I want and maybe even desperately need to scrounge together a new real post soon (but God, when will there be time?), but while you (all? two? no one?) wait for that, here’s a post of recycled material, just for the sake of keeping this techno-diary going, and for another sake…
1. That is to say, the sake of posterity. Back in the summers of 2006 and 2007, I wrote movie reviews for a free weekly paper in Helena, Montana called Queen City News, after bringing to their attention the fact that their syndicated Christian Science Monitor reviews didn’t really represent a local perspective. QCN, basically the one-woman operation of notable Helenan Cathy Siegner, ceased publishing last December (a sad event, as it was the only alternative to evil conglomerate Independent Record), and I’m a bit worried that its website will disappear along with it and that the number of results a Google search of my name yields will be accordingly depleted. So from time to time I’m going to republish my old movie reviews here, sans editorial retrospection. Mortified as I am by most things I wrote in my late teens and early twenties, my movie reviews seem alright and sufficiently publishable in hindsight, probably because my only intention in writing them was to get as close to the writing style of my then-even-more-so-than-now idol Roger Ebert. I really spared no effort in that pursuit, and it shows.
A Prairie Home Companion
July 20, 2006
She sees the president speakin’
On a flat screen TV
In the window of the old appliance store
She turns to see her brother again
But he’s already walkin’ past
The flags of freedom flyin’
So goes a verse from Neil Young’s new protest album Living with War. With a nod to modern technology, Young inserts a 21st century lexicon into the tried-and-true tradition of the folk song, and the result is no different than when Woody Guthrie sang about ten dollar shoes to fit his feet. Well, A Prairie Home Companion is kind of like that, an exquisite union of old and new under a grand banner of American tradition.
For those who have missed out on this peculiar and much-loved piece of American tradition, A Prairie Home Companion is Robert Altman’s film adaptation of Garrison Keillor’s long running radio show of the same name. But as those two iconic names can guarantee, it is more than just a filmed version of a radio show. It is a seamless blending of fact and fiction and comforting Americana, a patient and loving film.
The show is based out of the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, that singular state where stubborn people cling to the cold earth, living for those rare moments of humor and song. Keillor, lovingly called GK by his cast and crew, provides those moments for many with his show. Altman does the same for a potentially larger audience with his film, and it is a layered piece of work in which in one is never sure where reality ends and where the film begins, or where the film ends and the radio show begins, for that matter.
The film finds GK and his cast in the midst of the last show of their 30-year run. It seems they’ve just been bought out by a humorless businessman with lots of money. The cast of characters includes Kevin Kline as Guy Noir, a bumbling detective who recalls an even earlier and just as beloved time in American radio. Other actors, Meryl Streep and John C. Reilly in particular, prove themselves impressive singers and performers, on top of their already established screen presences. Lindsay Lohan shines as Lola Johnson, the daughter of Streep’s Yolanda, who could possess all the talents of her mother, but opts instead for a busy and cynical life. Once again, we are witness to a certain down-home tradition ending and a new era beginning.
The film is chock full of Altman’s trademark overlapping dialogue and cluttered sets. Now in his 80s, the director takes his time, letting his camera linger on a scene as we soak in the abundant humanity and slowly let our eye drift to where the real point of interest lies. Another Altmanesque element is the character of the Dangerous Woman, a sort of ghost/angel/femme fatale presence, played by Virginia Madsen. Like the bird man in Brewster McCloud or the third woman in 3 Women, she is the mysterious entity who unites the film’s diverse elements and gives it another level of reality. She is one of our entry points, if only because we share her genuine and somewhat removed fascination with a little subculture putting on its show.
There’s a joke in the movie that goes like this: Two penguins are sitting on an ice floe, and one says to the other, “It looks like you’re wearing a tuxedo.” The other says, “How do you know I’m not?” That’s the joke. A character responds not with laughter but by asking, “Why is that funny?” and GK doesn’t quite know. That’s a good analogy for the film in general. It is warm and lovely and charming, and it’s not my place to go about explaining why. I can only say that if you’re the sort of person who responds to such things, you’ll love it.
June 10, 2007
[This one went unpublished for some reason—probably a good one, as, judging from the original Word document's properties, I spent only an hour and 58 minutes on this flimsy-ish prose.]
Ocean’s Thirteen is yet another threequel in a summer dominated by threes, but this one is actually wise to its sequel status. The financial success of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s franchise has always been modest enough to leave open the possibility that he’s not merely in it for the money, and here’s another entry that is good enough on its own terms to justify its existence. One character says, “You can’t do the same gag twice. You have to do a new gag.” The movie is not only full of new gags, but it also has a fresh approach to a familiar genre.
By this point, George Clooney can phone in the charm and still give a good performance, and in Ocean’s Thirteen, he’s back with his gang of likable criminals for another heist. This time he’s up against Las Vegas hotel owner Willy Bank, played by Al Pacino with equal amounts genuine threat and self-parody. It’s a fun performance, but his very name suggests that he’s more symbol than character, so he can never be taken too seriously.
Some critics have called this film the death of the heist movie, but it’s not really a heist movie at all. It uses the possibilities of the genre for its cinematic sleight of hand. Nor is it much interested in its characters except as pawns in its well-oiled machine. The whole thing plays like an extended opening sequence, seemingly indifferent to its audience, building texture upon texture. At the outset, there’s an inexplicable malaise of shoptalk and cinematic tricks.
It takes a while to warm up to what the movie’s after, to notice that conversations span scenes, or to soak in the beautiful interior spaces of the hotel, which flash by too fast for us to admire their grandiosity and absurdity. The film may rely a bit too much on bright colors, funky music, aerial shots, following shots, dollies in and out, but it’s not a case of style over substance: its style is its substance.
The movie understands that the traditional heist picture doesn’t really fit in today’s world. Take a movie like the 1955 French caper Rififi, which certainly stands as the best heist movie I’ve seen. Its centerpiece is an entirely wordless 20 minutes in which four men break into a bank in the dark of night and take off with the loot. The scene is thrilling in its enormous patience, the men so diligent in their occupation that we applaud and root for them.
Ocean’s Thirteen, on the other hand, probably lacks any scene longer than a minute, but this is not its deficiency. Ocean’s men are up against the digital age, and a casino that’s constantly monitored by an artificial intelligence. Their heist is not one large action, but an infinite number of small actions. It’s also encouraging to see a summer actioner where the characters get what they want not with guns and violence but with confidence and intelligence. Ocean’s men are wisely pegged as “analog players in a digital world.”
That’s not to say that the film has a conscience. The heist is an entirely selfish act, without even a Robin Hood morality to its credit. One particularly funny scene shows Ocean and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) tearing up at an episode of Oprah, even as they plan their next move. Their social consciousness is extremely fleeting, and the movie is never more than pure escapism.
Sure, it’s as fun as ever to watch attractive famous people having fun, which is primarily what these movies are about. But more than the first two, this is art cinema masquerading as a summer blockbuster, using a familiar formula as a backdrop for its bag of tricks. In the words of one character, “It plays.”
2. I found dozens of old unused album covers—made between April and June 2005 (you can imagine how much I cared about the end of high school) with the great obsolete Microsoft program Picture It!—on my family’s dusty hard drive back in January. Here’s a sampling of my past work, as curated by my present self.
3. I can never figure out what makes me the person I am today as opposed to the person I was then (like, is that era of my life really over? is that situation less me than this one?), so I consider this post relevant.