Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Knowledge and Comfort

Every life is a book.  Only the finished ones have a back cover.

* * *

My phone rang while I was watching the Bruins beat the Rangers the other night, and my immediate thought was: it’s my brother Gary calling from a bar in Cleveland where he’s watching the game and cheering them on.  It wasn’t, of course.  Gary’s been gone for two and a half years.  But for a good three seconds, until I looked to see who was calling, he was right there.  And I knew exactly what he was going to say.

And that response is how we all deceive ourselves about the dead.

Since every life is a book, and the finished ones have a back cover, then every possible response we can have to the author of that book is contained within its pages.  We say, “She would have loved that.”  We say, “He would have called me the second he heard about that.”  We say, “I know exactly what she would have said.”

It’s a lie.  It’s a comforting lie, but it’s still a lie.  And the lie, and the comfort, are contained in the same word: “know.” 

We don’t know.  In a book with no back cover, the writer is still creating, and the story could become anything.  We fill the pages of our own book, and watch the pages of our friends’ books, and we’re engaged, not because we know what’s going to happen next, but because we don’t.

I only know what my brother Gary was going to say about the Bruins because I remember what he said during other calls.  Which means that what I think I know is an echo, not a source.   That’s the comfort: Gary has become finite.  In physics terms, his probability wave has collapsed, and any chance of him acting outside the realm of possibility has vanished.  Everything is an equation now.  If the Bruins win, Gary calls and says X.  If the Red Sox lose, Gary calls and says Y.

And that’s the lie.  Because if Gary was alive, there would be no equal sign.  X and Y would represent probability, not reality. The possibility of Gary would be infinite, until he created his own reality.  Until he wrote something on a blank page that could be anything.  And yes, it might have been what I was expecting him to write.  But I know—and this is the knowledge that is not a comfort—I know that it would not be, and could never be, exactly what I was expecting.

The one thing all the dead take with them when they leave is the ability to surprise us.

In a book with a back cover, there are no surprises.  Just echoes.  No potential.  Just history. 

I think I know what Gary would have said about the Bruins winning.  I don’t.  He would have said something I can’t even imagine.  That’s what made him unique.  That’s what made him Gary.

I think I know what my friend Meir would have said about Silver Linings Playbook.  I don’t.  He would have said something I can’t even imagine.  That’s what made him unique.  That’s what made him Meir.

The loss of any one of us cheapens reality, because there is one less set of eyes to perceive it, and one less mind to translate that vision for the rest of us.

I think I know what my friend Michal would say about the Avengers movie.  Or what my father would say about the play I’m writing now.  Or what my mother would say about my niece’s boyfriend.  It’s a lie.  I don’t know anything.  But I say I do—I have to say I do—or the grief would be unbearable.

* * *

All this is written in my book.  And one day that book will have a back cover.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Bourne (back ceaselessly into the past) Identity

An old friend of mine once said that the difference between reading The Great Gatsby when you’re 17 and reading it again when you’re 32 is like the change that takes place when that snooty stuck-up babe you hated during high school turns into a total sweetheart at your fifteenth reunion.  In that vein, Baz Luhrmann’s movie version is like a prim thoughtful librarienne who now has a fake tan, a fake accent, fake boobs, and a very real drinking problem.  Like, y'know, Nick Carraway in this movie.

Didn’t know old Nick was “morbidly alcoholic,” didja?  Neither did I.  And I certainly didn’t know he’d checked himself into a sanatorium to get himself cleaned out.  And I sure didn’t figure he’d need cleaning out because of this mysterious Gatsby guy; I had him figured as a sap for Jordan Baker, because, y’know, Toby Maguire.  (Is he ever not a sap for somebody?  From Mary Jane to Seabiscuit, this guy does nothing but yearn and suffer.)  And what is the rehab doc’s prescription for all this suffering?  He asks Nick to write the novel we are about to see.  And that’s where the trouble starts.

Because books are not movies.  And using the actual words of the book as voiceover narration does not make for a good movie.  If anything, it hobbles the movie like a plaster cast. Because it’s in flashback, there’s no immediacy.  And because it's a voiceover, well, like it or not, there's a part of our movie-watching brain that immediately recognizes excessive voiceover as a last-resort editing process, unless you do something really clever with it (like in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or The Opposite of Sex).  When it works, it works against the flow of the movie.  It comments; it’s self-aware, like Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet.  When it doesn’t work, it tells the story for you because the movie is a mess (all of The Lady in Shanghai; parts of Apocalypse Now; most of the Mel Gibson Payback edit). 

This version leans in towards the second type.  In a fervent act of faith towards its source (the kind of act of faith that can be just as deadly as an act of disbelief), Luhrmann delivers a dizzying, over-the-top introduction to Daisy, Tom, Myrtle, Jordan, the Jazz Age, and Gatsby himself until about 45 minutes in when he suddenly says “Oh shit—what about the BOOK?” and starts literally throwing words at us.  And I mean literally literally: the words appear onscreen as Nick types them, and they float out into the audience because that’s what typed words are supposed to do in a 3-D movie. 

Maybe Luhrmann thinks that, by repeating the words of a novel on-screen, he’s communicating the ideas that make that novel deep.  He’s not.  He’s doing the opposite.  He’s drawing you out of the world in which he’s trying to immerse you.  He's diminishing everything.  And from this point on in the film, you’re trapped inside a pitched battle between an actual movie and a filmed audiobook. 

And what kind of movie is it?  There’s a dead giveaway in the casting of Meir Wolfsheim:  

It’s got Amitabh Bachchan, people.  This is the Bollywood Gatsby--Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Ghatsbi. 

How over the top is it?  Look no further than Gatsby’s introduction.  The band is playing, the fireworks are beginning, there are about a dozen pairs of twins dancing in their flapper skirts, there's more glitter and confetti than a Vegas version of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, and Nick is gushing to this offscreen guy about all the rumored things Gatsby’s done.  At which point the unseen guy says something ending in the words “old sport,” and we know exactly who’s talking a second before the camera gives us a full screen close-up of Leonardo DiCaprio, fireworks flashing behind him, orchestra playing the climax of "Rhapsody In Blue," as he grins like God overlooking Creation.  

Prediction: this is the scene that will open the clip montage they’ll play in 40 years when DiCaprio gets his Kennedy Center award.  Followed by the scene in Romeo + Juliet where Claire Danes sees him through the fish tank.

DiCaprio makes for a pretty great Gatsby because he’s grown from being that adult trapped in a young punk to a young punk trapped in the body of an adult.  That youthful face on a man his age says “I’m torn between who I was and who I am” without needing a word of dialogue.  Minor drawback: he talks like he’s trying to pass as a Kennedy, and I think he says the words “old sport” about a hundred times, which is only six less than Gatsby does in the novel.

As Daisy, Carey Mulligan is close enough for Jazz Age, but she’s a weathervane—you get the sense that whoever talks to her last is who she’ll agree with.  She's not the perfect Daisy (which is a whole other topic of discussion) but she's perfect for this movie, where Daisy is just as much a trophy as she is a Marilyn-like vessel for other people's desire.  The big problem I had is that Mulligan comes across as a passenger, not a driver, and if it’s one thing Daisy has to be, it’s someone whose inner viciousness comes out when she’s behind the wheel.  (As Jordan Baker’s does; in the book at least.)

And speaking of Jordan, if there’s anyone who walks away with the film, it’s Elizabeth Debicki.  Except she doesn’t ever walk—when this Jordan moves, she defines the word “sashay” for a whole generation of people who’ve probably never heard the verb before.  The way she says the words “I like large parties—they’re so intimate,” it makes you want to grab her arm, hail a cab, and drive off to the Cotton Club with her.  She’s the Jordan Baker of your dreams, and if she doesn’t get a ton of work and acclaim from this, there ain’t no justice.  (Note: it’s already happening; she’s starring in The Maids in Sydney this June with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert.)

Random thoughts:

In a movie where the audio synch is just off enough to give you a headache if you watch the actors’ lips while they talk, Catsby and Nick's car drive into Manhattan gets the Oscar for Worst Audio Dubbing ever.  It’s also got the most edits in it, like Luhrmann was trying to cover up the fact that he recorded the audio this past April on a yacht in Sydney Harbor with a handheld cassette player.

You really don’t have to see this in 3-D.  

The phoniness of the special effects actually works in the movie’s favor.  Everything is tinsel and glitter.  Everything is fake, from the fireworks to the green light.

Having said that, Luhrmann missed a chance to bring us up short by making Myrtle’s death as real and solid as possible.  What a great kick in the teeth that would have been—not a slow-mo fall under the eyes of TJ Eckleburg, but a solid, feel-it-in-your-bones collision.  Alas—it’s just as unreal as everything else.

If you’re actually going to use the lines “Tom and Daisy were careless people,” then you should damn well SHOW them being careless.

The Nick-Gatsby romance is the heart of this version of the story.  

This version of the story could have been titled Two Guys Who Can't Get Laid Because They're Poor.  

The Nick-Jordan romance?  Gonzo.  Which is why Elizabeth Debicki disappears for almost the entire middle third of the movie.  (Can we start a rumor that they actually DID film it, but when Luhrmann saw how good Debicki was—and how she made the Nick-Jordan subplot so much more interesting than the Daisy-Gatsby main plot—he chopped it out of the final cut entirely?)

Other things that have disappeared: Daisy’s daughter (she gets a mention, but if you miss it, you'll be all WTF when she actually makes an appearance at the end.).  And Owl Eyes.  Who makes a brief appearance in the library and then vanishes.  If I remember the book right, he not only shows up at the funeral, but he’s Gatsby’s father.  Not in this version.  In this version, nobody but Nick shows up.

Believe it or don’t, there’s not only a Sunset Boulevard homage, but a Rear Window segment.

And having the actual words of the last line of the book float out into the audience as Maguire delivers the voiceover and we see the green light (all-purpose term paper answer in high school: "The green light at the end of the dock symbolizes hope.")--ow, okay?  Just: ow.

INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW:  So who would be your perfect Daisy?

ME:  Louise Brooks.  Tuesday Weld.  (Thalia Menninger could be Daisy’s granddaughter.)  Gene Tierney—who was supposed to play Daisy opposite Tyrone Power, but the producers thought she was too pretty, and when she dropped out, Power dropped out, and the roles went to Betty Field (who?) and Alan Ladd.  And Martha Vickers, of course.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

"I'm Getting Too Metallic For This $h!t."

(Fair warning: plot spoilers below.)

In this year’s episode of “Tony Stark, Billionaire Douchebag,” we get an updated version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Tony getting a visit from The-One-Night-Stand of Christmas Past, The Terrorist of Christmas Present, and the Chemically Enhanced Billionaire Douchebag of Christmas Yet To Come.  Plus an adorable urchin, a Christmas Story gag, and (as a stuffed holiday goose) the traditional Shane Black shoot-out on a docked oil tanker.  There’s even a nice little stocking gift for those of you who are Gwyneth Paltrow haters—you get to see her fall to a fiery death, which will definitely make you squee with delight; and then you get to see her get better, which will push your Oh Please Girl button even more than you thought possible.

There are a lot of other buttons that will be pushed here, most of them smartly.  I’ve always believed that there are only two stories when it comes to a comic book character (the origin and the last battle) and that everything else is an episode that echoes one of them.  Iron Man 3 definitely goes back to the origin—specifically the Jeff Bridges line in the original movie: “Tony Stark was able to build this in a CAVE!”  That’s the guy we fell in love with, and that’s the guy we get here—the mechanic, complete with a cave-like garage.  And with that adorable urchin standing in for Yinsen.

And speaking of comic book tropes, for a lot of people, this movie is going to be an introduction to one of the core problems with comic book continuity: in a universe where SHIELD and Captain America are also tasked with defending the country, how come nobody but Iron Man shows up when the President is threatened?   

The scriptwriters actually deal with this question in a clever fashion, by showing how Tony has panic attacks whenever anybody mentions anything related to the Avengers movie.  It becomes not only a running gag, but a stealth command to the audience: “Don’t bring up The Avengers, or Tony will have a conniption.”  So whenever it is brought up, we cringe a little, because we care about this guy, and in the back of our minds we don’t want to see anybody from The Movie Tony Can’t Talk About have a cameo, because we know that if Samuel Jackson ever shows up in person, Tony is going to gut him with his repulsors. 

Another little bit of writer sleight-of-hand is that adorable little urchin.  After a Y2k one-night stand with Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hansen, there’s a great deadpan joke when Stark meets Maya again. 

TONY:  You don’t have a 12-year-old kid in your car, do you?
MAYA:  He’s thirteen.

And our adorable little urchin is that kid in the joke.  Seriously.  He’s the right age, and he talks about his mom, but she never shows upso in the back of our minds we can still relate to him as Tony’s love child with Maya.  He also serves as a double Christmas Ghost doppelganger, because he’s also got a Little Tony vibe going, which is why he’s the one who knows exactly who Tony is and what he does.  “You’re a mechanic.  Make something.” 

So it’s a fun flick.  But I had one major beef with it.  (Besides the incredibly extended final battle and the rushed voice-over wrap-up.)  I didn’t like what they did with the Mandarin.  To be coy, he is not what he seems to be—and while there’s a chance that what we see is actually a double fakeout, that we’re watching a man who’s pretending to be innocuous when he’s really dangerous—there’s nothing in the movie to justify anything except an out-and-out Fooled Ya moment that had more than a liberal whiff of liberal hogwash in it.  I felt like the air went out of the movie, and it became less real than what it could have been.  Plus there’s a big plot moment that completely gets undermined, which is why I really wanted to see this line of dialogue:

TONY:  What kind of actor shoots a guy in the head on-camera as part of his performance?
THE MANDARIN:  A method actor.