Monday, March 30, 2009


Well, I'm happy to be asked to be involved in a new film page, Filmwell.

It's a collaborative effort with some people I really dig: Jeffrey Overstreet, Alissa Wilkinson, Jason Morehead, Mike Leary, and Mike Hertenstein. Each of us will be posting on different days, and we're trying to shy away from celebrity news and gossip and....well, I'll let you figure out what we ARE trying to do.

My first post is a meditation on Josephy Losey's The Servant.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Secrets (2007)

I've been meaning to blurb this, because I know I probably won't be able to write a full review.

I caught Avi Nesher's Ha-Sodot (The Secrets) the other week and found it to be a nice bindungsroman (boy I hate that the adjective "nice" has been demeaned) about first love, deciding who you are, and the ways in which a fundamentalist community can become so stifling that you have to pull away from it even though you think you can't.

It is (or would be) an easy enough film to mock. Just throw out all the current dismissive buzz phrases like "After School Special," "melodrama," or "provincial." But the fact is, I did care about these characters by the end of the film, not as poster children for some theological or political argument, but as human beings whom I wanted to see succeed and be happy whatever choices they made that might deviate from my own. In that sense, it would be a nice companion to Milk, which I thought more smooth but less heartfelt.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Watchmen (2009)

Yeah, I called that one wrong.

As a fetishistic recreation of the graphic novel for the purposes of masturbatory group nostalgia--it was a great experience the first time you read it wasn't it?--the film was fine. As a work of art, well, a three hour story board can be a bit tedious. There is a "Now...This" quality to the narrative that is as much a structural problem as anything else. Comic books are montages by nature, and we are conditioned to see montage as ellipsis. But when the whole thing is montage, the film ends up eliding any remnant of story, character or humanity, and we just have spectacle. Some of the individual bits of spectacle or pieces of montage are interesting, others campy, others clumsy, but it plods from one to the next. By "plod" I don't mean the pace is slow necessarily, just that slavish faithfulness to putting every little thing in from the graphic novel ends up making the audience (or at least this member of it) feel as though that was the (only) purpose in making the film. It wasn't so much that I felt like Snyder didn't know or understand what the material meant and couldn't translate it to the screen--I felt like he didn't care what it meant. That his purpose was not to convey the meaning of the source material but the surface of it, the mechanics of it, and as a result the film felt mechanical and purposeless, even with all its sermonizing about the human spirit. In that sense, the film it most reminded me of was Chris Columbus's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

I could enumerate in more detail, I suppose, but really, to what purpose? Those who will like the film have most likely already seen it. Those who haven't seen it yet probably have their own reasons for not doing so. I enjoyed the experience of going to the movies with my friends and watching this movie, which is not the same as enjoying this movie, but....

P.S. This is probably as good a place as any to mention that over at Cinevox I'm in the process of casting Muppet Watchmen, to go with Muppets in Space and Muppet Treasure Island...

Friday, March 20, 2009

Career Ace Number Five

Hole 9 at McLean Community Park is only 146 feet, but a slight anyzer with a beat in Dragon got me career ace #5. And an ace is an ace.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The House Bunny Quasi-Rant

I can't quite bring myself to full rant mode for The House Bunny, because, let's be honest, pretty much any complaint I could raise about the film would be rebutted by at least two of the five primal questions:

  1. What did you think was going to happen?
  2. How long have you known about the assignment?
Not that The House Bunny has no redeeming values. I've been searching for works that my students might be familiar with that illustrate the notion of deconstruction--undermining the philosophy a work asserts or the hierarchies on which it relies.

Now, I could point to the ending with a speech about the importance of inner beauty, friendship, etc. followed by the post-coda dance to the song, "I Know What Boys Want." But I prefer this exchange of dialogue:

Maybe Oliver is one of those guys who likes to have a conversation with a girl before he hooks up with her.

He's gay?

Oh boy, we laugh because it's funny, and we laugh because it's so true. Because, really, aren't gays the only guys that like to talk with girls they hook up with?

I would point out that this film is more demeaning towards men than women, as it shows women at least capable of friendship and being motivated by things other than sex, while it makes clear that a guy is and can only be motivated by one thing.

I would point that out, except that to point out that the only reason a guy might watch the film is to ogle girls requires admitting you watched the film. This reminds me of the famous Dilbert cartoon where the point haired boss says that one of his worker's flaws is that she tends to argue with people who are much smarter than her prompting her to think, "I can't argue with his stupid misconception without proving it is true!" Checkmate.

Okay, I watched this film, so I guess I deserve whatever scorn I get. Please berate me in the comments below as you see fit.

P.S. Anna Farris was actually kind of cute in Entourage. Oh well.
P.P.S. Was that Katherine Macphee as in American Idol Katherine MacPhee? You know, if I had to put her performance up against Kelly Clarkson's in From Justin 2 Kelly, I think she might actually beat Kelly Clarkson, which feels out to even type.
P.P.P.S. Last fall in Toronto I saw Kat Dennings in Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist. I am hard pressed to think of an actress who has been in two consecutive films this bad and yet towards whom I developed no ill will. She seems like a pleasant enough actress, but your agent.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

FFCC Awards 2008

The Faith and Film Critics Circle (FFCC) is an affiliation of film critics whose scholarly or journalistic work has paid particular interest to the representations of faith in contemporary film. In an attempt to draw attention to quality works of art, the FFCC votes annually on awards for Best Narrative Film, Best Documentary, Best Film For the Whole Family, and Best Exploration of Spiritual Themes.

I was particularly happy to see At the Death House Door take the prize for Best Documentary as it was my favorite film of 2008.

This years selections were announced today and included the following films:

Winner: Silent Light
Runner up: Doubt
Also nominated: The Dark Knight, In Bruges, Slumdog Millionaire

Winner: Slumdog Millionaire
Runner up: Silent Light
Also nominated: Happy-Go-Lucky, Paranoid Park, WALL-E

Winner: At the Death House Door
Runner up: Man onWire
Also nominated: Encounters at the End of the World, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Young@Heart

Winner: WALL-E
Runner up: More Than a Game
Also nominated: City of Ember, Horton Hears a Who, Kung Fu Panda, The Spiderwick Chronicles

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Yes, I am, Cartman--The Cool Judaism of Kyle Broslofski

The Deep End of South Park: Critical Essays on Television's Shocking Cartoon Series is now available from McFarland Publishing.

It contains my essay, "'Yes I Am, Cartman!': The Cool Judaism of Kyle Broslofski."

Unfortunately, due to copyright restrictions, I had to take almost all of the direct quotations out (and substitute descriptions), so the writing doesn't have quite the same snap; that said, I kind of like this essay.

Here's a teaser:

The key to understanding Kyle’s superiority to Eric may be found in a close reading of an exchange in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. As the two boys face death, Eric offers a typically misguided apology: “Kyle, all those times I called you a stupid Jew, I didn't mean it. You're not a Jew.” When Kyle affirms that he is a Jew, Eric demurs, saying, “Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Among other things, this exchange highlights the fact that the word “Jew” is—at least in this exchange--devoid of content or meaning for Eric; it is a word that he understands is supposed to be insulting without really knowing why. This point is underscored by an earlier exchange when Eric’s teacher overhears him tell Kyle, “Don't call me fat, you fucking Jew!” When Mr. Garrison asks, “Eric, did you just say the F-word?” he looks puzzled and asks, “Jew?”
The quality that makes Kyle’s Judaism cool is its authenticity, a word I use to express its combination of pride (or at least its lack of shame) and its considered nature, leading to its individuality (a trait to which I will return later). Kyle’s Judaism is cool because it is unabashed; he does not attempt to hide it or “pass,” even when invited to do so (symbolically if not literally) by Eric. Even the form of Kyle’s affirmation, using as it does the English translation of the name God reveals to Moses in the book of Exodus, subtly underscores Kyle’s ability to appropriate the text and terminology shared with the Christian for his own use and purpose. Kyle accepts the name but he does not accept the meaning attached to it and in doing so he symbolically prevents Eric, other Christians, or indeed anyone else, from defining his spiritual identity for him.

You can purchase the book at this link.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Waltz With Bashir (2008)

It it hard for me to know how I might have responded to this film if I hadn't seen The Reader or Heartbeat Detector in the last few weeks.

Some of the responses (I'm talking in general, not about responses here) to those films, particularly the former appear to say it is not just wrong to excuse (or offer an excuse) for Nazi (or German...they're always the same, right?) atrocities but even just to understand them or to try to talk about the context it which they occurred as part of the dialogue surrounding them.

In a survey, even an historical one, of atrocities, there are two categories, victims and perpetrators. There are no witnesses, nor are there people who are merely complicit. (What does it mean to be complicit but to look the other way? Silence is a form of consent that allows evil to flourish.)

Several times while watching Waltz With Bashir I thought about the notion that by the measure we judge we shall be weighed, and I don't doubt that contributed to my dissatisfaction with the film.

I'm not sure how the film could have been other than what it was, but the repressed memory device ensures that the whole film (okay, well, 99% of it) remains squarely from the perspective of the Israeli yet assiduously avoids any apportionment of blame. What, I wondered, would be the response of a film about a traumatized German solider who represses his memory of participating in a massacre (the film's word, not mine)? Of a white South African who tries to reconstruct repressed memories of Soweto? Of an American who tries to recall being at My Lai?

If may be true that such a film would offer up an excu...explanation that the person from whose perspective it was written (or shown) was young, and stupid, and afraid, and merely following orders. Would it, however, expect audiences to feel such unreflected sympathy for the person traumatized by the event absent much (any?) attempt to grapple with or own the fact that participation in such events makes one the oppressor not the victim? (Perhaps the only real analog I could find for the film might be James Baldwin's short story "Going to Meet the Man" which could only get away with focusing on the pain, rage, and empathy for the racist white sheriff because it was written by a Black American.)

"You were traumatized by the massacre before it happened" a friend tells the main character (or something close to that). This segues into some pop-psychology about the collective memory of the Holocaust the purport of which can be debated. Perhaps this scene is not meant as a "the Holocaust justifies everything" scene. Perhaps it means that having grown up with an historical narrative of victimization, the narrator cannot fathom a world in which events don't conform to an archetypal pattern he's been drilled to believe is the context for the only way of looking at the world.

After watching this film, I thought a lot about the third act of Bob Hercules's incredible documentary, Forgiving Dr. Mengele. After Eva Mozes Kor forgives a prison guard, and later gives personal forgiveness to all Nazis, including the infamous doctor who experimented on her and killed her sister, she at first refuses and then reluctantly agrees to a meeting with some Palestinians. There is a truly frustrating disconnect in that part of the film, as Kor tries to explain that she can't forgive the Palestinians because they are still actively trying to kill her; she seems unaware that the people she met with don't want her forgiveness. They consider her the oppressor and (apparently mistakenly) think that she will understand their greivances.

I have never been to Israel. Someone I know and trust implicitly has, and in the wake of this film that person told me unless or until an American Christian goes to Israel he simply cannot fathom how completely, insistently, and totally the Israeli people are acculturated to accept an identity of victimhood. Given a history of Jewish persecution that is measured in millennia rather than decades, perhaps the narrator's emphasis in the first half of the film on the sheer terror of war is meant less as a generic excuse and more as a (very, very, very, very, indirect) probing of the mindset that has to repress accountability even at the cost of memory. Perhaps the experience of fear has been so long it becomes ingrained and, at that point, the person never feels safe; even when victims subsequently find themselves in contexts where they have more power (and thus more relative safety) they often still feel as those they must maintain that upper hand or they will fall victim again. Thus the drive for feeling safer becomes a drive for maintaining the upper hand of power at all costs.

Accountability for what, though? Standing by and watching while the "Christian Philangist" militia did their exterminating for them? For sending up a flare? This
hanging on to the "it was them not us" distinction to the very end may be historically accurate, but it strikes me as nevertheless being self-serving (the film up to that point shows the soldiers shooting up a car with little regard to whether or not civilians are inside of it, dumping bodies along with wounded who may not be dead, etc.) and the sort of rationales that is largely rejected in other contexts.

Am I saying Israel is unilaterally at fault for everything that is wrong with Arab-Jewish relations? Of course not. What I am saying is that absent an almost completely pro-Israel perspective, it is easy enough for me to see how some might find this film self-serving, perhaps even offensively so.

But there's the rub. This film was made by an Israeli, funded by (I believe) a government grant, and selected by Israel to represent its country for the Academy Award consideration. Given the historic grievances perpetrated on the Jewish people, perhaps it is amazing that a generation after the camps that such a comparison (between the victimization of Jews in the camps and Arabs in Sabra) could be even whispered, even in a vague and indirect manner.

In his famous essay, "On Moral Equivalence", Charles Krauthammer slams Jesse Jackson for calling Lebanon a "cycle of pain," presumably because the cycle metaphor fails to distinguish retaliatory violence from attack or self defense from terrorism.

Not all acts of violence are created equal. Got it. So why do we (by which I mean "human beings" not necessary Jews, Christians, Arabs, or Atheists) cling so hard to the double standard that insists that everything we do is mitigated by history and context but everything done to us must be accounted for on a scale of moral absolutes?

In the final analysis, I don't know if Waltz With Bashir simply lacked introspection (for all its narrative emphasis on reclaiming memory) and is thus a flawed film, or whether I'm just such a legalistic Pharisee that I'm looking at a glass half full and condemning it for not being overflowing. Perhaps if it weren't being praised so widely and strongly, I might think the latter. As it is, I sort of felt watching the film like my wife must have felt after some arguments early in our marriage--you know in that moment after the dust has settled and the party you were fighting with has reconciled himself to the situation and talked through his motivations and explained his (flawed but he assures you basically decent) intentions and demonstrated contrition and maybe even done penance but, well, never actually said "I was wrong."

More discussion at Cinevox.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Why I Think The Watchmen is Going to Be a Smash...

Once upon a time there was a film.

It had a director mostly known for making franchise films bigger and louder but who was not particularly considered a great director/auteur.

It got a lot of buzz but was plagued by whispers of problems, whispers that were not helped by an early in the year, non-prestige release date.

The film I'm thinking of had a kick-butt trailer. But the trailer was also a teaser, and it came out so far in advance of the film that rather than building excitement culminating in a ticket purchase, it created anxiety (have I seen all teh good stuff already? will it be another trailer that looks good but be a bad film?) and backlash (I'm sick of this movie and I haven't even seen it yet!).

Early reviews were guarded, and the pressure of the fact that nothing less than a home run would live up to expectations made failure seem inevitable.

It was in a genre that conventional wisdom said appealed to a particular demographic rather than to a wide enough one to attract blockbuster numbers.

It starred actors who, while known, were not exactly box office best bets.

It was accused of being special effects laden, bloated, and over long.

That film was....


I swear the lead up to The Watchmen feels nothing if not like the buzz creation cycle leading up to Titanic, and I just have a hunch people are going to go ape over the film in a big way...

No, I haven't seen the film and I've read the graphic novel once. I liked it, but I don't consider myself a geek about it. This is nothing but a hunch, but it just feels like deja vu all over again.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Seraphine Redux.

I came out of Toronto thinking I was the only one enamored of this film, but I see from David Hudson's blog at IFC that I was a bit premature in that assessment.

I found it a difficult film, not so much technically but in the way that it refuses to give in to pat answers to the questions it raises and risks leaving some frustrated at that fact. But it lingered in my memory, and it is a great case study for those who ponder the meaning and value of art in our lives.