Sunday, August 26, 2018


It's beyond pathetic that some critics are saying BlackkKlansman is Spike Lee's greatest film. It's not even in the same universe as Do the Right Thing. The script is clunky, the acting pedestrian and the filmmaking entirely unexpressive. Slapping on footage of Charlottesville and Trump at the end doesn't come close to rescuing this.

And speaking of clunky, Crazy Rich Asians.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The loneliness of the long-distance ranters

Krugman, as usual, is right. What this piece raises but doesn't quite nail, though, is the emotional locus of both the political rage and the self-help snake oil. Both come out of and speak to low self-esteem, isolation, loneliness. Murdoch and his brethren -- Limbaugh et al. -- saw a market opportunity in monetizing that sadness. They saw a nation of people living lives of quiet desperation -- people who not only lack hope but are socially atomized, who need something to fill the long hours of their days.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

One out of three ain't bad

Just want to park a few reactions to recent films I've seen.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a big disappointment -- especially since Martin McDonagh made the wonderful In Bruges. The whole thing is inauthentic. There isn't a real character in it, just an assemblage of posits -- which extends to the titular community. It's a schematic chess game that feels as ungrounded as Antonioni's Zabriskie Point. Maybe McDonagh, too, can only make movies about his native land.

Eighth Grade, in contrast, is excellent. The characters are fully imagined, which frees Bo Burnham and the cast to be improvisational and tenderly vulnerable. The social media schtick is perfectly serviceable, but it's not what really matters here.

Sorry to Bother You is another dud. Incomprehensibly praised as a clever social satire, it's sophomorically crude and clunky. Lakeith Stanfield is an appealing performer, and his charm and chops keep us watching. But there's no serious idea about the world here, and no amount of charm can overcome the middle-school happy-with-itself-ness.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Reading Trump

Interesting comment from someone on a segment of CNN this afternoon. He said that Trump is "illiterate" when it comes to security briefings. This triggers the thought that narcissism is a block to reading comprehension in general. A narcissist like Trump isn't just incapable of imagining the existence of other human beings. He is also deeply uncomfortable in any moment that is not entirely focused on him. Well, when you read something, you're opening yourself up to something external, something other. I suspect that the very act of reading makes Trump anxious, and that if it goes on for more than a few seconds, that anxiety rises to the level of terror. He physically cannot stand to pay attention to the words on the page. His disinclination to read has been characterized as stupidity or laziness. I think it's fear.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Fantastuck - updated

Why is it that movies fail at metadrama? To be sure, the medium prevents the immediacy of self-reference of live theater. There is no shared present event when the thing was filmed at a previous time, and when the performance can't change for each audience. Still, it's always been puzzling to me that even when metadramatic plays are put on film, the filmmakers feel compelled to avoid self-reference. Movies maintain the fourth wall in ways live theater does not -- even highly "realistic" plays like those of Ibsen or Chekhov.

Case in point, the 1995 Michael Ritchie film of The Fantasticks, which I just watched on cable. Why would one not open with "Try to Remember," which is the show's invitation into this self-consciously theatrical fable -- not to mention its establishment of El Gallo as the play's stage manager/narrator (a la Our Town)? The song's closing word, "follow," means, "watch what comes next, watch this play." If you save it for the end, as Ritchie does, you lose all the metadrama.

Similarly with Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd. Why eliminate "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd"? Is there some rule they teach you in film school to avoid audience address? Is it somehow regarded as unavoidably comic -- a la Ferris Bueller or Wayne's World?

Not that the Ritchie film is completely lacking in skill. It actually handles the fragile hip sentimentality of the show reasonably well. It doesn't cloy -- but neither does it take flight. It's dutiful, not beautiful.

Is there something about film that prevents it from being about itself? Or, rather, that prevents it from being about us? Does the screen have to be a wormhole to another world? Can it never deliver immediacy and presentness? Does any attempt to do so inevitably feel phony, rather than intense?

I need to watch Purple Rose of Cairo again.

Update: To wit (pun intended), I watched Mike Nichols's embalmed Angels in America, lavishly produced for HBO in 2003, and it doubles down on my point -- film (or television) doesn't know how to do metatheater. In fact, the production is so flaccid that it exposes the limits of Kushner's play. Contra Frank Rich's and John Leonard's claims, it really is dated. The comedy Kushner found in mashing up tragedy, religion, politics and sitcom domesticity in 1993 now feels less bold than cutesy.

Still, the play deserves better than this, better than Nichols, who anesthetizes everything he touches.

Of the over-the-top encomia the HBO production received, the closest to understanding its failure was The New Yorker's review. It sidles up to a metadramtic understanding of theater. Franklin correctly notes the miscasting (Pacino's scenery chewing, Emma Thompson's utter incapacity to be awe-inspiring, Shenkman's lack of a center), the sheer silliness of the play's idea of heaven, its talkiness (without the genuine wit of Shaw or Stoppard). What's a bit surprising, given her main thesis, is that she doesn't mention how utterly Prior's and Harper's direct address to the screen at the end fails. When Kushner's characters spoke directly to the audience in the theater in 1993, it had real urgency and immediacy. The world of New York theater was the epicenter of the population that lived the plague. The tourists in the building were the guests -- the equivalents of Joe's mother who were still uncomfortable with the idea of homosexuality. The play thus had the immediacy of a political meeting and a funeral among endangered citizens (which is why it begins with a funeral). All of that is lost with the passage of time, and the absence of a shared space and event.

In film and on TV, the fourth wall holds firm. Where's a zombie dragon when we need one?

Monday, June 25, 2018


I haven't seen enough of Kenneth Branaugh's films to make sweeping generalizations -- but, on the other hand, this is my blog and nobody can call me to account. So... he's an empty suit. His Hamlet was godawful, Oscar-worthy posturing without an idea in its pretty little head. His Much Ado was almost saved by Emma Thompson (though Keanu Reeves's Don John was a true joke). I didn't see Love's Labour's Lost, and I don't remember his Henry V -- but neither of those plays matter much, so who cared if he was inadequate to them?

On the other hand, I just watched half of his As You Like It, which is a mess. I wouldn't mind that he set it in 19th century Japan if that were even slightly expressive, but it isn't. The whole thing is directed with so little interest that it feels as though every scene we watch was the first and only take -- and without any live--performance energy or discovery. Kevin Kline's Jacques isn't melancholy, he's just bored. The whole thing is unwatchable.

The idea that Sir Kenneth played actual Laurence Olivier in a film is some kind of meta-travesty.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The fist meta-presidency

This is right. He creates "crises" to "solve" them. Trump is a political Mobius strip. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but erasure.