Monthly Archives: March 2010

Greenberg

What is happening in Greenberg? One thing is Noah Baumbauch’s near-perfect screenplay and direction. This is a real LA film, and for whatever reason, Baumbach has chosen LA to be the setting for a particular portrait of sadness. Because that’s what this film is. It’s sadness…all of ours, represented in the title character far less than it is in its Lavinia of tortured lead female characters, Florence, who is kicked and poked and emotionally thrown just enough to make the viewer think, wow, Baum speaks the truth.

There are a few women who are irreconcilably offended by the way Florence is treated in this film. And rightly so, indeed. Yes. This viewer felt pain, but it was largely a lot of her own ability to recognize the impulses and actions that probably make Florence a bit of a push over, and a dummy, in the film. You are forgiven and further empathized with, because I am guilty of the same.

Florence is the personal assistant to the kind of beautiful, liberal couple that lives in LA, which is very similar to the same couple that lives in New York, only the former have a pool that they let their weirdo neighbors use. She is babysitter to their kids, buyer of groceries, and walker of their lovable German Shepard and comfy Hollywood home. They take their kids on a family vacation to Vietnam, where they’re “opening a hotel or something,” and leave their heavily psycho-medicated brother, visiting from New York for a while after an off-camera break-down, alone with his thoughts, the liquor cabinet, and a notepad on which to write letters of complaint to various corporations and national newspapers.  (“Can a pool flood? What the hell kind of question is that?” his brother shouts over the phone from Vietnam).

Another thing that is happening is Ben Stiller, who, as the brother, Roger Greenberg, is giving us a performance that is unhinged and damaged and ultimately real: he gives us the comedy he was once capable of before a long, strange hiatus into…other things. Stiller has comedic posts in the deadpan, in the wacky, in that of the bemused straight man, and now in the form of a Baumbach lead. Bequeathed with a critical literacy that lets him analyze 20-year olds at his niece’s party (“Oh yeah, I heard the kids are doing coke again,” he says with mock amusement), by saying he read in an article that they are all incapable of expressing emotions. He reverses this comment in another, more serious scene when he admits to Florence that he thinks “young people are so brave.”

Greenberg is also available to transgress social and emotional boundaries with Florence, and then feign damage and unavailability when she, oddly, responds. His poor treatment of an old friend and bandmate who he reunites with in LA is troubling, since he is a fumbling, idiotic, selfish mess most of the time. But his relationship with Florence  is made to be the focal point for us to choose to hate him or forgive him. It seems like this is a very important choice, and Baumbach may be too hasty to make the call for us at the end. That doesn’t change the fact that everything that Baumbauch is trying to tell us with his film, in the focused details of misbehavior, is entirely, unforgivingly true.

-Heather Struck

I Fear What I May Do One Fateful Valentine’s Day

Not really. I mean, aside from giving myself digestive problems from eating too many jelly beans in one sitting and washing it down with a bottle of Riesling, which has happened before, so I can’t even really fear that anymore. But the revelation with Shutter Island is that it gives us a remarkable fear within the framework of a paranoia film. It’s probably the greatest and most intense fear in existence, because its explanations are so abstract. It is the fear that we will never really own our minds. If the purpose of art is to seek representations of truth, and the good artist achieves some amount of clarity in that quest, then how do all the rest of us manage to stumble along in our silly jobs with their useful applications, churning and creating and advancing modern society in an attempt to serve some greater duty to the universe? How do we do that knowing that, come on, we don’t have any clue about what’s happening out there.

If there’s a reason to get this existential here now, other than that I just think about this sort of stuff all the time, it’s that the paranoia in Shutter Island touches on what seems to be a current societal concern with the big questions of art and life, that have indeed been around forever. A Jonathan Ames quote from a recent episode of his HBO series, Bored to Death, leaps out at you like a line from T.S Eliot – “Our lives don’t change, we just become more content with our core of misery, which is a form of happiness” – delivered by a wonderfully surly psycho-therapist.

Ok, yes. Let’s talk about this and worry about this now. It’s been enough time. A psycho-correctional facility on a damp, north-eastern island is a scary enough setting for it.

Shutter Island is adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane,who also wrote the novel that inspired Clint Eastwood’s somber Mystic River. Scorsese suggests in Shutter Island that there are indeed dark corners of human nature that are so traumatic to behold that they tear down humanity’s own grip on the earth. Without going too much into plot, which is woven masterfully with suspense and what are quite beautiful macabre scenes that caused one audience member to remark out loud, “This is getting trippy,” Scorsese has produced a fresh, imaginative work. If one expects staleness from this director, he proves them wrong with a defiant flourish, and he continues to make engaging films with not a scene wasted.

Heather Struck

We Are the Music-Makers*

So guess who’s having a golden ticket contest? A company branded with the same name as a chocolate factory from a lovely book that was adapted into one of the best musical screenplays of my life. That’s who.

According to the Wonka (owned by Nestle) marketing team, they are hiding golden tickets in bars of their [read: delicious] chocolate, which is especially delicious with a goblet of wine. Red or white, it goes. Especially with another glass, because that first one was just to whet the palate and prime it for the chocolate anyway. The grand prize winners (there are ten, which is already contextually inaccurate, according to the film, which I have seen 10,000 times) win a trip around the world! Wow! Four destinations, three travel companions, and $12,500 spending cash.

Hm. What about this is strange? The cash, yeah. Why is Wonka giving out cash prizes? That’s a question that a nice healthy glance at their 10-K can and will address.

Anyway, this reminds me of how very much I enjoy Wonka chocolate, especially on long, thoughtful, winter days like these. Those thoughts turn to tears far too often this deep into the winter. It also reminds me of the way Gene Wilder pleased me as a kid when I watched this movie. But I always, without fail, laughed at this scene with Tim Brooke-Taylor.

*And we are the dreamers of the dreams.

Heather Struck