Saturday, July 21, 2012


In July 1981 I was sixteen and fat and gay and poor and living in the middle of nowhere.  My only connection to a world outside of this world was the movies, and that summer I stumbled upon not just a movie but a work of art.  I know how pretentious that sounds, but that was the feeling, and it still is.  Brian DePalma's Blow Out came out that July and flopped big time, but I didn't care.  I was so mesmerized by it I went to see it by myself 14 times before it left theaters.  1981 was the summer of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Clash of the Titans, and of course I saw those and loved them deeply, but Blow Out was a deeper pleasure that made me realize that some movies can be experiences beyond what movies are supposed to be.  Blow Out captured a dour, glistening glamour and intensity that allowed me to start thinking about what "art" is. 

Like I said, back in 1981, I was a weird, sad, teenaged queer living in a broke-down house where the electricity would get shut off every other month, with a family that was slowly falling apart, but I also had this extra sensitivity, like an allergy, that made me want to dream.  Not dream about escaping or being "something" (that was way too farfetched), as much as dreaming about dreaming.  Blow Out was the first time I understood what "dreaming" really is artistically:  it's a very disciplined, glossy enterprise, with a vision that sees beyond sight merged with a crazy need to show off and also to make the world understand itself.  DePalma's movie is gorgeous to look at, glittering with cynicism and magically photographed with by Vilmos Zsigmond, and it has an arrogant, demanding spirit that creates a momentum toward wisdom by the end of the story.  It's a wisdom nobody really wants to have access to though, because Blow Out is probably one of the most tragic and depressing political thrillers ever imagined.  It ends with the death of its heroine caused by the impotence of its protagonist. 

Nancy Allen plays the heroine Sally, a part-time prostitute and full-time cosmetologist.  At first when she appears on-screen you think You have to be kidding me.  From the get-go, Allen performs Sally with a Betty Boop affectation, a Cewpie-doll high-pitched voice and Shirley-Temple hair fluffed up into sluttiness.  But as the movie goes on you realize that affectation and soul have merged inside Sally, as if she's lost herself through seduction and sadness.  Allen gives her a tragi-comic grandeur by the end of the movie, and when she does get killed by John Lithgow's fucked-up assassin on the top of a building during a night-time fireworks display, you actually feel connected to her not in a movie-way, but as a real person sacrificed without any real meaning attached to the sacrifice. 
John Travolta is Jack, a sound technician for cheap slasher pictures.  He's out recording some stock sound footage one night when he ear-witnesses a blow out, and inside the car is Sally and a governor slated to be the next POTUS.  Jack saves Sally, but the governor dies, and due to his techy knowledge of sound he pieces together the real story:  the blow out was caused by a gun-shot.  All the cops and politicians and administrators tell Jack to forget the conspiracy, but he just can't.  The whole situation allows Jack to come to an understanding about the world and himself:  he's tired of being fucked with, so he finally takes a stand.  That stand means "wiring" Sally when she's about to be interviewed by reporter who says he believes the conspiracy story.  Jack feels the need to record Sally and the reporter, just in case the reporter turns on them.  It turns out, though, the reporter is actually Lithgow's government-hired, mercenary psycho.    

And there you go:  Sally is murdered while Jack listens through an ear-plug, racing toward her at the top of the building, plowing through a parade celebrating Liberty.  There's an ecstatic moment when Sally reaches out from the building.   Her death-screams eventually make it into one of Jack's slasher picks.

That beauty is a direct result of DePalma's technique.  Everything about Blow Out has the shiny fervid glow of intention, as if each scene has been storyboarded obsessively and then reenacted exactly the way it was envisioned.  The actors move through scenes with a fluidity caused by DePalma's camera's surrpetious slides.  Split-screens and dual focus shots abound.  The cinematopgrahy feels both mechanized and completely organic.  Pino Donaggio's lush, tragic, hyperbolic score allows the whole movie to become orchestrated to the point of no return; the music, mimicking the movie's spirit, is both tragically over-the-top, and a parody of tragedy. 

"Good scream" are the final words in the movie -- spoken by Travolta's Jack during the sound edits for the slasher movie. He is completely broken and dumbfounded and beyond sadness, in a world where suicide seems kind of pointless. Travolta plays the sound-nerd with such finesse he finds glory in the geekiness, and a tortured soul inside a character most actors would play for laughs. In fact the movie's hothouse atmosphere and perverse/reverse sense of patriotism has a parodic edge to it. It's intentional, I think, because DePalma's screenplay is about how patriotism and politics are simply a ruse, a cover for the actual way things work. People get hired to kill people. People get killed. Nobody gives a shit. Move on. That parody is a part of the movie's desire to aestheticize corruption and hopelessness. Nobody cares. Look how beautiful that is.

"Hopelessness" is at the core of Blow Out's style and substance.  "Bad luck" becomes the atmosphere, the air people are breathing.  When I was 16, that sensibility somehow made the world make sense to me in a way a book or a speech never could.  It still does now that I'm 47.  I guess that's what I mean when I say Blow Out is a work of art.  DePalma creates an aesthetic universe that both mocks and truthfully represents this fucked-up world we've made.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


The Newsroom sucks.  I wish it didn't.  Aaron Sorkin is an arrogant genius, creating an alternate universe in the movies and TV shows he writes in which plucky, talkative, overworked, arrogant geniuses talk a lot to each other about how superior they are and the world would be if everyone listened to them and didn't act like idiots.  That blowhard arrogance, when Sorkin is great, becomes a sort of savvy, campy manifesto for workaholic professionals and political geeks.  In The Social Network and The American President, Sorkin's masterpieces, there are moments of pure bliss and the constant talking takes on the high-style rants and rhythms of old-school Hollywood:  "repartee" is the word.  At the center of both movies is a sense of outrage cushioned in the idea that everything will work out once people come to their senses and just do what Aaron Sorkin says. 

In both those movies, though, a slight but kind of creepy sexism runs through the dialog and situations.  Even though the ladies are competent (Annette Benning in The American President is a high-IQ lobbyist, and Mara Rooney in The Social Network is a high-IQ Harvard coed), they are at the service of the main characters:  a genius president and a genius entrepeneur respectively.  That sexism pales in comparison to the outright and weird-assed misogyny in The Newsroom.  Ostensibly about an anchorman who goes a tad bit crazy and starts telling "the truth," instead of what people want to hear, Newsroom is really a bad show because it feels underwritten and overwritten at the same time, and the very premise -- that once upon a time the media really did a good job and helped this country become a great nation! -- is kind of nostalgic and whiny and oversimplified to the point that everything about the show feels forced, even the set design.  Jeff Daniels plays the anchor-guy and every time he's on screen (which is a majority of the time) you just want to turn the channel.  He's grumpy and conceited and I bet his breath smells bad.  And he bloviates to the point no one really in their right mind should really give a shit what he says.  In short he's Keith Olberman. 

It's the misogyny, though, that really makes Newsroom horrible.  Almost all of the villains in the piece are "gossips." The very idea of "gossip" is feminized in the show's cosmology, and every character who is seen as worthless is morethanlikely either a right-winged moron, or a female "gossip," including all those immoral housewives on Bravo, and most of the ladies sitting in fancy, shiny Washington DC restaurants with pomegranite martinis and really long fingernails.  Sorkin is creating a completely black and white universe in this show -- the "us" are all the smart, smart-alecky, earnest guys in the newsroom, and the "them" are those bitches who gossip outside of it (Queen Bitch is played by Jane Fonda, God Love her, as the conservative owner of the network).  These gossipers pollute the media with their singsong doggerel.  Real newspeople are truth-tellers and well, guys.  Guys who are so pissed they stay late, drink hard, don't make good boyfriends, and risk getting fired because the truth-telling is so goddamn important it just might kill them.  

But these heroics are vacuous of course.  And the "us versus them" is just plain sad.  

The only bright spot:  Emily Mortimer as Daniels' executive producer.  Even with a role that makes her swing back and forth from competent, dirty-talking, one-of-the-boys producer to spurned and bumbling ex-lover, Mortimer brings a gravity and a patience to her role that makes her moments on screen close to authentic, even though she's having to speak a lot of Sorkinisms.  

I wish they'd give her a spin-off.  And yup -- please ask someone else to write it.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Girls, Girls, Girls

When I first read about Girls, Lena Dunham's TV show about her and her friends' semi-Bohemian exploits in a less than romantic NYC, the show sounded like a gritty, mean-spirited version of Sex in the City (something nobody wants to see I don't think).  So I forgot about it.  I finally got around to watching the whole thing in its entirety on HBO on Demand this week, and surprisingly it's a revelation -- like someone took a Mary Gaitskill book of short stories, got rid of all the fusty/creepy self-hatred but kept the smart, off-kilter situations, and created a new way to represent young women without all the prissy finery and pretentious apologetics. 

Dunham is overweight, neurotic, narcissistic, and full of desire, and her sexual exploits with her Asperger-y boyfriend are just so odd and joyful that you feel like these two people are completely original, not types typed up for a TV show, but creatures from some other world gracing ours so we can see how silly and wonderful people truly are.  The boyfriend is played by Adam Sackler and is a pale body-builder with a melted Norman-Rockwell-paperboy face with a Russian shade of sadism shining out of his eyes.  Their relationship truly is the sun the show orbits.

The other girls are not as odd sadly enough, but still have a charm and charge all their own.  Obviously Sex in the City is a touchstone here, but it's also the mother all of them are making fun of.  And the piss-poor economy also haunts the show, as Dunham's Hanna goes from crappy job to crappy job after being cut off by her professor parents.  All the episodes have a home-made quality to them, but also are crafted like little movies.  Tiny Furniture, Dunham's 2010 movie debut, was a bit twee, enjoyable but a little too enjoyable somehow -- as if Dunham was trying way too hard to be the next Woody Allen.  In Girls she's just being herself thank God:  unpleasantly plump, nervous, and unafraid of letting us in on all of it.