Friday, December 08, 2006

Quick Notes on Some Recent Screenings

SUPERMAN RETURNS (Warner Home Video, 2006)
Here's a good argument against overinflating what was intended to be pulp entertainment into "myth." This delusion of grandeur takes itself so seriously that it squeezes out nearly all of the elements that have made Superman the perennial favorite all-American comic book superhero. The wholesomeness, optimism, upbeat quality of the classic comic are gone, replaced by a post-Marvel self-conscious and introspective Superman (Brandon Routh), a snappily self-confident Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), a badly miscast Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth? when they've got Parker Posey in the same picture?) who has married another man and given birth during a mostly unexplained period of absence by the Man of Steel, and Frank Langella as the blandest Perry White on record. Indeed, the film dares to look over the head of its own hero, denying us several of the basic pleasures required of a Superman movie: when Clark Kent first pulls his shirt open in an identity change, the "S" is cropped offscreen. Even the formerly bold red colors of Superman's costume have soured to a kind of burnt sienna brown. Routh doesn't convince me as Superman, but he's a talented mimic of Christopher Reeve's Clark Kent. As a whole, the movie is too downbeat, too complicated, essentially self-destructive, with a particularly unhappy turn of events concerning Lois as the mother of Earth's first Krypto-American, which serves no purpose but to make Superman more human and less rigorously moral -- a diluted symbol of heroism. Rather than a bid for a renewed franchise, I see this as symptomatic product of a society ashamed, on some level, of being American.

A SCANNER DARKLY (Warner Home Video, 2006)
I blogged about the first 23 minutes of this movie earlier in the year, after seeing them online. My reaction to the entire feature is not dramatically unlike what I thought of the free sample: the technique is brilliant, somehow very right for the story though unexpected, but I feel the unrotoscoped footage would have been the more truly cinematic, and possibly more emotional experience. As much is happening on the surface as below it, to the extent where camera composition and editing seem comparatively random and unimportant. The protagonist is revealed as Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves) right away, while the Philip K. Dick novel, as I recall, reveals the narrator's identity much later, inspiring one to go back and re-read the previous pages once armed with the knowledge of who among the characters the undercover narrator is. Nevertheless, the revelation of Bob's boss's identity is well-handled and the film is a legitimately psychedelic, multi-tiered experience, easily the most "phildickian" of Dick's screen adaptations. It's the movie I would most want Dick himself to see in the unlikely event of his resurrection -- even moreso than BLADE RUNNER -- but I find myself much more guarded about whether or not I really like it. Special kudos to Robert Downey Jr., though, who's excellent here.

THE BLACK ROOM (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, 1935)
This feature, included in Sony's ICONS OF HORROR COLLECTION - BORIS KARLOFF set, is the most important new classic horror release of the year. This is very much Karloff's DEAD RINGERS, as he plays two 19th century brothers born to the barony of a small European country; the elder one, given the title of Baron, grows into a murderous womanizer, while the other matures into a meek gentleman. In order to save his own neck, the Baron confers his title to his respected brother and promises to leave town, but then kills his brother and assumes his place in the world. We get three of Karloff's finest performances in one picture, along with some of the best dialogue he ever had, and the twinning effects are stunning -- the equal of those in DEAD RINGERS, made 50 years later, with many of Karloff's screen-sharing moments captured in astonishing dolly shots. I can't help thinking that Ennio De Concini must have seen this movie before scripting Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY, as many of the same elements are here -- the good and evil twins, the period setting, the family curse, the pit in the floor, the secret compartment built into the rear wall of the castle's fireplace. And the recently deceased Marian Marsh, so memorable as Trilby in SVENGALI (1931), is charming here too.

CLERKS II (Weinstein Company, 2006)
I can't imagine what could have provoked the 8-minute standing ovation at Cannes; there are maybe four or five chuckles in the picture and a very mild (and fairly unconvincing) love story whose only real sparks come from Rosario Dawson, who deserves better. The satirical aspects of the Mooby's fastfood restaurant are sophomoric, and the story is limp and meandering when it's not simply clich├ęd or leaning on the outrageousness button. I thought CHASING AMY was outstanding, thanks mostly to Jason Lee and Joey Lauren Adams but also to a very feeling and funny script, and I very much enjoyed Kevin's entertaining way with a story in AN EVENING WITH KEVIN SMITH, but the rest of Smith's work frankly leaves me scratching my head. This is kind of like Kevin remaking Romero's THERE'S ALWAYS VANILLA as THERE'S ALWAYS DONKEY SPUNK -- and the whole "Do I love her, or do I love her? Uh-oh, this one's pregnant" idea was old then. That Smith opens the DVD by declaring this as his favorite of all his films doesn't make me feel too optimistic or curious about what he may still have up his sleeve.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The Trouble with Blogging

The trouble with blogging is that, at some point, you discover that you have become a blogger. As with many things, I knew this from the beginning but only on the level of language; in time, however, one begins to know the meaning of these words on a more experiential level and they acquire a different, somewhat more oppressive, weight.

So what does it mean to be a blogger?

It means that the momentum of one's blog becomes all-important. If one has nothing to say of unique import on a given day, there is always something or someone else to write about -- on the occasion of a news story, a birthday, an anniversary, a death, a centenary. The trouble with this approach, I find, is manifold: one begins to exist, as a writer, only to respond to each day's random stimuli; if you show a knack or compulsion for the art of eulogy, one's readers begin to expect a response to every new passing, to the extent where one risks being offensive when one overlooks someone, owing either to lack of passion or simply feeling "deathed-out"; and because of all this, the subject of death becomes even more inescapable than it is in one's daily life.

It means that, being a perfectionist, I am forever tweaking blogs that have already been posted. Because this material has already been made public, because it has already been read by hundreds, because it is now another day (if not another month), these belated reparations feel more compulsive and neurotic than the corrections I habitually make to any piece awaiting publication. This paragraph is, in fact, being added to a blog already posted a good 15-20 minutes ago. If you read it hot off the press, so to speak, you missed it... but here I am, adding it anyway -- for you, for posterity, mostly for me.

It means becoming interested in the art of blogging and the ongoing state of that art, which in turn means performing a frequent, if not daily, circuit of other bloggers' activities. Some blogs I admire for their reliability, others for their ideas, some for their kindred nature, and still others for being quite unlike anything I would do, but which I nevertheless admire for the obvious craft and skill with which they are written and the singular spirit that shines through them. (Sheila O'Malley's THE SHEILA VARIATIONS is a fine example of the latter.) I also frequent some blogs though my basic response to them is resentment -- pages that attract enormous daily attendance while giving people practically nothing of value.

Yes, since I began blogging, a lot of my day has suddenly become checking to see what a family of other bloggers are noting, discussing, or blog-a-thonning. Some of these I discover by tracing referrals, the pages from which my blog's visitors come to me. These sometimes take me to interesting blogs in many different languages, some of which link to essays I've written here, and sometimes to places that have reproduced my material in its entirety without my permission: a handy tool. Consequently, I'm reading more than ever, but on a computer screen, which -- like the television screen -- the writings of Wilhelm Reich and his disciples claim are composed of an evil, life-draining energy. Based on how I feel at the end of a day, I suspect these claims are well-founded.

It means checking GreenCine Daily several times a day to see if your latest blog essay has been deemed worthy of a mention, either in "Shorts" or in a topical paragraph of one's own. As one goes back again and again, gradually feeling the weight of the hat in one's hand, one coincidentally accumulates an absurdly long list of other blogs and online articles/essays/editorials that must be read. And it means spending an embarrassingly disproportionate amount of time wondering why one blog got the attention, while that marvelous blog one wrote about Raymond Queneau and Louis Malle's ZAZIE was dropped down a well so deep the splash has yet to be heard.

It also means contending with Blogger on a daily basis. I like to illustrate my blogs and hate it when I finish a blog but can't post it for hours because Blogger's "Add Image" feature is behaving uncooperatively. Many have been the times when a two hour blogging day has turned into a three or four hour one, simply because I want to add a picture. (I couldn't add the picture of Claude Jade I had hoped to use with my closing paragraph.) My time's more valuable than that, or should be.

In a nutshell, then: Blogging means overwork, neurosis, depression, radiation. Plus, as I've griped before, there's no money in it.

Balancing all of this on the opposite scale, of course, is the pleasure of sharing news or expressing oneself to a large number of interested people -- the pleasure of publishing -- instantaneously. This blog also attracts a healthy and dependable daily attendance, for which I'm grateful, though success adds in its own way to the pressure to produce. Last week, our Joe Dante Blog-A-Thon attracted the largest daily attendance Video WatchBlog has ever had: over 1,500 hits. (These Blog-A-Thon things really work. What I don't understand is where those extra 500+ visitors go when there's not a Blog-A-Thon on; another obstacle to sheep-counting at bedtime.)

All of this has been on my mind because I've been feeling the need of late to cut back on my blogging activities, if only to make some serious headway into that new Thomas Pynchon novel. And now, to help gently force the issue, the first of a couple of rather large projects I've invited is now before me, awaiting my complete and immediate engagement. The deadline I've been given is tight, so I expect to be blogging less over the next week or so. I've given you close to a thousand pages of material here to explore more closely in the meantime, so don't be a stranger.

And, yes, naturally, I am very saddened to hear of the passing of the sublime Claude Jade. In the 1980s, a local theater ran the entire Antoine Doinel cycle over four consecutive weeks, and I saw a new chapter each Friday in the late afternoon -- I still think it's the ideal way to approach the series, and it's impossible not to fall in love with Claude Jade during the process. In lieu of what I might have written on this occasion, I commend to you Joe Leydon's tribute at his MovingPictureBlog.