Thursday, February 16, 2006

How Not to Ingratiate Yourself with an English Teacher

2001: Mr. Sidle, on his first day of teaching English 101 at NIU, comes face to face with his worst nightmare: a smart student.

SIDLE: So, that's the difference between simile, metaphor, and personification.

ME: Could you explain personification again, please?

SIDLE: It's when you give an inanimate object the qualities or characteristics of something living.

ME: Then, how does this relate to anthropomorphism, say in children's writing?

SIDLE: What do you mean?

ME: Well, say you have a children's book about, I don't know, a talking garbage can. Is the garbage can anthropomorphic, or just personified?

SIDLE (fumfahing for an answer, sweat breaking out): Okay, well, personification is when the garbage can, for example, is described as being alive, but...

ME (just fucking with him now and enjoying it WAY too much): Would you say that anthropomorphism is when you write an inanimate object with human characteristics. Like speaking and such?

SIDLE: I suppose... yeah. I'm not sure I've heard the word...

ME: It's Greek, it means "in the shape of a man," anthropos meaning man and morph meaning shape.

SIDLE: Oh, I see. Well, no, personification is different.

ME: Is it like prosopopeia?

I think that was the one time I came closest to making him cry. Here's another exchange, just for the hell of it. We had just read E.M. Forster's riveting "Shooting an Elephant," and we were asked to write a short narrative essay about a personal experience of our own.

ME: And here I was going to write about how I'd once shot an elephant in my pajamas.

SIDLE (with genuine fascination and near-concern) : Oh my God, really?

ME: Uh, yeah. And how he got in my pajamas I'll never know...

Ba-zing! You just don't get openings like that very often, do you?

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Wanted: For Crimes Against Cinema

I’m starting to think that it’s time for a major shakedown in English-speaking cinema. Films today are too long, too dull, too pointless, and too humorless. Does every film today need to be as long and wearisome and boring as Sideways or Kingdom of Heaven? Film is reaching that same out-of-control state that it reached in the early sixties, and like then, there needs to be some culling of the ranks. I think, at this point, directors--especially well-established directors--should have to prove why they should remain financed by major studios. If you haven’t made anything truly worthwhile since 2000, you’re gone. Step aside and make room for newer talents that might bring us something truly worthy of consideration, or for directors who’ve been around for awhile and have never had the money they deserve to flourish. And if they want to make interesting films, they can do it for cable; let them make some decent HBO movies before we trust them again.

This is by no means a complete list, but these are my choices for directors who, honestly, we don’t need anymore. Not exhaustive; just exhausting.

Peter Bogdanovich
Case Against: Boorish egomaniac who thinks people still care about what he has to say about reel three of a Cary Grant movie from 1937. Thinks he invented the legacy of John Ford. The Cat’s Meow (2001) was arguably his first good film since 1973. When your dry spell is three decades, you’re just not pulling your weight. The Cat's Meow could easily have been made for cable.

Wes Craven
Case Against: Innovator of some of the greatest horror films of all time, embarrassingly reduced in the nineties to either parodying himself (the lame, endless Scream series, for which we can blame the current plague of cinema’s irony misuse), shamelessly apologizing to the audience (New Nightmare, in which we’re told that he can't stop making horror movies because the fans won’t let him do anything else), and embarrassing attempts at other genres (Vampire in Brooklyn, Music of the Heart). Now nothing more than a director of teen soap operas with occasional horror bits, which has to be a hard artistic pill when you’re 66.

Roger Donaldson
Case Against: A director so depressingly average most of the people reading this list have probably never heard of him. Here’s a few key films: The Bounty, No Way Out, Cocktail (which alone should get him flushed out of the filmmaking system), Cadillac Man, The Getaway, Species, Dante’s Peak, and The Recruit, which abets the greatest cinematic crime of the 21st century: furthering the acting career of Colin Farrell. I’m tempted to give him a reprieve since he did direct one great film, Thirteen Days (2001), but the evidence for the other side is just too overwhelming.

William Friedkin
Case Against: Well, now that his wife is no longer the head of Paramount Pictures, perhaps this will no longer be a problem. I can’t believe after all this time he still gets by on his reputation of having directed The French Connection and The Exorcist. In the nearly four decades since, his career has amounted to embarrassing miscalculations (Crusing, To Live and Die in L.A.) and stuff only thrown his way because his wife was doing him a favor. The director of Jade, Rules of Engagement, and The Hunted no longer needs a home at a major studio.

Lasse Hallstrom
Case Against: Here’s the last decade of Hallstrom’s career: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Something to Talk About, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, The Shipping News, An Unfinished Life, and the current Mary Jane Fan Fiction version of Casanova. These films fall into a category I call: "Oh, Judi Dench is wonderful." These are films generally liked by women ages 46-75, because they’re cozy and not very challenging, and provide pat conclusions to what deceptively feel like adult problems, but when pressed as to what they liked in the film, they always say, "Oh, Judi Dench is wonderful." Well, yes, Judi Dench is wonderful, but since she’s usually playing the same cantankerous old grump who’s listed fifth in the credits, it’s not much of a recommendation, is it?

Walter Hill
Case against: Hill directed two of the greatest action films of all time (The Warriors, The Long Riders), made the best guitar movie of all time (Crossroads, which managed to make Ralph Macchio look tougher than The Karate Kid did), brought Eddie Murphy to stardom (48 Hrs.) and produced Alien and Aliens. So, how could he make this list? Sadly, he also produced all of the other Alien movies (including Alien vs. Predator) and directed Another 48 Hrs., Johnny Handsome, Trespass, Geronimo: An American Legend, Wild Bill, Last Man Standing, and Supernova. IN A ROW! Get out!

Ron Howard
Case Against: Sure, he’s a nice guy, but his career has been uneven (putting it at its kindest). Far and Away, EdTV, The Grinch, The Missing, and I think we can all predict how bad The Da Vinci Code is going to be. Kind of makes Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind (among some other very good movies) look like flukes.

George Lucas
Case Against: The Star Wars prequels. Admit it, except for the last hour of the third movie, they’re ridiculous.

John McTiernan
Case Against: People always want to cut him slack, just because he directed Die Hard, Predator, and The Hunt for Red October. They’re all good films, of course. But since then, he’s directed only one good movie, the terribly underrated The Thirteenth Warrior. Otherwise, the man made Last Action Hero for god’s sake. Two bad remakes of Norman Jewison (The Thomas Crown Affair, Rollerball) and yet another embarrassing John Travolta movie (Basic) later, and no one wants to cut him any more fucking slack.

Wolfgang Petersen
Case Against: Troy. 'Nuff said.

Sydney Pollack
Case Against: Look, we could debate all night whether or not Tootsie really had anything to say. We all know that Out of Africa didn’t deserve any Oscars. But Sabrina, Random Hearts, and The Interpreter speak for themselves. Boooooooooring.

Rob Reiner
Case Against: I used to love his movies. I could defend every movie he made. Even The American President made up for North. But then came Ghosts of Mississippi. And The Story of Us. And fucking Alex & Emma, which only furthers the myth that Luke Wilson is an appealing movie star. And now we have Rumor Has It, which expects us to believe that Jennifer Aniston is a movie star and that women still want to sleep with Kevin Costner. In a just universe, Rob Reiner would be making movies for the ABC Family Channel right now.

Joel Schumacher
Case Against: How does the director of St. Elmo’s Fire and fucking The Lost Boys get handed the driver’s keys to the Batman franchise and then get rewarded by the studio for driving it into the open sea? And then setting it on fire before it can sink with dignity? And then pissing on it? This man has not made one decent movie in his life, and there’s no reason he needs to keep trying after 32 years as a filmmaker.

Ridley Scott
Case Against: Yes, yes, he made Alien, the overrated Blade Runner, the underrated Legend, the heavily flawed Gladiator, and the surprisingly good Hannibal. But, come on, Someone to Watch Over Me? Black Rain? The soulless Black Hawk Down? Fucking Kingdom of Heaven??? This guy should be directing Nike commercials right now, not major motion pictures. And I think, personally, once you’ve cast Orlando Bloom as the lead in anything, you deserve to have your good fortunes reversed. (NOTE: Tony Scott should also be on this list, but the case against him seems too obvious to have to make.)

Steven Spielberg
Case Against: Apparently, after making Schindler’s List, this talented filmmaker’s body was invaded by aliens who forced him to make nothing but pretentious crap afterward. He is the definition of an overindulgent, directionless filmmaker: he can’t edit, he can’t fit a story in less that seven hours or something, and he never has anything to say beyond "childhood is magic" and "I hate my mother!" (And if we're being honest, some heavy edits could be made to Schindler's List, anyway.) His films are so bad now, one can easily go back and see all of the flaws in his earlier, better movies (especially The Color Purple and E.T.). Time to put him on the ice floe.

Oliver Stone
Case Against: As if any proof other than Alexander were needed, the last uneven decade since Natural Born Killers (the last time he had any balls) should provide a portrait of a once brave filmmaker slowly neutering himself in a desperate bid to become PC without drawing attention to it.

John Woo
Case Against: Since coming to America ten years ago, he’s made one good film. Well, thanks for nothing, then. Sometimes a lack of cash flow works for a filmmaker...

Robert Zemeckis
Case Against: See Spielberg, Steven. Apply exact same problems, as all Zemeckis has ever done is riff on Spielberg, anyway.

Some Brief Mentions
Paul Thomas Anderson needs to be reminded that what saved Boogie Nights was characterization and editing, the two things sorely missing from Magnolia. Michael Bay...come on, after Pearl Harbor, you’re willing to give this guy another chance? And Martin Brest may have made Beverly Hills Cop, but he made Meet Joe Black (a nine-hour film about Anthony Hopkins dying that takes place in real time) and Gigli. And, hey, look at how cheesy Titanic comes across these days and tell me that rip-off artist James Cameron needs another go-around (his career is in a permanent state of performance anxiety, anyway; let’s just take the pressure off). Rob Cohen is a man in his sixties pathetically trying to shape the youth culture with XXX and The Fast and the Furious, two phony and synthetic films (plus, he ruined Dragonheart, the greatest screenplay I’ve ever read, by aiming it at children).

Jan de Bont made Speed, but the rest of his filmography reads like a litany of prison sentences. Roland Emmerich made his good movie (I still defend Independence Day), but after Godzilla, The Patriot, and The Day After Tomorrow, he needs to exit. Nora Ephron has yet to make a single watchable movie, I don’t care if she did write a movie as great as When Harry Met Sally; it still redefined the romantic comedy for the modern era as a riff on Howard Hawks movies, so she ultimately has to answer for Dawson’s Creek. Am I the only human being who thought Fight Club had nothing original to say and that David Fincher is just a hack with a decent sense of cinematography? And who the fuck is Antoine Fuqua? Another director from the Bruckheimer Hack Factory who screwed up his decent chances in order to be yet another Bruckheimer slave.

Christopher Guest is a good writer, sure, but Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind are all the same film: This Is Spinal Tap. Renny Harlin...well, just hearing his name should make you want to kill yourself (and I liked Cutthroat Island and The Long Kiss Goodnight, which says a lot about my tolerance levels). Stephen Herek has never made a good film, unless you’re one of those saps who think Mr. Holland’s Opus and Life or Something Like It were moving rather than insulting. Ken Kwapis may make some great episodes of Malcolm in the Middle and The Office, but give him a movie camera and he’ll whip up something truly awful like Dunston Checks In, The Beautician and the Beast, or The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.

Does anyone remember the movie Heathers? Its director, Michael Lehmann, was rumored to be quite talented, but then came Hudson Hawk. And My Giant (and, honestly, if you make a Billy Crystal movie past 1991, it should be an automatic ticket to movie jail). And then he made 40 Days and 40 Nights. So much for innovation... And how about we terminate the career of Shawn Levy, the director of Just Married, Cheaper by the Dozen, the delayed Pink Panther remake, and, wait for it, Cheaper by the Dozen 2? He’s had a lot of opportunity to make something at least remotely likeable, and he’s failed each time. And as for John Madden, look me in the face and tell me that Shakespeare in Love, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and Proof were good movies, and you’ll have to leap out of the way to avoid getting sprayed by the spittle of my intense laughter.

I know he’s directing the new Harry Potter, but how much longer are we going to let Mike Newell get by on having made Four Weddings and a Funeral decades ago? He’s also the director of such pathetically average fare as Amazing Grace and Chuck, Into the West, Enchanted April, An Awfully Big Adventure, Pushing Tin, and Mona Lisa Smile. Frank Oz used to make good movies with the Muppets (or at least, in the case of Little Shop of Horrors, great puppet effects), but the man who directed Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Housesitter, In & Out, The Score, and The Stepford Wives shows that he’s too willing to compromise to make anything worthwhile. Harold Ramis, too; he may have served as director on three of the funniest movies ever made--Caddyshack, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and Groundhog Day--but he needs to be stopped before he makes yet another Analyze This sequel. His good work is a long time in the past. And the same goes triple for Ivan Reitman, who hasn’t made a good movie since Ghostbusters (except perhaps Dave, but if it was never made, would you really care?).

Joe Roth is one of those smart-assed producers who thinks he can show people how it’s done, and then he makes crap like America’s Sweethearts (anyone ever remember that piece of crap?) and Christmas with the Kranks, proving he’s still just the shlub that made Revenge of the Nerds 2: Nerds in Paradise. All Tom Shadyac does is add a lot of overweening emotions to Liar Liar, Patch Adams, and Bruce Almighty to make those films not just less funny, but also pathetically desperate to be liked. And finally, Gore Verbinski... his only good film was Pirates of the Caribbean, which was a nice little 90-minute adventure that he managed to stretch out by an hour in order to make it convoluted and shrill, and then cast idiot non-actors like Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley. Yay, American cinema!

There are so many others I could name. Tim Burton, hanging by a thread since 2001. Penny Marshall, a name too horrible to mention near any theater. The two worst directors working today, Brett Ratner and Tony Scott. And there’s probably a whole dissertation one could pen on the veritable worthlessness of the Steven Soderbergh canon (has there ever been a director who so willingly and fearfully guts his own potential?). But, frankly, I’m too tired to keep up this level of whining for long.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

A Note for the Members of My Writing Class

pedagogue: (noun) 1. A schoolteacher; an educator. 2. One who instructs in a pedantic or dogmatic manner.

pedagogy: (noun) 1. The art or profession of teaching. 2. Preparatory training or instruction.

pedagogical: (adjective) 1. Of, pertaining to, or characteristic of pedagogy. 2. Characterized by pedantic formality: a haughty, pedagogic manner.

pedology: (noun) The scientific study of soils, including their origins, characteristics, and uses.

Study the above before the next meeting of English 300A, so I don't have to hear any more about how you finished your latest "pedological" exercise.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Boy, they'll let anyone be a documentarian these days, won't they?

Last night I saw a documentary on HBO called Pretty Things. Here's what Liz Goldwyn thinks her documentary is about: burlesque dancers are feminist icons who bravely took control of their own sexuality and broke new ground for glamorous women everywhere, and how it effects Liz herself in the present day while she tries to gain some self-esteem through glamour. Now here's what her documentary is really about: a little girl has a condescentive interest in a bunch of old strippers who poke holes in her feminist fantasies by telling her about the reality of burlesque, but the little girl won't listen to anything that doesn't play into her naive dreams about sexuality, and instead focuses the entire documentary on herself and her quest to make herself feel better by stripping.

This is the messiest, most unfocused documentary I've seen in a long time; first year film student bad. Liz Goldwyn has managed to score interviews with some of the burlesque greats, and praises them for being feminist pioneers and owning their own sexuality. But when, for example, Zorita (who used to put on a show that looked like she was making love to a snake) tells her "I think you're giving me qualities that you wish you had yourself, obviously," Liz doesn't want to hear it and pulls back. It's a shameful little movie; Liz is not interested in these ladies as people, but as her imagined dreams of feminism and glamour. Which makes this movie a supremely missed opportunity. She had a chance to really document these women and their stories, but she's much more interested in how they reinforce her preconceived notions, and therefore completely misses out on knowing them as real people. And so does the audience.

This is all summed up in the way Liz inserts herself into the film over and over again. Apparently, she's decided that learning to do a striptease is going to make her some kind of fully-rounded woman, so we get a lot of her trying out makeup, trying out her dance moves, recording a song ("Hey, Big Spender") to dance to. This film has less to do with her pioneering heroines than it does with her telling us over and over again how she's been influenced by them. It's a selfish focus, and it makes Liz Goldwyn impossible to like.

Perhaps the most egregious moment in the entire thing is when Liz takes personal offense at the stories some of the women tell about how they were sometimes prostitutes, often sex objects, and how some men would pay to have the ladies sit on their laps, or how many men would masturbate watching them. Like a Women's Studies major who insists that an erection is a sexual assault, Liz takes this as an affront. She goes as far as to equate burlesque with ballet (makes sense; both are performance art), but then seems to suggest that burlesque is about women showing themselves off for themselves. In fact, burlesque is about women being paid to show themselves off to men. To suggest that stripping doesn't have 95% to do with money and horny guys who want to see women naked is either extremely stupid or dysfunctionally naive. As the film goes on, Liz Goldwyn becomes harder and harder not to hate.

Other problems? The soundtrack is incredibly unimaginitive (songs like "Hey, Big Spender," "I Wanna Be Loved By You," and "Fever," all sung flatly by Liz herself on the soundtrack at some point or another), suggest that Liz's unrealistic ideas about burlesque mostly come out of old movies and Tex Avery cartoons. Over the credits, she uses an edited version of David Bowie's "Oh! You Pretty Things," apparently because it uses the words "pretty things" in the refrain (even though the lyrics, about the replacement of humans by superior beings, are incongruous with the film's intent...or at least I hope they are). Liz's climactic black and white strip routine is a bore, too; her makeup and hair are ridiculous, and she looks like she's wearing a big diaper instead of pants.

Zorita died while this film was being made. Her viewpoint was more interesting than anyone else's, which only makes Pretty Things more tragically sophomoric, more wastefully self-serving. Liz Goldwyn is an untalented narcissist who has made a film that fails even to push the agenda she so selfishly insists is the truth. Read a Steve Sullivan book instead. Don't waste your time on this.