Saturday, August 30, 2008

Gummo (1997)

When I was a teenager, Harmony Korine's Gummo was whispered about as the holy grail of disturbing youth culture films. My friends and I had eagerly and nauseatingly consumed the dark fantasies of movies like Kids, Bully and Spun, but Gummo remained a legend that perhaps an older brother had seen or which was hiding in some mythical video store far, far away (it certainly was never carried at my local Blockbuster). We all assumed that it was basically a snuff film and that most of the existing copies had been destroyed by parents, priests, or the MPAA.

Now that I'm older and I have my own accounts at Netflix and Video Journeys (an amazing video store in Los Angeles), I find that Gummo isn't nearly as elusive as it seemed to be when I was sixteen. Hell, back then, "independent" and "foreign" existed only as tiny and hopelessly disappointing sections in the way back of Tower Records. Furthermore, I'm willing to bet that Gummo's scarcity has more to do with its avant-garde leanings than it does with the film's content. It unfolds as a pastiche of tragicomic episodes that flirt with narrative while never fully embracing it, and while the film is often sad, it is just as often exuberant and uplifting. Certainly, it has nothing on the tragic hopelessness of Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream or the nihilistic emptiness that haunts Larry Clark's Kids (which was incidentally written by a 19-year-old Korine).

Gummo follows the exploits of a group of teenagers and young adults who inhabit the dregs of a Midwestern town that has never recovered from a terrible tornado. These kids hunt cats, sniff glue, tape their breasts, and wrestle with furniture. They crave excitement, sex, freedom, money, power, and beauty, and their lives intersect but seldom too deeply interweave as each pursues his or her dreams. Even the film itself exists as an intersection of various styles and themes; carefully scripted scenes are blended with improvisational snippets, found footage, and 8mm material shot by Korine and his friends.

Gummo thus leads us on an odyssey through the fantasies and nightmares of middle America, simultaneously blurring distinctions between documentary and fiction, narrative and poetry, and shameless exploitation and earnest regard. Throughout, Korine maintains an unwavering sense of conviction and sincerity, and his film has left me with a litany of unforgettable moments, though I am partial to the breathtaking conclusion in which the film's characters rampage through the heavy rain as they are all but drowned out by Roy Orbison's "Crying".

It's a shame that I let something this beautiful elude me for so long, though perhaps my appreciation for the film's dark romance is only possible now that I've gained some distance from that confining world of adolescent angst and madness. The teenage me who couldn't rent Gummo at his local video store probably would have shrugged at the film's strikingly singular characters, and he definitely would have yawned at its lyrical anti-narrative. I guess these tragic kids have to grow up sometime.

Monday, August 25, 2008


Am I the only person who gets unbearably depressed when watching the Olympics? The past two weeks have been like torture as the NBC and its various affiliates stick me with that bittersweet blade of envy that fills me with the most potent mix of desire and hatred whenever I watch those enchanting, athletic creatures as they flicker across the television screen. Desire because I lust after their glory- I want to compete at the highest level, become master over my field, and be young and beautiful and perfect forever (athletes may grow old, but the aged are perpetually washed away by new crops of the youthful). Desire also because Olympians are hot, and I wanna look like that, fuck like that, and fuck people who look like that. But then there's the other side of envy- the hatred. I hate these people for having something that I can never have, and I hate myself even more for not being able to have it. These have been perhaps the most painful Olympic Games for me because, at 24, this is pretty much the climactic moment at which I could have been able to compete like that if only I'd lived my life a little differently. Or a lot differently, more likely.

So instead of inspiring me by making aware of the human potential, the Games depress me by making me aware of my own failures and insecurities. I look in the mirror and I see a tall, skinny kid who might've actually made something of himself if he had gotten into sports instead of video games when he was growing up. Or maybe he could've gotten somewhere in college sports if he hadn't quit swimming after just one year. But he didn't try hard enough. Or maybe he just didn't care. He doesn't know why he wasn't able to push himself to this level, and- this part burns the most- he knows that no matter what it's too late. He can't capture the transcendent glory and beauty of those other kids on the TV screen.

It's for this reason that I'm not inspired by Michael Phelps's eight gold medals. On the contrary, it pisses me off because I know that I'll never be as good. And what exactly is supposed to be so inspirational about that guy anyway? He's a 23-year-old with a perfect body type who has trained extensively and is now- surprise!- dropping records like flies while he's in the prime years of his life.

The knife digs deeper when I watch the younger kids- the ones who are 16-20 (or potentially much younger in the case of some scandalous Chinese gymnasts)- and I marvel at how well put together they are at that age. I think back on what I was doing during those years and it's a terrible mess. I was still struggling to figure out who I was, where my values were, and what I wanted, not to mention whom I wanted. Thinking back, some of my first pangs of boy-love sprung up while watching the divers at the Games of the 1990's, and I actually harbored a secret desire to become a diver for a while but never went anywhere with it because I feared it would make me gay (Dear Past Mike: it's not the diving that'll do that to ya). Nowadays, the jealousy squeezes me the strongest whenever I see Matthew Mitcham. He's young and beautiful (and blond) and so damn OK with his sexuality (even if NBC isn't). Makes me wonder: if I had been smart enough to come out at 14 instead of 23, would I have more of a grip on my life now?

I worry that this is indeed the prime time of my life, and that I'm letting it waste away. Watching these Olympian gods as they fulfill their full potential makes me realize how little I've managed to accomplish. I moped around as a kid, moped around as a teenager, got into a decent college where I mostly moped around some more, and now I'm a mopey 20-something who's buried his dreams and ambitions. Makes me wish I could lift myself up, do something great, and prove myself/my friends/my parents/the world wrong.

Maybe this is what inspiration feels like after all. At first, I thought I was only really inspired by Dana Torres, who picked up three silver medals in swimming at the tender age of 42. But her story just made me relax because it seemed to promise that I still had another 20 years to achieve glorious things. This is uplifting, but it also threatens to make me complacent for the next two decades. Instead, I'm more spurred to action by the athletes who have already tasted perfection at such a young age. I'm intimidated, jealous, and totally bummed, but I'm not out yet. Not until I give up on myself.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

My boss has been asked to write an op-ed about the new Batman movie for the New York Times, so I've spent the last week helping him research his article. After several days of digging through tantalizing reviews and letters from concerned parents about the film that many of my friends have described as the best ever made, I found myself so totally compelled to do a little research screening of my own. I couldn't help but feel like I was failing myself, as I had actually been somewhat proud of the fact that I had not seen a single film in a Los Angeles theater since first moving here last fall.

I went to the Arclight, which I chose mostly because it is next door to Amoeba records, which I had been wanting to visit so I could pick up the new Ratatat album. I paid the painful $14 ticket price (mere pennies cheaper than my new CD), and I settled into my assigned (?!) seat to watch the film. Refreshingly, there were no commercials or advertainments before the film, and there were an appropriate number of topical trailers. That alone was almost worth the ridiculous price of admission.

I had largely enjoyed the franchise's last incarnation, Batman Begins. It was a welcome departure form the Batman movies of the mid-1990's, which I remember enjoying when I was a kid but now strike me as totally unmemorable. Batman Begins was dark and different and psychological, and it came around at a point in my life when I thought that those things were all very important. It was also full of psychotropic drugs and ninjas, both of which surprisingly worked in the film's favor. I also remember thinking that Christian Bale made for a pretty good Batman and that Christopher Nolan had regained his cool "guy who made Memento" status that I had started to question after Insomnia .

While researching The Dark Knight at work, I had come across a bunch of articles that mentioned Heath Ledger's death. The ones that went into any detail seemed to always use the exact same phrase: "accidental prescription drug overdose". I think this is a little silly - after all, overdoses are generally assumed to be accidents because when they happen on purpose, they are more accurately described as suicides. As far as the "prescription" drugs are concerned, I don't see how it makes a difference that his drugs originally passed through a pharmacist's hands. People who misuse these kinds of rich white people drugs are not any better than those who struggle with meth and heroin; all are equals beneath the specter of drug abuse. Furthermore, Ledger's fatal cocktail included Vicodin and Oxycontin, two drugs for which he did not have a prescription. I don't bring this up to besmirch Ledger- his death is very sad, and he will be missed and remembered by friends and fans alike (myself included). However, sugar-coating it as an "accidental prescription drug overdose" suggests that Ledger's demise is some big cosmic mistake that is somehow different and more wholesome than the fates that have met others who struggle with addiction. Prescription drug abuse in no more wholesome than controlled substance abuse, and it is only by putting this attitude aside can we fairly address this issue as a universal problem that continues to affect so many people from all walks of life.

My semantic nitpickings aside, I can at least agree with all the critics who have lauded Ledger's performance in The Dark Knight. His crusty, reptilian, anarcho-punk Joker is right on, and he fills his scenes with an intense, comic insanity. He is the modern nightmare terrorist- he's oblivious to death and danger (but miraculously resilient), he can constantly and secretly rig explosives throughout Gotham every few hours, and he kills indiscriminately and without any rational rules. We don't have to ask why he incessantly needs to recite inane monologues or how he manages be in any and all places at once. He can do all this because he's the fucking Joker- no further explanation is needed.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't get off so easy. As some others have pointed out, the Joker isn't the only character with magical teleportation powers or over-written, dialogue. Furthermore, The Dark Knight is jam-packed with twisty little moments when the film seems to either scream or menacingly whisper, "Surprise!". The first few of these are fun, but after a while they start to become cheap, predictable, and increasingly unintelligible. The film can only foil our expectations so many times by with tricks like "this seemingly unimportant character is actually someone else in disguise!" or "this good guy is actually evil!" before we give up any attempts to invest ourselves in the narrative. It's that old Alfred Hitchcock rule: instead of letting the bomb explode and surprise everybody, it's better to show the ticking bomb under the table and let the suspense build as the audience agonizes over what they know but the characters on screen do not. This is seldom the case in The Dark Knight, which allows its onscreen characters hold their cards close to their chests before suddenly throwing them in the audience's face. Consequently, hardly any of these characters seem to grow or learn or change- they're too busy lurking in the shadows until they can jump out and shout, "Gotcha!"

The only exception to this trend is Gotham District Attorney Harvey "Two Face" Dent, played by a soon-to-be-hideously-scarred Aaron Eckhart. Dent begins the film as proud force of chivalry and justice, though he quickly abandons his principles as he attempts to protect girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Batman's ex-sweetie, inhabited this time around by Maggie Gyllenhal) from the Joker's reign of terror. Dent's transformation for paladin to maniac is inevitable, but it never feels convincing. Painted in broad strokes, he appears as too much of a caricature both when valiantly riding his high horse and when wallowing in villainy after he has fallen. Throughout this process, we watch as he fires off strong bursts of emotion, but we are seldom given the opportunity to understand the conflict and struggle that will lead him to betray his ideals. Presumably, the filmmakers had hope to pin this on Dawes's death, but even this proves problematic- Dent and Dawes hardly seem passionate, let alone intimate, and while the film is largely silent on issues of chronology, it appears that the two have been together for perhaps a year or two at the most. It must hurt terribly to lose someone like that, but Dawes's death feels like an overly dramatic attempt to justify the reason why Eckhart spends the film's final hour with half his face melted into a cartoonishly hate-filled CGI mask.

The film itself is filled with similarly overwrought yet ultimately shallow contrivances. The Bruce Wayne/Rachel Dawes/Harvey Dent love triangle occupies far too much screen time without producing any satisfying payoff, and the same can be said for a painstaking interlude that brings Batman to Hong Kong for a drawn out spy game and corporate infiltration sequence. Many action scenes follow rote, mindless, and blitzy cutting, and the finale amplifies this visual headache by presenting much of the battle as an x-ray vision clusterfuck. All this hot air swells the film's thin skin, eventually ballooning it to an overlong two and a half hours.

In its finer moments, The Dark Knight features compelling and often pleasantly subtle performances from Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and an almost unrecognizable Gary Oldman. It also achieves many admirable victories in its attempts to reground the superhero film in the realm of the real, but these are matched evenly with the film's many moments of bombast and incredulity. Also unfortunate are the film's attempts to blink away moments of ultra-violence; undoubtedly choreographed to gain a wholly undeserved PG-13 rating, The Dark Knight quickly cuts away from many of its most sadistic episodes or otherwise allows these moments to occur unseen. In one scene, the Joker slides his knife across a rival gangster's quivering lip as he recounts a story about how he received his own facial deformities. However, the climactic face-slashing is never seen, heard, or even cinematically articulated; the mob boss simply falls to the ground, leaving us to wonder, after all the wonderful buildup, whether we've missed something. Incidentally, this is exactly how I felt as I left the theater.