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Million Dollar Baby Girl

So I got suckerpunched by Million Dollar Baby and wasn’t too happy about it. I won’t go into detail on that because I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it. But I will comment on the film as Oscar contender: It isn’t Oscar-worthy. It isn’t a great film. It’s effective, and entertaining, and absorbing, but it’s still a formula genre picture and it’s full of cliches. Several plot holes too, and a very rushed pace that was unsatisfying.

Yet, there has always been something interesting about Clint Eastwood’s films that I can’t really put my finger on. It is something to do with his interest in gender relations. He seems to choose projects–formula genre projects, yes–that leave room for him to deal with his own old-fashioned “grizzled” (over-used word) masculinity confronting a new kind of assertive femininity. All of his films have fantastic chemistry for this reason, and here again the chemistry between Eastwood and Swank is sparkling. It’s apparent way back in my favorite of his films, A Perfect World (an overlooked gem that you should rent if you can) with Laura Dern as FBI agent sparring with Eastwood as a Texas Ranger. He seems to be reluctantly fascinated with these tough-but-still-feminine broads, and it seems to have its culmination in his support of the girl boxer in Million Dollar Baby. I sort of see it as Eastwood–now looking every bit of his 75 years–passing the torch and finally coming to grips with this “new woman”.

That’s not to say that this is a feminist film, by any stretch of imagination. It’s a very male film. It’s not about a girl boxer, really, it’s about Eastwood’s character. She, like many other sacrificial lambs in big Hollywood films, exists merely to teach the white male a lesson. She is the martyr. She enters his life a perfect submissive–eagerly eating up his insults and patiently waiting for his attentions to turn to her, and then becoming the perfect empty vessel for him to implant with his knowledge and training. She may have a mean right hook, but she succeeds by her unquestioning devotion and loyalty to him. He even re-names her with a Gaelic nickname, has it embroidered on her robes, but won’t tell her what the name means. And she accepts that. And when we find out what it means–“My Darling”–it’s so touching that you don’t really think about the fact that the name isn’t a name really, it’s a sign of his possession. She has no name, she has been erased. She’s just his darling.

But that’s sort of an extreme reading. The film is clearly portraying these two as surrogate father and daughter for each other, as his daughter isn’t speaking to him and her dad is long gone. She’s eager for his guidance because she’s never had a father, and he’s getting to make up for being an absent father to his daughter. And it works, you feel very good that these two people have found each other. (Oh and the truly gorgeous little girl in the truck is one of Eastwood’s many, many, many real-life daughters. The man has plenty of daughter material to mine.)

Bamboozled by Herzog

I am glad to hear that Werner Herzog is up to his old tricks. I an eagerly anticipating his new documentary, Grizzly Man:

a fascinating character study of Timothy Treadwell, self-appointed
grizzly bear expert. For thirteen summers, the youthful Treadwell
camped in the Alaskan wilderness to observe and commune with grizzlies.
His final year there ended in tragedy when he and girlfriend Amie
Huguenard were attacked and completely devoured by an older, aggressive
bear. Most of the visuals for the film come from Treadwell’s own video
footage, shot during his last few excursions.

He is a mad Herzogian hero, to be sure:

He comes dangerously
close to the bears, touching them and swimming with them, all the while
convinced that his work as a naturalist and lobbyist is helping to
preserve their environment. Unfortunately, we soon come to learn that
what Treadwell is filming in the Alaskan wilds is less a nature
documentary than a kind of ongoing Crocodile Hunter episode with Treadwell styling himself as a great lone adventurer and
the only human capable of understanding the creatures around him. His
disturbed mental state becomes clearer through interviews and Herzog’s
own voiceover.

Treadwell was a failed actor and alcoholic, rescued in a sense
by the power and individualistic importance that such a reckless
undertaking gave him. The bears saved him from obscurity and addiction,
but his staying there, against the wishes of the park service, to play
out his own narcissistic fantasies and adamant death wish, was bound to
end in tragedy. His childlike love for the animals around him seems
genuine, as was his belief that the animal world, though admittedly
dangerous, was somehow more benevolent than that of humans. In reality,
nature is cruel and animals want to survive.

You may not know that Herzog has a tendency to fabricate in his
documentaries. All docs have some measure of manipulation, but I’m
talking about complete fabrication.So I had to smile when I read the following:

The most powerful scene in
the film comes when Herzog listens to a tape of the attack (the
camera’s lens cap was thankfully on during the recording). He agrees
that, at over six minutes, this is something that the audience should
not hear. 

Hmmm, does it not sound a bit too convenient that Treadwell turned the
sound recording on but left the lens cap on? It could happen, sure, but
Herzog’s docs are filled with these kinds of scenes of things we have
no way of proving. In Lessons of Darkness,
he shows the image of a young boy who just sits there and looks at the
camera. On voiceover Herzog tells us that the horrors he witnessed in
the Gulf War made him lose the ability to speak. And it rings
completely false, as does this Grizzly scene. I’ll bet that when Herzog
is supposedly listening to the tape of the killings, he is in fact
listening to nothing and grimacing for the camera.

Yes, I wrote my thesis on Herzog’s documentaries, and I never made up
my mind about the ethics involved with this kind of fabrication. And
apparently the Greencine correspondent who wrote the review above has some problems with the ethics as well:

Surprisingly, the film doesn’t deal with the ethical issue of
using Treadwell’s own footage to make a film that he, undeniably, would

Herzog’s docs have never been well-known enough to garner much
criticism for the ethical problems involved, but this one has a lot of
buzz at Sundance and now that docs are so popular these days, perhaps
they will come under greater scrutiny. Not that he’ll care, of course.
He freely admits to the manipulations and fabrications:

“By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verit

Those Double-Talking Brits

This is too funny–From a guide intended to help foreigners understand the idiosyncrasies of British English, found by a journalist for The Economist in 2004 on an office wall in the European Court of Justice. Originally from Harper’s Magazine, December 2004. The first is my favorite.


What they say: I’m sure it’s my fault.
What is understood: It is his fault.
What they mean: It is your fault.

What they say: I’ll bear it in mind.
What is understood: He will probably do it.
What they mean: I will do nothing about it.

What they say: I was a bit disappointed that . . .
What is understood: It doesn’t really matter.
What they mean: I am most upset and cross.

What they say: By the way/Incidentally . . .
What is understood: This is not very important.
What they mean: The primary purpose of our discussion is …

What they say: I hear what you say.
What is understood: He accepts my point of view.
What they mean: I disagree and do not want to discuss it any further.

What they say: Correct me if I’m wrong.
What is understood: Tell me what you think.
What they mean: I know I’m right—please don’t contradict me.

What they say: With the greatest respect . . .
What is understood: He is listening to me.
What they mean: I think you are wrong, or a fool.

What they say: That is an original point of view.
What is understood: He likes my ideas.
What they mean: You must be crazy!

What they say: Very interesting.
What is understood: He is impressed.
What they mean: I don’t agree, or I don’t believe you.

What they say: You must come for dinner sometime.
What is understood: I will get an invitation soon.
What they mean: Not an invitation, just being polite.

What they say: Quite good.
What is understood: Quite good.
What they mean: A bit disappointing.

Santa Is A Fascist Dictator

Saw Polar Express at a free screening at MIT last night. Guy pointed out the fascist imagery in the Santa scenes:

That sea of red is a bunch of elves dressed in their red uniforms. And the storyline — kidnapping and brainwashing/re-educating a doubting kid to blindly believe — is a bit fascist as well. It is a very bizarre film. I did a Google search and it seems a few others have noted the overtones:

Then came the second part of the movie, and I was literally shocked and
disturbed. The creators of the film depicted christmas at the northpole
with pictures that could’ve come out of “Triumph des Willens” (“Triumph
of the will”) — large squares filled with christmas elves marching towards
a big christmas tree, dancing a weird form of Nazi ballet. The protagonists
stumble into a sort of surveillance room where evil-mooded elves are
video-surveilling every child in the world — and when one child is singled
out for having been bad, an infinite loop of the child denying what he did
“I didn’t do it – I didn’t do it – I didn’t do it” is shown on a large
number of screens… When the protagonists stumble back to the big
square full of elves, and Santa appears, you think the Fuehrer himself is
supposed to appear. It sent chills down my spine.

Things get even weirder from here. The protagonists are a normal boy that
doubted the existence of christmas throughout the movie, a poor boy, and a
courageous black girl. Throughout the movie, the doubting boy is told to
“believe(!)”, without specifics as to what to believe etc. If he doesn’t
believe, he can’t hear the wonderful bells of Santa’s sled. The poor boy
who never had a christmas and always got the short end of everything is
told to be more optimistic. The black girl is told that she should “lead”.
So the advice given to the kids in this movie can be summed up as:
“Believe, don’t doubt !”
“Be optimistic, no matter what happens to you !”
“Some are born leaders and should lead !”
The german translation of the movie has another interesting property here –
the black girl, when told to “lead”, asks what that means — and I assume
the english version uses the word “leader” in the following explanations.
In German, the literal translation of “leader” (“Fuehrer”) is synonymous
with Adolf Hitler, and thus never used, and the german version of the movie
dodges the use of that word in an interesting way.

The really scary part was that all these things were presented as wonderful
events, full of joy etc. This movie basically tells kids: Big rallies with
flags, chorals when important leaders appear, surveillance of everybody are
not only OK, but they’re just what Santa does.

The movie ends with the doubting boy being a believer and thus capable of
hearing the bells the parents aren’t able to hear. It reminded me of
phrase: “It does not matter what you think, because we’ve already convinced
your children”.

I walked out of the movie, surprised, disturbed, and worried. I seriously
hope we can laugh heartily about this 20 years from now. I know that, having
grown up in Germany, my sensors for fascist propaganda methods is probably
a bit oversensitive, but this movie did not require being oversensitive to
smell the fascistoid (under?)currents.

This is not a movie I’d ever have a kid watch.

I don’t know that the film’s motives are as sinister as this guy implies, but then he’s German so he may be a bit sensitive. But it is certainly a bizarre film. I was more stressed out by the endless string of incidents putting the children into extreme danger.

Postscript: There was a family with a few kids a few rows down from us, and the kids’ delight with the movie was quite clear, which was both heartwarming and disturbing.

Hollywood Moment

That’s Walter Salles, director of The Motorcycle Diaries, outside The Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. We attended a roundtable/press conference for all the nominees for Best Foreign Language Picture. I left my camera at home but Serpico took photos, so more are on the way as he sends them. He was enamored of Salles though, so this is the first. I personally found all of them to be bigshot-y…it was like watching a bunch of Hollywood directors up there, the only difference being that most of them didn’t speak English and had interpreters in tow. I love how Hollywood treats foreign directors as if they’re so arty and independent just because they’re foreign. Meanwhile every one of the nominated films could pass for Hollywood schlock if the languages were changed to English.

But it was an entertaining day. More photos of Zhang Yimou et al to come.

Zippity Doo Da

City Lights Book Store, S.F.

Huckabees Mini-Series?

Huckabees cowriter Jeff Baena says in this interview that
if there was one thing he could change about the film, he would make it
longer. Their script was something like 325 pages long. I wouldn’t say
this about many movies (or any movies?), but this one made me so happy
that I wouldn’t have minded hanging out in that world for a couple more

And I did drag Guy to see it this week, and he loved it too. Enough to actually use the hated heart symbol in his post about it. 

I’m off to Cali this evening, not sure if I’ll be blogging over the next several days…

Garden State

I trudged two blocks through the snow and saw Garden State
tonight. I’m still mulling it over. My reaction to it is complex. I was
very irritated by it. I resisted it. Though it still “worked”, i.e. it
pushed my buttons. But I am very irritated that it did that. If I had
to come up with one word right NOW to describe the film, it would be
“childish.” That’s not quite the right word, but it’ll do for now. I
was most irritated by Natalie Portman’s character, some perfect-perfect
imaginary male-fantasy creature. Every word she said was perfect, every
action choreographed to say “fall in love with me!” You could say, “an
epileptic compulsive liar who lives with her mother and wears a helmet
to work is the “perfect” female?” And I will say YES, because that is
just one of her perfectly quirky traits–we don’t have to actually see
her go through a seizure or deal with the effects of medication, she’s
just delighfully epileptic. And her lies are all cute and innocent and
she owns up to them instantly. Her “flaws” are really attributes; it’s
just some added flavoring in the recipe for “perfect quirky-girl for
quirky twentysomething modern males.” She’s the Gidget of the ’00s. She
doesn’t have any real  baggage, only the guy gets to have that. Her purpose is to pull him out of his slump. Compare quirky Sam to quirky Clementine in Eternal Sunshine. Both exist for the same reason–to draw the guy out–but in Eternal Sunshine we see how Clementine’s personality is problematic as well, not just cutely quirky. Her quirks are her problems, and they don’t just exist to make some guy smile and dovetail perfectly with his personality. And, she even tells Joel not to expect her to save him. Garden State just isn’t as meaty. Childish.

It may be obvious but in a Garden State world, I’d be Zach Braff.

I didn’t hate the film though, and I like Zach Braff. It’s a good
story, a sweet movie, with a lot of heart. The chemistry was great. But
it’s just a little too precious for my tastes.

Go ahead, call me a Grumpy Shit.

And Another Thing About Life Aquatic:

Bill Murray was all wrong for the part. There is a youthful, immature
persistence and idealism and insecurity in most Wes Anderson heroes and
that just doesn’t work for the weary, wise, wise-cracking persona that
is Bill Murray. To see him curled up in a ball on the street whining
that even though people who insult you are just jealous, it still
hurts, is offensive to that persona. A real Bill Murray character would
kick his own ass if he were the protagonist in The Life Aquatic.


I’m so glad I’m not the only one who thinks all the hype about Sidways is nuts:

“…beyond the movie’s occasionally slack pacing, I would cite a coy ambivalence about its main characters as its principal flaw.”
–A.O. Scott, discussing what he calles The Most Overrated Film Of The Year

The film lagged tediously in many places, and I couldn’t agree more about the characters–I hated them, possibly because the film refused to.

via Cinetrix

Postscript: More dissenters:

Alexander Payne has made a real show of talking about a revival of 1970s cinema aesthetics; his film, however, plays like a dumb sitcom. The spit bucket of wine over the head, the ramming of a car into a tree on purpose in order to stage a story about an accident, Virginia Madsen’s infantile sense of betrayal at the news of the wedding, and that extended, cruelly condescending episode about retrieving a lost wallet from a naked, overweight white trash couple while they are, of course, in the middle of humping vigorously—all of these amount to a movie that is blatant crap.

Popcorn Break

When I get up to get popcorn in the first half hour of a movie, you
know it’s bad. I never do that. The only time I can remember doing it
(before today) was when I saw The Day After Tomorrow. So what film was it that bored me so badly today? It was The Life Aquatic.
A shame. I wanted to like it, but just couldn’t. I liked its
atmosphere, but the film was pretty much all atmosphere, only
atmosphere. Though I did love the last line, “I wonder if he remembers
me.” A suddenly touching moment. But it’s mostly because of Bill
Murray’s delivery, his face full of a long life that has known sadness,
among many other things. But that’s still just part of the atmosphere.
There was nothing to hold on to, no story, no solid land. Even Bill
Murray couldn’t save this boat.

Sorry for the lame sailing metaphors, they just came out.

Now after writing this I sort of feel like it’s wrong, I’ve been too
harsh … I think the film is growing on me even as I type. I think
it’s because there are many tender moments strung throughout the film.
They’re just not strung to anything, really.