Friday, February 26, 2010

The Crazies

Breck Eisner now has two high-profile features under his belt, and both might make you pause before you raise your tap water. His underrated Sahara followed a ragtag group of vigilantes taking down an African warlord and a French businessman who'd teamed up to poison the Niger river with a lot of toxic waste (the generic kind, green and sludgy, leaking out of big tin cans). In remaking George A. Romero's The Crazies, Eisner brings the toxins to the sleepy hamlet of Ogden Marsh, IA, in the form of a downed military plane that accidentally lets a biological weapon into the reservoir.

The stuff was engineered, says one government official in a bulletproof vest, "to destabilize a population."

And that it does, right away, as the first contaminated "crazy" wanders onto the high school baseball field on opening day with a shotgun only to get plugged in the head by the Sheriff. As a banner slung over Main Street announces, Ogden Marsh is to baseball as Dillon is to football on Friday Night Lights. Everyone in town is present to witness the violent death, including the star pitcher who will, sadly, never get his chance to make it to state.

But before too many people can register their scorn at Sheriff Dutton's itchy trigger finger (he does get smacked across the face by patient zero's wife), more bodies start piling up and a lot of soldiers run in for a town-wide reenactment of Quarantine.

Comparison's to Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead are apt. A premium is placed on forward momentum at the expense of a lot of exposition. This can be a difficult trick to pull off. If you think about it too much, the entire film is one big plot hole. But at least I'm not thinking about this stuff during the movie for once. The thing really moves, and I'm putting Eisner into the category of studio journeymen from whom I'll be excited to see more.

Eisner is especially adept at keeping his players in character - however slim the characters may be - in the midst of the action. Since he's not going to slow things down or let them breathe, the character beats come within the set pieces and it works like a charm. Timothy Olyphant's charismatic Sheriff Dutton may be a lawman, but in the scope of this story he's more of an everyman, with a sidekick in his Deputy and a motivation in his pregnant wife, played by Radha Mitchell. When another character suggests that trying to save his wife might get him killed, he replies, "Tell you what. Don't ask me why I can't leave without my wife and I won't ask you why you can."

Since Pitch Black this kind of smart genre exercise has been Mitchell's bread and butter. She brings a determination and dignity to the proceedings, never a shrill damsel in distress. Together, Mitchell and Olyphant make for a unit I enjoy rooting for. A sublimely ridiculous centerpiece that traps our heroes in a car wash is so much more successful than it has any right to be; ditto a bit featuring a runaway bone saw.

However, the thing that fascinates me about The Crazies is that, according to this New York Times article, this is supposed to be subversive "socially progressive cinema". One production partner is Participant Media, a firm that prides itself on releasing exclusively product with some form of social mandate, be it studio narrative like The Crazies or documentaries like Food, Inc. and An Inconvenient Truth. While this strikes me as a particularly nifty concept for a movie studio, I think it's funny that this is supposed to pass as socially progressive cinema. I suppose that says more about our country than it does the film itself; do we really need the story of a small town ruined by freak accident and an unfeeling military arm to incite advocacy for a federal chemical-security act?

On the other hand, Eisner thankfully knows his place as the director of a genre piece. If the intention of the moneylenders is to advance political policy, they were smart to hire a guy that would turn in a movie that's scary on its own terms rather than theirs. It's easy to imagine this plan turning out a self-important proselytizer. The Crazies fails as propaganda, and that's a good thing.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Shutter Island

"You're a rat in a maze," hisses Jackie Earle Haley, now Hollywood's go-to character actor when you need someone to garble their dialogue and look like a freak for ten minutes. I'm not sure if what he means is that Leonardo DiCaprio's Bostonian Fed-uh-ruhl Mahh-shull is the victim of a scientific experiment or if he's just going to end up with a lot of cheese.

Haley's George Noyce and DiCaprio's Teddy Daniels are meeting (in Haley's only scene) on opposite sides of a rusty grid of bars that hold Noyce prisoner on Shutter Island, a labyrinthine mental hospital - equal parts Overlook Hotel and Shawshank Prison - that gives its name to Martin Scorsese's new prestige horror film. Daniels has been called in to investigate the disappearance of one of Shutter Island's patients (Ben Kingsley's Dr. Cawley prefers they not be referred to as prisoners), a homicidal woman named Rachel Solando who vanished overnight from within her locked, guarded cell.

From the start, it's apparent that nothing is as it seems and everyone involved may or may not be lying.

And just in case the thundering hurricane, the creepy deranged inmates and the menacing heartbeat of the "modern classical" song score aren't signifiers enough that something will be hitting the fan in a big way, there's a whole convoluted ensemble of terrific actors cast as inessential characters whose only purpose is to deliver expository jargon as a means to an ending.

There are two cops in charge (a warden and a deputy warden), two head psychiatrists, two terrifying inmates from Daniels' past. Daniels brought a partner along making two Marshalls to bandy theories back and forth, and he also brought along the baggage from two separate traumas. There are even two Rachel Solando's1, and when the big twist comes out, it gets explained twice, not counting the trailer or the first twenty minutes of the feature, during which you might've already figured things out on your own.

So let's have a quick talk about the economy of a story.

Picture Laeta Kalogridis, the crack typist who wrote Oliver Stone's Alexander, at his computer working up his screenplay adaptation of Dennis Lehane's mystery novel Shutter Island. In blocking out his story, he's so far stuck to the book pretty faithfully, but remember that the word for what he's creating is "adaptation". In my dictionary under "adapt", I could show him another word: "modify."

A smart writer would've taken most - if not all - of those doubles and cut one half of them right out. This story is an unwieldy mess. When it's time to deliver exposition, you can practically smell the toner of the Xerox machine Kalogridis must've used to transfer novel to film.

If you haven't already figured out the twist by the time Shutter Island reaches its climax, don't worry. Not only will Ben Kingsley explain everything that you've seen beat by beat (he even has a dry erase board with I-swear-to-God anagrams), once he's finished there's going to be a handy ten-minute flashback to show you the finished puzzle Kingsley has just described.

During this climax as well as several other expository stretches, as the story ground to a halt for ten or so minutes, I found myself wondering what it might've been that attracted Scorsese to this project in the first place.

Because the fact is: I'm of two minds about Shutter Island. For all its flaws the movie is an aesthetic marvel, with several flat-out gorgeous dream sequences and the kind of lush photography and production design you only get to sink your teeth into on the too-rare occasion that a master filmmaker such as Scorsese deigns to make a lowly genre film. Reteaming with occasional cinematographer Robert Richardson and perennial editor Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese crafts a film that, even as each hint to the final twist drops to the floor with a thunk, is sporadically absorbing and often a good deal of fun. Occasionally, the film even manages to mine a sense of dread and a hint of terror. I might add that the girl behind me in the theater would disagree that the film is frightening only on occasion; it was clearly working for her, as every drop of blood and unlit corner elicited a shriek.

Clearly, Scorsese's interest in this puzzle lies in the pieces rather than the finally assembled picture, which is beneath him, you and me. I almost believe he selected the project simply to have some fun; the tricks he employs in the name of a straight-up horror are many. There are reverse shots, brooding negative space, a surprising amount of CGI and even a good old fashion jump scare. Did he simply feel the need to get this stuff out of his system in an appropriate story? It's a terrible storm to weather for the characters and a two-and-a-half-hour psychodrama for us, but for Scorsese it almost feels like a day at the beach.

1.) So you don't have to click over to the IMDb, here are the actors who play all these characters: Ted Levine and John Carroll Lynch as the warden and deputy, Kingsley and Max von Sydow as the shrinks, Haley and Elias Koteas as the creepy dudes, Patricia Clarkson and Emily Mortimer as Rachel Solando and Mark Ruffalo as the partner. With the exception of Kingsley and Ruffalo, all of them are given one or two scenes only and nothing to do.[back]

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

Monday, February 22, 2010

The Abyss (1989)

run silent, run deep

The Abyss
and I go back a long way. I owned it twice on VHS (theatrical edition pan-and-scan followed by special-edition letterbox1) and recall that it was one of the first movies I had to replace on DVD. I'd say it was one of the first action movies I remember really enthralling me, but to be honest, I can't even remember the first time I saw it. The Abyss has simply always been there, looking back into me.

It was likely my mom who introduced me to The Abyss2. She always had a thing for naval action (there's a joke to be made there, but I'm not gonna be the one), in particular the 'Submarine In Peril'. I saw Das Boot long before I had any grasp on the history of WWII, and I remember several screenings of The Hunt For Red October. The Abyss, indeed, was PG-13 and so made for regular family-friendly viewing.

The funny thing about an old friend is that you can lose touch. For all the times I watched The Abyss as a kid, I can't remember the last time I sat down with it. One of the challenges of my James Cameron retrospective is to confront my 14-year-old self and try to recognize crap when I see it, even if it's beloved crap. To be completely honest, I almost didn't want to watch this movie again. It's among Cameron's least-discussed works, and what if it was terrible? To turn my back on The Abyss and leave it in my childhood would be heartbreaking.

Thankfully, I feel I can justify my deep-seeded love for this silly film.

For the uninitiated: The Abyss begins with the mysterious sinking of a US Navy nuclear submarine and follows the grizzled crew of a nearby underwater oil rig as they are recruited to aid in the rescue mission. From there a hurricane, some Cold War Russophobia, a psycho Navy SEAL and a miles-deep alien intelligence form the basis for what is formulaically a pretty standard beat-by-beat action movie; Cameron's skill as a conjurer of set piece and suspense combined with his passion for the deep blue, however, make for a uniquely exciting genre mosaic.

There are a handful of things, of course, that almost sink3 the project.

the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming

Most painful is the vein of righteous environmentalism that, in the Cameron oeuvre, begins here and runs straight through to Avatar. I can appreciate that the tree-hugging preachiness of the latter has made more than a few people wince; is it easier to swallow if set amidst the real-world nuclear paranoia of the Cold War? I suppose that's up to you. I'll say this, however: it'll be a long time before Avatar is dated. The Abyss dated itself in just a few years - although ironically, I'm pretty sure that every single mention of the actual Soviet Union was cut from the theatrical release (more on this later).

It's also worth noting that for all the anti-Russian sentiment on display here, Cameron was careful to give his heroes a more well-rounded take on the war - they don't hate Russians, they're just afraid of dying in a nuclear explosion. It falls on Coffey, Michael Beihn's crazy SEAL Lieutenant, to saddle the actual bigotry. In fact, it's Coffey's Cold War paranoia that drives the conflict of the film - there are at no point in the film any actual Russians, good or bad. Coffey, a personification of spiraling fear and distrust, is the film's only true antagonist.

After a close encounter with the Non-Terrestrial Intelligence, Lindsey tells Bud, "We all see what we want to see. Coffey looks and he sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that." In addition to being one of Cameron's great potent quotables, this is a very tidy "theme!" line and also a fair summation of the very paranoia that's gotten the crew into this mess. It was the association of "Russian" with "hate and fear" that drove America down the rabbit hole. The Abyss functions, much like Avatar, as a plea that the human race look at the world (Earth or Pandora) with better eyes than it historically has.

20,000 leagues under the sea

In mixing all his nerdy fetishes, Cameron here tests his audience's suspension of disbelief more so than in any of his other features4. Rather than anchor his sci-fi trappings in a future setting, he presents them as elements of our real world; further, he deftly maneuvers between blatant fiction and edge-of-science experimental fact. Several technologies in the film are even specifically denoted by the characters as "experimental", right down the main setting of the underwater rig.

Get this: fluid-breathing is a one-hundred percent real, successfully tested medical practice, dating back well before the film was made. In the film, the scene with Beany the rat submerged against his will in the "fluorocarbon emulsion" was shot without effects. Six rats breathed liquid in front of the camera and they all lived.

At the time, however, it had never been tested on a human (it has since, I think, been successfully used on premature babies, though Wikipedia's article admittedly "contains too much jargon"). Bud's final act liquid oxygen dive remains a scientifically possible but entirely fictional adventure.

Twenty years later, that un-doctored shot of the rat breathing liquid is still difficult to take seriously, even though I know it's not an effect. Then on top of all this, Cameron has the gall to throw in aliens.

Now, the nerd in me loves this stuff. Not until Avatar, which functions really well as a kind of "Cameron's Greatest Hits", would Cameron ratchet up the nerd-quotient so high (and The Abyss's NTIs share a trait with the Pandorans in their biological commune with their natural environment). As far as I'm concerned, if Cameron had wanted to write in some ray guns it might've only been cooler, and he'd probably be the guy to make such a thing plausible.

But I have to admit I can see how someone might get turned off by the quality (and quantity) of fancy technologies on display.

up periscope, down periscope

As I've alluded, there are two versions of The Abyss. Just in case some of you were frustrated by the running times of Titanic and Avatar, take some solace in the fact that there was once a simpler time when even James Cameron would cut half an hour from a three-hour opus.

And according to James Cameron, James Cameron had final cut. After a lengthy dialogue with the studio heads and a couple rounds of test screenings, Cameron edited his three-hour Abyss down to 2:20. He later replaced the omitted footage for laserdisc and VHS release, and, at least for the duration of my adolescence, this became the definitive version of the film.

Remarkably, most of what's missing from the theatrical release are spare character beats, and together the two versions play like a textbook on how to trim around the edges of an overlong story. While it's always nice to see a new exchange within an ensemble of interesting characters, it doesn't necessarily add to the forward momentum. According to the DVD's text commentary, most of these cuts were made "for timing", and rightly so.

The big selling point for the special edition, however, was the notorious "killer wave" sequence. You'd think it would be difficult to cut a "Giant Tidal Waves Threaten Humanity" storyline from a film's climax and have the whole thing still make sense, but here you go. And as a special effects-loving teenager, boy did I love this fancy decoration.

Unfortunately, this is a piece of my past I am going to have to leave behind. In the extended cut, the NTIs unleash a system of giant tidal waves and freeze them poised over America's and Russia's coasts. In the theatrical edition, the NTIs wordlessly express their disapproval of nuclear weapons and then save our heroes, telling them to pass along their message. Not only is the tidal wave scene an unnecessary and overlong reiteration of a point already made, but by threatening humanity with aqua-destruction, the NTIs become complicit in the very same cold war which they are trying to end. It's antithetical to the point of the film and, frankly, I'm surprised Cameron ever wrote it.

men without women

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's introduction as Lindsey Brigman is a pair of heels clicking their way out of a helicopter, scored by a minor character's description of her as "the queen bitch of the universe." This is a cute nod to Aliens but also the beginning of a disturbing trend in which Lindsey's bitchiness is consistently referenced but never shown. Everyone on the rig grimaces at her presence yet she is "bitchy" only insofar as she is strong, willful and female.

My impulse is to judge against Cameron in this instance. Though True Lies is a low point in several respects, it reveals that he isn't immune to using "bitch" as a one-dimensional label. And introducing Lindsey in this manner, in a scene where the epithet has no lightning rod, reeks of an underlying misogyny.

However, I think setting the protagonist ensemble against Lindsey is a circumstance crucial to the launch of her character's arc. The fact is, everyone hates her because on the brig, they serve Bud and she broke Bud's heart. After Lindsey makes contact with the NTIs, her need to convince the crew of the both the aliens' existence and their benevolence parallels her journey back into their good graces. She forces them to look with better eyes.

Lindsey is called a bitch again later in the film by Bud himself, but at this point the circumstances have changed. In the aftermath of a submersible chase (like a car chase but with, you know, submersibles), Lindsey drowns in the ice cold ocean water and the crew attempt to revive her. Is there any greater resuscitation scene in cinema than this one, in which Bud literally slaps Lindsey back to life? Not a lot of actors can handle a lot of yelling and screaming without overdoing it, but Ed Harris (himself the victim of an unfortunate "Noooo!" just minutes earlier) is at the top of his game here.

"Come on, breathe, baby. Goddammit breathe!" he implores after everyone else has given up. He erupts: "Goddammit you bitch you never backed away from anything in your life now fight!" Smacking her across the face, as if the tension of their marriage is the better tool than the defibrillator for jump-starting her frozen body, he brings her back.

Here, "bitch" is used explicitly as a reference to Lindsey's strength of character. Is Cameron allowed to casually reclaim misogynist vulgarity (even as he gives it back again five years later in True Lies)? As a believer in the flexibility of language, I'd like to say yes, but as a critic wary of misogyny in popular entertainments, I'm not so sure.

Immediately after Bud brings Lindsey back to life, she saves him from his near-death experience. While Bud is the hero of the film, she serves as both his foil and his motivator, and their relationship is probably the most romantically complex Cameron has yet achieved5.

I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt here. As drawn, it's realistic that this dramatis personae would throw names at Lindsey the way they do. If the deckhand wants to call her a bitch, it says more about him than about her. At the very least, Lindsey is not a one-dimensional character worthy of the title.


The length of my own piece now mirrors Cameron's own bloated story, and I've likely revealed my nerd self a bit more than I'd intended on this site. But the Cameron retrospective is necessarily a personal project, and I cannot issue any disclaimers.

The fact is, even as I recognize that this is one of his sillier films (and it's not coincidental that this is his one previous work that Avatar most closely resembles), I love it completely. The silliness is ultimately endearing, with the strength of the cast, the structure and the formula all in support. The Abyss might not be Cameron's greatest6, but it sure is a nail-biter if you let yourself in. And I guarantee it goes down smoother than Avatar.

1.) Remember those nifty black clamshell VHS cases in which FOX packaged their letterboxed product? Ah, the good old days.[back]

2.) To my dear mother, avid reader who has commendably refrained from commenting so far on the blog: now's your chance. Do you remember introducing me to this movie?[back]

3.) There I go again.[back]

4.) Well, maybe not Pirhana, but that barely counts.[back]

5.) This isn't saying much, but it's saying something.[back]

6.) Is this the qualifier of an Apologist?[back]

This is the third entry in an open-ended series looking back at the work of James Cameron. I promise to start getting these up at a rate faster than one per month.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Second Take: A Single Man

Not long ago, one of my reviews engendered the uniquely wrathful, accusatory breed of reader comments that really make you think twice. In response to my dismissal of A Single Man, I was called flippant, self-congratulatory, and ignorant of theme, structure and symbol. I defended my stance as best I could against a pair of philosophers intent on the idea that Tom Ford's film is a "meditation on existential despair," "paralleling an entire life" from an "awakening" to "rebirth".

I am a staunch believer in the idea that even a film you hated might be given a second chance. Though the piece itself will be the same, the viewer, his mood, his baggage and the venue may all affect it one way or the other. Thus I was compelled to watch A Single Man for a second time.

And you know what? I liked it less.

But at least I came away with what a little more ammunition to defend my opinion. This is not intended as a personal attack against those moved by the film; it's merely a defense of my own self against the criticism that the movie flew so far over my head that I sank to "decorate [my] review with the broadest possible descriptions of the story and categorical, but unsupported, criticisms, some of which are ad hominem attacks on the director."

I admit: I was a bit glib.

So here, under a Code Red Spoiler Threat and without an 800-word limit, I would like to take another pass at analysis of the film's failures.

Let's begin with this idea that A Single Man is structured as a feature length version of the Riddle of the Sphinx, in which George Falconer's single remaining day parallels the entire life of a man from birth to rebirth. I'm perfectly willing to accept his dip in the ocean with the chiseled young Kenny Potter as a "rebirth" - especially given that he almost drowns and must be pulled out as if from the womb. However: while the film adheres to a basic unity of time, it is lazily perforated by several flashbacks of dubious worth. If George is "born" in the morning simply by waking up and going through a meticulous (and well-designed) routine to create "the perfect George" and then dies ironically at the end of the day, the weight of this movement escapes me. I also fail to see how the film's episodic midsection informs any of this. In addition, I might add that the film violates one of the fundamental tenets of dramatic temporal unity in setting the events eight full months after Jim's death: there's no inciting incident. Why is George finally suicidal now, today?

Speaking of those flashbacks, there are three involving George's deceased lover Jim and one in which George gets the phone call informing him of the fatal accident. Two of these are blatantly expository - though the phone call scene at least comes early enough in the film that I haven't yet tired of Firth's tireless emoting. The other two, depicting first a night at home with a pair of books between the two lovers and second their first meeting sixteen years prior, serve no purpose whatsoever except to remind us (had we only forgotten) that the two men were very much in love and that Jim's death is really really sad.

The most useful of these flashbacks is the other exposition, in which George and Jim (in black and white for no damn reason at all except, I guess, to match that steamy nude candid) discuss Charley. George's words about her here - explaining that he loves her dearly but only as a friend even though yes, they did once sleep together back in London - go a long way towards setting us up for the big showdown at Charley's house later in the evening.

The psychological blue-balling that occurs between Charley and George in their single substantive scene together is by far the most interesting dynamic in the film but it serves only to drain me of my sympathy for the film's one necessarily sympathetic character. Here's this guy who's been in a committed relationship for sixteen years and he still has this girl on a string from before that relationship even started? The only word for Charley's reliance upon George is 'pitiful', and the only word for his dependence on her steadfast support is 'cruel'. Charley cracks a joke about her vagina having "lovely breath"; George cracks a joke that she might try her hand at lesbianism. You could make a whole movie about a fascinating, fucked up relationship like this, but here it's just an episode and an imprecisely executed one, at that.

"If you're not happy being a woman, stop acting like one," George tells Charley. It's funny how completely unaware of each other's true selves these two are after however many decades they've been BFFs. This harks back to the film's recurring motif of "invisibility", a theme so overwrought, overexposed and over-discussed that I really can't make heads nor tails of what it's supposed to mean. "Life is tough," maybe, or something like that.

Early on, we get to witness one scene of George at work, teaching Huxley to his class. He begins the discussion by asking how the title (After Many A Summer Dies The Swan) relates to the piece. We hear part of a response from one of his students ("It doesn't. It's about a guy who's afraid of death...") before the film cuts away into George's head for another butt-tastic drowning fantasia. When we are, along with George, jolted back to reality, it is by the classroom erupting into laughter; but it's not clear what they're laughing at. You think for a second they're getting a kick out of George lapsing into daydream, but then the 'discussion' continues unabated - were they just laughing at the joker who didn't understand the title? Another student quotes a line from the book and extrapolates that perhaps Huxley was an anti-Semite, to which George responds that no, he wasn't, and that maybe they should "put Huxley aside for a minute." He says, "I can see I've lost you."

That's it? No kidding, Professor. When I stated in my original review that the film fails to make any use of the weighty texts its characters are seen ignoring, this is what I'm talking about.

From here, George goes off on a monologue about how "fear is being used as a tool for manipulation in our society" and how the scariest minorities are the invisibles. I don't happen to have a transcript of this, but I think it's telling that everyone in the class looks terribly confused except for Kenny in the angora sweater, who just looks hot and bothered. He chases George out of the class to ask why he doesn't always talk to them like that, to which George replies, "I didn't think it went over very well."

Oh, now we're getting to the meat of the thing, because Kenny tails George all the way to the campus store (or rather, George tails Kenny, as it turns out) where he offers to buy him a pencil sharpener. The little plastic utensils are available in red, yellow and blue. Kenny offers George his choice. When George selects yellow, the following exchange occurs (dialogue not verbatim, but I'm trying my best):

KENNY: I would've thought you'd pick blue.
GEORGE: Why's that?
KENNY: Blue is spiritual.
GEORGE: What makes you think I'm spiritual?
KENNY: I don't know, sir. What does red stand for?
GEORGE: Oh, lots of things. Rage, lust...

The meaning of George's yellow goes unstated, but I'm guessing yellow here symbolizes horseshit. Later that night, after being followed to the same bar where he met Jim sixteen years ago, George and Kenny continue their nails-on-a-chalkboard flirtation. Kenny talks about how little he understands the world, how he feels invisible, and about his desire to grow up, and George talks about how he's actually gotten "sillier and sillier" and Kenny suggests they go jump in the ocean. Later still, after their prolonged game of sexual chicken has come to a bizarre, drunken end1, George VOs about his rare moment of clarity, during which he watches an owl2 take flight from a branch, waxes nostalgic about the beauty of the world and passes out dead to the sound of a ticking clock.3

Obviously, for all the talk about invisibility, with the big-eyed Psycho poster and the fogged up mirrors in Charley's apartment, this is a movie keen on being about how people see each other and themselves. George and Jim lived in a glass house and every single character is aware of their lifestyle, even as Jim snickers, "Drapes, old man." So the idea, then, with his final moment of clarity, is that George was somehow blind his whole life, or invisible to himself, or deeply afraid of himself? Is he afraid merely after Jim's death? According to his opening monologue, George was always disgusted with Jim's optimism.

Another funny thing that strikes me is that, after taking several minutes of my time to get dressed and put his face on, everyone George encounters tells him that he doesn't look very good. What's changed today? (Right, the suicide attempt has been scheduled but why?) Is the idea that everybody could see George for who he is except for George himself? In that case, why do we have to listen to him pontificate on the matter for an hour and a half before he comes up with anything philosophically viable? There's a decent arc hidden in this mess: man blinded by fear of self achieves peace, then dies. But I was told by one of the film's vocal defenders that there is nothing ironic about the ending.

Finally, in a weird alterna-verse that looks like 1960s Los Angeles but is filled with humanoids who do nothing but complain about how nobody sees them or understands them, you'd think at some point this collection of ciphers would wake up and take a goddamn look around.

I admit it: I'm confused. You've lost me, professor Falconer.

1.) Surely Ford's implication in this scene is not that Kenny drugs George and fucks him while he's passed out, but it's almost too easy to read it that way: all day Kenny has been throwing himself at him, offering drugs, companionship and physical intimacy, and George has been playing it cool. Finally George tells Kenny to get them both another beer, and after sipping the open container Kenny hands him, his vision goes fuzzy and he passes out in his easy chair ... only to wake up later in bed in the next room with a satisfied Kenny dozing on the couch holding George's gun under the blanket.[back]

2.) What does the goddamn owl symbolize? I vote, again, for a big nothing.[back]

3.) A ticking clock. It ticks louder and louder and then stops. Really fucking epic moviemaking, this.[back]

I am introducing a new, sporadically recurring feature on My Favorite Gum Commercial. It will be known as "A Second Take," and I will produce one whenever someone convinces me I might've missed something. Argue at me (please) and, time permitting, I will go give any given piece another shot with your comments in mind.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Edge of Darkness

Easily the best movie at the multiplex right now, Martin Campbell’s remake of his own 1985 British mini-series Edge of Darkness goes down smooth but gives you a bit of cork to gnaw on along the way. Why is this being dumped in the late-winter next to The Wolfman and Valentine’s Day? In his first major vehicle since Signs in 2002, Gibson seems bent on revenge not only for the murder of his character’s daughter but for whatever it was that killed his career. That he spends most of the film hunched over in a dank trench coat that might as well be made of shame is only one layer of the joke. As Michael Ian Black would say, Mel Gibson must have terrible PR.

Gibson plays Boston Police Detective Tommy Craven, whose grown daughter Emma is gunned down on his front porch. What begins as a formulaic revenge thriller quickly spirals outward into a massive political paranoia yarn full of corporate sleaze, government cover-ups and crooked cops. But it never devolves into cat-and-mouse hijinks; rather, the bad guys are clearly delineated from the good by the end of the first act and the rest of the film is just one understated moment of quiet after the next where Gibson and his Shakespearean ensemble try to figure out what the point of it all is.

Examining a crime scene that may or may not involve his Emma’s killer, a fellow cop offers that Craven is acting pretty calm for a guy in his position. He replies, “It doesn’t do me any good not to be.” Later, threatening a lawyer only tangentially related to the conspirators, Craven warns the suit to do what he says or risk upsetting a man with nothing to lose.

Already aged to the point where flipping a table and pinning a crony takes his wind out for the whole five minutes of the resulting interrogation, Craven really doesn’t have anything to live for except to dig as deep as he can into the mysteries of his daughter’s death. What makes the character work is his slow realization that solving his daughter’s murder is nothing compared to what it might’ve been to know her in life; there’s a hauntedness to Craven’s memories of her. Throughout the film, some ethereal or psychological part of Emma speaks to her father in short, monosyllabic sentences. These half-hearted attempts on the part of Craven’s broken psyche to keep her alive are juxtaposed with sporadic flashbacks – all of which take place when she was an adorable little girl. There are a couple holes here (Emma’s mother and adolescence, namely), and their void stings.

The key to the film is Ray Wintsone’s Jedburgh, a high-ranking spook who lives in DC, has a thick British accent and tends to pop out of nowhere with a gun, a cigar or a glass of warm booze (or all three). Jedburgh is the other ghost haunting Craven. He’s a man of barely-defined profession who is clearly sent to kill our hero but instead sets him on the path to uncover the big fish. Jedburgh’s reversal (coming early in the film, again, so it can marinate) may be little more than a mid-life crisis of conscious from a middle-aged career hitman, but it’s also the film’s thematic foundation.

Jack Bennett, Danny Houston’s ur-sleazy private-sector weapons-developing CEO, also pauses to ask Craven about the loss of his daughter. Bennett, the bad guy, has spent his life creating something made to kill people he doesn’t know. Jedburgh has spent his life killing people for money. They can see in Craven’s eyes that all he ever did was create a little girl and that they took her away. In a movie obsessed with mortality, here are three men with nothing substantial to live for. Talk about darkness. Is there an essential goodness to Craven that Jedburgh sees through to? As a homicide detective, are the two men some kind of photo-negative image of each other? It requires some unpacking.

Purportedly an action movie, Edge of Darkness features exactly one car wreck, zero explosions and several scenes where guns get aimed and not fired. The tightness of the script impressed me: it’s a rare movie with no extraneous scenes or characters that lets drama occur between men in a room. The story moves with their choices. Not only is it a Michael Clayton-esque political thriller tuned to our modern dilemmas (and not only did it predict a Republican Massachusetts Senator), it has the courage to play a game out between its characters rather than extrapolate a lot of nonsense about globo-terrorism. It may be about a government conspiracy, but that’s all anybody needs to know. What counts is what it means to a father.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Julie & Julia

About two-thirds into through Julie & Julia, Julie and Eric Powell are sitting on the couch watching Dan Ackroyd's "French Chef" sketch from Saturday Night Live. The film pauses its forward momentum to show us a good two minutes of the bit; in addition, we get to watch the Powells reveling in a delightful send-up of the culinary icon they love so much.

It's Julia Child, of course, who is the subject of the Powells', of Ackroyd's and of the film's adoration (remember that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery). And for the skinny half of the film that isn't following Julie Powell down her road to flash-in-the-pan1 celebrity in the early aughts, we get to watch Meryl Streep fill Child's heels in the middle of the 20th century.

The inclusion of Ackroyd's bit strikes me as an acknowledgment that the "character" of Julia Child as seen in the film cannot compare to a very real person that millions of people grew up with and loved. What Streep is doing here isn't acting - it's sketch comedy. In the same way that Julie Powell, with nothing better to do, set about recreating all 563 recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Meryl Streep is here recreating a larger-than-life figure. We see Fred Armisen doing the same thing to Barack Obama every week on SNL. This is a movie about impersonations.

As the film begins, Julie Powell is working at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, wasting away in a cubicle as a sounding board for the city-full of people who need to dial a number and complain that the plans for Ground Zero aren't sufficiently sensitive to the memories of a loved one. This job stinks, as you can imagine, and plus she's underpaid and has basically nothing to live for except cooking, ignoring her poor cat and emasculating her poor husband.

Fortunately, this is 2002 and Powell can still get on the internet while the getting's good. She brainstorms a scheme to cook all the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blog about them in the course of one calendar year. Through her blog, Powell earns a book deal, achieves an unexpected celebrity among people who care about blogs and gets a movie made out of her life.2

I've been making a conscious effort to eschew cynicism recently but it's difficult to feel a lot of joy for Powell and her success. There's really nothing special offered here from Powell or 'The Julie/Julia Project'. The point of Child's seminal cookbook, after all, was that anyone can cook, even "servantless Americans". What Powell does in this story is capture lightning in a bottle, the same way OK Go did with their video for "Here It Goes Again". A much better writer could tackle the same project in an even smaller kitchen, but it was the novelty of the internet that made Powell famous, and that novelty is a thing of the past.

There's one beat in which Child breaks down in tears because her sister is immediately pregnant right after her wedding - but this five seconds is all the movie devotes to the tragedy of Child's childlessness. This turns out to be a good thing, because what Nora Ephron actually does really well is comedy. This is something I was surprised to find myself reminded of (especially after Bewitched) but damn if this movie isn't sporadically hilarious. Child was such a character that Ephron and Streep have no choice but to allow themselves some fun (plus Stanley Tucci makes for a decent straight man).

Ultimately it's Ephron's lack of focus that actually keeps the thing cooking3. Rather than get bogged down in familial drama and saccharine challenged-marriage arcs (and she comes frighteningly close more than once), Ephron keeps things moving with setpieces like "Julie has to boil live lobsters" and "Julie's boss discovers her blog", all juxtaposed with "Julia chops a ton of onions" and "Julia can't get a book deal even though she's Julia Child! Wink!"

So I find myself resenting that Powell placed herself on a pedestal and that Ephron came along to reinforce it. But the film is, consequentially, architecturally fascinating: despite the cutesy end-title acknowledgement that "Powell has had a movie made out of her life," even her own self-made story was too skimpy to support itself. Ephron had to create a mash-up. The film announces in its opening that it is "based on two true stories" (and I hate that cloying shit) but really it's the lazily drawn parallels between the two women's lives that make either story remotely interesting. Taken on her own, Powell really isn't worth much. It's her impersonation that's fascinating.

1.) No pun intended, I swear.[back]

2.) I do love a good fantasy.[back]

3.) Okay, that one I intended.[back]

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day

...unless you're an idiot or a homophobe, in which case:

Valentine's Day is about a lot of white people running around Los Angeles on Valentine's Day making fools of themselves in various degrees of undress. Jessica Biel is playing a woman who can't get laid, so right there you know there's going to be an issue of artistic license. The main couple in the ensemble (the one that gets the most screentime, at least) is made of BFFs Jennifer Garner and Ashton Kutcher, who will run parallel arcs of waking up in love, getting their hearts broken and realizing true love for their best friend all in one magical day.

It's completely disposable, and recycled at that. Nobody really cares about this shit, even the people who go to see it. The film is to Hallmark cards what Transformers is to action figures.

But it's worth taking at least a moment to consider the audience I saw this movie with, in a half-full auditorium in one of Chicago's larger multiplexes. I want specifically to record the audience's reaction to the gay characters in the film. Rather than go completely ignored, homosexuality is here reduced to a punchline and a plot twist. There is a "token" gay couple, but we don't know who they are until the final-minutes montage connecting all the people we didn't know were connected (Spoiler Alert: they're all connected! Love actually is all around!).

Let me set this up for you: halfway through the film, a celebrated NFL quarterback (Eric Dane) reveals himself to be gay. If you're paying any attention at all, you know Bradley Cooper, who spends most of his time on a plane to LA next to Julia Roberts, is his lover. Apparently, nobody in the theater I was in was paying any attention.

So the dreamy quarterback has fallen asleep all alone on the couch with nobody to love him on Valentine's Day. In the background, we see a man come in and approach him. He hands him a flower and then kneels down to reveal himself as: Bradley Cooper!

At this point, the theater erupted. There were shocked gasps and nervous laughter. It was loud. This was the most reaction the movie had gotten out of its audience1. There were girls "oooh"-ing and dudes "ohhh"-ing. The whole thing probably only lasted a few seconds, but it felt like several minutes. I was temporarily engulfed in a maelstrom of gay panic.

I want to ascribe this to the audience's apathy - that the scene was successfully functioning as plot twist rather than panic button. But there was a palpable rancor there. I'm sure not everyone in the theater was upset or offended but their knee-jerk emissions certainly revealed a few true colors.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, to me or anyone else, I suppose, that Valentine's Day would fail to treat treat homosexuality with any more substance or nuance or sensitivity than it does heterosexuality (or hispanics, or blacks, or blonde white girls, for that matter). I know I was raised in a liberal community and that everyone is different and for a lot of people, the notion of Gays in the Mainstream is just plain shocking, especially when it's played by the hunky dudes from Grey's Anatomy and The Hangover. But come on, America.

By the way, Dane and Cooper don't get a kiss. Everyone else gets a kiss, even Jamie Foxx and Jessica Biel. And it's nice that interracial kissing is finally okay, but do we have to wait another forty years before the gay panic subsides? Man, what a drag.

1.) Second-biggest reaction: giggling from schoolgirls in response to Taylor Lautner's line about being uncomfortable taking off his shirt in public.[back]

Thursday, February 11, 2010

In Defense of Auto-Tune

I like what Neko Case had to say about auto-tune back in a 2006 interview with Pitchfork:

"When I hear auto-tune on somebody's voice, I don't take them seriously. Or you hear somebody like Alicia Keys, who I know is pretty good, and you'll hear a little bit of auto-tune and you're like, 'You're too fucking good for that. Why would you let them do that to you? Don't you know what that means?' It's not an effect like people try to say, it's for people like Shania Twain who can't sing. Yet there they are, all over the radio, jizzing saccharine all over you. It's a horrible sound and it's like, 'Shania, spend an extra hour in the studio and you'll hit the note and it'll sound fine. Just work on it, it's not like making a burger!' "

It's pretty silly (and patently obvious) to use auto-tune to send your voice to a pitch it can't naturally hit. But as the device has increased in popularity (among artists, at least, if not listeners), it's showing up more and more as the "effect" that Case brushes off. Also, I don't think the notion of auto-tune-as-crutch is what people dislike. People just don't like the way it sounds. Not since commercial radio separated country from rock (allowing in the calculated twang of contemporary "Wal-Mart" country music) has a sub-genre of pop been so widely rejected based on an aural aesthetic preference.

The thing is, nobody's pretending that Ke$ha sings her way through "Tik Tok". It's worth comparing the single to a live take; given the recent tendency for even good bands to sound terrible in television studios, I'd say Ke$ha is holding her own here a lot better than you might expect.

Live, the song just sounds different. Auto-tune, in this current evolutionary state of Club/Dance music, is not the crutch that it would be for Shania Twain. There's no masquerade to the auto-tune on singles like "Tik Tok", Jay Sean's "Down", or Jason DeRulo's "Whatcha Say"; it's part of the production.

These songs are all catchy if you have an ear for that kind of thing. This phenomenon dates back to the early aughts, when artists like Missy Elliot and Britney Spears were launching massive singles that operated on a completely different plane than their respective vocal talents. Not only were "Work It" and "Toxic" fantastic jams, they had hooks with which it was impossible to sing along. Even if you hated these songs, you had to breathe a sigh of relief that you'd never, ever hear them at a karaoke bar (and if you did, it would honestly have to be pretty entertaining).

Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak is an entire album of auto-tune. This may or may not be an example of auto-tune crutching; it's doubtful that Kanye could've recorded this mournful album (and sung on all the tracks) using just his natural voice. But rather than fake it, Kanye leans on it hard: auto-tune is the sonic foundation for the entire album and likely also the reason why so many haters hated. On 808s auto-tune becomes like Peter Frampton's guitar or Julian Casablancas' vocoder. It's just a filter used to give the voice a weird sound. In essence, auto-tune is really no different than a guitar pedal.

In addition, the auto-tune becomes a part of Kanye's statement with 808s, a piece of Phil Collins-esque synth-rock melancholia the likes of which we hadn't heard in the mainstream for ages. Kanye is openly dealing with some pretty tough shit in the wake of a bad break-up and his mother's death, and he consequently transforms himself into a kind of machine that can process emotions like software. On lead single "Love Lockdown," he 'sings' of a "system overload" and a "secret code" he needs to keep love locked down, and on standout track "Robocop" he compares his lover's paranoia to a cyborg from the movies. The album is thematically wrapped up in the bonus track "Pinocchio Story", a live freestyle in which Kanye compares his quest to "keep it real, boy" in the midst of fame and fortune with the marionette's desire to "be a real boy", only he has "no Gepetto to guide me". The auto-tune adds a layer of sorrow to Kanye's malaise (lacking on that live track). It's almost like a defense mechanism to keep his manhood solid and steely even as he opens his wounds for public consumption.

The mechanized self is there in other, more innocuous auto-tune hits, as well. Ke$ha, in the chorus of her hit, compares herself to a clock that won't stop tik-tok-ing until the sun comes up.

I think Jay-Z has a point in drawing "a line in the sand" on the Kanye-produced "D.O.A" ('death of auto-tune'). He seems to be saying enough is enough, but he's not denying the effect's place in music. Like any device, it can be (and maybe is being) over-used. But let's not write it off completely. The sound might be around for a while, and we don't want to have sounded like Decca when someone like Kanye West uses it to paint a masterpiece.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film (or, why we need to stop worrying and ignore the award shows)

Here are the the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rules for eligibility in the "Animated Feature" category:

"An animated feature film is defined as a motion picture with a running time of at least 70 minutes, in which movement and characters’ performances are created using a frame-by-frame technique. In addition, a significant number of the major characters must be animated, and animation must figure in no less than 75 percent of the picture’s running time."


Let's just take a minute and pull this little piece of bureaucracy apart bit by bit. Taking the category as a given, I'd like to examine this "eligibility" nonsense. In the nine year period since the creation of the category, the rules have already been revised once specifically to preclude the consideration of increasingly common CGI/live action mixtures like King Kong or The Lord of the Rings. But even in their current incarnation, Avatar fits the bill.

Avatar is over seventy minutes long (certainly!). A significant number of the major characters therein are animated ('significant' is one of those legally malleable terms, but, you know, whatever) and computer animation easily 'figures in' more than 75 percent of the running time. As for this "frame-by-frame" business, I admit I'm not sure what that means. Wikipedia seems to think it would refer to stop-motion or cel animation, but since the great majority of AMPAS animated nominees are computer animated, that's not the case.

So why isn't Avatar in the running for Animated Feature? For many of the same reasons that it's nominated for Best Picture (read: it's technologically mind-blowing), it should be considered for the Animated category. It was largely conceived, "photographed" and assembled using the exact same techniques as many of the films we consider "animated", yet nobody thinks of Avatar as an "animated" movie. Two previous winners in the category have integrated live action photography into animated worlds (Wall-E and Happy Feet) and at least one previous nominee (Monster House) was made using motion-capture. Ghettoizing these films becomes more illogical with each advance of the technology.

Where do we draw the line? The insufficiency of the AMPAS rules underlines the absurdity of this category's existence.

The official word was that the category was created to give animated films a chance at an Oscar every year. This is a nice effort. Not only is it akin to the Foreign Language category that has allowed only two1 foreign language productions into the main race in the past twenty years, it would also be akin to a Best Performance By a Black Actor category or a Best Song Featuring the Alto Saxophone. Why not separate categories for Best Animated Feature (Computer) and Best Animated Feature (Hand-made)? Would that be any more arbitrary?

The Animated Feature category is a ghetto which allows the AMPAS to throw a statue at Pixar every year without risking their credibility by offering Pixar a chance in the main category. Why are these films kept separate? Animated films are not found in the Best Picture race because they are considered to be "for kids" and thus "lesser than" or "beneath" other films. Consider how often have you heard someone say the following phrase: "Boy, [this year's Pixar film] was really good for a cartoon."

This is why we don't think of Avatar as an animated film. Too much of the movie-watching populace equates "animated" with "for the kids". Even though animation is a medium and not a genre, and even though there are plenty of animated films strictly for adults (which don't get considered in the AMPAS category, by the way, and get fucked over even by the organizations ostensibly in place to support them), too many people blindly label this category as "best of the movies that were beneath me."

The Pixar movies, with arguable exception, are not really good kids movies; they're really good movies, period. Putting them up against the Shrek's and the Jimmy Neutron's every year is insulting enough.

But this year it's a whole new bag of infuriating.

this year's race

Without even having seen two of the five nominees, I'll say that the Animated Feature category has a greater percentage of interesting, challenging films than the ten-wide Best Picture race; The Princess and the Frog is really the odd one out here2. That The Secret of Kells got nominated is truly incredible: nobody outside of the nominating committee has seen it but it also didn't have any kind of campaign, meaning (one might surmise) it must actually be pretty decent. On top of this there is Up, Coraline, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, all of which are the efforts of sincere auteurs making the most they can within a ghettoized medium. I wasn't crazy about Fox and appreciate arguments of less-than-perfection regarding all three; they remain, at least, qualitatively beautiful and fascinating.3

Getting back to why specifically this year's Academy Awards are under my skin: the nomination of Up for Best Picture (only the second animated film ever4 in that category and first since the introduction of the animated category) is an implicit apology for not nominating Wall-E last year after everybody and their mother agreed it deserved the recognition.

“Having 10 Best Picture nominees is going to allow Academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories, but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize,” says Sid Ganis, AMPAS president in the official press release announcing the category's expansion. He talks a lot about 'going back to their roots' as well, but really this is about Wall-E - and, to a lesser extent, The Dark Knight - showing up as rare favorites among both critics and audiences that everyone would've liked to see recognized on the Academy stage. Nominating Up for Best Picture is a lot like giving Russell Crowe an award for Gladiator the year after snubbing him for The Insider. This is what the Academy does: it apologizes. For mistakes, for the lack of quality roles for any other type of actor besides white men, for giving awards to Crash.

If the process actually worked the way it was supposed to, the AMPAS wouldn't have to deal with controversies such as these. If it wasn't a popularity contest, Reese Witherspoon doesn't win for Walk the Line. If everyone didn't just vote for their friends, Crash doesn't win. If Academy members actually [step one] watched movies, [step two] voted for the good ones instead of the pat-on-the-back, white-guilt, Nazis-are-bad, sexual-liberation-for-your-grandmother slop, and [step three] ignored the massive political campaigns waged by the studios, we wouldn't need to expand to ten nominees just to "squeeze in" (Ganis' phrase) an animated movie for good measure.

The bloggers were all a-twitter about the rare feeling of having four-to-five nominees that they actually liked this year (Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Up, A Serious Man, Avatar and/or District 9 all have support among at least some of the people who actually watch movies). If the Academy had any balls, the five nominations would come from that (all-American) list (of really popular movies) and we wouldn't have to bother with the rest of the swill. Can you imagine the ratings for an Oscar telecast with five Best Picture nominees that are all from that list?

I love Up more than most people I know. I'm happy to see it get noticed; I'm happy to see notice get it noticed. But this nomination is just an arbitration within a mess of arbitration. This ten-nominee line-up is the Academy's way of saying "see, we support lots of different movies" while still ponying up airtime for the award bait. They're having their cake and eating it too and there are still people who look to this unbearable fiasco as a voice for What Good Movies Are. "We'll nominate Up! We'll squeeze it in. But the Oscar's still gonna go to the movie with the best campaign."

I've been irrationally upset by the Academy Awards for years now. Never have I felt so condescended to.

1.) Il Postino and Life is Beautiful. You might also include the American production Letters From Iwo Jima; the intricacies through which the Foreign Language rules omit films from consideration would consume an entire other essay. But as a footnote to a footnote, can you believe this exists? Holy hell, when does it stop?[back]

2.) Full disclosure: haven't seen it, probably shouldn't be talking about it. I don't want to make presumptions about it being an actual example of standard kiddie fare or the opposite of that. I think my point stands, regardless.[back]

3.) Neil Gaiman, discussing Coraline, says "In my experience, Coraline is so much more scary for adults. Adults are watching a film about a child in danger, kids are watching a film about somebody brave doing something cool." Why would anyone want to ignore a story with such a fascinating duality of audience perspective? Oh, right: because it's for kids.[back]

4.) The other was Beauty and the Beast. By the way, do you know who the most awarded person in Oscar history is? Nobody is even close to Walt Disney's record twenty-six Oscars. That number doesn't include the seven miniature Oscars given in recognition of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, "a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field".[back]

Friday, February 5, 2010

Grizzly Man (2005) & Survivor

In a rare bit of synchronicity, I finally caught up with Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man about a month and a half ago, just as the nineteenth season of Survivor was wrapping itself up. This was one of the best seasons that show has ever put out, and I must ramp up my crusade to get people to watch it. Viewing Grizzly Man for the first time, I was bemused by how much the lauded documentary has in common with the television show that some pundits say destroyed the medium.

the grizzly man in his elements

Most of the footage in Grizzly Man is of the 'found' variety, recovered from the tapes left behind by preservationist Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell, having spent thirteen consecutive summers camping in the Katmai National Park amongst the native grizzly bear population, was ultimately killed and eaten in October of 2003. Herzog cuts Treadwell's tapes together into an essay that begins as something resembling the nature documentary Treadwell himself might've one day assembled but quickly transforms into a parodic eulogy to a crazy weirdo who essentially feeds himself to the bears in order to escape human society.

The parts of the film that aren't shot by Treadwell involve testimonials from the people that knew him closely, reconstructing both his life and the circumstances behind his grizzly grisly death. Delving into what made him the man he became, Herzog doesn't shy away from Treadwell's episodes with drug addiction, his failed career as an actor (allegedly he was a runner-up for Woody Harrelson's role on Cheers) or his inability to form many true friendships outside of the preservationist community.

One of the fundamental mysteries of Treadwell's existence is the extent to which he was retreating into nature because he loved the bears so much or rather because he felt cast out of the humanity into which he was born. Herzog edits down the tapes and tapes of monologues left behind so to show Treadwell repeatedly proclaiming his love for the animals (the bears, a fox, a dead bee that turns out to have been merely dozing) in a progression to the point where it almost sounds like Treadwell is trying to convince himself as well as his audience. Treadwell often appears to forget that he's recording a monologue for a nature documentary and devolves into manic anger (this is hammered home by Herzog's use of multiple takes of the same speeches). Treadwell's mood swings are now the stuff of legend.

the four types of survivors

There are four categories into which any Survivor contestant can be reasonably placed:

1.) The Walkabout
My favorite Walkabout is Jessica "Sugar" Kiper from Gabon (and not just because she's cute). Sugar claimed to have gone on the show to reconcile herself to the recent loss of her father and spent several consecutive trips to Exile Island weeping in a hammock. The Walkabout is on Survivor because it's a (relatively) easy way to get an all-expense paid trip to an exotic location with the opportunity to live off the land away from civilization. As a bonus, there's little actual risk because of the medical team hanging around in the bushes (although it's worth pointing out that the frequency with which we see that medical team called in can be pretty scary).

2.) The Challenged Self
Either The Challenged Self or The Fame Whore is the most common type of survivor. The Challenged Self, for one reason or another, has entered the game because he or she needs to prove they can win it. Russell Hantz is probably the most honest (in confessional) example of this we've seen. He stated outright in the first episode of season nineteen that he was just here to show everyone he can play Survivor better than anyone else (and he was almost right).

These survivors often use phrases like "I have something to prove" or "I just wanted to see if I could make it". Their motives can be financial (put your kids in college, buy your wife that salon she's always dreamed of, put yourself through college) or self-interested. The Challenged Self is playing Survivor because he thinks he can win the game. They've seen Survivor before and thought, "I could beat those assholes." The Challenged Self is here to compete.

Take Bob Crowley, for example: a high school physics teacher who just wanted money for his kids' tuition. He was beloved on and off the island. The only time he double-crossed another survivor, he quickly repented for his cruelty (and everyone bought it, including me). His decency carried him a long way on the show; his popularity among viewers won him an extra hundred grand in the Sprint-sponsored fan-favorite contest that ends each season (this in addition to winning the million dollar grand prize).

3.) The Fame Whore
You go on the reality show that started it all, you get a lifetime of endorsement deals, shopping mall appearances, ten-dollar signed glossies and Playboy spreads.

Jerri Manthey owned the Fame Whore title, tearing up the show in the second season's Australian Outback. Manthey's inevitable expulsion was one of the series' great moments not because of the vote itself but because everyone had grown to hate her so much. If Survivor created reality television, Manthey created the "reality star". She's like The Beatles to pop music: Snooki and the Situation, Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton and all the rest of them owe their careers to Jerri Manthey and her sensationalist "reality" performance art. (This may or may not be a good thing; it's certainly culturally relevant.)

I should point out that on occasion the fame whore isn't all that bad. In the sixteenth season, the initial tribes were composed of "Fans vs. Favorites", one an all-star tribe of former players and the other all die hard Survivor fans. A fair number of Survivor contestants are just there because they love the show and want to be a part of it.

4.) The Crazy
When the Survivor casting team lands a great Crazy, it's beautiful. Look at Coach from Tocantins. Here's a pathological liar who self-identifies as an Alpha Male but fails spectacularly at anything physical. He's a man who goes by "Coach" but was fired from his job as a women's soccer coach because he lied to his superiors about going on Survivor, telling them he was only going to be gone a week. Coach practices an ancient Martial art called "Chong Ran", claiming that "if you do a Google search for it you won't find it; it's only passed down verbally." When he made it to the "Loved Ones" episode, the loved one he chose to visit him halfway around the world was ... his assistant coach.

The Crazy is so thrilling to watch; this is also where I begin to feel slightly dirty about the show. The Fame Whores know what they're getting themselves into, but with The Crazy it's impossible to tell. Regardless, a good Crazy usually makes it really deep into the game (Coach came in fifth, Samoa's Shambo came in sixth out of a larger, twenty-player pool) and even as this is because their competitors don't consider them a real threat, I do find it hard to feel sorry for the Crazies. The thing with a Survivor Crazy is not that we think they're insane so much as they seem to be operating on some alternate plane of existence. We just can't understand what's going on in their heads.

so why should anyone care?

Watching Grizzly Man at the height of one of Survivor's finest seasons, the comparison was easy.

Here's the thing: Timothy Treadwell would've fit into all four of those categories. He was deeply invested in forging a commune with nature (walkabout); he believed that he could successfully integrate into Grizzly Bear society (challenged self); he lived his life in front of a camera after failing to make it as an actor (fame whore); finally, he was kind of nuts (crazy).

If Treadwell had somehow made it onto Survivor, not only would he still be alive today but he might've found a place for himself in America. In the game, he would've easily made it to the top five. His essential survival skills were second-to-none and he was crazy enough that he would've struck that Shambo/Coach chord that would've allowed his competitors to keep him around because he wouldn't have been a threat to win. He could've become an actual celebrity, just as he always wanted. He could've potentially satisfied the demons that drove him into the wilderness to never be heard from again.

Survivor becomes a proving ground for people (and honest or deceptive, they are all real people) who, for one reason or another, feel they need to gamble on an abnormal existence. Treadwell gave his life in the name of creating a false self within a false society.

Survivor may have launched the "alternative programming" phenomenon that may or may not be destroying our culture, but it lives on because it transcends that same genre of television. To continue my Beatles analogy: we wouldn't have Nickelback today if it weren't for the road paved by The Beatles, but we don't hold Chad Kroeger against John Lennon, do we?

What fascinates me about the show is the experience of watching these four types fight against each other in a battle of wits. This is rat-in-a-maze, human-condition storytelling, and plenty exciting.

If you watch feature-length documentaries in your valiant pursuit of an informed intelligence, you can't make a blanket dismissal of reality TV. What you have to do is watch Survivor with a conscience. Should we feel sorry for Coach, rather than blindly hate on him for being obnoxious? Maybe. It's up to you. But these people are putting their lives (socially if not corporally) on the line specifically to be judged. This is exactly what Timothy Treadwell set out to do by engaging with and assimilating into a society of grizzly bears for over a decade.

The only thing that really sets Treadwell apart from a Survivor contestant is that he put himself in the way of actual harm and consequently, he's the one that's dead.

In Herzog's film, a mysterious beat is dedicated to Amie, Treadwell's girlfriend and companion up to the moment they both died. She was filmed on the expedition only twice, her face obscured in both shots. Herzog shows us these two clips juxtaposed with a handheld shot of Treadwell that she herself must've shot. The only other evidence of her presence in the wilderness is on the audio recording of the couple's death, to which we are gracefully spared exposure.

What we do see is Herzog himself, his face obscured, listening to the recording as Treadwell's ex-girlfriend Jewel plays it back for him on the very camera that sat by with its lens cap on as the explorers were torn apart. Herzog narrates what he hears for a brief minute then asks that the recording be turned off and, he urges, destroyed. "It will be the elephant in the room all your life," he tells the tape's guardian.

Amie's lack of presence on the tapes despite accompanying Treadwell on significant portions of his expeditions only underlines the extent to which Treadwell was there for the camera as much as the bears. For those poor souls that thrust themselves upon a CBS audience, this kind of voyeurism is a similar given. Like Treadwell, they know the cameras are always running, but even still there will be lapses in sincerity and performances that reveal deeper truths of character underneath the lies.

It's up to the audience, then, to tell the stuff from the stuff. We just have to watch.

The new season of Survivor begins Thursday, February 11th. This twentieth season fulfills host Jeff Probst's contract; the show may not be around that much longer.

You might say my objective with this piece is to get the kind of people who found meaning in Grizzly Man to watch Survivor, and maybe also to turn a couple Survivor fans onto Herzog. I know I have a tendency to err on the side of flippancy, so I'd like to state that no disrespect is intended towards any of the people discussed (except maybe that bitch Jerri Manthey).