Monthly Archives: November 2007

I’m Not There


I just saw I’m Not There, the new ultra-artsy “biopic” about Bob Dylan. Let me just say: it’s an amazing film. Whether or not it’s an accessible film is a different story (it isn’t), but as far as a film that is stunning to watch—from first to last frame—I’m Not There is one of the best of the year.

By now you all know the gimmick: six actors of various ages, races, and genders each playing some iteration of “Dylan.” But the thing is, it isn’t a gimmick at all; in fact, it fits so perfectly with what this film is about… I can’t imagine it being right in any other way.

On one level this is a film about Bob Dylan—the complicated artist who had many “phases,” career turns, personalities, and iconic moments. Indeed, the film is as much about Dylan the man as it is about Dylan the decade: the aura and zeitgeist of the “sixties” which he so embodied.

And yet on another level the film is about identity in general. “Dylan”—or the lack of any one identifiable Dylan—is just an easy case study in what we might call the larger “identity crisis” in postmodern Western culture.

Prior to the Industrial Revolution, our sense of “self” or identity was more or less static—our social roles defined, our frames localized. But as the world pushed toward modernity things became much more fractured, specialized, and our social roles diversified. Soon the “self” became “selves” that corresponded to the different hats we wore and locales we existed in—the home, the workplace, the playground, etc… Modernity eroded our certainty about pretty much everything, including the notion that “who we are” is something we can control or understand… if it exists at all. People like Freud, Jung, and Lacan emphasized the massively complicated and elusive nature of personality, and later postmodernists like Foucault (who positioned “self” as a discursive construct rather than a real entity) and Baudrillard (who called identity “the label of existence”) further deconstructed any notion that there is a Self above and beyond our “selves.”

Dylan was living at a time when all of this was very much in the air—with modernity wreaking havoc (Vietnam, Cold War, etc) and the postwar “technocracy” breeding cookie-cutter specialists and subsequently a counterculture that defined itself in terms of the multiplicity of things it wasn’t. In some ways Dylan is the pop cultural embodiment of all this socio-cultural confusion. As society was struggling to define itself amid a world spinning in so many directions, so too was Bob Dylan.

But beyond the historical context of Dylan and the 60s, this film struck me as something I could relate to on a much more personal level. I’m not sure I subscribe (at least cognitively) to the postmodern theorists and rhetorics of the indefinable self, but watching this film I couldn’t help but recognize myself in the whirlwind of existential fluidity being displayed on screen.

There is a real sadness in the film’s desperate search for the self. The questions are never asked explicitly—and indeed, fractured identity is never problematized but rather organically assumed—but nonetheless, beneath the cool exteriors of each version of Dylan lies a spiritual angst and unsettledness. It is a spirit of confusion and fragmentation that I think we all—in this hyperlinked, frenetic world—can relate to. Who am I really? Am I the guy on TV? On stage? The character written about in the press? Or more germane to the non-celebrities among us today: Am I my Facebook profile? My blog persona? Or is that all a “separate” self from who I am with my closest friends and loved ones? Are all these individuated selves just some version of the same thing? And if so, does what I think I am really matter when everyone I ever meet sees me through different eyes?

The feeling that you get watching I’m Not There is the same hollow, perplexing feeling that the title implies: that in everything I’m seeing, experiencing, saying, performing, there is one thing that is conspicuously absent: myself. It is the feeling of being removed from yourself and simply observing from afar, akin to that dream experience of observing yourself as a character is some narrative that you are simultaneously experiencing first-person. It’s a feeling that reminds me of video games and avatars—playing “myself” in both a first and third person sense.

This is all very confusing and perhaps counterproductive, but there is an undeniable exhilaration to it as well. Being able to step back and analyze the breathtakingly complex nature of humanity—indeed, even within the one human being that is yourself—provides a fittingly diverse array of emotions. If that’s something you are not afraid to experience, go see I’m Not There.

Top Twenty Defining Films of the 00s


Because I LOVED this post about the top ten films of the millennium (thus far), and because I love lists, and probably because I’m sometimes a copycat, I decided to compile a list of the twenty most defining films released since 2000.

The key word here is defining. My list isn’t so much about the BEST as in raw, objective quality as it is about how well these films capture or embody the moment of the 00s. Just as films like The Graduate, Easy Rider, and Medium Cool defined the zeitgeist of the Sixties, what are the films we will look back upon as the best and most defining films of the first decade of the 21st century? Here is my list:

Inland Empire (2007):
Though David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) is probably the better film, Inland Empire is certainly more “of the moment.” The all-digital, hallucinatory epic (it looks like a home video from hell) is a three-hour montage of nightmarish postmodern images and rabbit trails—an assemblage of 21st century anxiety and scatterbrained vignettes of the most mind-bending sort.

The New World (2006): Terrence Malick’s film, though set in the earliest days of the American republic, has a lot to say about how we view the world now. The film is an elegiac tone poem for a paradise lost— ecologically, spiritually, and culturally. Its fluid images and hushed voiceover fragments create one long, cathartic purge for our collective, world-weary soul.

A.I. (2001): This film ushered in the 21st century with a particularly 21st century gimmick: the mashup. The Spielberg/Kubrick film is also thoroughly modern in its dystopic imagery and technophobic preoccupations: the all-too-immediate question of what happens when our technology becomes more real to us than our fellow humans.

Lost in Translation (2003): Brilliant in the way that it embodies globalization and its discontents in the twenty-first century, Sofia Coppola’s graceful, nuanced film captures both the joys and existential angst of a glossy, post-industrial, spiritually-wayfaring society.


Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005): This quirky little film from artist Miranda July is all about the odd mutations of human communication and connection in a digital age. What happens when our computer-mediated relationships turn out to be less than appealing in the real world?

Nine Lives (2005): Nine fragments of nine individual lives, told in segments over a series of nine long shots: all of them women, all unresolved glimpses into tangled lives with branching trajectories. It may sound convoluted, but this film evokes so much truth in its snapshot structure. It’s akin to the soundbite news stories or googled tidbits that populate our everyday windows into other peoples’ worlds… only better.

Children of Men (2006): Like A.I., this futuristic sci-fi epic provides an exceptionally dour vision of the not-too-distant future. The film deals not so much with technology, however, as with the consequences of politics, war, terrorism, immigration, and environmental disintegration. Like much of the doomsday rhetoric in society today, however, there are some glimpses of hope within the chaos.

Before Sunset (2004): This film, which is essentially an extended conversation between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, is perhaps the most elegantly urgent film of our increasingly anxious historical moment. It’s about not letting things slip away in a world where second chances—where nothing, really—is guaranteed.


George Washington (2000): David Gordon Green’s debut film is anachronistic (there are no computers or cell phones to be seen), but while it may not feel completely comfortable in the 21st century, neither does it feel at home in the 20th. The film is in some ways a lament for the “olden days” of green grass, safe streets, American dreams—but it is also looking away from all that—towards a new future that leaves behind the racial, relational, and economic strife of bygone days.

Flags of Our Fathers / Letters From Iwo Jima (2006):
Clint Eastwood’s WWII double-whammy is both a classic war epic and a totally postmodern recasting of our collective national memory of “The War.” By showing the Battle of Iwo Jima from both the American (Flags) and Japanese (Letters) perspectives, Eastwood provides a decidedly 21st century narrative that is fueled by our general malaise (post Iraq) about America’s foreign policy.

United 93 (2006): 9/11 is the defining event of this decade (thus far), and United 93 is the best filmic representation of it. The documentary-style drama brings us viscerally back to the terror of that day, offering a disturbing glimpse inside the hijacked flight 93 as well as a resonant look at the unfolding chaos on the ground.

25th Hour (2002): Shot in the shadows of the blue-light specters of the World Trade Center, Spike Lee’s film captures the complicated post-9/11 mood of America. Ostensibly about one man’s (Edward Norton) last night before heading off to prison, 25th Hour is really a letter to NYC and America—full of all the rage, love, sadness, and hope that Lee so keenly conjures up in his films.


The Royal Tenenbaums (2001): Wes Anderson’s most complete, satisfying cinematic entrée, Tenenbaums is a gloriously somber iteration of the sort of hip-cultural/youthful nostalgia that has defined the 00s. Anderson’s hyper-stylized, immaculately arranged art direction and mise-en-scene also seem to have started numerous trends in both film and television.

Being John Malkovich (2000): You could argue that the most pressing question of the digital age is that of identity. Being John Malkovich takes this question and runs with it—to very trippy results. Spike Jonze’s film feels like a video game in an online puppet fetish community; it is wildly postmodern and nonsensical.

Southland Tales (2007): This soon-to-be cult classic from Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) is a frenetic, insane, balls-out overture to all that is off-kilter in 21st century, post 9/11 America. Like the decade it satirizes, the film is a mashup of politics, religion, entertainment and technology—a warped but beautiful vision of a surrealist Lynchian apocalypse.

The Departed (2006):
Last year’s best picture Oscar winner is a thoroughly contemporary film in both obvious ways (the importance of cell phones for the script) and on more subtle levels (the transnational migration of the film from the Hong Kong original—Infernal Affairs—is a decidedly recent phenomenon in cinema). Furthermore, the film’s urban, unrepentant nihilism feels quite authentic in the context of our current cultural quagmire.


Waking Life (2001): One it tempted to write this animated (via rotoscope) film off as an exercise in high style (which it is), but Richard Linklater’s 2001 film is also stunning in its seamless and gloriously garrulous vignettes full of new millennium philosophizing.

Kill Bill (2003-04): This two-volume epic from Quentin Tarantino throws together a zillion pop culture artifacts to form a surprisingly effective, coherent narrative that fits nicely into the post-9/11 revenge-film trend. The genre, musical, stylistic, and thematic hybridity demonstrated in the film(s) may not be solely Tarantino’s domain any longer, but he still does it the best.

Garden State (2004):
Some called it The Graduate for the Net-generation; others called it commodified cool. Whatever you call it, this film struck an unmistakable chord with many, many young people—disillusioned, medicated, and unsure of physical place and “home” in an increasingly de-physicalized world.

Tarnation (2004): Using a mass of accumulated home video from throughout his life, director Jonathan Caouette takes us on a harrowing journey through his troubled childhood, messed-up family, and drug-addled existence. It’s a truly tragic and very personal film, and perhaps the first masterpiece of the “home movie / iMovie” genre.

What Would Jesus Buy?


Today is the biggest shopping day of the year—the opening shot in the annual “war on Christmas” (thanks Bill O’Reilly!). It’s a day when Americans amp up their insane infatuation with shopping. Children make their lists, parents mark up ads like battle plans, and everyone prepares for a victorious day of bargains. It’s all very militant—hordes of shoppers wielding credit cards and cell phones as weapons, their SUVs as tanks… prepared to push over the slow or small as the doors open and the sales begin.

A new documentary was just released (in select cities) that examines the absurdity of this cultural rite of passage. It is called What Would Jesus Buy? and follows Rev. Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping on their Christmas protest bus tour of 2005. The film, produced by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), is a comedic indictment of both over-consumerism and over-corporatization in America. I recently interviewed Spurlock and the film’s director for an article for Christianity Today. You can read that piece here.

But as much as the film is interesting, valuable, and at times provocative, I’m not sure it ever really considers the question which is its title. What would Jesus buy? What would he think of our consumer culture? Of corporations like Starbucks, Walmart, and Disney (the veritable “Axis of Evil” in WWJB). The obvious answer—and the assumed point of view of the movie—is that Jesus would hate all things consumer, outsourced, and globalized. And he would especially loathe big corporations.

But is it really as simple as that? The movie cites the biblical story of Jesus overturning the moneychangers’ tables in the temple as a justification for why Jesus must hate greedy capitalists. In my mind, however, that story is less an indictment of money-changing in general as of the fact that it is being done in the TEMPLE. The problem for Jesus is the defilement of the temple by commercialism –the desacralizing of the holy by way of quotidian materialism.

In a way, then, the commercialization of Christmas does fit into this reading of Matthew 21:12-13. The sacred sacrament of Christmas does seem to be tainted by our seasonal orgy of over-spending and manic obsession with giving and getting things. This is not to say that we should stop shopping and/or giving gifts to each other on Christmas. Just that we should be mindful of when this consumer orientation overwhelms the better aspects of Christmas—namely, the reflection upon and worship of the newborn savior.

Okay, so we can agree on that. Over-commercialization is bad when it overtakes something sacred (whether it be Christmas or Christianity in general). Heaven knows that consumer Christianity is a huge problem. Christian music, Christian books, Christian movies, t-shirts, videogames, aprons, slippers, votive candle holders, keychains, coasters, cutlery, etc… Would Jesus buy Christian products if he were here in our world today? I don’t know. But I’m quite certain he would buy products. I think it’s a stretch to assume that Jesus would live a hippie life on a commune with home-grown food and no transaction with the dirty little capitalists all around him.

On the contrary, Jesus seemed to be in the business of loving people despite their position in the culture or economy. This includes tax collectors, merchants, prostitutes, and today it would include fat cat CEOs, white collar corporate hacks, blue collar union leaders and immigrant slave laborers. This is not to say he wouldn’t chastise people for greed or exploitative employment policies (and greed, may it be said, is NOT a vice unique to the white collar hegemony), but it is also not to suggest that Jesus would love them but not buy their products. It seems to me that one would follow the other. I can’t imagine Jesus saying to a Walmart executive, “I love you, but I’d never spend a dime at one of your evil stores.” This is the sort of “love the sinner, hate the sin” rhetoric that sounds nice but makes Christianity sound like a conditional, fickle farce.

I’m not saying Jesus would shop carelessly—spending mounds of dough on lattes and overpriced designer doo-dads. I’m just saying I don’t think he’d be an ad-busting, culture-jamming, anti-consumerist zealot. But I suppose we shouldn’t even be wondering about these things. Jesus and “what he would do” about this and that is such a disgustingly overused gimmick. The limits to what you can imagine Jesus doing or supporting are only limited by how much you need some sort of holy sanction for whatever opinion you are championing.

I don’t know what Jesus would buy, but just like he’d be angry when his name is slapped on a pair of socks and sold to Christians for $10, I’m sure he’d likewise be pissed at his name being so cavalierly invoked to sell America on anti-consumerism.

Derelict Chic


Los Angeles is a place where anyone can be a celebrity—and I mean anyone. It’s also a city that boasts one of the largest homeless populations in the world (50,000 and rising). It was only a matter of time, then, that a homeless person became a celebrity.

Meet John Wesley Jermyn (aka “The Crazy Robertson”)—a streetperson who has lived on Robertson Blvd in L.A. for twenty some years. Like many vagrants in the City of Angels, Jermyn comes from a successful background (he was a star baseball player in high school and college, and was drafted by the Kansas City Royals in 1969). Unlike most vagrants, however, Jermyn has a clothing line named after him.

Kitson, a trendy boutique in the uber-popular Robertson shopping corridor, has recently launched “The Crazy Robertson” brand of T-shirts and sweatshirts. The line includes a $98 hoodie with Jermyn’s likeness on the back and the words “No Money, No Problems.” The twenty-something trio that launched the label made a deal that offers 5% of the line’s net profits to Jermyn, though so far he has refused to accept much cash, preferring to be paid in food, liquor and paper for his art projects.

In the meantime, Beverly Hills hipsters are snatching up the Crazy Robertson shirts—the latest fad in the increasingly odd and self-conscious “gauche/trash” trend in L.A. fashion.

Nary an indie-rock concert today that does not have dozens of rich kids dressed in Olsen twin derelict, “ashcan” homeless style. A few weeks ago I was at a Joanna Newsom concert (a freakfolk harpist/singer-songwriter) and there was loads of this boho, straggly-haired unkemptness. I even saw one guy with a stick hoisted over his shoulder with a cloth sack hanging off the end of it, railroad bum style. I felt like I was in a Jack Kerouac novel.

Homelessness is probably not trendy or cool if you are a homeless person, but it is increasingly chic for many wealthy and hip folks in Los Angeles. Look no further than L.A.’s infamous “Skid Row.” At 50 square blocks, this bastion of third-world poverty is the largest encampment of homelessness in the nation. But it is also—increasingly—the hottest site of high-end real estate development in downtown Los Angeles. Literally across the street from the homeless tent camps are newly renovated loft spaces that sell for $1000-2000/month. In efforts to (perhaps) get in touch with their unpretentious earthiness, many yuppies are moving into the gentrified shantytown. Oscar-nominated “it” actor Ryan Gosling lives in a loft on Skid Row. “You can’t filter yourself from reality there,” Gosling remarked in a Guardian interview.

As bizarre as this all is, it does make some sense. People long to be “homeless-friendly”—especially rich, socially conscious, guilty white folks. And since riding public transportation, working at a soup kitchen or volunteering at a city mission is out of the question for much of the leisure class, moving in next door is the next best option! Spending hundreds of dollars on designer homeless clothes sends a message of solidarity, right?

Well, maybe, but solidarity does nothing to alleviate real world problems. The gentrification of Skid Row may “clean up” downtown L.A., but where will all the homeless people go? I wonder if Ryan Gosling realizes that the “reality” he is paying top dollar to live within will be directly impacted by his being there? Do the patrons of Kitson realize that the $98 they spend on a “Crazy Robertson” sweatshirt could buy ten sweatshirts for people on the streets?

Probably not, but that’s because “derelict chic” is a trend. And trends have little concern for consequences.

The Case for Criticism


This Thursday is Thanksgiving—a day when we should wake up to the overwhelming goodness and bounty in our lives. It is a wonderful and much-needed occasion to reflect on what is good in the world: family, home, health, happiness, etc.

On this day we are often reminded that being “critical” or “cynical” does no one any good. As a critic by trade, I sometimes feel a little guilty around Thanksgiving. Life’s too short to go around criticizing things, right? Shouldn’t we be thankful for what is good in life rather than complain or criticize what is wrong? The world needs more positive thinking, after all.

But criticism gets a bad wrap when it is associated with cynicism or some other negative word. Sure, there are types of criticisms that are rooted in unhelpful, aggressively deconstructive attitudes. But other criticisms come from a constructive spirit of enrichment and appreciation. Some criticism, in other words, is meant to make the world better. I might even suggest that all criticism—when it is serious, well-informed, and nuanced—benefits humanity.

The world is a complex, overwhelming place. There is a whole lot of good and a whole lot of bad—an absolute glut that gets bigger by the day. Without questions and criticism, it would be unmanageable—or if not unmanageable, then at least unlivable.

Criticism is all about understanding, theorizing, making simple what is complex… It is plucking out and propelling the best of what is otherwise obscure. The purpose of criticism is to champion goodness, truth, and beauty and to criticize that which is bad, dishonest, or ugly (things that are, arguably, increasingly subjective).

I recently wrote an article on criticism for Relevant magazine in which I came to the defense of the much-maligned discipline/vocation. Here’s a brief excerpt:

[The job of a critic] should NOT be to try to keep people away from bad movies. Instead, we should try to keep people from missing the great movies. Sure, I enjoy writing scathing reviews of atrocious films (who doesn’t?), but I’d much rather write about a film that I love. It’ s fun to make a dent in the undeserving monstrosities, but it’s way more fulfilling to give some momentum to the deserving-yet-unknown little guy.

I think the food critic character in Ratatouille (a movie I highly recommend) puts it nicely in his final speech of the movie. He speaks for all critics, I think, when he says:

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.”

Indeed, the discovery and defense of something new—something true, beautiful, significant, progressive—is when the critic feels most validated. It’s when anyone feels most validated. Yes, it’s true that the cultural significance of “the critic” is waning. In our bottom-up, user-driven society, top-down suggestion is way less persuasive than peer-to-peer recommendations. We see through marketing and are suspicious of opinions—unless they are from people we trust. And yet to be someone that people trust (more than just your best friends and family) takes some devotion to the critical discipline. (read the rest of the article here…)

I’m not saying that all critics are valid or helpful, just that the idea of criticism is not something we should fear or view as inherently negative.

What we have to be thankful for is often brought to our mind, elucidated, and eloquently celebrated by the critical act. Far from something that is contrary to a positive, enriched outlook on life, criticism is an essential and invaluable affirmation of who we are as rationally-endowed, finely-tuned beings.

Southland Tales


Southland Tales is a gloriously incoherent, colossally ambitious, creatively explosive masterpiece of American cinema. Such breathless critical hyperbole is fitting for such a breathlessly hyperbolized film. Everything about Richard Kelly’s second film (following cult hit Donnie Darko) is over the top, super-sized, and shamelessly indulgent. It’s a million little pieces of postmodern ramblings, pop-culture pastiche, and political farce… but it all adds up to an experience that’ll bowl you over in its ballsy cinematic exuberance.

Tales is the type of film critics love to write about. But it’s also the type of film you can’t really write about. There’d never be enough words to capture anywhere near what one could say. Thus, because Tales eschews conventional structure, narrative, and a general concern for rhetorical efficacy, so too will my “review.” The film is a fluid, freestyle hemorrhage of scatterbrained thoughts, arguments, and observations. It’s a film that glories in the art of irreverent, probably pretentious mimesis; and so go I down the same meandering path.

  • First scene of the film: home video, Texas, July 4, 2005. Neighborhood kids gathered in general frivolity for child’s birthday party (ala South American alien scene in Signs). Suddenly: boom! Mushroom cloud! Terrified screams! WWIII, terrorism, CBS’s Jericho (a name that comes up throughout the film), Pat Frank’s Alas Babylon!
  • I do NOT trust the Cannes Film Festival. Southland Tales almost didn’t get distribution because those snobby cinematic dilettantes booed it to all hell. But they also loathed Marie Antoinette and The Brown Bunny. Case closed.
  • Tales is wicked political farce: a strikingly insidious steam valve for the bubbling rage, seething malaise, and widespread 21st century disgust with American democracy. It’s Fox News Channel, Enron, neo-Cons, hippie liberals, neo-Marxist performance artists, racist cops, gerrymandering (via severed thumbs), militant electioneering, Fallujah war stories, Big Brother surveillance, Patriot Act-sanctioned federalized Internet, frathouse beer bongs, American flags, Hustler billboards on tanks, wildfires, riots, earthquakes, and Armageddon all rolled into one.
  • Video screens and interfaces define the look of this film. “HD Live”—bringing you all the best of Iraq War footage and “Girls Gone Wild” Springbreak debauchery… sponsored by Hustler, Panasonic, and Bud Light. Miranda Richardson (playing the conniving, backroom mastermind wife of a presidential candidate) sits in a control room with wall-to-wall screens pumping real time war updates, LAX bathroom stall surveillance, celebrity news, scrolling updates, and teaser tidbits (“How safe is your car? Find out which cars are the favorites of the terrorist car bomb underground… after the break!”). The revolution WILL be televised!
  • Sarah Michelle Gellar plays Krysta Now, a porn star turned multi-media talkshow host with a cable TV show called “Now”—a “topical discussion chat reality show” in which a panel of porn stars debate a slate of important issues like war, crime, “social reform,” abortion, and teen horniness. The show equates “important national issues” with X-rated banter about sexual positions. It’s as captivating and ridiculous as any Ann Coulter diatribe on a cable news talkshow.
  • In addition to Buffy, the film’s cast is loaded with a who’s-who of pop culture icons, B celebrities and other such unconscionable casting choices (“Booger” from Revenge of the Nerds is in it!). The Rock (or, as he likes to be called now, Dwayne something) is the mysterious locus of the film—a celebrity wrestler turned-politician/screenwriter who’s married to Mandy Moore (playing a daughter of a senator) and writing a script that becomes Southland Tales somewhere around the one hour mark. Seann William Scott plays dual roles as an L.A. cop carousing with neo-Marxist revolutionaries (played by SNL stars Cheri Oteri and Amy Poehler) and his identical brother/clone who spends a good portion of the film in a dumpster. Other stars of the film include Bai Ling (as the heavily eye-shadowed “Serpentine”), Kevin Smith (as a philosophizing mastermind of the 4th dimension…similar to “The Architect” of The Matrix), and Jon Lovitz (as a corrupt and moribund L.A. cop).
  • Justin Timberlake—God bless him—steals the show. He’s a celeb-turned Iraq War vet named Private Pilot Abilene. He also narrates the film, quoting T.S. Eliot (“this is the way the world ends, not with a whimper but with a bang”) and half of the book of Revelation. He’s a God-fearing prophet (perhaps one of the “two witnesses of Jerusalem”?) and a beer-guzzling druggie (addicted to “Fluid Karma,” which is a revolutionary substance somehow key to the oil-strapped world’s energy crisis).
  • Best scene of the movie: Timberlake (in all his SexyBack/NSYNC glory) breaking into a dance sequence/lipsync to “All These Things That I Have Done” by The Killers. Backed by a chorus line of blonde-wigged dancers, Timberlake mouths the words to the song (“I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier”) while walking toward and glaring at the camera, music-video style (i.e. uber-serious), all the while pouring Bud Light beer onto his head.
  • Tales is a cinematic homage to L.A. (via films like Short Cuts, Magnolia, The Big Lebowski) but more than anything it’s a love letter to David Lynch (himself an auteur of L.A. in all its incomprehensible Southland mayhem). Moby’s thick, synth-happy score is an MTV-age riff on Angelo Badalamenti’s ethereal sonic layering that defines the Lynch brand (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, etc). There’s a lurid, primal elegance to the artifice of Tales that both stems from and expands on Lynch’s feverish cinematic delirium. The climax of the Lynch love comes in the film’s final act—with an unforgettable performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” sung partly in Spanish by Rebekah “Llorando” Del Rio (the crystal-voiced mystery singer from Mulholland Drive’s stunning “Club Silencio” sequence). Simply astounding.
  • Krysta Now is the prescient voice of cultural narrative in the film. She comments on the past (“All the pilgrims did was ruin the Indian orgy of freedom”) the future (“Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than originally predicted”), and even the apocalyptic now: “The New York Times said God is Dead!” Buffy Michelle Gellar exudes a sharp comic timing that gives the film some of its funniest moments (and there are a lot of them).
  • The music in the film—anchored by Moby’s luxuriant score—kills. Great songs are featured from the Pixies, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Jane’s Addiction, Waylon Jennings, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, and a slew of Britpop bands (Radiohead, Blur, Muse, Elbow)… even a well-placed Beethoven’s 9th.

So much more to be said, but I’ll wrap it up with an incoherent string of images, phrases, and adjectives that Southland Tales evokes: American dysfunctional “party on” ethos, decontextualized soundbite windows media, reality as pop art vaudeville, entertainment/political/technocratic superstructure, Huxleyan dystopia, SUVs humping, The Hindenburg in flames, Jesus Christ stigmata tattoos on The Rock, spacetime continuum rifts, Kubrick, Robert Frost, Tarantino, off-road rollerblades, Venice Beach freaks/anarchists, Santa Monica pier snipers, Skid Row version of Children of Men firefight, Cheetos-eating stalkers, pop pastiche trifle with Herculean vigor and convenient election-year timing, epoch-defining, Gen X orgy of cultish Trekkie fanboyisms, desacralized Neo savior complex, O.J. Simpson/early 90s L.A., Greta Van Susternist exploitation, Lacan’s mirror stage, the fractured postmodern self, and pimps who are never suicidal.

The Writers’ Strike: Doomsday for TV?


For those outside of Hollywood and NYC, the Writers Guild Strike probably seems distant, irrelevant, and maybe a bit superfluous. But soon enough everyone will feel its effects—in the short term (lots of re-runs, sports, and reality TV this winter) and also in long term, systemic shifts in the broadcast media landscape.

To quickly summarize what the strike is all about: in a word, Internet. Last time the WGA went on strike in 1988 it was over home video residuals (i.e. how much per video sold or rented does the writer get?). The debate today is in part over DVD residuals (because writers now get only 8 cents per DVD sold), but in most opinions, the days of DVDs are numbered. Thus, the real focus of the debate between writers and studios is compensation for Internet content. For every streamed or downloaded show on a network website, writers get nothing. This is a problem for them, but the networks refuse to budge.

In one of my classes last week, Greg Daniels (creator/show-runner for The Office) spoke to us about the strike. Earlier in the day he had been on the picket lines with other Office staff, which you can see in this video (he’s the guy with glasses). Daniels told us that the strike was all about show content on the Internet, which networks maintain is solely promotional/marketing in purpose, even though—according to Daniels—the ads on the network websites are twice as valuable per 1000 views as anything on TV. But are the writers seeing any of this money? Not a dime.

For obvious (albeit risky) reasons, the networks and their studios are not conceding or negotiating anything. They recognize that the immense money to be made online is the future, and thus they’re taking a hard-line proprietary stance. If the belligerent posturing continues, the strike could last at least as long as the ’88 strike (5 months) or maybe even longer. All your favorite shows will be relegated to reruns, reality shows will enjoy a reluctant renaissance, and American Idol’s ratings will go higher into the stratosphere than ever before.

In the meantime, the writing talent in Hollywood will be jobless… In theory. But the longer the strike goes on, the more I think the good writers will go elsewhere with their material. Everyone is pretty much in agreement about the fact that T.V. is inevitably going to move online. So why should writers wait for the networks? In the all-access, narrowcast, niche Internet, who needs broadcast networks? Writers may as well circumvent the networks entirely: acquire private financing from a third party, produce the shows independently, market them virally, and exhibit them online.

Lest you think made-for-the-Internet shows are still a long way off, think again. Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick (My So Called Life, thirtysomething) have a new show called quarterlife that premiered on MySpace on Sunday and will be shown in 36 webisode installments on The twentysomething ensemble drama is a fictionalized serial that supplements a larger social-networking site for aspiring artists and creative people in their twenties. Sound like a brave new world? That’s because it is.

Television as we used to know it—a place where shows appeared on certain days and times that we had to tune in to, tape, or miss—is disappearing before our eyes. With Tivo, iTunes, webisodes, and online streaming, we are no longer tied down to a day, time or medium through which we consume media. We determine how we consume an episode of a show. It’s a completely me-centric media experience.

I’m convinced that we are just a few years out from a massive change in our very definition of television.

Soon we will buy most of our TV shows like we do a magazine—either by subscribing for a year or picking it up ala carte. For $20 or $30 bucks we will be able to buy a season of our favorite shows and have access to download or view them exclusively online. And this money would go directly to the people making the show—with no network or distribution middlemen. Thus, if J.J. Abrams announced a new, spinoff Lost series to be shown online to subscribers only, he could feasibly finance it completely himself. It would require Abrams to convince loyal Lost viewers (about 15 million in the U.S. alone) to shell out $20 for a “season pass” to view or download a 20-episode season. This would equal $300 million income for Abrams—more than enough to cover the show’s 3-4M/episode budget. And this is without any mention of advertiser revenue, which in the old model of T.V. was the one and only income source.

Essentially I’m suggesting a new model of entertainment-delivery that is funded solely through mini-contributions from millions of viewers. But of course, this is not a new model at all! It’s called the movies! T.V. and cinema have been converging for decades now in style. Now they are taking that last step of convergence in business: on-demand, web-based, ala-carte everything.

Call me crazy, but this is the future. The Writers’ Strike is just hurrying it all along.

No Country For Old Men


Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film, No Country For Old Men, is not an easy film to watch. It is desperately nihilistic and almost apocalyptic, in the way that Cormac McCarthy is so apt at capturing. It’s an anachronistic Texas western in look and mood—with great action scenes, shootouts, and dead desert imagery. But it is a world-weary, existential western as well: somewhere between Unforgiven and 3:10 to Yuma.

However you might classify this film, one thing is certain: it is a great, great movie. Certainly one of the best of the year, and an Oscar nominee for sure.

What I appreciate most about this film is the way that it gradually moves from being a conventional (and conventionally graphic) thriller to a deeply ambivalent, almost lethargic elegy in the course of its two-hour running time. Don’t get me wrong—the film is incredibly engaging and well-paced throughout. But the visceral power of the violence in its first half is matched by the strikingly obvious avoidance of blood in its second half.

This is not to say that there is no violence in the film’s second half—just that it is rarely seen. What starts with clever camera evasions of illustrating violence soon becomes avoidance of entire scenes (important scenes) altogether. In most movies the violence escalates and climaxes in a bang-up conclusion. In No Country‘s final 45 minutes, we mostly see the effects of violent acts: the police tape, the scars, the funerals, the spiritual emptiness and desolate landscapes. By hiding from us what we know is there, the film’s thematic resolve becomes crystallized. This is not so much a film about violence (the culture of it, its cyclical nature, etc) as it is about our psychological responses to it: specifically, how we as pulp-consumers become desensitized to it and disengaged from the moral inexactitudes beneath it.

The reverse-momentum style of this film (which unemotionally kills off major characters with little more than a passing comment) reminded me of Paul Schrader’s discussion of abundant-to-sparse stylistic trajectories in his concept of transcendental cinema.

Schrader writes about “abundant” and “sparse” methods of filmmaking, with abundant referring to the idea that film as a medium can easily fulfill the dreams and desires of the audience, giving them abundant images of what they want or expect to see (and with the technology available today, the limits of what can be shown are almost nill). Sparse means, on the other hand, work against the abundant means, using purposeful restraint to keep the objects of desire hidden, “gradually robbing the abundant means of their potential.” In the case of this film, we desire or expect a one on one showdown between protagonist (Josh Brolin) and villain (Javier Bardem)—or at least some justice (any justice) to be served in the end. But the film denies us all of that, leaving us instead with a haunting, rambling soliloquy by a dazed Tommy Lee Jones. And it works.

Schrader believes that transcendental style “must use the given abundant means to sustain audience interest, and it must simultaneously reject the empathetic rationale for that interest in order to set up a new priority.” Stasis (when the image simply stops) is the embodiment of the spare: when abundant means are shown to have little purpose and the sparse means, now dominant, give way to the end of the film.

This is essentially the structure of No Country For Old Men. It lures us in with a classic noir-western plot and cat-and-mouse setup (hapless cowboy stumbles upon drug money, takes it, and must continually evade the pursuant villains) but then gradually re-orients the film away from this “plot” and more toward the point of view of a seemingly peripheral character (Jones). By the end we come to realize that the heart-pounding chase that makes up most of this film is just a part of the larger, ongoing chase in all of our lives: between past, present, and a future that invites mortality and assumes an inevitable reckoning.

Green is Universal Trendy


This week marks a first in sweeps gimmicks: a major conglomerate network is “going green.” As anyone who has watched any shows on NBC, Bravo, MSNBC, CNBC, USA, or Sci-Fi Channel this week will know, the peacock corporation (NBC-Universal) has made it clear that “Green is Universal” (a clever way of saying “Universal is Green… or at least greener than our competing networks”).

This week-long stunt has resulted in (among other things) green network logos, on-screen graphics with tips for reducing carbon emissions, and reportedly 150 hours of green-themed programming across the NBC network family.

Specific show iterations of the “Green is Universal” theme include a task on The Biggest Loser where contestants learn how to exercise without electricity, a character on E.R. buying an energy-efficient car, and a plotline in Bionic Woman set at an environmental conference in Paris. The culmination comes tonight in 30 Rock—in what promises to be a hilariously self-reflexive episode—which features an Al Gore cameo and Alec Baldwin’s character concocting a catchy green mascot for NBC he calls “Greenzo.”

On the Today Show earlier this week, Ann Curry broadcast live from Antarctica, Matt Lauer from the Arctic Circle, and Al Roker from the equator. Cable is also getting in on the parent company’s campaign, with Bravo’s Real Housewives of Orange County featuring eco pop-ups on how to “live with less bling and with more green” and USA’s logo changing from “Characters Welcome” to “Environmentalists Welcome.”

But what is this green onslaught really about? Why is it conveniently happening during sweeps month?

Lauren Zalaznick, president of Bravo Media and head of the NBC Universal Green Council, has argued that NBC’s green campaign is less about good PR or sweeps than it is about actually trying to make the world better: ”For a very cynical world, this is a very earnest effort… We have to leave our world more sustainable than it is right now. If we can use our power as media to do that, and take a whole lot of consumers along for the ride, why wouldn’t we?” NBC-Universal CEO Jeff Zucker added that “Green is good for the world and good for the bottom line.”

Zucker is probably more honest than anyone with his acknowledgement that green is “good for the bottom line.” This is true both in terms of conservation activities lowering overhead costs, but also (perhaps more significantly in Zucker’s mind) in terms of building up the brand of NBC-Universal: as a high class, socially-conscious, forward-thinking company that is hip to current cultural concerns and political trends.

But herein is the problem. “Green” is obviously the cause célèbre right now. Outside my apartment in L.A. there was recently installed a huge billboard for Barney’s (a super high-end department store just down the street in Beverly Hills) that says “Have a Green Holiday” in a festive green font. The billboard includes a seductive picture of a model with luscious red lips and a gold mistletoe tree necklace hanging on her forehead. C’mon!

This sort of “green is sexy” notion has—of course—trickled down from highly-publicized celebrity involvement in environmental issues (led by folks like Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore) and is now the fad du jour. Everyone who is anyone is “going green”… whether with hybrid cars or $1,720 dollar Louis Vuitton re-usable grocery bags (Scarlett Johansson has one!).

Don’t get me wrong. It is GREAT that reusable canvas totes are trendy right now and designer plastic bags are not. But if Scarlett is going to drop two grand in a socially-conscious way, wouldn’t it be put to better use helping some kids in Africa than saving a tree or two? I feel like “green” is such an easy, comfortable, fashionable trend/cause to plug into for celebs or any company looking for some good PR. It’d be much less marketable, for example, if NBC pronounced November “Save Darfur” month or something.

Furthermore, I’m not sure that green really is universal. Being “green” is still very class-determined in the sense that low-income groups cannot afford to buy reusable or eco-friendly products, let alone a hybrid car. And frankly, if you’re in Darfur (or Iraq, or Pakistan, or 80% of the world), “going green” is the least of your concerns. Surviving is hard enough.

That said, I hope my cynicism about NBC’s “green” commitment doesn’t take away from the fact that the net result of the whole thing is definitely more good than it is bad. The environment is something we should be concerned about—even if its cooptation by the culture industry seems a tad problematic.

Christianity 101: Exclusivity


I have had several conversations and encounters in recent months that have made me worried about the extent to which the world—including Christians—does not understand what Christianity really means. In June I attended a panel discussion on the film A Mighty Heart, which featured representatives from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim backgrounds. The major theme throughout the discussion was the increasingly popular sentiment of collective goodwill/hope: that all major religions—regardless of who is being worshipped—are chiefly about love and peace. We must stop viewing each other as different or wrong… just diverse paths to a similar end.

More recently (this weekend), I attended a screening of a new documentary produced by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me). The film, entitled What Would Jesus Buy?, uses the forms and traditions of Christianity to mount an argument against out-of-control consumerism, though it never really offers Christianity or Christ as an alternative or solution. The film (which I will write about in more depth soon) follows “Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping”—a performance art/activist group that looks like a gospel choir but makes no claims of believing in the gospel. Following the screening of the film, I interviewed Spurlock and asked him about how Christianity fits into the message of the film. He said that the film’s theme reflects the true meaning of Christmas—the arrival of a man who would revolutionize the world and shake things up through his radical message of peace, love, and equality.

But Christians, as I pointed out to Spurlock, would argue that Christmas represents more than peace and goodwill and love. It represents the Answer to our dissatisfaction in the arrival of a person who becomes a savior. True satisfaction, the Christian argues, comes not simply from the message of Jesus Christ (which if it is only peace/love/equality is not unique to him), but through his person. The sacrificial death and resurrection of Jesus—and through that alone—provides our redemption and ultimate happiness. Spurlock (who was incredibly nice and easy to talk to) responded by saying that yes, happiness can be found in Jesus Christ, but also in Allah or Buddha or whoever it might be. All of us are essentially about the same business: which is to try to make a change in the world.

It seems that the Christianity being invoked in What Would Jesus Buy?—and which is cooperating ecumenically for social justice and political causes (a good thing)—is increasingly being stripped of its claims of exclusivity. It is pretty clear in the scriptures that Jesus Christ was not of the mind that his way was just “one of many.” Rather, he said “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). C.S. Lewis articulates the vital importance of Christ’s claims of exclusivity also in his famous “Lord, liar, or lunatic” reasoning in Mere Christianity:

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said
would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic –
on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg – or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.

In other words, Jesus Christ cannot merely be a teacher, or prophet, or rhetorical genius (all of which he is). His message of love/peace/equality is great, yes, but part of his message is also that “my way is the only way.” Thus, to accept him as a peace advocate or political revolutionary but reject his claims of divinity is to undermine his whole legacy and legitimacy.

Christians today are struggling with the exclusive nature of our faith. It’s the hardest thing for people to get past, for sure. We don’t want to come across as condemnatory of every other religion. We hate having to tell others that our faith necessarily excludes other faiths as valid alternatives. We want to work together with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc without judgment or tension. And we can.

It is possible to live and work amongst other faiths, because we do have some common ground and shared concerns for peace and justice and a better world. But ultimately we cannot equate ourselves, because the final solution, in Christianity’s view, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. Not just the general, social reform causes he championed, but Jesus Christ the man: God incarnate. He offers himself to all—no matter where you were born or what you have done—and in that way he is the most inclusive.