Saturday, November 01, 2003

Tristram Shandy syndrome: Thumbnail reviews of Hell House and Bounce, plus A Very Yahmdallah Halloween

In Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy, the eponymous narrator mentions that he has spent several volumes covering just the events that led to his birth -- and that at this rate, he's never going to make it to the present day. Since then, scholars have referred to the "Tristram Shandy syndrome" -- a realization that too much has happened in one's life for a chronicler to write everything down. Bottom line: I've had a really busy past two weeks. Either I employ some principle of selection (never a strong point with bloggers), or experiential backlog will do me in.

Here are a few events from the past week which I want to write about but haven't yet:

Hell House

Last week I saw the documentary Hell House on DVD. Christian fundamentalism doesn't need much prodding to let its raging Id run loose, but the old pagan holiday of Halloween provides as good an excuse as any. Alas, the feature-length documentary isn't as interesting as the short ("The Devil Made Me Do It") on which it's based. (Fortunately, the short is an extra on the DVD, which justifies a purchase.)

The short film was a grant proposal, and it's on digital video. But the full-length was shot on grant money, and it's on celluloid. We all know by now that shooting film is an expensive, time-consuming process, though in most cases the image quality is worth the additional investment. But if you're a documentarian nowadays, why bother? Documentaries are the one genre where hi-def digital video has every advantage over film. Film requires elaborate camera setups that documentarians rarely have time to obtain; digital video setups are quick, easy, point-and-shoot affairs. So if you're shooting without a script, looking for spontaneous human interaction, you can end up with a crappy-looking film (which Hell House is, for the most part) or a rather nice-looking digital video. Plus, digital video requires much less post-production time -- just assemble on an iMac -- so you can finish your movie and get it out there while the event is still fresh.

Update (11/3): Saturday night, I took a road trip to see the granddaddy of "Hell Houses," Scaremare in Lynchburg, VA. Jerry Falwell started this "alternative-Halloween" event in the mid-'70s, but now it's run by students at his Liberty University. You'll hear more about "Scaremare 2003" later.

A new Sondheim musical with plenty of Bounce

I attended the Kennedy Center premiere of Stephen Sondheim's new musical Bounce. George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh were in the lobby filming scenes for their TV show "K Street." Clooney even operated a DV camera, and strangely enough, nobody bothered the man. By the way, Clooney is a pretty short fellow -- taller than me, of course, but definitely shorter than Soderbergh. Soderbergh looks sort of creepy in person, though I'm told he's a nice guy.

Sondheim's Bounce is prickly and narratively ambitious; this meditation on love, money and mortality, features a number of plot twists that hit me squarely in the gut. This could have been as depressing and inaccessible as Passion (one of my favorite Sondheim shows, by the way). But luckily, the score -- Sondheim's most traditional and accessible since Follies -- softens the blow considerably.

Bounce is very heavy on music, and at least five of the songs are instantly hummable. Best of all, two of them -- "You" and "The Best Thing that Ever Has Happened to Me" -- would be at home in a musical from the 1940s; I predict we'll hear them at cabarets and weddings for decades to come. Production values are modest by Broadway standards, but Hal Prince's direction keeps the staging fluid and makes the most of each theatrical effect. Performances are consistently excellent, with one exception -- Jane Powell (yes, that Jane Powell) is too much of a goody-goody to convey her character's rougher edges.

I promise I'll write more about Bounce later. But if you have a chance to see it, by all means buy your ticket now. This show is terrific.

A Very Yahmdallah Halloween

I took a tip from fellow blogger Yahmdallah, put a miniature cake donut on a string, tied it around my neck, and went as "a little asshole." The donut-asshole went over well -- and since I was at a Gay club, it served as a launching pad (!) for plenty of filthy jokes. Several guys offered to finger my "asshole." One even wanted to eat it, but given how many people had smashed, poked and crunched that donut over the evening, I figured he'd get ptomaine if he did. Some men will put anything in their mouths.

Next Halloween I think I'll be a pink elephant, since guys usually don't notice me until they get real drunk.

By the way, I still have those six articles to write on the Virginia Film Festival. Oy.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Even More Wit and Wisdom from Wesley Clark

Here's more proof, as if more were needed, that the Generalissimo should stay away from debates -- or any other form of public speaking, for that matter.

A man who fought the war in Kosovo all by himself: I worked, I warned, I struggled to prevent a war. And when it finally came down to it, I had to fight it, lead it, and we won it.

A man who brought down that bad guy Milosevij all by himself: I've put my finger in the chest of a dictator and told him if he didn't shape up, we'd bomb him.

A man who knows that the more things change, the more they stay the same: I believe there were 1.5 million Albanians there who were in danger of being thrown out of their homes and having their lives and property at risk.

A man who knows that growth and stability come like the seasons: I've been against this war from the beginning. I was against it last summer, I was against it in the fall, I was against it in the winter, I was against it in the spring. And I'm against it now.

A man who will follow through on US military policy: And nobody is going to see the United States on my watch humiliated in a military mission because we don't have the gumption to follow through on our requirements.

A man who won't follow through on US military policy: Well, I wasn't in Congress. I wasn't able to vote on the $87 billion, but I want to make it very clear that I would not have voted on $87 billion.

A man who knows what "welfare" means, sort of: I think the best form of welfare for the troops is a winning strategy.

A man who promises to spend your money well: I don't have a date to balance the budget, because I think it's important to use some of that money that's recaptured to meet America's urgent needs in education, health care and Social Security. That's what I'm going to do with that money. We're going to use it more wisely, more effectively and be more responsible than this administration's been.

A man who hasn't noticed that our economy grew by 7.2% over the past three months: They came to office with no policies except tax cuts. And they were tax cuts for the wealthy. They said tax cuts would help us. They said tax cuts would bring us jobs; they didn't.

A man who learns from his mistakes: In fact, the last election I was in was for home-room student council representative. We put our heads down on our desks, the teacher asked us to raise our hand. And I voted for my best friend. And after it was over, I said, "Well, you voted for me, right?" He said, "No, I didn't." He won by one vote. I am not up here running for home-room student council representative.

A compassionate something-or-other (part two): I'd like to see an America in which business and political leaders stop just looking out for themselves, but look out for all of us. I'd like to see an America in which business and political leaders understand that ordinary Americans aren't just cogs in the system, they are America.

A man who said what? I also learned leadership in the United States Army. I learned that generals don't win wars, soldiers do, that we're all in this together, that a unit is no stronger than every soldier in it, that every soldier in it has got to have the education, training and skills he needs, that you have to have a high code of ethics, that we're all in that together, and that great leaders don't only have plans, they listen to the lead.

For previous "Wit and Wisdom" posts and "ClarkWatch" essays, click here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Virginia Film Festival

In case you're wondering where I've been over the past several days (you have been wondering, haven't you, gentle reader?), I've been covering the Virginia Film Festival. Sixteen screenings over three and a half days, plus six articles to write, equals one exhausted little guy.

A few notes from this year's festival:

Robert Altman's new film The Company (coming to you this Christmas!) is a crashing disappointment. This mix of fiction and documentary involves a "year in the life" of the Joffrey Ballet Company, but like his structurally similar Kansas City, it never comes together. The alleged "star" of The Company is Neve Campbell, though she has little enough to do (and isn't even a good dancer, at least compared to her professional counterparts). Her unfortunate costar, James Franco, does nothing at all but look pretty, smile a lot, and take off his clothes. Beyond that, though, Altman's film fails at the most basic levels of storytelling. Plot points are unclear, characters are muddled and confusing, the romantic subplot is even more cliched and perfunctory than usual, and the ending is a misanthropic mess on the order of that "naked fashion show" in Pret-A-Porter. There is one good moment (about two-thirds of the way through), when the Joffrey dancers conduct a Christmas "roast" of their standing repertoire, but Altman wrecks it by intercutting dull dialogue from his two stars. The ballet scenes are long and plentiful, but if Robert Altman had not directed this film, it would be unreleasable.

Wayne Kramer's film The Cooler is a real corker. It may not get all the technical details right (somehow I doubt the head manager of a Vegas casino would be on congenial terms with so many of his employees), but it has razor-sharp dialogue, lush imagery, terrific acting, and three of the hottest sex scenes you'll ever see. I don't know if I saw the NC-17 version or the R-rated one, but I suspect it may have been the former. If you live in the USA, gentle reader, you will have to content yourself with the latter, alas. William Macy gives an excellent performance as the male lead, but Alec Baldwin is even better. Best of all, though, is Maria Bello, a beautiful actress (in or out of makeup) who could really make this Gay boy change his mind ....

Have you ever heard of "machinima"? Me neither, until a few nights ago. Machinima uses that part of a video game called the "game engine," which generates characters, environments, lighting, camera angles -- in short, the basic mise-en-scene of the game. Ordinarily, the elements of a "game engine" are not subject to a player's control. However, some gamers have managed to hack into these engines, using them as virtual studios to create instant CGI movies, or "machinima." I'm not sure what we should call the people behind this particular revolution (machinimators? machinima-tographers? computer geeks? felons?), but whatever they are, they're doing some fascinating work right on the cutting edge of digital technology. Download some weird and wonderful examples here, here, and here.

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