Saturday, January 20, 2018

Going in Circles: Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel

Justin Timberlake and Kate Winslet in Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel 

It's been decades since Woody Allen was the comic voice of the shaggy and diminutive outsider. In those first seventies films (Bananas, Love and Death, Sleeper), Allen not only cleverly tweaked the WASP stereotypes that came to define masculinity and femininity; he also satirized them as role models. The eager audiences who strongly welcomed Allen's verbal and physical slapstick – a whirling affront to cultural and sexual repression – also came to relax around their own neurosis and self-doubt. Describing him as "the first post-Freudian movie comedian," critic Pauline Kael said that Allen was "the first to use his awareness of his own sexual insecurities as the basis for his humor, and when he turned psychodrama into comedy he seemed to speak – to joke – for all of us." But all of that changed once he won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director with Annie Hall in 1978. The massive success of that seminal comedy about neurosis found Woody Allen no longer perched on the outside of mainstream culture. Once accepted by the insiders of Hollywood (for a film that was partly a poison-pen letter to L.A.), he seemed to feel that he had to earn his keep in the Insider's Club. Now viewing making comedy as something akin to embracing the Golden Calf, Allen began to strive for seriousness and started emulating those dramatic artists he worshiped as his betters.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Fakery: Lady Bird

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird.

Written and directed by the actress Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is the coming-of-age story of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a Sacramento teenager whose quirks include her insistence on renaming herself Lady Bird. At the Catholic school she attends, she’s an underachiever, though she’s smart and creative; her social circle is pretty much restricted to her best pal Julie (Beanie Feldstein), who’s overweight and as much an outsider as she is. At home she’s constantly at odds with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), whose anxiety over money since Lady Bird’s dad, Larry (Tracy Letts), lost his job has turned her into a sour, one-note nag. The movie covers Lady Bird’s senior year, when she falls for two boys (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet), one after another, both of whom disappoint her in different ways, flirts with social acceptance by fibbing her way into a friendship with a cool kid (Odeya Rush), and, behind her mother’s back (but with the collusion of her sympathetic father), applies to NYU, a college beyond the family’s financial means. It is, like most coming-of-age narratives that focus on the high school experience, about the protagonist’s figuring out who she is (and who she isn’t).

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Inventory Management, Vol VI: Gotta Go Fast!

Awesome Games Done Quick took places in the Washington, D.C. area, January 7 through 14.

It’s late January, which means another Games Done Quick event has come and gone. This year, the speedrunning community beat 2017’s total by raising almost $2.3 million for the Prevent Cancer Foundation over the course of the week-long event. As a colleague of mine so aptly put it, this is one of the few times of the year that we can collectively be proud to be part of gaming society, canceling out the toxicity and pettiness of normal gaming culture with an event fueled by togetherness, commiseration, and hope. I want to celebrate that spirit with this look at some of my favourite moments from this year’s Awesome Games Done Quick.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Poker Face: Molly's Game

Jessica Chastain (left) in Molly's Game. (Photo: Michael Gibson)

As Molly Bloom in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's directing debut, Molly's Game, Jessica Chastain is something of an enigma. Playing a real-life high-stakes entrepreneur who ran exclusive poker games in New York and Los Angeles for over a decade until she was arrested by the FBI, Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, A Most Violent Year) turns opaqueness into an acting style. Her glamourous deadpan tells us little about the restless hunger that propelled Bloom into hosting a motley collection of players – including Hollywood celebrities (like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire), business tycoons, gambling addicts and Russian mobsters (which would lead to federal charges against her). Chastain dons a poker face like her clients, but it reveals even less about what's going on with her than the faces of the card sharps at her table bluffing their way to a kill. In Molly's Game, the motivating force – what is hidden behind all her risky moves – is missing in the performance. It's missing in the movie, too, because Sorkin can't identify with the low cunning it takes to pull off what Bloom accomplished. He has higher ideals in his head and they've clouded his thinking.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Arcade of the Aura: In Case of Future Break Glass

“The dream has grown gray. The gray coating of dust on things is its best part. Dreams are now a shortcut to banality. Technology consigns the outer image of things to a long farewell, like banknotes that are bound to lose their value. It is then that the hand retrieves the outer cast in dreams and, even as they are slipping away, makes contact with familiar contours. . . . [W]hich side does an object turn toward dreams? What point is its most decrepit? It is the side worn through by habit and patched with cheap maxims. The side which things turn toward the dream is kitsch.”  Walter Benjamin, 1936
Part One: Encountering the Aura

The great German culture critic Walter Benjamin warned us early on, perhaps too early for him to be fully believed, that our relentlessly elegant procession into the machine age was also leading us into a zone where representation replaces reality. His awkward prescience may also have been compounded by the fact that few people understood fully what he was talking about, since television was in its early stages and the computer, and of course the internet, had yet to be invented.

Photography and its nervous cousin the movies were the only talismanic augers he could have used to declare that the ritual aura associated with the historical transmission of our embodied meanings in varied art formats was in danger of eroding, decaying and disappearing entirely as a result of the eventual existence of copies without an original. Like most time-ghosts (the literal meaning of the word zeitgeist) he had his finger on the pulse of a throbbing wrist that he alone could witness and interview.

He warned us that we were plunging headlong into the long farewell of a kitsch conglomerate in which meaning was incorporated into automatic systems while its former embodiments were dis-incorporated phantoms shimmering under showers of imaginary gold. Nonetheless, he invented a future conceptually, which we currently occupy physically, psychically and psychologically and which I identify as cyber-kitsch: the perpetual present.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Mala: Less Is Less

Melinda Lopez stars in Mala.. (Photo:  Paul Marotta/ArtsEmerson)

Melinda Lopez’s solo performance Mala (produced by the Huntington Theatre at the Calderwood Pavilion) is a reflection on the aging and deaths of her Cuban émigré parents and especially of her mother, who, her body weakened, her mind softening, overcome by terror and anger, calls her daughter mala (a bad person). The idea of the piece is that Lopez’s exhaustion with her mother’s demands and her uncertainty about how to handle her make her question whether or not she is that thing her mother accuses her of being. But the self-interrogation at the core of the play is disingenuous. There was  never a moment during Mala’s eighty-minute running time when I believed that Lopez seriously questioned her own virtuousness as she related her tireless at-home care for her mother, her anticipation of what it would be like for the older woman to slip away from life (as her father already had), her response to her mother’s apparent obliviousness – understandable, of course,  under the physical and psychological circumstances – to Lopez’s uninterrupted devotion. The piece is a celebration of Lopez’s sensitivity; her sensitivity is, in fact, the tissue of which the play is constructed. And I grew very weary of it, and finally resentful that I was set up in scene after scene to admire it.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

A Marriage of Drama and History: The Crown

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II with Matt Smith as Prince Philip in The Crown.

The elements of good drama based on real people – believable three-dimensional characters, conflict, and an engrossing plot – often do not make good history. Historians and biographers must sift through documents and interviews with people who knew the subjects and fashion a portrait that adheres to the record. They may speculate, but speculations must be grounded in an evidentiary base. Screenwriters and directors have more creative freedom to imagine what might have been, to reassemble chronology, and to create dialogue and motives for their characters as long as they are plausible. Based on my viewing of two seasons of The Crown (on Netflix) that cover the 1950s and early 1960s, I would argue that a smooth synthesis of history and drama has been achieved.