What I liked about Sideways

The buddy movie about two forty-ish men — a failing novelist and a failing actor — going on a wine-country tour the week before the actor’s wedding.
I liked the way Sideways made fun of an intellectual — the writer’s wine snobbery is simultaneously a sign of absurd pretention, unacknowledged alcoholism, and genuine passionate avocation.
I liked some of the structural craftsmanship — the movie has repeated scenes of iffy driving, but the car crash that eventually happens is different than you’d expect.
I liked the sets — attentive depictions of America’s seedy kitch, without Quentin Tarantino’s glamor or Coen caricature. The characters walk from the two-story motor-courtyard motel along the highway by a car lot, to a western-kitch restaurant called “the hitching post”. It may be cheesy, but it’s our landscape.
I liked the way the writer’s chronic hesitancy contrasted with the actor’s chronic impulsiveness. Between them, there was a fraction of one mature person. The actor’s impulsive suggestion that the characters should run off to start a wine business was the most sensible idea in the movie — the actor’s hucksterism, the writer’s estheticism, and the practicality of the female characters might have resulted in a working business.
I think the male actors — Paul Giamatti and Jack Church — are funny. The female characters are dull in a love-interest sort of way.
I liked the way the move was about lying to oneself (the writer’s alcoholism, the actor’s slim chance at marital fidelity) and to others (the writer’s taking vacation money from his mother’s underwear drawer, the actor’s deception of women.
I like the way that in the novelistic tradition, the story is about an economic constraint in society — creative fields like writing, music, and acting focus on hit-based celebrity of the young.
A number of reviewers complain that the characters aren’t likable, or worse, that the filmmakers don’t have compassion for the characters. I have a creepy suspicion that the truth may be worse — that the difference between the characters and the movie makers is that the movie makers make a bit more money and get caught less.


Rushmore had more eccentricity and more heart than The Royal Tenenbaums. The main character is Max, played by Jason Schwartzman, a 15-year old scholarship student at a private school who ringleads theater, debate club, beekeeping, calligraphy, fencing, and other extracurricular activities, while on the verge of failing academically.
The character is a combination of precocious, pretentious, and naively awkward; he’s young enough to make lots of embarrasingly painful mistakes, and old enough to cause real damage. He makes friends with a middle-aged millionaire, played by Bill Murray in a midlife secondary-adolescent funk, and they vie with comic and occasionally life-threatening ferocity for the affections of an elementary school teacher.
In The Royal Tenenbaums, the characters’ eccentricities were mostly surface, with an internal anomie that was partly the point, and partly just dull. In Rushmore, the eccentricity dramatizes the typical adolescent desire to borrow an identitity through symbols — a school, a band, fashion; the heart lies in the traversing the path from the hero-worship to relationship.
Like the Tenenbaums, the psychological trajectory involves a main character who starts as a chronic liar and becomes just a little bit more honest. Rushmore’s Max doesn’t give up his wacky grand schemes, but is able to assimilate just a bit to reality; he admits that his dad is a barber, not a neurosurgeon, he dates a classmate who’s a fellow geek, he gets passing grades in public school.
The film has many great scenes; the crew breaking ground for an aquarium, above the protests of the baseball coach; a highschool play set in vietnam, with potted palms and explosions with dynamite; the main character’s preppy sidekick, having come to apologize, sitting in Max’s dad’s barber chair; Bill Murray, watching his wife flirt with a party guest, tossing golfballs into a pool.
For peterme: I really liked the move; and now understand why Jette would say good things about Wes Anderson.

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

The emotional punch of satire depends on participation in the culture; Jon Stewart telling the Crossfire goons “you’re hurting us” was shocking and scathingly funny.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie, Bunuel skewers the social conventions of the postwar French elite; the genteel obsessions with food, the correct way to serve alcohol, polite table manners, formal dress for dining with friends at home. Behind the politeness there is adultery, drug-dealing, murder, and political oppression; and a dream life where fear, violence, torture and death break through the surface.
The humor and shock of Discrete Charm can be appreciated but not quite felt. At times, the satire needs to be deciphered like Moliere and Chaucer. The class satire in particular needs footnotes. A bishop is invited to dinner, though he has signed on as a gardener; military officers are part of the club; the driver and maid are the subject of condescension. I’m surely missing the nuances.
I rented Discreet Charm for remedial film reference. In the making-of-Tenenbaums DVD extra with Wes Anderson, the director called on Luis Bunuel for inspiration with some difficult scene.
From Bunuel, perhaps, Anderson inherits the intertwingling of the bizarre and ordinary. Perhaps Anderson is trying to borrow Bunuel’s matter-of-fact tone with the bizarre. Bunuel acheives deadpan, Anderson’s tone is sometimes just dead.
The heart of both films is psychological. Anderson’s therapeutic themes are angst, anomie, and emotional dishonesty. Bunuel is sincerely Freudian — ordinary life hides a vivid dreamworld of sex, violence, and death.
I appreciated Discreet Charm, and really enjoyed the 90-minute biography of the filmmaker on the Criterion DVD. The biography interviews Salvador Dali and other contemporaries of Bunuel’s avant-garde youth and actors who played in the various films over 50 years. There’s footage of Bunuel, Dali, Lorca and crew being young, hip and beautiful.
The repressive cause and high cost of avant garde rebellion is shown in pictures; the theater showing L’Age D’Or that was bombed by right-wing militants; a contemporary shot (I think) of the friends reacting to Lorca’s murder by Nationalist soldiers at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War; the church hierarchy giving a Nazi salute; friends who put Bunuel up at their house when he couldn’t get a job in the US because of the Hollywood blacklist.
Bunuel’s friends and colleagues tell fond stories of roguish humor and strict personal habits; the atheists’s attraction to religious ceremonies and priests. The bio is rather hagiographical, leaving out the dirty laundry about cruelty to his wife, drinking, the feud with Dali.
The bio gives context to Bunuel’s old-fashioned avant garde esthetic. These days, the idea of shock on film travels across a wide cultural gulf. When Janet Jackson bares a breast on TV, many are shocked, and just as many wonder what the fuss is about. In college film class, Bunuel’s work is standard text in college film class, and “transgressive” is a conventional compliment. The horrifying images of Bunuel’s early work are the subject of fond father-son conversation in blue-state America. Shocking images in grossout comedies and horror movies are mainstream commercial products.
If I had the time, it would be fascinating to look up the reactions to “Discreet Charm” in 1972. Did people see an old radical domesticated into satire? Were the scenes of marital nookie in the bushes and decorous adultery considered titillating? Were the bloodied ghosts considered chilling or tame? It was a popular movie at the time — what did people like about it then?

The Royal Tenenbaums

In the Wes Anderson interview in The Royal Tenenbaums, the director talked about how he storyboards the movie down to the last minute detail of decor, but he’s always surprised by the way that actors bring the story to life. That comment explains the affect of the Royal Tenenbaums. I’d want to watch it again to catch the the fabulous dollhouse details of the 1970s/80s Chas Adams house, with a family of eccentric ex-prodigies gone to seed. And to catch the subtleties as Gene Hackman plays an aging scoundrel trying to worm his way back into the affections of his alienated family. I just love how he’s habitually manipulative, nasty, and mean; and how he fumbles awkwardly with a new resolution to occasionally tell the truth.
But the map and the territory don’t quite mesh. The characters inhabiting the eccentric character definitions — Gwyneth Paltrow’s repressed and secretive failed playwright; Luke Wilson’s despairing washed-up tennis pro enact the border between anomie and caricature.
Reviews of the movie make a lot of the superficial eccentricity of the set and the mannerisms of the characters. Each character has his or her own shtick; the playwright has a wooden finger; the envious next-door-neighbor pop-western novelist wears fashion cowboy gear and wanders in a chemically-fueled dreamworld.
But the heart of the movie is simpler, more mundane, and more sentimental. Children, raised by a remote mother and absent father, create their own fantasy worlds, and then have to live in them. They confront each other as adults, and struggle with reconciliation and forgiveness. At heart, it’s about the imaginary worlds built in the carpeted dens of the lonely children of divorced parents. At heart, it’s a therapist’s office fable.

Slacker trilogy

The morning after I saw Slacker, I overheard a couple of coffee-shop customers swapping anecdotes about automotive repo jobs. Preachers, apparently, are particularly self-righteous about avoiding bills. One local dealership is trying to improve the quality of its credit portfolio by making the salesmen responsible for reposessing cars from their own delinquent customers.
As a particpant and observer of Austin’s cafe culture, I expected Slacker to be a touchstone to Austin’s cafe culture, and so it was. The pickup conversation with the dogged conspiracy theorist, off-kilter petty scams, windy pop-culture critiques, convoluted romantic and roommate drama, each vignette unfolds after the other, in desultory succession.
Immediately after I watched the movie, I wasn’t sure how much I liked it. At the end of each scene, the camera follows a new person off to another weird tangent; without plot and character development, jolts of recognition and amusement war with ambient boredom. The film improves with recollection and comparison.
Clerks built on the low-budget, indy cred of Slacker. The setting is North Jersey, the anomie is post-highschool rather than post-college. Wierd misadventures afflict the convenience store clerks; a rabid anti-smoking advocate riles up customers coming in to feed their habit; a streethockey game is rescheduled to the store’s roof during business hours. Several of the anecdotes are truly funny, other scenes may have been funnier in brainstorming than onscreen, like the customer who obsessively checks for the perfect egg.
Despite the similar low budget, anedotal plot, and slacker characters, Clerks is a more conservative, wannabe Hollywood movie. Unlike Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith cobbles together a plot, tacks on a love interest – Dante, the antihero schlemiel clerk, has an affectionate, go-getter girlfriend but pines for a dramatic and inconstant ex. Smith adds a pop-psych denoument when Dante explains to his best friend the childhood origins of his pathologically passive attitude toward life. The Clerks have opportunities but lack get-up-and-go; there aren’t any opportunities for liberal arts grads in recessionary early 90s Austin.
High Fidelity is the slacker film turned into a sitcom, but I liked it best anyway. The John Cusack character is the owner of a small, starving-artist-snobby vintage record store in Chicago. His music geek clerks — Jack Black’s customer-hostile connoiseur and Todd Louiso’s adorable nebbish steal the show. Over the course of the movie, the characters learn to transcend slackerdom; Cusack learns that his love life is stuck on repeat breakup because he acts like a jerk; the clerks grow beyond roles as passive critics, becoming actors in love and music.
It would take a Chicago person to explain whether and how the film captures Chicago like Slacker captures the windy aimlessness of Austin cafe culture and Clerks gets the gritty ambition of working class North Jersey. I suspect that it doesn’t. Translated from Nick Hornsby’s London novel, some of the social types don’t ring quite right; the skater punks would probably be better as London working class; the egocentric high-chic girlfriend and would probably be better as British bohemian upper class.
Directed by veteran English-gone-Hollywood director Stephen Frears, the movie is more polished and more conventional than the other two slacker films. The movie tells the story of the sentimental education of geeky guys lightly and well. The retail and romantic vignettes are funny, the emotional tenor is wry and affecting.
In the week of a high-stakes election, the comedy of early 90s anomie seems far away.

Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite is a “revenge of the nerds” movie that tries to have it both ways.
The main character is an oddball loner in a small-town, Idaho highschool. He wears weird clothes, draws fantasy/sci-fi sketches, plays tether volleyball by himself, stuffs leftover lunch tater tots in his cargo pants, and is tortured by the school jocks and mocked by the popular girls. When the camera visits his house, where his unemployed 30-year old older brother spends hours in pre-internet chatrooms and his uncle yearns to relive his days of almost-highschool-football stardom, you know there’s no way out.
The film spends most of its meandering plot inviting the audience to at Napoleon, his loser family, his awkward, fresh-from Mexico friend Pedro, and the unprosperous, uncool ambience of small-town Idaho.
Then, toward the end, the movie evolves into a “follow your dreams” fairy tale. The ideosyncratic loners find each other, and become school heroes.
The audience gets to make fun of the nerds and small-town losers through most of the movie, and then bask in the myth of individualist triumph at the end.
In the genre of misfit triumph, I preferred Muriel’s Wedding — which was simultaneously sweeter and darker. The film shows the awkwardness of the misfit main character and her disfunctional family all the way through, and the triumph is partial, since the main character has internalized the values of her oppressors.


Watched Adaptation over the holidays with the brother and sister-in-law in New Jersey. I enjoyed Nicholas Cage’s acting tour de force, playing an angst-ridden, intellectual, original screen-writer, and his cheerful, confident, cliche-loving twin brother, with similar mannerisms and different personalities.
I was entertained by the dogged resistance to making a movie without hollywood plot cliches — sex, drugs, chase scenes, personal revelation — and eventual surrender to a short, devastating parody of hollywood style.
The film even plays games with emotional trajectory; there’s one red herring, the striving of the New Yorker writer and screen-writer to “follow their bliss”; and the emotional moral the movie chooses; to “be confident, despite critics.” The film could have easily swapped themes and worked as well; it’s a critique of the tacked on “moral of the story” chosen from at random from the cliches of therapeutic culture.
It’s either a measure of a small bit of heart in the movie, despite overall cynicism; or personal vulnerability, but I resonated with the intellectual snobbery toward his sincere and middlebrow brother that the main character has to unlearn.
Ultimately, though, as Judith comments, the film-school cleverness isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. A film-school student watches oodles of movies, realizes that there are no new stories left, and that the industry uses golden chains to tie film-makers to sentimental and dramatic cliches.
Shakespeare had that problem — the groundlings all wanted fight scenes; comedies have a happy ending; tragedies end with blood on the stage. Homer presumably had that problem — there were hundreds of years of story-telling; he had to get the audience to listen to him, and somehow do something new.

LOTR Commentary

On Fellowship and Two Towers by Renee Perlmutter via Dorothea Salo.
Two interesting points about divergence from the books:

  • The book is overflowing with honor; the relevant scenes in the movie were exchanged with something else. In the book, Eomer makes his decision despite “the letter of the law”, based on his judgement of Aragorn; Faramir does not hesitate for a second, faced with the temptation of the ring; Aragorn stays loyal to Arwen throughout the books – however tempted he is by Eowyn, he does not flirt with her, hug her, or give her false hope. And Merry and Pippin’s resistance and courage…Gimli… the Ents.. all gone comic relief. Comic relief, a more comprehensible fare than honor, for how can persons choose the righteous cause unless they are persuaded or threatened or exiled, unless they have no other choice? They cannot, according to TT the movie. But we, who love the Indo-European epic, may know otherwise.
  • “It has SEXY ELVES. Elves are not supposed to be sexy. Magnificent, blindingly beautiful, frightening maybe; but not sexy.”

  • Not to mention this priceless cartoon.

    Politics and LOTR

    According to the New York Times, Viggo Mortenson, who plays Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, wore a “No Blood for Oil” t-shirt on the Charlie Rose talk show to make it clear that the movie wasn’t US pro-war propaganda.
    When I watched the movie, I did think about the danger of portraying the enemy as absolute evil at a time when our government is using the meme – er, bluntly, and portraying enemy armies as zombies when we have technology that removes soldiers far from the act of killing.
    I hesitated to post this, since the political interpretations are more boring than the movie. The movie is fun as mythic fantasy; the idea of watching another movie in the series next time this year sounds promising at a time when the year ahead looks uncertain.

    The Two Towers

    Saw the Two Towers yesterday, and enjoyed it a lot.

    • The split personality of Gollum/Smeagol (even more effective in the movie)
    • The fact that the movie series gives the female characters more character than the books do.
    • Eowyn ought to be senior at Rohan when her brother cousin dies, her brother is exiled, and her father uncle is incapacitated; the book takes the medieval inheritance rules for granted, the movie sympathizes
    • As in the book, the bonding among the male characters (Frodo/Sam, Legolas/Gimli) (In the book, the heterosexual relationships weren’t credible at all; they’re better in the movie)
    • The New Zealand landscape
    • The ents (though their part is cut in the movie)
    • Characters that get unbearably prissy in the book (Aragorn, Frodo) are more bearable in the movie.
    • The dead marshes (“or Frodo goes down with the dead ones and lights little candles”).
    • Creepy Nazgul (though creepier in the 1st movie).Given the good job with Gollum and the Nazgul, I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with Shelob.
    • The various elf-props (in the event of a water-landing, your elf-cloak will serve as a floatation device)
    • The strange and pleasant sensation of remembering events from the book as they happen in the movie
    • Most important — the sense of being in another world (though the movie can’t recapture the feeling of being fourteen years old, with a boring and subjectively miserable life, transported into a rich and complicated alternate universe.)

    Not as good:

    • The episodic pacing is tougher to make work in a movie (as in the book; cuts between moody Mordor-route scenes; complicated Helm’s deep battle scenes, Merry/Pippin sublot scenes.)
    • As in the book the dialog has its clunky moments. After the first few minutes, though, I got caught up in the story and didn’t notice so much.
    • Sauron/Mordor as Ultimate Evil. As in the book, not credible. The internal struggles of the flawed characters are much more interesting.