Monday, December 13, 2010

Dear Hipsters: I Still Love THE HUNGER...or Joe Answers His Fan Mail

                                      This picture has nothing to do with this blog post.

            Over the last month and a half or so, I’ve been approached by I can’t tell you how many people when I’ve been out in public.  I’ve been in line at Sunoco, 20-ouncer of Faygo X-Treme in one hand, Slim Jims in the other, anticipating a righteous night of processed meat byproducts and Red Dye #4 percolating in my nether regions, when some guy saddles up to me and asks “So, uh….when’s the blog gonna be updated?”  I’ve been visiting one of my coffee house fiancées when one of my fiancées from another coffee house materializes, throws a Double Grande Whole Milk Slushee in my face and yells “Blog time, baby!  Blog time!”  Hell, I’ve even been visited in my dreams by the ethereal materialization of Philip Baker Hall, asking me “I need me some blog action!”  And he’s not even dead (that I know of), which makes it even weirder.
            Well, my well-read and unemployed readership, rest assured that brand spankin’ new content is, indeed, forthcoming.  But until then, I’ve decided to let you all in on one of the fringe benefits of my job: fan mail.  Yes, here at Neff HQ, a crack staff of dedicated lunatics and recovering addicts whittles down thousands of crank letters and Ponzi scheme proposals into the absolute cream of adoring correspondence (yeah, I mixed my metaphors there.  But hey, maybe if you spent less time nitpicking for grammar, you’d have more of a job than part-time dogsitter.)  Herewith are the best of this month’s questions:

Dear Joe,

Have you ever considered extending your magnificent filmic eloquence into the home video market?  I’ve heard rumors of some top secret DVD project you’ve been working on.  Any truth to this?



Dear Dave,

Well, I suppose that it’s time to finally spill the beans (or other objects of your choice) about my covert project.  For six months, I’ve been working with Criterion on their upcoming Blu-Ray 10th Anniversary Edition of Tom Green’s Freddy Got Fingered.  Originally, I was only supposed to record a scholarly audio commentary (after all, I was voted as the official tri-state Tom Green Curator back in ’06), but the production team balked at the eleventh hour when I insisted on speaking in Hindi during the climactic Rip Torn/elephant scene.  So I proposed that I could instead visit Tommers in his palatial compound, located in a confidential Mexican fishing village.  But that too was scuttled when Jonathan Rosenbaum expressed interest in taking over the whole project; turns out he was voted the official Tom Green curator of the Midwest in ’08!  Shows what I know.  I’m still negotiating to include my unreleased audio commentary on the forthcoming vinyl box set God’s Personal Caddy: 25 Years of Joe Neff’s Sublime Genius, so keep your eyes peeled.

Dear Joe,

So do you still believe that Social Network is a reworking of Fight Club?  Come on, that was really just a dumb internet provocation masquerading as a serious essay, right?

Still hopeful,

Des Moines

Dear Miranda,

I think that the best way to answer your question is with some of the perplexing thoughts that have been racking my brain since my last blog post.  Such as:
-Why do so many professional wrestlers now come to the ring wearing trunks and a t-shirt, no pants?  It used to be that a guy could at least afford to wear some tearaway track togs or a pair of Zubaz over his trunks.  Do these modern guys consider how the length of their shirts makes them look like they’re not wearing anything underneath?  Is this a strange and cruel game of sexual humiliation by Vince McMahon?  Is it just really hot in the arenas?
-And speaking of Zubaz, I opened the paper this morning and there, on the cover of the Arts section was some twenty-year-old hipster wearing the once ubiquitous multicolored pants.  Hey kid, the only people who wore these things were weightlifters, grossly overweight men posing as weightlifters, and me.  Don’t give in to more 90’s nostalgia, please.
-Did you know that Axl Rose writes a regular New York Times column under the pseudonym Frank Rich?  No, really.  The tip off for me was this past Sunday's Get In The Ring, Obama column.  Classic, yet chilling, stuff.

That do it for ya, Miranda?  Cool.

Mr. Neff,

Have I got the opportunity of a lifetime for you!  For a mere $500 initial investment, you can be a part owner of Hunka Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Gold, the soon-to-be-hit Broadway musical dedicated to our last remaining investment property.  With your help, the American public will be able to thrill to the true story of how gold started out as a poor farmboy in Tupelo, only to find its soul at fifteen and rise to worldwide superstardom!  Join the investment team now and received the official HHHBG beer cozy and a DVD copy of The Chevy Chase Show: Season 1.

Thanks for your support,

Glenn B.
New York

Dear Glen,

I’d love to toss some cash your way, but I’m already invested in KLAUS!, the new Herzog musical that’s going into previews in two weeks. 

So there you have it folks.  Hope that’ll tide you over until my next missive.  In the meantime, do yourself a favor and see Punisher: War Zone a few times.  Dominic West really needs some royalties.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Bid Time Return: SHOCK AROUND THE CLOCK and Memory's Slippery Stream

                                           Yeah, we all like to watch...

Every fall, I co-organize a 24-Hour Horror Marathon at the Grandview Theatre.  This is a review of this past weekend's second edition of the event.  It's written a bit for this blog's audience and a bit for the Marathon's message board, so the tone may not always be consistent.  But I hope that you enjoy it nonetheless.

“I have seen it, but I don't remember this part. Funny, it's like what's happening to us, like the past. The movie never changes -- it can't change -- but everytime you see it, it seems to be different because you're different -- you notice different things.”
Bruce Willis as James Cole in 12 Monkeys

Early last week, as part of my day job, I screened Chris Marker’s La Jetee, which, of course, was reworked by David and Janet Peoples in their script for Terry Gilliam’s 1995 Willis/Pitt time travel actioner.  Not twenty minutes before the screening, I read a Facebook comment by an old friend who had seen a picture of us from the 1994 Science Fiction Marathon in the Archives section of this site; coincidentally, he claimed to not fully remember the event pictured (our entry as the Bitter Bread Brothers in that year’s costume contest), that he believed that it had happened but felt like it was an episode from someone else’s life.  The screening of La Jetee was a lead in to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, so I spent most of the week swimming in the hazy ocean of memory.

Which turned out to be entirely fitting, because one of the main things I was struck by during the recently completed 2nd Annual 24-Hour Horror Marathon (a.k.a. SHOCK AROUND THE CLOCK!  a.k.a. the celebration of cinematic excess a.k.a. the back pain junkies’ convention a.k.a. this filmic thing of ours) was how even though I had seen almost every film in the lineup, I had forgotten much of what took place in their narratives.  In a few cases, I had gone so long between screenings that viewing them at the Marathon gave me a new appreciation for some of their charms.

Take Psycho, for instance.  During my first few years at Ohio State (way back in the mid-‘90s), I took at least three film classes that featured it as part of the curriculum.  Subsequently, I grew so familiar with the plot, the production lore and the analytical readings that I declared a moratorium on future screenings until I had some distance.  This weekend was the first time that I had seen it in its entirety since 2001, when it screened on Halloween at the Wexner Center.  Viewing it again after all this time gave me a newfound appreciation for what a sleek machine it is, propulsive and almost fat-free in its plotting and structure.  I had forgotten how much of the first reel is concentrated on Janet Leigh’s subjugation in a male-dominated world, how her defiant act of theft figuratively releases her from many of those societal strictures while simultaneously thrusting her into the literal arms of the law.  As she hurdles through the rain during her final doomed voyage to the Bates Motel, the growing smirk on her face as she constructs the hypothetical panicked conversations of her former oppressors is a gesture of subtle triumph.  The fact that she’s ultimately killed by a man plagued by feminine domination and Oedipal angst is doubly ironic.  It’s almost as if Norman Bates is a creation of her mind’s worst fears, sprung fully formed on the world after she encounters him and forever scarring the lives of others after her disappearance.

And speaking of creations of the mind’s sexual insecurities, there’s Dressed to Kill.  When I first saw this De Palma thriller ten years ago, I hated it, went along with the popular theory that it was merely an artily dressed up Hitch ripoff.  Early in the booking process of this year’s event, we mulled the idea of complementing Psycho with Richard Franklin’s underrated Psycho II and Dressed; the former was already booked elsewhere(and you should check it out if you’ve never seen it) but I’m glad that we were able to screen the latter, because I gained an entirely new appreciation for it.  Like Marion Crane, Kate Miller is a victim of a male-dominated society’s expectations, but De Palma amps up the angst by throwing the audience into the depths of her sexual panic.  Upon its original release, the big shock of Psycho was Hitchcock killing off the film’s star after a reel and a half of getting to know her.  De Palma takes that model to an almost operatic level (emphasized in Pino Donaggio’s lush score), as Kate’s nightmare world slowly encroaches on her reality, every facet of her sexual panic becoming manifest.  Her discovery of Warren Lockman’s VD notice is a great comic touch when seen with a crowd, but it’s also the capper of a sequence in which a sexually frustrated woman ultimately can’t even find refuge in the realization of her dreams.  And like Marion, she’s murdered by what is almost the creation of that sexual panic, who then infects the lives of others (casting the young Keith Gordon and Nancy Allen in the John Gavin and Nancy Allen roles is a particularly twisted comment on the Psycho legacy; the studly leading man becomes a nerdy teen and the good girl sister a prostitute…and they possibly hook up!.....hmmmmm…..Nancy (Mrs. De Palma) Allen played a hooker in this and De Palma’s follow up Blow Out…..and was Travolta’s slutty girlfriend in Carrie…and Hitchcock wanted Vera Miles for the role of Madeline in Vertigo but she supposedly got pregnant to avoid his domineering ways….uh, okay back to the topic at hand).  As well, the whole film is a fascinating update of Hitchcock’s obsession with voyeurism, as everyone in the film is seemingly watching everyone else (even Michael Caine watches himself in a mirror when he’s sexually aroused!)

Okay okay, I could go on about these two films for days, but the Marathon was about more than them, even though they weren’t the only films to deal with sexual fears and repression.  Of course, I’m talking about Cronenberg’s They Came From Within, another flick that I hadn’t seen in years and had thus forgotten most of (outside the barest of plot outlines).  It’s no secret that Cronenberg is one of my favorite directors, so getting the chance to see some of his key early works at various versions of the Marathon over the last five years has been a treat.  And while The Brood remains my favorite of these early endeavors, I was struck by how stark and spartan They Came From Within is and how so much of it perfectly prefigures the rest of Cronenberg’s career.  The repressed high rise dwellers who eventually give in to the slug-born disease, the well-meaning mad scientist who unwittingly unleashes a virus on the population, the increasingly ambiguous gender and sexual roles…they’ve all become iconic characters in his later films.  It’s a remarkably quiet film too, none too reliant on excessive soundtrack stings and the like. 

But wait, did I mention something about icons?  ‘Cause there’s no better place to start than with our first film this year.  Mea culpa: before this weekend, I’d never seen Frankenstein on the big screen in 35mm.  I didn’t even see the film itself until I was 25; as a kid, I knew about character and his legacy, but I always chased after the later entries in the series, with their dueling monsters or expanded casts.  Needless to say, seeing this classic projected was a stirring and profoundly moving experience.  At this point in film history, Whale’s chiller almost plays like a series of iconic images and tableaus, passages which have been so burned into the third eye of our collective consciousness that seeing them again brings a Proustian rush of recognition.  As noted by someone else on this board, Colin Clive is indeed very over the top, but it’s an excessive performance filled with passion and operatic mania.  And Karloff?  What can you say about Karloff?  I felt chills when he reached heavenward toward the light, shackled and unable to escape his dark world, so very frightening and so very sad.

Island of Lost Souls had a similar effect on me.  It’s another film that I had only seen years ago on VHS, so I was fairly taken aback by how deliciously evil Charles Laughton is as Dr. Moreau.  Yeah, he and Clive could go at it for hours in a ham acting competition, but they’re also both playing characters who have sold their souls in the name of scientific (ahem) progress.  Moreau is as much a Prometheus figure as Frankenstein, although while the latter wants to hold the hand of God, the former seemingly wants to create his own godhood and his embrace of unholy power destroys any tether to reality he once had, leaving him the king and victim of a museum of atrocities.

Straying not too far from the House of Pain was a different, more human version of that (to quote one of the radio spots on the intermission comps) Mansion of the Doomed.  When we booked it, Bruce and I knew that Martyrs would potentially be a divisive experience (although, granted, he was taking my word for it, as he hadn’t seen it until now).  I was surprised by how much of the audience stuck with it, and by the decent applause it received at its end.  I’ve said it before in this venue, but we’re firm believers that the Marathon can’t just turn into a nostalgia fest, that in order to remain vital it has to constantly push ahead and against boundaries.  At its heart, the horror genre has always been about stirring primal fears, dealing with uncomfortable issues and unsettling the audience (see the Serbian Film debate elsewhere in this board for more on this).  Domestic horror has been so anodyne over the last decade that most of the films which have pushed audience’s buttons have come from Japan, France, Spain, etc.  Is Martyrs extreme?  Yes.  Is it for everyone?  No.  But I think that it might eventually go down as one of the genre touchstones of this first decade of the 21st century.  I would heartily disagree with those who think that it has no meaning; hell, the Mademoiselle character spells it out in her speech to Anna.  There’s a direct line between Doctors Frankenstein, Moreau and Hobbes and the secret society that tortures young women.  All of them are looking to transcend the boundaries of the spirit and flesh, but the perversions inherent in their respective methods destroy lives.  Granted, Pascal Laugier deals with this in a much more realistic fashion, but in many ways time has made us more accustomed and comfortable with those classic doctors, while the society in Martyrs still seems very gut-wrenching.  Nonetheless, Laugier takes the greatest topic in human existence (what is beyond the vale of death?) and twists it on the audience: what would you be willing to do in order to find out the answer?  And aren’t horror films themselves rehearsals for death, a way for the audience to vicariously experience the thrill of danger and death without actually going there?  Seen this way, Martyrs serves as a metaphor for the entire horror film viewing experience, with us as a society who watch the deaths and dismemberment of people we don’t really know and emerging thrilled and (sometimes) informed.

I’ve gone quite in depth with these films, but I enjoyed everything in the lineup (save for Robogeisha, but I’m not really a fan of this sub-genre…films like Hausu and Versus are more my speed).  I’ll readily admit that I botched part of the flier when I described Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 as being Dennis Hopper’s show.  He’s great, but Jim Siedow is batshit bonkers; it’s like Tobe Hooper started the camera and let him improve for long stretches at a time.  And no, the film isn’t as great as the original, but it’s a crazy good time.  I almost wish that we had played it earlier with a larger chunk of the audience.  I could say the same thing for Hausu, which I’m convinced would’ve played somewhat better if it had bowed around midnight rather than around 2am.  Thankfully, 13 Ghosts managed to elicit the great crowd reaction we had hoped for with those two films.  I was impressed by how many people raved about it to us afterward.  And speaking of great crowd reactions, I was very moved by the applause at the beginning and end of Psycho, confirming that it’s still quite beloved and respected.

And ultimately, this crowd reaction is what much of the event is all about for me.  I absolutely love being able to watch all of these films with all of you (I should write more about why some day), but my biggest thrill at the Marathon has been the enthusiasm I’ve seen radiating from so many of you during and after the event.  It’s been said many times, but at its best this event is like a deranged family reunion.  I constantly joke about (and with) him, but Kevin O’Brien’s continued involvement with the Marathons is always a highlight for me.  You may not know it, but Kevin is longtime friends with our esteemed benefactor David Nedrow (who worked on Sandwich), our co-web manager and head lackey Dave Zecchini and at least half a dozen other longtime Marathon attendees, so when he comes back it enhances this family reunion feeling even more.  As goofy as they may be, the Bread films have come to serve as marking points of the event’s history and one of the few direct cinematic realizations of the Marathon spirit.  In many ways, they’re our home movies. 

This family has grown over the years, and I was especially struck this year by how many folks that I talked to, many of whom I only talk to once or twice a year, seem like blood relatives.  To Scott, Paul, Bob, JC, George, Carter, Xan, Chris, Juliana, Blanche, Tim, Geoff, Jeremy, Buddha, Kevin, Ralph, Syd, the guys who used to wear the bee headbands (sorry, sorry, I know) and especially to the esteemed decorators and good friends Todd, Rose, Matt, Shawna and Brian (and to many others whose names I’ve forgotten or don’t yet know) I say this: you make the Marathon what it is, a gathering of like-minded souls who are willing to take a terror-filled spin around the globe with each other.

The Saw is family?  Hey, for my money, the ‘Thon is family.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Yep, it's more FIGHT CLUB wackiness!

Various and sundry thought after a second viewing of The Social Network, a brilliant film that continues to burrow its way into my thoughts:

*To my beloved doubters out there in the extended blogosphere, who questioned my Fight Club comparison in the previous entry, I point you to the scene in which Mark sets up a Facebook page to effectively cheat on his art final.  The camera opens with a wide shot of he and Eduardo talking, with the assigned paintings featured in an on screen panel in the background.  After a beat of dialogue, cut to a close-up of the screen.  The words on the top left corner of the picture panel?  “Tyler Durden’s Photos”.  HA!

*Okay, so I still haven’t convinced you.  Howzabout these apples:
-Tyler Durden is, essentially, homeless, squatting in the Paper Street house.  Sean Parker is, essentially, homeless, squatting in the homes of friends and ultimately Mark’s rental pad.
-Speaking of that rental house, much is made of the Facebook programmers being plugged into their system, hypnotically ensconced in the project’s hivelike atmosphere.  In Fight Club, much is made of the hivelike atmosphere of the Paper Street house once Tyler initiates Project Mayhem, an endeavor which demands its disciples to be figuratively plugged in to their work at all times.
-Social Network begins with the Mark/Erica Albright confrontation, which sets Mark on the path to his revolution.  One of the first lines in Fight Club is “Suddenly, I realized that all of this, the gun, the bombs, the revolution, had something to do with a girl named Marla Singer”.
-When Sean pushed Mark into pranking Sequoia Capital’s bigwigs (by attending their pitch meeting and saying “Sean Parker says ‘Fuck You’ “ to an old enemy), Mark is dressed in a bathrobe and pajamas…much like Edward Norton is dressed in a bathrobe and boxers at the climax of Fight Club.

Okay, okay, so that last point might be stretching things a bit.  So here are some other musings on various themes and subjects.

*If you do buy into at least some of the Fight Club comparisons, it’s intriguing to think about how the endings of these two films serve as summations of the national traumas of their respective times.  Fight Club’s final image (of the credit card towers collapsing) eerily prefigured the 9/11 attacks, in film that was about the rise of a guerilla terrorist organization.  The final trauma of Social Network (Mark’s betrayal of Eduardo) is far more intimate and personal, a corporate screw job that fits in perfectly with the massive chicanery of the 2008 financial crisis.

*The early cross cutting between Mark’s creation of Face Mash and the Phoenix Final Club party is a nice touch, as Mark is rising from his self-imposed ashes for the first of several times in the film, in this case from his epic flameout with Erica.

*I love how when Sean begs for Mark’s help over the police station phone (after he’s busted at the climactic frat party) he has to use his inhaler, that stereotypical nerd accessory.  For all of his pomp and bombast, Sean is still a computer geek at heart, and just as Mark figuratively assimilates and destroys Sean, so too does the film knock him off his godly perch. 

Seeing this section again, I was struck by Mark’s earlier comments about Facebook being an ever evolving project with no set end point.  If Sean’s downfall symbolizes Mark killing his (at least short term) god, it would figure that an endeavor stuck in constant beta-mode would be one which constantly sets up new gods, only to destroy each of them along the way.  Perhaps this is waxing too grandiloquently (or perhaps I’ve been watching Zardoz too much lately), but Facebook is, quite possibly, the leading propagator of the short attention span theatre that is our modern life. 

To wit, five months ago (after breaking down and establishing a FB page), I decided to create a story in which I had written an (obviously fake) book and was about to go on my promotional tour, only to have Facebook and a mysterious enemy jinx my deal with the publisher.  I posted this tale of woe on my profile, stating that in protest against this injustice I had decided to abandon my native language and speak (and write) only in German.  After just three posts en deutsch, I began to have friends post questions about why I was doing this, even though a two second scan through my posts would have told them why.  The Facebook wall is constantly setting up mini-gods in its posts, only to quickly kill them off, feeding the imperative of creating new content.  After all, how many times have you scanned several pages back on your friends’ walls?

*On a similar note, in Mark Harris’s New York Magazine profile of the film, he theorizes that Aaron Sorkin’s script might have created “a remarkable rarity in contemporary studio filmmaking: a movie that could recapture for Hollywood some claim to the national cultural conversation that has, in the last decade, been virtually co-opted by television.”  I’m not sure how I feel about this.  After all, so much of Facebook’s role is not to establish a lasting conversation, but to scatter it into soundbites, video links and picture tags.  Even a masterfully made film such as Social Network might have a tough time commanding the national conversation (at least on a short term basis) when its focus is that which debilitates national conversations. 

A better example of a film that has captured the national conversation is Christopher Nolan’s Inception.  Part of that film’s command probably lies in its less than illustrious company; after all, in a summer of increasingly banal fare, its attempt at challenging the audience even a bit made it look like a Russian novel by comparison.  But part of that film’s successful infiltration of the collective cultural consciousness can also be chalked up to the fantastical, abstract nature of its subject.  Mark Zuckerberg dreams of reinventing himself and striking back at his perceived enemies, but all the audience sees are the literal actions that he undertakes to do so.  Even though much of Inception’s action is based in action film parlance, its crew of dream pirates exist in an ever-changing world where reality is literally unstable.  Zuckerberg is haunted by Erica Albright, but Dom Cobb can’t escape the phantasmagoric image of his dead wife as he plunges again and again into her Inferno-like lair (and as she continually cameos in his dream missions).  In a modern society where mystery is stuck in its prolonged death throes, where Google and Facebook make answers that once required pondering available at the click of a mouse, our subconscious is still the Wild West, a seemingly infinite space and subject for discussion.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

I Am Mark's Smirking Revenge: David Fincher's Nerd Revolution

The first scene of David Fincher’s The Social Network features future Facebook kingpin Mark Zuckerberg and his soon to be ex-girlfriend in a bar, arguing about their relationship…or, rather, features Zuckerberg waxing rhapsodic about how his potential entry into one of Harvard’s elite Final Clubs will allow him to introduce his soon to be ex-girlfriend to social levels far beyond her lowly Boston University background…or, rather, features Zuckerberg raining down abuse on his soon to be ex-girlfriend for digging vapid crew rowers and for supposedly sleeping with the schlubby doorman…or, rather, features Zuckerberg’s girlfriend trying to have a normal conversation while he brags about his 1600 SAT scores….or, rather, features all of the above, thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, part screwball comedy, part fencing match.  It’s a bold opening salvo, one that automatically throws the audience off kilter and forces us to recalibrate our expectations for “that Facebook movie”.

Sorkin has long utilized this type of snappy dialogue, almost to parodic effect in some of his more recent efforts.  But this rapid fire verbiage is perfect for Social Network, which plunges us into the lives of young men whose only defense against the moneyed, the good looking, hell, the entire system itself is their steel trap brains and verbal assaults.  Burroughs’s theory of the word virus comes to mind as Zuckerberg and, later, Napster rock star Sean Parker mow down their various opponents with their intelligence, wit, arrogance and insouciance.  During Zuckerberg’s meetings with two sets of lawyers, he slices through their small talk and attempts at clever questioning with blunt answers and confrontational volleys.  He’s physically smaller than almost everyone in the room, and he’s dressed like a schlub in his tie and hoodie, but his mental intensity makes him a figurative giant. 

Credit here must be given to Jesse Eisenberg, who gives a burn down the building performance of a lifetime as the Facebook founder.  His Zuckerberg is a jumble of nerves, an inquisitive and condescending look forever plastered on his face.  His maintenance of that aforementioned physical weakness and timidity makes his incredibly aggressive and trenchant verbal missives all the more effective and damaging, like a flyweight boxer with a killer jab.  It’s a brilliant turn that is alternately inspiring and repellent.  Fincher plays the scenes where Zuckerberg verbally annihilates his enemies as riffs on classic payback scenes of the cinematic past, but they’re almost always followed by episodes of cruelty and betrayal.

The dialogue turns a film that largely takes place in sit down meetings into an incredibly violent affair.  But that shouldn’t be that big of a surprise, because Fincher has trod this ground before.


“You’re Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Jackass!”
-Marla Singer, Fight Club

“You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be one.”
-Marylin Delpy, The Social Network

In effect, The Social Network is a remake and remix of Fincher’s end of the millennium classic Fight Club.  Both films deal with societal minions striking back against the system.  In Fight Club, it’s the waiters, the mechanics and the corporate drones who rediscover their lost lives before corrupting society with its own means.  Zuckerberg and most of his pals can’t get into the debauched high life of the Final Clubs, so they use their programming skills and savvy to create Face Mash, a fly by night site that invites all of Harvard to be judges in an elimination tournament for the crown of hottest girl on campus.  Like a combination of Fight Club and Project Mayhem, it’s a seemingly goofy prank that leads to the creation of a much bigger, much more revolutionary clique.  And like Napster before it, Facebook proves to be a covert revolution, spreading virally throughout the world and quickly assembling an international army of devotees.  Ultimately, everyone is looking for a cause; Fight Club and Facebook are there to fill that need.  Indeed, at several points in the film, various characters refer to Zuckerberg having a chance to reinvent his life through each version of the project, much as Edward Norton’s Narrator reinvents himself through Fight Club.  (It should be noted that Fincher plays a similar trick with Zodiac’s Robert Graysmith, a somewhat timid and not altogether likeable character who reinvents his life via his obsession with the Zodiac killer.)

Justin Timberlake is nearly the devil incarnate as the slick talking and amoral Sean Parker, but you could just cut to the chase and call him Tyler Durden.  Parker is everything that Zuckerberg wants to be, or as Durden so memorably puts it “I look like you wanna look, I fuck like you wanna fuck, I am smart, capable, and most importantly, I am free in all the ways that you are not.”  Sure, Parker is a real person, but it’s surely no coincidence that his first appearance in the film occurs shortly after Zuckerberg first creates Facebook…and it’s surely no coincidence that he appears post-coitus, halfway across the country with a Stanford co-ed, about to check his e-mail.  Social Network adds one intriguing twist in that the Winklevoss twins almost fill Tyler’s alpha male role better than Parker.  But if this film deals with the revenge of the repressed, it would make sense that Zuckerberg, frustrated with the knowledge that will never be “6’’ 5’ and 220 pounds” or as socially accepted as the twins, would create his own version of them…at least, metaphorically.

Timberlake is fantastic in the role.  Like Brad Pitt in Fight Club, he uses his good looks and natural charisma as a means to completely subvert them; you’re simultaneously drawn to and repelled by his non-stop patter and sly grin.  It comes as no surprise when Parker’s long hinted-at sexcapades and drug adventures catch up with him at the end of the film, much like Tyler’s radical Nietzschean ethos catches up to him when Fight Club’s Narrator reigns them in.  At the conclusion of the latter film, the Narrator finally assimilates Tyler into his own psyche, the future unclear; in a similar manner, the last mention of Parker in Social Network is Zuckerberg’s icy and cryptic admission that he still owns 6% of Facebook’s stock.  Mark has essentially internalized Sean, appropriated his cutthroat manner and web of industry connections.  The future?  Well...  

Like Fight Club, Social Network is dominated by male bravado and testosterone-fueled angst, while still acknowledging their homoerotic side.  The Winklevoss twins bicker like an old married couple, or (perhaps more appropriately, considering how most of their screen time is spent with each other) like a couple of veteran queens.  But the stronger corollary is with the triangle that forms between Parker, Zuckerberg and Facebook co-founder Eduardro Saverin.  Much like the Narrator/Tyler/Marla love triangle in Fight Club, Zuckerberg and Saverin see their relationship torn apart by the former’s adoration of Parker.  Although this comparison is not strictly of the A-B variety, it must be noted that Saverin is definitely the most of feminine of the three, and that Zuckerberg’s jealousy over Saverin’s prospective Final Club induction mirrors the Narrator’s jealousy over Marla’s advanced ease with her support group tourist life.  In a film about people working on a communications system who are torn apart by their inability to communicate with each other, it’s entirely appropriate.

After the gorgeous, yet ultimately hackneyed Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I began to lose a bit of faith in the David Fincher whose previous films had so entranced me, and when I heard about his upcoming Facebook project my enthusiasm waned even further.  But The Social Network marks a triumphant return to form for him.  It’s a stunning, haunting portrayal of the opening of a modern Pandora’s Box and the devastation wrought upon the lives of all involved.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Joaquin, Are Ya Goofin' On Tony?

One of my more anticipated flicks for this coming fall season is Casey Affleck's directorial debut I'm Still Here. For those of you who have been living under the proverbial rock for the last few years (or who just don't give a damn), Affleck has spent that time chronicling the sudden career change of his brother in law Joaquin Phoenix from sensitive, brooding actor to rap star/self-destruction artist.  The film purports to offer an in-depth examination of Phoenix's supposed lost years...except for the fact that most pundits have been crying fraud since near the beginning of this whole escapade.  Shortly after Phoenix began appearing in his newly bearded and weight-padded guise (with his brother in law constantly in tow, camera in hand), word began to spread that the whole thing was a publicity stunt.

If this was true, Phoenix did his best to dispel the rumors with his now semi-legendary appearance with David Letterman.  Ostensibly appearing to promote his then new project Two Lovers (recommended, by the way), the sunglasses-wearing former heartthrob barely mentioned the film, briefly discussed his retirement from acting, and acted generally evasive for the entirety of his segment.  Letterman has usually received kudos for frying Phoenix alive, but Joaquin actually served up a fairly stinging repudiation of Dave's condescending manner (albeit in a much less palatable manner).

After that appearance, Phoenix continued on his tour of small clubs, rapping to often befuddled audiences, while Affleck continued to shoot his every move.  But the general hubbub over his bizarre behavior seemed to die out fairly quickly.  The general consensus was that the stunt was cute for a minute, but that it had now grown self indulgent and tiring.

Which leads me to ask: could Andy Kaufman have survived in the modern world?  And is Joaquin Phoenix actually the long lost son of Tony Clifton?

During his all too brief stay in this friendly, friendly world, Kaufman’s trompe le monde attitude turned failure and self-destruction into high art.  Bored with the success of his Foreign Man character (which he later modified for his Taxi's iconic Latka Gravas), Kaufman slowly began to amp up the antagonistic parts of his stand-up act.  During college tours, he would stick it to rowdy audiences in search of his easily marketable impressions by reading long sections of The Great Gatsby to them.  For an extended period , he indulged his love for the dialectic moral aspects of pro wrestling (and his lust for rubbing up against women) by declaring himself the Intergender Wrestling Champion, grappling with willing female antagonists during his act and on talk shows and culminating in his infamous feud with Memphis's King of Wrestling, Jerry Lawler. (For more on this period, check out this excellent compilation of real applications from women who sought to wrestle Andy:

But Tony Clifton was his crowning creation, an opportunity for Kaufman's id to run wild. While Andy's benign moon face and childlike glee tempered many of his more confrontational bits, Tony Clifton's massive boiler, roadkill hairpiece, sagging jowls and nasal twang worked just as well to alienate audiences.  Kaufman would often have Clifton open for him, baiting the audience with his horribly off-key standards and sub-borscht belt riffs.  Seeing Kaufman's antics afterward was a relief.  The joke, of course, was that Kaufman and Clifton were the same person.  Kaufman would appear as Clifton in public, denying any knowledge of his supposed alter ego; he even famously wrote Clifton appearances into his Taxi contract, mystifying cast mates by appearing in full Clifton regalia on those shooting days and annoying the hell out of everyone.  But eventually, word of his true identity leaked out, so Kaufman's partner in crime Bob Zmuda began to portray Clifton, often appearing on stage with his pal to further spook the skeptics.  Back then, the general public had no idea who Zmuda was, so the ruse worked.

The apex of the Clifton character was to be a feature film (The Tony Clifton Story) which would tell the tale of his illustrious and depraved life.  The climax of the film was to feature a pullback shot in which Kaufman would appear as himself to explain that Clifton later died of lung cancer at Cedars Sinai hospital.  The film was never produced, as (in a darkly ironic twist) the generally clean living Kaufman later died of lung cancer at…Cedars Sinai hospital.

So look at the stories of Andy Kaufman and Joaquin Phoenix.  Could Kaufman have pulled off Tony Clifton for any amount of time in today’s mystery-deprived world?  Would he have been dismissed as a sham within a day or so of Clifton’s first appearance?  Is Phoenix actually paying tribute to Kaufman/Clifton with this latest venture?  Or has the former heartthrob stepped all the way through the looking glass and truly embraced his new career?  It’s possibly instructive to note that one of Kaufman’s defining mass media appearances was his confrontation with Jerry Lawler (following the King’s supposed breaking of Kaufman’s neck) on…Late Night with David Letterman. 

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

"I'm an American!"

"That's right, Jack. The man is clear in his mind, but his soul is mad. Oh, yeah. He's dying, I think. He hates all this. He hates it! But the man's a...He reads poetry out loud, all right. And a voice...he likes you because you're still alive."
-The late, great Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now.

It's intriguing to look back at George Clooney's career and think that much of his original appeal (and a sizable portion of his continuing appeal) was based on his Cary Grant-esque killer looks, his old school romantic panache and his steely leading man demeanor. Sure, his humanitarian work has come to define a large part of his public persona, but there’s a reason why the Ocean’s 11 films (even the unloved middle child that is Ocean’s 12) are some of the most profitable films on his resume. If you’re in that particular groove, there’s an undeniable vicarious pleasure in seeing Clooney as the coolest player in the game, deftly leading his rogues gallery through labrynthine twists and turns. Always winning, always coming out on top.

What makes this aspect of his persona so fascinating is how it bumps up against what he has seemingly always done well, if not to greater acclaim. Over the course of the last fifteen years, Clooney has become a master of cinematic regret. Those same steely good looks and insouciant charm have come to double as effective pieces of a mask that many of his characters wear, one which hides seeming oceans of suffering and existential angst. The world weary protagonists of Michael Clayton and Up in the Air are perhaps his most heralded recent turns in this vein, but he also mined similar territory in the 2005 double whammy of Good Night and Good Luck (his Fred Friendly a downtrodden idealist in the CBS corporate machine) and Syriana (as the Clayton precursor and black ops specialist Bob Barnes). He pines after a dead wife in Soderbergh’s Solaris reboot and punctures his own gold lusting bravado in Three Kings. Hell, even From Dusk ‘Til Dawn’s Seth Gecko is stabbed with regret at that film’s conclusion as he sends Juliette Lewis on her way to freedom, the realization of his true fate in El Rey (Tarantino’s callback to the grisly, and unfilmed, conclusion to Jim Thompson’s The Getaway) slowly, horrifically dawning on him. And the driving force behind Danny Ocean’s drive in the aforementioned Rat Pack revamps? The loss of his beloved wife to a sleazy hotel magnate.

Clooney’s mastery of the art of regret is on full display in Anton Corbijn’s outstanding The American. His veteran hitman/weaponsmith has made a career of keeping the world at a distance with an icy veneer, although as the film’s opening scene intimates, said veneer is beginning to crack (and I don’t just say that because the action opens in snowy Sweden). One of Clooney’s main strengths as an actor is his ability to underplay, to let long stares tell more than any dialogue could. It’s a technique that he uses extensively through The American, his rampant (and justified) paranoia forcing him to stare down each corner, each situation, each budding human relationship for their potential danger (his precautionary murder of a female companion in those opening moments haunts him for the duration of the narrative). His Jack/Edward (it’s never made clear if either is his real name) has senses so finely tuned to their surroundings that he has difficulty truly enjoying any of them. Corbijn spends most of the film building up the gradual breakdown of this defense system. Clooney slowly befriends the town priest (Paolo Bonicelli), playing against stereotype by not giving in to easy confession, but still forming an altogether different bond with the old man, who has his own wellspring of regret with which to deal. During his second sexual encounter with local prostitute Clara (the luminous Violante Placido), Clooney methodically moves through several sexual positions, but it’s her initially denied kiss that is the stunning apex of their coupling. When, in a moment of genuine happiness, he cracks a smile near the film’s end, the cumulative effect is explosive.

For the most part, the formula is nothing new, especially in the hitman genre. But Corbijn knows this; he’s more concerned with how the tale is told, and this is where The American really shines. Last week, on the heels of seeing the aggressively stupid Piranha remake, I decided to cleanse my palate by finally watching Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express, which I’ve had on DVD for years. It was such a pleasure to see Vilmos Zsigmond’s expertly composed cinematography, to see shots that told a coherent, yet still bold, daring and interesting visual story. In the same manner, Martin Ruhe (who also lensed Corbijn’s Ian Curtis biopic Control) uses the full extent of The American’s scope frame to let the visuals do most of the storytelling. Beginning with the opening credits, words, objects and people are often deliberately filmed off center, almost pushed aside by the inky darkness of the credit roll, the lush Italian mountains and the desolate, eerie interior of a village café. Much as Carlo Di Palma turned the back of Monica Vitti’s head into a sensuous and erotic tumble of amber waves in Red Desert, Ruhe focuses on shooting Clooney from behind, or in Leone-esque extreme closeups. This latter method is explicitly referenced midway through the film when Jack/Edward sits in a café where Henry Fonda’s brutal initial appearance in Once Upon a Time in the West plays on the television screen behind him. But Ruhe also peppers the film with very formal compositions; I can’t remember the last time I was this intrigued by so many side profile shots. At the same time, he shrewdly uses expressionist color fills during the night scenes to lend a palpable sense of forboding (as the late Robert Krasker would tell you, night filming on cobblestone streets is one of the best cheap visual effects you can find). It’s a visual tour de force, a triumph of control and form in a cinematic landscape too often littered with haphazard visual hack work.

So what of the Dennis Hopper quote from the opening of this essay? Upon some reflection, I was struck by the (probably unintended) parallels between Clooney’s Jack/Edward and Hopper’s famous Apocalypse Now cameo. Both men pose as American photojournalists; although Coppola later claimed that the Photojournalist was based on the real life journalist Sean Flynn, there have also been anecdotes about early plans to have Hopper’s camera be empty, his true profession and motivation left in doubt. Both Jack/Edward and the Photojournalist are reaching the end of their tenures, both burnt out by the insanity of their respective businesses. Although the aforementioned quote is Hopper describing Brando’s decaying Kurtz, it could also be an accurate read of Jack/Edward: a romantic, poetic soul falling apart from the madness of a lifetime of killing, a man constructing the means of his own destruction. Hollow men, indeed.

But even if that comparison falls somewhat short, it doesn’t take away from the power and excellence of The American, surely one of the finest…um, American films of the year.