Monthly Archives: August 2009

The Invention of Lying

“Your baby is so ugly, it’s like a little rat” — Man, what a good line.

If there’s one thing anyone can say about Ricky Gervais after meeting him it’s that he is smart. Very smart. Possibly too smart for someone who arrived on a special invitation at the White House in his pajama bottoms (it was a last-minute invitation and his suit was in the cleaners, he says), and whose favorite things to do are sit on the couch in his oldest sweat pants and scratch his cat. Gervais’ intellect can be disarming for anyone.

I haven’t met him, but I could venture a guess about what makes him tick. I have a theory it’s mass quantities of cheddar cheese and friends who make him laugh. I like Ricky Gervais.

But even more than him, I like his work. I like that his unassuming nature, his parochial interests and his Reading accent translate into works brimming with pathos and sensitivity for every ordinary person’s struggle on earth. Ordinary is a key word. His work piggy backs on many comic artists — Laurel and Hardy, Basil Fawlty, Eddie Izzard, Alan Partridge — and especially his contemporary peers, like Simon Pegg, whose Channel 4 series in 1999-2001, Spaced (both seasons are available on Hulu now), is a wonderfully enjoyable show that digs in comedy and recent pop culture for the least ambitious of characters. There is no Basil Fawlty-style irony in Simon Pegg and Jessica Steveson’s characters in the show, and there is something revolutionary in that. We don’t like them because they are pathetic, ridiculous fops, or self-absorbed blowhards who are passing time by deluding themselves of their own success, rather these two youngish characters represent a new generation of Britons. Aspirational in theory, unpretenious, loving, and two of the biggest slugs we have ever seen on television. They lie about being a “professional couple” in order to snag a cheap apartment (neither of them make much money, and they are not actually a couple). Unlike other slugs, they manage to keep their charm. The same theme about friendship is recognizable in Gervais and his writing partner Steven Merchant’s series Extras.

So it doesn’t work to say that the plot for The Invention of Lying sounds…um…dumb. I could say it, I certainly have thought it, but it doesn’t work, because plot hasn’t hindered Gervais’ writing ability in the past. Everyone in the world can’t lie, except for one man, who can. Ok. I hung around and waited for Gervais’ first non-writing film role in Ghost Town, directed by David Koepp, to come out on video to give it a cursory watch for fear of an awkward transition from writer/director to actor, and indeed, Gervais is capable of bringing the same sentiment thorough in somebody else’s script. His sensitivity to the power of human connections in life is just as refreshing when he’s wearing a dentist’s smock (on him, possibly the worst outfit ever worn by a leading male character). How will his second shot in The Invention of Lying, a film he actually has had a hand in co-writing, fare?

-Heather Struck


Russia’s Far Flung Territories — 6 Films About Siberia

Ian Frazier recently wrote about his journey from St. Petersburg to the Pacific Coast, through the vast and haunted openness of Siberia. The New Yorker published some of his notes in two parts: here. It’s some good reading, and it brings to mind a few films that venture into the same unknown territory. In film it has often been the same two things we see in the Russian hinterlands: wintery landscapes and endless, crippling cold. Frazier gives us glimpses of more varied trials, all fairly equally depressing. He tells us about cities made of criss-crossed wires and snaking highway ramps, old women who sit by the road, selling no one knows what, swarms of mosquitos in dusty roadside campsites, and surprisingly delicious milk and dairy.

Films use Siberia as a setting to invoke isolation and banishment, drawing on the real feelings of Russians who had experienced political or criminal exhile in the thousands of kilometers of interior territory, where the Eurasian and the North American plates meet. It is the place where no one goes, and anyone who is there in film is usually present to experience pain in lonlieness or wartime grief.

It is also, in comedy, a space where the absolute nature of cold and freezing conditions are used to represent the ridiculous. Dom DeLuise’s trip to Siberia in The Twelve Chairs is made funnier only by the full-length fur he slings over his body to go grovel at the feet of a Soviet official. Dom DeLuise in fur is funny. So is Woody Allen (in Love and Death) dressed for war. These two are my favorites on the list, despite the hypnotic effects of Dr. Zhivago.

1) White Knights (1985 and not on Netflix…fail)

There is a scene in this film in which Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnokov get together in a big room in Russia and they dance. And dance. And dance. Yes, they light up the frigid atmosphere.

2) Dr. Zhivago (1965)

If colors can be used to describe the way a film affects the viewer, and I think they can, then there is a pretty obvious choice for this one. Not just white, but a bright, violent white sustains this adaptation of the Boris Pasternak novel. I’ve found Gatsby’s pink suit in Robert Redford’s portrayal of him in The Great Gatsby to be one of the few reasons I can watch that film and enjoy it. His yellow car seals the deal.

3) The Twelve Chairs (1970)

Every part of this Mel Brooks film set in post-Bolshevik Russia that should work, does. The film is adapted from a popular Russian novel written in the late 1920s by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov. Dom DeLuise, as an opportunistic priest who hears about a woman’s hidden fortune while listening to her last confession, can savor an unscrupulous role like few other comedians. Frank Langella hams up his performace as Ostap Bender, a gorgeous vagrant, just enough, but not too much that he upstages the central conceit of the film. That is, humans are petty, conniving cowards, and in the end, we all get kapput. Early Soviet Russia is a pretty fair setting for such a theme. The best we can do is hope for the best, and expect the worst, Brooks says.

4)War and Peace (1956)

5)Love and Death (1975)

Woody Allen’s knowledge of himself as a lover not a fighter is rarely brought to light in quite this way, in which he is actually forced to fight. Diane Keaton returns two years later to play Annie Hall opposite Allen’s Alvy Singer in a modern New York love story that turns the comedy in Love and Death into a ripened work of love and life.

6) Transsiberian (2008)

Heather Struck

When the Artists Return to Detroit

Will they be like this?

Link to Hua Hsu’s Atlantic blog, where we see A Guy Called Gerald in a film clip labeled 1989.

They Called it Camelot — Seven Movies about the Kennedys to Netflix

1) Gray Gardens – 1975

There is a moment in this documentary, a steller work by documentarian brothers Albert and David Maysles, in which Edith Bouvier Beale (Jackie Onassis’ aunt) tells the filmmakers that the reason she capriciously threw her daughter’s suitor out of her kitchen one fateful day, an action that has obviously affected her daughter (Little Edie’s) grip on the world, is not because she was trying to keep her near, but because the suitor was bad news. This moment of sanity strikes like a bolt of lightening, and lets us know that there is nothing unusual in the lives of these two women that can’t be seen. They live in an overgrown, depreciating estate in East Hampton, where Little Edie was brought up and where her mother cares to spend her last days, surrounded by filth and cats.

The film tells us that when Jackie Kennedy learned about the state of the house in 1972, she paid to refurbish the property to at least acceptable codes and standards for the town. The First Lady’s presence is felt in the film only when Little Edie talks about living in the city, on her own, and how glorious it is to have a place on 9th Avenue. For someone who does live in that city these words are sad, because they know that living in the New York is as hard as it is wonderful.

The film is powerful, and the story it shows us is wrapped with history and the specific material and social culture that the Kennedys engendered. This is owing in part to the Maysles brothers knowing to let the camera follow the subject and record simply, without prompt. Big Edie shows us a sad nostalgia and a regret in aging that is often overpowered by her personality. Little Edie is as tough and capable as her mother, but profound self-inflicted emotional damage has seperated her from us in a way that we regret, because she’s so sweet, and her hunger to be a dancer tells us she has the same hunger we all do, hers is just entirely unguarded. Being out of society for so long, she doesn’t know she needs to guard it.

2) JFK – 1991

3)Thirteen Days – 2000

4) Malcolm X – 1992

5) 4 Little Girls – 1997

Within Spike Lee’s documentary sensibilities is his quest for emotionality in the dispossessed. This film’s history is like a cut to the heart, the history it explores being too painful for many of the film’s subjects to recollect. Lee interviews the relatives and town people whose children were killed in a race-related Alabama church bombing in 1963. Earlier that year JFK had been assassinated, throwing forth a decade of highly public murders and years of violence in northern and southern cities. Lee’s handling of his subjects is so sensitive and intensely involved that it makes him a member of the film’s progress almost as much as the films he actually appears in. He visits this method again with a bit more attention in 2007, with his four-part documentary series, When the Levees Broke, after Hurricane Katrina destroyed the lives of masses of New Orleans residents.

6) RFK Must Die: The Assassination of Bobby Kennedy – 2007

7) Helter Skelter – 1976

Cops 2 – “I was a cop”

Prince of the City, criticized by some for being too long and by others for lacking that certain Hollywood glamour that Sidney Lumet could deliver, is as masterful a work as any of Lumet’s films. Its story was taken from a 1978 book of the same name written by a New York deputy police commissioner. It is about Robert Leuci, an undercover cop in the narcotics division of the Special Investigations Unit of the New York police department who deals drugs in order to cultivate sources, and who is persuaded by federal investigators to wear a wire and gather information on misconduct in the department. His cooperation reportedly led to the indictment of nearly the entire SIU, a fact that Lumet explores by looking at the way it affected Leuci’s loyalty to his partners in the force. “I will not go against my partners,” he says up front with the kind of conviction that sets him, a class-A gonzo detective, apart from the thoughtful attorneys who co-opt him for the work.

The film draws you in somewhere around the second hour and explores some pretty wonderful angles of the U.S. justice system. The Feds are a bizarre mixture of effete, bullish and proudly altruistic law men who forge into counts of police misconduct with varying levels of sensitivity for the men’s lives they are investigating. Cops, Lumet tells us, are not like the criminals they book, because 1) they don’t lie under oath (at least they’re not supposed to) and 2) they can’t handle being in a tight spot. Cops are either backed by the law or they bend the law to suit their needs, they do not disregard their places in the law system entirely.

The question about whether or not to convict Leuci of crimes that include bribe-taking, extortion and purjury under oath becomes the film’s moral climax, wherein a room full of lawyers in double-breasted suits decide the fate of the film’s hero. Thing is, there is no evidence that such a dilemma occurred in real life. Leuci was guilty of egregious crimes, such as removing large amounts of cocaine from police evidence to gift to sources, and there is no evidence that anyone in law believed this code of conduct, which admittedly brought in a number of big arrests and was responsible for highly publicized drug busts, was acceptable. Except the cops. In 1981, The New York Times quoted Leuci saying, “The truth is, I am not a renegade or a strange guy…I am an absolute reflection of other detectives. If they – good, honest people, as they see themselves – weren’t bothered by what they were doing, why was I? I’ve given the Police Department a lot of problems. I wasn’t a weirdo. I wasn’t Frank Serpico. He wore a T-shirt with a pig on it. I was a cop.”

Special props to Jerry Orbach as a special narcotics investigator who actually flips over the desk of a superior. He put bad guys in jail, damn it. So talk to him when you’ve grown a pair.

Cheerleading Sells

Universal Entertainment is releasing Bring It On, Fight to the Finish, next month on DVD. That’s the FIFTH installment in a series about trash-talking, finger-snapping cheerleaders who show the world what’s up with the spirit of competition. The series’ third straight-to-DVD film in 2006 made $12 million dollars in its first week. Not too shabby for something that never gets to the theater.

The fact that these are still being made and sold all over the country is a no-brainer for Universal, the studio that had the genius idea to put Kirstin Dunst in a two-piece cheerleading uniform in the first place. It’s also a fact that, frankly, should make us all worry about the kids who are watching these DVDs in their homes. Our government offices and institutions of higher learning may well one day be run by people who think a dance-off is the way to solve an international diplomacy crisis.

Then again…they might be right.

The Horror…

Socialized health care is one way to terrify many Americans. This may be why Robert Rodriquez set the beginning portion of his 2007 grind house film, “Planet Terror” in a hospital. Zombies, dismembered and bleeding corpses stalking the earth, Josh Brolin crunching a thermometer with his teeth…all make us scream. Are zombies scarier than the prospect of a single-payer health care system though? Democrats in the Senate teaming up with bureaucrats from Cigna and Merck to form an unholy alliance of insurance subsidies, health care for the unhealthy and commodified drugs could start wrecking havoc as soon as the bill goes to committee. Ahh! This is something we have to think about.

Even scarier may be an “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” (1978) situation, where people’s bodies are no longer their own to control. The film’s original fear, that of a stale Cold War communist conformity, savors today of people’s fear of a government-aided health plan that will require less quality and more sub-par quantity in hospitals and physicians’ offices across the nation. This thesis is, of course, confounded by the film’s hero, Donald Sutherland, the son of Tommy Douglas, who as a Premier of Saskatchewan and one of the most effective members of the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation in the middle of the twentieth century, is regarded as the father of universal health care in Canada.

Heather Struck

Being There – Wes Anderson

There is much the film world makes with the concept of being there, as writers and directors across the stylistic spectrum can assure us. I have started a personal MJ playlist, which probably would have been compiled even if he hadn’t died suddenly, because such are my feelings toward Michael’s abilities with pop. The song, “I’ll Be There,” from the Jackson 5’s 1970 album, is a good way to preface a film theme that is concerned with the ways that the unassuming friendships and relationships in characters’ lives are instrumental to their transformations or realizations.

Being there is such an essential sentiment, one wonders what the genius character performer Peter Sellers was channeling in the 1979 film of the same name. Being there was upheld in a revisionist romantic comedy that plunged Julia Roberts into the throes of a love story only to have her emerge husbandless and accompanied to someone else’s wedding reception by a gay companion who turns the viewer on more than her lame-duck “best friend” can. My Best Friend’s Wedding told romantic viewers that life is about friendship and its joys as much as it is an ongoing quest for romantic love.

Simple? Yes. Why is it that the films that take on this idea are often able to grasp a satisfying amount of sentimentality from the viewer though? Could it be that happiness and loneliness are so naturally related?

Consider the Ricky Gervais/Stephen Merchant program Extras, the second series of which appeared on the BBC and on HBO in 2007. It is a painfully self-conscious series, with more genuine laughs than even the most talented comic writers could hope for, and it is, in the end, about the endurance of friendship in lives full of misguided energy, vanquished hope and the delusion that popularity affords.

With a slightly less hilarious tone, Philippe Claudel’s carefully made film, I’ve Loved You So Long (2008), in which a damaged and exhausted mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) who had spent fifteen years in prison for her son’s murder, goes to live with her younger sister and develops, as if from scratch, a new set of partners and relationships in her life, explores the way a woman’s commitment to be there for her sister enables the rebirth of a character and her reintroduction to humanity, which is glorious in its simplicity.

Wes Anderson’s films have emerged out of the independent Hollywood scene with some fanfare, providing us highly stylized glimpses into the worlds of Anderson and his writing pals, which we know to include Owen Wilson and Noah Baumbach. His world is as new and curious as a child’s, while also being wholly reflective of loss, even though what is lost is never immediately clear. What is clear in most of Anderson’s films is the fear of what may be lost in a character’s world. We are told that the world can be scary without this essential something. What counteracts this fear, Anderson repeatedly tells us, are the histories of relationships surrounding us. They are new, as in the romance that blooms between Anthony and a motel maid in rural Texas in Bottle Rocket, or they are more often found in existing relationships and made new. There is nothing wrong with re-fulfilling faith in a relationship that was lost to the capriciousness of time or the easily hurt feelings of family, Anderson tells us. Especially since the lives that define us are linked to those people in ways that we may have no hope of severing.

Anderson’s films have some steady moments where what should be conveyed is hopefulness, but what we get is a pop song and a silent stare from the star. Those unsuccessful scenes are drawn together with the filmmaker’s concern with characters finding calmness and comfort in each others’ presence. Their hurt and confusion remind us sweetly of our own, at times, because it is so easy to relate to a broken heart. This alone is not enough to salvage a film like Rushmore from its too-earnest effort to create sympathy for its protagonist, or The Darjeeling Limited from being scattered without reason across the Indian subcontinent. But what we have with these films, and with a film like the critically disliked The Life Aquatic, which was actually made wonderful by Bill Murray’s (as underwater explorer Steve Zissou) unique ability to meld comedic language with a perpetual sense of yearning (“You really think you should be hitting the sauce with a bun in the oven,” he says, transporting a sense of pathetic bitterness to the viewer that is made so much less depressing by the fact that this line is delivered to the object of Zissou’s affection while sitting in a hot air balloon), are lost, confused, passionately alive characters who are, by the grace of their most mundane and ordinary connections, saved. It is meaningful, for Anderson, that the supportive presence in his films is usually a character’s sister or oldest friend or estranged father. His inspired stylistic vision is sometimes matched by a tender affection for the strength someone may find in one who has been there for them.

Heather Struck

Cops — A Dog Day Afternoon


In the movie world, cops are the forsaken kings. They are both guardians and perpetrators of the unsavory sides of humanity, and, nicely for us, the films in which they appear tend to be the more expressive of the cultural atmospheres in which they were made. We should be thankful for that because, without those wonderful moods and settings that are created in most cop dramas, the films would be sorely one-dimensional, and our recollections of the past four decades would be way too paranoid.

In the 1970s American cops in film were transgressors of the status quo, and often they were sunken into the moral quicksand that made up crime and law in their cities.

Television in the 70s, being on the post-Cold War helium, was not the time for cop shows as much as it was the time for spy shows, but Peter Falk’s impressionable Columbo during that decade paved the road for the 80s and later, when cop dramas started to pick up steam with a sense of materialism and a goofy kick of humor. CHiPs and Miami Vice are shining emblems of a time when cops were offspring of our own renamed post-radical cultures, when things seemed mysteriously safer on a surface level. At least until a homemade videotape of Rodney King’s arrest emerged and appeared on local Southern California news and then on CNN in the spring of 1991. We saw a different impression of the police in that video, and it shocked us in ways that couldn’t be put away or toned down.

So we arrive at cops in television in the early 1990s. Stephen Cannel gave us Michael Chiklis as The Commish, an amiable teddy bear of a police chief in New York State trying to smile his way into a New York City commissioner job. These episodes are available on Hulu now, and are worthy of a watch here or there for what they remind us about television’s turn from the staged situation, where reality is constantly suspended, to sharp verisimilitude. The Commish, situated just before this turn, influenced current shows like Andy Breckman’s enjoyable Monk, which only slips out of interest once or twice per episode, amazingly managing to keep a hold on us with its silly takes on plot and character, much of the credit going to Tony Shalhoub himself in the title role.

David Chase’s The Wire, an irresistibly engaging show that aired on HBO between 2002 and 2008 has been critiqued, followed and appreciated in many blogs and newspapers, such as the series of blogs Jeffrey Goldberg and David Plotz did for Slate and The Washington Post: [Here]

There is a lot to say about the senses of community in the police force and in the Baltimore street world of The Wire, both of which intersect a very few number of times. When they do intersect, it is manufactured and necessary. Bubbles, a junkie acting as a source to the detectives, or Officer McNulty (troubled, unsatisfied, Irish) meeting with a dealer and understanding in a quiet moment what it is that has got the young soldier into trouble, are careful and believable instances of two worlds connecting.

This discussion can bring us nicely to films where the cops and the perpetrators exist in similarly the same fashion, negotiating law and rules in order to find ways to connect. A Dog Day Afternoon (1975) [Here] is a fantastic film for any big city to show on a big sheet in the park after the sun goes down. Al Pachino’s energy, almost bizarre in its ability to regenerate and regrow out of nowhere, as the film’s star bank robber, holds up a bank in Brooklyn for the purpose of buying a much-needed sex change operation for the love of his life. Chris Sarandon, as this love, is unhinged by the cops’ presence in his space after a hostage situation begins, and it is here that he walks a tight line between the 70s-period stereotypes about queerness that Martin Scorsese highlights for us in Mean Streets (1973) [Here], and a character who is genuinely thrown out of whack by the presence of a group of police.Sidney Lumet’s direction makes this a venerable tight-rope act. Pacino’s own claim to fame in the film, a single uncut scene in which he goes from raging at cops to calming his manner for a phone call with his lover, is a gem in a fine work.

Heather Struck