The Noble “Savages”

When you set out to write something that matters to you, it always seems that the first thing to go is the idea of telling a story that no one has told before. I’m not saying that every detail of every story is the same (they’re like snowflakes in that way), but the basic plots still seem to repeat themselves over and over. I’ve set a goal over the next couple of years to write a novel, but the actual act of doing the writing isn’t what scares me; it’s coming up with a plot that’s smart and relevant and hasn’t been trod a thousand times before.

The Savages has that plot. And if nothing else, Tamara Jenkins, the writer/director of the film, should be immensely proud of that fact. No one before Jenkins has made the film that seems so obvious given the number of people going through it each day: the endless war of attrition that is dealing with a sick, aging parent in America.

The Savages
stars Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Wendy and Jon Savage, brother and sister. They’re both enamored of theater; she’s an aspiring playwright, while he’s a Buffalo academic writing a book on Bertolt Brecht. This aspect could have been badly handled from the start, but Jenkins wisely chooses to avoid the concept of theatrics in relation to the siblings’ actual crisis. That would be the dementia of their elderly father (Philip Bosco); when his longtime girlfriend dies and her family evicts them from the house, the siblings Savage are forced to deal with finding care for their father, from whom they’ve long been estranged (it’s implied that he abused them).

The estrangement thing is another cleverly avoided pitfall that could not be executed more simply: Bosco is just too far gone mentally to have a series of histrionic “You never loved me” scenes, and the childhood experience is dealt with quietly and sadly. Instead of being a constant source of tension because of his past, Bosco is really something of a shell, his self only surfacing from time to time, and not in the ways the siblings want. And so the story becomes much richer; Jon and Wendy have to take care not of the father they’ve steeled themselves against, but of a lost, dissolute version. And that makes their emotions about the situation infinitely more complicated. While Hoffman shuts down, placing Bosco in a comparatively modest facility, Linney, racked with guilt, tries to get him into a more elite nursing home. The interview goes disastrously; it has shades of overanxious parents trying to get their kid into a right kindergarten, and when it’s over, Hoffman blows up. I couldn’t find a clip, but here’s his speech:

Jon Savage:
Dad’s not the one that has a problem with the Valley View. There’s nothing wrong with Dad’s situation. Dad’s situation is fine. He’s never gonna adjust to it if we keep yanking him outta there. And, actually, this upward mobility fixation of yours, it’s counterproductive and, frankly, pretty selfish. Because it’s not about Dad, it’s about you and your guilt. That’s what these places prey upon.

Wendy Savage:
I happen to think it’s nicer here.

Jon Savage:
Of course you do, because you are the consumer they want to target. You are the guilty demographic. The landscaping, the neighborhoods of care; they’re not for the residents, they’re for the relatives. People like you and me who don’t want to admit to what’s really going on here.

Wendy Savage:
Which is what, Jon?

Jon Savage:
People are dying, Wendy! Right inside that beautiful building right now, it’s a fucking horror show! And all this wellness propaganda and the landscaping, it’s just there to obscure the miserable fact that people die! And death is gaseous and gruesome and it’s filled with shit and piss and rotten stink!

In one of the movie’s funniest moments, Hoffman abruptly cuts off this speech when he sees an orderly gently rolling an elderly woman in a wheelchair out for a walk.

And I think that’s what really elevates The Savages from other dealing-with-parental-problems stories: it’s deeply, darkly funny. Every time the grimness of the situation gets too out of control, Jenkins throws in a lovely counterpoint of wit. Another great example is a scene where the siblings try to help their father regain his memory by screening old movies he liked at the nursing home. The film turns out to feature a scene with blackface, offending everyone in the room; the good deed is decidedly punished.

Much was made in reviews of the film that the Savage siblings are abject failures. While they do have some obvious personal problems (they are not professionally or romantically successful, and Wendy seems to have a mild tendency towards compulsive lying), I think the “F word” seems to be a little harsh. They are conflicted people, aiming to do their best, and while failure is a part of that, they’re still bright and concerned. I don’t necessarily think that their failure is even supposed to be the heart of the film.

The failure that really concerns The Savages, and the one that I think will make the film an enduring one, is the American medical system’s need to keep the elderly alive at any cost. It’s an issue the Savage family has to face as their father approaches the end of his life, and the film is boldfaced about the inhumanity of growing old in America, the way that personal and religious guilt make the end of life a place of infinitely more suffering than it needs to be.

Towards the end of the film, Linney’s married lover has come to tell her that he is going to put down his beloved old dog; her hip problems have been painful for her, and if she gets the needed surgery, the recuperation will be long and arduous. At scene’s end, Linney asks him if he can do her a favor, and in the film’s final shot, we see her running by the river, encouraging the old dog to follow as her back legs are pinned to wheels.

This image has not left my mind since I saw the film, and as we face a generation of baby boomers who will age in ever-more-taxing ways, I wonder how often I’ll keep thinking of the dog on wheels.


The Twinkie Defense

Biggest Mirror apologizes for our recent decline in posts. The past two weeks have seen two moves, the most recent to an entirely new house that needs furnishings and work. Now that things have settled down, we aim to bring you the same high-quality pop-cultural analysis, dashed with mild self-hatred and moderate pretension. Kthx!

Moving changes a lot of your conceptions of what you will and won’t watch; the sake of roommate unity is often on the line, especially when you’re in the minority in the collective taste of a group. My new roommates are something like the Fairy Godmothers of entertainment technology; they flitted in with the biggest TV I’ve ever seen, a complete surround sound system for said, a PS3, an Xbox 360, a Wii, and an Apple TV. Overnight, I’ve gone from watching movies on my computer screen to watching them on a high-def monster in full Blu-Ray glory. So when they said they wanted to watch anime, I was certainly in no position to argue. My sheaf of French art films from Netflix are going to have to get some surreptitious viewing, that’s all.

I don’t have anything against anime on a constitutional level. In high school, I was briefly entangled by two Japan-loving friends into the genre, but I think they were disappointed when my tastes ran less to “Naruto” and more to “Ebichu the Housekeeping Hamster” (still one of the funniest/raunchiest shows I’ve ever seen). The romantic fare, notably “Kare Kano,” played better with me, but it wasn’t compelling enough for me to really seek out the manga or the show.

We watched “Appleseed: Ex Machina,” a serviceable, if implausible futurist actioner. Even with its numerous plot holes, it looked damn good in Blu-Ray, and I found myself absorbed in a way I haven’t with many of the artsy-type films I’ve been watching lately. It reminded me of a time earlier this summer, when I was coaxed into viewing “Resident Evil: Apocalypse,” which I also found shockingly entertaining.

My name is Allie, I write a high-culture blog, and I enjoyed “Resident Evil: Apocalypse.” There, I said it.

It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with watching these films. In fact, watching them has taught me to stop judging people as much for liking them (always a good thing when your primary hobby is soaking in pretentiousness). What’s even stranger, though, is that I’ve begun to wonder if my understanding of movies is really complete without ever having watched them.

I’ve been a big reader of film criticism since my earliest days; once I realized that critics seemed to champion most of my favorite early-childhood fodder (“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” “The Hudsucker Proxy,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”), I quickly became enamored with reading whatever it was they had to say. Suffice it to say that I was the only twelve-year-old around who was seeking out Tarantino films and considered Philip Seymour Hoffman to be her favorite actor.

Part of the reason why movie critics don’t like genre movies, on the whole, is that they’re stubbornly formulaic. If you watch the latest cop, superhero, and horror films every week for a year, it’s not going to be long before you realize that there’s nothing new out there. So all but the most innovative genre flicks tend to get trashed. Critical teacher’s pet that I was, I learned to avoid them. Besides, how could I justify watching the Morgan Freeman thriller-of-the-week when I hadn’t seen anything by Cronenberg or Ozu or Renoir? There was a whole world of cinematic history to catch up on, and turning on some mindless Hollywood crap seemed anything but worthwhile in the face of all the learning there was to do.

I’ve come to realize, though, that watching Hollywood crap is maybe the only way to learn that these things are good. Every movie that’s made is going to give some kind of thrill: a really good stunt in an otherwise crappy action film, a hilarious throwaway line in a mediocre comedy. Dull colors, uninventive camera angles, bad acting, and poor plotting are mostly absent from the long list of modern classics; they’re all more or less perfect, and that’s great. But understanding that perfection from this perspective is like trying to understand what makes a really good meal without ever having had a bad one. You can enjoy the meal, but there’s no real point of contrast. (An alternative perspective: Oscar Wilde once said that “if nothing is serious, nothing is funny.”)

So I’m going to try to indulge in more movies that wouldn’t normally make my radar, and try to better understand what makes them a little less than perfect. When I do get back to my raw-food diet of international art films and classics, maybe a few Twinkies along the way will make me appreciate them all the more.

Or maybe they’ll just send me into glycemic shock.

All the Mad Young Advertising Men

I spent my most recent Sunday night catching up with “Mad Men,” which has now aired four episodes in its second season. I initially tuned in to the show because it combined two of my favorite things: period pieces (especially those from the 40’s to the mid-60’s) and what Tantek likes to call “meta-media.” Meta-media is, quite simply, the idea of a show within a show, or some kind of creative product within a show. Good examples are “30 Rock,” “The Larry Sanders Show,” and “Sports Night,” all of which I really enjoy, as well as certain aspects of “Arrested Development.” Tantek coined this phrase specifically because he hates this kind of show, but as a creator (or aspiring creator) myself, I find the subject completely fascinating. I also think meta-media doesn’t have to be all about navelgazing– writers can, and often do, make potshots at what’s bad about their medium. (Network is a good example; so was “Sports Night”‘s ongoing deconstruction of the new corporate mega-media and the consequences it had for its pawns.) Not to ignore the fact that there have been missteps in the genre. Joel McHale does a great job summing up the train wreck that was Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip:

“Mad Men” is unique, though, because it seems to be the first meta-media show that’s all about creative people ignoring the zeitgeist. If you know much about the history of advertising (and having been given a copy of Ogilvy on Advertising at age 7, I know a fair amount), it’s not hard to see that “Mad Men” is basically a series of dispatches from the decks of the Titanic. Sterling Cooper, the show’s fictional agency, is the kind of enterprise that fell long and hard in the mid-60’s, as geistier talents like George Lois Julian Koenig* dragged advertising into the age of irony.

Last week’s episode was particularly pointed, as the established ad men mocked the younger, decidedly more ethnic talents interviewing at the agency. If you don’t know much about the history of American ads, their pointed envy, hidden behind a veil of racism, is still easy to recognize. Even if it’s only simmering below their consciousness, some part of them knows that they’re dinosaurs. If “Mad Men” offends you because of its overt misogyny and overindulgence, don’t despair: a big comeuppance is coming.

The problem with “Mad Men,” I think, is that it doesn’t let anyone enjoy this delicious irony quite enough. Yes, the ad men have their smoking-drinking-overeating-womanizing fetishes to attend to, but “Mad Men” never lets you forget for one minute that none of them are really having much fun. “Mad Men” seems to believe strongly in Thoreau’s adage that “most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And so, despite the glitter and indulgence of the period, all we see are pained, soul-searching characters, from protagonists Don and Betty Draper (Jon Hamm and January Jones) down to even the most minor waitress or secretary. Show creator Matthew Weiner used to write for “The Sopranos,” another very dark drama, but even that show usually had a dose of levity to counteract all the anguish. “Mad Men,” despite having almost none of its violence, makes “The Sopranos” look comparatively light.

I like “Mad Men” a lot. I think the writing is sharp, the acting uniformly excellent, the directing creative and well-thought-out. The level of period detail, from the costumes to the sets, is jaw-dropping. But I find it hard to really love the show, because it never gives me the impression that any of its characters will ever feel much joy. If they were a little happier, a little more attuned to their own needs, it might be possible to root for them; if they were a little more cruel or coarse, perhaps their ultimate demise might feel a little more welcome. Instead, we see them for what they are: sad, frustrated people, unhappy in objectively “good” lives, and about to see those lives get a lot worse. It could be the period: Weiner makes no bones about the thorough discrimination against women, immigrants, and blacks that thrived not too long ago. But that doesn’t explain the palpable pain of the show’s largest character constituency, well-off WASPs.

The only other explanation I can think of: maybe that’s what life is really like for everyone. If that’s true, I’ll be the first to congratulate Weiner on his willingness to paint a vision that’s thoroughly bleak. But even as a confused and easily disheartened depression-sufferer, I find Weiner’s world awfully morose. My life, at least, is shot through with some happiness, some occasional daily pleasures that leaven its tone. In “Mad Men,” sources of pleasure exist everywhere, but actual pleasure is almost nonexistent. This makes me want to classify “Mad Men” as a meta-drama: the first show in which every protagonist is not just beset by outside difficulties, but actively depressed as well. It’s the kind of show where you could expect any character to take to their bed for a week and think nothing of it.

Since the actually depressed and mentally ill (as opposed to the depressed-by-circumstances) are so rarely represented on TV, I guess I should be happy that my constituency is getting its own Emmy-nominated spotlight. As a sufferer, though, it’s almost overwhelming to watch Weiner’s little sadness corps parade by week after week. And so, I find myself asking the same question that Tantek does every time he scorns a meta-media show: “Whatever happened to escapism?”

* It’s come to my attention that Julian Koenig, not George Lois, was responsible for the copy in this and many other iconic ads. His daughter Sarah’s piece on This American Life discusses the situation.

Fracking Amazing.

I really don’t want to turn this into a links blog, but if you can’t find bunnies and unicorns transformed into Cylons completely hilarious, you have no soul.

First one to buy me the “I’m Fracking Magical” shirt wins.

When You Are Engulfed in Fame

As time goes by, the thinness of David Sedaris books becomes more palpable. Like the modern memoir movement he helped to launch, he’s become more prolific and has less and less to say. When You Are Engulfed in Flames, his latest book, is his thinnest yet. Padded with everything from his commencement speech at Princeton to an Esquire article that’s at least five years old, the book has enjoyable moments, but mostly feels hollow.

I think the key to why Sedaris’ early work was not just enjoyable, but relatable, was that he worked so assiduously to disguise the fact that he was, for all intents and purposes, a capital-W Writer. In his first book, Barrel Fever, this was obviously pretty easy to do, but by Me Talk Pretty One Day, the “I’m just like you” vibe had become quite carefully maintained. You’ll notice in Me Talk Pretty that Sedaris never describes himself as having money, as having any kind of career in the present day, as possessing any kind of fame. To his credit, this works pretty well. The constant self-deprecation allows you to forget that the guy has three homes (now four), is broadcast on the radio and published in national magazines, tours the country speaking to packed audiences. He’s just an average guy who can’t learn French, had trouble coming out, has a crazy family.

Sedaris bravely decided to break that wall with the story “Repeat After Me,” which appears in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. The story is about how his fame (and the minor liberties he’s taken with the facts) has affected his family, framed in the context of Me Talk Pretty being turned into a movie. It’s a painful story, difficult to read, and while it’s couched in the excellent little observations that have made Sedaris famous, it marks a real turning point in his work. Everything he’s written since is decidedly crowned by the label of “By David Sedaris, Famous Person.” And while I’m sure he enjoys the attention and piles of money, I don’t envy Sedaris in this respect. He’s become his writing’s own worst enemy.

To his credit, When You Are Engulfed in Flames drops most of the remnants of his “David Sedaris, Average Guy” act. He unabashedly writes that his decision to quit smoking (the story of which comprises the book’s lengthy coda) was based, in part, on an inability to secure smoking rooms in the swanky hotels to which he travels on his tours. He discusses buying an expensive painting that he no longer particularly likes. He is unafraid to admit that his quit-smoking trip to Japan cost $30,000.

Some of these gambits pay off; two of the book’s funniest stories involve thwarted social interactions on airplanes, clearly the final frontier when it comes to the imperturbability of American manners. The author makes it clear that he’s on these planes for his lecture circuit, but the behavior that follows is pure Sedaris: part misanthrope, part fussbudget, part social anthropologist, he seems to have a magical gift for attracting bizarre people and subsequently pushing them to their limits.

Still, it would be hard to say that When You Are Engulfed in Flames tops any of Sedaris’ earlier books. There’s a lot of navelgazing and half-baked attempts at mapping narratives onto events that don’t seem to want them. One story is about how Sedaris named every spider in his country house, then took one away to Paris and got annoyed with having to feed her. It’s not exactly riveting. Like every other person on this earth, Sedaris only has so many good stories, and it seems he’s used most of them at this point. I wonder if he’d consider what could be, if mismanaged, creative and financial suicide: a return to fiction. He executed fiction quite well in the short-story portion of Barrel Fever, but hasn’t published any since. Backing away from the real world may not be easy for him to do, nor particularly pleasing to the fans who want to hear every detail of a life strangely lived, but the results could be incredibly interesting. For writers who don’t have half as many good true stories as Sedaris has shared in the past decade, it’s been the best approximation we can come up with. Maybe it’s finally time for him to become a member of the club.

Can Violence Be Funny?

Last night, Tim and I returned to the movies, this time to see the new Seth Rogen/Judd Apatow offering, Pineapple Express. (If you’re interested in seeing the movie, be forewarned: there are spoilers in this post.) I’m a huge fan of the Apatow empire, and have been since the Freaks & Geeks days; I watched Undeclared religiously, and have seen every movie they’ve made since. If you had told me back in 1999 that everyone who worked on Freaks & Geeks would be big movie stars, and that Rogen, my middle school mega-crush, would be their leader, I would have told you that you were out of your mind. So seeing these guys succeed has always been pretty sweet for me, almost like having a group of geeky friends that all struck it big. I tend to be an apologist for even the weakest points of their films (the female characters in Knocked Up come to mind, as does Jonah Hill). And one of the things I love most about their movies is that they’re not afraid of being open about pot use (this joke about Gandhi always comes to mind). Some of their characters are stoners, some are casual users, but there’s no huge anti-drug message in any of the films: it’s just not a big deal. Hell, sometimes you can even do it after you take a promotional photo:

I offer all of this as a preface because I’m feeling kind of lukewarm about Pineapple Express, and I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not that the movie isn’t funny — I laughed out loud during it, many times in fact. I’m just not sure that its overall subject matter is necessarily something that should be mined for humor. Yes, it’s about stoners, but after its first third, the movie isn’t really about pot at all. It’s an action movie, and a pretty violent one at that.

The Apatow crew is all about mining humor from difficult places. Not necessarily dark places, or unlikely places, just places that are strewn with peril for making things funny. Having an unplanned pregnancy with someone you barely know isn’t a funny thing for a lot of people, but Knocked Up took that risk and managed to mine pretty good humor from it. The naked desperation of teenage boys fixated on getting laid also isn’t a wellspring of humor (especially for those who have daughters as a result of those unplanned pregnancies). Superbad took some really lewd stuff and still made it funny. Bad, intense break-ups, especially ones where the guy is the one devastated, aren’t all that funny. Forgetting Sarah Marshall was.

Looking at that list, there’s an obvious new frontier: violence. Can more-than-moderate violence be funny? Pineapple Express seems to be the test, and for me, at least, I think the answer is no. The movie tries to mine humor out of people getting shot, scalded, stabbed, and everything in between, and unlike other action comedies, it’s not shy about showing the gory results. Some of it works, most notably the scenes where the film shows that action movies just aren’t true. James Franco trying to bust open a cracked windshield and getting his leg stuck instead? Brilliant. And “You just got killed by a Daewoo Lanos, motherfucker!” may be a candidate for line of the year.

But there are several violent scenes that cross the line into uncomfortable. The one that comes to mind is when Franco and Rogen find Red (Danny McBride), Franco’s supplier, bleeding to death on his bathroom floor. He’s been shot twice, and has smoked some weed (and grabbed a bottle of vodka) to help kill the pain. He ends up so stoned that he doesn’t really seem to care about whether or not he dies, even though the guys offer to take him to the hospital. To make a long story short, he reappears at the end of the film, still not having received medical attention. As the guys reminisce about their action-packed day, he passes out from lack of blood, and the other two make fun of him.

Seriously, if my friend was bleeding to death and had just passed out, I would not be laughing. Even if I was high as a kite. Hell, if I was really stoned, I’d probably worry more, not less.

Even the choice to make the action scenes feel goofy and real, with tons of mistakes, ends up backfiring. In Rogen’s climactic fight scene with Gary Cole, I was literally cringing as they beat each other with blunt objects. Throwing a regular Joe into a Batman-style fight scene makes me nervous, not amused. It just hits a little too close to home for someone who’s not a particularly big fighter herself.

I think enjoying Pineapple Express really depends on whether or not you’ve crossed the threshold where you can find relatively realistic violence and killing funny. I don’t have a lot of taboos in my brain, and I enjoyed the hell out of every single one that Team Apatow has broken, but violence seems to just be something that isn’t really rife with humor for me. I’m certainly not trying to argue that you’re desensitized to violence if you love Pineapple Express — you can be anti-war, anti-killing, whatever, and still find that the film’s level of violence might be tolerable enough for you to laugh. But I can’t be the only one who will feel that it isn’t, and I wonder if this movie is going to have the kind of word-of-mouth power that the other Apatow films have ridden to glory.

Even if this film breaks their string of hits, though, I’m sure Team Apatow will recover. As long as homelessness, racism, and alcoholism are still around, there will be plenty of great taboos to break, maybe just one notch below this one. Go Judd go!

Hell Isn’t Other People

In the past week, I’ve seen both of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy films with Tim and Tantek. We watched the first on DVD at Tantek’s house, and saw the new second installment last night at the Metreon, in a pretty empty theatre.

I wish I could say that the Hellboy movies are good, but they’re probably really not. They have hackneyed dialogue, cliched plots, bad supporting actors– all the B-movie trappings that a Dark Knight or an Iron Man spends those extra millions to obviate. There are some lessons thrown into the films, but nothing of particular philosophical merit– mostly, things tend to get resolved in the end, and lingering moral questions are irrelevant.

If the Hellboy movies aren’t good, though, they are certainly crazy as hell, which is almost the same thing. It’s clear that all of the silliness is intentional (this is pan-American comic book geeks, not Texan fertilizer salesmen, that we’re talking about), but that doesn’t make it any less ridiculous. Given the opportunity to blow stuff up real good, do some nifty CGI, and ogle some breasts, how many action movie directors instead devote at least five minutes of their film to the main character and his sidekick drunkenly singing along to Barry Manilow? Or a slapstick action sequence involving a ghost, a series of locker doors, and a can of Tecate? Most superheroes live the lives of 80’s rock stars: money, glamour, women, fame. In contrast, the adventures of Hellboy and friends are much more amateurish, kind of like “Wayne’s World.”

Oh man, and don’t even get me started on the Forbidden Planet-meets-Dr. Strangelove German robot with the mechanical mouth and the steam blowing out. Voiced by Seth MacFarlane, no less– yes, that Seth MacFarlane.

Of course, no exegesis on a del Toro film is complete without noting the elegance of his signature visual style. The creatures and crawlies in this film are truly incredible, from the oracle with eyes in her wings (reminiscent of the cherubim from L’Engle’s “A Wind in the Door,” as Tantek cleverly noted) to the gnawing, clawing tiny tooth fairies. The floppy-faced skin bags from Pan’s Labyrinth also make a reappearance.

Oh yeah, and there’s a weird-looking evil elf guy who wants to end the world. But that’s not really the first, or even the fifth concern, for the Hellboy crew. Watching the Hellboy films reminds me of my time at Harvard in more than a few ways: it’s about an isolated group of different, gifted, slightly crazy people who are trying to find a way to get along. Okay, so none of my classmates turned into columns of fire or lived in fishtanks, and only a few emerged from the bowels of hell. But at the end of the day, they all had to get along and work together– regardless of whether the task was saving the world or saving their GPAs. There was a lot of anger, a lot of frustration, a lot of gossiping behind every back. But in the end, it worked, and we worked. Hellboy‘s merit as a film, besides its batshit-crazy good humor, is its assertion that the inmates can run the asylum– and do a damn good job at that. No, we may not have been different enough back at the old alma mater to blow stuff up or fight giant plant gods. But we were all pretty good at being weird. Like the characters in Hellboy, that’s what brought us together.