedly enlightened tastemakers fond of uttering the defensive words “Some of my best friends are…” at cocktail parties.

The book, set just after Obama’s inauguration, centers around a fifteen-year-old boy in Philadelphia named Malik Williams who, like any black kid in the wrong place at the wrong time, is arrested because he vaguely matches the general description of a homicide suspect. Malik’s mother, Janae, who works as a cafeteria worker, tries to rescue her son between work stints she is barely able to reduce to half-shifts. She cannot afford an attorney who can offer the appropriate defense on her meager salary. The prosecution wishes to try Malik as an adult. Malik’s story is picked up by the media, who wishes to spin his narrative into a fearful vision of cities gripped by violence, complete with armchair academics insisting that trying children as adults is the only way to combat the problem. (On this point and many others, Cush is dead on. It is quite easy to find these specious arguments for “responsibility” if you poke around FOX News.) As Janae becomes a more uncomfortably visible participant in her son’s story, she comes to understand how the media has built a regressive belief culture on racial bias:

As a young girl, she’d come to believe that it was black men who committed all the crimes. They were the ones who were identified in the news stories by the anchors and reporters she’d trusted. Even when a news story left out the racial description, it was easy to fill in the blank and assume the perpetrator was black because of how many other times the bad guy was identified was black. Now, Janae knew that the images she saw on the news, the stories they chose to report on, and even the news angle had more to do with the story the reporter wants to tell or the agenda of the network than a deep-seated passion to get at the truth.

In a nod to Richard Wright’s Boris Max, Cush introduces Roger Whitford, a prominent white human rights attorney who helps Janae with her case. But there is also Calvin Moore, a black attorney who worked his way into a big firm out of the ghetto, blackmailed by one of the partners into becoming involved in the case “that we cannot have any part of because of the potential fallout from it.” Both Whitford and Moore work under the guise of the Center for the Protection of Human Rights, a controversial organization offering the provocative thesis that the Endangered Species Act should be extended to black boys, under the theory that nearly every statistic shows that young blacks are fated to be massacred.

Many of the stats that Cush conveys through her characters can actually be backed up. Last October, The Sentencing Project submitted a harrowing report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, revealing that one in three African American males born today can expect to find themselves in prison at any given time in their lives. The report (PDF) cited black youth’s disproportionate incarceration. Blacks are 16% of all American children, yet make up 28% of juvenile arrests. According to the report, which relied on government statistics and academic scholarship, this unpardonable disparity cannot be pegged solely on poverty and a higher crime rate. Implicit racial bias, predicated upon overworked cops making impulsive decisions and the majority of our nation associating African-Americans with such modifiers as “dangerous,” “aggressive,” “violent,” and “criminal,” is also to blame.

So there’s something refreshingly risky and necessary in Cush unpacking her Endangered Species Act premise. In fact, the idea is not unique to Cush. In 2012, D.L. Hughley made a mockumentary (see clip above) in which he lobbied to declare African-Americans an endangered species. In February 2014, Wayne Brady was courageous enough to declare that “the young black man is becoming an endangered species.” Like caustic headlines from The Onion, perhaps these dialogues in comedy and in fiction presage real events.

But the concept also means comparing young African-Americans to animals — a prospect that Janae isn’t especially thrilled about and one that bears uncomfortable resonances to Anthony Cumia’s racist Twitter tirade and 911 operator April Sims’s similarly atavistic sentiments. The suggestion here is that pursuing a severe protective measure for blacks in response to escalating violence could involve playing into the remaining racist sentiments held by those in power.

Endangered is not a perfect book. It is riddled with some undercooked prose (“It was as if fire had darted from her eyes and mouth and singed the hell out of him” and beads of sweat used too often as a shorthand description for tension). But the book crackles with challenging considerations one does not often see in contemporary fiction and is greatly helped by the undeniable momentum of its thrilling story, even if its socially conscious melodrama results in some extraordinary conduct by a judge late in the book. Nevertheless, Endangered is a truer, braver, and more emotional novel than most of the lumpy oatmeal pumped out of the Brooklyn bourgie mill. I would rather read a slightly flawed yet highly visceral book going for broke than another myopic and overly praised entry in the Brooklyn latte genre, and I suspect so would most of America.

Robin Black’s Parable of the Old and the Young

LIFE DRAWING
by Robin Black
Random House, 256 pages

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
— Wilfred Owen, “Strange Meeting”

James Joyce’s remarkable coolness towards the First World War while writing Ulysses has been observed by many, and that century-old dilemma of how to depict quotidian complexities in a time of international turmoil is something of a wry undercurrent in Robin Black’s sharply observed novel, Life Drawing. Between Black’s novel and Clare Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, characters named Nora are swiftly becoming the literary answer to NORAD, revealing cold domestic wars nearly as underestimated in their body count as some matter in the Balkans that will be surely resolved by Christmas. More on Nora in a bit.

The book’s 47-year-old protagonist, Augusta, is known as “Gus” by her husband Owen — a teacher and writer whose birthday is strongly insinuated as Bloomsday — and “Augie” by everyone else. That nickname disconnect should tell you everything about this quietly fraught marriage. Augie neither bellows nor marches, at least not at the beginning, but she does spoon out parts of her life in small details. We learn she is an artist of some kind, yet she is diffident about the projects she has painted. Augie is Jewish, but this revelation arrives almost as a perfunctory confessional aside, some hint at the iceberg hidden beneath the water. This approach not only keeps us curious, but tells us that Augie is hiding something: not dirty laundry, but an inner turmoil erected upon decisions over matters it may be too late to clear up.

Augie and Owen have fled the Philadelphia art scene for a new life and bucolic rejuvenation at a farmhouse built in 1918: in part to escape the hurtful residue of an affair Augie had and halted. This deceit is the first of many stings and untruths to come. When Augie finds a stack of newspapers used a century before to insulate the walls, the brutal reports and dead ancestors spilling from these yellowed column-inches serve as rocky and uncertain inspiration (“Why? I didn’t know why. I’d stopped thinking sensibly — which is not how projects usually begin for me.”). For Augie, making art becomes a strange, seemingly liberating narcotic, a curious, ego-flexing gauze to throw over the more important gaze you need to direct at the world. (We learn later, when an unexpected muse arrives, that Owen’s writing is driven by the same impulse. Scrupulous character strokes like this allow us to understand that, even though these two are wrong for each other, they are nevertheless bound by the same beguiling temperament. Late in the book, a gripping and circumlocutory chat in a car offers the best case against trying to work out a marital catastrophe without a couples therapist that I am likely to read in a novel this year.) Black introduces a new neighbor named Alison, who has temporarily rented an adjacent house after retreating from an abusive husband. “I am big on fresh starts,” says Alison not long after meeting Augie, “Second chances. Third, if necessary.” It’s clear from this intensity that Alison needs any soul to help her get back on her feet, yet Augie cannot detect this. They form an ephemeral bond over trips to the farmer’s market and regular visits.

There are big reasons why Augie is friendless and exiled in the country. She’s still emailing with Laine, the daughter of the man she had an affair with, offering her pointers on how to be a painter and she hasn’t told her husband about this. Alison has her own art, and, while it is more macroscopic in nature, it’s driven by a vivid fluidity that Augie can’t find with the dead soldiers she’s resurrecting by paint. And then there’s Nora, Alison’s daughter, who becomes smitten with Owen and who understandably takes up more of Alison’s time. Augie turns jealous and judgmental, and this is where matters turn nasty:

Yes, she was self-absorbed, but now that she had relaxed, it seemed less as through that were the result of ego and instead entirely appropriate for a young woman excited about her life and also excited to have met someone to idolize. She was a bit short on boundaries, but to be otherwise at twenty-two might have been off-putting in its own way.

We begin to see that, while Augie distinguishes characteristics between the old and the young, she can’t discern the same clawing and childish qualities inside herself. Moreover, Augie cannot understand that the young generation now lives in an environment in which every private action becomes public (and, strangely enough, the willful exposure of private confidences is quite similar to what ultimately befalls Nora in Messud’s The Woman Upstairs). Black’s careful juxtapositions not only reveal Augie’s desperate longing for a motherhood she never decided upon, but show how her desperate drift to art is part of the same reason she cannot see the frailty and beauty of people.

The book continues the fearless interior probing into a middle-aged woman’s life that we saw last year with Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Both Life Drawing and The Woman Upstairs feature protagonists who disguise their fury at making terrible life choices with furious painting. Yet both arrive at their jolting revelations from altogether different trajectories. It remains anyone’s guess whether Black, like Messud, will suffer the indignity of having to defend the “unlikable character” rap. But Black’s work is just as important.

Black garnered justifiable acclaim for her excellent short story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This. (If you have 53 minutes, I interviewed her in 2010. There is also a wonderful interview by Anna Clark at The American Prospect that considers the politics of complicated heroines.) What made Black’s stories sing was her willingness to depict the inner lives of older women, who are often overlooked in fiction, without resorting to explicit metaphors. In Life Drawing, she builds off this promise beautifully, creating the kind of harrowing fiction that causes any reader — man or woman, older or younger, artist or non-artist — to take a hard, necessary, and emotional look in the mirror.

Emily Gould, Literary Narcissism, and the Middling Millennials

“I just expect more from life. Seriously, it’s like I want every day to be exciting! And scary! And a rollercoaster of creative experience, as if I’m making a new life for myself in France.” — Hannah, shortly before being fired from GQ, Girls, “I Saw You.”

“The bottom line is this: You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t, but also knowing that literature is indispensable to the world. The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change it….If there is no moral question, there is no reason to write. I’m an old-fashioned writer and, despite the odds, I want to change the world. ” — James Baldwin, September 1979 interview with The New York Times

Richard Wright was 32 when he published Native Son. Dinaw Mengestu was 26 when he published All the Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears. Edwidge Danticat had two novels and a short story collection under her belt before she was 30. James Baldwin published Go Tell It on the Mountain when he was 29. Publishing fiction was neither an act of vanity nor a declaration of entitlement for these formidably talented figures. Their novels were all serious works of art peering fearlessly into America’s troubled soul, demanding that readers pay attention and alter their reality by a bristling strand. Their stories burned from their typewriters and computers as naturally as kindling on an uncontainable fire.

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Yet an insufferable new group of mediocre writers and book boosters, armed with a 24/7 presence on social media, has emerged not only to debase literature, but to drive out vibrant, risk-taking literary lights with the advocation of childish, anglophonic, and apolitical narratives that read more like the old Sassy articles once devoured by preening teens. (Indeed, the obsession with nostalgia and adolescent mimicry is so commiserable that this group’s indefatigable flight from adulthood at such a late age is quite embarrassing when compared against the commendable industry of RookieMag‘s teen prodigy Tavi Gevinson.) To some degree, this is an offshoot of what Tom Whyman has smartly identified as “cupcake fascism,” whereby embracing empty bourgeois comfort supplants even the most half-hearted engagement. It is almost a cultural variant to Gresham’s law, with bad writers supported by vulgar and illiterate marketing people, a crass coterie of booksellers and digital evangelists who show more evidence of hoarding books than reading them, and ancillary parties tweeting wistfully about wanting more time to write or going to France or eating in French restaurants, with the reliable flow of selfies, smartphone snaps of status galleys, and Instagram photos with authors interspersed for appropriate authenticity. They aspire to see cultural metropolises much as Stefan Zweig romanticized Old Vienna in The World of Yesterday, but lack the careful grace, the painstakingly acquired erudition, and the interdisciplinary refinement to go the distance. The results are little more than slovenly self-love.

straub-emmaIf you are a dedicated reader in Brooklyn fond of sliding bills across smooth countertops in exchange for tantalizing tomes in independent bookstores, you have probably encountered the Middling Millennials. They are largely white women who are almost totally in the dark about their privilege, many bolstering a blinkered neoliberal feminism that demands a rectifying army of Mikki Kendalls and Djuna Barneses. They often confuse the act of literary engagement with coquettish pom-pom flogging. They are somewhere between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-three and are often found on Tumblr interspersing “fun facts” and JPEGs with quotes that, despite the lofty intent, are more self-help than literary. These relentlessly unchallenging digital shrines are frequently adorned with a bean-boosting “THIS” appended to the head of a calcified, well-tread, self-righteous sentiment that is reblogged — that is, if the MMs are not too busy Gchatting with others about the latest literary gossip. Some of the more pathetic specimens lean closer to forty and are often enlisted to interview esteemed authors before a small crowd under the mistaken impression that the interviewer is the center of attention. This group is not to be confused with the fine young minds and respectable hustlers who run and contribute to The New Inquiry, Open Letters Monthly, Jacobin, Hazlitt, Full Stop, HTML Giant, The American Reader, and Triple Canopy (to name but a few), who have all proven to be promising and proficient readers of a wide range open to lively and respectful challenge. To be perfectly pellucid, we are identifying disproportionate tadpoles who respond to any form of disagreement with a knee-jerk “Dead to me!” block on social media and return to their cheery consumerist chatter, blissfully unaware of greater global problems.

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The Middling Millennials are hostile to nonfiction, history, politics, and any topic that is real or remotely challenging. They have been harming the literary clime with their relentless pablum for at least a good year, actively encouraged by hoary outlets like n+1, The Awl, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and The Millions, all quietly hoping that this confluence of cheerleading and seductive reductionism will enlarge their cultural influence. While the actual population of Middling Millennials is difficult to measure (MFA vs. NYC, a volume published earlier this year by n+1, was allegedly substantive enough to attract the notice of The New Republic, The New York Times, and other outlets), the quality of the MM arguments are, on the whole, remarkably pauce — with thinking deracinated altogether, swapped with a fawning devotion more at home in a San Diego entrepôt.

valentinetomiddlemarch

The Middling Millennials are never just booksellers or writers or publishers. They have not heeded the realities promulgated by Barnard College president Debora L. Spar in her book Wonder Woman. They must “have it all” and announce their hyphenates, even when untrue. Thus, unremarkable people believe that they should be the center of attention, presenting themselves as superheroes committed to supererogatory tasks. Michele Filgate, a selfie enthusiast with a compulsive need for attention, begins a purportedly thoughtful article on Dave Eggers’s The Circle with “I get a sort of high [sic] when people retweet me,” and announces herself as a “writer and Community Bookstore Events Coordinator” — even as published novelists report having to endure her unspeakably boorish “Do you know who I am?” hijinks off the clock.

rachelf2Rachel Fershleiser, who once described herself as a “writer, editor, and bookseller in New York City,” has a LinkedIn profile that reveals not much more than a dumb-as-dirt, insufferable publicist who wishes to limit discourse while feigning her belief in community as she toils at Tumblr in some “Literary and Nonprofit Outreach” capacity. Note how real vocational callings (“Events Coordinator” and “bookseller in New York City”) are always placed second. When this thoroughly mediocre woman in her early thirties isn’t chirruping like a red-billed quelea who doesn’t understand that 1.5 billion other birds are twittering the same tune, she’s regressing back into adolescence with the camera as her enabling muse, uptalking her superficial platitudes through the intellectually ignoble forum of TED Talk (and employing the linguistically impecunious neologism “Bookternet”), when not dropping her dry and cavernous rictus not out of any fealty to enduring literature, but for a Veronica Mars tie-in novel written by Rob Thomas that nobody will remember in ten years. Improbably, this fatuous, tenth-rate Bernays disciple was asked to serve as judge for The Morning News‘s annual Tournament of Books, where she had to decide between Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (an ambitious and bona-fide masterpiece written by the 28-year-old Eleanor Catton that went onto win the Booker Prize) and Scott McClanahan’s Hill William. (Poor McClanahan asked to be removed from the bloodthirsty contest without success.) Fershleiser opted for the latter. The Luminaries was merely “a fussy book about men and their money and their honor and their prostitutes and their ships. Catton can and should write about whatever she likes, but I’ve read about these guys before. I want to read something new.”

“A fussy book about men and their money” is a gross mischaracterization of what Catton was up to in The Luminaries. The novel concerns itself with, among other things, Cantonese immigrants during the Otago Gold Rush, the burdens and reliance upon astrology during a time in human history before accurate measurement, a vicious trafficking system and the lack of options for women, Maori culture, and the influence of the 1865 tradeback option on New Zealand. Fershleiser’s impoverished cramming session speaks to the abysmal folly of assigning a sophisticated book to someone clearly out of her depth. One can only imagine the ample idiocy that Rachel “Seen It All Before” Fershleiser would serve up had someone deigned to anoint her judge in the 1922 Tournament of Books with Ulysses pitted against another book. To denounce a book that a writer has toiled on for years with a few carelessly expressed, willfully uncomprehending paragraphs is a very Middling Millennial quality indeed. But then Fershleiser has never been about having a constructive conversation. When Jacob Silverman wrote his essay “Against Enthusiasm,” which asked perfectly reasonable questions concerning why the literary world had “become mired in clubbiness and glad-handing,” Fershleiser preferred to troll Silverman rather than consider his dialogue:

Maybe the MMs are part of what Leslie Jamison has identified as “post-wounded women” in her essay, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain.” Rather than weigh and confront the anguish that burns inside their hearts or consult the writing that may lead them to express their complicated feelings, they not only deny and prohibit writers who are willing to enter this realm, but openly deride them without an argument, even as they attempt to sublimate their “too cool for this” posturing into the public space of a bookstore, whose raison d’être is not to provide a forum for unconventional thought and serious discussion, but to move units to keep the place running at a tiny profit margin.

Perhaps the worst of these obnoxious crusaders is Emily Gould, a narcissist so delusional that she actually believes affixing her first name to a media unit (“books,” “magazine”) will sprout an empasmic empire. Her new novel, Friendship, not only advocates the MM way of life, but is surely the most aloofly written novel about youthful striving since Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men. (As it so happens, Gould and Gessen are getting married in October. Solipsists make strange bedfellows.)

* * *

“For young people…ecstatic admiration for talent in all its forms leads them irresistibly to look at themselves, wondering whether they can perhaps detect a trace of that sublime essence in their own unexplored bodies or still partly unenlightened minds.” — Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday

gould4Emily Gould was hatched in Silver Spring, Maryland on October 13, 1981: the bouncing daughter of a public relations man and a self-employed lawyer and mediator. Had social media and smartphones been around more than three decades ago, it is almost certain that her dewy newborn hands would have stretched out with hollow hunger to replace the default egg avatar on her Twitter account not long after overworked doctors snipped her umbilical cord. It did not take long for Gould to develop a worldview that placed her at the center of the universe. In her execrable autobiography And the Heart Says Whatever, Gould reports being “dagger-stared [sic] by half the people I passed” in high school. There is no worthwhile self-examination, no attempt to comprehend why other students find her mean and selfish behavior loathsome, no efforts to empathize with their feelings. But she does compare this to “bad television.” One clearly sees that, even before she poured the Internet’s water over her naked confessional form in an oddly bathetic baptism, Gould’s relationship with other people was predicated upon diminishing their perspectives and rigging the narrative so that she emerged as the coldblooded white bread winner:

Luke was cute, not handsome, but adorable, like a basset hound puppy. He had wide, pretty eyes and a long nose and a sweet, tender mouth. Even when enraged there was something about his face that was just funny. Rage looked out of place when expressed by his amiable features. He had heard what I’d done, he told me, his voice trembling, and he wanted to work past it.

texaveryLike many young ambitious types, she moved to New York, where her hostility to anyone making art ripened, even as she believed herself “extraordinary.” In Heart, Gould describes an aspiring young man who asked her to be part of an amateur movie project. She went to his apartment and read his lines before the camera in a stilted manner. The director saw that Gould was nervous and kindly offered her a beer. Gould viewed this an opportunity to “see what an adult man’s bathroom would look like.” Gould’s NSA-like instinct for seizing private information while humiliating others in incremental ways was well-formed, almost awaiting Nick Denton’s curling hand to usher her into Gawker HQ. When the young man relayed the film’s story to Gould, Gould thought it was “the dumbest thing I’d ever heard.” But the young man was at least trying to create something. What was Gould doing other than wishing to be superior or waiting to be noticed? Gould’s astonishing egocentrism unfolds further when her “slowly building suspicion that he was not going to put the moves on me finally crystallized into certain knowledge.” This preposterous a priori sexuality oozes throughout the book, pleading for the more surefire helm of a young Elizabeth Wurtzel to push Gould’s sad makeshift schooner across the ocean. In the book’s introduction, Gould describes her first job, where she reported the presence of male eyes “following the movement of my back, conscious always that I was like the books displayed in the waiting are: an ornament that demonstrated the company’s power,” as if every Manhattan man is a lascivious Tex Avery creature with an outstretched tongue.

There is incessant condescension directed at working stiffs (“I admired the Balthazar employees, the way they danced around each other with studied grace as they fulfilled their patrons’ picky requests”) and a soupçon of transphobia (“the notorious ass-cheeked ads catering to the needs of the apparently huge New York population whose back pain can only be soothed by the massaging hands of a pre-op transexual”). But Gould eventually landed a job at Hyperion Books as an editor (among her most prominent acquisitions were “a graphic novel version of Dante’s Inferno, illustrated by ‘a group of leading artists'” and “a book of political humor” from the talk show host Lionel). She co-wrote a dreadful YA novel called Hex Education. Here is a small sample of her prose at the time, culled from a 2005 story published in Girl’s Life:

“Dudes, I saw A-piss-a with her shirt off today,” he told Paul Westlay and Doug Terrien. Those chuckleheads chuckled, as they always do at their lord and master Joel’s crappy jokes, which are nearly always at someone else’s expense.

gould5It was ultimately Gould’s blog, Emily Magazine, that got her writing for Gawker, where, lacking any real talent, she quickly made a name for herself invading people’s privacy. Gawker‘s ethos, if it can be called that, relied on poring through emails sent from anonymous tipsters. Aggrieved workers in the media industry would pass along rumors, forward memos, or shoot any toxic grist into this digital bundt cake factory. “I would investigate by quoting their anonymous allegations on the site,” wrote Gould in Heart, “and asking if anyone else knew anything more.” Note Gould’s improper and irresponsible usage of “investigate.” Even the lowliest Page Six or TMZ writer attempts to confirm a piece of gossip before reporting it. But Gawker did not. This was because Gould was an easily manipulated rube fueled by the prospect of spite. It hardly mattered if the item was true. “The rules for tips,” wrote Gould, “was that if three people wrote in about the same thing, we probably ought to do a post about it, no matter how dumb it seemed.” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Gould that savvy publicists may have noticed this pattern and manipulated Gawker much as they do other prominent outlets. But when a minx’s head is so deeply deposited up her own slimy passage, it’s often hard to see the sunshine.

* * *

“I don’t even really want to be a writer,” said Gould in an October 2007 article, “but I feel like I don’t have a choice. It’s all I’ve ever known how to do.”

This cry is similar, if considerably more arrogant, to Bret Harte’s declaration, just four months before his twenty-first birthday: “I have written some poetry; passable and some prose (good) which have been published. The conclusion forced upon me by observation and not by vain enthusiasm that I am fit for nothing else — must impel me to seek distinction and fortune in literature.” Harte may have been a fop, but he had talent and paid his dues doing meaningful work. He became editor of The Overland Monthly at the age of 32 after a raucous life of dutiful journalism on the pioneering front lines, catapulted to international fame through “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” his harrowing tale of how ruthless flooding impacted California. Gould would spend the next seven years wallowing in brackish muck of celebrity culture, whether actual or self-erected, with her vanity mirror kept close.

Like many bright young things who move to New York, this dim bulb believed that she was entitled to everything. And if that meant tearing down another person to advance another rung on the ladder, then so be it. Jason Pinter, who is one of the kindest and hardest working people in publishing I have ever known, was fired from his job at Crown because Gould had reposted one of his shop talk blog entries on Gawker. Did Gould have any sympathy, any sense of the impact of her actions, or any understanding about the way the book business worked (even after her Hyperion stint)? Not at all. She was colder than the mist on a chilled champagne glass. Here is how she responded to the news of Pinter’s sacking:

But don’t feel too bad for Pinter: he’s got his career as a thriller writer to fall back on! And besides, his last few stinky acquisitions for Three Rivers — which include a gimmicky blog book by that dude who bartered a paperclip for a house, and the latest by Modern Drunkard Frank Kelly Rich — are all someone else’s problem now. So really, Pinter owes us and Galleycat a beer or something for linking to his blog and getting him fired. We’ll hold our breaths waiting for the thank you note.

Aside from the fact that Gould didn’t appear to understand how book advances, often meager, were parceled out, the astonishing and inhumane claim that Pinter in some way “owes” Gould is the baffling takeaway that could only be tendered by a callous sociopath. Despite the fact that Gould would later state that, “It’s not OK to say false things about anyone,” she would continue to post irresponsible items on Gawker without checking or corroborating with the people she reported on. (For the record, I sent Gould a list of questions by email to give her an opportunity to respond to several points raised in this essay. She did not answer.)

On April 7, 2007, Gould appeared on Larry King Live to discuss the increasing nexus between celebrity journalism and citizen journalism. Jimmy Kimmel was filling in for Larry King. Gould’s appearance was disastrous, yet particularly revealing of the flimsy and fluctuating justifications she would offer for the nasty taint that has drifted over her professional life to the present day. Here is the pertinent part of the transcript:

KIMMEL: My problem is you post things that simply aren’t true on the site and you do no checking on your stories whatsoever. I’ll give you an example. There was a story about me that popped up on my Google search. It said “Daily Gawker Stalker, when isn’t Jimmy Kimmel visibly intoxicated?” And there’s a story about me being visibly intoxicated. I know it may be funny to you but I didn’t find it that amusing.

GOULD: OK.

KIMMEL: And a matter of fact, the story that talks about me being drunk, I was coming home with my cousin’s — my cousin’s 1-year- old birthday party with my elderly aunt and uncle and my kids and my cousins and I was — I may have been loud but I was far from intoxicated and you put these things on there. I mean I know you’re an editor. What exactly are you editing from the website?

GOULD: There’s a whole other aspect of our website that doesn’t have anything to do with the Stalker Map. But what the Stalker Map is citizen journalism. People don’t read with the expectation that every word of it will be gospel. Everyone who reads it knows that it isn’t checked at all.

KIMMEL: Well…

GOULD: What they read it for is immediacy.

KIMMEL: I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

GOULD: You don’t unfilter sort of the way people that perceive celebrities in real time that you don’t get from any other media. And that’s what I think is great about it.

KIMMEL: Well, I mean you also get what is essentially slanderous statements or libelous statements put on your website. For instance, today I noticed there was something about Kevin Costner. I went on to see what was there today. It said how fat Kevin Costner was and it had a picture of Jabba the Hutt next to him. Now, I know you sell advertising. I don’t know why anybody would buy advertising on a website. But I don’t know what the point of something like that is.

BRAGMAN: There’s also a big contradiction. She said citizen journalism. She used the word “journalism” and then said, “Everybody knows not everything is true.” Most journalists at least try for the truth. It’s a goal.

GOULD: I mean do you read “US Weekly” and expect that everything in it is true or “Star.”

(CROSSTALK)

BRAGMAN: I expect that they try. I get calls from them fact checking and I don’t from your website.

GERAGOS: That’s absolutely true. “US Weekly” at least has a legal department that vets things.

KIMMEL: And our photographers at least are taking photographs of things that are happening, as opposed to — I mean I’d just want you to think about your life and…

GOULD: Wow!

KIMMEL: …weigh your options. And I mean because I would hate to see you arriving in hell and somebody sending a text message saying, “Guess who’s here?” You know what I’m saying?

GOULD: Honestly, I think that there’s a shifting definition of what is public and what is private space for everyone not just celebrities. The Internet, blogs, MySpace, no one has the reasonable expectation of being able to walk around the street and not being noticed by someone.

KIMMEL: Well, that is just a terrible thing, though, isn’t it? I mean…

GOULD: Is it really? I mean I think it’s great that we’re not putting people up on a pedestal and worshipping them anymore. I think it’s that good people are acknowledging celebrities are real people.

KIMMEL: But you’re throwing rocks at them, though. I mean it seems to me that…

GOULD: Aren’t they kind of protected by piles of money from those rocks?

KIMMEL: No, no. And by the way, not all celebrities are wealthy. I mean you know that’s a silly and stupid thing to say, you know that. Come on now, just because people have money means it’s OK to say false things about them, to tear them down?

GOULD: It’s not OK to say false things about anyone.

KIMMEL: Well, you should check your website then.

* * *

Hyacinth Bucket: Is that for me?
The Postman: It says Bucket on the envelope.
Hyacinth Bucket: It’s Bouquet. B-U-C-K-E-T, Bouquet. The accent on the second syllable.
Keeping Up Appearances

edamesI was asked to serve as an announcer in a boxing match between Jonathan Ames and Craig Davidson at Gleason’s Boxing Gym on the evening of July 24, 2007. I had just moved to Brooklyn and was one year into a relationship with another journalist. She was Jewish. I was not. Because of this, we took great pains to keep our relationship out of the public eye — as several of her more religious family members were exceptionally sensitive to this development and we needed time to ease them into this reality. (The other journalist and I are still together.)

The boxing match was a great success and was exuberantly described by Ames himself in an essay included in his book, The Double Life is Twice as Good. As the other journalist and I walked into the streets holding hands, a young woman with blonde hair — who I later learned was Emily Gould from Gawker — rushed up to us and demanded to know my name. I didn’t really read Gawker, although I had expressed my dismay in May over a a Gould piece summoning needless resentment for Meghan O’Rourke, a fine writer and, to this day, nothing less than generous whenever I run into her. I was spending my time carefully studying books, developing my writing voice, and interviewing prominent writers only after thoroughly perusing and researching their work. But I sussed out immediately that she was some type of bizarre gossip columnist. I let go of my girlfriend’s hand.

“Hey,” said Gould in a bright and invasive voice.

“Hey,” replied my girlfriend.

“What are you guys doing tonight?”

No hello. No “My name’s Emily Gould.” No small talk. Just an immediate vulturous demand from a stranger on how we were living our lives.

I politely mumbled that it was none of her business. But she didn’t seem to hear me. For whatever reason, she had deemed the other journalist and me important. She insisted on knowing who I was. She felt she had a right to know who I was fucking, when my relationship was private and founded on more heart than she would ever know. I was utterly baffled by her boorish inquisitiveness. I was just some guy who ran a literary blog, who wrote a few things for newspapers, and who talked with authors.

I told her that I was Publius, figuring that Gould would suss out my reference to the anonymous authors of The Federalist Papers and be on her merry way.

“Publius?” she asked.

“Jack Publius,” I replied.

Gould still didn’t get the hint. My girlfriend picked up the reference immediately.

“It’s Italian,” said my girlfriend.

“Roman origins,” I said.

“Can you spell that?” replied Gould.

I was utterly stunned that someone who wrote for a major media site, someone who had an undergraduate education in the liberal arts, could be this ignorant. I spelled out “Publius” for Gould, pointing out that I was especially concerned whenever people mispronounced and misspelled it. She jotted this down into her little notebook, her lips rustling over the three syllables as her pen whirled. Then she left.

* * *

“One of the great conditions of anger and hatred is, that you must tell and believe lies against the hated object, in order, as we said, to be consistent.” — William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair

gouldlaughingMonths later — on November 21, 2007 — Gould attempted to paint me as a lunatic in a Gawker post for having the temerity to ask for a check, a check that was four months late. Gould had intercepted a private email. I badly needed the money at the time. It was the only way that I could pay my rent. I had burned through the savings that I’d brought with me from San Francisco. Having little income beyond books I was able to sell to the Strand Book Store, I would often go for walks and, during an especially grim time, I overturned a cup of collected pennies onto the rickety wooden counter at a corner store to purchase the produce stacked in neat lines outside. There were a few weeks when the power went out in my apartment due to my inability to pay the electricity bill. I plucked power from the building by plugging an extension cord into the hallway outlet just outside my front door, using this to fuel my computer. I still had freelancing work. And I did, after all, have pieces to file. I am reluctant to call this poverty, because that that would be a gross insult to the estimated 1.29 billion people who live in soul-shattering squalor around the globe. But it was life more common than most writers would care to admit. I survived. Because I spent most of my time reading and writing and living and loving. And that was enough to keep me happy and alive.

Gould never once contacted me to get my side of the story, nor did she have the guts or the decency to return an email I sent her just after her hit piece ran. Having singled me out at the Ames-Davidson fight, she presumably viewed me as a “celebrity” in the form of a “famously crotchety book blogger.” Much as she defended her invasiveness to Kimmel by claiming that celebrities were “kind of protected by piles of money from those rocks,” failing to comprehend that not all public figures were cushioned by such wealth, she presumed that I was similarly buffered. So long as the story fit her nefarious thesis, her incessant need to poke her nose in business that was not hers to know, Gould could say anything she wanted.

* * *

gould3But even a torrid hoyden hopped up on spite cannot bang out twelve daily vituperative blog posts forever. On November 30, 2007, now firmly aligned with the n+1 frat club of vaguely punkish Hemingway wannabes, Gould resigned from Gawker (along with her aging co-editor Choire Sicha) in a public post. Gould claimed that Carla Blumenkranz’s article on Gawker had been one of the linchpins. Blumenkranz had nailed the cargo cult mentality of Gawker writers at the time: they believed themselves outsiders, the last humans standing in a media wasteland fighting for the remaining principles of journalism. But Gould had never represented any tenet other than the Promotion of Emily. Yet n+1 and one of its co-editors Keith Gessen represented a way out, a step towards legitimacy, the beginnings of mainstream acceptance, the furthering of autonomy.

Gessen and Gould began dating not long after.

On January 15, 2008, Gould returned to the airwaves, claiming that she had “stopped caring about the Internet” and soon began blogging again. This was all a warmup for “Exposed” — a May 25, 2008 New York Times Magazine cover story that would result in some of the most gargantuan vitriol Gould ever received. Almost setting the stage for the fallout to follow, on March 6, 2008, Gawker Media honcho Nick Denton spilled the beans on Gould’s involvement with Gessen, the last in a string of careerist bedhopping (co-blogger at Gawker, dumped for Observer reporter, dumped for Gessen) that resembled Barbara Stanwyck’s upward trajectory in the 1933 film Baby Face, and her gig with the Gray Lady, speculating that Gessen had used his connections to get her through the door.

Vanity Fair‘s Jim Windolf documented the fracas in great detail. Denton’s gambit worked. The tide turned against Gould and Gessen, especially when Gould broke up with Gessen, an especially mean and public dissolution that even Gessen’s greatest detractors would find unsettling, while he was on tour in May 2008, facing merciless reviews for his debut novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, and blogging his tour for The Stranger. As always, Gould had timed her behavior to get maximum attention.

nytcovers

On May 25, “Exposed” was published in the New York Times Magazine. It was a remarkably self-absorbed essay, with one of the most pitiful displays of navel gazing ever published in a major newspaper:

In high school, I encouraged my friends to circulate a notebook in which we shared our candid thoughts about teachers, and when we got caught, I was the one who wanted to argue about the First Amendment rather than gracefully accept punishment. I walked down the hall of my high school passing out copies of a comic-book zine I drew, featuring a mock superhero called SuperEmily, who battled thinly veiled versions of my grade’s reigning mean girls. In college, I sent out an all-student e-mail message revealing that an ex-boyfriend shaved his chest hair. The big difference between these youthful indiscretions and my more recent ones is that you can Google my more recent ones.

The cover story was significantly trite for a first-class venue, especially when compared against the ones that ran during the previous two weeks (a feature on girls’ sports injuries published on May 11, 2008 and an examination of John McCain’s lonely support for the Iraq War on May 18, 2008). The blog Young Manhattanite wrote one of the more memorable takedowns, rightly calling out Gould for being in denial about her narcissism. But this was also the beginning of the “Emily Gould Reborn/Reinvented” narrative that would play out exactly the same way six years later. Gould had shifted from being some malleable tool into a figure just charismatic enough to persuade prominent outlets that she was reformed. Gould had the congregation. All she needed was a sizable chorus, a thick hymn book, and enough saps who would buy into her turnabout tale. Who knows? Perhaps her father, a public relations executive, had given her a few pointers.

Gould began playing the victimhood card, mentioning that she began experiencing panic attacks and had started to see a therapist about her “feelings of being inordinately scrutinized.” Yet the Emily Reinvented storyline could not find space for any of the potential panic attacks and therapy experienced by those she casually brutalized on Gawker. If the reader feels sorry for Gould — and one can always find a little pity for a mangy dog about to be gassed at the pound — the feeling dissolves when one ponders her perpetual devotion to betraying people while seeing herself as the target. It especially helps if you’re familiar with Nixon.

Meanwhile, Gould pretended to be a journalist. She was a bad actor stumbling through a clumsy run of a Ben Hecht play (or auditioning for some budding director with a camera whose storyline she believed was “the dumbest thing she ever heard”). If that meant writing an article for Russia! about Russian-born American writers prominently featuring her boyfriend (without disclosing the relationship or recusing herself or dropping Gessen from the article because of this conflict of interest), Gould would cross the line. Because she had no scruples. She had only a depraved appetite for more.

The “Exposed” article helped Gould land a book deal with a $200,000 advance. She confessed, as late as 2012, that it was “a lot of money.” But close to the early allocation of her windfall, she continued to bray about her enemies on her blog. She would tinker with the tale to continue the Emily Reinvented storyline, spinning her profligacy into a story of “poverty” that, when I was skipping meals and working my ass of and trying to get a break as a writer, I could only dream about.

* * *

“I was double, English and Philosophy. I don’t remember a thing.”
“Who does?”
“Seriously, though. I look at the books on my shelves and it’s clear that I read them, back then, but I can’t remember ever doing it, and I don’t have the first idea what they might be about.”
“Read them again, then?”
Danielle sighed. “Not now. Maybe someday. I look at them and wonder who I was, you know? It’s a long time ago. I’m thirty.”
— Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children

Gould’s ravenous need to tear people down didn’t end with Gawker. She still specializes in trolling and clumsy railing to this day, whether it’s calling out the “unprecedented entitled band of horrible assholes” who live in Bushwick, Greenpoint, and Williamsburg right now (a perfect test case for Eric Schwitzgebel’s “theory of jerks”) or feminists who offer bold journalistic critiques of The Daily Show‘s gender problem with its staff. (Of the latter umbrage, Gould failed to note that Jezebel‘s Irin Carmon actually interviewed people — a reportorial regularity that Gould remains incapable of practicing.)

These days, Gould often snipes through the more pusillanimous form of the subtweet. Twitter remains a fairly dependable fishbowl for tweets that not only debunk the Emily Reinvented storyline, but reveal that the gormlessness and the nastiness, which once guided Gould through twelve bilious posts a day at Gawker, is alive and well.

gouldknausgaard

Gould’s flippant posturing involves dismissing Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six volume, 3,600 page, groundbreaking autobiographical fiction with an emoticon and then offering a cutesy, anti-intellectual “i’m kind of a philistine.” It involves not letting Adelle Waldman, who wrote one of the most accomplished debut novels of 2013, have her rare moment in the sun when Lena Dunham, who raved over how marvelous The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P was — indeed, so marvelous that the writers of Girls consulted the book for inspiration during the third season, arguably the strongest run of the series — to her then 1.2 million followers. Only three minutes after Dunham’s tweet, Gould posted a derisory “no thanks.”

gouldwaldman

And these are just the tweets that remain open for public inspection. On any given long, dark early evening of the soul (with or without Keith Gessen), Gould can be found revealing her vicious nature, provided you happen to be there. On the stormy night of April 30, 2014, when five inches of rain barraged New York City over the course of a single evening, I happened to be on Twitter. Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz had recently published a very moving piece in response to the publication of MFA v. NYC, pointing to how people of color were being actively discouraged in MFA workshops. Forms of creative expression that weren’t white enough were being systematically pushed out. Promising talent was giving up. Rather than engaging with Diaz’s argument, Gould chided Diaz on Twitter for using “impacted” as a verb. Novelist Porochista Khakpour challenged Gould. Gould responded with a series of vicious tweets (all swiftly deleted). I was able to screenshot some of the conversation, which reflected the utterly superficial manner in which Gould approached an important and racially loaded subject.

gouldporochista

It was an uncomfortable repetition of an episode from And the Heart Says Whatever, when Gould described a young student reading an essay called “Memoirs of an Angry Black Woman Syndrome,” a tale of victimhood that could not have been easy to write. This was not unlike a writing student, who Diaz identified as Athena, talking “constantly about the workshop’s race problem, about the shit our peers said to us (shit like: Why is there even Spanish in this story? Or: I don’t want to write about race, I want to write about real literature.)” Athena disappeared, a casualty of a system that believes in Alice Munro but that often turns its back on Octavia Butler or Love and Rockets. It is telling that Gould doesn’t remember any details of the Angry Black Woman’s essay. Her response to the student mimics her clueless online behavior in 2014:

When it was my turn, I asked a clarification question in a way that made it unnecessarily obvious that I thought the essay was poorly written. Its author narrowed her eyes at me, then kept glaring as her mouth smiled. “I’m sure you’re just speaking from ignorance, not racism,” she said.

One has to wonder whether the Angry Black Woman used “impact” as a verb. That Gould doesn’t have the courage to reveal the full extent of her ugliness — and it’s worth pointing out that even Dave Eggers had the stones to cop to his racist fears on a beach in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — is telling of the timidity that belies Gould’s professed candor. Of course, now that Gould is a grown woman, her insensitivity can’t just be chalked up to mere ignorance. If Emily has “changed,” then why does the song remain the same? Gould’s commitment to white literary power is reflected in her curatorial instincts at her online bookstore, Emily Books. Of the thirty-two authors listed on the site, only two — Samantha Irby and Sigrid Nunez — are not white. Barbara Browning is a white woman who has written extensively about Brazil. But it’s telling that Gould’s commitment to writers of color fits in with the Middling Millennial/Jezebel hard line. Perhaps the time has come to coin a #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomenWriters hashtag to protest this atavism.

Despite being set in sections of Brooklyn substantially populated by people of color, there are no black characters in Gould’s novel, Friendship. Indeed, when Gould writes, “Bev’s shoulders were strong and white in her tank top,” one can’t help but wonder if there is the modest trace of Leni Riefenstahl purring in her Caucasians-first heart. Compare this with Adelle Waldman’s careful detail in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, which also features prominent white characters: “a newish establishment that appeared to be patronized almost exclusively by the white people who’d begun to move into the historically black neighborhood in which it is located,” “a crowd of black women whose calf-length skirts clung to their legs in the breeze,” and “as the train moved deeper into Brooklyn, more and more white people got off. Eventually almost everyone who remained was black — and tired.” Even Lena Dunham responded to critics who rightly chided her for featuring too many white characters by featuring more African-American characters in Girls‘s third season. That Gould lacks the basic observational skills to notice non-white people in Brooklyn says much about her distorted reality and her ineluctable self-absorption.

Gould’s reaction to Khakpour was pure Middling Millennialism all the way: the assumption that she was always right, the indifference to history and the inflexibility to other perspectives, the failure to offer a reasonable argument, and the hostility to being challenged. While Gould went out of her way to scrub her tweets, Khakpour’s response remains a good indicator of how a clueless and privileged white woman deals with the big questions:

Gould’s spineless stratagem is not unlike the revisionism of prominent Republicans who pulled their support for a released POW not long after learning that Taliban prisoners were traded to make the deal happen. Gould, the invasive non-journalist who scoured through the bathrooms of budding directors and reveled in getting people fired, won’t hold herself accountable. There is, after all, the Emily Reinvented narrative to promote.

* * *

On February 24, 2014, Gould published an essay on Medium, which would also appear in the MFA vs. NYC anthology, in which she set forth her purported financial suffering. She wrote that the $200,000, after taxes and agent’s commission, allowed her to live alone in Brooklyn for three years in a one bedroom apartment and pay for health insurance. She did not seem to understand that not only is this an extraordinarily rare, if unrepeatable, success, but that three years is quite ample time to work out a day job/freelancing strategy that leaves enough writing time to keep the books career going. Gould squandered her time on her blog. She was very fortunate, unlike many writers, to have a boyfriend who could pay her rent and float one of her credit cards. She didn’t seem to understand that working people don’t have the luxury of blowing $1,500 for a vet or $1,700 for rent.

But let’s move away from the class argument.

A real writer sits in front of the computer and does the work. Every day. Or close to it. It does not matter if the writer is published or not. It does not matter if the audience is three, three thousand, or three million. A real writer is free and imaginative enough to take risks. A real writer writes when the chips are down. A real writer writes when she is hungry or when she is at her lowest point. A real writer doesn’t even need an Internet connection. So long as there are pens, paper, electricity somewhere, functional computers, dictionaries, and grammar books, there are no reasons other than your own laziness not to write. Fifteen minutes, twelve hours, whatever you can spare each day.

Gould was not a real writer.

She was not a real writer because she could not listen to a man who wanted to tell her his sob story after she purchased him a kebab. She was not a real writer because she could not bring herself to fully feel a musical. She was not a real writer because she fantasized more about patrician coziness than the worlds she created on the page or the joyful people and iridescent details around her or the marvel and beauty of language. She was not a real writer because she cared too much about how people perceived her, about how her books were marketed, about where she was in the pecking order. She was not a real writer because she did not have the discipline to not pay attention to the people (in this case, Lena Dunham) preventing her from doing the work, even as she had the full financial and emotional support of her lover.

Most of all, she was not a real writer because the only person she could tap was the uncreative figure staring back in the vanity mirror.

* * *

“Amy had been sitting around the creepy loft all morning in front of her laptop, headphones on to foreclose the possibility of conversation with the hippies, telling herself she was gathering her strength and was just about to go to the cafe around the corner, where she’d disable her computer’s access to the Internet and spend time revising her C.V. to reflect her newly adjusted set of goals. She wanted to position herself as someone who wasn’t a writer so much as a “content creator” or, better, a “content strategy consultant” — someone who might be able to work for brands or ad agencies, not blogs like Yidster. It was getting close to noon now, she was hungry for lunch, and her limbs twitched restlessly because they craved motion, but somehow she couldn’t stop mindlessly scrolling through Tumblr, liking photographs of food and animals. Her actual cat lay at her feet, occasionally pawing her and trying to engage her in play, but she fobbed him off with some desultory petting and then continued to ignore him in favor of the cats on the screen.” — Friendship

Gould still managed to write a novel. It isn’t a very good one, in large part because Gould has little imagination or insight. Emily became Amy. Her cat Raffles became Waffles. Keith became Sam.

Friendship tells the story of Beverly Tunney and Amy Schein, two white women both over the cusp of thirty. The book purports to be a vivid chronicle of their friendship, yet these two flat and uninteresting characters share nothing of consequence about themselves in their conversations or their experience. They do not talk about the world’s bountiful wonders or their families and friends or the thrill of being alive. Their banter is largely comprised of trash-talking people they despise. They are the creations of a desultory demimonde who does not do a lot of listening.

It is possible to write about young and self-absorbed people living in Brooklyn without coming across as a turgid typist mining familiar white-collar territory. Adelle Waldman has done this tremendously well in her novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P:

No matter how much he told himself that he had done nothing wrong with regard to her, not according to the standards that he and everyone he knew lived (if anything she was in the wrong in her clinginess and undignified hysteria, on some intuitive level, Nate began to feel culpable. A stentorian, Faulker-like voice within him insisted on seeing the relationship in stark moralistic terms. He’d been drawn — this voice intoned — to Elisa because of her beauty, because she seemed first-rate, because of her well-known father and shining pedigree, and he, nerd, loser that he’d been, had always suspected that people like her, people like Amy Perelman, with their good looks and popularity, had something he didn’t, something impenetrable by intelligence alone, a sort of magic and grace, a wordless wisdom about how to live, and a corresponding access to unknown pleasures.

Waldman’s phrases are neatly separated by commas, representing the jumbled torment of conflicting ideas colliding inside Nate’s head. We see how literary aspirations and status anxiety — the “stentorian, Faulkner-like voice” — trigger a flood of qualitative nouns (“beauty,” “looks,” “popularity,” “pedigree,” “intelligence,” “magic,” “wisdom,” and “grace”) that Nate feels entitled to possess and how this, in turn, galvanizes his interest in Elisa and Amy Perelman. And because Waldman has given us an origin point for Nate’s coveting (an inner self-reflective voice, one that could curb the selfishness and the neuroses if it didn’t transmute into a chatty tendril warped by literature and superficial judgment), we become more curious about his personality. One year after the novel’s publication, young people are calling a certain kind of a man “a total Nathaniel P.”

But when we contrast Waldman’s passage against Gould’s representations of youthful struggle, it becomes very clear who the real writer is:

Amy stared at Sam, the cigarette cherry burning dangerously close to her clenching fingertips. They’d spent so much time together, breathing the same air, sleeping in the same bed, hearing each other use the bathroom and not really caring or even thinking about it. For the past few months it had seemed as if they were in each other’s lives for real, maybe for good. But now it seemed that Amy might have made a mistake. Maybe she had assumed that what she and Sam had was veering in a permanent direction because they were at an age when people got married.

This train ride into the internal goes off the rails after four mere words, beginning with the irrelevant and awkwardly written detail of “the cigarette cherry.” Gould’s habit of imbuing meaningless objects with hollow language is a tic throughout the book, one that asphyxiates her characters before they get a chance to use their lungs, but the sheer waste here should have been caught by an editor. Where Waldman deftly deploys “had” throughout a sentence so that our attention gravitates to the chunky nouns, Gould clings to gerunds like a quavering literature student too terrified to push past the cover of a Henry Green novel. The result is banality (“not really caring or even thinking about it”), stilted greeting card copy (“they were in each other’s lives for real”), extraneous declarations (“it seemed that Amy might have made a mistake”), and, above all, an absence and avoidance of real feeling, bulldozed for vapid and generalized notions of life (“they were at an age when people got married”). It is the work of someone who rushes to words much as a sorority clamors to a kegger. It is a strong sign that fiction writing is not Gould’s true calling. Which is perfectly fine. Since Gould pines for affluence, there are more reliable modes of securing it. One does not write to become rich.

But let us give Gould’s above passage some benefit of the doubt. It is also possible to use a woman’s gaze to establish what her perspective is, even lassoing the smartly positioned adverb or two along the way, as Kate Zambreno does to great effect in Green Girl:

Her eyes feast on the rows and rows of color, like a neatly ordered painter’s palette, the pyramid of tubes of lip gloss, gilted compacts bearing a prism of tiny mirrors. Occasionally she would smooth one finger over a glittery palette of eyeshadows with enigmatic names. Types of flora and fauna. Names of movie stars, presidential wives, ordinary girls. Marilyns and Audreys and Sophias and Jackies and Julies and Kathys.

In five sentences, Zambreno unlatches the trap designed to ensnare many women, illuminating how consumerist allure forces them into an almost Ramesean ideal, converting ordinary names into monuments, with the scarring cartouches just outside the public eye. If Gould had possessed even a whit of Zambreno’s talent or awareness, she could have forged a more fluid take on how influence shapes women and how women, in turn, shape influence. But instead of letting Bev and Amy talk or act upon these feelings, they came off as passive characters who meet up in bars to deride co-workers or anyone living a happy life, watch TV, and eat constantly. This pair is so poorly realized that, aside from Bev’s “Irish tolerance” and Amy’s spendthrift ways with money, they are practically indistinguishable from each other. There’s one late point in the book when Amy transforms into a kind of chick lit Smeagol when she learns of another character’s engagement:

Amy felt a visceral, impulsive pang of desire, the kind that could make someone grab food off a stranger’s plate. She wanted the ring so badly. She thought, crazily, of stealing it. She wanted to take it off Jackie’s finger and put in her mouth.

One almost expects Amy to seethe, “My precious,” with Andy Serkis waiting in the wings to perform a cross-cutting colloquy between Amy and Bev. It’s almost as if Gould, impelled by the desire to become a “real writer,” stared hard into the mirror until it shattered in half, with the two reflections spilling onto the page twice.

Gould has one atavistic emotion to fall back on. It’s the same vicious impulse that sustained her at Gawker:

“For a moment, rage flickered through her tensed body.”

“Amy felt a stab of genuine rage.” (Later, Bev feels a “stab of terror that shot through her viscera.” It is telling that Gould’s crutch words can be traced to sharp knives.)

“a little bit of what probably sounded like anger out of her voice”

“she was so angry, suddenly, that she felt as if she might spontaneously burst into flames” (Someone alert Jarndyce and Jarndyce.)

“She had shower monologued so many scathing condemnations of his behavior and his personality so many times.”

Moreover, when Bev springs a significant life-altering surprise upon an older woman named Sally Katzen, who lives in comfortable affluence and seems to exist solely as a target for Gould’s childish jealousy (a continuation of her pointless animus towards Meghan O’Rourke?), we learn that Bev has not talked out her plan in advance with Amy, which is especially strange, given that they are supposed to be best friends. Contrary to the preposterous claim by Virginia Quarterly Review‘s S. Kirk Walsh that “the reader is presented with strong female characters in all their complexities and imperfections,” Gould’s friendship is remarkably pat and simplistic, carefully established to avoid any serious plunge into social dynamics or visceral risk:

It was weird that in their five years of best friendship, Amy and Bev had never discussed morality, or whatever you wanted to call the rules they, respectively, lived by.

That amorality also extends to Gould herself. Late in the book, Sally asks one of the two fictionalized Goulds to perform an act of mercy. When the character does not respond, Sally then offers to write a check. And the character refuses. It’s the kind of blind cruelty that makes a reader with a conscience want to write a long and detailed debunking.

Bev becomes pregnant halfway through the book. Since Gould claims to be a feminist, one would think that Bev would consider abortion not long after, especially since Bev is experiencing financial difficulties. (An abortion typically costs between $300 and $950, while an uncomplicated pregnancy is anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000.) Gould, by her own admission, is terrible with money, and refuses to consider any perspective other than the privileged white woman’s. She opts for a a bizarrely reactionary twist. Abortion isn’t on the table, nor are any dimensional feelings. There are nebulous references to Bev’s religion, but because the Middling Millennials never want to think too hard about touchy subjects that affect a wide swath of people outside New York, this spirituality is never explored, just as the Jewish culture guiding the Jewcy-like Yidster (both have offices located in DUMBO) is unpursued. Gould is a juggler of generalities. She’ll never have the mettle to contend with live rotating chainsaws.

Gould is such a cowardly writer that she can’t even coax her characters to speak at the times they need to. Late in the book, there is a key moment in which Amy needs to say something serious to her boyfriend Sam (like Keith Gessen, Sam is Russian, a cultural figure, a man who married and divorced in his early twenties, and about eight years older than his girlfriend), but Gould is so inept that she offers this description instead:

She was wandering around the way you do on the phone, reaching out and plucking leaves from low branches of the saplings at the yard’s border, then crumpling them in her palm.

With Gould, there are always inconsequential objects for her characters to grab so that she can pad out her interminable 272-page novel with prolix description.

This is also bad storytelling, because Gould’s failure to get at the truth leads any vaguely sharp reader to swiftly deduce where the story is heading. And because Bev and Amy aren’t especially compelling figures, the book becomes an insufferable snoozefest. To add insult to incompetence, at novel’s end, the heart literally says whatever.

* * *

Two lengthy Gould profiles published in June — one in Elle, another in the New York Times Fashion & Style section written by Ruth La Ferla — have served as image-boosting propaganda, suggesting that Gould has changed or “reinvented” herself. But she’s still the same scabrous and manipulative opportunist that she was when she deflowered a 14-year-old boy at the age of seventeen.

emilyreborn2One of La Ferla’s many whoppers include suggesting that “Ms. Gould’s warts-and-all brand of self-exposure anticipated a wave of confessional writing that paved the way for Girls, Lena Dunham’s quasi-autobiographical hit on HBO.” This is not true. Dunham’s first film, Tiny Furniture, was shown at SXSW on March 15, 2010 and firmly established the voice that she would push further with Girls. And the Heart Says Whatever was published on May 4, 2010. Perhaps La Ferla shouldn’t be entirely blamed. After all, it was Gould herself who first perpetuated the Dunham parallel earlier this year, much as Gould compared herself to Chloë Sevigny in And the Heart Says Whatever. Should Dunham’s star wane, there is little doubt that Gould will find some other pop figure to blame for her indolence and inconsequential output.

La Ferla’s piece called Gould “resilient as a Slinky,” with Gould claiming, “Attention is not a commodity I’m interested in,” even as her friend notes, “The eye that she turns on the world she also turns on herself.” Gould’s determination to condemn anyone she can’t use is evident in her remarks, especially with bloggers, which she described as “that tiny subset of outliers who are live-tweeting their mammogram the next day” — a veiled anti-feminist jab at writers like Xeni Jardin and Susannah Breslin, who have both bravely responded to their diagnoses of breast cancer by documenting it online and raising awareness for a disease that the American Cancer Society estimates will kill 400,000 women in 2014. Gould, being a Middling Millennial, has no desire to comprehend that truth. This is because Gould has the valiance and the moral conscience of a small vole.

Gould claimed that she’s “mostly apologized personally to the people I’ve offended,” but her attempt to paint herself as some online twelve-step program survivor is a lie. Three victims of Gould’s shenanigans, including me, haven’t heard so much as a word from her. Clearly, this simpering sicarian is “mostly apologizing” to people who will pull her slippery limbs up from the common pit. Even after the fair-minded La Ferla profile appeared online, Gould was on Twitter, caviling over the perfectly reasonable sentence “Before long she herself become a piñata, subjected to random bashings by readers who took issue with, among other things, her perceived status-chasing and shameless self-involvement” with the kind of intuitive persecution complex eager to coil around an incoherent ideology, much like a resilient Slinky:

Hypocrisy and solipsism are not gender specific. One does not become a misogynist the minute that one begins examining a woman’s history of self-absorption. The second tweet, mentioning the Dunham comparison in the Times story, is particularly confusing. Dunham created a successful television show that has lasted for three seasons. What was it that Gould created exactly? A novel, of course. One that she worked “very hard” on, “diligence” that was talked up in risibly extravagant terms in the Elle profile:

She’s put in her time on both the California kind of work (getting to know yourself) and the East Coast variety (showing up every day to fill the blank page and generate creative projects). If carving out a fulfilling sui generis role that’s sustainable, socially 
meaningful, and more or less on our own terms is the essential fourth-wave feminist project, Gould’s okayness is a triumph.

shawshankrobbinsGould won’t be seen stretching her arms in the rain like Tim Robbins anytime soon (unless, of course, the FSG sales force determines that a stormy crucifixion motif will move a few units), but she found modest redemption working as editorial director at 29th Street Publishing, an electronic distribution outlet that includes The Awl, Harper’s, The Rumpus, ProPublica, and more that presumably precludes many movers and shakers from speaking out. But that professional relationship ended on Monday, with opaque explanation and Gould out of a job. Before this, she attempted to combine her literary connections and love for food with a web series called Cooking the Books. The results were awkward and embarrassing. Tao Lin exploited the opportunity for some hilarious performance art (“I actually just bite little pieces off into it,” muttered as Lin was “preparing” a salad) that Gould seemed utterly in the dark about. Then there was Chad Harbach’s dudebro regressivism, as he mansplained about Wisconsin and creole with a glass of wine poking from his hand like a general’s pointing stick as Gould did all the kitchen work. There is also the far less successful e-books venture, Emily Books, which boasts a mere 150 subscribers. Many Emily Books authors are worthwhile. But if Emily Books’s professed goal is to “want authors, agents and publishers to get paid so they can continue creating and curating,” the outfit is largely a bust. Still, I’m sure Sigrid Nunez appreciated the extra beer money, which has been known to keep authors “creating” — for one evening at least.

* * *

friendshipiris

Gould continues to surveil Twitter for any mention of her name, sending handwritten notes along with her galley (such as the one pictured above, tweeted by Iris Blasi) to any potential influencer. The result has been a litany of people who are all over the moon about this heap of shit, for much the same reasons that they went gaga for Keith Gessen’s mediocre book. It is an absolute replay of what Jessica Roy wrote about in 2008:

It just was all so fucking fake. These people that I had admired my entire New York existence — they all disappointed me. I don’t understand how people can exist in such a dishonest way and still call themselves writers. Isn’t it the responsibility of a writer to be honest? And why would you uphold a conversation with someone whom you’re going to talk shit on while walking back to the G train? They’re living in a box, where they only talk to others who have read Gessen’s book and think it sucks but will tell him it’s brilliant because they need his approval.

I did not move to New York to return to high school, but that’s exactly what it felt like.

Roy went on to become a senior editor at the New York Observer and the editor of Time‘s NewsFeed. Thankfully, there are still some honest writers out there who can make it.

But the “high school” that Roy described in 2008 is even more prominent among the Middling Millennials, who will defame, traduce, or block someone over a perceived sleight. They are terrified of confrontation, conflict, or engagement with the real world. And like Gould’s treatment of Pinter, they expect obeisance and a thank you note when they treat you with contempt.

This is not a healthy foundation for any cultural landscape. And if we truly had a robust and risk-taking literary culture, such gutless and treacherous yes men (and former publicists) like BuzzFeed‘s Isaac Fitzgerald would be widely reviled and laughed out of town for their “No haters” policy, a mealy-mouthed code for zero tolerance of any vibrant voice who rocks the boat. It isn’t just smarm that is to blame for these developments, although Tom Scocca was right to point to Dave Eggers as one prominent example of the kind of rampant duplicity and ladder-climbing that is killing voices courageous enough to throw giddy Molotovs at the right institutions. A true cri de coeur should come from the knowledge that irredeemable scumbags like Emily Gould are not only rewarded for pushing honest heads under the water and fucking the right people, but are lavished with the kind of media attention incommensurate with their middling abilities.

And then there’s the juvenile Middling Millennial culture. Why would anyone want to attend an overhyped event in which they are expected to become some slavish fan who didn’t really read the book but who nevertheless feels compelled to announce what a “good friend” he is by dint of spending five minutes in close proximity to the author? Having witnessed first-hand the worst impulses of science fiction fandom a few decades ago and having a good sense of the hell that authors go through, it’s distressing to see the same nasty and possessive tendencies happening on the literary scene, with authors reduced to mere projections of what childish audiences desire to see, rather than the complex and fascinating people they truly are.

I am not jealous or envious of Gould’s success. I’m simply astounded that this is the dunce now being propped up. I’m deeply appalled that I have to write such a lengthy essay because nobody else has the time to remember history or the smarts to uphold standards or the balls to call her out. The relentless distaste expressed about the Middling Millennials in private must be voiced publicly if we have any shot at curing it. And I maintain a position of principled indignation because truly original and interesting talents, many of whom I’ve featured on The Bat Segundo Show, who are incapable of playing the game or who cannot sell out are increasingly being marginalized, ignored, and stubbed out by these vicious overgrown kids, even as craven, manipulative, untalented, clueless, and ungenerous assholes announce the latest status of their novels on social media (reviewed in the NYTBR, in third printing, hit the NYT bestseller list, seen in the hands of a major figure on a subway) with the self-centered glee of a bratty suburban tot constantly shaking his rattle.

Well, enough is fucking enough.

A society that holds up Emily Gould as a charitable person, a formidable intellect, or a knowing chronicler of our age is a diseased one. And an army of Middling Millennials recoiling at any risk memorialized or imagined on the page or flinching at unsettling developments in the real world must be outed, fought, and resisted until we get some part of our collective soul back. It’s the only way we can make literature truly indispensable to the world again.

The Infinite Jest Review That Dave Eggers Doesn’t Want You To Read

In 2006, Little Brown published a 10th anniversary edition of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest that featured a foreword by Dave Eggers. Eggers’s introduction observed that Infinite Jest was “1,067 pages long and there is not one lazy sentence. The book is drum-tight and relentlessly smart and, though it does not wear its heart on its sleeve, its deeply felt and incredibly moving.” There was one significant problem with this assessment. It did not match, much less acknowledge, a review that Eggers had written for The San Francisco Chronicle on February 11, 1996, which claimed just the opposite:

Besides frequently losing itself in superfluous and wildly tangential flights of lexical diarrhea, the book suffers under the sheer burden of its incredible length.

Before Eggers was running away at the name “Abdulrahman Zeitoun” rather than attempt adulthood by owning up to the fact that he had turned a man who had ruthlessly assaulted his wife into a hero without acknowledging the darker truth and created a shadowy cash-distributing company called “Jableh LLC” within the intricate framework of an ostensibly philanthropic nonprofit, Eggers was busy trying to hide any nasty writing, or even the insinuation of such, that had come quite naturally from his mind. Eggers has refused to discuss any of this with anyone. Because even at the age of 44, this grown man remains a timid and irresponsible bumpkin who would rather pretend that his writing didn’t harm an innocent woman or whitewash the truth. He has evaded multiple efforts for comment on anything serious, speaking only through a ramshackle army of publicists and lawyers when he’s not attempting to tarnish or derail anyone who he considers “extreme” or not “straightforward.” (Just ask Neal Pollack.)

And he has succeeded in burying his original Infinite Jest review, quite possibly the apotheosis of his risk-averse and coldly vanilla taste. It was originally sussed out in 2006 by the vivacious contributors to the Wallace-l mailing list and further reviewed by the dearly lamented litblog Rake’s Progress. It has not been available in full online. Until now.

What follows is Dave Eggers’s complete review of Infinite Jest as it originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle:

AMERICA IN 2010: EVERYONE’S HOOKED ON SOMETHING
Novel portrays an escapist culture in which we are willing to die for pleasure

INFINITE JEST
by David Foster Wallace
Little, Brown; 1,087 pages $29.95

REVIEWED BY DAVE EGGERS

It’s post-millennial America, sometime after the Jack Kemp/Rush Limbaugh presidential administration. Giant deformed babies and herds of feral hamsters roam the blasted landscape of the Great Concavity, a gigantic toxic waste receptacle that covers much of what used to be Maine, New Hampshire, and upstate New York.

Relations between the United States and Canada are strained (due to the northerly directed fallout from the Concavity), and a bizarre cadre of wheelchair-bound Quebecer insurgents is planning a massive terrorist attack on the entertainment-lulled and drug-addled U.S. populace.

Federal budget shortfalls have necessitated the privatization of many formerly sacred American institutions. The Statue of Liberty is available for unique advertising opportunities, and for the right price, the government is selling the rights to time itself. The year is 2010, but it’s better known, in this era of subsidized time, as the Year of the Depend Undergarment. (2005 was the Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar.)

Such is the provocative backdrop of David Foster Wallace’s brilliant, fat, and frustrating second novel, “Infinite Jest.” Science fiction it’s not. Though set against an epic landscape of environmental toxicity and corporate insinuation, at its core the book is an intimate and bleak portrait of the human fallout caused by a weak-willed country interested only in pleasing itself. Exploring the lives of those enslaved by TV, drugs, alcohol and emotional dependence, Wallace paints a picture, one character at a time, of the decline of a culture paralyzed by its need for escape and its willingness to die in the pursuit of happiness.

Like his earlier novel, “The Broom of the System,” “Infinite Jest” revolves around a peculiar and brilliant family. The Incandenzas are proprietors of the posh Enfield Tennis Academy, a combination athlete factory and elite academic high school. Jim Incandenza, the eccentric and hard-drinking Academy founder and family patriarch, has, after failing in his attempt to make it as a filmmaker, recently killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave.

His three sons — Orin, a celebrated punter for a pro football team; Mario, who has a birth defect and a heart of gold; and Hal, a linguistic genius and nationally ranked junior tennis player — struggle to come to grips with the void and legacy left by their father. But the family is coming apart at the seams. Avril, Jim’s widow, is seeing a 17-year-old. Orin has an uncontrollable habit of seducing and abandoning married woman. Hal, listless and increasingly withdrawn, is hooked on high-resign marijuana.

But the Incandenzas are the most normal in Wallace’s parade of physically and psychologically crippled characters. Down the hill from the Academy is Ennet House, a halfway house for recovering addicts. There resides a menagerie of people trying to start over: Don Gately, an ex-con who started drinking vodka at age 10 and is struggling through Alcoholics Anonymous; Joelle van Dyne, who starred in many of Jim Incandenza’s obscure films and who recently attempt to freebase herself to death; and Randy Lenz, a cocaine abuser who likes to set cats on fire. In stunning and brutal detail, Wallace shows how these characters attempt to soothe, through one substance or another, the wounds of their horrible childhoods.

Meanwhile, the Canadian terrorists, in their plans to bring the United States to its knees, are attempting to track down a mysterious and lethal video cartridge so entertaining that it’s rumored to render audiences forever catatonic. Its origin is eventually traced to Jim Incandenza, and all those close to him become subjects of investigation and pursuit. As the many story lines merge, the rebels get closer to what they hope will become the cinematic equivalent of the neutron bomb.

But the book is more about David Foster Wallace than anything else. It’s an extravagantly self-indulgent novel, and, page by page, it’s often difficult to navigate. Sentences run as long as 800 words. Paragraph breaks are rare. Aside from being incredibly verbose, Wallace has an exhausting penchant for jargon, nicknames and obscure references, particularly about things highly technical, medical or drug-related.

When people talk, they “interface.” When they think hard, they “wrack their RAM.” Things like tennis matches and math problems are described in excruciating detail. He has a fussy way with his adjectives and adverbs, while some — such as “ghastly,” which is used much too often — have that disingenuous feel that renders the narrative around them impotent.

Besides frequently losing itself in superfluous and wildly tangential flights of lexical diarrhea, the book suffers under the sheer burden of its incredibly length. (That includes the 96 pages of only sporadically worthwhile endnotes, including one that clocks in at 17 pages.) At almost 1,100 pages, it feels more like 3,000.

Still, if you can come to terms with his dense and labored style, the rewards are often tremendous. There’s no doubt that Wallace’s talent is immense and his imagination limitless. When he backs off and gives his narrative some breathing room, he emerges as a consistently innovative, sensitive and intelligent writer. In particular, while inhabiting the tortured, drowning minds of the addicts, he is devastating. Too often, however, “Infinite Jest” buckles under the weight of its own excess.

Of course, it seems as if that’s the sort of criticism Wallace expected. There’s a lot of the author in the frustrated film maker Jim Incandenza, who in his work had very little interest in telling a story, opting to experiment with handmade lenses and innovative lighting effect. Jim scorned pedestrian narratives and parodied established genres; he held his audiences in almost utter contempt, refusing to pander to their need for easily palatable entertainment. Finally he succumbed, making what he considered the perfect entertainment. Then he killed himself.

“Infinite Jest” also ends abruptly, leaving as many questions unanswered as does Jim’s suicide. Like his alter ego’s experimental films, the book seems like an exercise in what one gifted artist can produce without the hindrance of an editor. Subsequently, it’s also an exercise in whether or not such a work can sustain a reader’s interest for more than 1,000 pages and thus find an audience outside academia. Wallace’s take on that can be found in the book’s apt title: It’s an endless joke on somebody.

David Eggers is an editor of Might Magazine in San Francisco.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock

Wait in line for a few hours, saunter into a dark and expansive theater where you’ll be standing anywhere from five to forty-five minutes to take a seat (all depending upon how polite or mercenary you are), and settle onto one of the couches (partitioned in sets of three) once a stranger has had enough. But be careful with the way you spend your time. Because once you leave the area, whether for snack or bathroom break, there’s no coming back unless you stand in the snaking queue again.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock may favor the determined, but it’s something of a rigged game. Supply and demand is carefully calibrated by making the seats precious real estate. It’s a perfect laboratory for behavioral economist Dan Ariely to conduct new experiments. Yet the clips of people standing on train platforms or waiting in sordid rooms may strengthen your resolve to stay on your feet. Still, after a few hours, the impulse to slump into the next free seat only increases.

Inside the room, the projected images are recognizable and faintly exotic, liberated from cinematic sources both pop and obscure, and ineluctably locked into the very minute you are experiencing. At 3:00 PM, Woody Allen shows up for his appointment with Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite and the joke about Sorvino’s prostitute telling Allen that she has “a great sense of humor” after showing him a clock with two fornicating pigs gets a new context. Little changes with Harold Lloyd’s famous clock-hanging moment, but when Peter Parker is fired for delivering a pizza late in Spider-Man 2, his fate at the hands of spoiled materialists is crueler because we are more aware of the temporal qualities.

Then there are the cinematic moments in which one was never especially aware of the time in the original context, even when clocks were heavily involved. Cathryn Harrison throws an old woman’s alarm clock collection out the window in Louis Malle’s Black Moon, but did the actual time ever really matter? Patrick McGoohan secures the electropass watch to escape the Village in “Arrival,” but without the roaring white balloon or Number Two to taunt him, he could very well be confused with a disgruntled bureaucrat. Jack Nicholson’s droll wooing of Ann-Margaret as he sings “Go to the Mirror” in Ken Russell’s Tommy becomes less about seduction and more about a doctor using time as sparingly as possible. When we see Nicholson again in a clip from About Schmidt, waiting for the last moments of 5:00 PM to tick away on his last day in a drab and lonely office, I couldn’t help but wonder if his fixation on time caused him to lose Ann-Margaret.

I had feared that The Clock would be a Wagnerian bauble: a novelty requiring only time and fortitude to embrace its contextual charms. But I discovered that Marclay’s massive opus tinkered not only with my passion for cinema, but upon my temporal prejudices. I experienced an undeniable joy for kitsch upon witnessing a preposterous fight scene from MacGyver and realized that my reverence for a certain period of 1980s cinema was more bountiful than expected. Yet I felt somewhat saddened when the film denied me clips of people fleeing the workplace after 5PM. I have always felt that there was something romantic about people liberated from their daily capitalist commitments to live out the true joys of their lives, but I didn’t feel The Clock properly acknowledged it. We do, however, see a moribund commuting moment on a packed subway. And I did notice that Marclay included a sad quotidian moment from Mike Leigh’s All or Nothing. So clearly the assumptive fault is mine.

The Clock isn’t just about exposing our our enslavement to time. There is an inescapable physical component to this endurance test. If you are with friends, you may end up leapfrogging from couch to couch, slowly traveling back to your dear companions initially stranded in the IKEA archipelago. Because you are among an artistically sensitive crowd, you may find yourself throwing your dark coat over your head with a theatrical whoosh (as I did) to stub out the searing light from your phone as you text your coordinates to the people you came with, hoping that they will find you later. I witnessed some couples squeezing closer together, and I could suss out the degree to which friends wanted to be together by the way they raced to seating that had just opened up. But when a clip from Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom played, stretching my mild voyeurism onto the discomfiting canvas of Carl Boehm’s hungry and sociopathic eyes, I become consumed by tremendous guilt in watching other people. If cinema was a communal experience, why should I have to be punished for it? Was there something pornographic in being curious about others? Or was The Clock something of an impetuous tot stomping its feet for attention?

I did feel that The Clock was very much a pleasant narcotic that was difficult for me to resist, yet these social concerns recalled Jason Rohrer’s Passage, a sidescrolling video game art project which confronts the manner in which you parcel out your life and pits individual ambition against love and communion. After nearly five hours inside Marclay’s fish tank, I was confident that I could spend at least four more, despite the fact that I had not slept much. But my companions had maxed out and I did not wish to abandon them.

We went to dinner. I had no desire to look at the time.

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Imagine a pop-up book mating with a crisp high-def image. Throw in occasional jerky motion resembling undercranked Mack Sennett moments when actors move too much, overly defined planes along the Z axis suggesting a View-Master brightened by the heat of a thousand suns, noses and ears sometimes revealed to be pellucidly prosthetic, and overhead shots of landscapes looking more like a cut scene crunched through an overclocked Nvidia card five years from now. To my eyes, this was what 48 frames per second looked like on a fifty-foot screen. I had heard reports that one was “supposed to get used to this” after a period lasting somewhere between five and twenty minutes. Unlike other 3D films, I did not get a headache. On the flip side, I couldn’t believe in the aesthetic.

But then The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is “fantasy” — not the thoughtful form from the adept hands of Michael Moorcock or Mervyn Peake or Kelly Link, but the inoffensive offerings from J.R.R. Tolkien. I don’t necessarily have a problem with a fantasy which opts to swim in the shallow end of the pool. The covenant is that, if the fantasy short-changes on human scope and capitulates to escapism, then the fantasy must inspire new awe and fresh wonder.

We come into The Hobbit familiar with the Shire’s round doors and verdant pleasures from years before. We have seen Middle Earth’s eco-porn greens and Rivendell’s gables and gazebos. So why exactly should we return to the theater and hand over our hard-earned shekels if it’s more of the same? Are we here for nostalgic purposes? Do filmmaker and audience alike prefer stagnation? I didn’t mind being there and back again, but the too clean 48fps technology had the strange effect of cheapening my middling affinity for Middle Earth. Like George Lucas before him, Peter Jackson has returned to the beginning, motivated by technological tinkering and the considerable dollars he will collect from feverish and unquestioning fanboys rather than any real need to spin a good yarn. At least there is nothing here as terrible as Jar Jar Binks.

For long stretches, this first film in Peter Jackson’s new Tolkien trilogy failed to seduce. This is largely because its source material only has enough material for two films. By my calculation, it takes Jackson 168 minutes to dramatize about 82 pages of material, which seems needlessly profligate. The Hobbit is many things, but it is neither Ulysses nor Gravity’s Rainbow. There is no doubt in my mind that we will see an extended version and supplements on DVD ensuring that nobody leaves the house for the next ten years.

The film opens with a lengthy flashback distressingly close to the confusing monologue which opened David Lynch’s ill-received Dune adaptation. But why? “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” is a straightforward first sentence requiring no additional mythology. But Jackson and his writers (which include Guillermo del Toro, who was originally supposed to helm this movie) feel compelled to throw in any stray flashbacks that they can to pad out this movie. I don’t wish to diminish the need for dwarf kingdoms, but there’s nothing in the film’s first hour even as remotely alluring as the Nazgûl, which provided The Fellowship of the Ring with an immediate threat to jump-start the narrative and set our heroes on an adventurous path.

Without something as big as Mordor threatening to engulf Middle Earth driving the story, Jackson’s métier as a Wagnerian filmmaker is undone by a cinematic experience that feels more like a game on rails, especially during a climactic goblin chase scene with a constantly moving godlike camera, but a paucity of closeups or medium shots. It also doesn’t help that Martin Freeman, cast as the younger Bilbo Baggins, really should have been hired ten years earlier. Having grown from the young and neurotic comic archetype into a more subdued and interesting middle-aged actor (best exemplified by his portrayal of Watson in Steven Moffatt’s Sherlock), Freeman is curiously unpersuasive in this film when he complains about wanting to be back home among his books and fellow hobbits. Ian McKellen is okay as Gandalf, but one longs for the gravelly gravitas he displayed so eminently in the last trilogy. However, I very much enjoyed Ken Stott’s fresh and feisty portrayal of Balin. But I do have a weak spot for any character with a massive bushy beard.

This lack of focus causes the first half to feel like a tenuous string of loosely connected sequences: dwarves show up at Bilbo Baggins’s hobbit hole, on Dori, on Nori, on Gloin, on Oin, on Blitzen, orcs, wargs, is Bilbo up for the journey, knowing look from Gandalf, walking, walking, orcs, hidden swords, is Bilbo up for the journey, complaints from Thorin, elves, orcs, knowing look from Gandalf, mention of arcane Middle Earth reference to appease fanboys, orcs, orcs, is Bilbo up for the journey.

You get the idea. But when the mountain trolls show up halfway into the movie, An Unexpected Journey starts to become fun for those, like me, who were fatigued by the bloodless and cutesy bullshit calculated to make this Fun for the Whole Family™. These trolls are lumbering, mumbling, ass-scratching giants who hock loogies into pots loaded with the carcasses of dwarves and elves. In other words, they’re a nice throwback to the visceral films Jackson made early in his career before going Hollywood, serving as a reminder that Jackson is at his best when he lets his inner six-year-old come out. Casting Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown is also a brilliant move, for McCoy taps both his Roadshow days and the dark command he brought to his brown-coated Doctor Who incarnation to enliven the eccentric wizard who plows through terrain with a rabbit sleigh. It is also hard to go wrong with good ol’ Gollum, arguably the most enthralling CGI villain of the past fifteen years, during the highly compelling game of riddles sequence. Why hasn’t anybody created a Ball-Arnaz inspired sitcom called I Love Precious?

But An Unexpected Journey is felled by its zestless commitment to the well-trodden path. Make no mistake: this is not Pan’s Labyrinth, Labyrinth, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, The Wizard of Oz, Princess Mononoke or The Princess Bride. Did we really need subtitles when the orcs don’t say anything especially interesting? Do we really need narrative digressions when the meat on the bones is so sparse? There are a few inspired ideas, such as the aforementioned trolls and a goblin stenographer traversing along a pulley cable on a chair. But if you spend years of your life working on a fantasy trilogy, shouldn’t it contain more imagination? Shouldn’t you wait as long as it takes to read the secret moon runes embedded in the map?

Review: Skyfall (2012)

The James Bond film series has experienced growing pains during its five decades: the awkward political correctness in the Pierce Brosnan era (Tomorrow Never Dies‘s “Filthy habit!”), Sean Connery’s dubious high-priced return to Diamonds Are Forever for a very silly moon buggy chase scene, the preposterous gadgets in Die Another Day, and the failure to figure out what to do with Timothy Dalton. Quantum of Solace, with its return to convention and its ridiculous title, threatened to attenuate the good will established by the series reboot, Casino Royale.

But I’m pleased to report that Skyfall is a sharp, thrilling, classy, and rich-looking installment announcing a confident trajectory for the Daniel Craig iteration of James Bond. While it’s somewhat alarming to see Craig transform from the new double circle on the block to aging agent in six mere years, he remains an enjoyably chilly and crisp Bond, preferring to unleash his quiet fury when his car is destroyed rather than when the people around him die. He’s good enough to ask about agents who have been killed, but this is more of a functional than a empathic query. He’s willing to rip shards of depleted uranium from his chest to ID a sniper. When given little more than a radio transmitter and a pistol responding to his thumbprint from Q or the family hunting rifle for a final showdown, he’ll make do with the Spartan setup. He’s the James Bond for the “too big to fail” age. If he wasn’t busy strangling henchmen with his legs in icy water, he’d have a bustling career as a corporate efficiency expert.

You could say that Craig’s Bond is the closest to Richard Stark’s Parker. Like Parker, Craig’s Bond is focused and economical, even when he’s holding onto the bottom of an elevator to pursue a sniper. Yet Bond’s commitment to professionalism extends beyond money. He isn’t against vacation. But his duty to his country, perhaps anchored by his reliance on pills and alcohol, hinders him from becoming a full-fledged sociopath. “Orphans make the best recruits,” says M to Bond. And the price for being a double agent is extirpating your need for family. It’s a distinction that former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem, playing the baddie here), fails to understand, which may be one of the reasons Silva insists on calling M “Mommy.”

We’re informed early on that not everybody can make it out in the field. But while a lesser action film would drop this idea after the handsome actors deliver the details to advance the story, Skyfall actually follows up on this idea throughout its fast-moving two and a half hours. Aside from the many literal missed shots informing the narrative, Skyfall is smart enough to show us M’s poor pistol marksmanship when away from the office. We also see an injured Bond lose his aim after a serious injury (with Silva taking advantage of this later on an island in a very gripping William Tell moment).

Here is a Bond entry in which the best people don’t always make the best decisions on the job. But in Skyfall, there’s the suggestion that real world know-how is no match against technology. It isn’t just the service door that refuses to open in the Underground when there’s an oncoming train. The creative team here understands that Bond has always been steeped in an old world approach. By pitting MI6 against a vengeful hacker who would throw an Ugandan election just for kicks, the human intelligence — the way Bond has worked and seduced a room — that has always buttressed the series is given an intriguing trial. But if being a double agent is “a young man’s game,” there’s surprising adaptability for the old dogs in need of a shave. As Bond tells a man who attempts to seduce him, “What makes you think this is my first time?”

We even get to see M reciting Tennyson’s “Ulysses” during a public inquiry. Beyond this unexpected literary reading (not without precedent, given Simon Raven’s contributions to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), there’s also an unexpected cameo from an obnoxious CNN anchor. The priapic qualities of the old world may gave us James Bond, but it also saddles us with Wolf Blitzer.

I suspect these sly nuances — which have much to do with John Logan working with the established Neal Purvis and Robert Wade screenwriting team this time around — may cause Skyfall to hold up slightly better than Casino Royale‘s darker edge and Guantanamo Bay-inspired torture scene. While it’s tempting to compare the three Daniel Craig films with Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Skyfall allows us more room to settle in. It’s possible that the delay in production caused Skyfall‘s creative team to tighten what they had. Because the exciting opening train chase, Silva’s indelible parable of the two rats, and the new Q trying to hide his sneaky work from Gareth Mallory are the types of moments that emerge from artful and well-considered entertainment.

It was also a brilliant move to get Roger Deakins on board as cinematographer. His ambers and umbers give this film the glow of fifty year scotch. There’s one especially coruscating scene in a Shanghai high rise, where Bond dukes it out with a sniper against the dazzling backdrop of endless glass and projected lights from the outside rolling slowly into the dark.

While Adele’s theme song is marvelous, Thomas Newman’s pulsating score is a major disappointment. Newman’s music here seems more at home in a forgettable action movie playing on HBO at three in the morning. I don’t know if John Barry can ever be replaced, but if the Bond films are going to step it up with installments like Casino Royale and Skyfall, then the Broccoli-Wilson team needs a composer to match.

At times, Skyfall is a little too reliant upon Silva’s theatrics, which threaten to overshadow the film’s mild efforts to deepen the relationship between Bond and M. This may be because Silva is one of the best Bond villains in years. When Silva tells Bond about what he did to get where he is today (with director Sam Mendes wise enough to hold this performance in a long take), Bardem instantly commands your attention. But the film flags a bit just before his first appearance, even after it has gone to the trouble to destroy a pivotal base in a gas explosion. We all know that the James Bond films tend to require the bad guys to inform us of their vile plans in person.

But these are pedantic beefs. I enjoyed Skyfall a great deal. I even found myself blurting out “Awesome!” during a particularly sinister exchange between Bond and Silva. And if that is the measure of whether you should see this movie, Skyfall more than lives up.

Review: Looper (2012)

We live in a time in which overreaching types chirp about illusory import in tentpole pictures, as if these massive movies with overcompensating budgets are akin to down-on-their-luck paraplegics seeking strangers in the streets to buy them hot meals. Slate‘s Dana Stevens tells us that Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy represents “war-on-terror allegories.” Mark Ruffalo explains to the Wall Street Journal that The Avengers, which is little more than a very pleasant popcorn movie, is a complex take on American life. While I’ve never shied away from expressing enthusiasm for genre or well-crafted mass entertainment, there is nevertheless a clear distinction between what Jon Favreau and what Alejandro Jodorowsky are trying to commit to film.

Yet Rian Johnson’s Looper won me over, despite a frustratingly paradoxical finale that contradicts two hours of story logic. Here is a film that isn’t just interested in entertaining, although I must confess that I was thrilled by one late scene in which Bruce Willis blew away a considerable number of baddies. (When it comes to satisfying on-screen violence, I’m just as redblooded as the next guy.) Much as the underrated Daybreakers took care in establishing a consequential world (complete with homeless vampires holding cardboard signs which read STARVING NEED BLOOD), Looper is smart enough to understand that a good time travel movie is all about the peripheral deets. The Back to the Future trilogy remains a repeat viewing draw because we wonder if Doc Brown ever really said, “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” (He doesn’t, despite the characters crediting him as the source.) Then there are complicated films like Shane Carruth’s excellent Primer, which contains so many interpretive possibilities that one can easily get lost in its low-budget, high-concept Chinese box.

Looper contains a narrative we’ll eventually figure out. We learn that Joseph Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a “looper” who kills time travelers with a blunderbuss a mere instant after they appear out of nowhere upon a blue trap. These fidgety executions establish an inconsequential tone, which allows us to ponder why Joe’s in this line of work. Isn’t Arby’s still hiring? Surely, given the film’s barely touched steak and eggs specials, there’s a need for crappy roast beef sandwiches in the year 2044. But the career is lucrative, although paper currency is nowhere to be found. (Has the dollar collapsed?) Joe’s saving up his silver bars for a post-killing life. He’s learning French. He keeps time to an old watch. He cannot let these time travelers escape. We learn that in thirty years someone will kill him. All part of the job.

This is a somewhat silly setup. If you think about it, a looper has to accept on faith that the future is fixed (we understand that time travel is forbidden because of a dangerous criminal syndicate, but, if it’s so problematic, why doesn’t anyone track down the guy who developed it?). A looper has to accept that the people who run the operation (this includes a grizzly gray-bearded Jeff Daniels) can be trusted. This is probably why Johnson has made Joseph somewhat dissolute. He wastes his hours with the inventive aesthetic of drugs he can plop into his eye with an eye dropper. That’s certainly less messy than panics in Needle Park.

I’m giving Johnson a hard time, but he does manage to get performances from his cast. Bruce Willis, with a strangely satisfying fixed hairline this time around, juggles intensity and contrition as “Old Joe,” the guy that Joseph Gordon-Levitt grows up to be (despite the two actors sharing quite different ears). I’m not the greatest Emily Blunt fan, but I’ll take her firing bullets into the cornfields. There’s an incredible kid with fierce eyes named Pierce Gagnon who will probably go places, assuming that he doesn’t end up as some former child star shooting up in a seedy motel during his early adult years. Even Garrett Dillahunt, the quirky and misunderstood character actor who was the goofy T-888 in The Sarah Connor Chronicles, shows up endearingly befuddled. I don’t feel any particular need to describe the plot. Let others do that. It’s basically a showdown between Joe and Old Joe, with some twists coming late in the film. We get telekinesis and a number of impressive jet cycles. Geeky shorthand for the ADD crowd.

What impressed me about Looper was the way it depicts a future where today’s everyday conveniences are missing. Some unknown upheaval has gone down between 2012 and 2044. The world here is a barely civilized place waiting to be overrun by desperate crooks. Touchpad technology is hidden behind secret panels. Smartphones have transformed into barely functioning squares, largely used by the loopers, and nobody whips these out while walking the streets. We see tents and homeless encampments on the outskirts of cities, with the word “vagrant” taking on a sinister tone. The unemployed have clearly expanded to include a larger and more invisible class of humanity, and I liked how the film made the daring choice of following those who were well off, further suggesting that one had to become terribly amoral to have a nice house. There are makeshift solar panels haphazardly affixed to cars (and at least one farmhouse) without any clear standard. And when you consider the black tubing leading to where a truck’s gas tank used to be, you figure that there was some last-ditch effort to respond to a fossil fuel crisis. The loopers get the flashy sports cars. The jet cycles go to the authorities. The losers don’t even get a set of steak knives.

And yet somehow it’s possible to keep a diner operating in the middle of nowhere. It’s still possible to maintain a farm with helpful insecticide-sprinkling robots. There are still upscale nightclubs kept alive by the looper class. I liked that the film offered no reasons for any of this, even as it resolved the main plot like some half-baked episode of Time Trax. It doesn’t really matter what time we live in. Looper makes its own case for human connection and sacrifice, but it also suggests that the larger world is more fixed and unstoppable than we realize. Shouldn’t we get down to the business of living rather than seeing what fits the given mood?

NYFF: Charlie is My Darling

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the 50th New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

They wrote new songs while holed up in motel rooms and flirted with women behind glass as they tried to eat dinner. When young girls were asked why they were drawn to the thin devilish man with the big lips, they could only reply, “I just like him.”

The Altamont Free Concert, with its rough Hells Angels security detail and the grim fate of Meredith Hunter, was only four years away, but Charlie is My Darling, which follows the Rolling Stones on a three day rush through Ireland in crisp and freshly restored black and white, proves that the raw sexual power the band held before a crowd was already well established. In one of the film’s genuinely thrilling moments, we see young people jump on stage, instantly transforming guitar cables into umbilical cords through a simple act of adolescent mischief. Drummer Charlie Watts tries to keep a steady beat as a kid leans very close to his right, eluding capture.

Charlie is My Darling might almost serve as an instructional film on how to be a screaming teenage girl in 1965, but the dark underbelly is revealed when we see girls with fractured legs carried away on stretchers.

Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night poked fun at a blockbuster band’s nonstop sprint from the fans, but this doc has a grittier feel. Part of this is human attitude. The band is well aware that it is responding to a long tradition of pop songs where romantic lyrics describe idealistic moments that have no real bearing to what people are actually doing. The band shows no reticence in remarking on this. Yet the film establishes its own humor, such as the Stones offering commentary over a clip of Mick Jagger schmoozing with important people and band members sneaking up behind kids on light afternoons.

It also features the Stones becoming increasingly drunker, singing Fats Domino and Elvis Presley tunes during a long night around a piano with the alcoholic accoutrements slid across the top. In more sober off-stage moments, we see them play the Beatles’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” Always keep track of the competition.

“You have to be very egotistical,” says Jagger when he is asked by a reporter about what it’s like to hold a crowd in such awe. Charlie is My Darling is a vibrant ride inside the Stones’s touring world, but it’s not as brave as Robert Frank’s infamous Cocksucker Blues, with its heroin-injecting groupies and its coke-snorting tips from Keith Richards. The shaggy and vivacious and cocky Brian Jones offers an early glimpse of the more explicit dissolution to come with some revealing statements about marriage. Godard would depict him on the outs in Sympathy for the Devil. He would be dead in a swimming pool not long after that.

NYFF: The Savoy King: Chick Webb & The Music That Changed America

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the 50th New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

His name came from a tough tumble down Baltimore stairs. They called him “Chicken” because that was the way he walked: wobbly and hunchbacked and sometimes a little alone around the schoolyard. They shortened the name to “Chick” because the single syllable rolled faster off the tongue. But Chick Webb had the grit to hawk newspapers and saved up enough dough for a drum kit. They figured he might build up his upper body strength if they kept him hammering young and long and hard on the drums.

They could not know he would become a big draw at a very big venue: the legendary Savoy Ballroom, immortalized in music with an indelible stomp, the rare place where blacks and whites hopped together on the same hard floor. They could not know how he would woo and shape Ella Fitzgerald’s talent shortly after her fateful appearance at the Apollo. They could not know how Chick would rehearse new arrangements from new composers, the band fueled by mescal and Mary Jane, into the sunrise. They could not know that if you hung around the Savoy long enough, you would have Chick’s respect. Because sticking around was how Chick had made it this far and this good. They could not know he would lead the first black band to host a national radio show. They could not know he would be dead only four months after his 34th birthday. Or maybe it was his 30th? Why not print the legend?

The biggest surprise about Jeff Kaufman’s documentary, The Savoy King: Chick Webb & The Music That Changed America, is how Chick Webb’s mesmerizing life is diminished by the clumsy collection of stray biographical tidbits (Chick liked motorcycles, Chick was a snappy dresser, Chick had a German Shepherd), which don’t quite coalesce into a true narrative trajectory until the film stretches itself across a more expansive canvas. The film serves up many prominent voices (Bill Cosby as Webb, Janet Jackson as Fitzgerald, Jeff Goldbum as Artie Shaw, Andy Garcia as Mario Bauzá, and so forth) as profound movers and shakers in the 1920s and 1930s swing scene. But when we know Chick argued with Jelly Roll Morton, why do we need the former Jello pitchman? This minor dissonance also hinders the film from fully portraying or explicating Chick’s innovative drumming (“He sounded very different from any of the other drummers,” says one subject, to which one must ask, “Care to elaborate?”).

Chick Webb was so legendary that the Harlem streets were congested with more than 10,000 people on the day he died. Gene Krupa said that Webb was the only other drummer who “cut” him. In light of these vital details, it’s surprising that Kaufman races too fast over such details as Chick’s loyalty to his longtime guitarist John Truehart, the only member of Chick’s band who kept with him all the way through, and is sometimes too willing to buy into the Webb myth. (For example, Charles Linton told biographer Stuart Nicholson that Webb only said that he adopted Ella Fitzgerald “for the press people,” yet Kaufman is quite willing to go on with the mythos of Webb as Fitzgerald’s legal guardian.)

When many of the charming survivors (especially the ebullient choreographer Frankie Manning, captured here in his final years and in remarkable shape) are happy to spill Kaufman the story, why have other people get in the way? The Savoy King has greater success with dodgy-looking visual aids (such as the Indiana Jones-like map depicting Chick’s relentless touring schedule across the States in 1937) than the high-profile vocal cast.

But when the film shows the Savoy’s impact on American culture, displaying its contours with a computer simulation of the Savoy’s interior, it becomes a more meaningful exploration of the swing scene. The film obviously worked on some level with me, because I am playing Ella Fitzgerald as I write these words and I have a great desire right now to time travel back to the fateful evening of May 11, 1937, when Chick Webb and Benny Goodman duked it out in a battle of the bands at the Savoy. When the film reminds us that there were clubs in which a racist rope separated the dance floor down the middle and when it tells us that, in other clubs, blacks had to pay the same admission as whites to watch an act from the balcony (and weren’t allowed to dance) and when we recall that even the much vaunted Cotton Club would not admit African Americans, the Savoy’s pioneering efforts, taken with what others remember of Chick’s great generosity and energy, feel like a forgotten historical chapter that can’t be reread often enough.

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The Amazing Spider-Man, a completely unnecessary reboot of a perfectly wonderful Sam Raimi movie that was released only ten years before, expects us to believe in remarkably unpersuasive and tepid lies.

It is a movie that expects us to believe that one can walk into a 100-story skyscraper situated in Columbus Circle run by an apparent multinational corporation, catch a look at one of the badges behind the desk, and assume one of the names. (Only an hour before the screening, my photo had been taken for a temporary badge so that I could participate in a twenty minute meeting in a building that had fewer stories than Oscorp, which I much preferred as a sprawling industrial complex in the Raimi movies.) It is a movie that expects us to believe that an impostor can enter a top secret facility standing thirty feet away from the door leading in and observe a scientist, who just happens to be there, tracing a pattern-sensitive code into the panel with his hand (no thumbprint or retinal scan or surveillance cameras?).

It is a movie that expects us to believe that a hero, unable to use his considerable strength just after being bitten by a spider, will be curiously inconsistent in how he destroys things. Peter Parker clicks on a mouse without incident, but the keys rip off the keyboard as he types. He destroys the bathroom sink, but his skateboard is remarkably preserved. It is a movie that expects us to believe that a kid possessing reflexes beyond the pale would not be recruited by a sports coach (Studio Executive to Producers: “We can’t do that because of the wrestling element in Raimi’s first movie. That bastard! Why did he bolt on us?” Producers: “Because he wanted more time to develop the script!?”) and would not be examined by scientists or specialists for his off-the-charts ability. The movie simply assumes that a preternatural ability to warp a goal post with a football (is that even physically possible with cowhide?) is par for the course among high school teens. (“We’re very excited about the creative possibilities that come from returning to Peter’s roots,” said Amy Pascal in a statement when Sony put the kibosh on Spider-Man 4. Apparently, “creative possibilities” involve a remarkably unprofessional failure to work out story logic.)

It is a movie that expects us to believe that an especially carnivorous rat (mutated, of course) running around a scientific facility would not be noticed by the many attentive professional minds employed by Oscorp. It is a movie that expects us to believe that the television cameras closely following an injured Spider-Man crawling up a building with some difficulty would not also roll as Spider-Man rips his mask off (in fact, Parker reveals his identity more times than one would think during this film; presumably, superheroes have become so commonplace in the Marvel universe that one need not bother with sub rosa). It is a movie that expects us to believe that a teenager can spend long hours fighting crime and collecting bruises and not be grounded or sternly disciplined by his guardian, who also does not follow Parker when he takes up a large and vertiginous stack of food up to his room (including frozen macaroni and cheese, which is not especially edible unless you nuke it). It is a movie that expects us to believe that a seasoned cop would not notice the numerous bruises upon his daughter’s date and would neither remark upon said contusions, much less the fact that this date has seemingly materialized out of nowhere into his daughter’s room and not shown up in a suit (as agreed upon in advance by the Stacy family).

I put forth the modest proposition that a movie containing this much paralogia should be rejected by a mass audience. It is one thing to accept a webslinger sailing through the Manhattan skyline on threads that couldn’t possibly be tensile enough to hold a 160 pound man. One must, after all, suspend some disbelief for a film of this type. But we are not dummies. And it is the job of the Hollywood professional to make us believe in the impossible for a few hours.

It is also the responsibility of the professional to give the protagonist an interesting antagonist: ideally, someone who shares similar qualities and who is just as dimensional as the hero. What have screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargeant, and Steve Kloves given us? The Lizard (aka Dr. Curt Connors), who was capable of telepathic communication with other reptiles and was nuanced enough to help Spidey a few times in the comics, is a dull and plodding villain barking ho-hum soliloquies into his video camera and booming loud and not especially inventive three-word threats to Peter Parker. In this cinematic manifestation, he is such an underwritten and bland character that director Marc Webb, who seems to have carved out the inventive eye he brought to the marvelous (500) Days of Summer for the money men, constantly has his camera fixated upon Connors’s missing arm even after we have a pretty good idea that the experiments at Oscorp will cause it to grow back. I became so distracted by this that I was able to figure out where Rhys Ifans’s pre-CGI arm was with little effort. But as we have already established, Webb and his army of hacks aren’t especially interested in believable magic tricks.

* * *

“Don’t break promises you can’t keep,” says an English teacher at Midtown Science High School to Peter Parker, as he stumbles late into a classroom near the end of a broken cinematic promise. “Yeah,” Parker replies, “but those are the best ones.”

Actually, the best promises were fulfilled by Sam Raimi. Even Spider-Man 3, which had its share of problems, was free enough for Raimi to stage that gloriously cheesy scene in the jazz club. There isn’t a single scene in Webb’s hacktacular reimagining that comes close. Raimi understood that Spider-Man was the most endearing of Marvel’s superheroes: the bullied geek finding integrity through his superpowers. While Andrew Garfield is a handsome enough lead man, he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would be beaten by schoolkids in a previous life. He’s too jittery and bewildered and spastic in his delivery to tend to a friendly neighborhood. It doesn’t help that he has a vague Jersey dialect which flits in and out, out of character for a guy ostensibly from Queens. But then the New York in this movie is some bizarre hodgepodge of the seedy Abraham Beame days (people apparently drink beer on the Q line and it’s too dangerous for a fit older woman to walk twelve blocks to a subway station at night) and something vaguely approximating a period that could be now or could be the 1980s (how else to account for the Rubik’s Cube that Uncle Ben picks up in Peter Parker’s room or the curious lack of texting among teens even as they are using smartphones?). While I accept that a comic book movie is going to stylize a city however it wants (Raimi was audacious enough to include an elevated line running through Manhattan), should it not be rooted in true imagination rather than careless what-the-hell incoherence? (On this point, the movie seems curiously self-aware of its fallacies. Not only does The Amazing Spider-Man lack the guts to utter the famous line “With great power comes great responsibility,” but an Einstein poster appears in Parker’s bedroom with the immortal quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” If ever there was a filmmaker who misunderstood Einstein, it’s director Marc Webb.)

That slipshod quality extends to Peter Parker, who inexplicably clings to an analog camera in an age when nearly every aspiring photographer his age is likely to be using digital. Hilariously, Parker’s camera has PROPERTY OF PETER PARKER in embossed tape on the back, which conveniently allows a villain to find him not long after he tries snapping a few secret photos. (By comparison, notice how our first introduction of Raimi’s Peter Parker as photographer involves Parker asking permission at a museum just before he snaps a spider for the “school paper,” only for a bully to push Parker and mess up his shot. In a matter of five seconds, Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp established that (1) Parker is polite and destined to work for a paper to expand his scientific and journalistic interests and (2) he is also doomed to face bullies who will mess his vocation up, whether as crime fighter or photographer.)

And how can you have a Spider-Man movie without J. Jonah Jameson? Then again, after J.K. Simmons, why would you dare to cast another actor in the part? Jameson’s disapproval of Spidey is passed off to Captain George Stacey (played by Denis Leary, who seems to have turned into a poor man’s David Caruso, just as he was once a poor man’s Bill Hicks). But here’s why Jameson is so important. Peter Parker was able to work at the Daily Bugle trying to impress Jameson with his photos, while simultaneously facing Jameson’s smear campaign against Spidey. In light of the fact that he has no father figure, Jameson almost serves as an intriguing surrogate. Webb’s film has Captain Stacey insisting that Spidey is a menace, ordering the cops on his side. But we don’t believe it — in large part because Captain Stacey also views Parker as a kid with “psychiatric problems.” Yet it’s clear that Spidey is working on the side of good. However, we can believe that a media mogul would want to manipulate public opinion for his own selfish ends. Sure enough, Webb and his writers lack the deft hand to see Captain Stacey’s resentment through to the end.

I haven’t even brought up the Gwen Stacy story — in large part because Stacy, who was such a central figure in the comic books (memo to Mr. Webb: not especially wise of you to feature a prominent NYC bridge in your Spider-Man movie because it spells out how risk-averse and how out of your league you really are), is little more than a head-bobbing, limb-shuffling, one-dimensional, big-eyed love interest for Parker. In Raimi’s version, Mary Jane lived a few houses down from Parker. There were hints that a troubled family lived inside. Raimi even had the courage to have Parker mutter his feelings for Mary Jane while walking behind her: an uncommonly sincere moment that made us relate to Parker’s wistfulness in human terms. What does Webb offer us? Gwen Stacy’s photo on Parker’s computer.

I suppose I’m dwelling upon the many human elements that went awry because the comic book story here is boring and unsatisfying. While this movie is not as bad as any comic book movie with “green” in the title, I did not feel a single second of awe or excitement during The Amazing Spider Man‘s 136 interminable minutes. Once again, there was no real justification for the 3D: not even the ridiculous Spidey POV shots that Webb desperately introduces as a personal stylistic flourish. There also needs to be a moratorium on Stan Lee cameos.

We have seen origin story after origin story, and, after two Hulks (2003 and 2008), Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, it’s all becoming wearisome. At least with The Avengers, the spandex ass kicking began fairly early and there was decent acting and a few good lines and a rousing Alan Silvestri score and an endearing Hulk. But the comic book movie has become a drag. Nobody says “fuck” or fucks or drinks or does drugs or gets into serious trouble. Nobody really lives. Imagine how truly amazing these movies would be if somebody took a human chance.

Review: Dark Shadows (2012)

Tim Burton is little more than a soulless businessman who makes movies as cutting-edge as crucible steel. His films haven’t been fun or worthwhile in quite some time, an especially astonishing accomplishment considering the eye-popping work that came before. He’s been lurching around like a creatively bankrupt whore for at least sixteen years and his chief skill seems to be taking very fun films from decades past (Planet of the Apes, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, et al.) and adulterating them into tepid remakes which rival Sátántangó in sheer soporificity. Tim Burton is not a man who dazzles, but he is very keen on taking your money and boring you to tears.

With his latest disaster, Dark Shadows, Burton has once again butchered an engaging antecedent. He has hired Seth Grahame-Smith, an in-it-for-the-money mashup charlatan who wasn’t even alive when the first Dark Shadows series aired, to write a porous screenplay built upon gags so bad that even a Marmaduke fan is likely to go postal.

Instead of establishing Barnabas Collins’s striking qualities as a tormented vampire, Burton and Grahame-Smith cheapen him by having Barnabas react to cultural developments (“They tried stoning me. It did not work,” replies Barnabas when someone asks if he is stoned: no one in the theater laughed), having Dr. Julia Hoffman (played here as a clueless chain-smoking drunk by Helena Bonham Carter) go down on Barnabas because Burton and Grahame-Smith couldn’t ken the character (played by Burton’s real-life wife!) in any other way*, and having Barnabas quote from The Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” (which actually came out in 1973, one year after the movie’s setting) and Erich Segal’s Love Story in an effort to relate to hippies.

This is Dark Shadows‘s idea of character development, and it extends to the acting. A distressingly plastic Michelle Pfeiffer, unable to express anything with her face, resorts to eye blinking in her role as the Collins matriarch (and cannot compare to the classy Joan Bennett from the original). For some inexplicable reason, Burton has directed nearly every woman to talk with a gravely two-packs-a-day timbre. And this became so distracting that I had to do a double take to make sure that Eva Green (who plays Angelique, the witch who ensnares Barnabas) wasn’t Helena Bonham Carter. Bella Heathcote tries her best (and is an excellent Kathryn Leigh Scott mimic) as Victoria Winters, the woman who looks like Barnabas’s lost love, Josette du Pres. But with such a middling script (and a really awkward backstory about being institutionalized as a child reflecting the desperation of artistic cretins sandwiching Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters into one character), Heathcote’s talents fizzle before they are allowed to catch fire. As for Johnny Depp, he’s in full paycheck role somnambulism here, offering little more than a not particularly precise Liverpudlian dialect and spastic presence. It is now clear that Johnny Depp, who was once one of our more interesting and daring actors, can no longer be trusted to put his name to anything even remotely daring. (His next film is The Lone Ranger.)

And I put forth to any self-respecting moviegoer that when a character is forced to exclaim “You’re way too weird!” to another in a movie, as one does to Barnabas, this is probably happening because the writer and the director are incapable of establishing the weirdness through action.

The Jonathan Frid and Ben Cross incarnations of Barnabas Collins didn’t require external prodding from others to establish their on-screen gravitas. Producer Dan Curtis, faced with a miniscule budget for his daily soap opera, relied on two dependable qualities that have escaped Burton’s feeble attentions: (1) go-for-broke writing and (2) theatrical acting. So he had his writers scavenge ideas and narrative angles from Poe, Lovecraft, Wilde, Stoker, Shelley, and countless other classics to create what was surely one of the most ambitious and quirky daytime shows ever produced on television, including everything from vampires to werewolves to gripping court trials to a wealthy family to parallel universes to immortal figures to Gothic intrigue. It proved so strangely addictive — almost the American answer to old school Doctor Who‘s endearing combination of wobbly sets and high concept — that I ended up renting the first 52 volumes on VHS at a Sacramento video store around 1990, managing to hook a number of friends and family members into my surprise find, and was crushed when I learned that there was no 53rd volume. (Later, I discovered that the Sci-Fi Channel was broadcasting Dark Shadows every morning, and I waited patiently for the series to catch up to where I had left off.)

So if you’re going to compress a series this complicated and this distinct into a two hour movie, you need dedication and finesse, especially if you hope to attract a new audience.

But Burton and Grahame-Smith are so laughably amateurish that Barnabas walks around town in open daylight with little more than a hat and an umbrella to protect him. (Indeed, after the fifteenth time I noticed some stream of sunlight that should have killed Barnabas, I stopped counting.) And unlike the Frid or Cross exemplars, who both used their innate charisma to persuade, Barnabas relies mostly on his hypnotic powers to coax others to do his bidding. As the wonderful bar scene from Near Dark demonstrated, a vampire is only as badass as his actions. Tim Burton’s Barnabas comes from a soft, privileged, and unlived place.

In addition, the movie is needlessly aggressive in its use of obvious music cues — The Carpenters’s “Top of the World,” The Moody Blues’s “Nights in White Satin,” Barry White’s “You’re the First, My Last, My Everything,” many others — to telegraph its hackneyed moments. One almost expects Casey Kasem to show up. Instead, we get Alice Cooper performing at Collinwood, the Collins family manse that was so enticingly mysterious in its two television incarnations. For Burton, Collinwood is merely a place where you stash your badminton and macramé supplies in the secret rooms.

If turning a secret room into storage space for a Veblenian haul is Burton’s idea of imagination, then it’s clear that this rabid bore should be taken to the woodshed. The man contributes nothing of value to the American cultural landscape. He may look like Ichabod Crane, but he lost his head for fun a long, long time ago.

* — To give you a sense of how Burton and Grahame-Smith have diminished Dr. Julia Hoffman, here’s an extremely abbreviated character history from the original series. She was the head of a sanitarium, pretended to be a historian to infiltrate her way into the Collins family, and discovered Barnabas to be a vampire through her own initiative. Barnabas and Julia developed an interesting relationship that was built on trust, hypnosis, blackmail, and near murder. Should such an intriguing character really be little more than a drunk?

New Directors/New Films: Crulic: The Path to Beyond (2011)

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 21, 2012 and April 1, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

His name was Claudiu Crulic. He was a 33-year-old Romanian who, as a younger man, abandoned his loose educational plans and involved himself in the family business of selling sundries in various European nations. Or he was a mysterious drifter harassed by the authorities for minor indiscretions. Or he was living it up in vaguely dissolute, vaguely familial terms in Krakow. It really all depends — as Anca Damian’s animated film Crulic: The Path to Beyond makes clear in its enticing murkiness — on how you look at the situation, on the facts you decide to appropriate for your own subjective purposes, whether as filmgoer or fellow human being. Is that ringing telephone a cardboard reconstruction? Or is it merely a collection of hastily sketched lines? We can hear the cinematic fizzle of the overhead florescent lights, yet why can’t we see them? We are told that a man has lost 30 kilograms in weight before death, yet the air that surrounds his story is often weightless.

Damian’s film cannot commit itself to any one animation technique: cutout, hand-sketched, and the kitchen sink are all vigorously pursued in an effort to unpack Crulic’s story, which is by no means airtight, entirely authentic, or even completely tellable. Crulic’s voice and imagery have been reappropriated, with another actor reading what I must presume to be reinvented words to convey one possible truth about a terrible tale in which facts may be fickle. This raises ethical questions over whether Damian the filmmaker is as reckless with the truth as the Polish authorities were with Crulic’s life. Perhaps the only way to hit at Crulic’s truth is through such smudging.

There is one thing most people will agree on. Claudiu Crulic did not have to die at such a needlessly young age in a Polish prison. On July 11th, 2007, a judge of the high court had his wallet stolen, with two ATM transactions on his card totaling 500 Euros following not long after. Crulic, the apparent suspect who may or may not have been in Krakow at the time, was recognized in a photograph by the judge, detained, and placed into a prison to await trial in the months to come. Curlic decided that he could no longer wait and initiated a hunger strike, stating this in a letter to the Romanian Consulate. Damian’s film implies that the Consul strung Crulic along. This may very well be true. The judge and the Court and the lawyers and the doctors and the prison officials all have blood on their hands for allowing Crulic to die, for not intervening in time, and for throwing out evidence which might have exonerated Crulic (Crulic on a bus to Italy during the time in which the Judge was robbed). If the Crulic situation weren’t so tragic, it would certainly be comic or Kafkesque. But another important question that the film never quite answers is why Crulic would choose such a dramatic and life-threatening protest option over a more practical one. An inhumane hardliner could point to the heroes and rebs who have done hard time for worse offenses.

We are told many times along the way that “it was at this point” that Crulic’s life might have been saved or the cruel bureaucratic process might have grinded to a halt. But do we really know this for certain? This film carries the illusion of veracity with a narrator who steps into the vocal track to give us more than contours. And some kernel of another truth is implied during the end credits with various television clips. But while I was seduced by the film’s imagery and ideas — the frozen cutout representation of Crulic flung about from cell to cell as he is shifted in disorientation by the guards, the idea that one life might contain a finite number of photos — I felt vaguely bothered by the film’s tendency to dictate rather than to suggest. I cannot in good conscience call this a documentary. But as one dramatic representation of a story that was largely ignored in the States, this path to beyond leaves one considering the path less traveled and fuels a new desire to travel both. It is a sad indication of the Polish justice system’s inadequacies that a more complete excursion is probably not possible.

New Directors/New Films: An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012)

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 21, 2012 and April 1, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

Vol 01 — Slightly Eccentric Lede Intended to Mimic the Film’s Structure, Offering a Knowing Nod or a Tedious Longueur Depending Upon What You Prefer

You’re not supposed to begin an essay with a digression, but since the film I’m about to write about is a deceptive concatenation of digressions, it somehow seems appropriate to break the unspoken rule.

Vol 02 — Impertinent Observations Reflecting the Essayist’s Eccentric Mind

Upon seeing “ambivalence” misspelled on-screen during An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, the wordsmith in me wondered if this may have been deliberate. After all, filmmaker Terence Nance does have the woman of his real-life and cinematic affections read what appears to be a lengthy (though modified — but I am trusting my memory and I am not Googling it, so I could be wrong) passage from Louise Erdrich’s The Bingo Palace. And Nance’s film is fascinatingly verbal, with words displayed and heard at nearly every point: filling in every stray gap (thanks in large part to Reg E. Cathey’s smooth narration, which intersperses at times with Nance’s — the effect works, the competitive voices suggesting some internal dialogue between a boy and a man, but I wondered at times if the actor from The Wire had to stick to a mere 80% of the film’s narration, rather than the full order, in order to fit his great velvet-voiced services into the low budget), complicating and reviving and reforming and mimicking a long-dead relationship that is also the very subject of this film. So why would Nance misspell the very word that may signal his true and present feelings about what he’s documenting?

It was at this point — perhaps an hour into the movie — that my mind suggested that Oversimplification could be a clever reply to The Americanization of Emily. In the 1964 film (written by Paddy Chayefsky, based on a William Bradford Huie novel; I won’t mention the director because it runs the risk of another 500 words I don’t really want to write right now), Emily is both attracted and repelled by a soldier’s lifestyle. She’s lost many of the men she’s loved during the war and she doesn’t want to see this new guy she’s fallen for, Madison, die either. And then it appears that Madison is dead — the first man to make it on Omaha Beach. And Emily is crushed. But Madison is not dead. He’s living it up as a hero, which is something of an understatement. Because he was actually a coward. Emily says that he should accept his role.

Vol 03 — Oh, Get to the Film Already!

Now let’s take a look at Nance’s film. We are informed that Nance is a young twentysomething who has had a family upbringing without injury or incident (described as “the Cosby effect”). He works twelve hour days, but most of his money appears to be going into his rent and his Metrocard. He has to construct his own bed, relying on Japanese joinery, carrying slabs on the subway, and not getting the bed right because he is not the greatest carpenter and he has used pine instead of sturdier wood. It can be argued that this is a lifestyle: certainly many of today’s artists soldier on in an American climate increasingly hostile to art. And Nance’s choice of inferior wood may indeed suggests that he is beguilingly clueless in some sense. This was the big tip-off for me, in any case, that Nance’s heavily verbal, multitiered film was just as much of an imperfect bed that he would have to lay in for some years.

So Nance meets Namik. The details are imprecise, even as there is the illusion of precision contained within the film’s ongoing narration and structure. (At one point, we are helpfully informed that one section of the film is “up to date as of 2006.”) They sleep together, but they don’t necessarily make love. The nature of the relationship is imprecise, as befitting two confused but amicable young people in some kind of love or lust. It is imprecise even as Nance offers a timeline of events late into the film. We learn that another man has asked Namik to be in an exclusive relationship, which means the end of her involvement with Nance.

Or so we think. Because Nance, crushed by this, decides to dwell on the relationship anyway — even after it is over. He somehow persuades Namik to respond to a letter that he sent her long after the fact and records her response on camera. What starts off as a young man’s friendly and humble self-examination becomes a little creepy for a time. I mean, can you imagine asking some person you slept with several years ago to respond to something on camera for a project that reflects your own personal truth? Especially after both of you have moved on? That Namik does all this without filing for a restraining order speaks to Nance’s strange charm. Or maybe it’s the key ingredient for this film’s weirdly appealing conceptual thrust. In an age of increasing documentation of the self, are we meant to carry on chronicling the very emotions that might be harmful towards us or others? Especially when we’re ushered to shift our Facebook profiles onto a timeline and relive our worst moments? Nance seems game for endless self-examination. He didn’t come off as a narcissist to me, although, given the walkouts I observed, I know his willingness to push into his own seemingly common complexities won’t be for everyone.

Vol 04 — An Attempt to Find a Conclusion

Like Nance, I seem to have drifted in the immediate emotional residue and haven’t even consulted the many notes I took. Many of them are indecipherable. But I’m sure that many of them are readable and profound. I have opted for memory instead. Yet in considering my feelings (which are genuinely positive) for Nance’s film, it’s interesting that I haven’t mentioned the animation. And this isn’t fair. Because there is one past fling which Nance chronicles quite well through animation, where all parties are naked and Nance’s stature waxes and wanes as the giant woman he is describing transforms into a ripe tomato as she gets it on with another lover and Nance begins to comprehend the great pain of trying to stay platonic with a woman you still have feelings for.

This film is Nance’s truth, and nothing but Nance’s truth. Even as Nance includes a trailer for Naink’s possible cinematic response, and even as Nance includes a hazy video clip from a Q&A session just after an early version of the film played a theater, this is still Nance’s truth. It’s worth pointing out that Oversimplification emerged from the bones of an earlier short film called How Would You Feel?. That both films are, in turn, evolved from Nance’s real-life experience leads one to wonder where the original emotional kernel can be found, or whether it’s even worth pursuing.

Nance hasn’t so much oversimplified Namik’s beauty, as he has complicated it into a distorted view that no longer bears any resemblance to the original lived moment. And while another older person (especially one with several failed marriages) might find this annoying or horrifying, I found this oddly enthralling. Nance confesses that he doesn’t really possess the emotional memory of his moments with Namik, and that her motion in the clips edited on his laptop somehow actuated these false highlights. Does technology debilitate the romance or the inherent truth of our memories? Probably. And I think, given the defiant iPhone-centric manner in which he ends his movie, Nance does too. Yet here is a man who, not long after showing a version of his film to Namik, puts the microphone in her face and presses her on how she feels, curling it around her (while sitting behind her) like an arm. I’ll be hard-pressed to find a better epitomization of 21st century life (especially among those who document it) in any film I see this year.

Is this thing on?

New Directors/New Films: The Raid: Redemption (2011)

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 21, 2012 and April 1, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

It’s difficult not to take grand glee in an action movie with an aesthetic partially inspired by Eddie Adams’s famous photo of Nguyen Van Lem getting his head blown off. In Gareth Evans’s beautifully brutal new film, The Raid: Redemption, angry heads pop into frame and are pistoled, knifed, and punctured against crumbling chrome walls with rhythmic panache. I spent much of the movie chortling over the audacity.

Last year, I argued that the main difference between a great low-class action movie (Shoot ‘Em Up) and unpardonable trash (Kick-Ass) is that the former invites the reader to make sense of the madness on screen, while the latter wishes to dictate how the audience should react (generally with some knowing musical cue where the irony is ham-handed).

I am pleased to report that The Raid falls into the first category and is very entertaining indeed. For all of The Raid‘s over-the-top violence (there is one amazing scene in which a single man battles a machete gang with near balletic dexterity), Evans — a Welshman now operating in Indonesia — isn’t afraid to bedazzle with his camera. A crane shot lowers from above as twenty elite cops methodically leave a truck with their weapons. But Evans doesn’t stop there. He continues the shot on Steadicam.

Here is a movie where characters chop through the floor with an axe, jump to the level below them, and the camera follows — whether through CGI or a bona-fide stuntman, I know not. And if, for some reason, you can’t appreciate that, consider how Mikhail Kalatozov’s camera in I Am Cuba scaled walls and followed a flag across a crowded street. If cinema can transport us into places we wouldn’t ordinarily go, why should we withhold our praise when an action movie does the same thing?

I haven’t even discussed the way in which Evans uses slow motion. There is a stunning shot early in the film where one of the tenants shouts up a stairwell that the police have arrived. And while this shot continues in slothful time, we see a flying bullet puncture through the wall behind him.

Evans is also committed to barbarous triplets. If you’re a bad guy in The Raid, you won’t just get a gunshot to the head. You’ll get three. If you’re getting pounded against the wall, then the man who is kicking your ass will do his best to make sure you get smashed in three separate places on your way down to death on the floor. The quiet math rock part of me appreciated all this. Death does indeed happen in threes.

And while some of the hallway fights get a little repetitive near the end, exposing the ridiculous and threadbare plot (which turns out to be a knockoff of A Better Tomorrow: two brothers, one a cop and the other a criminal), Evans is very good about keeping the action and the locations varied up enough for us not to notice. He has stuntmen clamber up walls and even has his characters hide inside them. One gets the sense that Evans has truly considered every nook and cranny of his location. And every strike of the knife.

It also helps that the movie contains some unusual dialogue. When the villain was informed at an early point that at least thirty of his tenants who paid rent were now spread across the walls, I knew that I was in capable hands. If I happened to be a violent maniac and property owner, I’d certainly want my underlings to inform me about any recent change in revenue. “Squeezing a trigger?” asks one man to another. “That’s like ordering takeout.” This half-assed philosophical stance gives two men an excuse to get into a protracted martial arts fight.

The line may also anticipate the cult audience this film is likely to attract. For The Raid isn’t ephemeral takeout. It’s the hip new dive you want to tell your friends about before everybody else discovers it.

Dmitry Samarov’s Hack

It was recently suggested by The New York Daily News‘s Alexander Nazaryan that Jonathan Safran Foer’s purported “truth about human experience” could be instantly dismissed due to Foer not really knowing a life without bona-fide hardship. Nazaryan came to this viewpoint not necessarily because he is bitter (he claims to be, but I don’t think he is), but because he was raised in Soviet Russia.*

Fortunately, one recent book is committed to a less abominably assumptive approach to human existence. Like Nazaryan, artist, author, and cab driver Dmitry Samarov also experienced a childhood in Soviet Russia. And I suspect that this background is one very salient reason why Samarov’s insights into everyday life in Chicago are so real and winsome, rather than trite and didactic like Foer. Eschewing prepackaged claims of Taxicab Confessions authenticity (although the show is mentioned twice), Dmitry Samarov’s Hack (University of Chicago Press, $20) is a slim yet thoughtful volume on what it is to live as a taxi driver. The book bristles with an intriguing street poetry, referring to a gas station’s “welcoming neon glow” as “fool’s gold” when Samarov describes the difficulties of finding a place to relieve himself and depicting the unusual dernier cri (“a straw cowboy hat and a green Day-Glo bracelet”) which elude the monied charlatans who hole themselves up in vacuous manses. Samarov is clearly interested in people, but, like the prostitutes, the journalists, and the psychotherapists who cater to their clients in similar fashion, he knows very well how his fares perceive him. He registers his observations in a rapid-fire yet unpretentious manner (many of his anecdotes originated on a blog), as if he has only a few minutes to capture a few sentences (or sketch one of the many illustrations accompanying his stories) before hustling for the next fare.

Samarov is candid enough to express his understandable self-interest, describing how he wants his cheeseburger more than an “angry man with a backpack [who] marches right up to the window and demands service” at a McDonald’s which prohibits walk-ups (and which generates a quick fare stream for wayward cabs in the area) while also showing us his reticence to reveal certain personal details to his more probing clients.

And why should the hack spill? After all, when we enter a cab with the idea of entering a conspiratorial trust with the driver, how much of our taxicab conversations do we truly remember? Isn’t there something inherently troubling about placing our trust with a stranger like this? Perhaps. This may be one of the reasons why so many “confessions” of this sort often depict the taxi driver as some dutiful stoic who has seen it all. But this take severely underestimates the hack’s ability to understand the implications of his observations. As Samarov himself writes when trying to peg a woman pushed into the back of his cab by a disheveled old man, “There’s no polite way to broach such a subject, so I content myself with speculating.”

Samarov is willing to impart his fears and dangers, even when they reveal unexpected thoughts about on-the-job dignity. Of dealing with incompetents and ireful types on the road, he writes, “I wouldn’t be caught dead out here if there wasn’t money at stake. The fact that the masses submit to it of their own volition makes me question my membership in the species.” Does this need for the take, often ruthlessly pared down by a cashier when checking the cab in, make Samarov any less superior to Foer? Not at all. But it’s refreshing to see Samarov marvel at the universe even as he seems conflicted about it. It’s this marvelous duality of being alive that books, especially in the hands of the prissy and the uptight, too frequently take for granted.

* And if you’re truly on the fence about whether or not Foer is a loathsome human being and/or an astonishingly overrated individual, consider the fact that Foer had the audacity to apply, and win, one of the coveted Cullman Center fellowships (which awards a $65,000 stipend, an office, and considerable resources to each winner) offered by the New York Public Library this year — this when Foer himself owns a $6.75 million brownstone in Park Slope (purchased in large part through the family’s coffers), is doing extremely well with the Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close film rights and foreign sales, and this after Foer’s equally pansified wife, Nicole Krauss, won a Cullman grant two years prior to her husband. A source informs me that Foer resigned from the fellowship, which explains why his name is no longer listed among this year’s fellows. Still, why would any remotely decent person do this? I suspect the answer is quite self-explanatory. If you go for an evening stroll through Prospect Park, especially when it is colder and more desolate in the wintertime, you can listen to the gelid pelt of Marie Antoinette-like sweat oozing from the west without surcease from Nicole Krauss’s privileged pores, which is siphoned into a special stock for the children so that they too can sup from the free ride tureen well into early adulthood. Given all the recent dialogue involving the richest 1% taking everything from the remaining 99%, it’s astonishing that the Foer family’s unrelenting selfishness and unfathomable avarice has gone without remark or rebuke by the literary community. But I digress.

Another Review of Moneyball

This is the second of two Moneyball reviews we’ve published. The first, featuring two fictitious sportscasters, can be read here.

I came to Moneyball not having read Michael Lewis’s book. There wasn’t really a good reason. Because I do read source material for a film whenever possible. Why? Because I like to play comparison games in my head. And because if the film doesn’t match up to the book, then I can figure out why. Or if it does measure up (and then some), I can analyze the differences.

Oddly, I didn’t do so when I saw The Social Network, which Moneyball is clearly trying to ape: from the Sorkin dialogue that managed to survive a zillion rewrites and doctoring to the shots of 21st century retro computing (2001 in Moneyball, 2004ish in TSN) to the meetings where old people need to be convinced of something new and foreign (in TSN‘s case, when the fictional Zuckerberg is being deposed by lawyers or telling the Harvard people why he doesn’t give a fuck about them but does about Facebook; in Moneyball, when beatific Brad Pitt as Billy Beane drops his masks and tells a room full of Fathers Know Best scouts they don’t know what they are doing.) Maybe Moneyball needed full-blown Sorkin, but I don’t think his script could have saved the movie, which was pretty much unsaveable from the get-go.

Here’s why: it opens with footage (real? doctored? who cares?) of the Oakland Athletics’s 2001 wild card playoffs, a strike against my childhood self who cried out for her 1994 Expos, their bound-for-playoff run aborted by the strike that killed the game and ushered in three rounds of post-season. There’s Jason Giambi before we knew he took steroids. There’s Roger Clemens before we knew he took steroids, perjured himself, and generally revealed himself to be a colossal douchebag of the highest order. And I’m distracted, thinking of the Mitchell Report, Itamar Moses’s amazing play about the late 1980s A’s, Canseco introducing McGwire to the magical elixir of what these drugs can do. And oh yeah, the A’s lose, Schott won’t give Beane any money, and everybody’s fucked until the Fat Kid Math Whiz comes along to save the day and make Beane look good with his Sabermetric-based statistical analysis of underappreciated players.

Moneyball did pick up. I admit, when the movie turned to the streak, the grinding gears caused me to get caught up in the manufactured excitement. I mean, truth sometimes does trump fiction, and Hatteberg’s homer really was something else. But we’re only a couple of clicks away from finding out that Jonah Hill’s character is pure fiction (the truth, in the form of Paul DePodesta, Beane’s real-life assistant GM, got edited out because it wasn’t convenient, so DePodesta refused to have his name included), Beane was only following in predecessor Sandy Alderson’s footsteps, and going the quant route only works for the scrappers if the big guns haven’t figured it out. Also, I was kind of hoping for a cameo by some Theo Epstein stand-in, aka the man who ended up with Beane’s promised GM job at the Boston Red Sox. In fact, why hasn’t Ben Mezrich written about him yet?

Anyway, Beane is still with Oakland, though possibly not for long, as this New York Times Magazine piece reveals. He still hasn’t won a playoff. And that’s great, but is this a movie? It’s not that the lack of a Hollywood ending galls. Because it doesn’t. It’s that the lack of a Hollywood ending reinforces the fact that there wasn’t much of a Hollywood beginning or a middle. In other words, I want my damn 1994 Expos. Now there’s a team that might have changed the game further, and their shot wasn’t just ruined then, it was taken away forever.

Review: Moneyball

This is the first of two Moneyball reviews we’ve published. The second, which gets into the baseball nitty-gritty, can be read here.

— Now up to bat. Kenneth Turan, suckered in by the story, believing that the Mickey Mantle epigraph celebrates profuuuuuuuuuuuuuundity but really is more of a marketing gimmick that fools you into believing that It is Important.

— Well, Jack, I’m not sure you’re being fair towards Turan. Every time he gets on the plate, his eyes just widen at middlebrow pitches.

— But, Phil, did you see the way Turan immediately fell for the hook about this being “a famously troubled production.” And that crack about Pitt “who must have had a sense of how good a role this was for him.” Did he just cut and paste the press notes?

— I wouldn’t know, Jack. The movie started late and Sony was confiscating everybody’s cell phones as if they were criminal thugs.

— Sounds like you’re a bit bitter.

— Well, yeah. But I had also seen a rather amazing film that day called Le Havre. And, well, Moneyball paled by comparison. Have you seen it, Jack?

— No, Phil. I don’t do subtitles.

— Your loss, Jack.

— You know, now that you mention it, I’m not sure how much Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Oscar win for Capote has to do with his role in the movie.

— “Letter-perfect,” Turan wrote before the last pitch.

— Looks like the copyediting umpire is throwing signals.

— I still don’t think Turan stands for anything.

— You’re right about that. Four balls, two strikes. Looks like they’re going to walk Turan. And there he is! Throwing the bat, doing his little strut.

— Is he actually trying to job?

— I guess so. He’s got a jolly little roll in his belly. It looks like he’s been eating hot meals, Phil.

— Middlebrow critics often do. Now heading for the plate: Manohla Dargis, whipping out that Tennyson in the lede.

— You know, that’s a very impressive move.

— Baseball is poetry!

— But a hungry heart? And why the hyperlink? Didn’t the New York Times figger its readers would recognize “Ulysses” by the two words alone?

— They probably think sports fans are dumb or something.

— “Liquid physical grace and bright eyes of a predator.” That’s some serious description, but is it poetry?

— You can’t talk about Brad Pitt without considering how he looks soooooooooooooo much like Redford.

— You mean they’re grooming him to take over when Redford croaks?

— Could be.

— Who’s on Sundance?

— What’s at Telluride?

— I don’t know is at Toronto.

— That’s right. You know, like Turan, she’s really paying attention to the titles that are flashing on the screen.

— You mean the numbers?

— I mean the numbers. Did you really think this movie was exuberant?

— Well, after a while, I got bored.

— Why’s that?

— It seems condescending to reduce the complexities of baseball down to two distinct visions.

— Strike for Dargis.

— Yeah, she’s not hitting well this season.

— Cut her some slack. There’s the New York Film Festival too.

— Sure. But two distinct visions. Here’s a movie that suggests it’s either all about hard statistics or all about the love of the game. And, really, was the Michael Lewis book that cut and dry?

— No. Strike!

— Well with Turan on first and the home team down a few runs…

— Can I just stay that I love the way Manohla goes to the trouble of saying that Billy has a great face. After that whole business of “liquid physical grace.”

— Do you think she wants to fuck Brad Pitt?

— Hey, who doesn’t? But does Brad Pitt’s handsomeness have anything to do with the movie?

— Not really.

— Can they really put it up there with The Social Network?

— Same producer. Sorkin wrote some of it.

— You see, that’s just it. The script seems to be a bastard hybrid of Steven Zallian’s heartfelt stuff.

— Brad Pitt’s kid? That song she sings?

— That silly song she sings. And Sorkin’s robust moralizing. It just doesn’t feel right. It should have been either one or the other.

— Oh, come on, have some sympathy for the Hollywood machine.

— It’s difficult. I can’t. These movies can be so much smarter.

— Dargis swings. And…….misses.

— First out for the home team.

— And to think that Sony handpicked the right critics for this. Do you think this stands a chance of winning Best Picture?

— One word. Crash.

— And who doesn’t like baseball?

— There’s that book from Chad Harbach.

— You’re not one of those readers, are you?

— No. Not really.

— Good. We’re supposed to keep the skepticism at a minimum.

— Why is that?

— Well, it’s good form! Because they might not invite us to additional screenings.

— One more thing about Manohla. I loved the way she tried to read significance in the American flags, trying to find a symbol.

— They are a symbol. We do that for every game.

— No, a September 11th symbol. Isn’t that a bit reaching?

— Well, what do you expect from Manohla? Now batting: Richard Corliss!

— He’s swinging wild.

— Well, he’s dealing with a funny pitcher.

— Not funny. Statistically proven to gain the approval of critics too calcified to rock the boat.

— I love how Corliss praised “the star’s administrative strategies.”

— It’s a paean to Big Business!

— “A solid, bustling social comedy at the 130-IQ level?” Were you laughing much?

— No. I mean, I liked Jonah Hill.

— He’s funny.

— Jonah Hill is funny. But in this he’s actually quite good in a dramatic role.

— So does the presence of Jonah Hill turn this into a “bustling social comedy?”

— Not really.

— You gotta give Corliss this. Love the way he commends Bennett Miller for including scenes of Billy driving at night.

— Cutaways.

— Smashing things up.

— A lot of movies have that.

— Working out in the team gym.

— Come on, when you’ve got Pitt’s muscles?

— But do you think he’s overpraising the movie for these shots? I mean, there was a time when all movies had these shots.

— Maybe that’s why he’s so excited.

— 130-IQ level? What does he mean by that?

— It means this film is just short of genius.

— Is Bull Durham or Major League at the 130-IQ level?

— They don’t have number crunching.

— But you’re still rooting for the success of the team? I mean, by Corliss’s standards…

The Bad News Bears is at the 130-IQ level.

— The original or the Linklater remake?

— Let’s not talk about the remake.

— “The central pairing, though, has championship stuff.”

— How so?

— Because it gives Corliss an excuse to make another Social Network comparison.

— Beane and Brand are the Winklevoss twins?

— Hey, if you stare really hard, Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill are kinda identical.

— Do you think “a walk is as good as a hit” is debatable?

— I don’t know. We just announce it.

— He’s out!

— What’s Corliss’s batting average these days?

— Don’t ask.

— Do we have a team?

— We do. And they’ll do anything the manager says.

NYFF: You Are Not I (1981)

[This is the fifth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

In a 1965 interview with Ira Cohen, Bowles revealed that his short story “You Are Not I” came from a dream state: “a second between waking and sleeping, or sleeping and waking.” Sara Driver’s You Are Not I is a spellbinding example of how a scrappy filmmaker can transform words into something that is different from the source yet equally distinct. Unlike Julia Loktev’s weak attempt to play coy (and ultimately hollow and obvious) with Tom Bissell, Driver fully engages with the dream and makes it her own. A commonplace Jesus portrait hanging above a chair isn’t so much a kitsch signifier as it is a marker of one possible faith that might fill in the traumatic gaps. The “She’s dead” uttered within Bowles’s story becomes a hypnotic mantra. The indelible imagery of stones being dropped into the open mouths of the dead transmutes into a surreal effort to express grief.

There are several pleasant and unexpected ties to a Lower East Side culture from decades before. Jim Jarmusch serves as co-writer and cinematographer. Luc Sante, wearing watch cap and glasses, acts as a man who drives the car. Phil Kline offers a synth-sculpted soundtrack. There’s Tom DiCillo on assistant camera. And given the film’s commitment to slow trancelike walking (understandable, given the main character’s recent escape from a mental hospital and her confrontation with the dead), one gets the sense that the young Driver (and Jarmusch) was feeding on a steady diet of German Expressionism. I was quite fond of the especially still manner in which Fletcher sits in a chair, speculating on what others might be saying about her, and the long and lumbering manner in which the actors walk across the room. Because of these qualities, the film, in Driver’s hands, feels more like something from Jane Bowles rather than Paul. When the young woman enters the house (one of those boxy, square-screened hulks in New Jersey), she claims that the layout has been switched around and that this construction must have been committed at great expense. That we have not seen the “original” house is quite helpful. Because we’re then left second-guessing whether what we are seeing is real. I must confess that I found myself suspicious of the cigarette smoke pervading the living room near film’s end for arty effect.

Equally interesting is the way that this 48 minute black-and-white film was rescued from the dead. Driver had unknowingly shipped a print of her film to Bowles in Tangier. The negative was destroyed, courtesy of a leak in a New Jersey warehouse. And as Driver’s remaining digital copy was eaten away by the ravages of degradable tape, with the signal reduced to nothing, Driver had concluded that the film was dead. Until librarian Francis Poole traveled to Tangier to collect Bowles’s papers for the University of Delaware, not knowing that the film he carried in his hands was indeed an adaptation of Bowles’s story. Poole got in touch with Driver. And the film is now thankfully enjoying a second life at the New York Film Festival. (A more elaborate version of this story can be heard on the press conference audio below, which includes both Driver and Poole discussing the film.)

NYFF 2011: You Are Not I Press Conference (Download MP3)

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NYFF: The Loneliest Planet

[This is the fourth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

Narratives which involve affluent English-speaking types venturing into foreign terrain in order to find themseleves are only as good as Paul Bowles’s inevitable yardstick. The Sheltering Sky is, despite my qualms, arguably the definitive novel on the subject. One senses that writer-director Julia Loktev, in naming her film The Loneliest Planet, is aware of this inevitable comparative point. It is worth observing that her cinematographer Inti Briones is fond of pointing the camera down — that is, when he has actual light to work with. Loktev has also given her couple two pairs of green pants — the better to camouflage their spindly legs into the surrounding territory.

Loktev does have the benefit of a Tom Bissell story (“Expensive Trips Nowhere,” contained in God Lives in St. Petersburg) as her source material. But in seeking her own spin, Loktev demonstrates a diffidence when it comes to character motivation. This is somewhat troubling, given the way finances and togetherness (or the lack thereof) are vital parts of Bissell’s story. The film is, however, concerned superficially with the Georgian terrain. And that’s just as it should be for a film trying to mine deep into, well, whatever happens to exist before the camera, which serves as the primary creative motivation here.

Other reviewers — including one from Variety — have called these characters “hipsters.” But I suspect these writers, looking for any noun in the air in their desperate efforts to summarize a lightweight, largely unconsidered, and fairly unrevealing film, haven’t experienced the tangible terrors that I have. Nica (Hani Furstenberg) may be quite thin and Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) may be bearded (Alex even promises to shave the beard off later: this is not a pledge you get very often in Williamsburg). But these two aren’t any more or less obnoxious than most Americans. Nor are they especially vegan or passive. As someone who has a great deal of hostility for a certain type of extreme layabout, I can report that I did not want to kill Nica or Alex at any point during this movie. On the other hand, I didn’t especially care about what happened to them.

But Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), the guide who proves to have more than Georgia on his mind, did interest me — even as Loktev was more concerned with capturing her characters as specks traversing vast vistas (complete with the music cues turning on and off with the cuts to these long takes). He seems to put up with more than he should, including having to sing “Meow meow meow” in response to an especially superficial song.

I should probably point out that the film’s early moments (along with many other night scenes involving a flashlight) demonstrate a partial commitment to the hidden and the cluelessly jaunty: a flapping blanket hiding domestic tranquility, the happy couple hanging off a bus’s rail like monkeys, Nica licking Alex’s cheek as they take a snapshot against a mountain. But that’s about as close as the film gets to Bowles’s tourist vs. traveler distinction.* The film isn’t especially interested in explanations, but it is ballsy enough to elide subtitles. Which means that the audience is as much of a tourist as this couple. This serves as a great advantage when three locals show up and point a rifle at Alex’s head, especially since his first impulse is to hide behind Nica (only to try rescinding this gaffe by squeezing in front of Nica and standing before the rifle). You’d think that such a lousy move would cause strife. Or at least some wilderness equivalent to sleeping in the couch. But it’s never mentioned again.

This incident, along with several minor moments that follow (mostly involving this trio trudging through terrain, all as lonely as their backpacks), suggests that this union has trouble in paradise. When Nica offers Dato a kiss on the cheek, shortly after he has confessed that he has not been with a woman in five years, Dato takes swift advantage, his tongue speaking a gestural language associated with that country presently banning street prayer and his finger clambering inside a joyful jackpot. Be careful what you wish for.

Like the man with the gun, this near adulterous episode isn’t brought up again. And I suspect this has something to do with Loktev’s misunderstanding of Bissell’s story. During the press conference (audio of which can be listened to below), it was revealed that an early version of the script was only 45 pages and that Loktov loathed writing. To add insult to injury, none of the assembled trio on stage –- Loktev, Furstenberg, and the somewhat smug Richard Peña -– were especially interested in mentioning Bissell’s name. Furstenburg referred to the film as “Julia’s story.”

I was forced to ask Loktev a question (which you can hear around the 17 minute mark). Notice how Peña undermines the issue by not mentioning Bissell’s name.

Correspondent: There was mention earlier of a 45 minute script. And you mentioned earlier, Julia, that you detest writing. I’m wondering why you didn’t reach out to any other writer — like, say, Tom Bissell? Did you make any efforts to work with him?

Peña: The question is whether or not, since you say you don’t like writing, whether you ever thought about working with a writer, perhaps the author of the short story or someone else.

Loktev: No. I mean, for me, it was a matter of taking what I was interested in from the short story and writing from there. I said a little bit in jest that I don’t like writing in the sense that I don’t aspire to be a novelist. But, for me, the script — actually, I think it was about 30 pages. But, you know, the lines were all in there. The funny thing is that the lines were all in the script more or less. They just weren’t indented. This is the thing that people kind of — I find it very strange. People always say, “You don’t have a script that was the same with Day Night Day Night.” And I’m like, “It’s only because the lines are in the middle of the paragraph. And they’re not indented like they are in the normal scripts.” And when so much of the film takes place in silence, some of those things are very precisely described in what I write. Like I will describe the movement of a hand. And it’s that precisely outlined, you know. I didn’t want more dialogue than that.

In considering this transformation from “Tom Bissell” to “the author of the short story” to “taking what I was interested in,” I was led by chance into a pleasant email volley with Tom Bissell. Bissell assured me that Loktev was very up front about modifying much of the story. He reported that his interactions with Loktev were friendly and professional, very much in the “go ahead and run with it” mode. But the question that’s still nagging at me is whether or not Loktev’s film transforms the material sufficiently enough to warrant the praise. Because what I saw on Monday morning was a fairly ho-hum narrative devoid of the human context that’s there in Bissell’s story. And if I have to play favorites, then I’d rather go with the artist who knows what he’s writing rather than the one who’s about as committed to the human condition as, well, a ditzy hipster who doesn’t have the guts to put herself on the line.

* “[A]nother important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.” — The Sheltering Sky

NYFF 2011: The Loneliest Planet Press Conference (Download MP3)

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NYFF: Mud and Soldiers (1939)

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

After a shell from a grenade launcher lands squarely on the roof of an enemy-held farmhouse, two close-ups show soldiers grinning in satisfaction. In general, however, the emotions of the soldiers are repressed. They seem struck dumb by the incomprehensible grandeur of the war and the machinelike organization of which they are a part. — Peter B. High, The Imperial Screen

This is the statement of a reaching critic. There were many critics reaching (the honest ones were yawning) during a Friday afternoon screening of Mud and Soldiers — a 1939 film depicting the Second Sino-Japanese War that is playing the New York Film Festival as part of a Nikkatsu celebration. I saw many trying to cogitate in the vestibule, waiting to “form” their opinions shortly after others opened their mouths. Many were exhausted. They had just gone through vicarious war.

So let me be the first to fire a forthright salvo: Mud and Soldiers, despite Mr. High’s interpretation, isn’t as good as Paths of Glory or All Quiet on the Western Front or The Hurt Locker or Saving Private Whitey. It does indeed feature soldiers doing their duty, not reacting much to all the billowing smoke that they have caused through rampant bursts of artillery. One curious quality about Mud and Soldiers is the way that it avoids explicit bloodshed. A soldier gets shot in the thigh, but we do not see the actual act. As someone who lusts for this type of cinematic act, I was a little disappointed. Soldiers fire upon enemies, but we see very few of them. Presumably, because this was made in 1939, there was a shortage on extras and squibs. There was surely no shortage on propaganda. The film does, after all, rely on newsreel footage.

There is a banal and repetitive quality to the soldiers’s banter. And this pabulum stretches into the soldiers’s actions. Director Tomotaka Tasaka is certainly committed to showing how mind-numbingly dull war can be. And yet this 21st century viewer longed for something more. Why exactly?

Well, it could have something to do with the fact that approximately 72% of this film involves marching. There is marching through mud. There is marching through dirt. There is marching across bridges and battlefields. There are overhead shots in which we see legs marching. There are shots of soldiers marching from very far away. There are some moments in which we see ten men march and other moments in which we see a hundred men march, leaving one to await the possibility of a thousand men marching. (Sadly, this does not occur. But so desperate were my fantasies that I held out my hopes.) There are shots as long as one minute that feature men marching. Three are shots as quick as five seconds that might be identified as a marching cutaway.

The film even contains compelling dialogue in which two soldiers discuss their marching progress:

— I fell in the creek again.
— How far will we march?
— I don’t know. Until we get there.

While there’s a good argument somewhere about how much soldiers march in war, and art’s duty to reflect this reality, marching alone does not necessarily make for a compelling narrative — especially when the sound effects guy is using the same CLOMP CLOMP CLOMP for all filmed marching and director Tomotaka Tasaka hasn’t thought to actually synch up his men’s feet to the CLOMPing.

Now I am a fairly devoted long distance walker (I walked the eight miles back to Brooklyn after seeing this movie, although I should report that I decided upon this in advance of the screening), but Mud and Soldiers bored the hell out of me. In fact, Mud and Soldiers is probably one of the most tedious war movies I have had the misfortune to sit through. It is difficult to fathom a defense of this film, but I am informed that the film — based on Hino Ashihei’s bestseller — made a great impact on the Japanese public, as films devoted to marching and a mechanical lack of emotion made under a state governed by belligerent admirals are known to do. I am also informed that Tasaka was a victim of the Hiroshima bombing and continued to direct many features over the next two decades. I certainly hope that these post-Hiroshima films do not contain nearly as much marching.

NYFF: Woman with Red Hair (1979)

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

In considering the trashy pink film Woman with Red Hair, I must first ruminate upon the film’s commitment to verisimilitude, as well as its intricate moral framework. A young woman casually loses her virginity during a gang rape, becomes pregnant, and uses this as leverage to snag one of the two strapping young attackers – an unnamed jerk who often wears a blue headband – as her husband. This magnificent pillar to manhood has an equally upstanding companion with Kozo (Renji Ishibasi), who enjoys smiling smugly for the camera when not sexually humiliating the titular woman with red hair (Junko Miyashita), whose ass is often deliberately positioned to undulate before the audience. It is a tribute to this film’s hypnotic hypocrisy that, as Kozo forces the woman with the red hair to take his cock into her mouth, an oppressive black rectangle appears on the right side of the frame, with Miyashita’s legs flailing behind it. Despite this film’s firm commitment to debasing women (one charming ditty that the two men croon contains the lyric “She’ll say no when she means yes”), in 1979, it lacks the authority to show pussy.

We are informed that the young married couple living downstairs are junkies, but our only indication of their drug use is through their screechy wails (compared later in the film to a pig), leaving one to wonder if they are in a permanent state of withdrawal or if they represent some more enlightened viewer having to contend with this plodding movie, selected as part of a Nikkatsu celebration for the 49th New York Film Festival. In the middle of wanton carnality, our ruddy-maned heroine casually asks, “Ever try heroin?” While the two strapping young creeps talk to their boss about their special driving skills and discuss whether or not they need licenses, a young woman stands outside in the rain, a testament to their chivalry. She enters the room not long after, only to be slapped repeatedly. The woman with red hair alludes to having two young children, yet like the track marks and heroin supply downstairs, they remain unseen. In another episode, a somewhat older woman remembers a “foam dance,” which involves lathering yourself up with soap and gyrating upon a inflatable mattress next to a tub. Just wait for your husband (or really, given this film’s outlook, any man) to arrive and he’ll start schtupping you.

My favorite part of Woman with Red Hair was when Kozo, letting his pummeled paramour fuck another man, walks out into the pouring rain and starts jerking off in an alley. Why? Well, you see, he’s so turned on by the prospect of another man banging the woman he’s with that he just can’t wait to shoot his load. Alas, Kozo is interrupted in his perfervid pumping by a man (presumably, the pink film’s idea of comic relief) who asks him for some spare yen so that he can fuel his alcoholism. And because his request is understandably denied under the circumstances, he somehow accompanies Kozo to another apartment, where Kozo drinks and fucks another woman and the alcoholic remains plastered beneath him.

Welcome to the wacky worldview of filmmaker Tatsumi Kumashiro, who also gave us 1988’s Love Bites Back (but do the “victims” deserve it?), 1986’s Women Who Do Not Divorce (does that mean the women who do divorce shouldn’t be bothered with?), and two films in 1973 with “wet” in the title. Woman with Red Hair was one of the more acclaimed films of the Roman Porno line commissioned by Nikkatsu. In 1971, the revered Japanese studio faced bankruptcy and had switched from action movies and blockbusters to softcore films in a desperate effort to remain financially viable. (To give you a sense of how drastic this decision was, imagine if Paramount or Warner Brothers decided to start making softcore movies instead of Hollywood blockbusters.)

But Woman with Red Hair, despite ample justification by Japanese film buffs, is hardly In the Realm of the Senses. Most of its long stretches are dreadfully banal. Conversation about getting a new gas heater and the price of eggs at the local supermarket sounds like blue-collar authenticity, until you realize that it doesn’t actually articulate anything about the characters or their culture. So you’re left to rue upon why so many people are interested in red penises (and why one man in this film is fond of muddying his member with red lipstick). When the closing credits rolled, I was stunned to learn that Woman with Red Hair was based on a novel by Japanese intellectual Kenji Nakagami. And while there’s a definite working-class thrust to the film (workers become violent and sexual when they are not permitted work), I didn’t feel that the film presented any sexual subversiveness on the level with Lina Wurtmuller or early Almodovar. Once you confront the atavistic imagery, you’re left with a fairly pedestrian and toothless flick that no amount of metaphorical rain can flush into a meaningful realm.

Review: Love Crime (2010)

There are few thespians more capable of playing first-class bitches than Kristin Scott Thomas. Most good actors are considerate enough to open up windows into their souls, but Thomas’s eyes are haughty saucers that take in a room in the way that a professional assassin snaps a neck. It isn’t especially difficult to imagine Thomas’s blue orbs popping out of her head, perhaps running at you with plans for a murder weapon.

So it’s no surprise that Love Crime‘s best moments are when Thomas appears on screen as the appropriately named corporate executive Christine (did co-writer/director Alain Corneau have any other actress in mind?). Christine plucks ideas from her underlings without credit, humiliates her coworkers at a party by playing security camera videos that reveal their private emotional moments, and digs in the heel after a nasty betrayal by telling her opponent how easy it was to fool her. In other words, Christine is a woman you never want to cross, the kind of chilling villain that keeps me coming back to French cinema. I should probably confess that I experienced great pleasure in seeing Christine order an associate to clean up two to three months of financial chicanery in a mere week and that I further enjoyed the way that many of the women in this film were surrounded by weak and easily crushed men. When it comes to corporate intrigue, the truest films of this type are decent enough to give us jackals who go for the jugular. It certainly wasn’t a surprise to learn that Christine’s previous assistant had cracked.

Against such a compelling heavy, how then can Ludivine Sagnier compete? Sagnier, playing Christine’s assistant Isabelle, is a striking blonde who looks especially good running on a treadmill. (We’re told in the film’s early moments that Isabelle runs because it “blanks everything out.” I don’t believe this is why most people run, but it does explain why Isabelle would put up with Christine for so long.) But in this film, Sagnier doesn’t have the gravitas or the complexity to match Thomas. That’s somewhat surprising, given the way Sagnier held her own with Charlotte Rampling in Swimming Pool. When Isabelle pops pills as the fissures start forming and she confronts Christine over a threatening email, we can’t really speculate on her character or relate to her because of Corneau’s melodramatic direction, which works well in other places but, in Sagnier’s case, relies too much on the shattered static look and a doelike gaze. I mean, if Sagnier is such a naif, how then did she make it this far in the company? For that matter, why does the company include so many agreeable Americans saying things like “Thanks to you, our expectations were shot through the roof” and giving away jobs and trips to Cairo with the profligacy one expects from a pediatrician dispensing lollipops after an appointment? (To be fair, I actually enjoyed these cheeseball Yanks, who represent a fairly ridiculous fiction in a post-2008 economy. It’s amusingly easy for various characters to screw the company out of millions. On the other hand, this skewered logic does cause one to see gaping holes in the plot.)

Given that Love Crime relies on an intricate ruse and boardroom perseverance to hold our interest, this failure to give Sagnier much more than an apparent victimhood quality needlessly simplifies an otherwise entertaining thriller. It’s worth pointing out that mysteries which include a police investigation really need to make sure that they are ten steps ahead of the audience. Because by inviting the audience into vicarious inquiry, the audience is also encouraged to poke around. And if the audience feels smugly superior to the police, catching on to certain details well before they do, it invalidates the criminal horror, reducing it to comedy or camp. That’s perfectly fine. Murder and bumbling detectives can be very funny. But since Corneau spends so much time building up to the crime, I’m thinking that he wanted us to take the act seriously.

On the other hand, modest kitsch may have also been Corneau’s intent. If the film didn’t spend so much time trying to be smart, it may have found more confidence in its exuberance. There’s one amusing moment in front of a movie theater when Isabelle offers candy to everybody, suggesting a whimsical direction perhaps more natural for Corneau. I also liked the silly paranoia contained within the film’s finale, which suggests that, no matter where you rest on the corporate totem pole, there’s always someone out to get you.

Ultimately, I enjoyed Love Crime, but it was clear to me that it could have been something more than a conventional thriller. On the way out of the screening room, I overheard two people calling the film “cute,” a modifier better assigned to an effervescent romantic comedy. Why couldn’t this film have been more dangerous?

Review: Special Treatment (2010)

Prostitution and psychiatry both cater to a privileged class, where a considerable sum of cash is handed over to a specialist for one hour of release. Over the course of numerous sessions, one’s mental health or sexual desire may be sufficiently restored to its former levels. But it takes time. And it takes the right specialist. The client understands that remedy isn’t going to happen overnight, but there remains the dependable oxytocin rush of each discrete session. The client can count on trusting the psychiatrist to unload emotional catharsis or trust the prostitute to fire his load into the appropriate orifice and with the appropriate satisfaction. Both professions involve finding a specialist who must remain objective. The psychiatrist or the prostitute may “care” for the client in a purely professional way, so long as the client understands that he is merely one of many. So there’s no need for the client to consider his quirks or his perversions and his hangups especially special. So although the client’s ego (and his wallet) may be tinkered with during release, it is suggested that the client check his hubris at the door. The specialist has seen it all. In both cases, there may be a certain shame when confessing to certain friends that the client is seeing someone to fix something vital. Sometimes, when you run into a client just before one of these sessions, the client will have a worried and somewhat nervous expression on his face, much like an inexperienced actor enlisted at the last minute to appear in a community theater production. He just wants to get it over with. So the only way for the client to cure his unsated need is to see the specialist again. It’s always best to call ahead, even though last-minute appointments are dicey.

Given these parallels, it’s a wonder that a film like Jeanne Labrune’s Special Treatment didn’t come earlier. We might look to Alan J. Pakula’s Klute as one of the first films depicting a prostitute confessing how much she wants to leave the business to a psychiatrist, and 1987’s Nuts, which features Barbra Streisand as a high-class callgirl who must prove her sanity. But both films involved murder, suggesting that the simultaneous moral investigation of psychiatry and prostitution inevitably led one into gripping pulp narrative. (It’s worth noting that Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, which didn’t deal with psychiatrists but certainly looked into dormant bourgeois desires and prostitution, also involved murder.)

It was surprising to discover that nobody dies in Special Treatment, although someone does pull a knife. Labrune’s film isn’t especially interested in depicting the act of congress, suggesting a firm commitment to the more pivotal actions occurring just before release. This refreshingly adult (as opposed to, ahem, adult) approach gives Labrune liberty to depict the two practices as procedure rather than prescription, dutiful vocation rather than spiritual translocation. We see numerous scenes of 43-year-old, high-class prostitute Alice Bergerac (Isabelle Huppert), committed to schoolgirl fantasies with one client (even recommending somebody younger when his rocks prove less fluid than anticipated) and submissive housewife with another, with lengthy stretches of Alice setting up her room in advance or catching a cigarette between johns. This boredom of routine can’t be perceived by Alice’s clients. Likewise, as the camera cranes in close on his face, the psychiatrist Xavier Demestre (Bouli Lanners) couldn’t be more disinterested with the visceral confessions of his clients — even when they are men who dress up in women’s clothes and make efforts to flirt with him. So when the emotionally crippled Xavier expresses a desire to leave his wife, one can’t help but feel that he’s more than a little of a shit.

But since Alice shares some of these professional qualities, why then did I feel more sympathetic towards her? The film does stack the deck towards Alice by having a particularly creepy client pull some sleazy moves on her and by having a mentally disabled man follow her near the end of the film. But is Alice’s own indecision — her desire to seek help without much of a plan — any worse than Xavier’s failure to state any specific ideas about what he wants when he sets up a preliminary consultation appointment with her?

Part of me wished the film didn’t play into conventions and ask me to choose sides like this. If Alice’s character had been a little less wholesome and a little less victimized, then this perilous proximity to the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope might have been avoided. By giving Alice and Xavier too many eccentric clients, the film detracts from its exploration of midlife ennui. Special Treatment is better when the people who Alice and Xavier have affected stand up and respond to their actions. When one of Xavier’s clients calls him out on his lack of professionalism and announces that he’s not coming back, it’s fascinating to see how this client has his life together (and his ability to recover) more than Xavier.

The film is somewhat entertaining, but its slow spots had me wondering what might happen if Labrune had thrown in a murder. Sure, it would have cheapened the film. On the other hand, if Alice and Xavier had been presented as more emotionally complex individuals, Special Treatment might have been, well, more special.

Review: Mozart’s Sister (2011)

Classical music is an estimable topic that I feel disinclined to write about. This diffidence has little to do with any shortage of enthusiasm or background knowledge (you’ll find Saint-Saens, Telemann, Cage, and Mozart all in my music collection, often played in rhythmic counterpoint to activities both sinful and innocently quotidian). It may reflect a quiet desire to keep this joyful terrain unsullied by scabrous assaults of the overly examined. It may have something to do with certain upper-class exigencies which I identify as ridiculous – the requirement to dress up and spend a lot of money just to hear a thunderous orchestra play something you love, the paucity of robust alcoholic beverages, the prohibition on spontaneous enthusiasm within dull and often overpraised buildings designed almost exclusively for fuddy-duddies, and the unshakable vibe of being sized up by condescending assholes pegging you as some bumpkin who inexplicably sneaked past the velvet rope. Whenever I have the pleasure of attending a swank cultural affair for something I am genuinely excited about, there remains a small part of me that wonders if I’ll suffer a fate not unlike the poor couple losing the necklace in the Guy de Maupassant story. A decade of my life gone because of a misunderstanding.

That sounds like hyperbole. Maybe I can explain it another way. I can summon words to describe or connote how I feel about tangible experiences, specific people, books, movies, and even pop music –- perhaps because these all feel sufficiently democratic and translatable. But if I am to be truthful here, it’s also because I have little to lose. I don’t wish to suggest that these topics are less significant simply because I can relate them with greater ease and facility. I know that I can get worked up enough by the Dorian mode in Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” to write about it somewhere down the line, but I can’t see myself writing about well temperament or Pythagorean tuning anytime soon. I can approach Finnegans Wake and The Tree of Life, amalgamating my genuine enthusiasm for these works of art with some detailed theory. Yet for classical music, it’s the emotional experience which counts more than any theory. I leave such expatiations (or perhaps expiations?) to minds greater than mine.

This sharp contrast between privileged appreciation and mass entertainment, which I am admittedly identifying from a highly subjective vantage point, may be one reason why cinema’s offerings about classical music remain, to my mind, fairly lackluster. Perhaps I complain because the music itself is loaded with greater life than some slanderous biography, but this is not altogether the case. The sole exception (indeed, one of the few directors who went well out of his way to claim this turf) may be Ken Russell, the underrated auteur who worked his way from bizarre television docudramas (see this glorious opening for The Debussy Film, if you don’t believe me) to such fearlessly libertine flicks as The Music Lovers and Lisztomania. Whether depicting Tchaikovsky confronting his sexuality on a moving train or Richard Wagner as a reanimated Nazi Frankenstein with a machine gun/guitar, Ken Russell valued eye-popping entertainment over historical accuracy. And if one examines the best classical music biopics (Amadeus, Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Hilary and Jackie), one discovers additional resistance to the dry facts of life. Let’s face it: the classical music biopic, perhaps more than any other biopic subgenre, is at its best when the slander runs deep.

* * *

It wasn’t a surprise to see writer-director Rene Féret take silly liberties with Mozart’s Sister, suggesting not only that Maria Anna Mozart (played by Féret’s daughter, Marie) captured the romantic attentions of the kid who would grow up to be King Louis XVI (the monarch who eventually lost his head altogether), but that this Dauphin would ask young Maria Anna (disguised as a boy and singing quite high without skepticism from the heir apparent) for fresh compositions. The Dauphin was shy in real life. And at one point in the film, he remarks upon this shyness. Yet Féret has cast the somewhat vigorous Clovis Fouin in the role. Fouin doesn’t so much as quiver. He doesn’t so much as cower or blush. He’s some hipster plucked from the 20th Arrondissement, waiting for a ripe moment to languorously puff on his nonexistent Gauloise. I hope he was paid well.

Yes, it’s true that the Mozart Family traveled around Europe. But isn’t it convenient that the Mozarts break an axle a few miles from an abbey? And isn’t it convenient that the Dauphin’s sister is there (along with a few sisters more, who happen to be conveniently visiting)? And isn’t it also convenient that Maria Anna becomes an inadvertent messenger between clandestine lovers so as to kickstart a plot that isn’t in the history books and that isn’t even good enough for a trashy potboiler. If Féret had offered us something extremely preposterous along the lines of Russell, I might have gone along for the ride. But Féret has besmirched the Mozarts: not because he has offered us historical horseshit, but because it’s such ho-hum historical horseshit.

Féret’s mythical Maria Anna apparently plays the violin, but is confined to the clavichord by her father Leopold, who insists that women are unfit to be real musicians. Yet if Leopold was such a repressive patriarch, why did he give Maria Anna top billing in the advertisements he wrote for his family? It was Maria Anna reaching a marriageable age that felled her career. And that age was eighteen, not fifteen (as it is suggested here; or perhaps younger, given that we see Maria Anna have her first period and thus “become a woman”). It was also Maria Anna who surrendered control of her life to her father, including choice of suitors. While musical scholars have debated the question of what precisely Wolfgang owes Maria Anna, and it is clear from the documents that Mozart and his sister were very close, Féret’s film isn’t especially interested in using this preexisting information to build an enticing story. And if Maria Anna is such a thwarted feminist icon (so repressed that even her neighbors ask her to stop playing the clarichord when she’s on her own teaching piano later in the film), why doesn’t this film show her teaching young Wolfgang a few lessons (in anticipation of her own teaching) or picking up some of Leopold’s tricks? Well, it doesn’t really suit Féret’s convenient untruths, which establish Maria Anna as someone on backup vocals and clavichord to Wolfgang’s fiddling. In other words, if you’ll pardon my tacky yacht rock comparison, Maria Anna is Michael McDonald to Wolfgang’s Christopher Cross. And I’m pretty certain she was a bit more than this. We see Leopold teaching Wolfgang composition, with Maria Anna trying to listen in behind a closed door. But does this really represent the truth when one considers that, in 1764, it was Maria Anna who wrote down Wolfgang’s first symphony when Leopold fell ill?

Look, I’m hardly a Mozart expert. But when the historical record proves more compelling than the reductionist drama, one has to wonder why these prevarications were offered in the first place. If Féret wanted to make a film about a repressed woman composer, there were plenty of other stories to dwell from. Presumably, Féret settled upon Mozart’s Sister because it was the most dependable title for film financing. While I appreciated Féret’s punkass effrontery in offering Barry Lyndon-like slow zooms (although, to be clear, he is no Kubrick), I was not impressed by his middling efforts to sift and synthesize from the available record in a manner that mostly bores. Here was an opportunity to translate an elite interest for the hoi polloi, but Féret, in flattening the story and avoiding the juicy bits, only furthers the chasm.

Review: Tabloid (2011)

The first thing I was drawn to in Errol Morris’s new movie, Tabloid were Joyce McKinney’s eyes. They darted to and fro, down at her hands, up towards the ceiling, left to right, side to side. But they never faced the camera — or Morris’s Interrotron — directly. Considering that McKinney had quite a story to tell, that of a former beauty queen so enraptured with a Mormon missionary who she flew to London to rescue (or, well, “rescue”) him from that life and convince him through violent means that they must be married, the immediate conclusion on my part was, well, she wasn’t to be trusted. Couldn’t be believed.

That was all well and good, since I knew the bare bones of the Joyce McKinney story. I knew how the FBI’s version contrasted sharply with hers, and how the official — or perhaps “official” — version created a tabloid sensation that, even after almost 35 years, exceeds hyperbole. The UK Fleet Streeters, their dirty laundry credentials aired to full putrid effect throughout the month of July thanks to the never-ending phone-hacking scandal, were well in their element with McKinney, who was arrested and accused of kidnapping her Mormon man Kirk Anderson at gunpoint, squirreling him away to a Yorkshire abode, and raping him repeatedly for three days straight.

But then the camera left McKinney, who is now sixtyish and still a narcissist, to fixate attention on a younger man — raised a Mormon but now removed from the religion — though somehow expert enough to provide color commentary on its supposed cultish activity. And once I realized the younger man, too, did not face the Interrotron and Morris directly, Tabloid lost me. It’s one thing to cast an eye on your supposed subject and make him or her look wholly unreliable. That’s what documentaries do. But when the same techniques for doing so fall down in the face of some outside expert, there’s a serious problem at work.

Unfortunately, once the illusion of narrative coherence broke apart, the reality of how Morris failed in his efforts set in. If tabloid culture and its lurid taste for new content was so important, why did he only speak to two such types? There’s the capable but culpable reporter from The Daily Express, whose claim to fame was being taken in by McKinney’s not-exactly-truthful tale of pious living on the run after she and her accomplice Keith May (who died in 2004) jumped bail and fled London for America. His descendant probably got axed along with News of the World last week. Then there was the more sleazy photographer tasked with finding past dirt on Joyce in the form of bondage photos, among other pictorial delights, his tongue almost involuntarily going to his lips as he recalled the whole exercise.

But what of the larger culture of tabloidism — just eight years removed from Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of NotW and its sister daily paper The Sun? What prompted the relentless pressure for arid scoops like what McKinney seemed to offer with Sex ‘n Chains? Why were the UK public so riveted by the story? Tabloid certainly wasn’t about to tell us. There was also an easily missed note in the credits that McKinney’s old boyfriend — the not-quite-innocent provider of the photos that splashed across the Mirror‘s pages for days on end — “could not be located.” Well, why not? Based on the scant number of people Morris talked to — at least compared to his earlier, more masterful investigative documentaries — it’s hard to shake the idea he didn’t really try very hard, helped by the fact that many of the other principals were dead (like May) or clearly unavailable (like Anderson).

McKinney may be pathologically self-absorbed, or something more complicated, but Tabloid doesn’t really care about her, other than to subject her to the mockery of the audience. There is little in the way of empathy. Worse, there’s a rather nasty undercurrent of misogyny, aided by the fact that McKinney is the only representative of her sex. That’s a bitter pill to swallow when the current fallen Queen of UK tabloidism is Rebekah Brooks, and when the subject of female-to-male rape has only men to rebut it. I was also discomfited by the notion of all these men ganging up on Joyce in a manner not unlike the fictional Lisbeth Salander, whom Stieg Larsson depicts as the anti-beneficiary of a terrible tabloid campaign. Because hey — to be goth and bisexual and weird is to be splashed across the pages as a triple murder suspect and subjected to a punishing smear campaign that can only be resolved through the cathartic trial that brings the Millennium Trilogy to a close.

McKinney’s catharsis, on the other hand, never really arrived. She found refuge in her home state of North Carolina, still pining — or obsessing — over Kirk, but now so devoted to her dogs that the act of cloning them brought her back into the news cycle in 2008. Tabloid doesn’t really indicate what Joyce McKinney is like now, though it certainly judges her, mocks her, and paints her as a cartoon of ridicule. Morris, I suspect, would say that’s the point. Because tabloids do the same thing. But as we’re all finding out this month, there are limits to what behavior can be tolerated. Even sleaze has a ceiling. All Morris has done by engaging with this in the shoddy manner he has is to reveal uncomfortable truths about himself, most notably that he, too, counts among the man som hattar kvinnor.

Review: Bad Teacher (2011)

If Bad Teacher is a vocational reworking of Terry Zwigoff’s masterful Bad Santa, with Cameron Diaz’s lazy, money-grubbing, breast implant-seeking schoolteacher filling in for Billy Bob Thornton’s lazy, money-grubbing, alcohol-seeking mall Santa, then it’s a curiously tepid cousin needlessly sanitized by its good intentions. Diaz’s Elizabeth Hasley drinks bottles of whiskey hidden in her desk drawer, bluntly informs a kid who wears his abandoned father’s sweatshirt several times a week that he has no chance with the prettiest girl at school, and embezzles money from the seventh-grade car wash (shortly after using her body to spike up the funds and causing a police car to crash)*. But Hasley isn’t mean and interesting in the way that Billy Bob’s Willie T. Stokes captured our attentions. Instead of having a fast-talking dwarf Marcus as a sidekick, Hasley has the passive Lynn Davies (played by Phyllis Smith, best known as Phyllis from The Office), who looks forward to her three months off in the summer (with numerous trips to the zoo) and sees a surprise milk choice at the cafeteria (“2%? 1%? Chocolate?”) as a high point. What Bad Santa understood was that having a seemingly modest character constantly criticizing a middle-aged loser made us more interested in why the latter lived the way that he did. Hasley has no such luck with Lynn. Indeed, it’s Hasley who is the one to encourage Lynn to talk with two cowboys at a bar. Which works against the idea that her character is supposed to be, well, bad.

Perhaps screenwriters Gene Stupntsky and Lee Eisenberg (both veterans of The Office) should be faulted because they’ve been working too long within the needlessly restrictive limits of American television. They don’t seem to understand that an R-rated movie featuring a mean character really should be dangerous, but their floundering wit is here in spurts. There’s one funny moment early on when Hasley’s man shouts about the need for opera to be passed on to the next generation. And when Bad Teacher was especially irreverent, such as Justin Timberlake’s squeaky-clean teacher making racially insensitive remarks about a new Ethiopian restaurant or an especially aggressive method of getting kids to remember the details of To Kill a Mockingbird, I longed for the film to transcend into additional cringe comedy. But then the film would present another weak or gutless or repetitive moment, not understanding that incriminating photos of a naked administrator or Lucy Punch’s chirrupy Amy Squirrel getting a few comeuppances were mere variations on hackeneyed comic situations we’ve seen too many times before.

Jake Kasdan’s flat direction is also a big problem. I don’t know what has happened to Kasdan ever since his fine work on Freaks and Geeks and his very underrated debut feature, Zero Effect, but I fear that Lawrence’s son is now a lost cause. I’m fairly certain that Cameron Diaz was slightly miscast, but I don’t know for sure. Because she delivers her lines with heavy aspiration on the consonants rather than hitting the vowels hard. And because Diaz’s voice is mellifluous, this disastrous direction causes Diaz to lose the authority she so desperately needs to win our attention, especially because Hasley is rejected by several men when she tries to use her looks and she’s someone who spends cash so wantonly. And while I recognize that Justin Timberlake has about as many dramatic options as a home pregnancy test, a good director will understand that mixing up the only two settings available (as David Fincher did in The Social Network) is better than sticking with one. There’s something deeply unpleasant about seeing a 30-year-old guy who believes he’s in sync with Stanislavsky resort to the same terrible stage-hogging case of the cutes that he used in his twenties. Sure, Timberlake isn’t much of an actor. But can’t he at least pretend to be an adult?

The one actor I can commend here is Jason Segel as an underestimated gym teacher persistently trying to woo Hasley. I liked Segel in Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and he seems to be the only actor in this movie who is having any fun, perhaps because he knows how to use his face to suggest a social awareness that other characters lack. But Segel isn’t a mugger: he knows how to enter a scene without dominating it and he knows how to make his fellow actors look good. If we’re not drawn to Cameron Diaz in this movie, then Jason Segel serves that role.

But enough about Jason Segel, who hardly needs any help from me. In our post-Bridesmaids landscape, the time has come for women to be rude, crude, mean, and dangerous in mainstream comedies without being kept on a leash. Bad Teacher cannot live up to this basic requirement, and, in failing to be even modestly subversive, it becomes an instantly regressive and instantly forgettable offering.

* — A brief note on this movie’s recidivist exploitation of the physical female form: If Bad Teacher has been designed in any way as a double X counterweight to male-dominated comedies, why are the filmmakers here so desperate to use Cameron Diaz’s body like this? Furthermore, why does she seek a breast implant rather than cold hard cash? Still furthermore, in an opening scene, there is one fellow teacher — a slightly overweight (that would be “normal” weight) woman played by Jillian Armenante, whom I remember playing a sensitive therapist from The Sarah Connor Chronicles — who appears, expressing enthusiasm. She raises her arm. We see the sweat spots in her armpits. And that’s it. There is an additional moment when a woman’s breasts are there to be ogled for their silicone perfection by all and sundry. And that’s it. I submit to the reader that a movie that maintains such a superficial interest in women instantly loses credibility, especially when Eisenberg claims in the production notes: “We would see so many funny women on Saturday Night Live and on talk shows, and they’d be hysterical and charming, and then we’d go to the movies and they’d be props to get two guys to become friends or whatever. We really wanted to write a project for a comedienne.” Eisenberg may have wanted to write a project for a comedienne, but the film clearly views much of its supporting women as props.

Review: Green Lantern (2011)

Green Lantern isn’t as awful as The Green Hornet, but if this year’s cinema has taught us anything, it’s this: don’t trust a movie with “green” in the title. There are perhaps seven good minutes of action scattered within a soporific salmagundi of stilted scenes and here-for-the-paycheck performances. Our hero pulls off a few fun feats, such as responding to an energy bolt by creating a catapult in seconds, bouncing it back at his enemy. Green Lantern, famous among shut-ins who spend most of their time shrink-wrapping comics in basements for a fairly impressive party trick that transforms energy into solid matter, is tailor-made for CGI’s fluidity, especially because what Green Lantern creates (chainsaws, two jets attempting to steer him from the sun’s gravitational pull, and, most impressively, wheels attached to a helicopter and a corresponding racetrack) reveals his personality in modest ways.

It’s too bad that this effects-based commitment to character can’t be found anywhere in the lumbering script. One must sit through a plodding 90 minutes, including a murky beginning needlessly complicating a pedestrian origin story, to get to the good bits. And speaking of good bits, Ryan Reynold’s Hal Jordan has a chiseled body born to be ogled by a camera. Even as a straight man, I understood immediately why Scarlett Johansson felt compelled to ride his magic wand. Alas, this mighty chunk of sirloin doesn’t have much of a soul. Reynolds is a top gun firing blanks: a low-rent Maverick who never stops to wonder why Merlin is 25 years older, now answering to the name of Senator Robert Hammond, and playing father to an actor (Peter Sarsgaard) only twelve years younger. Unlike Tim Robbins, Sarsgaard’s Hector Hammond actually has a bit of fun being evil: he sips the rim of a margarita glass with arch relish, looks at strangers slightly askew, and has an adorably ridiculous moustache. For large chunks, Sarsgaard proves more capable of containing this movie than Reynolds Wrap. Alas, this wry fun is curtailed when the filmmakers slather too much makeup on Sarsgaard and ask the poor man to put a little spittle into his cornball dialogue.

Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern (written by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim, Michael Goldenberg, and who knows how many other script doctors) appears to have pilfered Emerald Dawn (a miniseries revisiting Hal Jordan’s origin story authored by Jim Owsley, Keith Giffen, and Gerard Jones) for its narrative. But the filmmakers have failed to plunder the conflict that counts. Emerald Dawn featured Hal as an alcoholic whose selfish behavior caused his friend Ryan to die in a hospital. Campbell’s Hal, by contrast, merely wakes up late and can’t get over his father’s fiery death years ago testing an aircraft. As internal conflicts for a thirtysomething man go, this is exceptionally feeble material, especially given the insistence on an internal will vs. internal fear conflict that we’ve seen perhaps dozens of times just in the past three years.

This is a film so stupid that it flashes a SIX MONTHS LATER title card in a different galactic sector, not comprehending that time measurement is often determined by length of solar orbit. This is a film so naive that it actually expects us to believe that Hal Jordan can change the minds of the Guardians of the Universe, who are many thousands of years old, with a facile defense of human fallacy (“We’re young. We have a lot to learn.”). This is a film so laughably derivative that the filmmakers have somehow misunderstood Green Lantern’s ring to be easily interchangeable with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Sinestro looks suspiciously like Hugo Weaving’s Elrond. There is even talk of forging rings (with an arrogant ending that opens up a sequel). We even see the Green Lantern insignia contained within a giant edifice, yet another Mordor ripoff. Did I mention a circular device seen in the background that looks very much like the Stargate portal but that serves no function at all? One almost believes that the set designer was ordered by marketing forces to include random visual references to other geek-friendly TV shows and movies. A training scene with Kilowog has the feel and bad dialogue of a video game orientation, leaving one to search in the dark for a nonexistent controller.

But most criminally, the film cheats us of spectacular battles, which are few and far between, and a clearly identifiable hero we can root for. We see several Green Lanterns early on, but they never get to use their cool superpowers. They are merely eaten up by a boring marble-mouthed villain named Parallax. It takes a long while for Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern to show up. Indeed, thirty minutes into the film, I heard one very confused and very disappointed six-year-old ask his dad, “Is that Green Lantern?” as another meaningless character soared across the universe.

When multiplexes are saturated with so many superhero movies, why spend $300 million on another flick that means nothing?