Saturday, May 07, 2005

Rodriguez's Sin City and the year in movies (so far)

While we're all holding our breath for Revenge of the Sith, can we talk for a moment about what a lackluster year it's been so far for cinema?

By this time last year, I had already seen four films which I could easily have included on a ten-best best: Ernest Dickerson's Never Die Alone, David Mamet's Spartan, John Lee Hancock's The Alamo, and Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

What good movies have I seen from 2005? None. (And now you know why tumbleweeds are blowing through your local multiplex.)

To be fair, there are a few noteworthy releases: Danny Boyle's Millions looks especially promising, while Paul Haggis's Crash and Todd Solondz's Palindromes might be worth at least a footnote. For all practical purposes, Paper Clips is a 2005 release, though it was technically released in 2004. It's making the rounds in theaters the way most movies once did, and for those who have the chance to see this film on a screen, I highly recommend it. Paper Clips is not only the best thing I saw in a cinema last year, it's one of the most deeply moving films I've ever encountered.

What to say, though, about the standard fare for 2005? The Will Smith romantic comedy Hitch has been the only blockbuster hit thus far, but the title sounded too much like a command to me. Since I am forbidden to "hitch" in my home state of Virginia, I decided to pass on the film. Besides, any film in which a poor, fat schlub manages to hook up with a supermodel is clearly not operating on any identifiable plane of reality. (The best advice for a guy who obsesses over supermodels might be, "Get rid of those magazines and try loving someone who might love you back.")

Japanese horror knockoffs like The Ring 2 and Boogeyman used to be all the rage, but now even they're fading at the box office. These films practice "psychological horror" -- though "psych horror" might be more appropriate, since nothing actually happens in these films. They usually look like they were shot inside an aquarium, and their directors generate suspense largely by forcing cast members to look furtive and portentous, as if something ... very ... bad ... were about ... to happen. Of course, since these movies are rated PG-13, we know that nothing really bad will happen -- no hack-and-slash action from a guy in a hockey mask, no geysers of blood gushing from a teenager's bed, no serious psychosexual subtext, no nothing. True, characters die, but they do so benignly; too much gross-out stuff, and the film might lose its all-important teen-friendly rating.

The best new release I've seen this year is Robert Rodriguez's Sin City, though I can't exactly recommend it. Visually, it's a stunner: With cartoony CGI effects, hard-edged black-and-white photography, and bold splashes of primary colors, the film is the boldest, most stylistically experimental work to hit multiplexes since ... well, since last year's Eternal Sunshine. Sin City is, as everyone knows, based on the Frank Miller comic-book series, which Rodriguez adapted so faithfully that he insisted Miller be given a co-director's credit. (The Director's Guild, holding to the old-fashioned notion that a director's credit ought to be given to someone who actually directs a film, refused the credit, prompting Rodriguez to resign. Then, flouting convention even further, he gave Quentin Tarantino credit as "special guest director." Most movies are designed by committee, but Sin City admits it.)

Rodriguez is the most enthusiastic -- and, alas, the most prolific -- proponent of the new digital cinema, even outdoing George Lucas in his technological Babbittism. The good news is that with Sin City, he finally has something worth enthusing over: Unlike his earlier digi-efforts, which were clearly inferior to film, Sin City proves that under the right, tightly controlled conditions, a digital camera can produce an image indistinguishable from actual film. That Rodriguez accomplished all this razzle-dazzle for pennies on the usual Hollywood dollar suggests that digital photography is ideally suited for CG-heavy Hollywood spectaculars.

Sin City positively drowns in its own style, to the point where all other concerns fall by the wayside. It's a horny teenage boy's film noir fantasy, with plenty of explosions, bodacious babes with deadly weapons, lots of ultraviolence, and even a good dose of "the old in-out, in-out." Little Alex and his droogs would love it, I'm sure. For the rest of us, though, there's something deeply pathological in a film where women exist to be abused or murdered, and men to be chopped into mincemeat or blown away. An occasional line of sparkling, overwrought dialogue (such as when Bruce Willis's battle-hardened cop describes his interpersonal skills as akin to "a palsy patient performing brain surgery with a pipe wrench") isn't enough to distract us from how mean-spirited, vicious and brain-numbing the enterprise is. (Rodriguez is planning sequels: Pray for us.)

For a film with so much sex, Sin City feels surprisingly neutered, perhaps because its women are mere infantile fantasies. The closest thing here to a femme fatale is little Jessica Alba, who looks like a Playboy bunny and can't act her way out of a wet paper sack. I found myself longing for the real women of film noir, sexually mature sirens like Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford or Lauren Bacall, who could generate more steam heat with a well-turned phrase than most contemporary actresses could get even if they stripped to their bare skin. One could claim that Sin City throws a sop to women's lib by allowing its girls to pack heat, but it never allows them to exercise control over their situation, the way the great heroines of 1940s cinema so often do. Compared to Rodriguez's teenage noir fantasy, Mildred Pierce feels like a great leap forward for women's rights.

The only actor who manages to escape from the oppressive style is Mickey Rourke: As "Marv," a low-life prizefighter whose mug looks like forty miles of bad road, Rourke manages to convey a wounded soul. His work here is on a par with Burt Lancaster in The Killers, but it still can't save the overall film. One can only wonder what Sin City might have been, had it abandoned its pretentious, Pulp Fiction-inspired narrative gamesmanship, and focused his attention on this one character. The result might have been less faithful to Frank Miller's comic, but unquestionably it would have been a better film.

Rodriguez has another film opening in the next few weeks -- a 3-D adventure inspired by his seven-year-old son (to whom Daddy gives story and screenplay credit, possibly to piss off the Writers' Guild). The title, The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3-D, promises ninety minutes of kid-flick purgatory. Ever since Rodriguez unleashed Spy Kids 3-D on an unsuspecting public, I've suspected the man is working much too fast for his own good. This film might cinch the case. Just because you can make two films in one year doesn't mean you should.

But that said, he has created the best American film of 2005 -- at least, the best one I've seen so far. I can only pray this situation changes, and soon.

Friday, May 06, 2005

A Reminder ...

Three years after his assassination, it's clear that Dutch politician and immigration opponent Pim Fortuyn was right: Fundamentalist Muslim immigrants have changed Amsterdam, and not for the better. Once the most Gay-friendly city in Europe, Amsterdam is becoming the place where Gays are most likely to be attacked.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Coming Attractions (That Never Came)

I haven't been writing much lately, partly because I've been planning a week-long vacation to New York City this June, but also because over the past month, I've had my first real bout with writer's block since I started this blog.

The problem isn't that I've had too few ideas, but too many: With so many items vying for my attention, I couldn't figure out what to address first. In all that dithering, a few political items got lost, which I'll address now:

1. Faith and Doubt. Andrew Sullivan has spoken of "conservatism of doubt" and "conservatism of faith," a dyad which I find facile but useful. The former label refers to Goldwater-Reagan conservatives, who believe that government is not a solution, but a problem when it comes to the management of individual affairs. The latter, naturally, refers to America's religious right and its tendency to micromanage social conduct.

Of course, when we move to a real-world example, things fall apart. By Sullivan's terms, Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia is a shining example of the "conservatism of faith," mostly because of his rhetoric in favor of sodomy laws. However, he's not necessarily an authoritarian figure: When it comes to personal property rights and "eminent domain," he holds that there are lines which government should not cross. In short, Scalia believes that government is the best judge of what I do in my bedroom, but doubts that it is equally sagacious when it comes to the use and disposal of my (or your) property. A Solomonic riddle, then: Does this make him a conservative of doubt, or a conservative of faith? Both? Neither?

2. Terri Schiavo. A reader asked me to write about the Terri Schiavo case, rightly sensing that it would bring my soft-libertarian beliefs into conflict with the conservative majority. The GOP demagogued this issue to death; Congress and the President even passed a bill to affect the outcome of the case. Yet the judge foiled their attempt, declaring quite rightly that his ruling was not affected by a piece of legislation that didn't exist when he made it. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you try a case with the laws you have, not the laws you wish you had.

I think we can also say that conservative commentators -- both on- and off-line -- were much too quick to spread rumors of spousal abuse. Now that Florida investigators have finally, definitively cleared Michael Schiavo of any wrongdoing, it would be nice, even honorable, if the right-wing gossips who smeared his good name could apologize.

3. Jeff Gannon. Leftists viewed the Jeff Gannon/James Guckert "scandal" as another yet attempt by the Bush administration to squelch the free press. At the same time, they've insisted that press credentials be given to "real" journalists, and not to Internet reporters, bloggers, or overtly partisan hacks. "Free, but exclusive" briefly replaced "Fake, but accurate" as the mantra of left-liberal media.

When Gay blogger Mike Rogers -- who has been "outing" closeted Gay conservatives with the zeal and ruthlessness of a modern-day Savonarola -- revealed that Gannon had a second career as a male prostitute, this minor blip became a major brouhaha. It seems that today's journalists like to believe they practice the noblest profession, rather than a variant of the oldest one. Yet the best reporter I know used to work part-time as a male prostitute. He turned his tricks into a syndicated column and a feature article.

The Gannon affair proved that journalists and prostitutes have one thing in common: Their professional status depends mostly on who's willing to pay them, and how much.

4. Death of Pope John Paul II. I come to bury John Paul II, not to praise him. With the complicitous Cardinal Ratzinger as his successor, it's clear that the evil he did will live after him, while the good will be interred with his bones. Still, there was some good. In the late-1970s, as Carter tried to appease the Soviet Union and the shadows of Communist aggression grew longer and darker, his insistence on liberty of conscience, even in his native Poland, signaled the end of the Cold War. It's not quite accurate to say that Reagan followed John Paul's lead -- Reagan had believed since the 1960s that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse -- but the pope made his task easier by exposing its internal contradictions.

Had the tenure of John Paul II ended in 1991, we could celebrate his memory with few reservations. Alas, once the Soviet Union dissolved, this pope lost his way. He seemed to believe that free-market democracy and Communist tyranny were both symptoms of diseased modernity, and in response to a post-Cold War world of increasing individual liberty, he insisted on a larger, authoritarian political role for the Church. To this end, he promoted extremist, reactionary factions within the Church, including the cultlike Opus Dei.

John Paul II also participated in a global coverup of priestly pedophilia, and now this culture of sexual abuse within the priesthood threatens the very existence of the Church in North America. He met with representatives of Saddam Hussein's despotic regime, inadvertently giving his blessing to mass murder and torture. And over the past two decades, he vetted some of the harshest anti-Gay rhetoric in the world, including an infamous "Halloween" letter from 1986 which stated that when Gays and Lesbians are physically attacked, it's because they had it coming. (The letter was penned by Ratzinger, naturally.)

John Paul II opposed one great evil, but perpetuated many others. May God have mercy on his soul.

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