Sunday, January 07, 2007

Clerks vs. Clerks 2

“Clerks 2”: do we really need it? Some say that Kevin Smith vouched to make the sequel if Jason Mewes (Jay of Jay and Silent Bob) ever got off the drugs. Others notice that there’s a streak of selling out all values and squeezing all capital out of the charm his earlier films have and that he made his last really good film back in... was is 2000 or 2001?
Anyways, “Clerks” was definitely one of milestones of 90ies cinema: witty, edgy, shot on cheap black/white film, altogether very cheap, making it a sort of statement of underground cinema – stating that size of budget was in no relation to quality of the film; as far as low-budget films, public only allowed cheap horrors to became very successful. Hollywood made horror exploitation cinema a breeding ground for young directors with auteur pretensions (Romero, Carpenter, Tobbe Hopper, Cronenberg, Sam Raimi, Abel Ferara, Joe Dante, Don Cossarelli – even Coppola, Altman and Bogdanovich all started as Corman’s for-hire directors), but this was one of a few dramas with this kind of budget that made it big, following Jarmush’s aesthetics where cheap production values and minimalist camerawork were considered appropriate to record everyday life of small people.
But “Clerks” didn’t also manage to make filthy language a form of art, and to find absurdities in everyday life, it also dissected the society it was talking about thoroughly, spotting causes without needing to stick them into your face. Clerks from the title were shown watching various bizarre characters walk through their shops, laughing at them or belittling them, but as the end nears, de-masking themselves as persons helplessly caught in the loop of suburban life, with no future to look forward, no self-worthiness, with only escape of watching customers to whom they were superior at least as long as they were in their shop. Dante’s character definitely sticks out as most complex, he is convinced that he deserves better than this, but he was no will nor self-determination to change something – not even to refuse his boss to work on weekend. Nor to choose between two girlfriends, he is attracter by conformity he has with one girlfriend, but also by inaccessibility of the other one (he gets interested in her after he hears about her engagement) and fantasy he built around her. Dante is a conflicting person on many levels, all of them displayed in the film. Randal is an opportunist, aware of his own hypocrisy but comfortable with it, too shallow to think about his own perspectives. Dante hangs out with him because he can interpret every personal failure as Randal pulling him down, and Randal doesn’t care enough to object to it.
Small-time drug dealers Jay and Silent Bob, at first intended to be a walk-through testifying of bizarre characters of New Jersey, were mostly a cliché: one guy who never talks, and the other one who always talks. Despite a certain charm, they weren’t full blown characters then, and they didn’t become ones later when they became a franchise. Those few character traits they had in “Clerks”, remained the only ones. Smith cameoed himself as Silent Bob, probably to save money and to skip the acting part.
Back then, when first waves of “Clerks” popularity hit in, Smith was very vocal about his own “sell-out” nature. He likes money. He is willing to make easier films for the same price. He’ll make the best of his job if he can. The situation was, for him, such that he actually could.
But let’s be strict about the term “sell-out”. Sell-out, as referred here, is not a person who makes his work approachable for wider audience. Nick Nave is not a sell-out for not singing about murders so often nowadays, nor is Jarmush sell-out for making films with bigger budget than before. Sell-out is anyone who actually compromises quality of his work. Some compromise it in hope of reaching wider audience that way, yes, but others compromise due to sheer laziness. It was most certainly easier to write a flat run-of-the-mill story of “Jersey Girl” than complex layers of “Clerks”. And here’s why: “Jersey girl”, though correctly executed drama, works by all rules of average Hollywood film: of course there is an unspoken romance, not too complicated because it’s not the center of the film. Of course there is a large fight and we can even guess all the words being said during that fight. Of course the celebrity mentioned all the time during the film is going to appear in a cameo as a sort of Obi-Wan voice of wisdom. Of course the father is going to get to daughter’s number in time. Parental drama by numbers. And, of course, it’s easier to pick up elements of a scenario already written hundreds of times, than to write a new one with original ideas.
But let’s go chronologically. Right after the success of “Clerks”, Smith makes his first attempt of cheap entertainment with “Mallrats”, wacky comedy flavoured with patented “Jersey mentality”. It flunked terribly so Smith had to return to making serious films. One was intelligent romantic comedy “Chasing Amy” and the other one was “Dogma”, spectacle that rewrote bible to a modern mentality, capturing doubts of many tortured believers who try to work out personal faith with cynicism of the era. Sure, it was too preachy and characters were jamming on about religion more often than ordinary people would, but it worked, somehow when Ben Affleck spread his wings or Allanis Morisset played God it was campy, but camp was what entire Smith’s generation grew on and that cultural environment was another element of the whole equation.
But by now Kevin Smith was popular enough; People would go to see formal parts of his films, even if they had to content whatsoever. The story was always happening in Jersey, even if characters weren’t reflecting Jersey mentality at all. Jay and Silent Bob were always there, and people were rather paying to hear Jay’s sexual barrage than the main characters. Then there were cameos of characters from his previous films, as well as of popular actors and directors – his personal friends. But he was free to take everything else by grabbing blindly from the box of Hollywood stereotypes. “Jay and Silent Bob” had the lamest heist plot ever; “Jersey Girl” was a standard parental drama a la Hallmark production - minus Jason Mewes who was, supposedly, so addicted that Smith didn’t want to work with him anymore; Others say that Smith simply wanted to move to more serious waters, and Jay and Silent Bob were too comical characters for that; And then there’s some thing that I didn’t even bother to watch, called “Jay and Silent Bob go degrassi”; Also some Smith-produced gross-out comedies and desperately unfunny “Clerks” the animated show, so “good” that it didn’t reach over sixth episode. A lot of selling out; how many films will it take until Smith spends all the credits he gained with only three films?
“Clerks 2”, whatever the reason for making it is, is the further statement that Kevin Smith isn’t even trying anymore. I kind of liked it the first time I saw it. It was sort of amusing. Some would say, “entertaining”. Second watching make all flaws and self-plagiarism apparent. So a few funny jokes are there, but can you really be entertained when there are some obvious problems sticking into your eyes?
The problems are most obvious upon comparison with “Clerks”. First, we see colour, and we see more free camera positioning. It’s as if they’re hinting of the less of actual content. And the story is now taken from repertoire of romantic comedy, just like “Jersey girl” was taken from family film repertoire. Now, the story is: Dante is supposed to marry one girl, but he is in love with the other one, without even realizing it. Resolution is simply a matter of him realizing where his “true love” is. Simply said, he’s not nearly complex as he was in the first film, and since he’s central character, that’s just devastating.
We have a huge problem with Randal too. In first film, he was annoying loser who only get sympathies at the end when he de-masks his stupidity as willful apathy and shows Dante that he understands his problems better than he is. Knowing that, we start the second film expecting to care for him, but Smith goes too far into caricaturing this character. He’s not simply a rude lazybag from the first film, now he is outright bully who harasses helpless victims and literally makes people puke. At times Smith tries to make us sympathies with him by making his “victims” stupid as if “they deserve it”, but it doesn’t work. Even as he delivers last, passionate statements in the prison cell, he is still just a bully.
Then there’s a character played by Rosario Dawson who is a rather peculiar choice for female lead. First of, she is best known for playing a walk-through sex bomb in films like”He got game”. Not that she shouldn’t get one as she holds rather well in this film and some others, but is the presence of the sex bomb really appropriate in a film about New Jersey losers? Is she really appropriate match for a guy such is Dante? Somewhere in-between she delivers a laughable monologue about how Dante is, despite apparent lack of any quality, really a guy for any hottest girl in the school, how great he is, etc etc, and we can really imagine Smith tapping his own shoulder there. She doesn’t sound like a character she is. She sounds like a fantasy of a highschool nerd, self-flattering and even vengenceful. But reality? I used to cheer Smith for being observant about reality. At the poster of this film, Rosario smiles at us from the sexy pose that’s very uncharacteristic of her character in the film, with innuendo-filled caption “we’re always open”. It becomes apparent that her purpose here is reaching for sex-starved audience and, indeed, she’s in because (and not despite) she is sex bomb.
One most irritating thing is how this film tries to repeat all steps of the first film, hoping that it’d draw enough parallels between youth and middle age of characters – and, of course, to not disappoint viewers of the first film. Once again, Dante and Randal and stuck in the dead-end job. Once again they talk a lot about gross aspects of sex, but here these subjects don’t come naturally, they seem like characters have a quote of nasty words they have to fill in. In first film, when Randal is talking about cum-rooms, the scene has a point and punchline in form of insulted customer. Here, scenes such as ass-to-mouth discussion don’t have any of that, and they don’t come naturally from previous conversation. Again, Dante is stuck between two girlfriends, but as I said, this time the dilemma isn’t nearly as complex as in his first. Again, there’s an activity on the roof (instead of hockey game, a dance lesson) – and that’s where we really start being aware that Smith plagiatrises himself. Again, the film ends with a deviant sexual act, but while in the first film, this act creeps slowly under the main story, here it is announced on the big door. As soon as in one of the first scenes, Randal practically announces: “This film will end with a deviant sex scene, just like the first one!!!” In first film the scene was not explicitely shown, in this one it was made into a spectacle. Again, the film happens in one single day, and is supposed to represent dullness of their everyday life, but this time, it’s not nearly as uneventful day. In fact, it’s a rather funny day full of happenings, even though it’s trying not to be.
This film goes further with the problem many of Smith’s films have, and that is breaking the golden rule of “show, not tell”. Smith isn’t very good at presenting character’s inner feelings by showing them, through camerawork or editing, so his mechanism is usually that one of supporting characters goes and spells it into their faces. That’s why “Dogma” gets so preachy, because Smith desperately needs to speak through his characters if he can’t through his camera. Here, it seems like everyone and their grandmother knows everything about Dante’s problems, has analyzed them thoroughly, knows the solution to all of them and has the need to spill it into Dante’s face in regular intervals. With Dante, of course, ignoring, because those explanations aren’t for him anyways. They’re for audience.
This film ends with a happy ending. First one ended with the open ending, hinting that characters will never solve their problems and how much they’re actually stuck in the root. When this film ends, characters aren’t just city losers anymore, they’re owners of a small business and happy ever after, ruining not only this film, but the point of the first film too.
As far as I’m concerned, he can go and ruin it. He made it in the first place, he’s free to ruin it and bash it into the ground if he wants. But let’s step back and call things their real name – he’s ruining it, and worse of all, he is wasting his talent.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Book: Breakfast of champions

Long time no see, eh? Well, I’ve been busy and all. Busy like hell.
Well, here’s a book I’ve read recently, Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of champions”. I discovered this fella back in high school when I was an SF fan and thought that his “Cat’s cradle” was one of a kind. Amazing thing was, it was a book at the same time apocalyptic and cheerful. That combination was hard to get a hold of back then, later I saw that Vonnegut’s general attitude is that of pessimism, but that he stopped caring about bad things bound to happen, and allowed himself to be cheerful about it.
The same tone was felt in “Hocus Pocus”, his later book, which was the second I’ve read – and probably the best so far: a mosaic of anecdotes told without of chronology, that were masterfully merged into one picture, one life, with only one sentence on the last page: a calculation of random figures from his life that equated the number of people he killed and women he slept with. Life ending with even score.
I found the same kind of mosaic structure in “Slaughterhouse 5” only here, chronology was not interrupted by memory, but by SF element. This book was a sort of let down for me, much darker in tone and reassembling his memories from WWII, it had little of the tone that attracter me to Vonnegut.
And now there’s also “Breakfast of champions”.

“Breakfast...” starts very slow, with a few chapters of author’s observations about modern life, America, politics and history, and gets us slowly used to a direct, childish tone, which allows him to phrase things in such way that we’re allowed to see them in completely different, Vonnegut would say “disrespectful” light. So, in one place, he refers to Thomas Jefferson as “one of the greatest theoreticians on the subject of human rights, who was also a slave owner.” Sentence would sound like preaching if it was said in different tone, but overall style of the book makes it sounds like simple stating of the face.
It was a bit boring part, criticizing American hypocrisy is nothing new or interesting anymore, but I suspect it was much more of walking on the edge back then. And for that matter, “Stroszek” was probably an effective critique of capitalism when it was made, but nowadays it seems like you’ve heard it all before.
Anyways, soon Vonnegut changes the pacing and eventually turns to a completely different subject that is far from daily politics. He starts the parallel stories, one about Dwayne Hoover, local wealthy men and billboard face from some town in middle America, and the other about Kilgore Trout, Vonnegut’s reoccurring character, unsuccessful SF writer who only gets published in porn magazines. Dwayne is rich, loved and popular, and he is going mad slowly but gradually, and Kilgore is bitter, old and disillusioned. These two men are drawn to each other, and when they meet, Vonnegut announces from afar, there’ll be a catastrophe. He tells that all through the novel, he telegraphs the ending, and yet it only makes us wait for the ending more and be more affected when it comes.
Trout, by pure set of circumstances, gets invited to speak on an art festival in Dwayne’s city, and as he hitchhikes toward the city, Dwayne is seen struggling with the daily neuroses, trying to find some sense in the world and failing, until he is finally obsessively convinced that someone in that art festival will tell him something that will answer all his questions. Vonnegut also tells us in advance what it is, but as said, that doesn’t make book less surprising. Kilgore is a very bitter man, we see. He hails the earth polluters, concluding that we have deserved the earth like this. He goes to an arts festival not to speak or to feel the fame, but to ruin it. We feel uncomfortable, because we can’t escape the thought that he has a point.
Meanwhile, Vonnegut takes time to portray middle America with all it’s bad, de-humanizing sides (local factory polluting river) and it’s stereotypical characters, dumb and reckless as they are.
So, now we’re at the club where “it” should happen. Everyone’s there, every character is either in the club or around it, and we’re expecting the final meeting and the announced cataclysm. But then Vonnegut introduces in the book – himself. Called the creator, he talks about how he wrote the book and how he pulls all the strings and how cynical he is for doing that. He observes the fight between one painter and locals and, reportedly, has a spiritual experience which is a peak of the book (you’ll notice, before the event that is announced as catharsis occurs) when the painter speaks of humans (or beings in general) as “the orange streak of light”, the essence, the life, the important part among everything else that can be omitted – simplified, but it’s the humanizing element of earth, without which is may as well not exist. Vonnegut, “the creator”, seems to have been lost in mocking them, analyzing them, judging them, and at this moment he actually resumes his social conscience. And evidently loses his nihilism. I am ready to believe that reading the book was the real brain-cleaning experience for Vonnegut and that he really came from it with a sort of conclusions he didn’t have before, and a brighter outlook of the world. Writer, writing fictional story about himself, that turns out to be not entirely fictional, how’s that for postmodern?
But all things move towards their end so Dwayne Hoover finally enters the club and spots Trout in there. He grabs the book Trout brought and unfortunately, the book happens to be a solipsistic fantasy about the only man with free will, in a world surrounded by robots, meant to test his reactions. Hoover reads it like a message from above, and in a moment starts believing that he is the only man on the planet, surrounded by robots. This sudden loss of humane triggers him to start mayhem, beating and hurting many of characters of the book, including biting part of Trout’s finger off. This event is also announced in previous chapter. Just like everything, but the event is so anticlimactic, it’s like a finale of “Straw dogs”, something that must happen, so we can relax after it has happened. In the end, Dwayne is captured and taken to hospital.
But that’s not the end. It’s meant for Trout to, stumbling around, meet Vonnegut, “the creator” himself. “The creator” explains him that he is just a fictional character in the book that “the creator” is omnipotently writing, and then leaves with Trout yelling “Make me young” after him.

Isn’t that a mess? It’s such a mess of characters, ideas, levels of narration that you have a problem struggling through it. The story seemed linear, but with such unconventional and seemingly inappropriate solutions such is introducing himself, Vonnegut turns the tables around, making, at first sight, no sense.
Much of it can be explained by something I read on internet about the book (haven’t come to it myself) and that is that it’s basic idea is that “catastrophe comes whenever ideas of humanity are compromised”.
Catastrophe indeed comes when Dwayne finds a release for his mental illness in one very dehumanizing idea. This idea is the product of Kilgore’s nihilism caused by disappointment in his own writing career, and probably also his natural bitterness. At the end, Dwayne is confined and eventually loses all his wealth. Kilgore, on the other hand, has learned the lesson of the book, and his scream “make me young again” is for all the time he has lost living with that dehumanizing mindset. His fingertip is bitten off during the attempt to protect someone from Dwayne, a first selfless act in the book. Wasn’t he right in his earlier, nihilistic attitudes about earth and humans? I guess he was. But he learns that that’s not the most important, that what he complained about was the in-human part of us, the same one that he cherished over the years.
Then there is the other person that is enlightened, and that is, of course, “the creator”. The orange stripe of light, the term he picked from the painter a bit before the mayhem, is the very metaphor of that ideal, of the idea that there is something more important in humans than flesh and bones, and social and physical contacts.
That’s where the opening tractates about America come in, they are also illustrations of some dehumanization mechanisms, of some absurd in society, they are, after all, an appropriate intro into a story about the world that is slowly losing some important things out of sight.

I really like the idea of a book that changes it’s creator while he’s writing it, so that he finishes it a different man than the one that started it, and I’m ready to believe that’s what really happened. That’s another level of the book, self-reflexive story about the returning influence that writing and characters have on writer.
The most noticeable thing about the book is that it’s scattered with simple Vonnegat’s drawings of things that get mentioned during the book. These almost childish drawings increase the tone of childish, naïve narration, as Vonnegut’s announces: “This is an electric chair” and follows with the drawing of the same.
Yet, I don’t see many functions of the drawings. The pattern is, he draws things that belong to pop-culture, sometimes intentionally digressing to them, so he could draw them. He illustrates the times, the consumerist world that he portrays in the book, but do the drawings fit into some sort of big image, something like irrelevant numerical data that fits into the final equation at the end of “Hocus pocus”? I don’t know.
But there is homage to another great book that is known to be scattered with author’s drawings, “The little prince”. Yes, in one place, Vonneguts draws a very recognizable image of the sheep.

Oh, and I’ll give a bonus film review with this: After reading a book, I was curious to watch a film of the same name. Bruce Willis as Dwayne Hoover, supported by Nick Nolte, directed by Alan Rudolph.
Well, first of all, I nearly fell asleep watching it. Second, it’s a tripper film, which means you’re expected to feel the film like a bad trip, and I don’t understand whose brilliant idea was to turn such complex and multilayered film into one dumb trip concept. All depth, everything I was talking about, all it lost. In the end, Dwayne finds comfort back in his family and Kilgore Trout finds some kind of magic happy land, all in vain attempts to mirror the humanistic idea of the book, but guideless, choosing solutions that are most obvious(ly taken from Hollywood repertoire).
Yet it’s a very literal rewrite. Lots of original situations are taken from the book, then put into a completely different context, equally guideless, as if director just wanted to squeeze them in somewhere. Sentences are also rewritten from the book, often taken from one character and given to the other, very inappropriately, more often taken from narrator and given to the character; As we know, narrator’s tone is very different than those of characters, so actors are here forced to struggle with such sentences as “You have a face like rattlesnake”, trying to say things noone would really say, and making it sound natural. It’s all very awkward, really.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Film: The search for one-eyed Jimmy

Checked this film on TV the other day, it’s one of those nice things you can see on TV, because it’s too cheap for cinemas, too artistic for video clubs, etc. But really, it’s one of those apparent cases of clever people saying “Let’s make a film on a shoestring budget”.
Film is most often advertised for having Steve Buscemi, John Turturro and Samuel Jackson. However, they all play supporting roles, memorable as they are. These are the kind of roles that took a day or two to complete, explaining how such film could get such impressive lineup. “Search for one-eyed Jimmy” is an independent film, not the best of its kind, but funny, interesting, and worth watching a couple of times.
Holt McCallany plays Les, a film school graduate who returns to his old neighbourhood with a cameraman (Lodge H. Kerrigan), intending to make a small documentary about local outsiders, but stumbles into a story about disappearance of local loser one-eyed Jimmy and hopes that he can make it a huge docudrama about this disappearance. A resident subject of jokes, Joe Head (Michael Badalucco) tags along for the whole time, and the search party is completed by Junior (Nicholas Turrturo) and Lefty (Ray Mancini) alternately, never at the same time because they mostly try to kill each other. Junior, specially, is a punk who’ll repeatedly steal your car and then sit and have a beer with you, claiming that it’s no big deal.
Local folks constantly undermine Les’s attempt at making a serious film, not being able to take themselves seriously or to keep on topic for a long while. So when they interview Colonel Ron (Samuel Jackson is a really memorable whacked-out performance) having heard that he met one-eyed Jimmy, it turns out that he, in fact, met one-armed Jimmy. Buscemi plays Jimmy’s brother Ed who holds a private business of making photos with cardboard-cutout celebrities, Anne Meara plays another bigger role, Jimmy’s mother and Tony Sirico plays a local shark, Whale who suddenly changes his nickname into Snake, having lost a lot of weight in a spa. The whole story consists of a string of funny local characters they meet along the way.
And that’s what the film is, a series of character sketches. It stubbornly defies any attempt at plot, feeling that to be a proper treatment of such people, to whom any plan in life can easily be sidetracked by a visit to a fast food restaurant. They do nothing but sit around for the entire day, and the film shows them doing so. Actions and conversations get repetitive, and digression into aimless, often improvised conversations is almost a signature.
Film is made in a supposedly cinema-verite style, with hand-held camera and self-reference at the film crew. But it also betrays this style, showing film crew at times when camera is off, and from different angles. Film is, in fact, not a quasi-documentary that’s being made by Les, but the style makes it easy to mix those two.
“Search for one-eyed Jimmy” makes a stretch from the average independent comedy, in that it doesn’t take itself seriously, doesn’t try to deliver serious point and, in fact, doesn’t even try to make an accurate portrait. Near the end of the film, a Hollywood producer refers to the film as “recorded an underbelly of middle America” but in fact, the film caricatures local characters, you could say, betrays accuracy for a laugh. Most of independent comedies try to be funny and poignant at the same time, trying to play alternately humorous and serious, and in fact, trying to fascinate festival audiences and big Hollywood producers. There’s certainly a kind of Wayne Wang’s “Smoke” sensibility in “One-eyed Jimmy”, with lingering on those outsider characters, but it’s more a mock of such sensibility, being that it refuses to go deeper into those characters, denying that there is anything serious in tragic in those characters. While in “Smoke”, behind every character there’s a hidden, intimate world of poetry, “One-eyed Jimmy” seriously doubts that there is such deep level in allegedly shallow characters such are Joe Head and Junior; Sam Henry Kass, writer and director, makes a point from not adding depth to characters’ thinking and daily events. Camera that lingers on in long, static shots and sparse editing reminds of “Clerks” as well, but Kass doesn’t seem to think that clever dialogues belong to people who are by definition dull, either.
However, if they are dull and shallow, that doesn’t mean that characterization is not in place. When you observe Balducco’s performance of Joe Head when people mock him for his head size, there is some going along with the joke with notable discomfort, suggestion for how long he had to put up with him, that at the same time he gave up fighting it and grew bored by it. Joe Head stares as psychic’s (Aida Turturro) cleavage and asks a portraitist doing a photorobot of Jimmy if she asks portraits. But when Snakes briefs his family tree, noting that his father and grandfather were also called “heads”, is when this portrait slips into a caricature – effect of losing accuracy that I was talking about above.
Many minor characters make quite an impression, being given nice motivation. Aida Turturro as psychic seems to have open air for improvisation. Said portraitist (Jennifer Beals) seems defencive about her own artistic skills, acting insulted when guys suggest that they should put Jimmy’s photo on posters instead of her portrait. Anne Meara makes one of the roles that tie together pieces of film with her role that manages to sound funny even when it could sound tragic. It’s that local eccentricity and simplemindedness that makes her funny even when she’s grieving for her son.
Buscemi as Ed plays his usual slugging role, relying on his famous appearance for the most. But then, unlike Turturro or Jackson, he is not given an eccentric role to play. Samuel Jackson, on the other hand, has a field day with crazy Colonel Ron, employing a repertoire of funny faces that he usually doesn’t have a chance to show in actioners in which he’s casted most often these days. John Turturro, that wonderful actor, is perhaps the weakest segment of the film; his role sounds at moments like his “Big Lebowsky” role, at others like something out of a Scorsese film. Somehow, this doesn’t fit in with the rest of the movie because, unlike the rest who, as caricatured as they are, sound like ordinary people, he still sounds like a movie character and nothing more. You could say, he tries too hard.
Les, getting most of screen time, seems simple enough and definitely least interesting of all characters, but his relation with others turns out to be the most intriguing element of the film. A film school graduate, he is estranged from his old neighbourhood, and his character is a fair mix of roughness that he draws back from the old days, and elitism that he easily adopted at school. He returns to his neighbourhood not fairly as the member of community, but as an outside observer who hopes to find film fodder back there. You could see him imagining himself as Scorsese or Woody Allen who always return to their roots in New York, and that seems to be the only reason he returns to his roots. Ironically, you can believe that simplemindedness he took from his heritage is the sole reason he adopted attractive film-school mindset so easily. But it’s this difference in mindset between Les and others, and of course between audience (closer to Les’s view of the world, no doubt) and characters, that makes comedy.
Les is politely considerate to Jimmy’s family, friendly to his old pals, but pissed off when his film doesn’t turn as he expected and decidedly keeping a distance to things like Joe Head’s rambling about what he should eat next day. Film also records a progress of Les’s return. It’s perhaps the moment when Joe Head proposes that they see each other later and grab something to eat and Les, after some talking into, agrees, that Les seems to be agreeing to return to his old hood, not only as an observer.
The basic conclusion of the film, I believe, is the way how Les’s old hood pulls him back and ruins his intentions to build himself up, climb into the film hierarchy. Underlying idea that passing characters constantly sabotage seriousness of the film, making it a mockery of what Les intended with it, shapes into a viable form when Jimmy, representative of that neighbourhood himself, appears after being locked into the basement for a week. His story seems too emotive when he states that he didn’t have beer for a week, a moment in which his brother Ed can not hold up the tears. Finally, this concept culminates when Joe Head and Junior finally rob Les of his film on a muddled legal technicality, and then sell what seems to be a surprise hit after all, to Hollywood that seems unaware of their simplicity.
This simplicity is, in last scenes of the film, given a sort of dangerous character. Final seconds of the film seem to suggest that this destructive simplicity of “underbelly of America” that Joe and Junior represent, is being released upon the world. Joe Head’s concept of the next film project, “something like Saturday Night Fever III” seems almost apocalyptic.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Film: The Last American Virgin vs. Fast Times at Ridgemont High :-/

We all know about those dirty teenage sex comedies of eighties, many of us grew on them. We know that over nineties, they progressively developed into gross-out comedies, turning the center of attention from sex to physiological processes. We know that as the first of such comedies is usually considered “Animal House”, produced by National Lampoon and directed by John Landis, later known as director of many mainstream comedies and films of other genres (including, if I’m not mistaking, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video). “Animal House”, among other things, projected John Belushi into a stardom, and set many stereotypes of the future genre, among which: lots of nudity, less of teenage sex, horny teenage boys and objectified teenage girls, and unavoidable female shower peeping scene. Oh, and some might even know that all this draws a line from much more prude, so called beach films of sixties.
Those who’ve read through this blog and remember some of it, might remember that I have a soft spot for various kinds of teenage comedies, specially stupid and corny ones. Among many trash and exploitation genres from 70ies and 80ies, these comedies are one of a few that wasn’t glamorized, re-hashed and then also beaten to death by “artistic” Hollywood. They, at least, remained as cheesy as they always were and no “Something about Mary” will prove otherwise.
Actually, I had a comment that I had more respect for films like “American pie” than films like “Titanic”. “American pie” was, in my view, closer to problems some of us actually feel, examining them from a more realistic and less romanticized point, and really “Titanic” is a big daydream, while “American pie” is still a result of someone’s life experiences.
After all, main character of “Titanic” is one huge ship! Can you identify with a huge ship? How about feel for its problems? “Help! Help! I’m sinking!”
Not saying that I think that “American pie” is some big achievement, but that’s how it is, if I’m going to watch something to kill a few hours.
Which reminds me of “Porky’s”, one of the more popular films of the kind, which is actually a good example of how those films can get messy and weird. “Porky’s” was known for it’s misogynistic attitude; it’s obligatory shower peeping scene was notorious for it’s extended part, during which girls not only don’t mind being watched in the shower, but actually accept the idea and get to enjoy it rather easily. Cheerfully, yes, but film gave the idea that girls never really minded being objectified. On the other hand, “Porky’s” took precious time to make points about anti-Semitism and similar social messages; One of important storylines features a guy at the end successfully fighting anti-Semitism that his violent father planted into him. And somehow this socially-positive attitude stands wrong and inconsistent in a film that doesn’t allow any female character to grow out of the role of body on display.
But that just goes to show what kind of mess of ideas jumbled one upon the other these films were. Very often it seemed like ideas were being thrown as they came, and that filmmakers worked hard not to leave anything unused. I think it kind of sets the tone for my story about how potentially good movies turn sour, and potentially bad movies have an unsuspected sharp, cold edge.
“Fast times at Ridgemont high” has some names to support them. It’s directed by Amy Heckerling who later had some success with various romantic comedies, and based on a documentary book of novelist turned director Cameron Crowe, who directed some of the loveliest understated films. Jannifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Sean Penn, all make early roles in this film. So it’s supposed to be good, yeah?
Well, it is considered one of the better films of the genre. It’s said to explore some of problems of teenage sexuality, including a loss of virginity, sexual inadequacy and even unwanted pregnancy, in a more analytic (and less exploitative) way. Even today, you’ll hear about it as the nobler representative of the unrepresentative genre.
I hated that film. I was seriously annoyed by film’s was of exploring mentioned subjects. Why so? Because film has no guts. Because it takes some serious themes, and then treats them with lightness and causality that’s just annoying. I think that film was liked by public because it didn’t go over the top in raunchiness, because it was mild. If the genre is attacked for extreme, then mild = good? But when “Porky’s” makes an indirect statement that women like to be objectified, at least it makes some sort of statement, unlike “Fast times...” which just uses bad events to spend ten more minutes because film has to last hour and a half.
Cameron Crowe’s book must’ve been shocking, showing adolescents indulging in sex at very young age, because of peer pressure rather than because of feelings or needs, taking it casually until the consequences strike. In film, even when consequences strike, everything turns out ok, and film seems to work so hard not to appall, shock or disturb anyone, that it makes me wonder why taking a book whose content is shocking and disturbing in the first place? Just go and make another Elvis movie, for Christ’s sake!
So, for example, in the scene near the beginning, one 12-years old girl explains to the other how to perform a blow job, using a carrot as a substitute; it’s happening in the full lunch room, with younger kids following with eyes open. The mere description of this scene seems somewhat unsettling, inappropriate and, hm, disappointing? But director handles this scene in a light tone, turning it into just another little joke among friends. Director doesn’t want to disturb us with too serious tone, forgetting that the fact that two 12 year olds talk in such manner is disturbing itself.
The approach reflects later near the end of film, when one of main characters goes through the abortion after getting pregnant while losing virginity with Mr. Wrong guy. As this film sees it, everything’s ok, nobody’s hurt, she eventually gets together with Mr. Right guy, and all the bad things are forgotten. Of course, anyone who doesn’t live in a sugar-coated land knows that abortion is very stressful, hurtful, that it endangers both psychological and physical health, that said girl might never have a baby again, and that, bottom line, one baby that was just about to became, was killed. Yet in the film, the whole segment about abortion lasts about five minutes. As if Mr. Doctor snapped his fingers and unwanted baby is gone. It’s all handled with air lightness and there’s never a word about moral repercussions of the act, not for the young mother, not for the eloped young father. Director, instead, concentrates on romantic side, which means that for her it’s more important that in the end the girl is in arms of the good guy who loved her all the time, nya nya nya,
The thing that annoys me, I guess, is that this might’ve made a powerful film if it was directed by a serious director and how this director’s treatment underestimates audience.
There’s another film of the same genre that curiously reminded me of this one: “The last American virgin”. This film is at times, schematic and, together with anonymous cast, it takes no more than one paragraph in film encyclopedias, mentioning that it has a likeable cast and is, at least, amusing. It also deals with the girl falling in arms of mister wrong, getting pregnant and aborting with support of Mr. Right.
Gary is Mr. Right and he is desperately in love with Karen. Karen is, unfortunately, snatched in front of his eyes by his best friend, womanizer Rick. First chunk of the film is filled with misadventures of Gary, Rick and their overweight friend David, trying to score at every possible occasion, with only Gary failing all the time, thus staying the titular “virgin”.
It’s a good deal of cliché, for one, cast is very usual for the genre: one macho guy, one fat guy, and the third one, main character, fragile and geeky one. But that’s ok, that’s actually a kind of thing I watch these movies for. There is an obligatory scene in which David mistakes Gary’s mother for a girl who previously told him to go to balcony and count to hundred. And when the three are in the home of busty wanna-be-Mexican woman, you simply know that her sailor boyfriend is going to show up early. This can, of course, be done with more or less timing, but never mind, it’s what you watched the film for anyway, not for a moment it pretends to be better than it really is.
It’s interesting to note that “Virgin” doesn’t have that light social message about tolerance that we’re used to see. It’s not “nice” like “Porky’s”, and it definitely doesn’t go keep side to outsiders like “Revenge of the nerds”, for instance. In fact, regular nerd of the film, Victor, is regularly beaten up and harassed, in which main characters participate mercilessly.
Anyways, things do get serious after a while. Rick deflowers Karen on a football field, I guess as gracelessly as it could be, and after she remains pregnant, he backs up. Gary who went through the whole event hurt but reluctant, steps in and not only holds Karen’s hand through the abortion, but scraps money to pay for it too. He takes her to his late grandmother’s house on a fake skiing vacation, to recover from abortion.
Returning from the fake skiing all happy he buys the ring, intending to give it to Karen on her birthday party. On the party, then, he finds Karen in kitchen, back in Rick’s arms. A quick conversation with eyes somehow tops what you’d expect from such films, as their looks manage to communicate just what writers didn’t write in, thanks them. The film ends with Gary getting in the car and just driving around.
The ending is quite unexpected for such light-toned film, even as the whole unpleasant mess around abortion is going on, you are certain that everything is going to end with a romantic happy end. This abrupt end colours everything in such dark colours and, even more, leaves you thinking. No real resolutions were made, plotlines are tangled as ever, and you really keep wondering what these characters will be doing in a month, three months, a year...? The strength of such open ending is that it leaves you thinking about that, and through thinking, analyzing how highschool society, and society in general, works. Thoughts with which I was left after credits are probably the whole reason for this blog entry.
Now, it is surprising how different approach of this film is to the previous one. Sure, this film will be shelved with bulk of other sex farces, because it damn right contains rather cliché elements of many of those, but when it deals with serious things, it lingers on characters and lets you watch how they feel and what they do. They don’t just shrug off problems and move forward to happy ending like those from previous film.
And then there are characters we could talk about. There’s no doubt that director is on Gary’s side, if nothing, romantic power-pop that plays to moments of his sadness testifies of that. Yet looking from distance, perhaps distance of my age, I can’t help but look at him more analytically. He’s less than a hero on white horse. He wants to be one, saving a maiden in second half of the film, but his belief that he lives in a world in which such stereotype works, is naïve. He’s also not all that good; through his numerous attempts to lose virginity with just about anything that wears a skirt, he’s more of a horny teenager than a romantic lead; For good measure, we see him harassing resident nerd along with the others. One could wonder why notion of formal friendship with Rick is more important to him than what we’re presented with as true love (which is the whole reason why he never approaches Karen while she’s dating Rick, why he never confronts her about what Rick’s like – though we know that that probably wouldn’t help much). But that’s all ok; we see that character and realize that that’s what teenagers are like. Can we expect teenagers not to be recklessly horny, prone to peer-pressure and, in a way, shallow? If we do, we rip them off of important part of their youth and growing up process.
Then there’s Karen. At least we who were shy and geeky boys got used to this kind of girl. When I was of that age I believed that girls were naturally attracted to jerks. When I got a bit older, I realized that I was all wrong and that reasons for lack of my contact with girls were pretty much on my end. When I got even older, I realized that older me was wrong and that girls, after all, are attracted to girls.
I said this, of course, as a joke, half-serious joke if you will, but it’s a broad generalization all in all. The serious side of it is that there are girls who are continuously attracted to bullies no matter how much they suffer from that; people are somehow doomed to repeat same mistakes. Do such girls want to be subjected to standard patriarchal roles? Or do they equate good manners with insincerity? I don’t know. I remember I’ve heard arguments about how nice and polite guys are no good, because they’re jerks anyway too, only they cover it good. In any case, we know such girls from high school; they were often a subject of adoration and disappointment. If you had friends among them, they’d always complain about how their ex-boyfriend was a jerk, but never did a single effort to change their choice of men. And then, guys who were pushy, intrusive, always had it better than those who were shy and introvert. On recount, it wouldn’t’ve killed us all if we acted more out of characters: we shy guys could’ve been more open to communication; girls could’ve tried to make an advance on a guy once in a while; and then those other guys could’ve... but then, I may be expecting too much.
Back to Karen: through the film, I considered that returning to Rick was the most likely ending. Why? Well, thinking about it, we may blame Gary for never talking about Rick to her; But then we can blame her as well, for dating someone for a while and never figuring out what he really is like. We can blame her for falling into old cliché of being taken to a football field to lose virginity. We can consider that if she liked Rick, she liked him for what he is, selfish, rude and shamelessly macho, and that she simply wouldn’t satisfy for a total opposite of him, Gary. Her blame is, I guess, for falling into every cliché of that kind of girl (which is far from average, but it’s a kind of girl all looks are turned to, no doubt) and never bothering to step out of that cliché, not even when she gets a chance. When Rick returns to her, once the obstacle of pregnancy is gone, she leaves Gary for the better pick, she feels bad about it but a girl has to do what a girl has to do – that final look says it clearly.
All is not well, but it’s as expected. As in real life. Noone is perfect, but they don’t deserve to be so unhappy regardless. Yet they are.
What will happen next? We want to believe that Gary will get some sort of satisfaction. Perhaps he’ll find a girl nicer than Karen is. Perhaps he’ll gloat looking as Rick breaks Karen’s heart again. Perhaps but more likely Gary will get over and satisfy with the less; Karen, growing some thick skin, won’t be so fragile any more; Their relation might even work out once there’s no unwanted pregnancy; Everything will work just like it doesn’t in film: no conclusion, no moral satisfaction, no good guy wins.
Which happens a lot, I believe. Not too often in films though.

P.S. Gotta note that film often fails on humor parts. Timing is rarely good, and there are just too many cases where joke builds up but then never gets to the punchline. For instance, the whole setup where guys get crabs build up to the scene in which they simply buy medicine in drugstore and that's about it.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Book: Master's voice

Reading "Master's voice" reminds me why I loved science fiction. In fact, like many science geeks, in high school I was eating and drinking science fiction. Why I stopped being science geek, and why I stopped being science fiction fan?
First thing came somewhat naturally, as I enrolled university with lots of applied science, enough to overload greater science fans than I was.
Science fiction on the other hand... Starting to read postmodern literature, I realized that sf was just a particle of this literature, usually far inferior but too isolated from the rest of literature world to ever realize that. Most of sf world (save for a few writers like j. G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut or William Gibson) were completely oblivious of the development of mainstream literature, considered themselves top of the literature having compared themselves only with writings of the same genre. I couldn’t disagree with Theodore Sturgeon’s assessment that 90% of everything is trash, but Sturgeon would probably be surprised of the number of his respected colleagues I consider trash (like Bradbury, Clark, Asimov, P. Jose farmer...)
The breakdown happened after reading David Brin's lengthy novel "Postman" (so perfect for Kevin Costner to direct a film after it that he actually did). Now, Brin isn't the most respectable sf writer ever, but after his bland patriotic propaganda romp, I asked myself whether I really need to systematically waste time on such things. I cannot read quickly (that has always been my problem), shouldn't I pick something better, more enjoyable to spend my time on? Should I choose the bland and romanticized writing style over Nabakov or Calvino? The "what if" novels that stumble upon serious, humanistic themes, like a man in the dark stumbles to the chair, against those that actually deliberately speak of human nature? Melodrama over real understanding of human character? Finally, isn't great writing great and marginal writing marginal for a reason? Or is it all part of the great conspiracy? As a teenager, I was fascinated with ideas. Nowadays, want to see the ideas actually saying something, not being self-sufficient.
But let's not be hasty, I’m not dissing sf as a genre, I’m just dissing narrow literary sf circles. In fact, I have a lot of faith in cinematic science fiction, and estimate that unusually large percent of cinematic masterpieces is from sf genre. Almost every one of world's greatest directors at one time or the other shaped his ideas through sf.
And then, there are great science fiction writers, I’d be hard pressed to generalize so much as to say there are none. For one, brilliant Kurt Vonnegut grew out of sf. Then there was a cult writer Phillip K. Dick who managed to write at least a few impressive works before becoming reproductive and repetitive. James Graham Ballard whose "Crash" is even more mind-boggling than Cronenberg's film based on the book. Then there are Brothers Strugacki who, no doubt, managed to write several memorable pieces (one that I've recently read, "The snail on the slope", trippy ode to bureaucracy, is one of the better). And here, I’ll be talking about Stanislaw Lem, Polish misanthrope and surprisingly knowledgeable man.
Last two have in common that they both had their books turned into films by Andrei Tarkovski. Strugacki's "Picnic by the road" was made into infamous "Stalker". Lem's "Solaris" was turned into, also excellent, eponymous feature.

Lem built opus of a fine comic sf writer in first half of his career, after which he turned to depressive, pessimistic novels where he accomplished his greatest works. But both his comical and dramatic works shared vision of humanity as desperately petty, clumsy and fallible community. To contrast them, Lem often introduced superior alien race, which was usually vaguely defined as to accent that we're incapable of even grasping its way of functioning, least to communicate with it. Purpose of this was never to talk about aliens or first contact, but to reflect humans and their failings. We always want more (contact with other races) before resolving problems around what we already have, concludes Lem.
So in "Solaris", alien is a giant ocean covering an entire planed, and space station rotating about it is trying to reach this organism without knowing how it communicates, or even if it does. Yet, ocean communicates by digging through memories of humans on the station, finding deep mistakes from the past and sending it back to humans. It is not said whether ocean acts as a reminder, out of pettiness, curiosity, or ever unconsciously, it is, however, symptomatic that humans choose to wallow in their pity rather than to act.
I am reminded of a short story by Lem, mathematical sf if you will, about a hotel with infinite number of rooms. This hotel has no vacancies, but when an infinite number of guests arrive to a convention, they can all fit because two times infinite is still infinite. This short story is full of mathematical extrapolations on theme of infinite numbers applied to actual (though physically impossible) situation.
I was once said that American sf fans had a theory that Stanislaw Lem doesn't exist, but that there's an entire set of scientists of various profiles working on books published under his name. Crackpot theories aside, most of his Books contain wide knowledge of many science, seemingly too wide for one man to grasp (himself being a doctor by trade) and it's fascinating, seeing how he juggles various areas of science, seemingly foolproof knowledge as if coming from mouths of his characters, scientists of various specializations.
Such knowledge is shown all around "Master's Voice", novel that shakes borders of sf genre. Aliens aren't present like in other books of his, the whole book is revolving around a teak of scientists trying to decode the radio-message received from somewhere in e space. Aside from knowing that it is a message (thanks to its repetition, it is known that it's source isn't random), scientists know nothing of the code in which the message was written, or what kind of message it is. This gives Lem a lot of opportunity to think aloud about matters of linguistic, communication, culture differences, etc. Even though "Master's voice" is a novel, it doesn't escape from essayist content, so a great deal of the novel is his thinking aloud, some would say, philosophy (although, if he thought so he would probably write a philosophy book, not a work of fiction). I won't try to describe this dense net of thoughts, and metaphors, but a little fiction works were so directly thoughtful.
The rest is a little history of failed attempts, theories and half-results that in the end lead nowhere. Sometimes, in his cynism, Lem is viciously humorous, like in an early chapter about the discovery of a message, that first goes through hands of various crackpots and alien conspiracies, or even later when scientists are on the verge of breakthrough, but fear from it, evaluating it to bring more power than humans can handle. This chapter's high point is extrapolation of half-drunken scientists as to what destruction will happen to Earth if they succeed.
The most vicious Lem's joke is, they fail. Not only contact isn't made, but they're left unsure of whether there were aliens at all. In the end, everyone believes what they want to believe, depending on how sure they are of human competence.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Film: Profesionalac

Recently, someone asked me if I had a copy of "The Professional", recent Serbian film (among many unrelated films of that name). I said that I don't, and barely managed not to add "what do you need that piece of crap for anyway?"... To each their own, this film has ability to hit the weak spot, especially to Serbs, permanently poisoned with politics. To me, a proof that master of one craft is not necessarily a master of other, even if it's a very similar craft.
Said master is Dusan Kovacevic, Serbian drama writer, one of the most popular playwrights whose popularity often eclipses the fact that he's also an important figure in Serbian postmodern literature. His popularity is often due to his plays being transcribed to films, of which at least two ("Underground" and "Who's singing over there") reached European ground.
From the critical side, his works are treatments of local mentality seen through postmodern glass, with typical absurd gone to extreme. Perhaps his best known drama work is "The professional", drama for two actors (and one statist). Probably considering it his magnum opus, Kovacevic decided that this drama needs to be turned into a film a few years ago. He decided he would direct a "Professional" and improve something that didn't really need any improvement.

I'm actually writing all this because I just finished reading of Manuel Puig's novel "Kiss of the spider-woman", landmark novel of the third generation of modern Latin-American literature, known also for Hector Babenco's film from 1985. John Hurt, Oscar nomination for main role.
Novel, written exclusively in (internal and external) dialogue with a bit of bureaucratic and scientific documents on the side, concerns Valentin, political prisoner, placed in the same cell as Molina, gay arrested for seducing minors, with diction to Molina to try to drag information about resistance from Valentin in exchange for freedom.
I won't go into details about philosophical repercussions of the novel, I’d just be rewriting pretty thoughtful preface of the book. What matters, though, is that book creates an entire new world in that cell, the feeling that many characters pass and many things happen between those two characters, as Mona re-tells Valentin old pulp movies, he tells them so vividly that we have a feeling that we've seen much more than we physically did.
The novel would make an excellent theatre play, and indeed it did, one of versions being on repertoire in Belgrade as well.

By one logic, the genuine effect of an art is to evoke what isn't there, to make what it actually lacks, whole renaissance (with it’s perspective and chiaroscuro) was spent in artists trying to evoke a third dimension on a two-dimensional canvas, right now, all comic-authors in the world are thinking how to make the sensation of passing time in medium where space is the only real constant, and writers always have and always will try to bring picture to where only words are.
Theatre, confined in production limitations, stage, little secluded square box with a few people on it, tries to expand to the rest of the world and evoke as many characters and places as it can with its limited resources; "The Professional", the drama, did just that and that's why i loved it: during the lengthy conversation of two people, so many ghosts of the past walked the stage that drama was not for a moment static. The whole concept was so perfectly fit to drama form that i knew the film would lose something.

"The Professional" is a story about Teodor Kraj, ex-dissident, rebel against communist government who is, in his later years, confronted with the government agent Luka Laban who followed him his entire life - first a job, later turned into an obsession. And so Luka Spent his entire life Stalking Teodor, gathering information about him, picking up pieces of life that Teodor was recklessly throwing away, and now that every political motive has lost it's value, Luka presents it all in a big suitcase. Memories ensue and the bond between two men becomes a complex mix of closeness, hatred, gratefulness and fear.
On stage, Laban was played by Bata Stojkovic, considered the greatest of Serbian actors. He died a few years ago and one thing that I’ll never forgive myself is not going to see that play in live, while he was still alive. Teodor Is played by an excellent actor Bogdan Diklic, sadly undervalued because of typecasting (who he played Molina in Serbian theatrical version of "spider-woman" and strangely, does have resemblance with William Hurt, film Molina). Film “The Professional”, of course, couldn't repeat the casting, since Bata was already dead.
The very first reason why the film shouldn't've been made was that the whole thing was perfect in its theatrical form. I told of many events and characters that exist on the stage so vividly as is we really see them. Idea of the film was, obviously, to bring them all "on stage" physically, not through dialogue. Apparently, starting idea of this transition is that theatre is the constraining form of art that film gives author real freedom. Kovacevic's misses the fact that art is a constant fight with limitations and that the more you achieve with the less, the greater the achievement is. Thus film was doomed to be lesser than play from the beginning.
Evocative power is lost. We are not invited to imagine things, we are shown things. Instead of our imagination, we are restrained to director's imagination. Thus it's all less impressive and moving.

Another huge mistake that film made was decision to update the story. From original eighties, it was placed into present time, oppressive communism was changed into oppressive Milosevic's regime, and seemingly democratic last decade of Yugoslavia was replaced with post-Milosevic's democratic regime. Kovacevic presumed himself larger than life and went into evaluating this regime before four years of its government rounded (time will prove that he was wrong in many accounts). Ironically, Kovacevic was one of many who, with their activist work, helped installing this new regime, but he doesn't save much satire for himself; he chooses to take all the gratitude but never any responsibility, being a man of arts and not of politics - when it's convenient. Film casts in role of Teodor Branislav Lecic, excellent actor but increasingly irritating celebrity (you can think of him as Serbian Tom Cruise in his most manic version); prouding himself of being an activist against old regime, he became an installment of new regime, very incompetent one at that. So he was basically playing himself and seemed to get a good Laugh out of mocking his real life. Sadly he never learned anything from his role. Lecic and Kovacevic are long-time collaborators on mono-drama "5 stars trash bin" and they're so used to their inn-jokes that most of people won't get, that they pop them into "The Professional" without even noticing.
Role of Laban Is given to Bora Todorovic, veteran of minimal character acting, an actor whose move of a single muscle on his face is enough to tell you what he thinks; he doesn't seed to shout and wave his arms like Lecic to act.
As I already said, it was unfair to try to evaluate work of such new government, specially, as Kovacevic did, lingering on it's bad sides and ignoring good sides, with flaky populist conclusion that "they're all the same". This problematic thought is taken further: while Teodor Is a cynical powermonger, Laban is still a firm believer in his cause, even if he knows it was all wrong. Milosevic's era was painted with nostalgia, stupidity and blindness turned into dedication and there’s another problematic conclusion: "at least back then we knew who our enemy was". Milosevic’s era appears to be fed on naïve dedication, while in new, democratic era, just about everyone is a cynical bastard. This vision can be believed by those who have short term memory loss.
Bottom line, it all adds up to a general problem of local cinematographies. Remembering the comment of a Turkish director whose interview I saw after a projection of his recent film, that each national cinematography consists majorly of commercial trash and a few valuable films. Each national commercial trash is different, soothing to specifics of the nation. In Turkish, it's bad rip-offs of Hollywood blockbusters with cheap special effects; in Serbia, it's rural comedies depicting primitive local characters; the more primitive and dislikeable, the better, Serbs seem to want to hate characters of their films. "The Professional" has all that: it's lowest common denominator; it has violence, sex, weddings and funerals, singing, drinking and shooting in the air; it has politics and that's the real reason for updating the script: catering to the audience that gets more gusto from bashing current politicians than those from twenty yes ago. It goes for pathos and tearjacker, exemplary in scene where Theodor gives a musician his father’s watch to play his a forbidden song. This scene that could’ve symbolized his disrespect for past and memories, is turned into a drunken singalong full of pathos, instead.
Nominally circling the life achievement of the importantly writer, it's just another trashy comedy.
Kovacevic is cut out for better than this. In dramas, he's capable of dealing with universal themes on metaphorical level. In film, he embarrasses himself.
P.S. But then Serbian film does suck for a decade or so now. There’s one old and a few new directors who keep doing something worth watching, while everyone else is so obsessed by gathering all elements that, in theory, should draw audience to the cinema, that their work is, in the end, a jumbled, incoherent mess. Then when noone goes to see Serbian films anymore, they blame someone else.

Edit: Yeah, entry was full of material mistakes, typos and stuff. I typed it on palm-top and was later really lazy to edit it.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Music: Kid A

When starting my first blog entry about music, i have to note that I’m writing articles about what's considered classics in rock music these days for my university magazine and that's pretty much draining my inspiration to write about music - thus I was delaying blogging about music even though it's a pretty important part of my life. Hover, things ought to change being that for the sake of objectivity, I avoid writing only about music that I fancy.
For my first blog entry about music, I choose a band very dear to me and one of a few most influential (and most successful) bands of nineties, "Radiohead".
When hearing Radiohead mentioned, many people will roll their eyes because this band is being brought up very, very often. Is it deserved? My opinion is that, if this was one of the most successful bands of previous decade, one of the most influential and very fresh in memory, then it's often bringing up is very reasonable and to be expected.
One of the most often believes of those who don't fancy Radiohead - but try to analyze and understand the cause for popularity of the band they don't like (sometimes even despise) - is that it's an artsy band for people who like to proud themselves into believing that they enjoy high art, un-listenable group for those who think that un-listenable music is deep. It's basically a sort of "you're all posers" accuse, an outsider one. As an insider in this case, i can testify that Radiohead can be very listenable, or that I’ve on occasions participated in drunken singalongs of Radiohead's songs, which seems impossible until you try it. In any case, this theory doesn't explain the scope of 'head's popularity, being that it spreads wider than art college causes and that they're more than just a cult group.
As for Radiohead's influence? It branches into metal ("Muse"), pop ("Coldplay") as well as into electro-rock hybrids (though they surely aren't pioneers of this genre). At times i have a feeling that Oxford boys are ten years ahead of time, being that their early stages are being explored by other musicians now, and that their later stages seem like something that will be a prevalent music of future.
But there I am defending them even at the place where noone is attacking. I'd rather like to discuss reasons why I like them and expect that those reasons will make sense in an objective light. But before I start, I prefer to rehash my little history.
I started listening to Radiohead somewhere in the middle of the high school, about eight years from now. First songs I heard of them were "Fade out (Street spirit)" and (of course) "Creep". First album, "Bands". "Ok Computer" came a bit later, but it took a while till it came to this territory. Though at that time I heard their first album "Pablo honey", it never planted into my ears too well until years later. I always found it inferior to later albums, something that will one day be of interest only to fans who want to follow the group all through, something like "Space oddity" album to Bowie.
I have to stress over and over again that at that time Radiohead wasn't popular, or even well-known where I lived. Serbia was pretty much pressured my international sanctions, very little of it could've been seen on TV, and if you lived in provincial town, the source of foreign rock albums was cut out. High school was a place where majority listened to some monstrous deviations of modernized native folk, some of them were sticking to retro ex-Yugoslavian rock, and even though the silent minority has heard of Nirvana, Soundgarden and grunge alike, at time I started listening to Radiohead, I knew noone who was listening to them (the only company i had was my sister who started at the same time as I did).
At the time of expecting "Kid A" to be released, the answer I’d get from most of people was still "Radiohead who?" I am aware that situation in, for instance, their native England, is completely different.
"Kid A", the album I'm talking about now, is surely the most controversial. While "Bends" was a compulsively listenable grunge-pop album, "Ok computer" was much less ear-pleasing but a conceptual album in which songs stringed with some inevitable logic; it was noted as the best album of the year by several music magazines and said to redefine the music genre. Long awaited after that, "Kid A" managed to achieve impossible: to redefine it second time in a row.
Not confined to conventional melody, "Kid A" was a very hard pill to swallow, a hard, hermetic music to get into; it was a culmination of two Radiohead's trends: first one, growing interest in electronic music that was produced into the underlying level of "Ok computer", was here in it's final, stage, some songs completely created on computer (save for Yorke's voice) for the first time. Second, Yorke's singing became more psychedelic, mellow, in term of better, appropriate term, turning into a moan, additional instrument less than trying to communicate a message through lyrics. This also culminated on "Kid A", with Yorke singing short lyrics into long songs.
Yep, "Kid A" was extreme in it's ways; it's closely attached to their next year's album "Amnesiac", also known as "Kid B", that was recorded on same session, the group entering studio after several years. I can see the pattern in choosing the songs for "Kid A" among many recorded: "Kid A" was short, "Amnesiac" was long; first one was strange and hermetic, second one was a piece of the same cloth, but more approachable, more melodic and easier. "Kid A" was often a reminiscence of 'head's old songs on their basic level: "How to disappear completely and never be found" was a piece of their standard ballad, while "Optimistic" was similar to many of their faster, guitar songs. Other songs like "Everything in the right place" and "Ideoteque" were setting new direction rather than saying goodbye to old.
In short, "Kid A" was a shock therapy, a "this is new Radiohead, take it or leave it" statement. "Ok computer" set very high expectations for the group and it was very likely that, if they did the next album in the same style, it would've likely been valued as lesser copy of "Computer" (and to be fair, would they be able to repeat the formula?) which is why decided for the shock therapy.
"Kid A" was, all in all, a statement of new music. This music seems early-Residents-style like Anti-music at first, songs like "Everything's in the right place" or "Kid A" seem lacking in melody and random, but when you catch yourself whistling "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon" for yourself, you realize that it's more a new music that we're still unfamiliar with - but not without basic elements that any music has, including audience that is able to like it on basic, emotional level.
There are, crudely divided, two streams of post-Beatles music, first one is writing-based, music that isn't so dependent on it's studio recording, one that preserves most of it's appeal when played in any competent interpretation. Then there is production-based music that was conceived by Beatles in their psychedelic phase, perhaps most clearly through studio work that MaCartney and George Martin put into Lennon-written song "Strawberry fields", to turn it from a catchy demo song (as heard on "Anthology") into an otherworldly listening experience. It is not a coincidence that at that phase Beatles never performed live, nor is coincidence that other production-based groups like Pink Floyd had live shows orchestrated to the last detail.
Radiohead, though not being so strict with live shows, are continuing this approach to music. Their studio recordings are nearly impossible to repeat, complexity of arrangements makes each listening a different experience, because each time we notice new sounds coming from new sides, things that we didn't notice before. Sounds, expressions, coming from instruments or tapes, are carefully chosen and timed. Thom Yorke said at time that "Pyramid song" from "Amnesiac" was the best song they ever recorded and he might've been right considering that it's one of songs that take production-based music furthest.
Take "How to disappear completely...", simple song turned into a full experience through production, listen to it, notice sounds that suggest disappearing into other worlds (song, as said by Yorke, is inspired by technique of distancing yourself from stressful reality, taught to him by Michale Stipe). It is a kind of song that you listen loud, with eyes closed, letting sounds overwhelm you and work suggestively on other senses too.
Of course, I'm talking about their electro interests, but looking back I realize that this polyphony and richness has been their characteristics since the beginning. Namely, Radiohead is one of rare groups that feature three guitars, aside from bass and drums. Most of groups will consider one or two guitars enough for the rich sound, in fact, vast majority of them, setting first as solo guitar and second as rhythm (backup) guitar, wouldn't even know what to do with the third one. Radiohead, since their famous arrangement on "Creep", favour three guitars, each working it's own and complementing each other: Thom Yorke, leader and author of majority of material as singer and guitar, reliable Johnny Greenwood and primary guitar, and Ed O’Brien as the third.
It's as if Yorke is not only able to think in music, but in multiple channels as well. Still, music suggests that the rest of the group participates in creating arrangements as well, each giving their part, which, being that studio work often seems more decisive than songwriting part, makes them as important creative forces.
I generally like electro-rock hybrids. Radiohead's approach to electro is very dear to me. But it's this unique 3-guitar approach that made me want to see them go back to guitar rock.
Yet it's worth mentioning that Radiohead wasn't the only band that went through guitar-to-electro evolution in nineties. Other, similar transitions were done by Blur, Beck (whose initial, pre-"Loser" music was strictly country), David Bowie, David Byrne, even Tom Jones. Tampering with computers isn't a thing of trend anymore, horizons of new music have been expanded and anyone with a bit of creative experimental spirit wants to step into this new territory. On the other hand, many musicians who started initially in electro music have over the years steered toward pop and rock; including: Moby, Massive Attack, Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, and then later hybrids like Moloko. It seems like both of these streams are meeting in the middle, at the territory where many an old divisions are rejected, something that could as well be music of future. It is interesting to watch these groups of such various starting points, finally meeting at the same place.
(Worth noting: this hybridization trend is irritating for many conservative guitar rock fans. It was inevitable that backlash of guitar rock groups, songwriting-oriented rather than production-oriented, would display in form of huge popularity of basic rock groups like The Strokes, The White Stripes or The Jet. Don't get me wrong, I think that Julian Casablancas and Jack White are wonderful writers, but I believe that erasing of the line between electro and guitar music has already been erased and that both guitar rock and fundamental electro genres like house, are things of the past.)
To finish the story of "Kid A". Between songs that close the old chapter like "How to disappear completely and never be found" and "Optimistic" and those that open a new one, like "Kid A" and "Everything in the right place", short intermezzo "Treefingers", and "National anthem", based on growing cacophony started from a simple riff (not one of the best IMO), there's hard to get a grab on "Morning bells", whose mellow version is placed in the middle of "Amneziac", stating that Amneziac indeed is mellow successor to "Kid A's" thing, finishing "Motion picture soundtrack" and then a bonus number that's basically something played backward to form curiously distinctive tune. But I don't thing that, despite everything, this album would work if there wasn't for born-to-be-a-hit electro statement, song that grabs you and makes you play the album again, "Ideoteque"; stripped, consisting of two drum machine loops, one keyboard harmony and Yorke's nervous chant, "Ideoteque" somehow glues pieces together. At the second verse where harmony stops and leaves the beat alone with restless chant, song stops your breath and keeps it in for a while, as if expecting an explosion.
So then, to sum up, what else is Radiohead? It's Yorke's childlike, fragile voice, it's lyrics that always address an issue or event, but never directly, always leaving space for interpreting it in any way (which you may like or not), it's will to risk and experiment with anything, but determination not to repeat the story on two albums, even if it makes them wait for years between albums.
Along that line, successor to "Amnesiac", "Hail to the thief", had guitar and electro music almost rhythmically switching on album; it was more a collection of good songs they wrote meanwhile, than a finished concept; it was not a milestone album, brought by the realization that they have proven capable of making milestone albums, so they don't need to anymore.
Recently, Thom Yorke's solo "The Eraser" is playing in my CD. It fills me with hope for new Radiohead release: it's a simple electro album of melodic, almost conventional songs, it's unpretentious. It feels like Yorke is spending his conventional stuff and keeping other, surprising and new stuff, for Radiohead. It's just like an album that Radiohead would make if they were an ordinary group, and it feels like that's the reason why it's not released as Radiohead album. Because Radiohead is not an ordinary group.
It fills me with great expectations.