26 November 2007

81. being there

"being there": a 2 hour, 10 minute long comedy? a comedy with peter sellers where he plays it straight? an ending as ambiguous and loaded as our character walking on water while being discussed as a presidental candidate under an illuminati symbol while the current president quotes "life is a state of mind"?

what the fuck is going on here?

oh, it is well-made, i just don't know what to make of it. the premise starts immediately and economically: we see chance's simple everyday life, surrounded by tvs and his garden. and then the old man dies and he has to leave, and we are surprised by the run-down neighborhood and the hoodlums who almost mug him. chance stumbles, forrest gump-like, into scenarios with powerful people, without understanding any of it. the filmmakers have their craft right: they show beautiful shots of washington d.c. and the biltmore estate, they judiciously use wonderful old tv clips ("basketball jones" is particularly great), and they are somehow able to maintain a tone of the driest wit possible on a one-note premise that miraculously doesn't get old.

the movie is ambiguous in many ways, so i honestly don't know what point was trying to be made here. if i had to guess, it would be a condemnation of the continued confluence of media on our society, particularly how it relates to politics. for instance, the pall-bearers immediately bring to mind my paranoid liberal fantasies about how george w. bush was elected, via a collection of old money men who push their own agenda (in the case of the movie, this would be the illuminati [?], but in our own case it could be skull-and-bones or some other neocon collection. let's just assume cheney is involved somehow). we also see how chance's aphorisms are taken as genius when they are really open-ended, simple statements that do little more than make the listener feel smart -- or smarter than him.

moreso, though, my thoughts on this film continue to turn towards taoism. "soft is stronger than hard", and that applies to chance stumbling through his life without ambition or desire, wanting nothing (save for the occasional meal or glass of water), and ending up with everything (a mansion, a possible presidental appointment, shirley maclaine). additionally, like thoreau and other wise men, chance takes his cues about life from nature and the natural world. and the title itself, "being there", implies a childlike state that taoism espouses. like ram dass says, one must "be here now", in every moment -- like chance is -- accepting whatever comes and watching the world in wonder.

still, though: what to make of that ending?

11 November 2007

high fidelity

speaking of anti-heroes...this is a situation wherein a hollywood movie simulates life and not a fantasy. rob really IS a "fuckin' asshole." what a brave choice by john cusack (as co-writer and producer, as well as star) to have the gumption not to tone him down, make him more sympathetic. he admits -- straight to the camera! -- that he cheated on his girlfriend, borrowed much money from her, contributed to her having an abortion. in addition, because he's so happy his ex hasn't slept with her new beau, he goes right out and sleeps with someone else. right as he leaves his one-night stand, he starts right in again with wondering about if laura's going to sleep with ian. he can't get it out of his head, ruminates on it our loud, and in lesser hands, this kind of kvetching would be unbearable. it is a testament to cusack's charm and talent that even in his ugliest moments, we are right there with him.

also remarkable is the local color -- they get wicker park right. i know because when i first moved to chicago i lived in that neighborhood and caught the dying end of that alternative scene. they use chicago landmarks, such as the skyline from the chicago river (for the "five things i miss about laura" scene), the music box (during his date with his movie-reviewer ex), the double door (rob's dj spot), but they use these landmarks and this sense of place to shed light on these character's culture, not to cash in.

i have been in many situations similar to those shown in the movie, some of them very recently. it is rare that a hollywood movie hits the notes so right that it makes you say "eureka!" you come to cherish those times, and i do.

82. cool hand luke

the film examines two archetypes that endure: the anti-hero & the christ figure.

first, "cool hand luke" is an prime cinematic example of the anti-hero. as in "one flew over the cuckoo's nest", we are given a character who is charming, yet has serious flaws, most notably that they are both criminals. but their charm and their wit and -- this is not a small point -- their sense of fun go a long way towards the audience empathizing with their plights. moreso, though, when the actions of our anti-hero are contrasted with that of the "establishment", we have no choice but to side with the hero. in the case of "cuckoo", that comes in the form of a mental hospital which we slowly see does nothing to help the patients, but instead seems to reinforce their illness. in the cast of "cool hand luke", we see a prison with an extraordinarily strict schedule (see the floor man's monologue, each sentence ending with "...in the box.") enforced by a passive-aggressive warden and a man in black and glasses with an itchy trigger-finger.
the bottom line that connects nearly all films portraying an anti-hero is a supremely american one: the desire for freedom. this desire is so ingrained in us that we can't help but agree and root for anyone who espouses it, and who does something concrete about it, even if it results in their death (see also, "easy rider", "american beauty", etc. etc.)

the film also portrays luke as a christ figure. these two archetypes are related -- christ, in his day, was the ultimate rebel, going against the establishment of the day. luke, in his prison, shows a quiet dignity and gains the respect of his inmates, who later become something like disciples as he teaches them how to retain their self-respect and self-identity in such a stifling place.
christian imagery abounds: there is gospel music snuck into the background throughout (and sometimes in the foreground -- see paul newman's "plastic jesus" after the news of his mother's death), luke lies in the crucifixion position after eating the eggs, he "turns the other cheek" during his fight with dragline, dragline behaves like judas and betrays him, and finally, as the camera ascends towards heaven, we see luke with a picture torn like a cross.

neither of these archetypes are easy to pull off. the anti-hero has to gain our sympathy right away, and the christ figure has to be righteous but not overtly holy. "cool hand luke" does both, and paul newman's portrayal is part of what has made him such an iconic figure in cinema.