Monday, July 31, 2006

United 93

"I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth."
-Tim O'Brien

Last Thursday, after work, I went to see Paul Greengrass's United 93. As can be expected, it's not an easy movie to like, but it's an important movie and a good one and one that needs to be seen. I know this because, like everyone else in the theater, I knew how it would end before the lights went down and yet I was nervous the whole way through. The film never once struck a hollow note and these characters whose names I never learned were painfully, painfully real.

When the film ended, I remembered where I was and realized that I was the only American in the theater. Gradually, as they got up to go, my fellow audience members started to chat in a language I speak fluently, but I honestly couldn't understand a word of it. I felt more American than I had in months and I was quite honestly paralyzed. I sat watching the credits roll past for what felt like fifteen minutes but probably was only five and then I walked to catch the Metro home, hyperventilating all the way.

As I struggled to catch my breath, I realized that this was the reaction to September 11 that I never really had and it struck me as ridiculous that I had to watch a movie on the other side of the ocean five years later before it all really hit me. At the time, the enormity of the event had eclipsed itself. It was too immense to understand and I (thankfully) lacked the kind of personal connection to the historical moment that would draw me into it all.

I remember at the time wondering why I felt so little. Whether I'd been desensitized by violent movies or if just the act of seeing the event filtered through television (I was away at college at the time) made it seem somehow like fiction. Whatever the reason, seeing it as fiction now had made it real.

To those who would argue that making a film such as this one is exploitative and disrespectful, then, I say that, for better or worse, making films like this is essential. Great art always rises from the ashes of immense tragedy, to give voice to the stifled, disenfranchised emotions universally almostfelt by the people who live through catastrophe, because straightforward reporting is never enough.

Perhaps it's bad that to understand something real I need to see it immortalized as fiction, but it's a fact of life I can't change and although I'm not necessarily prepared to call blogging an art, it looks as though I'm not alone.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Stuck in the Middle

On June 11 (yes, I know I'm behind on this one, but I'm not in America, so give me a break), NPR did a story on the success of Kevin Donohue's book The Stolen Child thanks to amateur reviewers on Amazon.com.

This past Tuesday, Slate's Jack Schafer published a piece about the NYT's capsule movie reviews.

The nature of journalistic criticism (of books, movies, etc.) is changing. The professional critic/reviewer is less relevant and long, thoughtful reviews seem to be the stuff of yesteryear.

To be honest, I'm not sure how to feel about this. Obviously, at this point I'm certainly no more than an amateur reviewer (especially given the increasing rarity with which I post to this blog), so perhaps this is good news, but I aspire to be a professional, in which case it is bad.

Profound. I know.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Gossip

In a recent post, I said that Paris, je t'aime probably wouldn't make it across the Atlantic to the American market. I still believe that, but I have it on good authority (and the IMDB backs up my source on this) that the producer Emmanuel Benbihy is preparing a New York version that will follow the same format.

Possible titles?

My guess: "From New York to the rest of the World: Surely you must be joking."

Too long? Too wordy?

Ok, New York minute version: "New York to World: Up yours."

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Oh, les Bleus, you were a cruel mistress

Tonight, France lost the World Cup.

I left my friends apartment half-expecting to walk through a field of burning cars on my way to the Metro, but the streets were eerily quiet. When I got on the train, the car was very crowded - especially for so late on a Sunday night - but it might as well have been empty. No one spoke. No one made eye contact.

As I wrote almost a year ago now, I'm not much of a sports fan, but I did get caught up in the wave of France's seemingly unstoppable momentum and, just like with Andre last year, my involvement lead only to disappointment. Mostly, however, I'm just sad that the whole country isn't erupting in a giant party as Italy is undoubtedly doing at this exact moment.

Superman Returns

And I say he's not welcome.

I haven’t seen Superman Returns yet (not out in France), but there’s something about the idea of the film that has me profoundly worried. I’m not particularly concerned about the quality of its content – although, I admit, I have my reservations – but rather about what the films represents.

I think the superhero genre has a lot of potential. In addition to the fact that comic books are basically movie storyboards, I think that the heroes's superpowers nicely reflect our country's status as a superpower. Their internal moral struggle is therefore ours. Superheroes, like America, have great powers (even Batman, whose endless fountains of money and unstoppable sociopathic insanity make up for his mortality and inability to fly) and they have to wrestle with the idea of those powers and what they should do with them. The temptation to misuse those powers is very real, so it's understandable if they occasionally do; they've had little to prepare them for that wealth of responsibility and, in the end, they really are only human.

In turn, then, it's understandable that America will occasionally go wrong and abuse its powers. I'm not saying it's good; I'm saying it's a reality and that, as Americans, it's important for our national identity to be able to be proud of our country even if we sometimes disagree with what it does. I'm not happy that we've invaded Iraq, but Spiderman originally tried to use his superpowers to be a professional wrestler and the Dark Knight basically killed Ra's Al Ghul in Batman Begins. If someone who is unarguably a superhero can do that and still be a superhero, then a great country can make the mistake of invading another country and still be a great country and I don't have to be ashamed to be proud of it, even if that pride is tinted by disappointment.

Superman, however, casts aside moral ambiguity and vulnerability. He is too Good (I'm going to use a capital G to emphasize the moral - as opposed to the qualitative - function of the word) to ever succumb to temptation, laziness, or apathy and he's just about invincible. He has an inhuman lack of flaws. Further, his primary enemy is the embodiment of pure evil. There is no identifying with Lex Luthor. He's just Bad. Dr. Octopus, Magneto, and the aforementioned Ra's Al Ghul, however, are more complex and sympathetic; in the end, they are just shadowy reflections of the heroes who fight to stop them.

Superman was "born" at the dawn of World War II - and there were, in fact, a series of cartoons depicting him fighting the Nazis and the Japanese - so it's logical that he would be such a straightforward, black and white character. In terms of foreign policy, those were more or less straightforward, black and white times. The victors' position as authors of history aside, America was the good guy during World War II, and the Axis powers were the bad guys. Superman was a fine image for those times: a new superhero for a new superpower.

Our friend from Krypton, however, is no longer relevant. Deluding ourselves with his image both sets us up for disappointment and misleads us, because our country can never be as good as he is or as strong and impervious to attack as he is, and it would be wrong for us to believe that it could be. Similarly, it's unfair to use Lex Luthor as a representative of our country's chosen enemies. While the members of Al-Qaeda may do horrible, execrable things; they are not pure evil and to represent them as such is reductive and ignorant.

As I understand it, the movie begins with Superman's return after a prolonged absence and Lois Lane has recently written a story about how, in the end, Metropolis doesn't need Superman. Presumably, the movie goes on to show that in fact it does, and the parallel argument would be that real-life Americans need Superman back in their lives, too. Metropolis, however, is a fictional city with supervillains like Lex Luthor lurking about; once upon a time it was an apt symbol of the real America and the real world, but not anymore. Nowadays, the real America and the real world is more complicated, and pure evil, just like Good, is hard to find. America does not need Superman because we no longer are Superman. We are human, just like our enemies, and we are just as flawed, but that doesn't mean we can't be great.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

La Fête du Cinéma, Part III

Called on account of the World Cup!

Halftime score:
France 1
Spain 1

Allez les bleus!

Monday, June 26, 2006

La Fête du Cinéma, Part II

Theme: The two greatest cities in the world.

I saw two movies tonight. One made me ache for New York and the other made me never want to leave Paris.

Kramer vs. Kramer caught me off-guard. I hadn't read up on it ahead of time and, for some reason, I was expecting a light-hearted comedy. I was quite wrong. It's tragic and sad and difficult to watch at points and entirely worth it. Take Big Daddy, subtract Adam Sandler and all of the stupidity that comes with him, turn the melodrama into sincerity, transform the Hooters references into a hilarious conversation between a 7 year-old boy and a naked lady, and then make it great, and you have Kramer vs. Kramer. There's nothing dynamic or new about the film's style, but its content is so real and vital that, as hard and painful as it looked, part of me wanted to live the life I saw in it.

With Paris, je t'aime, on the other hand, I knew what I was getting into. 19 5-minute shorts, each by a different director, each on a different area of the city.

The list of directors is as follows (alphabetical order):
Olivier Assayas
Frédéric Auburtin
Gurinder Chadha
Sylvain Chomet
The Coen Brothers
Isabel Coixet
Wes Craven
Alfonso Cuarón
Gérard Depardieu
Christopher Doyle
Richard LaGravenese
Vincenzo Natali
Alexander Payne
Bruno Podalydès
Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas
Oliver Schmitz
Nobuhiro Suwa
Tom Tykwer
Gus Van Sant

In most cases, the notable directors just did short versions of what they always do - Tykwer's short is especially very reminiscent of his previous work on Run Lola Run - but they did it well and it turned out to be a charming film with a little bit of everything (it even had vampires).

More than anything else, it made me realize how much I've lived in this city, more here than probably anywhere else. I could see bits of myself and my life in most (not the one with the vampires, sadly) of the brief snapshots, and it felt nice, especially since I was sure that most of the people in the theater probably felt the same way. For that reason, I kind of doubt that this film will make it over to the United States, but if it does, go see it.

Hell, by the time it would come out over there I'd probably be back, so invite me along.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

La Fête du Cinéma Part I
and
The Myth of the Lost Post of June 2006

Today was the first day of La Fête du Cinéma, a three-day festival of nearly free film screenings in every movie theater in France. Of course, Paris - where on any given day you can probably find a theater playing any kind of movie you could possibly want to watch - is the glowing epicenter of all this movie-going and on a rainy day like today, nothing seems more natural than going to the movies.

Today, for me, had a theme: Italian neorealism.

I started the day off with De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, until today another entry on my aforementioned list of movies I'm ashamed to say I've never seen. True to neorealist style, the film is barebones bleak and it doesn't end happily. I thought it offered an interesting perspective on son-to-father hero-worship (especially in the wake of the collapse of fascist Italy) and the malleability of morality in dire circumstances, but it wasn't exactly fun and by the end I was in need of a break.

For an intermission, I watched a Franco-American gay couple have an argument rife with tragicomic language barrier misunderstandings in a cafe on Blvd St. Germain and listened to some Dutch people play some very beautiful music in a very pretty church.

Then back into the fray with Fellini's La Strada. Although technically not neorealist, it certainly feels like it, especially when compared with Fellini's well-known records of decadence La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2. Parts of the movie feel like an Italian cross between I Love Lucy and Duck Soup, but for the most part it's painfully tragic, albeit somewhat reductive and misogynistic. Perhaps because some brief but resonating touches of the fantasy of these other films mix with and soften the film's classically neorealistic dim world view, I greatly preferred this film, even though The Bicycle Thief is certainly the critics' favorite of the two.

And that's it for now. Tune in tomorrow for more summary judgements. Up for viewing: Kramer vs. Kramer and Paris, Je t'aime.

And, yes, the myth: in brief, inspired somewhat by Schubert's Unfinished Symphony (one of the pieces the Dutch played in the pretty church), I've decided to let a post recounting some of last week's activities lie stagnant for a bit. I will finish it eventually and then retroactively post it under June 24, the date it was originally slated for. In the meantime, I'll give updates on my progress and offer you this teaser:

"Sunday Double Feature, la Fête de la Musique, and my very first business trip"
In which I encounter a melting Nazi soldier, dance in the rain, and sneak a knife onto a plane.