Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Over the past two years I’ve spent a lot of time immersed in the various avenues of learning to be plumbed in pursuit of a teaching credential and accompanying Master’s degree in cross-cultural education. During that period I have become familiar with a small percentage of the vast multitude of multiculturally oriented children’s literature available to young readers, much of which explores the roots of folkloric tradition for various ethnic groups and how those traditions reflect upon and can be applied to life in the modern world for members of these groups. The relevance for the literature’s primary audience, those in the fourth to sixth grades, couldn’t be more obvious. Much of the intent of introducing children to aspects of their heritage in picture and chapter books devoted to tradition and generational consistency of values is to challenge the idea of America as a melting pot-- that is, a culture created from the globular sum of the dissolution of specific cultural touchstones, beliefs and practices-- in order to replace it with something more like a great salad bar of ethnicity, where each element that demarcates and defines an ethnic or racial culture contributes to the whole new culture, as it is perceived by participants and observers, without losing the unique flavor of each practice or sets of values as they are experienced or understood on their own.

The current trend in education toward leading children to embrace, examine and exult in the intricacies of their cultural heritage is, unlike so many others I can think of which seem to have the weight of educational bureaucracy behind them, a good one. And some of the best children’s books deal pointedly with ethnic mythology and history, pointing the way toward parallels between the subjects of the books and the lives of those reading about them in the classroom. But few have taken advantage of the opportunity to bridge the gap for today’s pop culture savvy young readers between ethnic history, societal reflections of that ethnicity, and how it applies to current values in media culture, to the degree that author Paula Yoo and illustrator Lin Wang seize in their new biography of the first Asian-American movie star, entitled Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story. It is a picture book of exemplary beauty, subtlety and insight that tells the story of an ambitious young girl in pursuit of stardom who deflects the demeaning elements of racial portraiture that were the inescapable reality of life as an actress of identifiable ethnicity in the early days of Hollywood, only to come to realize the importance of immersion in the culture of her origins and bringing to its depiction in films a measure of respect and authenticity where before there was only bigotry and thoughtless stereotyping.

Of course, keeping in mind the age group which composes Yoo and Wang’s target audience—roughly those readers from 9 to 12 years old—one doesn’t come to Shining Star with the expectation of the typical intricacies of biographical presentation. Yoo has taken the bedrock significance of Wong’s life for descendants of first-generation Asian-Americans and artfully distilled from it the main theme that is of concern to her as an author— the tension between Wong’s desire for a career as an actress and the realities of how the Chinese were routinely depicted in the films she wanted to be in, and even the films she would eventually star in. There is a clarity of purpose about Yoo’s approach that makes Wong’s struggle a supremely expressive one for the lessons she wants to impart to her audience, and she does so while telling the story in a lively, page-turning style. The book opens up on a situation and an image—one of many created by Wang in paintings that evoke the dynamism and delicate beauty of the posters that would one day be used to advertise Wong’s movies—that will grab young readers with its audacity and surprise. Young Anna May is seen tied to a railroad track, seemingly in danger of losing her life under the wheels of an oncoming train. She is soon rescued, however, not by a dashing young hero who cuts her loose in the nick of time, but instead by the intrusive reality of her life working in her father’s steam laundry bursting through and overtaking what we soon realize has been a daydream.

Anna spends much of her free time at the movies watching scenarios like the damsel-in-distress scene playing out in serial melodramas. One day, while walking home in downtown Los Angeles, she stumbles upon a movie set and becomes fixated upon the process of moviemaking, a fixation that will give her life focus and direction beyond the walls of her father’s hard-scrabble business. And despite her father’s objections, she continues visiting sets and one day, a tall, teenaged Anna May is hired by the director of The Red Lantern (1919) as an extra, the first paying job of what would become a long professional career.

Yoo allows the reader to share in the excitement of Wong’s breakthrough, but she also craftily sets up a key ethical crisis soon after. Two years of extra work and an increasingly high profile among the Hollywood set leads to her first major part, cast as Lon Chaney’s wife in Bits of Life (1921). Wang’s two-page painting beautifully illustrates the dilemma Yoo introduces in her text—Anna May watching with disdain as Chaney dons his elaborate ”yellowface” makeup design, which includes the taping of his eyelids to better approximate (or exaggerate) almond-shaped Asian eyes and the application of powder, literally yellow powder, to his skin to complete the “transformation.” Yoo also recounts how Wong was not allowed a moment to kiss her “husband” onscreen because of prevailing Hollywood mores forbidding such interracial activity.

As Anna May wins more roles, most of which force her to take on the prevalent stereotypes of the day as defining characteristics of those roles, the image of her watching Chaney from across the dressing room begins to acquire a more painful resonance in the story. Eventually, the actress bristles against playing into such stereotyping and makes her way to Europe to star in British and German films. It is here, during her self-imposed separation from Hollywood, that she finally achieves the full-fledged stardom she once dreamed of working in her father’s laundry, a result of her participation in the British hit drama Piccadilly (1929). Now a movie star and a fashion icon for young girls of the day, the actress would enjoy several years of fame in Europe, including a scene-stealing role in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) in which she all but pulls the rug out from underneath established icon Marlene Dietrich.

Soon Anna May is lured back to Hollywood by the announcement of the impending film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth and the hope of landing the lead in what would be the film industry’s most positive depiction to date of the Chinese people and their struggles. However, the male lead having already been cast (Paul Muni, as Chinese farmer Wang Lung), the actress loses the part to Luise Rainer, cast as O-Lan over Wong in part because of those same restrictions against on-screen interracial interaction of an affectionate or sexual nature that have dogged her since the Lon Chaney film. In frustration, she decides that in order to help fight against the stereotyping of Asians in the movies, she must not only refuse to play any further such roles, but she must also reconnect with the values and culture of her father’s native land, and with him she returns to China, where she begins embracing and absorbing Chinese culture, philosophy, fashion, language learning and other aspects of everyday life in the country of her origin. She absorbs stories her father tells her of his struggles to survive and make a life for his family in America, and his hopes for her as a child of both America and China, and emboldened by this newfound connection with her roots and her family Anna May returns to Hollywood to embark on a lifelong career composed of roles and films that actively rejected the virulent stereotyping and bigotry that were a hallmark of the roles she willingly took on as her career began. Now Anna May Wong, the star, would devote her life to positive depiction of Asians, donating her own money to causes such as helping the Chinese people in the wake of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, and paving the way for generations of Asian-American actors and actresses who would suffer their own struggles and indignities to be sure, but who would owe an enormous debt to her pioneering efforts on their behalf.

As befitting a story told to young readers whose very purpose is that same kind of emboldening, enriched engagement with aspects of Chinese culture of which they may not be fully aware, Yoo chooses to end her text on this note of triumph. But unlike some authors of children’s literature who tend to want to put the happiest face on their subject, Yoo leaves the final page for a biographical overview of the years between 1937 and Wong’s death in 1961, years in which Wong was often excoriated by a suddenly more sensitive press (Caucasian as well as Asian) for her role in perpetuating the twin stereotypes of Asian femininity, the passively delicate flower and the dragon lady, even while such stereotyping, despite Wong’s efforts, hadn’t exactly vanished in a smoke puff of political correctness. It will be a bit of a relief for Yoo’s young audience to read that in recent years Anna May Wong’s reputation has begun a long, slow journey toward rehabilitation and she has been more frequently recognized more for what she helped make possible than the indignities in which she was often forced to participate. The author ultimately relates with great empathy her subject’s anguish at being “suspended between worlds” without ever betraying any of her own sense of anger on Wong’s behalf.

Shining Star is a standout for its age-appropriate readers and for a more mature audience as well, not only because it is beautifully mounted and anchored by Wang’s lovely paintings, and expertly paced and accented by Yoo’s considerable gifts as a storyteller—she is exceptionally talented at enveloping her readers with a sense of inclusiveness, a stake in the import of Wong’s life, without ever condescending to them in language or tone. Yoo has also made her source material remarkably accessible, thus facilitating the reader’s potential interest in following up on this biography with more sophisticated takes on Wong’s life and influence. This may be a more frequent occurrence than my limited exposure to children’s literature is able to recognize, but Yoo’s quite extensive and comprehensive bibliography, found in the book’s final pages, seems extraordinary to me. No less than five sources on Anna May Wong, the history of the Chinese in America, and Asians in media culture, all critical and biographical works of intelligence and repute, are cited with full bibliographical notations. I can easily imagine a sixth-grade reader, inspired by the introduction Yoo has afforded here, taking on one or more of these books and beginning a real eye-opening journey. But Yoo also cites the movies she saw to prepare for the writing of Shining Star-- the aforementioned Piccadilly as well as A Study in Scarlet (Edwin L. Marin; 1933) and Lady from Chungking (William Nigh; 1942), as well as acknowledging a panel discussion on Wong held at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre featuring moderator B. Ruby Rich, actresses Jacqueline Kim and Nancy Kwan, and authors Karen Leong and Graham Russell Gao Hodges.

What a wonderful fountain of information to not only ground Yoo’s credibility in her grasp of the facts and the sociopolitical reality of Wong’s career, but also to inspire young readers to make their own connections between Wong’s experience, that of their own favorite Asian actors or filmmakers (or any other ethnicity they might care to investigate), and perhaps their own experiences with racism and bigotry in their daily lives. One can happily imagine many young eyes being opened to the history of the struggles of any number of people in such an ostensibly glamorous profession as the movies through their exposure to the finely drawn biography that Paula Yoo and Lin Wang have fashioned in their frank, intelligent and fascinating book for young readers, Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story.


Here are Paula Yoo’s bibliographical sources:

Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961) by Anthony B. Chan

Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend by Graham Russel Gao Hodges

The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism by Karen J. Leong

Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, STage, Radio and Television Work by Philip Leibfried and Chei Mi Lane

The Chinese in America: A Narrative History by Iris Chang

You can also buy Piccadilly here or rent it on Netflix.

Jama Rattigan’s review of Shining Star is loaded with wonderful examples of Lin Wang’s evocative painted illustrations.

Richard Corliss offers an appreciation of Anna May Wong in Time magazine.

And Paula Yoo herself talks about her book and Anna May Wong in this interview:


Monday, June 29, 2009


Today the Los Angeles Times published a straight-faced piece on the box-office bonanza afforded Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen based around the premise that “rarely have critics been more disconnected from what audiences want and love” than over this movie. In the article, written by Times staff writer John Horn, Bay crows, "I think they reviewed the wrong movie. They just don't understand the movie and its audience. It's silly fun." Bay went on to surmise, of the nation’s critics who were almost uniformly dismissive of his baby, "I am convinced that they are born with the anti-fun gene. The reviews are just so vicious. A lot of them are more personal than anything else." Of course it’s not only dumb and illogical to assume, as Bay does, that just because the mass audience is bamboozled into buying your product to the tune of $204 million over the weekend that each and every ticket buyer was satisfied and got exactly what he or she wanted. Even the Times had to concede, on in a blog post later in the day, the shocking news that the director they termed an “audience darling” in the previous piece’s headline, may not be getting the best reviews from even the peanut gallery. Stories about Bay bemoaning the critical reaction to his junk-pile contraptions in the glow of all the filthy lucre pouring in over opening weekend are becoming as predictable as the negative critical reactions themselves. Almost like never before, actually seeing a Michael Bay movie has become a superfluous part of the Michael Bay media experience, and thank God for that.

Now, just when Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen has, if you believe this poor, mistreated director, captured the imagination of a public eager to be transported away and forget their troubles for two hours (that’s Bay paraphrased from the latest Los Angeles Times ad running before nearly every feature on every screen in the city), what better day then to re-release upon the huddled masses the razor-sharp observations of perhaps Michael Bay’s biggest, and certainly most articulate fan, Mike Gilbert?

The Mysterious Adrian Betamax, via his nifty film blog Cahiers2Cinema, has made his terrifically funny documentary Mike Gilbert On Cinema available once again—just in time, not only for the new Michael Bay, but the new Michael Mann as well!—and this time the MAB has included a brief set of hilarious outtakes that actually are hilarious and provide unique (and scary!) insight into the bubbling cauldron that is Gilbert’s runaway, free-associative mind. So if you can’t get those precious tickets to see TROTF, then just take a breath, press play and let Mike Gilbert spin the magic of a breathless fan experiencing those movies in his head—it’s even better, and maybe even funnier, than allowing a giant mechanical Transformer to pound on your head for 150 minutes.

Behold the one, the only, the dazzling original Mike Gilbert on Cinema!

And now come fly away as Mike flubs his bits and ranks on Jerry Maguire for having been shot in a lame aspect ratio.

Michael Bay, you may be an “audience darling,” but until you can spin a picture as mesmerizing as the ones Mike Gilbert can conjure… well, let’s just say you’re no Mike Gilbert.



Whenever we sit down to watch or otherwise get unexpectedly sucked into Leon Gast’s When We Were Kings, there always occurs a rift in our allegiance that is built in to the movie itself. There is the desire, which the movie shares, to follow the story of the “Rumble in the Jungle” and Muhammad Ali’s connection with/exploitation of the people of Zaire to boost his superhuman ego and build upon his confidence going into the fight while simultaneously undermining that of George Foreman. But there is also the element of the surrounding music festival which the movie uses as a framing device, one that is never allowed to become much more than that, leaving the viewer a tantalizing glimpse at the royal gathering of R&B musical giants assembled to celebrate this coming home of two African-American sports celebrities to their ostensible roots. For whatever reason—entangled publishing rights, unavailable footage, or a simple eye toward the movie’s running time—this jubilant, gyroscopically, sensually spectacular element of the movie, which hits the ground running with the Crusaders’ “Young Rabbits” and cruises straight through to James Brown’s extraordinary “Payback” and BB King’s “I Got Some Help I Don’t Need,” necessarily recedes into sidebar territory once the fight, and its mythologically tinged recounting, takes its final hold. But now those of us who have pined mightily to see the Zaire concert take center stage are going to get our wish. I’d seen it online before, but it wasn’t until I saw the trailer for Soul Power unspool on the big screen, before a showing of Tetro last night, that I began to get really excited for what promises to be one of the summer’s most enticing and electrifying filmed performances. If you get lucky you’ll see it that way too. But in case you don’t, here it is reduced to YouTube size, and still able to stir your heart even at your office desk. The movie hits American screens in limited release next weekend, July 10. As the Godfather once said, hit me!


Saturday, June 27, 2009


When I first moved to Los Angeles in 1987 my best friend Bruce and I were nosing around the Tower Video store in Sherman Oaks when suddenly, visible over the rise of the shelf cutting through the middle of the room, I saw the familiar visage of Michael Jackson—fedora, sunglasses, white surgical mask covering his nose and mouth—glide through my field of vision. The two of us couldn’t believe it was him—this was in the pre-Bad days, when the allegations of hyperbaric chambers and monkey BFFs and serial plastic surgery had really begun to overwhelm Jackson’s seemingly untouchable pop music legacy, and seeing him in the flesh carried with it its own degree of instant reality twisting, as if suddenly we were in a video store designed by Dr. Caligari. We tried to gawk in that way that would become all too familiar to me as a resident in a city where this kind of thing happens from time to time—that is, gawking while trying to seem not to gawk—but we were surely less subtle about it than we would like to have believed, especially when we turned the corner and realized that he had with him a young girl, probably about 10 years of age, towing along silently behind. And it was apparent that the staff and other customers were keeping their distance in the same way—no one approached or engaged him in any way, as far as I was able to notice. As we headed for the exit to the parking lot in back of the building Bruce and I were buzzing with the excitement of having seen somebody who, freak or no, until that moment literally seemed too big to really occupy a space in the same world in which we lived.

But when we got to our car in the tiny lot, which was only big enough to hold four or five cars, we realized there was a huge Mercedes parked squarely in the middle of the space, blocking in all of the cars that were legally parked there, including ours. I got in my car and honked the horn, but to no avail. One more honk got exactly the same response—none. So I got out and began to head toward the door back into the video store, where I was planning to request that the cashier ask whoever was so thoughtlessly parked to please move their vehicle. I got only a couple of steps from my car when suddenly Jackson, along with his mysterious companion (I’m sure she looked or behaved nothing like this, but I remember her much like the eerie Damian-esque little girl who unnerves Angie Dickinson in the elevator in Dressed to Kill), burst through the door. Without making eye contact he offered several apologies for blocking our way as he fumbled for his keys—and yes, I could now see that he was also wearing a pair of white gloves. Finally the two got in, backed out of the lot and drove away, leaving Bruce and I to stand in the lot briefly, dazed, and contemplate an entourage-less, security-less Michael Jackson trying to remain incognito in a video store, and the two of us calling attention to him in a way he probably least desired. The question that came up later was— Could Michael Jackson have reasonably expected, given this personage and look he had cultivated, to not be noticed? Or was he actually trolling for attention, some way of reconnecting to an everyday world that had no more place for him?

The death of Michael Jackson seemed unreal to many of us who spent Thursday afternoon, in the shadow of breathless reportage of his hospitalization and then confirmation of his death, talking about the various effects he had on our lives simply because, I think, for many of us Jackson, the performer, the pop icon we prefer to remember, had already faded away many years ago. The mind-bogglingly talented 11 year-old who belted out “ABC” and “I Want You Back;” the assured star who, in the face of a staggering fear of being rejected by audiences who missed that precocious miniature tornado of talent, unleashed Off the Wall, his purest and most directly thrilling record; even the moon-walking master of the world whose phenomenal success with Thriller eventually swallowed whole whatever remaining clarity and perspective he had about his place in the creative chain of pop culture—that person had not been in evidence for a good 20 years before the day of his death. Jackson’s public image of natural happiness and exuberant success, which had been his hallmark even in the pre-Off the Wall days when he experienced his first exposure to public indifference and plummeting record sales, had long since acceded to the unrecognizable man in the mirror, a man who turned his face into an ever-shifting landscape of modeling clay, who craved acceptance from the public but created an entangled tabloid-fed universe of bizarre behavior which assured only that he would amplify his isolation from the rest of the world.

The natural inclination in mourning the loss of a superstar of Jackson’s status—and honestly, beside Elvis, Sinatra and John Lennon, who else belongs in this club?—is to downplay the dark stuff and lionize the entertainer for the joy he gave to fans, for the emotion spilling out of some of us who figured we were long past such a reaction. But even if you accept this downplaying as the inevitable way of things (in a media age where even mourning can seem prefab), one could be forgiven if one concluded from the immediate coverage, certainly in Los Angeles, where people choked up traffic and swarmed the UCLA hospital where Jackson was admitted, and where people continue to stand vigil outside his Encino home, that the love affair between Jackson and the public had never ceased. For some, apparently, it didn’t. But for the rest of us (and I speak not entirely inclusively but as someone who assumes there must be a few out there who feel the same way), it seems there must be a way to acknowledge Jackson’s contributions to the shape and sound of pop music without also ignoring the paranoia, megalomania, fear and other disturbing aspects of the man’s personality (insofar as we knew it) that totally subsumed his image in the latter part of his life. It is, it seems to me, a disservice to what he may have meant to any of us to pretend, in the overemotional, sanctimonious terms of TV news, that his impact on us was limited only to his ability to transport us through song and dance, as much a disservice as it is for TMZ and the rest of the tabloid universe to relentlessly shovel his eccentricities at us by the minute as a form of "tribute." Somewhere there must be some middle ground, a way to acknowledge the things that thrilled us as well as the things that we found disturbing about Michael Jackson, to acknowledge the complexity without further stripping away at his corpse or deifying him beyond recognition.

Thoughts of Michael Jackson and what he meant to us have been stirring around over the last couple of days, naturally, and as I entered Dodger Stadium with my father-in-law and daughters last night I wondered if the Dodgers would somehow pay tribute to the star during the game. The tribute came in a surprisingly subtle way that was integrated very well into the atmosphere—Matt Kemp, Dodger center fielder, had replaced his usual at-bat music with a cut from Off the Wall, and various Jackson tunes could be heard pumping over the loudspeakers in between each inning. Finally, in between the end of the game and the procession of the usual Friday night fireworks show, as fans filed onto the field to watch the giant sparklers, the Dodgers put together a nice, simple clip reel featuring performances from the Jackson Five, Off the Wall, Thriller and even Bad. Though interspersed with off-the-cuff thoughts from various celebrities like Ashton Kutcher and Alyssa Milano projected as quotes on the DiamondVision screen, the clips were otherwise unadorned, uncommented upon, and a tonic in the wake of such bad, yet seemingly inevitable news. The fireworks themselves were accompanied by more Jackson tunes, and it really was surprising how good it was to hear them again thumping so loud against the night sky. There were reminders enough in the sound and video on display-- in seeing the face that had changed so radically, the voice that sounded so strong and confident resonating with our memories of how timid that voice seemed by comparison in simple speech-- that Jackson’s legacy is one marked by a complicated humanity, one borne of pressures and distortions of perception that we, if we are lucky, will never know. And if the media cannot contain their impulse to sanctify this man who they tended to openly mock a mere week earlier, then the best thing to do is ignore the constant news coverage of the weeping hordes outside the Jackson mansion and seek out intelligent considerations of the fullness of Jackson’s life, his triumphs and his uncomfortable oddities, available from writers like Jim Emerson and Seth Colter Walls, for starters, neither of whom shy away from Jackson’s dark side as they also acknowledge the light, and remembrances like those gathered Friday at The House Next Door and in Salon magazine. These are but a few of the sources for intelligent commentary and reaction to the legacy of Michael Jackson. For a direct line to the sheer pleasure the man was capable of conjuring, turn off your TV, cue up “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” turn it up loud and bid your farewell.


Thursday, June 25, 2009

FARRAH FAWCETT 1947 - 2009

"The latest sun is sinking fast, my race is nearly run
My strongest trials now are past, my triumph is begun
O come Angel Band, come & around me stand
O bear me away on your snowy wings to my immortal home
O bear me away on your snowy wings to my immortal home
I know I'm near the holy ranks of friends & kindred dear
I've brushed the dew on Jordan's banks, the crossing must be near
I've almost gained my Heavenly home, my spirit loudly sings
The Holy ones, behold they come, I hear the noise of wings
O bear my longing heart to Him who bled & died for me
Whose blood now cleanses from all sin & gives me victory"

-- The Stanley Brothers, "Angel Band"

Farrah Fawcett has died after a long battle with cancer. The actress and '70s sex symbol was 62. Her iconic image, seen above, from the heyday of her popularity as one of Charlie's Angels is one that graced the walls of many a boy my age; my original poster still hangs in a corner of my dad's garage to this day, and I hope it stays there a while longer, if only as a reminder to me of pop culture's staying power in the face of life's most insistent realities. Fawcett was never a great actress, but she was a restless and relatively ambitious one, and the critical triumphs over her feather-light image, in films like The Burning Bed and Extremities, and later in Robert Duvall's The Apostle, are reminders to us all that we never have to accept who everyone else says we are. May she enjoy the rest now that eluded her in the last years of her life.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Though I waited to see it on DVD, I have to admit that I enjoyed Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007) for what it was—big, loud, dumb fun, with an unexpected oddball performance by John Turturro thrown in the mix just to prove that not all the pleasures of the film were mechanical. But I also have to admit I have some severe reservations about seeing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the sequel directed by Mr. Bay which opens today in IMAX and on every other multiplex screen in the continental United States. I don’t mind not being the intended demographic for a movie like this—I am far too old for the original toys or cartoons to have meant anything to me, and I find the prospect of sitting through another 2½ hour-long Michael Bay extravaganza, in which the operative concept seems to have boiled down to bigger-louder-MORE!, less and less attractive with each passing hype-filled day. Yes, I know resistance is futile in the movie marketplace, but maybe just this once I’ll give it a try.

However, the read of the morning, perhaps of the rest of the week, is the spectacular collection of opening day reviews for TROTF gathered with the zeal of a good-humored completist and available under one roof-- Transformers: The Binge is Appallin’, courtesy of David Hudson at IFC Daily. Hudson gathers the best of the early reactions to Bay’s destruct-a-thon, and as you might hope, the writers collected here are having a good time dealing with the experience of the movie and what the Bay phenomenon means, but the name of the game is not just two-dimensional slagging of the director and his vision. For instance, there’s Manohla Dargis, who has never shied away from her soft spot for the Bruckheimer/Bay blow-‘em-up aesthetic:

“And make no mistake: [Michael] Bay is an auteur. His signature adorns every image in his movies, as conspicuously as that of Lars von Trier, and every single one is inscribed with a specific worldview and moral sensibility. Mr. Bay's subject - overwhelming violent conquest - is as blatant and consistent as his cluttered mise-en-scène. His images, particularly during the frequent action sequences, can be difficult to visually track, but they are also consistently disjointed. (And proudly self-referential: the only director he overtly cites is himself, with a shot of the poster for his movie Bad Boys II.) The French filmmaker Jacques Rivette once described an auteur as someone who speaks in the first person. Mr. Bay prefers to shout.”

Or what about Stephanie Zacharek’s personal observation:

“’He's here -- I smell him.’ That's a line from Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, but funnily enough, it's also what I think every time I sit down to watch a Michael Bay movie.”

She goes on to make a point that, as the father of a little girl who recently professed interest in the movie because part of it takes place in Egypt, a country whose history and culture fascinates her, I very much appreciated as a kind of advance warning:

“I don't believe it's the job of movies to safeguard the purity of our youth. At the same time, I'm not sure I see the point of robots using words like ‘bitch’ and ‘pussy’ in a movie inspired by a line of toys. Revenge of the Fallen just comes off as a bratty kid showing how many swear words he knows.”

For those who are inclined to take the whole Transformers phenomenon somewhat seriously, as cinema and as a logical product of the rampant blockbusterism that seems to amplify itself over the course of each successive summer, Drew McWeeny’s take, a very ambivalent one in which he wrestles with his reservations alongside his enthusiasm for the movie as a technical marvel, is a fascinating read:

“In some ways, I think Transformers; Revenge of the Fallen is the movie that fanboys have been slowly but surely placing down payments on for the last 20 years of pop cinema. When I hear people complain that it's overstuffed and indulgent and excessive, I am sort of amazed that they feel the need to point that out. OF COURSE IT IS. That's what Hollywood believes you want. Thanks to the way we've rewarded the lowest common denominator wrapped in the shiniest package, summer after summer after summer, and the way we seem to constantly demand that sequels turn everything up louder, make everything longer, and fill the frame with moremoreMORE, Michael Bay stands astride Hollywood like the perfectly evolved Modern Action Director… What I find remarkable… is how little the plot seems to matter, and that's how this movie feels to me like the final evolutionary step in the blockbuster.”

David Hudson gathers lots more reviews together here, like Roger Ebert’s, which I haven’t had time to check out yet. (Ebert starts off with this paragraph: “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is a horrible experience of unbearable length, briefly punctuated by three or four amusing moments. One of these involves a dog-like robot humping the leg of the heroine. Such are the meager joys. If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together. Then close your eyes and use your imagination.”) But I suspect I will, at some point, and perhaps in lieu of actually seeing the movie which, having seen the previous movie and all of the other Michael Bay movies in existence, I feel like I already have. Thanks, David, for gathering together such a wide-ranging, well-written collection of observations. You may have saved at least one prospective patron the $14 price of admission.

UPDATE 9:21 p.m.: I just had to make room here for David Edelstein's hilarious and astute piece, entitled "Trans Fats," in which the critic comes to terms with his soft spot for Michael Bay, his even softer spot for Megan Fox, and his desire to just tell a good, corny joke. It's been a very good day for those who like to read energetic writing about popular film, and Edelstein's post, from his blog The Projectionist, is the cherry on top. Here's a taste:

"I don’t have much nice to say about Transformers 2, but I’m happy to see my Park Slope neighbor John Turturro get another big paycheck — and he’s very funny given the Drake-and-Josh level of the jokes. There’s a terrific bit with a blonde coed who transforms into a killer-‘bot — but her send-off goes by so fast that the audience doesn’t even have a chance to say, 'Yeah! Kill dat bitch!' There’s also a gorgeous effect in which thirteen transformers hurtle down from space into the desert sand — thump thump thump thump — and the colossi slowly rise from the smoke. But then they start blasting and it’s back to video-game weightlessness. I remember in the eighties watching The Howling, in which a man slowly morphed into a werewolf: His flesh quivered and his snout crunched out of his flesh and the bones in his feet cracked and elongated. Why can’t these transformers transform so that we marvel at their metamorphoses? Can’t 200 million dollars buy that much?"


In other Hollywood news on this seemingly normal Wednesday, apparently the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has decided that five is just not enough, and that if the Hollywood Foreign Press Association can nominate 10 movies for Best Picture, well, then so can we. Complaints from Oscar party organizers about having to order extra pizzas to cover the extended run time of the 2010 telecast, which industry prognosticators expect to clock in at just under five hours, have already started to roll in, in addition to a vicious protest filed this morning by Barbara Walters to ABC headquarters. “I wefuse to begin my bwoadcast after midnight!” howled the onetime journalist to anyone who would listen.


And apparently David Fincher is in talks to continue his cinematic experiment, begun with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, to attempt to create a movie in which absolutely nothing happens. Variety reports that the director in talks to direct The Social Network, written by Aaron Sorkin, all about the formation of Facebook. The paper reports breathlessly that “The film will focus on the evolution of Facebook from its 2004 creation on the Harvard campus by sophomore Mark Zuckerberg to a juggernaut with more than 200 million members.” Juggernaut! Sounds exciting! Maybe a suggestion of how the website BLEW UP beyond anyone’s expectations! Is there really a movie here? We’ll see, I suppose. Or maybe not. After months of preparation, apparently Steven Soderbergh’s film of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, in which a bunch of pocket-protected baseball nerds sort statistics and juggle salaries in order to create the continuing legacy of mediocrity that is the Oakland Athletics, has been put into turnaround.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009


(Photo by Sal Gomez)

A series of escalating, multiplying frustrations have led, late on this Tuesday night, to the inexplicabnle disappearance from my Word program of 1,500 or so words I had written and prepared to go along with the photos I took this past weekend on a lovely family trip with the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society to the Skyline Drive-in Theater in Barstow, California. It's near midnight, and my attempt to try and rewrite the piece was greeted by a numb skull and insurmountable (at least for tonight) aggravation over the evaporation of an evening's worth of writing. So rather than lose out on more sleep that I obvious need, I will just post the pictures and hope that they speak clearly enough of the relative sublime experience we all had under the millions of stars visible in the desert sky while Up unspooled in front of us on the Skyline's second screen. I will do my best to reconstruct the piece and attach it to this post tomorrow, when and if I ever stop gritting my teeth.

(Click on the pics for a bigger, better, brighter view.)

The Sklyline Drive-in sits in the middle of nowhere off Old Highway 58 a couple of miles out of town.

As dusk approaches, the cars begin streaming in and the quiet desert hills fill up with the anticipation of a movie under a million stars.

Looking into the sunset, the drive-in ambience becomes magical.

Families and friends settle in for the pre-show fun and relaxation, as important a part of the drive-in experience as the movie itself.

Screen #2 at the Skyline, on an unpaved gravel lot, sits right up next to the desert hills which, when night falls, attain a mysterious beauty that adds immeasurably to the drive-in experience here in Barstow.

The Skyline Drive-in snack bar is an inviting oasis of delicious treats and community camaraderie that has something for everyone, a quaint throwback to great rural drive-in snack bars of the past.

The Lord hits the lights and the show gets underway.

Barstow city lights take on a shimmering beauty as seen flickering behind screen #1. (Photo by Sal Gomez)

And screen #2 provides a pleasing lack of light distraction as the movie casts its spell under the desert darkness.

Southern California Drive-in Movie Society member Warren Myers provides some background on the history of the Skyline Drive-in and a video tour of the theater during the club's July 20 visit.


Friday, June 19, 2009


“I've got the guts to die. What I want to know is, have you got the guts to live?” -Burl Ives as Harvey “Big Daddy” Pollitt in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958; Richard Brooks)


What Big Daddy failed to mention is that I’ve got the gut to live too, but that’s another story…

But it’s because of my daughters, because of what being a dad means to me, that I find the guts to live every day, even when it seems like it’d be easier to just retreat from responsibility under a tree somewhere, or just give up altogether. The specific joys that I get from my lifelong appreciation of the movies are both dwarfed and amplified by the eagerness and the happiness that my daughters bring to the table each and every day and the euphoria that I can often tap into by just watching them go about their business. And of course, whenever we go to the movies together is special, no matter whether I’m introducing them to a classic or heading off to the newest kid-friendly Hollywood fare. We’re headed to the Skyline Drive-in in Barstow tomorrow night to take in Up and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, two we’ve already seen but two we’ve never seen under the desert sky of this quaint little drive-in. And next weekend Michael Torgan is bringing a Michael Powell double bill to the New Beverly, and being a veteran of Black Narcissus already my oldest is very excited for A Matter of Life and Death and, yes, The Red Shoes. (More on that newly restored version of The Red Shoes in a post or two. Thanks, Robert!) The jury is still out, however, on whether or not I have the intestinal fortitude to endure Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer’s new 3-D action movie about secret agent guinea pigs entitled G-Force. There are limits it seems, even to Dad’s joy at the prospect of sitting in the dark with his little monkeys for a movie.

Happy Father’s Day to everyone who either is a dad or has one!



It ain’t a shot of Big Daddy, but this publicity photo from The Spiral Road (1962; Robert Mulligan) is just too juicy to not pass along. What big daddy wouldn’t enjoy a Father’s Day that included a chance to spruce up and primp in a nice, hot bath? (You can keep the stogie, though, thanks.)

(Photo courtesy of Leo Fuchs.)



God bless the Internet for keeping one (that is, me) humble. The fun goes from posts #143-147 and counting. Oh, well! Thanks for the thought anyway, Rowland!


See y’all next week!


Thursday, June 18, 2009


The best joke swirling about The Hangover is one you don’t have to have seen the movie to appreciate. It involves a heavily test-marketed comedy designed to appeal (through some pretty prurient and hateful means) to the widest possible demographic, and about which industry types were ”buzzing” for a couple of months before its release, splash-landing on over 3,000 screens to boffo business, and then being hailed as a “surprise” hit by all the the usual suspects. The real surprise about The Hangover turns out not to be its total awesomeness as a moneymaker (Can anyone truly be surprised by this development?), but the degree to which it is continuing to make money. This movie is becoming a calculated hit driven to unheard-of lucre by word-of-mouth and repeat business, yet—and here’s the biggest surprise of all (at least to me)—there’s precious little evidence that it’s actually funny. This high-concept comedy—three exceptional obnoxious guys wake up after an apparently scandalous Vegas bachelor party to discover they have no memory of the night’s debauchery and no idea where the guest of honor might be—gives us the clues about how wild the night was (an empty, trashed hotel suite, plus the mysterious presence of a tiger and a infant, for starters), but skips the party itself in favor of the alleged comic spectacle of these assholes stumbling about Sin City trying to piece together the evening’s events and find the groom. It sounds like a good idea, but the rewards of comedy are in the writing and the execution, and unfortunately The Hangover is undistinguished and unimaginative in both of these departments, not to mention mean-spirited and witless.

The Hangover at first looks like it might be of a piece with the current wave of Apatowian (or Apatow-inspired) examinations of what it is to be a modern American male, of which Superbad and Role Models are probably the most shining examples, with the slighter but still plenty funny Forgetting Sarah Marshall and I Love You, Man filling in the gaps. But whereas those movies invite us to look at the roots of various levels of culturally ascribed and endorsed male behavior and understand them as either satiric jumping-off points or ways into getting at the real particulars of male friendship, the jerk-offs front and center in The Hangover are presented simply as examples of the way things should be between men—we must fight for the right to get laughs by mistreating each other in the name of brotherly love, and we could do so if only those women would stop their harping and let us enjoy ourselves, and if all those strange people of other races would just keep to themselves, especially the ones who want to do vile things to us with their penises. Homophobia taints the movie from the very beginning—schoolteacher Phil (Bradley Cooper), who we’ll see stealing from his students to finance the Vegas trip, is heard on an answering machine instructing his callers to leave a message but don’t text, “because that’s gay.” Phil and the extremely bland groom Doug (Justin Bartha) beckon the horribly henpecked dentist Stu (Ed Helms) from their convertible with cries of “Paging Dr. Faggot!” And the gnome-like Alan (Zach Galifianikis), Doug’s possibly pedophilic brother-in-law, complains while being fitted for his wedding tux, that the “pervert” measuring his inseam is getting way too close to his shaft. If the foundation for some kind of investigation into the underlying homoeroticism that binds these guys was being laid, then at least these comments would have some context. But the movie couldn’t be less interested in this kind of tack. The only thing the comments are there to establish is the characters’ (and the movie’s) brash defiance of accepted restraint when it comes to firing up stereotypes and bashing them at will, without any apparent desire to deepen that defiance with elements of character and storytelling that could force us to look beyond the naughty bits.

As The Hangover chugs along in its rather rhythmless, fitful way, it becomes apparent that the individual elements intended to indicate the bachelor party’s astronomical level of debauchery—the tiger in the suite, the sudden appearance of a motherless infant, Stu’s missing tooth, the insistence of a pair of enormous thugs on doing damage to our heroes and their borrowed Mercedes—are not going to build in intensity toward a lunatic revelation of what really happened. These wild clues lead to nothing but scene after scene of the boys shouting variations on “Oh, shit! We’re fucked! We’re so fucked!” before moving blithely on to the next dumb-ass set piece. The tiger, the baby, the tooth—they’re all eventually dropped from the narrative without ever being exploited for anything more than just wild-and-crazy window dressing used to get us to a useless Mike Tyson cameo and earth-mother/stripper-with-a heart-of-gold Heather Graham, who couldn’t beam with more wholesomeness at the toothless Stu as she breast-feeds her baby (whoops, spoiler, sorry) and telegraphs her righteousness as Stu’s sexy soul mate. (At times Graham seems to glow like Glenn Close in The Natural.) And speaking of that Tyson cameo, it is both interesting and telling that no one seems to have a problem with a convicted rapist appearing in what amounts to a swipe at reconstructing his popular image—an image which includes positioning himself, in the reality of the movie, as a primitive, dangerous beast. The reaction has been far more gushing ”Gee, look! It’s that scary Mike Tyson singing a Phil Collins song!”-- the boys even marvel that he really does seem like a pretty awesome dude—than thoughtful about whether Tyson should even be afforded this kind of opportunity for image-reparation. (To no one’s surprise, his appearance here will eclipse the riveting self-portrayal offered up in James Toback’s brilliant documentary from earlier this year.) But you see, it’s Mike’s tiger, and once he gets it back he’s gone and we’re off to another dumb revelation of some piece in this none-too-fascinating puzzle, all of which culminates in a clichéd montage revolving around the Rainman-esque attempt by Alan to win back enough cash to get the creepy, mincing Chinese gangster (Ken Leong) off our boys’ butts so they can make it back in time for the wedding.

Each and every set piece in The Hangover feels warmed-over, amped for laughs based on sheer outrageousness and lack of feeling (Whoops! The baby bonked its head!) rather than a witty teasing out of that outrageousness with something resembling real, clever, motivated writing. And the hype machine is working in high gear now to convince American moviegoers that they’re part of something special, a phenomenon of high-flying comic altitude rather than just the preordained pop cultural by-product of an intricately engineered marketing campaign. What’s implicit and depressing about all these articles extolling the “surprise hit phenomenon” and the “stupid genius” of The Hangover is that we’re meant to care more about the movie’s status as a box-office stud than its quality as a comedy, as if all those dollars were the ultimate proof that the audience is getting what it wants. The packed house I saw the movie with last Saturday night was appreciative, all right, and definitely on the movie’s side, but there was none of the gasping, aching belly-laughter I remember hearing at Superbad, or Role Models, or many other movies far funnier and more deserving of the kind of attention that is being ladled indiscriminately on this turd. Strangely, the couple sitting next to me uttered not one sound over the course of the entirety of The Hangover, and yet afterward the boyfriend stood up, turned to his girlfriend and another couple they were with and said, “That was fuckin’ hilarious!” I stumbled out of that screening feeling as if I was living on a planet I suddenly didn’t recognize; the reception being afforded this crummy comedy is just as depressing as the movie itself.


Yet in the same movie marketplace, the exceedingly genial and dopey Will Ferrell science-fiction comedy Land of the Lost is getting killed in review after highfalutin review for being silly, or being gross, or (I love this one) being shaky on just who its audience is. I’m really not sure just how worked up to get over the mass dancing on the grave of this movie—after all, we’re talking about Land of the Lost, not Speed Racer here. But at the risk of flying the freak flag for another big summer movie given the heave-ho by audiences and critics, Land of the Lost won me over through its fearlessness over its own absurdity, by its cleverness (the brainy, sensitive T–Rex is a comic marvel at both the conception and the execution/animation level), and the fairly impressive quality it often displays (despite its huge budget and status as a product of a conservative studio system, however misguided that system may or may not be on a project-by-project basis) of seeming at times improvised on the fly, of being a $200-million shaggy dog. Those who object to the movie seem to believe, because the source material was a hit with young Saturday morning TV viewers in the ‘70s, that the filmmakers are somehow obligated to reproduce the kid-friendly vibe (sans gross-outs or bad language) or at least to deliver a product with a more consistent tone. That's what they get in The Hangover, after all-- a movie that trots out every stereotype on the way to flattening out every juicy plot point for consumption by the widest possible audience, a movie everyone can love. It’s a lot trickier to stay true to a muse which consistently directs one to tickle the funny bone by any means necessary, and in this disregard for safety in numbers Land of the Lost has a lot more in common with movies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (not surprising, given that both star Will Ferrell), or Blazing Saddles, or The Man with Two Brains, all supremely silly movies that both kids of various ages and adults can groove to, than to generic lumps like The Hangover.

In LOTL, there’s plenty of comedy to appeal to the infant in all of us-- a squirmingly hilarious encounter with a prehistoric mosquito takes the bug-centric gross-out comedy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to new and splattery heights; and Ferrell’s insistence on dousing himself with dinosaur urine as a means of camouflage is a classic bit that builds on the comedy of repetition and increasing returns—its roots can be traced through I Love Lucy to Harpo’s silverware scene in Animal Crackers and all the way back to the vaudeville stage, but we’re supposed to play the sophistication card here and give it the pooh-pooh treatment (pun entirely intended) because the gag involves piss (and gagging on piss). In general, the movie is situated squarely and honorably on the landscape of silly, absurd adventure that is also populated by the likes of the Abbott and Costello films, the Hope/Crosby “Road” pictures, and even comedy hybrids like Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers’ version of The Three Musketeers-- its anything-goes grab-bag approach to tone and sensibility is one it shares with these movies and the others mentioned above.

The real puzzler brought to the forefront by the rejection of Land of the Lost is in considering exactly when silliness as an end became something to either be ghettoized (in the Scary/Date/Epic Movie subgenre of kitchen-sink parody) or shunned altogether. We’ve already seen what being labeled “silly” or being associated with a comic approach can do to the box office prospects of horror films—the boldly satiric Seed of Chucky was trounced by the far more sober and literal shocks delivered by Saw in 2005, and this summer no amount of rave reviews or positive advance word from the Cannes Film Festival could convince the core horror audience that Drag Me to Hell was a trip worth taking because as much emphasis was put on its laughs as its scares in the reviews and even the advertising. Now it’s apparently a crime for a Will Ferrell movie to be silly, which begs the question: Did anyone who saw the trailer for Land of the Lost, a trailer which accurately indicates its irreverent approach, go into it expecting Jurassic Park IV? And as far as parents worried that the raunch factor might be too much for their kids who might be interested, it is not unreasonable to do what I did—see it for yourself first before deciding whether your offspring are too sensitive for the raucous absurdities that lie within. (My personal verdict: I enjoyed it immensely, took the girls to see it the very next day, and we all laughed like misguided hyenas.)

I was not surprised that a movie which gets great comic mileage out of Dr. Rick Marshall (Ferrell) and his food issues would make me laugh uproariously-- unable to bring himself to test his new time machine/boom box contraption, Marshall goes on a fast-food binge and plunges into a calorie-induced coma, which he then lovingly describes upon regaining consciousness to his adoring assistant, Holly, played with spirit and good sportsmanship by Anna Friel (“I thought an Arby’s value meal might inspire my confidence. But then I hit Del Taco…”) Nor was I surprised to be amused by the way the heavy-lidded Danny McBride, as Will, a redneck tour guide who joins Marshall and Holly on heir “routine expedition” gone wrong, sets the foundation of a hilarious scene in which he, Marshall and primate sidekick Cha-ka (Jorma Taccone) end up psychedelically distracted from the mechanics of the recognizably silly (there’s that word again) plot by the juice of some local plant life, then lay around slurring words of affection for each other and contemplating an interspecies make-out session.

I was, however, surprised by the pop art beauty of some of the artificial landscapes on which these characters frolic-- a vast desert sprinkled with recognizable cultural icons such as the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, a Union 76 ball, the remains of a drive-in movie theater, all half buried in the sand; or the motel whose neon sign sticks out from a dune but whose swimming pool is beautifully preserved and ready for cannonballing; or the bed of glowing pterodactyl eggs all perched on what look like stalagmite tees which begin to crack when the show tunes emanating from Dr. Marshall’s time machine/boom box come to an unexpected stop. None of these designs have much to do with creating a recognizable or believable alternate universe for our heroes to discover; it’s the eerie surrealism of these landscapes, coupled with the fact that they all coexist amongst radically different climates—a geologic mash-up of jungle, desert, volcanic mountain range—that evolves from mere set design into another form of elaborate, rather lovely joke to compliment and balance the crude wackiness of the rest of the show.

Some have concerned themselves about what the mere presence of Land of the Lost means, as if it was some demarcation of how far absurd humor can go before it eats itself. At the risk of being annoying or overly simplistic, this kind of concern seems, at the very least, unnecessary. Those who made the movie and allowed it to be put out into the hostile marketplace and die will undoubtedly pay, to one degree or another, with their reputations or perhaps even their jobs, current and future. But it’s hard to see how the movie itself is an occasion for fretting. It’s a genial, rambling, goofy comedy that colors outside of the lines and belies its blockbuster origins with its ability to at times appear as shambling and care-free as Will, Marshall and Cha-ka tripping poolside. And the confusion of the majority of reviewers over just who composes the movie’s intended audience seems like a pretty easy nut to crack—it’s a movie made not for an age demographic but for anyone who happens to find him/herself on the same wavelength, who happens to find it chock full of laughs, big ones and little ones. Comedies that are created from some sort of inspiration rather than slavish adherence to what they expect will make the most people laugh most of the time are inherently risky propositions, and when they don’t work the sound of crickets chirping can be deafening. But when they do work—and I contend that most of the time Land of the Lost works—they’ll connect you with the giddy kid inside, someone who knows it’s no crime to be silly.


Tony Scott’s unnecessary remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 isn’t, for its first two-thirds anyway, too bad. The basic premise, taken from John Godey’s novel and Joseph Sargent’s terrific 1974 version, which starred Walter Matthau as a casually racist, beleaguered transit author official locked into a subway hostage drama set in motion by the terse, magnificent intimidating Robert Shaw, has been adapted by Scott and writer Brian Helgeland to reflect an awareness of the manipulation of global economics. But this stab at timely verisimilitude feels like baggage that the stripped–down structure ultimately can’t bear. Shaw’s clipped-cadence ex-military man becomes John Travolta’s over-the-top, incongruously tattooed commodities broker (Would you trust your money to a guy with a Freddie Mercury ‘do and mustache and a garish crucifix creeping up his neck?), whereas Matthau’s legacy is given over to the somewhat more reliable Denzel Washington whose character is meant to reflect, in that hoary action-movie way, a similarity, in terms of moral underpinnings, to the bad guy—he’s a disgraced MTA bigwig accused of taking a bribe; we find out he’s guilty as charged, but he did it for honorable reasons. (Cue a rare slowing of Scott’s spastic stylistic strategies—camera movement, alternating film stocks, high-speed editing, the surveillance satellite as an overriding visual motif—and the requisite swelling of strings on the soundtrack.)

Still, for all the swiveling, gyrating camerawork and general sense of pointless dislocation, the movie does hold a certain level of interest because of that basic premise. What it can’t manage is the build-up of much excitement, even though you know instinctively that such a build-up is at least ostensibly the motivation behind all the camera pyrotechnics. For all of Scott’s visual sturm und drang, the ultimate effect is a weird kind of stasis, an awareness of the technique that constantly throws you out of the enveloping effect of the story. But soon enough the coincidences and absurdities start piling up and what little we have invested in the movie evaporates anyway, just about the time, ironically, that the film abandons its stopped-subway-car scenario for one involving a train and a band of hijackers suddenly on the move. A crucial plot point involving the fate of a runaway train car, which was clear as a bell in the 1974 version, seems to have gone missing. And I couldn’t help wondering, if one takes the trouble to present Denzel Washington, about 40-50 pounds heavier than usual, as a realistically sedentary protagonist, why one would feel the need to press him into service as a standard-issue action hero running full gallop down Manhattan streets in pursuit of the dispersing bad guys, with no acknowledgment of the kind of respiratory crisis anyone in the real world would no doubt be experiencing in a similar situation? Wheeze or no wheeze, Washington’s XL frame hurtles absurdly toward a face-off with Travolta, but by this point the runaway train has already crashed. The climactic scene between the stars features an excess of histrionics but not an ounce of the punch provided by the simple sneeze that punctuates the original.


Way back in 1927 H.L. Mencken, writing in his Appendix from Moronia, got himself in a lather about the emerging art form of the movies. Mencken was specifically targeting the effect of movies on acting and actors, but, for purposes of amusement as well as evidence of Mencken’s prescience, read this passage in the context of films 82 years removed from the author’s discontent:

”What afflicts the movies is not an unpalatable content so much as an idiotic and irritating technic. The first moving-pictures, as I remember them 30 years ago, presented more of less continuous scenes. They were played like ordinary plays, and so one could follow them lazily and at ease. But the modern movie is no such organic whole; it is simply a maddening chaos of discrete fragments. The average scene, if the two shows I attempted were typical, cannot run for more than six or seven seconds. Many are far shorter, and very few are appreciably longer. The result is confusion horribly confounded. How can one work up any rational interest in a fable that changes its locale and its characters 10 times a minute? Worse, this dizzying jumping about is plainly unnecessary; all it shows is the professional incompetence of the gilded pants-pressers, decayed actors and other such half-wits to whom the making of movie seems to be entrusted. Unable to imagine a sequence of coherent scenes, and unprovided with a sufficiency of performers capable of playing them if they were imagined, these preposterous mountebanks are reduced to the childish device of avoiding action altogether. Instead of it they present what is at bottom nothing but a poorly articulated series of meaningless postures and grimaces. One sees a ham cutting a face, and then on sees his lady co-star squeezing a tear—and so on, endlessly. These mummers cannot be whisked off. If, a the first attempt upon a scene, the right attitude is not struck, then all they have to do is keep on trying until they strike it. On those terms a chimpanzee could play Hamlet, or even Juliet... Try to imagine the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in a string of 50 flashes—first Romeo taking his station and spitting on his hands, then Juliet with her head as big as a hay-wagon, then the two locked in a greasy kiss, then the Nurse taking a drink of gin, then Romeo rolling his eyes, and so on. If you can imagine it, then you ought to be in Hollywood, dodging bullets and amassing wealth.”

So we know what the great American journalist and author, this great American satirist, this great American crank, might have to say about Franco Zefferelli and Baz Luhrmann. Just imagine the words that might have been spun had H.L. Mencken ever encountered a Tony Scott film.