A Happy Whatever

December 31, 2009

As a Jew, I had two Christmases this year, neither mine.

Unfortunately, I was sick for all of them.

And the cure, well, the cure might be worse than the medicine.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Even though I feel like I made this blog specifically not to review movies, coming off a gig doing just that, I feel both a need to voice my opinion in this holiday-awards-season time as owed to my viewers (hi, mom) and also, I understand the complete hypocrisy/ridiculousness of that notion.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is: here’s some more reviews.

If you’re here for them, you can read ’em and move on. There will even be a nice “***” thing I do separating the reviews from the rest of everything.

But if you’re here in part or whole for my fucked-up crazy-life or lack-thereof, then stay tuned.

Cue Looney Tunes theme.


Why did everybody think that Milk was such a bad movie? Sure it was somewhat conventional, somewhat stylized. But it had some good gumption some attempt at honest feeling, if not always honest representation. What it did, which I thought admirable, was to bring gay themes into the mainstream in a way unlike Philadelphia or even Brokeback Mountain for that matter. It was trying to make an (excuse me) “straight” gay movie. I thought that was a pretty cool idea. If the alternative is something like A Single Man, then I’m not sure what everyone’s compaining about. Not to say that A Single Man, fashionista Tom Ford’s directorial debut, is a terrible movie (or a terrible “gay movie”), but that it’s art-house preen-and-sheen feel inauthentic and often inappropriate. The film features the chance of a lifetime for Brit actor Colin Firth, who had previously been mired in Brit-pop Rom-Coms. Here, Firth gets a chance to try to show not only the longing of a British college professor deprived of his lover by a car accident, but the restraint and distance that both British culture and the still-closeted early 60s enforce upon him. Sounds pretty good, right? And when we focus on Firth’s performance it is. But the film is shot in such a way that is showy, as in ostentatiously, self-consciously arty, showing strange angles, saturated lighting and boring fantasy sequences. The world Firth inhabits is lush when, based on the tone of the film and the Isherwood novel upon which it is based, it should be spare. One longs for Mike Nichols or David Cronenberg to swoop in with their opposing, but well-championed views of matters of the heart and home, just so we could get a clear picture unsullied by all of Ford’s excess. Still, Firth never missteps and co-star Julianne Moore (over-shown in the publicity, offensively to make it seem like an actual “straight” movie) phones in a decent performance as Firth’s fag-hag. Overall though, perhaps I’m too harsh. Ford has some bad stylistic tendencies, but he at least picks good actors and some interesting source material. Like other new directors this year, if he can learn to pair down his stylistic flourishes, he might amount to something interesting.

Chalk one up to Chadd Harbold. I know he gets a lot of mention on this blog (what, the guy sees movies with me constantly), but he had bugging me since our time drinking espresso up at Lincoln Center for the New York Film Festival to see Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Now, to be fair, Chadd can have a much different taste than me in movies. The classic example is (as I’ve mentioned before) where Chadd wants to see some French movie about some bored artist who can’t decide between his two or more smoking hot women (I think this is why Chadd originally wanted to see Nine) and where I want to go see something like Ninja Assassin, because it has a lot of ninjas. All of this is basically saying that Chadd has a more “European” taste in film perhaps, while mine might be a little “continental”. Anyway, I usually lump Haneke in with a European sensibility but when my frenemy A.O. Scott of the Times got on his high horse to say he hated the film, while the critic from the New Yorker who hates everything, Anthony Lane, called it a masterpiece, I decided it might be worth my time. What I got for the crowd I was surrounded by at the first 1pm showing at Film Forum, I have to say, was very satisfying. As I understand it, the theme that pervades much of Haneke’s cinema is an indictment of the perversion and degradation of an idealized world, the idea that the kids are not “alright”. When I saw his original Funny Games (not the remake, I hate Michael Pitt), I thought this message was shown both too obviously and too pessimistically. It’s not interesting for me to see total misanthropy in cinema. But I didn’t get that from The White Ribbon. What I got was almost a film-noirish type detective story about where the roots of a seemingly idyllic community in 1910s Germany went wrong. We see the story through the eyes of an imperfect, but generally well-meaning character, a schoolteacher, and what’s more there are other well-meaning characters as well. Unlike the rootless monsters Haneke dredges up in Funny Games, we are always given a pathology of evil in Ribbon, to explain how these good townsfolk went so bad. Even more than that though, crucially, like horses led to water, we are allowed to determine when we drink. Haneke never forces meaning on us or makes the connections concretely. Instead, he allows the audience to witness his characters without creating a morality play. By doing so, he actually manages to show more respect for the atrocities committed in the film, showing one of the better uses of violence I’ve seen in filmmaking in a while. So, bravo, Chadd. You win this one. But it doesn’t mean that all those things I just said about The White Ribbon couldn’t just be applied to Ninja Assassin. I just blew your fucking mind.

The three friends I went to see The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus with were stoned but, due to my cold and my extreme sensitivity to stimulants, I was actually significantly more fucked up than them. Which was a good place to be seeing the film, Gilliam’s newest venture, since it allowed me not to care about some of the more tawdry examples of CGI-effects the film presents (particularly poor when compared to 250-mil Avatar) and also, somehow, allowed me to pick up the plot clearly despite the unanimous confusion of my three friends and all the reviews I had read. Basically, Gilliam’s latest craze-fest is a parable about storytelling, about imagination and the way that we frame our own lives and ultimately, how that understanding frames the choices in life we make. Christopher Plummer plays the titular doctor, once a great monk tasked with “telling the world’s story”, now a shabby sideshow-attraction carting around London in retro-fashion by horse. He has a daughter who’s due to the devil (an excellent Tom Waits), a street ragamuffin (this is London after all) who pines for the daughter and a con man who can’t remember who or what he’s supposed to con. This last part is played by Heath Ledger, in his last incomplete role, but also by Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp and Jude Law, all of whom deliver top-knotch work. And regardless of what you might think or what one might suppose about the movie going into it, it’s not about Ledger, even though the theme might tangentially touch on his death. What it is is a look into an imagination beyond James Cameron’s, a place of fanciful storytelling and meaningful moral stakes. Gilliam may not be as grand a filmmaker as Cameron and Imaginarium isn’t as grand a film as Avatar (what is?), but it’s a smarter, wiser film and Gilliam, for all his years, never lets the magic not feel fresh.

I slept through most of Police, Adjective, though later my girlfriend Eva would tell me that about three things happened in the movie total and that I was awake for one of them. She seemed generally well disposed towards the film though.


And why did I sleep through a potentially important awards-season movie that was part of the Romanian film movement that I often enjoy? For the same reason I slept through a bunch of Christmas and passed out on Eva’s mom’s bed with Family Guy: Volume Seven playing on the TV: because I’ve been effing sick.

When I went for my first Christmas, a Christmas Eve celebration with Eva, her father and her father’s girlfriend, Rebecca (Eva insists that all girlfriends be mentioned by name on this blog, herself included), I had a pretty great time, since I was in the fortunate position of some empathy from her parental’s, I was in my home-base Manhattan and Rebecca had cooked some delicious Dal with carrots and sweet potato. It might seem strange that while some people get claustrophobic in the low-ceiling limited atmospheres of New York City environs, I feel the most comfortable knowing I’m in a box. As a Jew on Christmas, I marveled as Eva received present after present, including a strange custom I knew nothing of: a large red “stocking” full of small gifts like Silly Putty and fake moustaches and miniature dogs (four of the same kind , looking in the same direction). When I later discussed this phenomenon with my friend, producer and fellow Jew, Dave Broad, we remarked on the relative paucity of Hannukah gifts.

“I got a sweater that was my dead grandpa’s. And another sweater that wasn’t.” I offered.

“Hah,” Dave chuckled in a swarthy base tone mismatched to his skinny NY-Jew frame. “My mom gave me a wooden block for Hannukah once with words that said like ‘peace’ and ‘ceremony’ on them.”

“Shit,” I remarked, with genuine surprise. “Why not a lump of coal?”

“Well, I remember growing up that I wasn’t allowed to play video games or watch a lot of TV, you know.” Dave told me. “And when the Nintendo 64 came out, my brother and I wanted it desperately. So to my surprise, my parents relented and we got jobs, walking dogs and stuff, the kind of jobs you get that age, to make some spare bucks. And we worked and saved and we got a tag, because back then you got a tag or a receipt to pick up a big thing like that and then you’d go to the store to pick it up. So my parents picked up it for us, wrapped it up and said ‘Happy Hannukah’. Like, they had just gotten it.”

“God, that’s balls.” I remarked.

“Yeah, but I might try to ask them for a computer, since they didn’t get me a graduation gift yet, pull some of that Jew guilt right back on them.” He suggested.

“A dangerous tack.” I replied. “I had asked my parents for something along the lines of a college graduation gift only for them to shake my hand and say ‘Congratulations on that diploma; we paid for it.”

Then Eva came and we ordered some French Toast.

Anyway, Eva was showered with gifts in her pop’s Battery City flat while I, unbeknownst to me, was being showered in something quite different.

You see, Eva had a dog, Audrey, named for Audrey Hepburn, whom I told Eva she reminded me of in Funny Face, when she showed up to my house in a turtleneck sweater. And while I’d been aware of my cat allergy for some time and the deleterious magic it works on my sinuses, my dog allergy had only been recently discovered and so the avoidance of it had not yet been ingrained. By the time the night was coming to a close, I realized as my nostrils and then my ears swelled up in their interiors, that I needed to step outside for some air. But of course, once you know you need to, it’s already far too late.

My allergies made me susceptible to a cold or a sinus infection and god, if I had never prayed for an infection so hard in my life. You see, a sinus infection can be cured with antibiotics overnight. But I’ve never taken anything that’s made a cold last any longer.

Through Christmas day, to my second Christmas at Eva’s mom’s house in Jersey, I could not taste, smell or talk in an un-funny manner and worse yet, I was passing out in the middle of the day even more than my own famed father, reknown for his ability to fall asleep not mid-word or mid-sentence, but mid-syllable. It was tough, all the moreso because I’m sure I didn’t make a good impression on Eva’s mother or her dinner party by passing out to Family Guy, drooling on her bed while a meet-and-greet was going on in the living room next door.

And god also, if a cold doesn’t remind you of how you depend on other people, for with proper distraction a cold’s only an inconvenience, but alone, unfocused, it’s a menace.

But the flipside, as I emerge from my disconnected Christmases into my New Year, is that I see the people around me getting sick and I smile.

My girlfriend, my dad, my sister–excuse me, my girlfriend’s name is Eva–they’re all getting sick and it’s because they love me enough (or are stupid enough) to interact with me even when I’m like this.

It warms my heart. Partly with Schadenfreude but mostly with love.

And after all, isn’t that the meaning of whatever this end of the year jumble is.

Everybody gets fucking sick of everyone else and then starts over, all over, again.

What a lovely rationale for a life as a disease vector.