Big Trouble in Paradise

June 27th, 2009

Sexy Beast, 2000. Directed by Jonathan Glazer.

Gal Dove relaxes in "Sexy Beast"

Gal Dove relaxes in "Sexy Beast"

“Sexy Beast” opens on a scene of simple, Hockney-like geometry. A square pool. A horizontal white plinth of lounge chair. A male body, roughly rectangular. Many shades of blue. The establishing shot marvels at a near-African sun.

Two overlapping pink hearts, candy-shaped, feature in mosaic at the bottom of the perfect blue pool. These are the kind of hearts that, like tiki torches and umbrella-laden drinks, suddenly look agreeable, even touching, and so deeply right in a tropical setting. Totally tasteless and totally sincere. No impoverished labourers created that mosaic, no: those hearts are made of pure love.

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R.I.P. Michael Jackson

June 26th, 2009

Michael Jackson with baby tiger

The sentence “Michael Jackson is dead”, which I have already read at least twenty times, is utterly surreal.  It strikes me as a logical impossibility.  This is like reading that “Frosty the Snowman is dead”.  This is like reading “my childhood is dead”, and I know that it is that way for billions of people around the world.  The world seems enchanted, filled with the grieving citizens of Cape Verde and Paraguay and Nepal.   It is dark right now where I live. I see these other citizens in my mind’s eye, flickering like the lights at a million different vigils on every square inch of the map of the world.

We seem to be in for one of those disabling celebrity deaths that take a week or more to process.  Where nothing gets done globally.

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Thoughts on Britney Spears

August 6th, 2008

—“When you’re with her, you feel like you’re in the center of the universe. And maybe you are. She’s the soap opera the world can’t stop watching.”

Vanessa Grigoriadis, “The Tragedy of Britney Spears”. Rolling Stone (21 February 2008).

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Britney Spears was not particulately interesting in her sane incarnation, and it is pretentious to imply otherwise. Possibly the only interesting observer of the Lolita phenomenon was Vladimir Nabokov. Britney sane appeared punishingly dense. One was surprised to find her capable of speech at all. And, in fact, it wasn’t much in the way of speech, as evidenced by “Britney & Kevin: Chaotic”, which had the aspect of an empty-headed girl who has come to regard her every gurgle and shriek as cinematic.

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Welcome to the Future: Learn to Love it

July 26th, 2004

Radiohead
Kid A
October 2000
Capitol Records
Produced by Nigel Godrich

Radiohead: "Kid A" (2000).

For a band so uninterested in the visual presentation of its members, and so stark in its stage performance, it is simply amazing how misunderstood Radiohead’s music is by both critics and fans. Books could be written on the history of misunderstandings between journalists and Radiohead, and on misleading marketing campaigns.

Radiohead are not balladeers of depression and apathy—not makers of “music to slit your wrists to”, as early critics had it—but authentic documentarians of dread and free-floating anxiety. Their vitality is sparked by outrage, even disgust, not rapture, at the insignificance of the inhabitants of contemporary democracies. Sure you can vote, but will your vote even be counted? Where to turn when your candidate or political party does not represent your views? Read the rest of this entry »

Plot Synopsis: About Schmidt (2002)

June 18th, 2004

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Jack Nicholson is Warren R. Schmidt, an Omaha insurance executive being forcibly retired at the too-early age of 66. He has lived to see his work literally binned by his firm. His daughter Jeannie (Hope Davis) rarely visits. His wife has become an unpleasant stranger. He has some twenty years, give or take, left to live.

Schmidt is an honest-to-god Everyman: an Everyman who missed every flight to Hollywood. He presents as if bleached, as if a personification of a second-greatest generation, a sum of values, not features. He is the Minimalist Midwesterner: thrift, privacy, and industry incarnate. His plight is memorable; critically, he is not. Schmidt is such an intensely private character that not even the audience will know him entirely.

The film begins as a subtle, well-executed comedy of insulted dignity, as Schmidt tries to find a way to occupy his hours. He tries and fails to slip back to the office. His wife has splurged on a luxury Winnebago and threatens “lots of good times ahead”.

Schmidt retreats to the television, clicks through channels, and sees a beseeching ad for “Childreach”, a charity devoted to children in the Third World. An announcer warns that “no, pity and guilt won’t help”, and Schmidt calls in his pledge.

A form letter arrives with a boldface name, and Schmidt, eyebrows raised, is delivered of a son, six-year old Ndugu of Tanzania. Some $22 is expected of him per month, and the charity suggests a task: Schmidt should write the boy a letter of introduction with a few particulars about his own life in America.

Schmidt pulls out a legal pad and begins to compose the majority of the film’s script, an epistolary narrative of one-sidedness. Schmidt takes to self-absorption with seriousness and therapeutic result. It is through the letters that the film shifts gears, as the comedy gradually decelerates.

His first letter to Ndugu complains about his wife, a banal asterisk of a woman, as matronly as Schmidt is stoically handsome. Before they can take a single “adventure” trip, she fatally strokes out while a passive-aggressive Schmidt “dillydallies” over errands. He finds her pitched forward on the carpet, as her vacuum-cleaner weeps gently on.

Ever the actuary, Schmidt recalculates his life expectancy in light of his solitude. The future looks bleaker and shorter. He buries his wife, as his daughter will later discover, in the second-cheapest coffin available: thrift.

The orphaned Schmidt clings tighter to his imaginary companion Ndugu, and he sets out in his Ark-sized trailer to rescue his daughter for the foolishness of her impending marriage, only weeks away. Her fiancé sports a mullet. His opening salvo to Schmidt involved a transparent sales pitch with the reassuring tag, “this isn’t a pyramid scheme.” The fiancé truly isn’t good enough.

Schmidt’s first sign of life comes when he winningly decides to accept “you sad, sad man” as a sexual overture from a married woman he meets on his journey. Her screams of rejection prompt a dark night of the soul.

When Schmidt finally reaches Denver for the wedding, he joins his future in-laws, including the mother of Jeannie’s fiancé (Kathy Bates). Cultures collide. Schmidt recoils from a ghastly brush with incest inflicted by Bates through her detailed revelations of Jeannie’s sex life. Apparently, “the kids” will hold their marriage together with their “what goes on under the sheets.”

Kathy Bates bursts out of her role as a clapped-out old hippie, weirdly blowing her timing. It becomes abruptly clear that she is a great dramatist, not a comedian, and that she cannot be shoe-horned into a small role in someone else’s film: her presence and talent register too profoundly. Her infamous nude scene, as she joins Schmidt in a creepily snug hot-tub, is directed more like a stunt (Extreme Nudity) than a dramatic scene. She thrills momentarily when she flings down a chicken bone in disgust as her ex-husband, a pompous Toastmaster type, delivers a welcoming oration to Schmidt.

At last, Schmidt receives a response from Tanzania, and its lessons come with the force of a body blow. A Belgian nun has finally, kindly replied, explaining in a short note penned in creaky English that Ndugu is yet too young to read or write, but that she has shared the letters’ contents. Schmidt’s money has provided medication to save Ndugu’s eyesight. Her gentleness, foreign to the rest of the film, exploding like a bomb against Schmidt’s delusions and pride.

In exchange for Ndugu’s vision, Schmidt finally experiences insight. No more letters to be written with the obliviousness of a senile grandfather: “I bet you’re eager to cash this cheque and get yourself something to eat.”

Schmidt, citizen of the First World, needs tiny Ndugu more than he is needed. The tactful Sister is somewhat puzzled by Schmidt’s avalanche of confessional correspondence. At best, Ndugu has been given a précis of the contents. Now Schmidt is more alone than ever. But wait: the boy has enclosed a drawing of two stick figures, one small, one large, holding hands, conjoined against a rainbow. Ndugu, the Earth’s true future, will see, and Schmidt has found ties that bind.

 

A Sharp Learning Curve for President Jack Ryan

November 23rd, 2001

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Tom Clancy’s longtime hero, former CIA analyst Jack Ryan, has managed to assume the Presidency, Gerald Ford-style, without ever having been elected on a presidential ticket.

Unlike Ford, however, Ryan had never been elected to any public office at all.

Asked by President Durling to serve as Vice President, after the previous Vice President is forced to resign in the wake of a sex scandal, Ryan reluctantly agrees to take on a largely ceremonial office. The catch for the non-politician Ryan, however, is that the Vice-Presidency is only a heartbeat away from the most burdensome job in the world, and one which Ryan shivers at the thought of undertaking.

Then the incredible happens, when a grief-striken Japanese pilot who lost family in a brief Japanese-American shooting war, mans a jumbo jet during Ryan’s swearing-in ceremony and crash lands into the Capitol, thereby all but obliterating government. The President, First Lady, the entire Supreme Court, nearly all the Cabinet and most members of Congress are killed in a few calamitous moments.

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Diana and the Grey Men

October 16th, 2000

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Patrick Jephson’s account of his many-year tenure as Diana’s equerry and, later, Private Secretary, provides a detailed and informative view of the function of the high-level modern courtier. The heavy emphasis on the process aspect of arranging foreign tours and negotiating with charities will not be to every reader’s interest. (As Americans would have it, a private secretary is akin to a chief of staff.)

Naturally, media coverage of the book places heavy emphasis on Jephson’s revelations regarding a less savoury dimension of Diana’s character: her addiction to publicity. According to Jephson, Diana’s longstanding involvement with a range of charities was driven at least as much by the desire to see herself in the next day’s newspapers as it was by altruism, though he takes the Realpolitik view that good was nonetheless accomplished through her efforts.

As the loathing between Charles and Diana’s households grew, Jephson’s position became untenable. The turnover amongst Diana’s staff was notoriously high, and she involved many unhappy employees in her cloak and dagger meetings with high-profile journalists and lovers. In the aftermath of Diana’s “time and space” speech, when she dropped over a hundred charities, the scope of the private secretary’s traditional work narrowed and was supplemented with what Jephson regarded as Diana’s self-destructiveness.

Only a year before Diana’s death, Jephson resigned.

Wisely for him, Jephson scarcely mentions the young William and Harry, and he also takes no clear side in the marital fiasco of the Waleses. While he makes clear his loyalty to the Queen, it is easy to understand why the Royal Family would so loudly resist such a rehashing of the Diana story today. As he creates a (perhaps straw) princess to be knocked down, surely Diana’s defenders will restate their position once again, to the detriment of the Windsors. Thus, Jephson is at best naive if he believes himself to be performing any form of service to the Crown by “setting the record straight”.

Fascinating though the book is for contemporary readers, it is certain to become one of the canonical texts for future students of the twentieth-century monarchy, precisely for its intricate portrayal of the nexus at which the Palace meets foreign governments, the media, and a variety of charities. Jephson’s Cambridge education in political science is put to excellent use here. His account will assist future historians in determining where power was located in the palaces and how, despite consitutional restrictions, it could be deployed in the wider world.