Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Stream of Consciousness Blogging

*Upstate New York is weird. Temperatures this week are in the 80's. Because it was cold enough to snow just a month ago, it feels like it's over 100 here.

*People who write love songs enjoy referencing Romeo and Juliet. Did these people ever, you know...watch the play??? Romeo and Juliet don't work out too well as couple. Sure, they spout lots of magnificent poetic oratory, but they end up unnecessarily and prematurely dead. Interesting thing, to me anyway, is that the play isn't about the outcome of their relationship. The prologue tells us they're going to die. The point of the story is that it takes the deaths of four teenagers (Mercutio, Tybalt, Romeo, and Juliet, in that order) to convince their families to get over whatever it is they're fighting about. Unlike many of Shakespeare's other tragedies, this one largely plays like one of the romantic comedies, up to the point that people start dying.

*I think one reason Lady Gaga is so popular is that her existence answers the age-old question, what would it be like if Madonna had a child with Elton John?

*Many of President Obama's far-right critics get angry about his religious statements for the same reason his far-left critics ignore them: neither group believes he's telling the truth. Their reactions to President Bush's religious statements were the opposite: each believed he was absolutely truthful in his views about faith.

*President Obama is starting to suffer the same problem with this oil spill that President Bush had with Hurricane Katrina: perceived lack of action. This is something that politicians must deal with, regardless of whether or not they are in a position to actually do anything.

*I actually had dreams about the final episode of LOST the other night. I think my brain was still trying to figure out a way to make sense of that ending. At least the ending was consistent with the overall style of the show. Too many shows, like Quantum Leap, Enterprise, Seinfeld, or even Dollhouse try to do a "big event" ending that ends up being a totally different type of episode that doesn't have the key elements that made us love the show in the first place. The next-to-the-last episode ends up being a better conclusion than the series ending event. I still think every copy of the final Enterprise episode needs to be gathered together and destroyed.

*Shows in the 1960's were shot on film, often 35mm. They were edited on film, with special effects processed on film. Thus, they maintain the high resolution that film provides and when they're cleaned up and released on DVD or Blu-Ray, they look outstanding. (The recent Blu-Ray releases of the original Star Trek are an excellent example.) By comparison, shows from the 80's or 90's like Star Trek: The Next Generation were shot on film, then transferred to video for editing and visual effects work. As a result, the supposedly more advanced TNG looks far less impressive on modern high-definition sets. The image is fuzzier, colors are less vibrant, and the effects just look artificial and over-processed. On the other hand, hi-def makes it much easier to see the make-up lines on Spock's ears.

*Way back when, "superstation" TBS showed nearly every Atlanta Braves game, and a Braves fan like me could watch from virtually anywhere in the country. Now TBS focuses on reruns and cheesy original shows, and baseball coverage is heavily regionalized. I can only watch the Braves if they are on ESPN or playing one of the New York teams. This is all the more disappointing when I think about how last year I could hop on a MARTA train in Atlanta and get seats behind home plate in the upper deck for $8 just about anytime I felt the urge. I'm not suggesting that whoever runs TBS should be whacked in the face with a sock full of marbles. Not at all.

*I just did a spell-check on this blog. The spell-checker highlights "Obama" as a potentially misspelled word. Really??? I think they need to update the blogger software....

Monday, May 17, 2010

Thoughts On Film: Tarantino Ends the War His Way

"I have a message for Germany: that you are all going to die. And I want you to look deep into the face of the Jew who is going to do it!" --Shosanna Dreyfus

Quentin Tarantino makes films that are at once distinctly his yet also derivative of the films he loves. Throughout any given Tarantino film there will be character names, camera moves, music cues, and plot lines that can be found in various spaghetti western, samurai, crime, or action movies. His talent lies in taking these different elements and combining them into something that is uniquely his. His most recent feature, 2009's Inglourious Basterds derives its title (but not its plot) from a correctly-spelled 1978 film and like his previous opus Kill Bill the plot revolves around a woman seeking revenge for the murder of her family.

Unlike previous Tarantino efforts, the plot unfolds in fairly linear fashion: the film is divided into five "chapters," the first of which is titled "Once upon a time...in Nazi-occupied France." This is the first clue that this film is no ordinary World War II story. Like anything that begins "once upon a time," it is mere fantasy, a story that takes place during WWII but is not about WWII. While some have criticized the film for being openly historically inaccurate, it makes no claim to be anything beyond a fictional yarn. Indeed, it is probably no less historically accurate than films that offer a veneer of authenticity such as The Da Vinci Code or Braveheart. (In case you're wondering, the Scots did not wear kilts during the time that Braveheart takes place, and William Wallace's father was an aristocrat, not a peasant. It is still a gripping film, but let's not pretend that it is a truthful one.)

***Minor plot spoilers ahead***

The opening scene introduces us to Nazi Col. Hans Landa (magnificently portrayed by Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz, in a role that requires him to switch between speaking German, French, English, and Italian), also known as "the Jew Hunter," as he visits a French dairy farm looking for Jews in hiding. Landa is skilled at linguistic manipulation and, despite his charm, manages during the film to convince nearly anyone in the film to confess to anything he wants to hear. Talking the hapless farmer into an "offer he can't refuse," Landa extracts the location of the hiding Dreyfus family and has his soldiers shoot up the room. Only the daughter Shosanna (the lovely Melanie Laurent, pictured above) manages to escape.

Meanwhile, US Army Lt. Aldo Raine (the hysterically funny Brad Pitt), a straight-shooter from Maynardville, TN, has put together a team of Jewish American soldiers (to include torture-porn director Eli Roth and The Office's B.J. Novak) and one very disgruntled ex-Nazi to carry out a guerrilla mission: kill and scalp as many Nazis as possible and spread terror throughout the Third Reich. They institute a policy of letting one Nazi "escape" every time in order to relay to his superiors the horrors visited upon his compatriots.

Years after the massacre of her family, Shosanna, hair dyed blonde, is running a movie theatre in Paris under the assumed name of Emmanuelle Mimieux. She catches the eye of Pvt. Frederick Zoller, a Nazi soldier who is something of a combined Alvin York and Audie Murphy for the Nazis: a war hero whose fame has led to his portrayal of himself in an upcoming propaganda film, A Nation's Pride. Hoping to ingratiate himself with the pretty cinema owner, he convinces the Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels to hold the premiere screening of ANP at Shosanna's theatre. She decides that her opportunity for revenge is here; she will lock the Nazis in the theater and burn it down. Unknown to her, A British officer (Michael Fassbender) and Raine's troops are planning to infiltrate the cinema and do the same thing, with the aid of glamorous German actress-turned-spy Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).

As with his previous works, Tarantino uses "found" music rather than original score. Particularly notable is his use of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western cues, something that would seem to be out of place in WWII France yet somehow it works. Then again, what other director would include David Bowie's "Cat People," with its eerily appropriate refrain "putting out the fire with gasoline," in a WWII movie?

Two important concepts are repeated throughout the film: the importance of language and the power of film. Fully half of the dialogue in this movie is not English: most of the main characters speak a mixture of German or French, with some Italian thrown in. (Or in Pitt's case, hilariously mangled Italian.) One scene in a restaurant is played straight through with characters speaking German or French, and waiting for a translator to go between them while the viewer reads the subtitles. While one might expect this to get dull or cumbersome, Tarantino uses this technique to build tension. These characters must rely on language to keep from blowing their covers, and we are shown that even a cultural misstep such as an odd hand gesture can ruin the illusion. At one point, Hammersmark wonders aloud if the Americans can speak anything other than English without "an atrocious accent." Unlike Kill Bill, which had extended complex action sequences, this film instead follows Hitchcock's definition of suspense: action is a bomb exploding; suspense is when a bomb is going to explode.

The cinema functions almost as a character in the story. Shosanna owns a cinema, Zoller is an actor and film lover, an Allied spy is a famous actress, the British officer was a film critic before the war, and Goebbels fancies himself the father of a new age of German cinema. Naturally, all these characters come together at a film premiere, and while the story involves bringing down the Nazis by blowing up a theatre full of extra-flammable silver nitrate film, the point is that this film itself is a sort of victory over the Nazis. Through the power of movies, Tarantino can end WWII the way he wants to end it. Hitler may have died cowering in a bunker, but it seems more poetic to have him meet his end watching a propaganda flick. And Tarantino gets to control who pulls the strings: in his world, the victims of the Third Reich's "final solution" are no longer victims, but active participants who get to play a vital role in bringing the Nazis to their knees.

While this film also contains Tarantino's trademark profanity and violence, it probably contains less of them than his other movies. His dark and bizarre humor is always evident, as is his rumored foot fetish. More than anything, Tarantino loves to have fun at the movies, and this is about as much fun in an alternate-reality WWII as you're likely to have.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Plethora of Ignorance

Ok, I really will try to reduce the one-month gap between posts on here. Literary irregularity is a loathsome thing.
One thing that is great about the internet and the massive amount of television, radio, film, and print media is that so much information can spread so quickly. One unfortunate thing about it all is that a lot of people can spread misinformation just as quickly, and this misinformation becomes fact. You may remember just a few years ago that reporters were telling shocking stories about the behavior of folks in New Orleans after the hurricane, and it turned out that many of those reports were ridiculously exaggerated. (Unfortunately, not all of them were.) (Also, this makes me wonder why the massive flood in Tennessee that has left much of Nashville underwater does not get more coverage. Thirty people are dead because of this flood. I have yet to see the President flying over in a chopper, showing solidarity with his fellow citizens. There hasn't been a major nationwide telethon to raise funds. If slow response to a disaster gives Kanye West the opportunity to claim that President Bush (the guy who had Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice in his cabinet) hates black people, then can we infer that President Obama hates country music?)
But I digress. Lots of people are up in arms over Arizona's new anti-illegal immigration law. Celebrities such as Shakira and Bishop Tutu (are they even citizens here???) have spoken out against it. The Phoenix Suns showed solidarity with Arizona's Mexican nationals by printing "Los Suns" on their jerseys, providing a rare opportunity to seem dumb in both English and Spanish. (Make up your minds...either stay "The Suns" or go all the way to "Los Sols." Lousy bilingualism doesn't do anyone any good.) (Also, more than one commentator has noted that the Suns play in an arena with secure points of entry and they require entrants to present tickets to get inside. Those found inside without proper credentials will be promptly escorted out by security. I should not need to point out the irony of this.)
Anyway, if you have questions about the new law, I recommend that you read this article by one of the people who crafted the law. Every legitimate objection I've heard is addressed, because the writers of the law expected people to challenge it, though I doubt they expected the backlash to be as bad as it has. Thousands were out in the street protesting, vandalizing, throwing things at police, getting arrested. (Contrast this to the controversial Tea Party rallies, where even allegations of rude comments towards Congresspersons have not been substantiated by video or audio evidence.) But the point I want to make is that when even the President criticized the law by claiming that a family going to get ice cream could be harassed, he was wrong. Only someone who is committing another legal violation, i.e. speeding, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and who cannot provide evidence of legal residence in the US can be given a background check for illegal entry, and only then by federal officials. All these people are protesting because a state law reinforces a pre-existing federal law. Also, a whole lot of the people criticizing the statute do not live in Arizona, where the law has broad support in such numbers that many legal immigrants and minorities support it. (I should disclose that though I've never lived in Arizona, I used to live in New Mexico and constantly heard stories about the illegal mind-altering substances that crossed the border. I guess that's why it's called the "Land of Enchantment.")
What really ticks me off is the amount of willful ignorance that is coming into play. I know, many people who oppose the law are concerned about the civil rights of those who are here legally and might be discriminated against because of their appearance or accent. (Check the link above--the law is written to account for such bias!) But it is possible to oppose allowing illegal immigrants to stream across the border without opposing legal immigration. I have known, worshipped with, and worked with people who came here from Thailand, China, Turkey, Mexico, Australia, Kenya, and Canada, among other places. Several of my friends from those nations are now US citizens. (I appreciate them because they chose to have something that I was granted at birth--US citizenship.) One of my best friends during some of my Army training was my roommate, who was originally from Mexico, and I can't imagine having a better friend to get me through some of the tough times. I do not hate immigrants. In fact, I respect immigrants so much that I think that others who want to move here shouldn't disrespect their fellow immigrants by breaking the law.
Sometime later this summer I plan to drive thirty miles up the road to the Canadian border. You think they'll let me across without my passport?