*Margaret* as Gerard Manley Hopkins film adaptation

Kenneth Lonergan’s 2011 movie Margaret, his vexed sequel to You Can Count on Me (you may have read the NYT Magazine piece on “Lonergan’s Thwarted Masterpiece”), could plausibly considered as a film adaptation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ great poem “Spring and Fall.”  That’s pushing the boundaries of how we usually define an adaptation, but the movie can serve as an intriguing limit case for how far the concept can be stretched.

Here’s the poem:

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

One of many details about the film that the producers probably were not crazy about is the fact that there is no character in it named Margaret.  The movie stars Anna Paquin as Lisa Cohen, a troubled Manhattan private school teenager (Paquin is 30 now with twins but was only 23 or so when the movie’s shooting wrapped in 2005), raised by an actress single mother, who witnesses and bears some responsibility for a tragic bus accident that leads to a pedestrian’s death.  The movie reminded me to a surprising degree of the excellent recent Iranian art-house hit A Separation: both movies use a similar structure to explore the legal, psychological, and ethical aftermath of a deadly accident, paying close to attention to the impact on this process of class differences and class privilege.

I thought Paquin gave a really good performance as Lisa, a pretty insufferable yet, to me, still sympathetic, spoiled and unhappy teenager trying to figure out how to be an ethical person or how to respond ethically to a tragedy.

Lisa is Hopkins’ Margaret (King Lear is another intertext, by the way).  The main thrust of the movie explores the process by which she “weeps” and “know[s] why,” coming to “sights colder” and encountering the “blight man was born for”, namely an understanding of death and loss.

The movie is very interested in pedagogy and classroom experience and how “learning” of various forms occurs.  Two of the primary supporting roles are played by Matthew Broderick (who apparently ended up bankrolling part of the film) and Matt Damon as teachers at this Dalton or St Ann’s-like NYC tony private school.  The Damon character is specified as being from Indiana, so you know he’s upstanding and a bit naive. You really start to feel for these earnest teachers (or at least I did) as they struggle to teach and expand the horizons of their very bright, privileged, rather unbearably narcissistic charges.  (Although I also felt a little envious at how quick the students are to talk and argue in class!)  The title of the movie comes from a particular scene where Broderick is teaching “Spring and Fall”, but the themes of the poem extend throughout the movie as Lisa undergoes hard lessons in self-awareness and moving beyond her self-centered worldview.

I just found this “interactive feature” that tries to match short clips from the film to particular lines in the poem— I think the connections could use some further glossing, though (I just watched the video for “And yet you will weep and know why” and am not clear why the makers of this widget chose that scene in particular for this line).

We watched the 150-minute theatrical release, but now I kind of wish we’d gone for the three-hour director’s cut.  The version we saw is a strange and somewhat awkward movie but also at times a ravishingly beautiful one that offers all kinds of food for thought — I haven’t even touched on what it does with theater and opera (the moving final scene involved a kind of catharsis as Lisa and her Broadway actress mother watch Offenbach’s The Tales Of Hoffmann at the Met) or how it works as a post- 9/11 movie exploring the consequences of that trauma in and for NYC (remember, shooting was completed back in 2005).

This is a good piece, from a blog about music in film, that presses on a line from the movie, Lisa’s protest, “My life isn’t an opera!”  As the author of the blog argues, Margaret ultimately does become not just operatic but a kind of opera in film.  And I think one could make a similar claim about the film’s relationship to Hopkins’ poem.  All in all, it’s a movie with interesting things to say about cross-media representations and influences.

Don Winslow’s *Savages*: A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of O.

Is there a verb for going back to read the book that inspired a new movie?  Retroreading or some such?  I have not seen Oliver Stone’s adaptation of Don Winslow’s novel Savages but was inspired by the coverage of the movie (and reviews of the novel’s sequel) to check it out.

I get why it was popular/successful… it has a Quentin Tarantino/ Elmore Leonard / James Ellroy hipness, speed, sex, violence and general nastiness that makes for a quick and in some ways fun read.  I didn’t love it, though.

One problem: I found the basic premise of much of the story to be implausibly silly.  (Spoilers to follow, but I won’t give away the actual ending.) The high-end Berkeley Laguna Beach [Ben’s parents are Berkeley liberals and he went to UC Berkeley] pot dealers Chon and Ben cross a brutal Mexican drug cartel who respond by kidnapping their friend/ shared girlfriend/ girl-toy Ophelia a.k.a. “O” and threatening to behead her if Chon and Ben fail to comply with every demand.  Our Laguna stoner young men in turn start putting on masks and robbing the drug cartel… who for some inexplicable reason can’t seem to decide if this sudden string of bold robberies, performed by two tall white men in masks, might just possibly be connected to Chon and Ben.  So they leave “O” alone and allow plenty of time for the revenge/recapture of O plot to unwind.

I also think the book is ultimately racist in effect in ways that turns up the general nastiness/nihilism factor to an uncomfortable degree.  Every brown-skinned person in the book, pretty much, is a disgusting, sadistic, torturing thug. (There are some semi-exceptions like O’s relatively good-hearted guard.  Aww, he loves his girlfriend!)  The book turns into what’s hard not to read as an allegory of slacker white America shaking off its pot lethargy and rising up to kick the ass of the brutal brown invaders.

This theme is laid out explicitly towards the end:

Chon has read a lot of history.

The Romans used to send their legions out to the fringes of the empire to kill barbarians.  That’s what they did for hundreds of years, but then they stopped doing it.  Because they were too distracted, too busy fucking, drinking, gorging themselves.  So busy squabbling over power they forgot who they were, forgot their culture, forgot to defend it.

The barbarians came in.

And it was over.

Winslow to some degree protects himself against accusations of racism with occasional ironic shifts in perspective when we see that to some of the Mexican narco-terrorist types, it’s Chon and Ben and O., in their shiftless Anglo ways, who are are the “savages.”  I didn’t really buy it, though, and it’s not enough of a counter-weight against the morbid wallowing in visions of the sadistic kingpin Lado contemplating the rape and then beheading of O.  It’s a classic old-fashioned captivity narrative with the beautiful Anglo in the clutches of the dark-skinned savage, with all the suspense of the narrative depending on the question of whether she will be rescued before she is raped.

[That one of our heroes is named “Chon” is perhaps symptomatic of the tensions/ambiguities around ethnicity in the novel… it sounds like a Hispanic name, but it’s actually a nickname for John]

The nastiness is often witty but felt too xenophobic/racist in worldview in the end for my tastes.  And the premise of the revenge plot just didn’t make sense to me.  That said, it does have style to burn and can be pretty funny.

I’ve read very mixed reports on the Oliver Stone movie: some seem to see it as a return to form and his best film in years, but I’ve seen a couple reviews that call it borderline unwatchable and absurd.

Bringing Up Hush Puppy: Free-range Child-Rearing in *Beasts of the Southern Wild*

As I watched the in-many-ways great Beasts of the Southern Wild I kept thinking about recent debates and publications I’ve read about child-rearing, specifically those that discuss the tension between “helicopter” or over-protective vs. “free-range” parenting and related issues.  I recommend therapist Madeline Levine’s new book Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, [link to NYT review] which covers a lot, but perhaps offers as its biggest take-away the lesson that parents who believe they can control every facet of their children’s experiences are both kidding themselves and damaging their kids by denying them the potential to achieve autonomy/ become their own people.  I also thought about the much-discussed recent Elizabeth Kolbert New Yorker piece “Spoiled Rotten: Why Do Kids Rule the Roost?” which compared American middle/upper-middle class child-reading methods with those of the Peruvian Amazonian tribe the Matsigenka, in which six-year old children uncomplainingly clean, do household chores, and fish for, clean, boil, and serve to others crustaceans from the river.  (Whereas the typical elite American kid apparently is too busy nurturing his special, college-admissions-bait talents to do anything as mundane as household chores.)  Bringing up Bebe, which everyone seemed to be discussing his summer (even if they, like me, had just read reviews of it — although I did glance through it at one point), is also part of this conversation, in its advocacy of French-style parenting that expects children to behave in more responsible/ autonomous ways.

The New Yorker published an interesting letter in response to Kolbert’s article from an anthropologist named Nicholas Emlen who wrote,

During my recent nineteen months of anthropological fieldwork in Matsigenka communities, I, too, was impressed by the self-reliance and maturity expected of children. But Matsigenka hands-off parenting also has its disadvantages. I met several young children who had suffered serious, permanent injuries while cooking and hunting without adult supervision. Additionally, Matsigenka parents generally do not encourage their children to pursue education beyond primary school—although in recent years, many Matsigenka parents have begun to think of education as essential. To this end, these parents are trying to be more supportive of their children’s intellectual development, allowing them to spend afternoons doing homework, rather than collecting firewood, for instance. While Kolbert hopes that her sons will pitch in and “become a little more Matsigenka,” many Matsigenka parents are modifying their parenting strategies so that their children may one day become a little more like Kolbert’s sons.

So anyway, I was thinking about these sorts of questions while watching the movie.  Beasts of the Southern Wild stars a rather incredible child actress, Quvenzhané Wallis (who was in fact six during the movie’s filming!), playing the six-year-old Hush Puppy who lives with her single father Wink in “the Bathtub,” a fictitious bayou community in Louisiana.  And, like the children of the same age in the Matsigenka, she catches and cleans her own crustaceans; there’s a memorable scene in which all the adults chant for her to “beast” a crab, which means to snap it in half and suck out the meat. (We went to the movie with a vegetarian friend who found the Man vs. Beast dynamics a bit much throughout.)

The events of the movie, which reminded me a little of Zola Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, occur before, during, and after a massive Katrina-like storm that floods the Bathtub and leaves Hush Puppy, Wink and their friends stranded and floating in a house turned house-boat. Hush Puppy is an almost absolutely “free-range” child– or we could use the word neglected, or even abused.  Her mother has vanished and she does not even live with her father, who has his own shack next door.  She eats canned cat foot, and (this was a pretty hilarious moment, actually) starts a semi-functional gas stove by donning a helmet-face mask and lighting the gas with a flame thrower.  (This does not turn out well.)  Wink cares for and seems to love his daughter, but often ignores her and sometimes hits her.  Before the storm, she wanders around completely unsupervised.  In many ways, not just shellfish cleaning, her experience seems more like that of a Matsigenka child than a contemporary middle-class American.

In the still used for the movie poster, above, Hush Puppy is running with her hands full of fireworks.  Having recently supervised my kids as they used sparklers, I winced at the sight of her holding what seem to be much higher-power firecrackers in a setting where all of the adults are falling-off-their-chairs drunk.  On the other hand, she is certainly having a blast.

The movie continually prompted me to spiral through a series of reactions along those lines.  First, something like “oh no!” — judging her father to be criminally neglectful —  and then a counter-reaction of recognizing that Hush Puppy gets to experience things and sensations that the film represents as intensely meaningful and valuable.  Yes, her father and his friends are always drunk and Hush Puppy appears to be in grave danger of injury throughout the movie, but we see her immersed in a vivid world in which she interacts with the natural world and animals and nature, learns quickly how to take care of herself, and develops a fierce loyalty to her community and friends.

The movie could definitely be accused of romanticizing the Bathtub’s primitive world, and there are whiffs of pretty familiar strains of nostalgic, even slightly noble-savage-type valorizing of that world as a refreshing antidote to the sterile, heartless bureaucracy that is contemporary middle-class life — represented by the professional-class administrators who try to keep Wink and Hush Puppy in a disaster-relief tent city after they’ve been forcibly evacuated.  (The review in Salon took this approach, even suggesting that is offers a “dangerous political message.”)

To my mind, though, although I can certainly see the reviewer’s point, the movie is best approached as a non-realist (and often rapturously beautiful) fairy tale that, notwithstanding inescapable Katrina parallels, is certainly not trying to offer any sociologically accurate view of rural Louisiana or anything like that.  (I thought it was telling that it’s based on a stage play.)  Sarah commented that the whole Bathtub community reminded her a bit of the Popeye comics’ world.  Or maybe the fictionalized Okefenokee Swamp of the Pogo comics?  A wildly fantastical vision of a little girl’s dangerous idyll among the cat-fish, dogs, and wild boars of her imagination-infused surroundings, and a somewhat wishful (and yes, romantic) fantasy of how a child could live in a state of continual risky wildness.

Memo to self: demand that the kids procure and prepare fresh crab dinner for us this weekend.  Beast it!

New print of *Children of Paradise* (1945)

I saw Children of Paradise (1945), which was at some point voted the greatest French film of all time, in a new print at the IU Cinema a few days ago. It is absolutely gorgeous, the luminous newly-restored print as blemish-free as a new movie (as if a movie like this would be made today).  The film, about bohemian theater folk in 1820s-30s Paris, is often described as the apotheosis of what the French New Wave was reacting against: a thoroughly luxurious, labor-intensive, classical cinema in which every shot, performance, and piece of design was obviously planned with extreme care and forethought. It “marks the culmination of France’s Golden Age of moviemaking.  Never again would the French cinema produce a film so unashamedly literate and lavish” (Edward Turk, Child of Paradise: Marcel Carne and the Golden Age of French Cinema, 1989). Because the Nazis, occupying Paris at the time of its filming, would only allow 90-minute maximum films (why were 100-minute movies degenerate?), it was shot in two 90-minute parts with an intermission between.  The narrative’s main love quadrangle (or quintangle?) is established in Part I, and then 10 years have passed in Part II when the various principals re-encounter one another, some of them now famous and successful.

Children of Paradise contains a protagonist, Baptiste, who must be one model of that much-maligned French type, the mime.  My favorite scene may be the very first one, a very famous (I believe) panoramic tracking shot of the “Boulevard de Crimes,” teeming with activity and commerce, where Baptiste (at this point an unemployed and disrespected mime whose unloving father is a star of a local theater) witnesses a pick-pocketing of which the small-time actress-model Garance is initially accused (he provides her alibi).  Garance, with whom Baptiste promptly falls in love, has a not-so-successful highbrow peep-show act in which she plays a nude Venus who is only partially visible because immersed in an elevated barrel of water. This opening scene brilliantly establishes the film’s preoccupations with theater, duplicity, disguise, ambition, love & lust, and crime.  (It has probably influenced countless other movies, but Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy came to mind for me in particular as an analogue in its depiction of a chaotic 19th-century backstage theater world.)

I learned from Wikipedia that the star Arletty, who plays Garance, “was imprisoned in 1945 for having had a wartime liaison with a German officer…. She allegedly later commented on the experience, “My heart is French but my ass is international.””  Good line, but yikes!  Arietty seems to have been 47 or so when the movie was filmed, and I found it a bit confusing that she was supposed to be playing a fresh young ingenue in the first part.

Edward Turk again from 1989: “Until that unlikely time when movie viewers become unresponsive to impeccably mounted displays of grand feeling and form, Les Enfants du paradis will retain a privileged position among film masterworks.”  Let’s see, top grossing films of 2011 include Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides— is it possible that this sad day has in fact arrived?  Anyway, be sure to catch this new print of Children of Paradise when the DVD comes out…

Steve Erickson’s Cineautistic *Zeroville*

I found this on the “recommended reading” shelf at the public library — thanks, hipster librarian!  I’d read reviews of Zeroville (2007) when it came out but had forgotten about it and had never read any Erickson.  It’s a great Hollywood novel.  In fact, if I had any minor criticism it might be that it could be accused of straining just a little to be The Great Hollywood Novel, with its mythopoetic tendencies and highly self-aware self-positioning in relation to 20th-century Hollywood and film history & literary representations of H’wood from Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West onward.  (As Liesl Shillinger pointed out in her NYT review of the novel, it follows a parallel trajectory to Peter Biskind’s great non-fiction Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ’n’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, and could almost be seen as an attempt to retell this history as visionary fiction).  The protagonist is a semi-autistic mystery — a character aptly describes him as “cineautistic” at one point — named Vikar with an image of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor from George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun tattooed on his skull who shows up in Hollywood on the week of the Manson murders– for which he’s promptly taken into questioning.  He ends up falling in with some bohemian film types and eventually gets taught film editing by an older woman who seems maybe modeled on Thelma Shoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s legendary editor since the 1960s.

It’s a running joke that people tend to mistake the image of Clift and Taylor on Vikar’s skull for James Dean and Natalie Wood, an error which enrages Vikar notwithstanding his admiration for Wood.  In fact early on he slams someone over the head with a cafeteria tray for the mistake, although he subsequently gets better at controlling his violent rages.

Vikar turns out to be a visionary, intuitive film editor — can’t think offhand of any other novelists with film-editor protagonists, btw; it doesn’t exactly rank with police detective or cowboy as an iconic fictional occupation — who is nominated for an Oscar for his ground-breaking work on a film, Pale Blue Eyes (which Erickson says is the only made-up film in the whole novel) that had been viewed as an unredeemable disaster by the studio after shooting.  While working on this film in Madrid he is, in effect, kidnapped in order to moonlight as editor for a propaganda film for an insurgency revolutionary organization.  His success allows him to begin collecting original prints of classic films which he does not screen but simply hoards.  Among other things the book is a nice collection of lists for one’s Netflix queue:

He sees Performance, Preminger’s Laura (for the third time), Murmur of the Heart, Gilda, Disney’s Pinocchio, The Battle of Algiers,… Dirty Harry…, an old forties movie called Criss Cross where Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo drive each other mad across what seems to Vikar a fantastical downtown Los Angeles with trolley cars that glide through the air…

The book winds up exploring Vikar’s obsessive quest for the key to what amounts to a kind of cabalistic, secret history of cinema as encoded in a magical single cinematic frame which has, in some inscrutable manner, migrated from Cary Dreyer’s 1928 La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc to a contemporary porn movie and, it turns out, elsewhere (not to give too much away).

The novel is halfway between the genres of fiction and film criticism (Erickson is himself also a film critic) in its brooding, incantatory obsession with the mysteries & magic of the cinematic image at their most “deeply irrational and even rapturous” (a phrase I take from an interview with Erickson).  I wonder if it’s ever taught in film history or theory classes; it could work well as a final text.  It also offers a broader history of modern Hollywood including, among other things, accounts of the birth and development of punk rock (Vikar becomes the guardian for a kid in a band in the early 80s L.A. scene along with X, the Dils, the Germs, and so forth).  Reminds me a bit of Bruce Wagner’s earlier novels, and shares with Wagner a tendency to drop in references to real-life stars and events, although the mode is less satirical, more reverent and appreciative of Hollywood’s history (although similarly fascinated by its frightening and disturbing undersides).

Its film rights apparently been optioned by James Dean lookalike James Franco, which makes a lot of sense, it actually seems like a great match for Franco.

Maybe in France: *A Town Called Panic*

Things that happen in the animated stop-action film A Town Called Panic, featuring lurching plastic toys prone to voluble shouting in French, available streaming on Netflix:

  • For Horse’s birthday party, a little temporary bar is set up in the basement and everyone drinks too much.  Afterwards the policeman’s wife comments, “I should’ve charged more for beers.”  I have never seen so much drunkenness in a kids’ animated movie!  This must have been part of what prompted one dissatisfied Netflix commentator to opine, “This is presented as a children’s movie but it is not. Maybe in France children are exposed to such language and debauchery but not in my house.” Another review: “This should have been called, ‘A Town Called Hypertension.’ It was like being yelled at non-stop by an angry, coke-snorting Frenchman.”  Not coke, though: just lots and lots of coffee.  At one point Policeman devours a piece of toast several times his size spread with Nutella and then actually smashes through the coffee mug in his passionate enthusiasm.
  • Cowboy and Indian go online to order 50 bricks to build a barbecue for Horse’s birthday, but the key sticks and they accidentally order 50 million bricks.  To hide them, they stack them in a huge cube on Horse’s house, which collapses that night.
  • Horse sets Cowboy (which he pronounces “Cowboy” in his old-French-man accent) and Indian to rebuilding the house, but when they wake up, their walls are missing.  It turns out they are stolen every night by sea monkey creatures (with plastic flippers) that emerge from the pond.  The thieves carry down the wall into an undersea world where they construct their own home.  It takes a while to figure this out, however.
  • Oh, I should stop, there is too much.  Eventually Horse, Cowboy and Indian, along with one of the sea-monkey thieves, Gerard, fall to the core of the earth where their cellphone falls into the lava… And then end up on the North Pole, where they discover some brilliant and possibly evil (?) scientists who live inside a giant robot penguin they’ve created, passing their time manipulating the penguin robot to form huge snowballs which they throw hundred of miles at targets chosen for fun.  Eventually our heroes escape by planting themselves into one of these snowballs, which they have aimed back at the bucolic French village where they live (and where Horse is late for his music lessons taught by the sexy lady horse).  But, Gerard the sea monkey has re-directed the penguin, so when they are all tossed through the air, they land in the middle of the sea…

In sum, this is a truly demented movie and very fun… we all loved it.  As another Netflix commentator observed, “The characters act just as if we are watching children playing with them, wild imagination and all. You have absolutely no idea of where this is going, what is going to happen next. The events only make sense in the framework of some kids playing.”  This is true–  the storyline can only be rationalized as some kind of extrapolation from a crazy kids’ game.

The closest parallel would be the early Aardman Entertainment Wallace & Gromit shorts, yet those are models of sober, careful, traditionally crafted plot development by comparison.  (Of course there’s a certain parallel with the Toy Story franchise, too.)

The Frenchness of it all is wonderful, too.  The drinking, coffee, the “ohh la las!” and “ah no!”s,  Nutella, the charming village in which people get drunk, argue, take music lessons, and bicker about their walls, gardens, and ponds.

Evil Santa: *Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale*

I had been looking forward for quite some time to seeing this strange-sounding Finnish film, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a sort of Finnish Santa Claus horror movie.  Very high-concept: evil Santa (one-upping Bad Santa).  Brief synopsis from Wikipedia:

The film focuses on a group of local reindeer herders whose Christmas is disturbed by excavations on the mountain. A scientist has ordered a team of workers to dig open what he calls “the largest burial mound in the world”. An explosive used by the team uncovers what is referred to as a “sacred grave”. However, the occupant of the grave is still alive. Soon, the reindeer important to the local people are mysteriously killed, and children and supplies begin to disappear from the town. It emerges that the occupant is the source of the original Santa Claus myth; a supernatural being who, rather than rewarding good children, punishes the naughty. One family, however, manages to catch the culprit in a trap, and plans to sell it to the scientist to cover the losses caused by his excavation.

The movie reminded us in various ways of the great Trollhunter (here’s my earlier commentary on that one): a smart & scrappy low-budget Nordic independent film that draws on indigenous mythology & folklore in clever ways to make a fresh kind of American-style action/horror genre film.  Rare Exports is not quite as thoroughly excellent as Trollhunter, IMO, and is a bit more of an extended high-concept joke.  “Evil Santa Claus as Finnish legend” is a good enough joke to sustain the movie, though.

I read the film as being an allegory about Finnish/ Nordic cultural production and “exports” in a global cultural marketplace.  It begins with young Pietari and his friend Juuso peeking through a fence at a group of Americans conducting an high-tech anthropological dig with explosives.  There’s an evil-seeming group leader with a strange pseudo-American accent whose manner suggests that there’s something nefarious going on.  Meanwhile we learn that Pietari lives alone with his angry single father Rauno — the mother has died — and that the family subsists on reindeer herding and hunting.  First, a vast herd of reindeer is found slaughtered, apparently by wolves, but what kind of wolves would kill so many deer indiscriminately and leave the corpses untouched?  Next, the town’s children (including Juuso) start disappearing.

Pietari, who has a bedroom filled with books about Finnish folklore, has a better understanding than anyone else in the town of the old legends of an evil, terrifying Santa Claus figure who was buried in the ice by Laplanders thousands of years ago.  The rapacious Americans have hatched a plan to dig up Santa for profit– but where did Santa go?

So, we have a closed-off, local, indigenous Nordic community scraping by on traditional pastimes, particularly hunting reindeer.  In a globalized 21st century run by multinational corporate types like the Americans, this is not sustainable (not much of a market for reindeer, which is local and Finnish in ways that don’t translate or “export” well).  The American crew plans to swoop in and steal local Finnish culture (in the form of Santa Claus) to monetize it for an international market.  But a scrappy, abandoned Finnish boy and his angry father save the day by using their wits and strength and understanding of local traditions to seize control of their own native culture for themselves, thereby gaining economic self-sufficiency and healing the wound left by the absent/dead mother (= an original older form of local culture, pre-globalization).

This is a spoiler: In the movie’s surprise ending, son and dad and a friend package Santa (sort of) and his elves and literally ship them off to a global audience that is eager for examples of authentic local culture.  This seems a pretty direct allegory of the film itself.  The rapacious Americans represent global/Americanized popular culture, which strip-mines the world’s heritage and profits from it.  But resistance is possible for those who can combine techniques, forms and methods from that 21st-century global pop culture (e.g. Hollywood-style horror/suspense genre film tropes) with authentic, rooted local materials (e.g. the Finnish folklore that goes into the film).  So when Pietari and his dad are boxing up the elves for export, they represent the filmmakers themselves, Pietari embodying a new generation of Finns who can break free of old assumptions of what constitutes tradition (i.e. his father’s previous belief that hunting reindeer is the only way to make a living) and find savvy ways to market their heritage in forms palatable to the new global world.  (Of course the critique would be that in this process, the putatively authentic culture gets homogenized, rendered bland: no more truly scary Santa Claus.)  A clever horror film proves a more sustaining way to put food on the table than reindeer meat.  And these local reindeer-hunters transform themselves into savvy global marketers, a bit like the kinds of entrepreneurs who figure out new ways to export local/native crafts or artwork for the 10,000 Villages kind of marketplace.

You could think about the excellent 2008 Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In as an example of this dynamic, too.

I also have to cite this amusing Netflix review by an aggrieved defender of Santa, Christmas, and Christ:

Horrible film. Whoever created this film sure has a beef with Santa Claus. … Santa Clause and his elves are depicted as creepy, skinny, buck naked, evil beings. Hmmm, Santa Claus historically is part of the celebration of CHRISTmas and if Santa Claus is evil then….. Poor Santa gets a double whammy, first he’s evil and at the end of the film, he’s massed produced (a market commodity) on an assembly line and “programmed” by the boy who makes these Santas into droid-like Santas. If you don’t BELIEVE in CHRISTmas or Santa and want to strip your child of the pleasure, magic and joy of Santa and the hope, joy and love that CHRISTmas brings to the world, here’s your film.

Actually this reminds me that Trollhunter had an interesting anti-Christian theme to it (the trolls despise Christians; of course one could possibly interpret this as pro-Christian, defining them as martyrs, but I don’t really think it plays that way in the film).

Here’s the original 2003 short film that was the first version of Rare Exports– more sheer comedy/satire:

Lucking out/ real bitter? James Wolcott’s memoir

As a kind of followup to the Kael bio, I also read the James Wolcott memoir,  Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York.  I somehow did not realize that Wolcott (whom I associate with Vanity Fair) began his career and was generally known for years not only as a Village Voice writer but as a sometime rock critic.  (“Somehow” because I was a devoted reader of the Voice, especially its music section, in the early & mid 1980s, not long after his time writing for it.) Walcott dropped out of Frostberg State U. in Maryland as a sophomore after he sent a piece of his to Norman Mailer, who promised to put a word in for him to a Voice editor once Wolcott graduated.  Wolcott proceeded to quit school on the spot and move to NYC and eventually, through persistence/ refusing to go away, parlayed that recommendation into a job answering phones, from where he began to do some writing.  Pretty soon, at age 19-20, he was covering the nascent punk rock scene — he published one of the first raves about Patti Smith, well before the release of Horses — and covered television as a regular beat (not to mention the band Television, along with Talking Heads and other CBGBs bands). He soon became a protege/buddy of Pauline Kael’s (he became somewhat notorious for a later Vanity Fair take-down of her followers “the Paulettes,” which was taken as apostasy and an act of betrayal –one of her other rival proteges labels him a “self-promoting asshole” or some such in her biography; he does not discuss this in the book but it came up in the Fresh Air interview); became obsessed with the New York City Ballet; and he also dedicates a section of the book to Times Square pornography in the 1970s.  He doesn’t push this too strongly but there’s an implicit thread in the book in which Wolcott charts his own experience as a fan, critic, and consumer of these different parallel art forms and media (punk rock, movies, ballet, porn), within all of which in this period the representation and expression of bodies, sexuality, physicality, gender transformed.  Wolcott is very much a critic and an observer; he refers in passing to his own sex life, for example, but greater emphasis is placed on the represented bodies and lives he wrote about.  As “semi-dirty” in the title hints, Wolcott portrays himself as a watcher, a bit prudish and reserved even in the grimiest occasions in Times Square or the Bowery or otherwhere in a NYC that was close to falling apart entirely:

It wasn’t just the criminality that kept you laser-alert, the muggings and subway-car shakedowns, it was the crazy paroxyms that punctuated the city, the sense that much of the social contract had suffered a psychotic break.  That strip of upper Broadway [where Wolcott lived] was the open-air stage for acting-out episodes from unstable patients dumped from mental health facilities, as I discovered when I had to dodge a fully-loaded garbage can flung in my direction by a middle-aged man who still had a hospital bracelet on one of his throwing arms.

By and large he managed to side-step the garbage and keep himself more or less clean (not a drinker or much of a drug user).  Wolcott is an aesthete and a literary stylist — you have to have patience for his kind of elaborate sentences to enjoy the book — and you get the sense of this style as something he developed, in part, as a protection against the threatening urban scene.  (He talks about giving up on punk rock in the late 70s when it became too much about bad politics, skinheads, vomit, and spit– you can feel a visceral distaste.)

I was just checking out the customer reviews of the book on Amazon.  One person comments:

For anyone even mildly curious about New York, movies, punk, journalism, writing, ballet, or the Times Square of the “Taxi Driver” era, this book should not be missed. Think of it as Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” only with real intellectuals as opposed to fake ones.

Another less appreciative reader observes,

Just can’t imagine many general readers caring about office politics at the Village Voice, fringe critic Lester Bangs, punk rock at CBGSs, why ballet makes him woozy, the seamy 70s porn scene, Wolcott[‘s] relationship with movie critic Pauline Kael…

Ha!  I guess I was a perfect reader for this, as just about all of those topics interest me to some degree.  (This reader does not mention Wolcott’s discussions of Ellen Willis and Robert Christgau, a power couple in counter-cultural journalism in the early 70s; especially indelible is an account of Christgau walking around his and Willis’s tiny downtown apartment in tight red speedos.)  As an occasional writer for the Voice’s music section in the 1990s, I was fascinated by the account of earlier days at the paper, and I thought Wolcott evocatively captured the special feeling of the Voice in the days before email, when all copy had to be dropped off on paper in a physical file.  Human presence, embodied personalities, were so much more central to the operations of publishing, criticism and writing, all of which, Wolcott suggests, have now become much more “lonely.”  When I was first doing freelance writing circa 1991, this was just beginning to change and I too remember dropping by the Spin offices to leave my copy (offering opportunities for schmoozing/ gossiping) or sitting down with Voice music editor Joe Levy to line-edit my reviews (of American Music Club and the Go-Betweens — those are the first two I remember); I recall those sessions as an intensive education in journalistic writing that I expect is difficult to come by today.  (I never did meet Robert Christgau, although he was around.)  Wolcott’s example shows that counter-cultural/arts journalism in the 1970s was a place where an (exceptionally) smart lower-middle-class kid without even a college degree could get an apprenticeship and eventually transform himself into a well-known writer and intellectual.  This is no longer true — that arts weekly journalism institutional space no longer exists.  Blogs to some degree have replaced it, but serious/rigorous arts criticism as such offers much less of a career opportunity these days (to understate it).

[btw, Wolcott comes up several times as well in Will Hermes’s new book, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever, which I’ve so far only skimmed a bit.]

There’s a funny/poignant moment when Wolcott speculates about what might have been if he had specialized and chosen a stronger focus, as a critic, on literature, rather than covering such a wide range of topics.  “I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had found true fruition in book reviewing and taken up literary criticism as my sole vocation, putting aside childish things” (he means here primarily writing about t.v.).  Next line: “I bet I’d be real bitter now.”

Slight ambiguity there: does he mean “real bitter” as opposed to just slightly bitter?  The title of the book underlines Wolcott’s sense that he was very lucky in his lucked-into career, but does he feel lucky now?  There’s an elegiac feeling to his story of, among other things, the decline of the Voice and of arts journalism and reviewing generally (film critic J. Hoberman was apparently just laid off from the Voice as I write this, by the way, eliminating one of the last remaining great arts critics there).  I’m not sure how secure Wolcott’s present position is (he is among other things a blogger for Vanity Fair), but he obviously feels something has been lost both personally and for the intellectual scene more generally.

Of course, there are other explanations for an elegiac sense to the book, such as Wolcott’s references of the coming onslaught of AIDS in the early 1980s, at the end of his narrative.  On a more personal note, his friendship with Kael also has a bittersweet feel, at least for a reader coming to his book from the Kael biography, which explains how she cut him off following his publication of the “Paulettes” piece in Vanity Fair.  I was a bit surprised he does not address this falling out, perhaps because it is still too painful?  or possibly simply because it occurred outside the 70s time-frame of the book, although Kael is such a major mentor figure here that it feels odd not to mention it.

Live-blogging the Pauline Kael biography

[Kael with French actor and producer Jacques Perrin an Cannes in 1977.  AP photo from NYT: http://tinyurl.com/82kg3z5]

Well, not really, I just finished it (Brian Kellow’s Pauline Kael: a Life in the Dark)… It might be of limited interest to anyone lacking at least some pre-existing interest in Kael’s career and movie criticism — most of the key events of her life did involve movie reviews — but it was irresistible reading for me and made me realize how influential Kael was on my thinking as a kid/teenager.  Among other things, the book is simply a great chronological digest of some of her most memorable pieces and greatest lines.  It would be a good double feature with the great Easy Riders and Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and Rock ‘N Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (by Peter Biskind).  Kael with some justice viewed the late 1960s through the mid 1970s as “equivalent to some of the great literary epochs in history,” and she was lucky enough to take on her perch at the New Yorker just in time to cover this epoch.  She didn’t just cover it, she influenced it in a major way, the biography shows, including in some ethically questionable ones: she palled around with many of the directors and writers she wrote about, advised them about casting and script choices, visited them on set and engaged in overt boosterism (Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpah are the most obvious– she had very close relationships with them both, and unfounded rumors circulated that she was sleeping with one or the other.)

Part of her genius lay in her obsessive/overwhelming love for movies, a love so strong that it trumped almost any consideration of personal feelings.  You can see how she believed that her relationships with directors did not affect her judgments, since she was willing to turn rather viciously on anyone whose work took a direction she found mistaken (although someone like Altman seemed immune to such reversals).  In her writing, she talks you through her own process of response to a film, drawing you into the complex judgments and emotions she herself experienced.  She thought critical objectivity was a crock/delusion, and this sometimes led her astray, but also invested her writing with a special kind of passion.

A few memorable details/moments:

  • She grew up in a Jewish chicken-farmer family in Petaluma, CA.  “She was extremely precocious, and her older siblings delighted in the astonishing observations that routinely popped out of her mouth.”  One thing I’ve always loved about Kael is her late-bloomer quality.  She was a single mother (with a daughter with a congenital heart defect) who got by for years doing odd jobs like managing a dry-cleaner’s and, eventually, working as the manager of a repertory theater in Berkeley.  This is where she really got her start, writing eventually-legendary program notes and programming innovative double features in the 1950s.  (She was also an unpaid film commentator on WKPA, Berkeley’s listener-supporter FM station).  She didn’t write her first piece for the New Yorker until in her late 40s.
  • Her time in the 50s in Berkeley has a slightly idyllic quality in this account– it was the period when she found her voice and acquired a reputation but was still quite poor and mostly known only in film-aficionado circles.  She entertained all the time:  “She had two beloved basenji dogs, Polly and Bushbaby, who frolicked with her guests, and several of her friends noted the irony that a compulsive talker like Pauline chose to have dogs who couldn’t bark.  There was an upright piano in the living room with characters from The Wizard of Oz painted on it, and Pauline loved to sing Gilbert and Sullivan songs, with The Mikado‘s “The Moon and I” a particular favorite.”  She was always a Westerner and a rural California girl, never seemed completely to view NYC as a home.  (Once she made some money, she and her daughter moved to a big house in Great Barrington, MA, where she did most of her writing.)  There’s an intense moment late in the book when Kael is sitting at lunch with someone in the city in 1989 and sees a man knifed on the street; she goes out and holds his hand until the ambulance arrives.  “That cemented her loathing of New York.”
  • She could be hilariously crude/vulgar.  She found Billy Wilder’s 1961 comedy One, Two, Three, for example, “overwrought, tasteless, and offensive – a comedy that pulls out laughs the way a catheter pull out urine.”  A very funny developing theme concerns her endless battles with William Shawn at The New Yorker over her use of slang, vulgarisms, and references to violence and sex.  Here’s my favorite passage along these lines:  “In the opening sentence of her review of Goin’ South, Pauline rendered a vivid description of [Jack] Nicholson, an actor she was still trying to come to terms with: ‘He bats his eyelids, wiggles his eyelids, and gives us a rooster-that-fully-intends-to-jump-the-hen smile.’  Shawn’s note in the galley margin read, ‘This piece pushes her earthiness at us, as if she wants us to see how far she can push us, too.  It’s the tone of the whole review.’  Later in the same review she wrote of the actor, ‘He’s like a young kid pretending to be an old coot, chawing toothlessly and dancing with his bottom close to the earth.’  Shawn wrote in the margin, ‘Her earthiness, her focus on body functions.’  The description on Nicholson’s bottom being close to the earth was deleted, as was a later reference to Nicholson’s being a ‘commercial for cunnilingus.’  Shawn circled the phrase and wrote, ‘This has to come out.  We can’t or won’t print it.'”  !!  I really wanted to use that phrase as the title of this post but decided it would attract the wrong audience.
  • Another famous one along these lines: she pans Terence Malick’s Badlands and Shawn (whose son Wally Shawn was college buddies with Malick) tells her, “I guess you didn’t know that Terence is like a son to me.” Her reply: “tough shit, Bill.”

Don’t have time right now to write more, need to pack and return the library book!  The book ends with her memorial service at which Pauline’s daughter Gina delivers a rather sharp, albeit appreciative judgment: “When Pauline spoke to someone about their work as if it had been produced by a third party, it had repercussions.  There was fallout.  In my youth, I watched what she left, unaware, in her wake: flickering glimpses of crushed illusions, mounting insecurities, desolation.  Those she was not dismissive of, those who valued her perception, judgment, integrity, and extreme forthrightness, did feel her sting, but also felt that she was totally real and that she affirmed and valued them as human beings…. Pauline’s greatest weakness, her failure as a person, became her great strength, her liberation as a writer and critic.  She truly believed that what she did was for everyone’s good, and that because she meant well, she had no negative effects… She denied any motivations or personal needs.  This lack of introspection, self-awareness, restraint, or hesitation gave Pauline supreme freedom to speak up, to speak her mind, to find her honest voice.  She turned her lack of self-awareness into a triumph.”

I gotta say, I kind of love her, I would probably have been thrilled to be a Paulette.  Sarah got sick of me reading excerpts out loud.

This is my favorite image of her, from the mid 1950s when she was programming the Cinema Guild theater in Berkeley: “Friendly, gregarious, and bawdy, she was becoming something of a local character…[L]ocals grew accustomed to seeing her up on a ladder changing the Guild’s marquee, a hip flask filled with Wild Turkey dangling from a belt loop.”

By the way, this A.O Scott/ Manohla Dargis discussion of the biography is worth reading.  Also, here’s a chance to hear her voice — & check out the cute sneakers.