2018: Year-End Review
Much like Nicholas Felton's totally awesome and inspiring Annual Report, I've always wanted to write up a personal year-end summary of the things that I did, consumed, and accomplished that year. Below is my first attempt, which summarizes 2018. Hopefully I keep up this tradition and, 60 years from now, my kids have many of these to read.
Review: Jean-Luc Godard's Film "Contempt"
"Contempt" (1963) is a movie that has lots to say, but very little interest in communication. It's like an angry child who could get what he wants if he agrees to stop pouting and talk it out. The film is pure arrogance and, well, contempt. For what? Hollywood, Americana, film dogma, storytelling, authority, and anything else you've got to offer.
It's not easy to enjoy, though it has it's moments. The second act, during which the film's couple argue in their apartment, is pretty fascinating. The camerawork during this 30-minute scene is interesting enough on its own, but the dialog is what stands out. The seemingly happy couple are suddenly headed straight for divorce, and we're never really told why, though we have a few hints to go on. The way Godard's actors play the scene is wonderful, with a perfect degree of subtly and artificial detachment. The rest of the film is mostly unengaging and confusing. We're never sure what it is Godard is trying to say, if anything. Acts one and three of the film feel aimless, yet always on the verge of something special. Funny enough, I think Godard would agree with me on these points.
Review: Jean-Luc Godard's Film "Breathless"
"Breathless" (1960) is completely uninterested in impressing its audience. It is the epitome of self-indulgence, of self-obsession, of even solipsism. And the exact same things can be said of the characters. No one listens to anyone else, only to themselves. Michel at one point acknowledges this, saying, "When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other." It reminds me of the Kurt Cobain lyric, "I don't care what you think unless it is about me." Appropriately, the name of that song is "Drain You," and that's exactly what the characters in this film do to each other.
The dialog is fascinating. No one talks to communicate anything. No one shares information we need to understand the story. It's best described as stream of consciousness blabber, ripe with non sequiturs. But, unlike a Tarantino film, you don't get the impression the dialog is meant to impress us with its sheer aimlessness. It's just completely authentic and honest, and uninterested in serving a purpose. And that's what is so fascinating about this film: how real these people are in front of us, how they just exist. You certainly feel like a fly on the wall, especially in Patricia's bedroom, listening to a naive young couple interact.
The film's tone and structure is just as scatterbrained. One minute it's a genre film about a killer on the run (complete with the appropriate score) and the next it's a character study about young lovers. It's genre fusion, without trying to be.
Bottom-line: It reminds you that the world in which a film exists doesn't have to be separate than the real world. That fascinating fiction can still live and breathe in reality. It's 90 minutes of hanging out with fascinating and beautiful people, with a filmmaker who demands that you meet him on his terms, with a tone and structure that is utterly unique and perfectly rough. I loved it.
Review: Rickey Gervais & Stephen Merchant's Show "Extras"
"Extras" is such a rare show. It's hilarious, but it's also utterly authentic, and it really cares about its characters. It's never afraid to kill the comedic rhythm of the show to spend time with a character in distress, and to deal with that distress face on. It's a lot like Ricky Gervais' first brilliant series, "The Office," but far more subtle, far less interested in ending with a big laugh or in maintaining a strategic comedic structure. "Extras" has a very Wes Andersonesque feel. Gervais, and his co-creator Stephen Merchant, much like Anderson, show a masterful control of tone.
The preface of the show is a brilliant move, allowing Gervais and Merchant to capitalize on their past successes and bring in big name film stars who, along with the rest of the world, fell in love with "The Office." My problem with the preface, strangely enough, is that, unlike virtually every other television show I've ever enjoyed, "Extras" has not a single constant set or location. There's something about always being in the same place every episode that makes you feel at home through the life a show. "The Office", for example, is so much about the physical location that it becomes one of the characters. This is missing from "Extras", since "Extras" hardly ever shoots in the same place twice.
This point aside, Gervais went less commercial, smaller, less obvious, and ever more character driven in his follow up. I can only imagine how daunting it must be to have to compete with a show as brilliant as "The Office". Nonetheless, they've done it, masterfully.
Review: Quentin Tarantino's Film "Jackie Brown"
Jackie Brown" (1997) is the red-headed step child on Tarantino's resume. He made the world his oyster with "Pulp Fiction" and chose to follow it up with a small and obscure homage to 70's blaxploitation films. It's unlike anything else Tarantino has done. It's subtle, subdued even. It's the most character-driven of his films. And it's wonderfully self-indulgent.
Before "Jackie Brown," few people remembered Pam Grier and Robert Forester (the film's two stars). No one wanted to see a modern day blaxploitation film. And no one wanted to see Robert Deniro play a dull, lifeless schlub. No one but Tarantino, that is. And he made it all so cool, so stylized and sexy, that everyone wondered why no one had done this all before.
I love the ultra-violence in Tarantino's other films, and I love how over-the-top dramatic they are. But I feel closer to this film than his others, because he doesn't use either of these techniques. The film is his own personal love letter to a very specific type of movies and actors he adored growing up. You leave the film in awe at how well he mimics, yet at the same time modernizes, the blaxploitation genre.
As far as I'm concerned, a great director doesn't need a plot. What is happening matters so much less than how it's happening, because storytelling is all about the skill and style of the storyteller. And not since Stanley Kubrick or Francois Traffaut has anyone understood that better than Quentin Tarintino.
Review: David Simon's TV Show "The Wire"
"The Wire" will always be a show about defeat.
The show's thesis statement is that, in the world in which the series takes place, no one wins, one side merely loses more slowly (this is, in fact, one of the many quotable lines from the show).
"The Wire" portrays the inner city of Baltimore (and, by extension, every major crime and poverty stricken metropolitan area in the United States) as being culturally annexed from the rest of the country. The complexity of the problems which face Baltimore -- everything under the sun -- is so intricate and advanced that, in reality, none of the normal rules and regulations realistically apply. Murders are tolerated, for no other reason than there simply isn't the man power to stop them. Drug dealing is excused. Police chiefs are allowed to "juke" their crime stats. Senators are permitted to accept dirty money to fund their campaigns. The reality of the situation has, in fact, slowly but surely evolved the laws and common practices of an entire city (one that is housed within a first-world, uber-civilized nation) in order to reach something resembling decency.
For example, Omar, the shows ghetto Robin Hood who makes a living killing and robbing drug dealers (though not necessarily in any attempt to bring justice to the world) is allowed to more or less roam free -- the police leave him alone, and even lend him a hand from time to time. His murders and thefts are overlooked, because he's not hurting "taxpayers." This is roughly where the line is drawn. Dealers can kill dealers, but they can't kill citizens outside "the game." Thus, to some extent, the show portrays a degree of moral relativity that the city has created out of necessity. They've rewritten the books without ever picking up a pen. But the key here is that as long as it is possible to pretend that Baltimore is following the same rules as everyone else -- as long as everyone can still choose to see the situation as they wish -- everything is fine. Just don't, for God's sake, acknowledge reality. In fact, when one of the characters -- an earnest police commander, one of the show's few wholly positive figures -- attempts to get the city to formally endorse the legalization of drugs in certain parts of town (in an attempt to reduce violent crimes related to maintain drug dealing turf, which it immediately does), he is promptly fired (after decades of service) and has his pension reduced. He acknowledged reality, and then he forced everyone else to do the same.
My argument here is that the problems have become so advanced, that fixing them is no longer a viable option, and those who try will end up causing more work and complexity by the time he's done. The point is to maintain the lines that have been drawn. The dealers are allowed to operate in certain parts of town, to kill each other, but they have to follow the informal rules that have been established over the years. So, in effect, no one wins, one side just loses more slowly.
Each side of the equation is a part of the same society, and the society at large is slowly crumbling. There are no heroes, no winners. Those that make it to the top -- the police chiefs and mayors and drug lords -- just have all the higher to fall from. And fall they will, probably by the end of the season. No one is immune. Because "The Wire" sees this struggle as doomed from the beginning. Slowly but surely the world is devolving, and each year the infected area swells just a little. It's a plague. And perhaps worst of all, people are getting rich off it. Maintaining the status quo has made careers. Those willing to turn their heads, or even jump right into the deep end, like the show's most dubious character of all Senator Clay Davis, often stay atop the mountain for the longest. So what does the show offer as a solution. This is where "The Wire" shines, as it offers no solution. The show is smart and complex enough to realize that there is no single solution, no single cause of the city's matrix of trauma. In this sense the show is very much like a Gus Van Sant film.
Below is my favorite all-time moment in "The Wire" -- possibly my favorite moment in television history. It's about taking a problem and stripping away all of its context that feels so important, and then just focusing on this: you want it to be one way, but it's the other way. It's that simple. Meditate on that. Accept it. That is life.
Review: Terry Zwigoff's Film "Crumb"
The best films revolve around the most interesting people. Of all the films I've seen, none allow me to spend time with a more fascinating person than Robert Crumb, a comic book artist, "the Brueghel of the last half of the 20th century" says one art critic in the film. His drawings are like nothing you've ever seen: crazy, sadistic, perverted, and, above all, wildly offensive. But no matter who you are and how much your stomach turns when you see them, you can't look away, can't deny that they are impossibly special.
Most people this talented are either terribly introverted--and as a result horrible subjects for a film--or completely uninterested in letting a documentary film crew follow them around. But sometimes the stars align and out comes a film like this. The story goes that Terry Zwigoff, the film's director and Crumb's close friend, was depressed and defeated in the mid-1980s. Legend has it that Zwigoff made Crumb agree to the film by threatening to shoot himself. Of course, in this case, as in many cases, legend isn't actually true (this turned out to be a rumor accidentally started by Roger Ebert). But, as Tony Wilson says in the fabulous "24 Hour Party People," "Given the truth or the legend, always print the legend," so this is the way I like to think the film came about.
The documentary mostly involves Crumb chatting about his work and his life and spending time with his family, friends, and fans. And while that doesn't sound especially riveting, it is. The parts of the film I enjoy the most are those with Crumnb's two brothers, Charles and Max.
Charles is a forty something recluse who hasn't done much else with his life than ingest heavy doses of antidepressants and read upstairs in his mother's house surrounded by cats. It's clear from the very first moment we meet him that Charles is fiercely intelligent and terribly broken. He knows it to. Charles talks to the camera about wanting to bludgeon Robert over the head when they were children out of jealousy. Robert finds this amusing and laughs in the corner of the room as the camera pans over to get his reaction. The two have a strange bond. We learn that Charles got Robert, and the rest of the family, interested in comics. In fact, he demanded they dedicate their lives to little else when they were children; they even ran a makeshift publishing company. But as cute as this sounds, a bunch of kids writing comics, it's clear that it was anything but. Charles had an unhealthy obsession with, among other odd things, comics, and he demanded perfection, especially from Robert who admits that he still seeks Charles' approval. After meeting Charles, we get the distinct impression that something terrible happened to him and his brothers when they were children. Maybe it wasn't one specific event, but a series of events. Robert found a way to deal with it, which explains his work. Charles didn't, which explains his life or lack thereof. We never find out exactly what was so horrible about their up bringing, though it's clear their father had something to do with it.
Next we met Max Crumb, who only confirms our suspicion of terrible childhood experiences. Max looks a little younger than Robert and is just a step above homeless, living in what looks to be a one bedroom apartment where he sits on beds of nails and passes pieces of fabric through his intestines by swallowing them whole. While Charles is broken and defeated, Max is upbeat and psychotic. He tells distributing stories of his inability to control himself around women in public and shows us his artwork which, while clearly not without merit, looks like something that came out of a physc ward.
The more we understand about Robert's past and his family, the more interesting his work becomes. Once you get the full picture, Robert's work takes on a third dimension, as it becomes clear that he isn't just someone trying to get attention by drawing distributing pictures. Rather, you can see that the work is genuine and therapeutic, that it is self-medication. We rarely see Robert sitting without a pen and pad in front of him, scribbling away. He doesn't appear to have much control over what comes out. He's a conduit.
Yet, his work isn't purely cathartic. It also argues a specific worldview, which sees modern humanity as utterly sick and evil. His wife, who shares a similar vantage point, tells the camera of a time she visited a friend and watched in awe as the woman's fat pre-teen son sat in a giant football-helmet-shaped chair mesmerized by a video game in front of him. This is how Robert sees the world, especially Americans -- as people who lack any sense of "intellectual curiosity."
You leave the film with a dark and haunting feeling that's hard to understand. It's like everyone in the film knows some terrible secret that explains everything: where Robert's talent and work comes from and why the Crumb's are so destroyed. But revealing the secret, or even confirming that one exists, is absurd and not the point. The point is to get by, by sitting on nails, swallowing selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, and drawing women without heads. And sure, it leaves the audience rather hollow and frustrated to never get the answer, but it makes for a perplexing and ominous film that sticks with you for days. As Robert would say, "How perfectly god damned delightful it all is, to be sure."
Review: Ondi Timoner's Film "Dig!"
In one of the opening scenes of DiG!", (2004) Matt Hollywood screams at Anton Newcombe, "In every spiritual tradition, you burn in hell for pretending to be God and not being able to back it up!" If there was a thesis statement for "DiG!," then Hollywood has hit the nail on the head.
"DiG!" is a documentary that was nine years in the making about two American bands you may very well have never heard of: the Brian Jonestown Massacre (BJM) and the Dandy Warhols (The Dandies). In the mid-1990's, both bands were, unlike most others, playing music that didn't sound like Pearl Jam or Nirvana. They were each doing something different, and even though they didn't sound remotely like one another, they enjoyed each others company and admired each others work. They were friends and they had big naive plans of starting a musical revolution. Early in the film, Anton Newcombe, the lead singer of the BJM and the film's crazed star for the most part, stares into the camera and exclaims, "I'm here to destroy this fucked up system. I will do it. That's why I got the job. I said let it be me; I said use my hands. I will use our strength. Let's fuckin' burn it to the ground."
The film is full of these fabulous quotes from Newcombe, who is hell bent on making ground-breaking music and destroying everyone who gets in his way. Problem is: Anton is the person who most often gets in Anton's way, so he spends most of his life destroying himself. Anton seems to be split right down the middle: he wants to become a commercial success while at the same time despising the thought; he understands he needs band mates to play the other instruments but would much prefer if he could do it all himself; he wants to change music forever but wants nothing to do with the American music scene. And so, most of the film is about Anton running in circles and beating the shit out of himself. He fights endlessly with everyone in his life, often on stage during performances. In one scene, Anton picks a fight with his band mates during a gig at the Viper Room, in front of an audience of record executives from Elektra who are ready to sign him. He fights with his fans who aren't quiet or respectful enough during his performances. He fights with his producers for not having the patience to do punch-in after punch-in late into the night. He fights and fights and fights and, at the end of the day, he's left with nothing but his self-produced and distributed albums that only a handful of people ever hear and all agree are nothing short of brilliant.
The Dandies, on the other hand, refer to themselves as the "most adjusted band in America." They sign a deal with Capitol Records and soon become a hit in Europe and eventually America. They understand what it takes to deal with record executives and inner band squabbles and, as their careers take off, they watch in awe as the BJM set themselves on fire again and again. As the film rolls on, the two bands pull further and further apart, so much so that, by the end, it almost feels like a scripted drama about the "right" and "wrong" ways to start and run a rock band.
Going into the movie I had never heard of either band, nor the director (Ondi Timoner), and I recognized hardly any single person involved (aside from David LaChapelle or Harry Dean Stanton, both of whom make brief cameos). It's not one of those documentaries where you have to know or care about the band beforehand to enjoy the ride (like "loudQUIETloud: A Film about the Pixes" or "I Am Trying to Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco."). The film is more about being young and talented and crazy in America in the late 20th century, and it captures the essence of this brilliantly. For The Dandies, it's about watching a smart band go from nothing to something. For the BJM, it's about watching a talented group of musicians run into brick walls, proving it's not all about sheer talent.
By the time the credits rolled, I found myself almost numb with awe at how crazy Anton really was. You hear stories of crazy artists, but seeing it with your own eyes is something entirely different. It makes you realize that there really are people who live on earth but not in reality, people that are brilliant at a single thing and hopelessly terrible at everything else. And as said as that is, it sure makes for a great documentary.
Review: Toby Young's Book "How to Lose Friends & Alienate People"
There are three things you should know about Toby Young.
First, he's a little shit.
Second, he has a passionate fetish for self-destruction.
Third, he's probably a genius.
With these powers combined, Young dove head first into the creme de la creme of the New York elite (as a contributing editor for Vanity Fair) and intentionally shit on every upper crust carpet he could find. He infuriated the biggest and the brightest, embarrassed himself, his friends, his employer, his country, and burned every bridge he's ever laid eyes on. In the end, no matter how talented, there is only one thing Young is good for: a tell all memoir where his uncouth tendencies and desire for dirt-dishing works to his advantage. In this book he shines.
If you have an interest in the fashion, publishing, or publicist world, this book will take you inside Conde Nast (or Conde Nasty as Young calls it) and give you a tell-all glimpse (that Young swears is 99% genuine) of how crazy it all gets. For that alone the book is worth reading. In addition, however, you'll also get a host that describes unbelievable bourgeoisie events with brilliant skill and humor. The book is hard to put down. (Of course, Young will not only get on your nerves, he'll make you want to reach into the pages and twist his bloody neck. But that's all part of the fun.)
All in all, an interesting, highly-accessible book that I enjoyed. I recommend it.
Review: Stephen Chbosky's Book "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"
A high school nobody who we know only as "Charlie" (we never learn his real name) has a fetish for detail and nostalgia. He looks at reality from a unique point of view, though he's not sure why. He's strange, awkward, quiet, and bursting with good intentions.
"Charlie" is also painfully naive (he talks a lot like Andy Warhol did, except Warhol was being naive for effect).
At first, "Charlie's" naivete is cute. Before long, it gets tedious. Then, right when you think you can't take it anymore and you're going to toss the book at the next passing bus, you realize that there's something terribly wrong here. You realize that this isn't bad writing on Chbosky's part, but rather Charlie's objective and callow approach to life is not just strange and annoying, it's scary. Scary in the sense that there might be something very wrong with "Charlie." Much like "Charlie," however, you aren't sure what or even why you're getting this impression.
I knew nothing about this book going in. I didn't know it was insanely popular, or that it is listed by the American Library Association as being one of the Top Banned Books in the United States. I knew simply that it was a series of letters from a less-than-perfect kid growing up in Pennsylvania. At first glance, it looked a lot like Joe Meno's book "Hairstyles of the Damned", which I adored.
As I got deeper and deeper into the book, it slowly evolved from a reasonably well-written teenage angst melodrama to a dark and utterly terrifying tale of horror that I couldn't put down. By the time I turned the last page, I was floored.
This is not a book to read the first 100 hundred pages of and then set aside (which you might very well be compelled to do). It is a book that you have to finish in order to understand. The end will explain the beginning and middle. It will also rip out your heart and lie it in front of you.
I loved this book. I wish I had never read it so I could read it again.
Review: Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation"
There's only so much we can do with words, and sophomore director Sofia Coppola understands this above all.
In her brilliantly and gently crafted Lost in Translation" (2003), she entrusts only her character's eyes with the responsibility of communicating themselves to the audience: their complexity; their inner anguish; their utter confusion; their growing apathy. Coppola understands the maximum potential in minimalist storytelling. She understands how cheap, manipulated and abused some of us feel with cookie-cutter solutions and emotionally (and logically) inadequate endings. Most importantly though, Coppola understands that, more often than not, there is no solution to our problems, no plug for our gaping holes -- and thazt's ok.
"Does it get any easier?" asks Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson). "No." replies Bob (Bill Murrary). "Lost" is the movie that cuts you down to your emotional quick; locking you in deep with Charlotte and Bob from the very beginning and never letting you go. It exposes the cosmetic surface upon which so many of us are forced to operate and it introduces us to two people that sympathize with our feelings of emptiness and confusion. It's wonderful.
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