January 06, 2006
The Grizzly Man and Murderball
Okay, so I haven’t been doing very well with consistently posting to this website, but my New Year’s resolution is to do better. I’m back in my hometown of Fredericton for a couple of weeks, researching by day and watching movies by night. From my viewings, I can recommend two great documentaries called The Grizzly Man and Murderball.
The Washington Post on The Grizzly Man:
"Grizzly Man" is … a small masterpiece of a documentary that takes us into the heart of a complex darkness: the mysterious land of Alaska, the world of grizzly bears and, most significantly, the soul of Timothy Treadwell, a man who tried to break down the atavistic borders between man and beast, and failed. After spending 13 summers with his beloved grizzlies, Treadwell (along with his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard) was killed and devoured by a bear in October 2003 … Treadwell, who considered himself a wildlife activist, was many other things, too: a lothario; a surfer; a failed TV actor; a serial makeover man, who, at one point, reinvented himself to "be" Australian; and a recovering addict, who considered bears to be a sort of magnificent distraction from his destructive inner demons … The result is an extraordinarily moving portrait of a man, a sort of illiterate artist, untrained as a filmmaker but powered by his own conviction and personal vision … There is a powerful argument running through the movie, an ideological clash between Treadwell's environmental harmonizing and [director] Herzog's view of the universe as an eternal catastrophe of destruction and chaos … It's a portrait not only of a fascinating man but also of human nature in general.
And Roger Ebert on Murderball:
This is one of those rare docs, like "Hoop Dreams," where life provides a better ending than the filmmakers could have hoped for. Also like "Hoop Dreams," it's not really a sports film; it's a film that uses sport as a way to see into lives, hopes and fears. These tough all-Americans compete in international championships. Once they were shattered young men waking up in hospital beds and being told they would never walk again …[Murderball] works like many great documentaries to transcend its subject and consider the human condition. We may not be in chairs and may not be athletes, but we all have disabilities, sometimes of the spirit. To consider the bleak months and sleepless nights when these men first confronted the reality of their injuries, and now to see them in the full force of athletic exuberance, is to learn something valuable about the human will.
Posted by matt at 08:34 PM
March 28, 2005
Road To Perdition
I live in a village called Bridge of Allan, and if you like renting movies and watching them, let me tell you: don't live in Bridge of Allan. The only place to rent is at the local convenience store, which stocks a meagre selection of the most godawful current releases you can imagine. Anyway, somehow I found Road to Perdition amongst the mix and scooped it up.
Road to Perdition stars Tom Hanks as a hitman for the Irish mafia in Depression-era America. He and his son undergo a tragedy which transforms them both. The movie is mostly about the relationship between fathers and sons, but there are many other issues bubbling underneath, like the theme of work.
Jude Law plays another hitman, who asks questions like "you ever seen a dead body? Terrible thing. But it sure makes you feel alive, don't it?" and "to be paid to do what you love--isn't that the dream?" Neither of these questions is earth-shattering, but for some reason they stood out for me as I watched the film. Nowadays most of us don't have to confront death very often; but if we did, we might try harder to make the most of life while we're alive.
Which leads us to the second question: shouldn't we try, as much as we can, to live working at something we love? Sure, I suppose, but the trouble is, how do we know what we love? It's the minority who can confidently say they were put on earth to do (insert singular life passion here). For everyone else, it can be a very frustrating search. Back in the Depression era, this wasn't as much of an issue, because you would probably be thankful for finding any kind of work. But for an affluent generation like mine, where you've been afforded every opportunity to choose a career that you find personally fulfilling, the pressure is on to eschew mediocrity and discover your niche.
All of this begs the question of whether or not it is, in fact, "the dream" to get paid doing what you love. In fact, if taken to its logical extreme, this goal ends up reducing your life's worth to your career choice. Which is a bit silly, because you might be a much happier person working a low-stress 9-5 gig that allows you to lead a much happier existence; getting paid to do what you love could actually become harmful, as you increasingly guage the value of your life based on how many hours you put into your "dream job," whether that be an assassin-for-hire or, dare I say it, a music scholar. Is this a healthy way to live?
Anyway, Road to Perdition is about lots of other things besides work, but these days I've got work on the brain. Speaking of which, I'd better get back to it.
Posted by matt at 02:20 PM
October 11, 2004
The Cult of Lebowski
If you know as many Big Lebowski fanatics as I do, then you'll probably appreciate the following article...
New York Times: A cult gives its members license to feel superior to the rest of the universe, and so does a cult movie: it confers hipness on those who grok what the mainstream audience can't. Joel and Ethan Coen's 1998 hyperintellectual stoner noir bowling comedy "The Big Lebowski," starring Jeff Bridges as Jeff (The Dude) Lebowski, has the requisite exclusivity of a cult classic: it bombed at the box office; it was met with shrugs by many critics who had arguably overpraised the Coen brothers' Academy Award-winning "Fargo" (1996); and it has amassed an obsessive following on cable and video and by word of mouth. Nowadays, quoting its intricate, absurdist, often riotously profane dialogue earns you coolness points in widely disparate circles. Some would even say that the cult of "The Big Lebowski" is going mainstream.
It has a rolling national convention, for starters: the Lebowski Fest, which in June attracted 4,000 followers in Louisville, Ky., and on Friday arrives in New York City. For two days, Lebowski fans (referred to as Achievers) will dress up as their favorite character (or prop, like a severed toe), dig some far-out rock bands at the Knitting Factory, bowl in far-out Queens, imbibe White Russians (and maybe less licit substances) and spend a lot of time shouting lines at one another like:
"This aggression will not stand, man."
"You're entering a world of pain."
"You want a toe? I can get you a toe. Believe me, there are ways, Dude. You don't want to know about it, believe me. Hell, I can get you a toe by 3 o'clock this afternoon, with nail polish."
And, of course, the Zen-like sign-off, "The Dude abides."
I suspect this will all grow old pretty quickly and I plan to be at home those nights with my pet marmot. But the festival offers a superb opportunity to celebrate "The Big Lebowski" for being not "Fargo" but one of filmdom's most
inspired farragos - a monumentally disjunctive text that is much more fun to savor a second, third and tenth time, when all one's petty-bourgeois narrative concerns have dissipated like so much marijuana smoke.
The central joke - the raison d'ętre - of "The Big Lebowski" is a disjunction. The Coens take a disheveled stoner layabout, the former 60's activist the Dude - seen mostly in baggy shorts, sandals, an oversize T-shirt through which his gut is visible, often sucking a joint, mixing a white Russian or lying on his rug with headphones listening to bowling competitions or whale songs - and make him the gumshoe protagonist of a convoluted Raymond Chandler-style Los Angeles mystery-thriller in the tradition of "The Big Sleep."
Robert Altman took steps in this direction in his masterly version of "The Long Goodbye" (1973), but he stuck to the outlines of Chandler's story. The joke of "The Big Lebowski" is that the kidnapping mystery, such as it is, turns out to be a nonstarter.
And so, of course, is the hero, which is why the Coens have paired him with Walter (John Goodman), a hothead Vietnam vet paranoiac with a tendency to wave his gun around over small slights, explaining that he did not watch his buddies "die facedown in the muck" to be, for example, asked to keep his voice down in a diner. It is Walter's sense of outrage that compels the Dude to seek payment for a rug that has been urinated on by goons who seek another Lebowski, the big one, a disabled rich Republican whose ex-porn-actress hottie wife owes money to a smut king, and whose daughter, an arty feminist splatter painter - you see: it's exhausting just getting a handle on the dramatis personae, and I haven't even mentioned the band of German nihilists and their savage marmot, or the purring cowboy narrator who inexplicably shows up in an L.A. bowling alley to order sarsaparilla and tell the Dude, "I like yer style,
Dude." As the Dude himself puts it: "This is a complicated case, Maude. A lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous, a lot of strands to keep in my head, man. Lot of strands in old Duder's head."
But if "The Big Lebowski" is in the tradition of scattershot druggy comedies (represented in theaters at the moment by "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle"), it is also the work of disciplined - not to mention show-offy - aesthetes. In virtuoso sequences, the Coens eroticize the sport of fat men, the only sport in which one gains weight, with pins that do sultry, slow-motion sambas and a hooded ball return that's like a mysterious feminine canal. They
stage a surreal Freudian Busby Berkeleyish dream sequence in which the Dude wraps his manly arms around a helmeted Valkyrie (Julianne Moore, with golden bowling-ball breastplates) and thrusts his bowling ball heavenward, the Mighty Thor of Brunswick Lanes.
The Coens turned down requests to be interviewed about the cult of "The Big Lebowski," which is frankly infuriating: I did not watch my buddies die facedown in the muck to be blown off by too-cool, insular, press-shunning elitists.
Fortunately, Jeff Dowd will talk. He's a 54-year-old producer, writer and producer's representative who was the inspiration for the Dude, and who actually goes by the name the Dude, showing up at Lebowski festivals (he is scheduled to be in New York) and signing autographs with "The Dude Abides." The festival's co-organizer Will Russell said that the Dude can drink people a third of his age under the table. "The guy, man, is a party machine," Mr. Russell
"Jeff Bridges only hung out with me once," said the Dude, by phone from Los Angeles."But the body language is, like, 110 percent real, the slouch, all the physicality. My daughter said, `Daddy, where did they get your clothes?' " The Dude is thrilled to have had his fictional counterpart named the 53rd best movie character ever by Premiere magazine - ahead, he pointed out, of Stanley Kowalski, Rocky, Sam Spade, Tony Manero of "Saturday Night Fever" and
even George Bailey of "It's a Wonderful Life."
But he wanted to add that the Dude of "The Big Lebowski" was short-lived. Although the movie is set in the 90's - when George H. W. Bush was telling Saddam Hussein, "This aggression will not stand" - the Dude depicted is the Dude of the late 70's and 80's, when the ideals of his beloved counterculture seemed dead. Nowadays, the real Dude is back in the saddle. He's registering Lebowski fest attendees to vote, and vowed to deliver a gift basket to the Republican National Convention containing (according to his news release) "symbolic gifts including an oversize pair of glasses to help the Republicans see what's going on in our country, a copy of the Constitution to remind them of our
rights as free citizens and a bowling ball so they will have something to do for the next four years."
He added: "The Lebowski festival is the tip of the iceberg. It's remarkable how many people from different walks of life see this movie again and again. Not just potheads. There was a Wall Street guy I met who'd drop a `Lebowski'
line into job interviews and if the person didn't pick up on it he wouldn't be hired. I met this commander of a military base. He said they watch the movie down there in the missile silo two or three times a week."
It makes one feel safer already.
Mr. Dude - er, Dowd - likened the Coens to Jonathan Swift and Mark Twain. They are, he said, social satirists for the age. "People like that the Dude is a guy who is not allowing himself to become a corporate cog," he said. "So even if they are corporate cogs, they can live vicariously."
Like I said: mainstream.
Posted by matt at 01:18 PM
October 04, 2004
Music and the Movies
I'm teaching a class in film music these days, which is loads of fun. Last week we learned about the classical Hollywood film score and watched Casablanca, and this week it's John Williams and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Wanna watch some good movies about music? There have been a few noteworthy documentaries of late:
Dig: A documentary filmed over seven years tracking the relationship between The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols (pictured above). Apparently, it's amazing. Watch the trailer here.
Festival Express: Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Band, and others hop on board a train and tour across Canada. Hilarity ensues. Watch the trailer here.
The Language of Music: Details the legendary career of recording engineer and producer Tom Dowd. Watch the trailer here.
Posted by matt at 03:55 PM
March 05, 2004
Super Size Me
Here's another film to watch out for. "Super Size Me" won the best documentary award at this year's Sundance film festival, and caused such a stir that McDonald's announced it would abandon its Super Size menu by the end of this year:
Film Threat: Americans are fat. Two out of three Americans are overweight or obese, but where does personal responsibility end and corporate responsibility take over? On the heels of two teenage girls suing McDonald’s for making them obese, director Morgan Spurlock sets out to discover what has made people in our country so fat. The result is “Super Size Me,” a hilarious and often terrifying look at the effects of fast food on the human body.
Spurlock decided to conduct an experiment in which he would subject himself to a diet of nothing but McDonald’s fast food for a month. He only allowed himself to eat what was available over the counter at the restaurant (including water), he couldn’t super size unless asked (he ended up being asked 9 times all told), he had to eat every item on the McDonald’s menu at least once, and he had to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. Throughout his descent into the maelstrom of crappy food, he visited doctors and health professionals to track his decline in health.
Posted by matt at 03:07 PM
February 23, 2004
Clowns In The Hood
The best thing I saw on TV last autumn was a documentary called "Clowns in the Hood," which examined an incredible underground hip hop dance culture in Los Angeles. It's since been renamed "Krumped" and has been selected for the Sundance Film Festival. Be sure to check out the video preview (it may take a little while to load) as well.
Director's Website: With Clowns In The Hood, David exposes the underground phenomenon that’s currently happening on the mean streets of LA’s Compton called Clowning. A hip hop derivative, Clowning is the phenomenon of kids (aged 6-18) who paint their faces with clown make-up, then take to the streets in an attempt to dance rival clowns into submission. Developing the make-up into an almost tribal war paint, the clowns recall hip hop in its ‘80s block party heyday.
The voodoo-like dance routines are lifted from the basest dances there are – those of pole dancers and strippers – but speeded up to an incredibly fast degree, making the clown in question look as if they are having some sort of hugely enjoyable fit. The craze hasn’t been commodified in any way by the music industry or media [NB: the dance moves, largely thanks to director David LaChapelle (who, when he's not making documentaries of uncommodified cultures, directs massive music videos for stars like Christina Aguilera), have since been almost completely absorbed into mainstream hip hop culture - MB]; it’s a totally underground phenomenon which serves as an exhalation from a community tired and frustrated with people’s preconceived notions of the area they live in. The antithesis of bling hip hop posturing, the clowns are totally anti-drugs, anti-violence, anti-guns. The movement is all about positivity.
Posted by matt at 04:41 PM
February 05, 2004
Fog Of War
I'm really excited to check out a new documentary called "The Fog Of War." It's about the life of Robert McNamara, as told in his own words. It's not coming to my town anytime soon, so for now I'll have to satisfy my curiosity by exploring the movie's official website, which is great.
Fog of War website: The Fog of War is a 20th century fable, a story of an American dreamer who rose from humble origins to the heights of political power. Robert S. McNamara was both witness to and participant in many of the crucial events of the 20th century: the crippling Depression of the 1930s; the industrialization of the war years; the development of a different kind of warfare based on air power and the creation of a new American meritocracy. He was also an idealist who saw his dreams and ideals challenged by the role he played in history. Although strictly speaking, neither a work of biography nor a work of history, The Fog of War has produced important, new biographical and historical material.
Posted by matt at 04:23 PM
December 27, 2003
Go rent Bulworth
I saw a great movie tonight: Bulworth. It's about a US senator (played by Warren Beatty) who has a nervous breakdown and starts speaking flippantly and honestly about the corruption of the government in interviews and debates. It's also got a Scooby Doo mystery element which adds to the fun. Oddly, Frank Capra III was First Assistant Director. His grandfather, Frank Capra, directed "It's A Wonderful Life", another great movie that deals with themes of power and corruption. (It's A Wonderful Life, however, may be more suitable for the season.)
Posted by matt at 04:45 AM