Monday, April 30, 2007

Larry the Cable Guy Hates Our Troops

I am typically opposed to our government using torture, but everyone involved with this film needs a trip to Gitmo.

It's not enough that Dan Whitney has become a millionaire portraying a racist, homophobic white trash version of Stepin Fetchit, but now he has to insult our troops too, not to mention make a mockery of the disaster of historical proportions that our president has gotten us into? Whitney's target audience are the same people that elected Bush, now they're expected to laugh at the disaster they helped create? How come Whitney and the makers of this film get a free pass but John Kerry gets raked over the coals for one idiotic comment about the troops' intelligence? I am really just unable to process this.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Not Saying Anything

Seeing as I will be at ASU for a while still, and I don't want to end up in a secret prison in Eastern Europe, I am going to post this link without comment. Enjoy.

(By the way, the secret prison comment was a joke . . .I hope.)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Stage 5

Sorry to keep harping on Titus, but he just seems to keep popping up, so I'm going to give him the floor to kick off this week's discussion of The Sopranos:

A better head her glorious body fits
Than his that shakes for age and feebleness.
(T.A., 1.1.190-191)

Mafia dons, both the real ones and the much more interesting fictional ones, have long liked to link themselves with their Roman ancestors, none more so than History Channel fan Tony Soprano, who once used the reign of Augustus to attempt to tutor Uncle Junior on being a benevolent dictator. And as The Sopranos winds down, it appears that Tony and his colleagues are learning the lesson of their fictional ancestor Titus.

In declining to be named Emperor, Titus argues that he is an old man, soon to die, which would only lead to them having to find a new emperor sooner rather than later. He is man that has achieved success through brute force and physical strength. He has survived 40 years on the battle field seeing many younger men, including his 21 sons, fall, and that has added up to . . .what? His physical strength is rapidly dissipating, his body is betraying him, he is too old to be emperor. What is waiting for him at the end of the road? If the play has a redeeming quality, it is this affecting portrayal of a man out of time, who only knows one thing and can't do it anymore, who is a stranger in the land in the fought to protect, in many ways more of an foreigner than his Goth prisoners.

It is a drama modern sports fans are intimately familiar with. Like the ancient epics and mythologies handed down over generations of oral storytelling, sports deals in similar master narratives retold for every generation with new actors in the lead roles. One of our favorites is the star past his prime who refuses to hang it up. It is superb tragicomic tale. Elite pro athletes are made up of two things: a natural athletic ability combined with an unhealthy competitive streak. From puberty (at the latest), their entire existence revolves around perfecting a very specific skills and using it to destroy their competitors. Then, in their late-30s, just as their peers in almost every other profession are just starting to hit their professional stride, that natural athletic ability starts to disappear, though the competitive streak is still there. So they hang around until they have been embarrassed by younger versions of themselves enough times that they finally are forced to give up the only thing they have ever know how to do. And they are only 40, with close to half their life left to live. Like Titus, their fortune is made by their bodies, which then betray them.

Which brings us to Tony and his pals. Let's take a look at the last three episodes, going back to last season's finale:

"Kaisha": Phil Leotardo, acting boss of the New York family and Tony's chief rival, suffers a heart attack and has quadruple bypass surgery.

"Soprano Home Movies": Tony, boss of the New Jersey family, celebrates his 47th birthday and gets his ass kicked by his creampuff, model-railroading brother-in-law Bobby, and spends the rest of the episode lamenting his lost manhood and worrying that Carmella will no longer be attracted to him.

"Stage 5": Johnny Sack, currently-incarcerated boss of the New York family, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and dead by episode's end. At the beginning of the episode, he is told that it is Stage 4 lung cancer, and fills in the blank himself "And there's no stage 5, is there?" Later, Phil, still recovering from his heart surgery, tells Tony he does not want to be boss: "Being a boss is young man's game."

Tony, Phil and Johnny Sack, the three most powerful men on the show in terms of mob hierarchy, are all being betrayed by their bodies. A mob boss's power is not embued by sovereignty or rule of law, but physical strength. However, having spent possibly all of that strength getting to the top, they no longer have the strength to hold on to it.

All of this takes us back to show's first season. Forty-something acting boss Jackie Aprile dies of cancer, creating an opening at the top. Mob bosses, like Roman emperors, always have trouble with succession because it is neither strictly heritary or strictly meritocratic. In this case, the captains want Tony, but Uncle Junior thinks the title is rightfully his. Tony creates a compromise by giving Junior the title, but running things behind his back. Junior, like Titus, has fought his way to the top, only to be too old to rule once he got there. Tony is now facing the same problem.

A quick off-topic note: Radio Open Source, a public radio show from Boston, excerpted my "Batshit Crazy" post on their website in conjunction with an episode entitled "Entertaining Violence", dedicated to a Boston of production of Titus. It is a great listen, and very relevant in light of the Virginia Tech incident on Monday.

Speaking of Virginia Tech, I feel like I should say something in light of Monday's comments on Grindhouse and Paglia's Mozart/Jack the Ripper comparison, and I will eventually, but I just don't think I can right now.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Severed Limbs

This post is going to be all over the place, but I promise you that it makes sense in my head, if nowhere else. Do you ever have one of those stretches when everything you come into contact with—movies, TV, books read for pleasure, books read for class, class discussion, casual conversation with friends—seems to have some underlying connection? Over the past few days, the same ideas have kept popping up and I am going to try to draw them together here.

Let’s start with Titus Andronicus, the subject of my last post and of an ever-growing obsession with me. I first became aware of the play when the film came out but have only recently become intrigued with it. I don’t think people truly appreciate the magnitude of its importance. Shakespeare, the revered bard, the secular saint, really wrote something this messed up. It’s truly mind-boggling.

I had Titus on my mind when I went to see Grindhouse this weekend and I couldn’t have found a better movie to feed my obsession with. The Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double-feature inhabits the same grey category between art and trash, exploitation and satire, that Titus does, and features even more severed limbs. Severed limbs are a recurring motif in Grindhouse, much as they are in Titus. In Planet Terror, Rodriguez’s film, we have, most famously, lead actress Rose McGowan’s severed leg, which is outfitted with a machine gun in the film’s climax and plays a decisive role and saving the heroes. But there is also Marley Shelton as another heroine, a doctor whose hands are anesthetized by her deranged husband and spends a good portion of the film groping, Lavinia-like, without them.

Both McGowan and Shelton are postmodern, postfeminist takes on the Lavinia motif of the mutilated woman. Both overcome their mutilation to kick zombie ass and, in McGowan’s case, turn it into an asset. Shelton’s character, pointedly, regains use of her hands just in time to help save McGowan from a rapist.

But we can’t read too much into Planet Terror. Not surprisingly, Rodriguez’s film never rises above the B-movie gimmickry of the Grindhouse idea. His much more intelligent and talented friend, however, uses the guise of this gimmick to make what is perhaps his most personal film yet. Death Proof, Tarantino’s half of the double-feature is, on its surface, a B-movie homage just like Planet Terror. While Rodriguez covered the sci-fi/zombie movie, Tarantino took two other grindhouse staples: the slasher film and the car chase film. But Death Proof, the story of Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), a deranged former stuntman who kills women with his reinforced, “death proof” stunt car is both much more and much less.

While Rodriguez fulfills your expectations with his film (that is meant both positively and negatively), Tarantino confounds them. He uses the Grindhouse label to make an art film disguised as a genre film, in the mode of past B-movie auteurs such as Sam Fuller. The film is, with one notable exception, surprisingly gore-free and spends most of its time focusing on the nine women Stuntman Mike is stalking. Tarantino says his favorite slasher films were the ones that let you get to know and care about the victims before the violence began, and we get that here, with long scenes of typically Tarantino-esque dialogue as the characters shoot the shit in cars and diners. The difference is that this time the characters spitting the dialogue are women, and Tarantino obviously exhibits a fascination with how women talk when men aren’t around. He is also mesmerized by their bodies and uses the guise of the exploitation film to let his camera linger longer than it should on their curves, but they are shot in such in loving way, just as women in his films always are, that it never even reaches exploitation. All of the women in the film, especially Sydney Tamilia Poitier, Vanessa Furlito and real-life stuntwoman Zoe Bell, join Uma Thurman, Pam Grier and Lucy Liu in the Tarantino Goddess pantheon.

Which brings us to Stuntman Mike, who shares with Tarantino a voyeuristic fascination with these women and a nostalgia for old-fashioned, non-CGI stuntwork. The difference is that, while Quentin channels these notions into a film, Mike releases them by crashing his car into the women and killing them. It’s an almost perfect illustration of Camille Paglia’s famous and controversial formulation that there is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.

I have much more to say on this, including a discussion of last week’s episode of The Sopranos which ties into all of this, but I have to wake up in five hours so that will have to be put on hold.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Batshit Crazy

There is a great article over at Inside Higher Ed by Scott McLemee about Titus Andronicus and the current production at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington. He gives perhaps the greatest critical judgment of the play ever, describing it at "Shakespeare's batshit crazy play". I have been really interested in Titus recently. My Shakespeare playreading group recently read the play as a part of a series on his controversial plays along with Taming of the Shrew and Merchant of Venice. I have also been reading Camille Paglia's "Sexual Personae", in which she described Titus as a satire on Spenser's pageant of rape and torture in the Fairie Queene and suggests that it should be performed by drag queens. Like many of Paglia's opinions, it is out there, but frankly, do you have anything better? In the family that is the Shakespearean canon, Titus is the meth-addicted, thrice incarcerated cousin that no one likes to talk about and you watch your wallet and your kids around when you see them at Christmas. But, just like that cousin, it can't simply be ignored and forgotten about, it has to be dealt with. It potentially blows a hole in the entire business of bardolatry, which all people in the Shakespeare industry, whether they admit it or not, take part in.

Titus' profile has risen greatly in the last several years, and has picked up since Julie Taymor's film version, and I think it is only going to increase. It both speaks to modern tastes (look at last week's big movie release, Grindhouse) and is reminds us that Shakespeare, for all of his genius, was an extremely weird guy. We can gloss over the weirdness of the other plays because of their brilliance but Titus doesn't let us escape from it. When thinking of Titus, I am always reminded of the poster for famed B-movie house Troma Pictures' infamous parody "Tromeo and Juliet". The tagline reads "Body Piercing, Kinky Sex, Dismemberment. All the Things that Made Shakespeare Great." Replace body piercing with cannibalism and kinky sex with gang rape and you have an accurate description of Titus. In other words, even the creators of the Toxic Avenger and Sgt. Kabukiman didn't go as far into dark as Shakespeare did.

McLemee stumbled on to something interesting when he compared Titus' moral universe to that of professional wrestling. Pro wrestling good guys, like Titus the play's ostensible hero, are violent oafs who lack any sense of introspection or self-awareness. The only thing that separates them from the bad guys is the code of honor they live by. This has especially been true over the past 10 years, as pro wrestling has taken a darker turn and good guys have become just as likely as bad guys to torture opponents with foreign objects or abuse women.

Which leads us into the big question about Titus: is it simply A) morally repugnant violence for the sake of entertainment on the scale of pro wrestling or pseudo-snuff films like "Saw", or is it B) a more knowing comment on the culture of violence, and violence as entertainment, such as the work of Tarantino or "The Sopranos"? The bardolater in us all wants to say option B, and that may very well be so, but, unlike any of Shakespeare's other violent works, we have to at least entertain option A as a possibility. Its a disconcerting thought, but I think ultimately an enlightening one, especially in today's world when violence permeates our art and entertainment and the line between option A and option B becomes ever more blurred.

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Sopranos

The Sopranos' final season started last night, thankfully. Everyone of course has heard, and repeated, ad nauseum how brilliant the show is and how it redefined television, and this has picked up over the last few weeks as TV critics get understandably elegiac about saying goodbye to the show that made their profession respectable. I remember that after the first season, the television critic for Entertainment Weekly declared The Sopranos the Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band of television. It was the work that bridged the gap between art and popular culture for television just as the Beatles' album was for rock n roll.

All of the purple prose spilled over the series over the last few weeks has of course missed a larger point: the last three seasons, taken as a whole, sucked. And it easy to see why: money.

Let's backtrack. Starting with the show's second season, creator David Chase started saying that he had planned for the show to go four seasons, and had the ending planned. After the groundbreaking brilliance of the first season, which as a self-contained unit may very well be the greatest accomplishment in TV history, the show suffered a slight sophomore slump in the second season, which was extremely entertaining but did not reach the emotional depths of Season 1. That season was redeemed, though, by the shockingly absurd and affecting finale in which Big Pussy was killed. More shocking than a series' lead character killing off another regular character was the fact that an episode that featured a talking fish could be so moving.

The show rebounded from the relatively lightweight season 2 with the astounding season 3, in which Chase and company exploded everything we knew about the series. Everything about the show, from the acting to the visual style, took on a darker tone. The two episodes that are seared in my memory more than any other are from that season. "Employee of the Month" brought the normally detached Dr. Melfi deeper into the moral morass as she is brutally raped--perhaps the most brutal scene in the history of TV--and grapples with whether or not to seek retribution by telling Tony. "University", a sequel of sorts to Season 1's "College", traces the parallel mental dissolution of a sweet, damaged Bada Bing stripper and Meadow's college roommate, along with the dissolution of Tony's relationship with his daughter.

Most importantly, Season 3 had an overarching feeling of impending doom, as things were obviously being set up for the series finale in Season 4. Then, a funny thing happened: HBO backed up a dump truck full of money to David Chase's house. While Chase and the show's other principles got bigger paychecks and HBO helped to prop up Time Warner's flailing stock, we the audience got three seasons of Columbus Day protests, subplots that trailed off to nowhere, new characters introduced with great fanfare and then quickly killed off, dead racehorses, and ever more ludicrous dream sequences. While the show still had moments which reminded you of its former greatness, the overall feeling you got these past three seasons is that Chase was simply killing time, filling up hours for syndication and coming up with new ways to frustrate his audience. The idea of a main character being killed, so shocking when it happened to Big Pussy, became old hat, to the point that they had to come up with a particularly loathsome way to kill Adrianna to make it sufficiently shocking.

Which brings us to this final, seventh season, (or Season 6, part 2 according to Chase and HBO, who apparently went to the George Lucas school of nonsensical episodic numbering). I had high hopes for this season, hoping Chase would pull out those original Season 4 stories and find an appropriate way to wrap things up. Last night's premiere episode, "Soprano Home Movies", was a step in the right direction. It was a reestablishment of the trust the show established with its audience in the first few seasons which was later so badly betrayed. It is an incredibly slow-moving and plot free episode that revolves around Tony's 47th birthday party at Bobby and Janice's lake house in upstate New York. Tony, Carmella, Janice and Bobby take up almost all of the screen time, with only token appearances by some of the other regulars. While it does not advance the overall plot, the episode sets up what will most likely be the prime themes of the final season: Tony's intimations of mortality and his lingering Oedipal problems that have played out with Janice as a proxy ever since Livia died. The episode recalls "Mr Ruggiero's Neighborhood", the Season 3 premiere, with its clean plotline that doesn't really lead anywhere but allows us to get reacquainted with the characters and reassures us that the ensuing season will have a purpose. Even the visual style backed away from the past few seasons' aspirations of cinematic grandeur to the softer style of the earlier seasons, reminiscent of 80s dramas like Hill Street Blues.

In the end, that Entertainment Weekly review was more accurate than the author intended. The Sopranos is TV's Sergeant Pepper: groundbreaking and overblown, brilliant and self-indulgent, affecting and maddening, overreaching and eventually overrated by critics and audiences who want it to be more than it really is. But Sergeant Pepper redeems almost all of its negative qualities with "A Day in the Life", its brilliant epilogue. Lets hope The Sopranos can do the same.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Shakespeare Film Series: Whole Lotta Laurence Part III: Richard III

Richard III (1955)

I have been struggling to come up with something intelligent to say about this film. I even had to watch it again to see if I was missing something. It is generally well-liked and judging by the Criterion Collection scale of excellence I mentioned last time, even viewed by some as the best of the three. I frankly don’t see it. It is a mediocre adaptation propped up by a great performance. Unlike the other two films, everything good and bad about Richard begins and ends with Olivier. Though he has perhaps the most star-studded supporting cast of any of his films (John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Claire Bloom), Olivier dominates the film and, for the most part, wastes this talented cast. His did much more with his less well-known casts in the other two films.

The good and the bad of the film can be summed up in the division between Olivier the actor and Olivier the director. As an actor, this is Olivier’s filmic tour-de-force. Freed of the cultural baggage of Hamlet and Henry, he cuts loose here with a classic interpretation of Richard the charming sociopath.

However, the film falls flat because Olivier the director takes a back seat to the actor. Both of his previous films stood out from other Shakespeare adaptations of their time for their visual daring, from the beautifully oversaturated Henry V to the stark black-and-white of Hamlet. The first two films are held together by the tension between Olivier’s theatrical acting style and the self-consciously filmic aspects of his direction. Some of the most memorable moments in those films are not his soliloquies, but wordless shots such the survey of the British camp after the French attack or the long, ominous tracking shot of Ophelia entering the castle before her “flowers” speech. In Richard, he falls into the classic trap of simply capturing a great performance instead of making a great film.

Well, I guess that wraps up the Olivier series. Welles is up next, but that may be awhile, since finding good copies of all three of his Shakespeare films apparently requires the services of Robert Langdon. I will be back next week with some other non-literature stuff, including a new country song of the week and some thoughts on The Office and the NBA.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

The Shakespeare Film Series: Whole Lotta Laurence Part II: Hamlet

Hamlet (1948)

I have become convinced that making a film version of Hamlet is less an artistic project than a form of theatrical sadomasochism that certain actors and directors inexplicably feel compelled to put themselves through. Having now seen this version, I have seen all four of the most notable versions (the others being Branagh’s, Zeffirelli’s and Almereyda’s). More than any other Shakespeare play, the directors and lead actors seem to never overcome their sense of intimidation in the face of the text. I believe that is why I have always liked Almereyda’s version, as he and his lead actor Ethan Hawke fall victim to this less than the others.

There’s a lot more to say in comparison of these four versions, but we will save that for another day. Today its about Olivier. This stark black-and-white version could not be more different in tone and style than Henry V and Richard III and is often treated as the Jan Brady (forgotten middle child) of the Olivier-Shakespeare trilogy. Even the Criterion Collection, which released the DVDs of all three films, gives Hamlet the short shrift. Henry V gets a commentary track and the illuminating illustrations from the “Book of Hours” that I mentioned in my earlier post. Richard III gets the full-on 2-disc special edition treatment. The Hamlet disc doesn’t even include the trailer. (Digression: Will the way films are presented on DVD affect our formulation of the film canon? It seems like it is already happening to some degree. We’ll take this up another day as well.) This reputation is somewhat justified as it doesn’t measure up to the other films either as Shakespearean adaptations or films unto themselves.

However, the film does raise several questions about the play and methods of adaptation that are worth exploring. The first I want to talk about is Olivier’s famous voice-over prologue in which he declares it “A story about a man who could not make up his mind”. Shakespearean scholars groan at this ridiculous oversimplification of perhaps the most complex drama in the Western canon, but is this really such a bad thing? Scholars and theatrical people (actors, filmmakers and theatrical directors) are not doing the same job, only working on the same material. Though many think of Olivier as some type of Shakespearean scholar, he is not, he is an actor. In the lecture by Marjorie Garber that I mentioned last time, she argued that the disciplines involved in the production of art (theatre, painting, sculpture, etc) should not be in the humanities at all. They have more in common with engineers and other experimental sciences than they do with scholars of literature or art history. When filmmakers or theatrical directors get too scholarly, they lose the life of the work and you end up with something like Branagh’s Hamlet, which everyone more or less admires but rarely watches. Olivier has the guts to make a specific interpretation of Hamlet, even if that interpretation is not entirely successful.

The reason for this failure is what I mentioned in the opening paragraph. Olivier can never overcome his intimidation in the face of the text to fully go with a quirky interpretation. He was definitely weighed down withe burden of being "Laurence Olivier: Greatest Shakespearean Actor of Generation; Heir to Garrick and Kean" to go all the way. He would be much freer in Richard III, a play with much less cultural baggage than Hamlet.

The other issue is one that I have always been fascinated by: actors’ age-appropriateness. Olivier was 40 when he played Hamlet opposite a 27-year-old Gertrude (Eileen Herlie) and an 18-year-old Ophelia (Jean Simmons, who spends the movie looking like she hopped off a Swiss Miss package). The years 1944 to 1948 were apparently rough on Olivier, as he looks at least a decade older than he did as Henry V, and believing that he just returned from college really stretches the old suspension of disbelief. What is better, a great reading by an actor of inappropriate age, or a less-technically precise performance from an actor who actually looks like their character (a la Ethan Hawke in Almereyda’s film)? It is of course an endless debate, but where you fall says a lot about the lens through which you view Shakespeare.