Monday, November 26, 2012

Alice Munro

Also from the New Yorker, here's a brief interview with short-story artist Alice Munro on her new collection, Dear Life.
I was brought up to believe that the worst thing you could do was “call attention to yourself,” or “think you were smart.” My mother was an exception to this rule and was punished by the early onset of Parkinson’s disease. (The rule was for country people, like us, not so much for towners.) I tried to lead an acceptable life and a private life and got by most of the time O.K. No girls I knew went to college and very few boys. I had a scholarship for two years only, but by that time I had picked up a boy who wanted to marry me and take me to the West Coast. Now I could write all the time. (That was what I’d intended since I was at home. We were poor but had books around always.)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Music: Sonic Youth - "Bull In The Heather"

Note the presence of Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna as an indie force of nature. I went back to this one from 1994 after reading this short New Yorker tribute to Hanna. Directed by Tamra Davis.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday Music: Poi Dog Pondering - "Ta Bouche Est Tabou"

Great stuff here; this performance is from 1999 but has only been on YouTube a little less than a year. I'll always associate Poi Dog Pondering with my college radio station and a certain youthful sense of possibility.

Rabbit Town

Movie trailers certainly have changed, haven't they? Note the weirdly moralistic voice over. I include the trailer for the forgotten adaptation of Rabbit, Run as a curiosity to go along with this Sam Tanenhaus essay, which celebrates Rabbit (the Rabbit of Redux in particular) as a man poised to ride out the coming change.
John Updike visited The New York Times a week before Election Day in 2008. Whom, I asked him, would Rabbit Angstrom most likely vote for? “I’m so for Obama,” Updike replied, “that I can’t imagine creating a character who wouldn’t vote for him.” And yet in “Rabbit at Rest” — the last novel in the cycle, which concludes with the hero’s death — we discover he cast his final vote for George H. W. Bush. When I reminded Updike of this, he looked startled. But he was right about 2008. Obama carried Reading that year, and he did it again on Nov. 6. The finally tally, John Forester said, “was 17,248 for Obama, and 3,740 for Romney.” Why the lopsided outcome? Because the city’s population has indeed changed, though not in the way Rabbit foresaw. Nearly 60 percent of its population is now Hispanic. Rabbit, more open-minded than he first appears, would have made his peace, just as he did in 1969. “I love my country,” he avows, “and can’t stand to have it knocked,” even if it has become something he no longer recognizes.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


The new Lincoln finds Steven Spielberg working in his best and most unobtrusive style, letting the words of Tony Kushner’s screenplay tell the story and resisting almost every impulse to mythologize or pull at our emotions. Lincoln is the next chapter in the continuing mythology of its star Daniel Day-Lewis, whose performance here can be offered as an example of what it means for an actor to “disappear” inside a role. I don’t know if Day-Lewis will win an Oscar (he’ll certainly be nominated) but to understand the degree to which his work as Lincoln here is different from the soulful young man of In The Name of the Father or the stylized robber baron of There Will Be Blood is to understand something marvelous and ephemeral about the actor’s art. Yet Lincoln is far from a one-man show, Spielberg has crowded the movie with excellent actors and energized them to the task at hand, which is nothing less than the story of how the country we know emerged from the contention and the blood of Lincoln’s time.

Lincoln takes place in the first months of 1865, the last four months of Lincoln’s life. With the South all but defeated the country is balanced between expediency and the future. Lincoln can receive the peace delegation led by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) and likely end the war with no change in the status of the South’s slaves. The other choice is harder and requires all of the President’s political wiles; Lincoln wants a Constitutional amendment banning slavery through Congress before the South comes back into the Union. If Lincoln is about anything besides the great man’s humanity it is about how a sense of right can motivate great change with a little help. The Republicans led by Thaddeus Stevens (a marvelous Tommy Lee Jones) will support the amendment but Lincoln needs Democratic votes as well and is willing to trade patronage jobs to get the support he needs. Secretary of State William Seward (David Straithairn) recruits three fixers to work on reluctant Democrats, and some of the movie’s most entertaining scenes involve James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson practicing a particular brand of political calculus that these days is probably more the province of lobbyists and Super PACs. The House of Representatives that debates the Thirteenth Amendment is a good deal less formal than the body we know today, and a fine laboratory for Spielberg’s interest in countries figuring themselves out. It’s bracing to hear our elected leaders speak in fully formed sentences and also surprising how much fun the House was when its members were allowed to insult each other. (Lee Pace bears the brunt of Republican fire as Democratic opponent of the amendment.) Tommy Lee Jones gets some of the best rhetoric in Lincoln, and it’s a measure of how much we come to believe in Stevens’ passion that the moment when he has to deny his belief in full equality on the House floor carries such weight.

Life inside The White House is the other and slightly weaker strand of Lincoln, and it’s here where we see the stresses of war and leadership take their toll. At the same time Lincoln is expressing his conflicts over his own powers to free the slaves - Kushner writes Day-Lewis a dense but very sharp monologue to explain Lincoln’s reasoning - he is also the father of would-be solider Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), young Tad (Gulliver McGrath), and the late Will, who died in Lincoln’s first term. As Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field has some fine, feisty moments but is also written as being aware of her own mental health in a way that doesn’t quite work. Day-Lewis doesn’t get to play enough of Lincoln’s own emotions in these scenes with Field; Lincoln becomes a caregiver of sorts but it’s hard not to wonder if he ever got angry or showed frustration with his wife. Lincoln is often bent over or curled up in thought as events unfold, usually just before a big decision. It isn’t surprising that Day-Lewis settled on a voice and a walk for the character and he’s convincingly worn down as the amendment vote approaches, but I don’t know that I’ve seen an actor arrive at such a specific physical attitude for a character the way Day-Lewis has here. The President belongs to everyone, but Lincoln isn’t afraid to go into himself to figure out the country, and Day-Lewis nails that sense perfectly. Lincoln looks most uncomfortable when speaking in public, and if that is by design then the choice works. There are only brief moments in Lincoln when the myth overcomes the man; in the opening scene Lincoln is talking to two African-American soldiers and then has the Gettysburg Address recited to him, but that’s about as on the nose as it gets. The biggest African-American presence comes from Gloria Reuben and Stephen McKinley Henderson as the Lincoln family’s White House attendants, and both get to be full characters in their brief screen time as opposed to mere repositories of goodness.

Lincoln makes its case that a big part of what we know our country to be today came from these few months in 1865, as did our ideas about Presidential leadership. All citizens are equal in the eyes of both God and the law, and a President should be sensitive yet pragmatic and unafraid to do what’s necessary. While it keeps those big ideas in play Lincoln succeeds because of its humanity and willingness to let its characters think before speaking. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance will likely live on as a definitive Lincoln, and the movie should endure as well. Lincoln isn’t the first time that Steven Spielberg has delivered a vision of what American life should be, but it has been too long since that life felt as rich and strange as it does here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Dept. of Sad but True

There are quite a few layers of media outlets calling one another out here, but at this point I think we just have to accept that whatever happens between Rihanna and Chris Brown is going to play out and there's nothing we can do to stop it. Just when I was ready to forget about all of this, Brown got some crazy neck tattoo and proved that either he's not the least bit ashamed of what he did or that this is all just about publicity...or both. Anyway, Coates gets to the point:

I don't know that Rihanna owes anyone anything. I think what bothers me is the willingness to trivialize the behavior of men who like to put women in the hospital. Most of those women will not have the resources of a Rihanna.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sunday Music: Jeff Tweedy - "The Thanks I Get"

From earlier this year; I fell in love with this one after hearing the Sunken Treasure DVD.

Redbox Diaries #1: Safety Not Guaranteed and The Cabin In The Woods

Safety Not Guaranteed, directed by Colin Trevorrow, suggests that a small-town grocery store employee named Kenneth (Mark Duplass) has discovered the secret to time travel. Unlike the characters in Looper, Kenneth isn't interested in making money or changing world history with his gift. His goal is to go back in time and intervene in the life of an old girlfriend. When Kenneth advertises for a traveling partner in the classifieds his ad attracts the attention of magazine reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson), who turns up with interns Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and the shy Arnau (Karan Soni) in tow. It's Plaza's Darius who breaks through to Kenneth, who soon begins to convince Darius that his project has attracted the attention of the government. Safety Not Guaranteed isn't really about time travel of course, it's a little essay on seizing moments, looking back, and not being afraid of what's to come. Plaza plays a sweeter variation of her Parks and Recreation character, and her performance gets better as Darius begins to connect with her desire to move on to another phase of her life. The film ends in an obviously contrived, open-ended scenario that didn't bother me here (as a similar twist did here for example) because Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly are so engaged with their offbeat world. Had Safety Not Guaranteed gotten a wider release it could have risen to sleeper hit status, but hip video rental will have to do.

Man of the moment Joss Whedon cowrote The Cabin in the Woods, a ironic horror film that combines a standard young people in trouble plot with initially inexplicable scenes of two men who look like rocket scientists (Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) manipulating the environment around the titular cabin from a remote location. The movie is only fitfully scary since we are clued into most of the shocks, and aside from a few moments it isn't funny enough either. Whedon (writing with director Drew Goddard) doesn't take the story into full-on satire for some reason; he's stuck with fulfilling our expectations of the genre and has to concoct a lot of hoo-ha about ancient gods and the bureaucracy that supports them. I was hoping Whedon was saying something about the corporatizing  of our entertainment but if he is the joke will be lost on most of the audience. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012


Argo is the third film directed by Ben Affleck, and the first not set in Boston. The "recently declassified" story of a bizarre CIA mission to rescue six Americans trapped in Teheran at the Canadian Embassy during the Iranian Hostage Crisis is a step up in ambition and tone for Affleck, who to date has specialized in agreeably roughneck crime stories. (Gone Baby Gone, The Town) Argo doesn't boast a performance as memorable as work by Amy Ryan or Jeremy Renner in Affleck's earlier films, but it marks Affleck as a major director with a sense of engagement towards the way institutions treat the people that sustain them.

Affleck plays a CIA agent named Tony Mendez, a specialist in "exfils" (getting people out of tight corners) who takes on the Teheran job after the State Department fails to come up with a plan. Mendez's idea includes a fictional science fiction movie called Argo, cooked-up resumes for the stranded Americans (who become members of a Canadian film crew on a location scout), and the involvement of a makeup artist (John Goodman) who becomes the CIA's entree to Hollywood. With the help of a producer (a fun Alan Arkin) with a gift for bluster, the CIA is soon underwriting a production company and holding a table reading (in costume?) of the Argo script. Hollywood satire is just Affleck's stepping-stone to get to a thriller plot, but I couldn't help but want more of Arkin and Goodman's sense of fun. They're absent from the movie for a long stretch and I found myself wondering what they were up to.

 We never get to know the six Americans Mendez rescues that well, though Scoot McNairy stands out as the one least bullish on Mendez's plan. (I also wanted to know more about Clea Duvall's character, who is tasked with becoming the fake movie's screenwriter.) At a certain point Argo slows down, as the story becomes dependent on Mendez's boss (a fine, harried Bryan Cranston) to keep the mission alive and the Iranians not to figure out the Americans' identities in time. Affleck makes the Americans' final journey through the Teheran airport a marvelous bit of controlled tension, and the final sprint to freedom is genuinely rousing. Argo may be a story more about process than people, but Affleck has an eye for details that gives the movie humanity. Cranston laces his character's sense of duty with a great workaday cynicism, and there's more suggestion of rivalries between government agencies than the movie has time for. I'm late reviewing Argo, but for those who haven't seen it the movie is well worth your time, a smart adult entertainment with a soft spot for what's best about us.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Sunday Music: Tom Waits - "Chicago"

This video has been around, but I watched Jarmusch's Night on Earth last night (to which Waits contributed music) and couldn't resist sharing it again. Those sounds really do come from that man.

The Pull of Home

Novelist Richard Russo (Empire Falls, Straight Man) discusses his new memoir Elsewhere. (ArtsBeat)
Q: It will be tempting for readers familiar with all your work to experience “Elsewhere” as, among other things, a skeleton key to your fiction. As one of those readers, I’m now wondering if your first two novels, “Mohawk” and “The Risk Pool,” are your most autobiographical, or are there equal amounts of your own experience in each book?

A: It will please me immensely if readers feel as if they’ve been granted an insight into a writer’s creative process. Like every writer, I’m always being asked where I get my ideas from; well, here’s the answer, or part of it. “Mohawk” and “The Risk Pool” are my most literally autobiographical novels, if by autobiography you mean shared facts and data. Still, while there’s far more invention in “Bridge of Sighs,” I think of it as the novel that most deeply probes who I am, as a man and as a writer.